Student pilots quickly discover there is a lot more to preflight procedures than simply going out to the airplane, kicking the tires, and taking off. When initial pilot training is complete and the checkride looms, preflight preparation procedures and flight assessment skills typically are well-practiced and honed. But even seasoned pilots can fall prey to incomplete or ineffective preflight assessment procedures. Indeed, this risk management skill is so important to safe flight that the FAA has made it a required checkride task evaluated by the designated pilot examiner (DPE) during all private and commercial pilot practical tests.
Identifying the host of potential risk areas prior to a flight begins with the PAVE checklist. It aids in the preflight assessment and decision-making process by grouping risks into separate categories that include the Pilot, the Aircraft, the enVironment, and External pressures. This gives pilots a simple, easy-to-remember tool to help recognize, evaluate, and mitigate potential risks before every flight. Once a risk has been identified, the pilot can then decide whether that risk can be safely dealt with. When it cannot, the flight should be delayed or canceled.
The initial preflight item to consider—often while the pilot is still at home—begins with the pilot’s own physical and mental fitness to make that flight. The acronym used to assist with the pilot self-assessment process is the IMSAFE checklist, which reminds us to evaluate Illness, Medications, Stress levels, Alcohol consumption, Fatigue, and Emotion, any one of which might be grounds for a flight to be postponed or canceled.
The aircraft and its readiness to complete the mission safely also must be considered. The DPE will test these required skills by observing an applicant complete the aircraft preflight inspection, verifying the aircraft is in airworthy condition. Besides confirming the applicant knows the items that must be checked, DPEs love to ask why it’s important to check particular items, and how applicants might detect an inoperative or defective component. Are the required maintenance inspections completed? Were there any discrepancies noted during the preflight inspection? Is the aircraft properly equipped for the forecast weather and flight conditions? Can it carry the anticipated load? It would also be advisable to be familiar with the associated regulations (FARs) dealing with required aircraft equipment, maintenance inspection requirements, and any inoperative components.
When it comes to the environment we fly in, in addition to ceilings and visibilities, also consider wind strength and crosswind conditions, runway availability, high terrain or obstacles along the planned route, and hazardous weather conditions such as thunderstorms or icing. Even the time of day might influence the go/no-go decision for a pilot not current or comfortable flying after sunset. And night flight, particularly when flown under visual flight rules (VFR), can become especially hazardous when flying over rugged terrain or open water when reduced visibility can cause visual meteorological conditions (VMC) to become, in reality, instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Regulatory weather minimums notwithstanding, each pilot should have established his or her own personal minimums, determined to a large extent by that individual pilot’s experience, currency, and competency. Personal minimums do change over time, but should be respected and adhered to at every level. Don’t bust your own minimums.
Be careful when evaluating external pressures since they can become insidious and overpowering to the extent that even when a pilot is aware that they exist, associated risks can be rationalized away or even ignored completely. External pressures can become especially dangerous because when the ramifications for not completing the planned flight are unacceptable, they seriously erode our normal resistance to acute get-there-itis. When this happens, pilots might ignore all other risk factors at the expense of safety.
Statistically, external pressure to complete the flight is a powerful contributing factor in the majority of aircraft accidents. When faced with an important flying mission, the key to managing that external pressure is to give yourself lots of extra time and/or alternatives to travel. Leave enough extra time for an added fuel stop, an extra day for an unplanned stopover, or fall back on travel alternatives such as taking the car, bus, train, or the airlines. Remember, our goal as pilots is to manage the inherent risks of aviation, not to create them.
Bob Schmelzer is a Chicago-area designated pilot examiner, a United Airlines captain, and a Boeing 777 line check airman. He has been an active Gold Seal flight instructor since 1972.