"The Comfort Zone" (Part Two)
Am I Orientated? (continued)
......BEFORE the weather even approaches the minimum levels for VFR flight, the pilot should have a clear picture of where they are and where they are going. This should include an awareness of the location and elevation of the highest terrain in the area and possibly setting a ‘personal’ minimum altitude based on that information. Remember, that sneaking up a valley in poor visibility can also be trap as power-lines may be draped between the ridge lines. Additionally, does this high terrain fall along the path of my pre-determined escape route?
As well as an awareness of potential landing fields, utilise all available navigation aids to support your visual navigation and refine your exact position. They will provide critical distance and bearing information to assist in interpreting what you see on your map. GPS is a tremendous tool in this instance, but also comes with the pitfalls of over-reliance and complacency for the visual pilot. (See "A Matter of Course")
Outside of the three dimensions of flight, a critical element of orientation is that of fuel and endurance. Fuel equates to time, distance and options. If we have the fuel, we may hold clear until the shower passes at the field, navigate around the offending weather or divert to another airport, possibly our point of departure. When the weather is approaching our ‘personal minimums’, fuel management can be overlooked as aviating and navigating consume a greater part of our brain-space. Running a tank dry, or worse, fuel exhaustion is the last thing we want to occur at this time.
Being orientated and situationally aware at all times is critical to the ongoing assessment required for visual flight. It is best appreciated continually when the weather is in our favour to allow earlier and safer in-flight decisions. Leaving anything to the last minute in aviation is not a good idea.
Am I Safe?
We have considered the legal minimums, reviewed our options, assessed our personal comfort level and appreciated our orientation. If we are not satisfied with any aspect of this exercise, we are pushing our limits and had better look at rectifying the situation. This is always best achieved sooner rather than later,
It is quite possible that the pressure is already beginning to mount by this stage and the age-old adage of AVIATE-NAVIGATE-COMMUNICATE should be remembered; fly the aeroplane! At this time, inadvertent entry into cloud, a loss of altitude or an unusual attitude could be catastrophic. A level 180 degree turn out of there may well be the safest option.
Visibility is critical. Rain and showers will reduce it below the minimum required in a flash. Flying with minimum separation from the cloud base also often results in poor visibility, so if the terrain permits, afford some more clearance from the cloud and its scrappy under-hang in an effort to see further ahead. But beware of lowering cloud and rising terrain leading to the classic trap.
Pre-flight cockpit organisation and a sound ongoing cycle of activity may prove to be one of your best friends. Reaching over to search for and tune up multiple frequencies and leaning down to look for a chart are sources of distraction from the primary task of flying the aeroplane. You should already be orientated and if you need one chart, it should be easily accessible and brought up to eye level to read. ‘Head down’ operations should be avoided at all costs. This is another reason why fuel management is important. Ideally you don’t want to be reaching down to change tanks at this time if it can be avoided.
Aviate-Navigate-Communicate. Fly the aeroplane first and maintain control. Assess terrain clearance and extricate the aircraft to a route clear of weather. It is better to divert early, rather than leaving it too late, “If in doubt, BUG OUT!”
Similarly, there is often resistance by pilots to ask for help, yet the sooner they are able to advise air traffic services, the possibility exists of radar vectors clear of terrain where the service is available. When out of the immediate harm’s way, double-check the management of fuel before it goes quiet 'up front' and ensure that the fuel is available to execute your new plan.
Of course, the flight would have been best served if these plans were in place from the outset and an early decision had prevented flight in deteriorating VMC.
In the Zone.
VFR flight is a genuine skill. As such, it needs to practised and honed just like any other skill. It is not easy, but that is one of the challenges of flying and a source of satisfaction.
Sound preparation and efficient management of the cockpit will aid greatly in offsetting the potential chaos. A sound ongoing cycle of activity will make sure that the house is in order the day when the weather foe comes knocking. Four questions at the heart of that cycle are;
Am I legal?
Am I comfortable?
Am I orientated?
Am I safe?
When the situation is deteriorating, these answers are not as straightforward and this is a sure-fire signal that action is needed. Execute any plan sooner rather than later and always Aviate-Navigate-Communicate.
By looking beyond the regulations and applying personal buffers, a greater margin of safety results. These ‘buffers’ do not need to be numerical in nature, they may simply be the fact that the evolving situation makes the pilot uncomfortable. By exercising prudent judgement and always placing safety at a premium, a greater level of enjoyment can be forthcoming from the tremendous endeavour of flight. And all the while remaining in our comfort zone.
Remember to check back for the next instalment in the 'Practical Pilot' series and don't forget to watch the short video of my flight around Australia. Just click here.