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Setting your personal minimums

By J. Mac McClellan

Many pilots establish personal minimums for their flying. Good idea. But a better one is to develop your own FRAT—flight risk assessment tool.

Illustration by Viktor Koen
Zoomed image
Horizontally flying windsock (wind vane) with blue sky in the background.

We all know that accidents are caused by a chain of events, not a single factor such as weather near or below minimums. That’s why a FRAT helps. A FRAT considers multiple factors that can affect the safety of a specific flight, and helps you decide when totaled risks are too much.

A FRAT assigns “points” to each potential risk on the list. When the points add up to a predetermined level, you need to take action to mitigate risks. If the points exceed a higher threshold, the flight is canceled or postponed.

At the top of a typical FRAT is consideration of the crew. What is your recent experience? Time in type? Rest status? Duty day length or other experience or personal status items can also affect your performance in the cockpit. Other major elements of the FRAT are the environments for your specific trip, and considerations should include the airports for both departure and destination. Are the runways long with plenty of margin? Is the field towered? Is weather reporting available? Is there a precision approach, either ILS or LPV?

Other risks that can add up are: Is it daylight, dusk, or dark? Is it a winter operation with possible icing? Is the runway wet, snowy, icy, or otherwise contaminated? Are braking action reports less than good? Are either airports in mountainous terrain? Are crosswind runway options available?

Then, of course, there is the weather. When I hear pilots talk about setting personal minimums, they almost always mention only weather, for good reason. But a FRAT helps you analyze weather in a ranked order of risk.

For example, if a thunderstorm is over or near departure or destination airports, that should get a high-risk number compared to forecast of storms en route. Visibility or ceiling are always front and center in our minds, and they should be on our FRAT. But I would rank having no weather reporting available at the destination as a risk equal to, or higher than, actual weather at minimums.

Frozen precipitation is a big deal to all pilots and deserves a high FRAT rank. But depending on the capability of your airplane, the risk rises or falls. The same is true for wind speed. Any forecast for wind 30 knots or more deserves a spot on the FRAT, but pilots of lighter airplanes may set a lower velocity to raise a red flag. The same is true for forecast crosswind. How much can your airplane handle? Make sure that value is listed on your FRAT.

You can find FRAT templates on the web to get you started. can provide a complete safety management system (SMS) that is convenient for the owner/pilot or small flight department. FRAT is a key element of an SMS, which includes several additional layers of risk assessment and mitigation. Many countries already require private operators of turbine airplanes to have an approved SMS, and the FAA continues to threaten imposing the same requirement in the U.S.

With a personalized FRAT you can get many of the benefits of SMS and make sense of your personal minimums. However, the key to a successful FRAT is having another decision maker involved once the FRAT values exceed a preset level. In a flight department, that second person is likely the chief pilot or flight department manager. For the owner pilot, that second person can be anyone involved in your operation. When the FRAT numbers add up to a “let’s think again” level, you want reinforcement of the decision of the risk acceptance levels you made in creating the FRAT in the first place.

J. Mac McClellan is a corporate pilot with more than 12,000 hours, and a retired aviation magazine editor living in Grand Haven, Michigan.

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