Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Personal Limits.

As part of my search for all kinds of books about flying and aviation, I got couple on airmanship. Big chunk of each of these books was about knowing your personal limits and, more importantly, sticking to them. The concept seemed very easy – as a new pilot you were not supposed to put yourself in the situations that would exceed your level of training and/or comfort. The practice is another matter entirely as I recently found out.

Training in a big school and in a controlled environment with Wx services on site, hourly METARs, TAFs etc. definitely had its advantages. Learning about your personal limits was not one of them. Very strict insurance-driven limitation on minimum visibility/ ceilings/ wind for both students and renters meant that decisions to fly (or not) were made for me. Through my first 100 hours in the logbook I never encountered a situation when I had to decide not to fly due to one or more of factors being in excess of my limits. Come to think of it – I was not sure what my limits were.

The little airstrip that is home for my rental Citabria has no Wx on site and it is uncontrolled. Sometimes when I pick up the plane, there is no one in the office, so there is no one to make any of the decisions for me. The two closest Wx reporting stations are YKZ and YBN. With Lake Simcoe in between the two, the reported Wx at the two stations can sometimes be at two extremes – one would be completely clear with unlimited vis and the other would be in IFR territory.

When this happens, it poses an interesting dilemma to me as I then have to determine if ceilings and vis are good enough for me to get out. Vis is usually not a problem as I can see some of the landmarks driving to the airport and if I can’t see them then the vis is too bad and I am not flying. Ceilings are hard to judge from the ground. Sometimes, there would be other pilots or my instructor coming back from their earlier flights and other times the only option is to go up and see how high the clouds really are.

When the ceilings start much lower than they seemed from the ground, it is typically a clear cut decision – it’s too low, I am coming back to land and that’d be it for the day. Above 1,500 AGL but still low and/or unstable is the grey area – is it safe to do a few circuits or go away for a little trip to the training area (which starts right outside of my little airstrip)?

And then there are human factors to take into account – something that I can’t quite measure, but could affect the flight even more than the Wx limits above. Is it OK to fly when I am tired, overworked, stressed out or feeling a little under the weather? Sometimes, a short hop in the local area is exactly what’s needed to take the stress away, however there is definitely a line there beyond which I am so stressed/ tired, etc. that I should be nowhere near a plane, let alone flying one.

When I find myself in one of the grey areas, I follow the rule that came ingrained in my mind from the first day of my extensive scuba diving training - that anyone should be able to call the dive at any time if something does not feel right about it. I have cancelled a few flights already when the Wx was good but pilot was broken or vice a versa. However, after a recent almost scud running experience (more on this later) I am also thinking of setting some personal weather/conditions limits to avoid the temptation to convince myself that the weather is much better than it really is. I just have to figure out what those would be.

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