The Comfort Zone
The rules of visual flight (VFR) are well stipulated and are designed to keep the non-instrument rated pilot out of harm’s way. However, the craft of successful VFR flight is more than merely measuring visibility or distance from cloud. It is about the ongoing assessment and application of a number of parameters beyond the regulations.
Am I Legal?
Safety in aviation should always be the foremost goal. Whether it is a quick scenic flight with friends or a trans-continental long haul flight with hundreds of fare-paying passengers, the primary obligation of the pilot is to ensure the safety of all on board. It is not an exercise in ego, or an absolute promise to arrive at the destination on schedule or even that day; it is about the duty of care for all on board and those whose roof-tops we overfly.
Through harsh lessons of the past and the ongoing review by governing authorities, guidelines and regulations have been established to point us in the right direction. However, there has never been a rule book, manual or computer program that is able to cover every scenario or cater to the varying levels of ability of the masses destined to apply the information. By their very nature, regulations tend towards the conservative side and rightly so; that is the safe thing to do. Yet even then the regulations may not be conservative enough for some individuals or situations and difficult to apply in the real world.
Visual Flight Rules are classic instance where the interpretation and application of a defined standard can prove difficult. They involve fixed parameters, calibrated in units of distance for in-flight visibility and the separation from cloud. Fixed units which are measured in the potentially highly dynamic air mass through which we fly at speed. Cloud bases fluctuate and visibility can shrink in the blink of an eye. This can be challenging stuff!
Furthermore, the average ability to gauge height and distance is, at best, marginal. One only has to look at the wide variation of responses from aircraft asked to report at 3 miles when there is no GPS or DME to assist them. To take this judgement and apply it to the fluid world of the weather raises the bar to a whole new level.
Even so, as part of our cycle of activity, pilots must continually endeavour to assess the prevailing conditions against the legal requirements, bearing in mind that these are absolute minimums. Below these we are illegal; however, we were probably approaching an ‘uncomfortable’ situation some time before we actually reached the minimum requirements.
To safely operate in the visual flight regime, there is a need to not only strictly adhere to these pre-defined constraints, but tailor them to our own individual standards and the conditions that are set before us on the day. And all such tailoring MUST be applied on the CONSERVATIVE side of the equation as the countryside is marked with the wreckage of those who thought that their personal standards were better than the regulations.
Am I comfortable?
Flying should be enjoyable. Even when it is a paid profession, there should be a degree of gratification every time the world falls away from the wheels. That’s why we do it. There is very little fun to be had getting boxed into a corner which may ultimately cost your life. As such, one of the first and foremost questions a pilot should ask is, “Am I comfortable with this situation?”
This question can be applied to many aspects of aviation, but in the visual flight sense it rings particularly true as an early warning system. Generally speaking, well before the visibility drops to the minimum required or the fin starts cutting through the stratus, the heart rate will elevate and the hair on the back of the neck will start to twitch. This should serve as a signal to the pilot that they are starting to get towards the deep end of the pool; their feet may still be touching the bottom, but for how long?
The ‘comfort threshold’ will vary from person to person and change as the individual gains experience, hence the difficulty in applying a broad standard as defined by the regulations. The crosswind limit on an aeroplane may be 20 knots, but a lack of crosswind currency may render an inexperienced pilot to hesitate at going flying in those conditions. It would be legal, but would it be prudent? A dual check with an instructor would be a safer option and a sensible application of personal standards. In-flight weather is just the same. 5 kilometres visibility or 500 feet vertical separation may be legal, but may not be ‘comfortable’ to everyone.
In flight, at the first sign of discomfort with any particular scenario, the pilot should look at removing themselves from the situation or at the very least, critically review their circumstance and options. All VFR flight should be conducted with a ‘back door’, or a means of escape. It is foolhardy to continue towards deteriorating weather conditions but absolutely fraught with danger if the weather behind is also going bad.
Am I Orientated?
An escape route should be ever-present. At all times the VFR pilot should have a ready made answer for, “Where would I go if…?” When the rain is thrashing the windscreen or visual reference is silently lost in cloud, it is probably too late. Furthermore, the stress and workload of the situation will not permit the brain to offer the best resolution. Flailing charts and tuning radio aids knobs will rate a poor second to keeping the aircraft upright and out of harm’s way.
Continually through a VFR flight, the pilot should be aware of the nearest landing field and ensure that there is a clear route to it. It may be a private airfield, a farmer’s crop-duster strip or even a friendly paddock, but it is an option and ideally should not be released from clear access until another presents itself ahead, particularly when the weather is deteriorating. The field does not have to be in sight, but access to it must be apparent. Even with 5km visibility, with no clear route to a landing field means that the pilot will be forced to possibly conduct a precautionary landing on an unprepared surface should the weather close in further.
To have suitable options and an escape route, it is vital that the pilot remains orientated and ‘situationally aware’. ‘Situational awareness’ can be defined as “…being aware of what is happening around you to understand how information, events, and your own actions will impact your goals and objectives, both now and in the near future”. To be aware of what is happening around you and how that may evolve requires the pilot to continually review the situation...........
Check back for Part Two of 'The Comfort Zone' and the next instalment in the 'Practical Pilot' series.