Are Personal Minimums Practical?

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Given that aviation isn’t the broadest topic in the world, publications that cover it have to repeat certain topics from time to time. These articles are sometimes called “evergreens,” because they can be revisited with a fresh perspective.

One of these is the notion of personal minimums for aeronautical decision making. The theory is that one way the airlines have achieved such remarkably low accident rates is that they have adopted defined procedures which provide a robust framework to make go/no-go decisions. These procedures have been refined over the years and, inarguably, they have worked. So why not apply Part 135 or Part 121 standards to private, non-hire flying?

As an editor, I have published my share of these articles, but I’ve never written one because I think they’re generally feel-good pieces that describe an idea that has little safety impact for people disciplined enough to actually commit personal minimums to some kind of formal document or structure. And not many are willing to even try.

My countervailing theory is that anyone who’s aware enough to seek this kind of disciplined, procedural approach to personal flying is probably sharp enough to avoid the really stupid stuff which keeps the accident rate as high as it is. Someone who routinely stretches fuel or payload margins or who views approach minimums as mere advisories is unlikely to resonate with the idea of having a three-ring binder (or an iPad file) with a list of thou-shalt-nots. Even if we led those horses to the trough, I doubt they would drink.

Procedures work in the airline and military world because they rely not just on the discipline of a single pilot, but on a system of monitoring and a culture that not only requires oversight but accepts it. The pilot’s judgment is consistently informed by formal procedures that allow room for some deviation and judgment, but less than in GA. The world of private flying is almost the diametric opposite. Despite the regulations we like to carp about, our behavior as pilots is almost unfettered and there’s certainly no oversight against a checklist of approved procedures. That’s part of the attraction of flying your own airplane and with it comes risk.

In safety, monitoring counts for a lot. Earlier this week, I wrote about the Harrier that landed on the U.S.S. Bataan with a crumped nosegear. We got great video of that not just because some sailor had his iPhone out but because for years, the Navy has obsessively filmed everything as part of its overlapping safety procedures. I once spent some time on the LSO platform of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt during carrier workups for deployment in what the Navy calls Case 1 ops—basically day VFR.

In one corner of that platform was an enlisted—the hook talker--with a pair of binoculars, whose sole job was to call “hook down, gear down” for the LSOs when the airplane was on the downwind. The pilot certainly knows to do that and probably has a checklist, but he has someone checking him anyway and the checkers are supervised, too.

Another observer on deck informs additional watchers in the four arresting engine rooms via intercom when the airplane is in the groove, short and over the carrier’s ramp so those crews will know to keep their bodies clear of the arresting gear. That way, when the wire engages and gets snatched out, they won’t get snatched with it. The crews know to avoid these hazards, but they have someone watching to make sure they do avoid them. In other words, it’s a lot of human effort and resources to achieve remarkable safety in a high risk flight environment. Everyone accepts and expects to be monitored in some way.

In light aircraft general aviation, we’re on our own. We have the barest statistical understanding of accidents by which to estimate risk other than by gut feel. It’s just the nature of the activity. For many—if not most of us—risk mitigation falls into the personal demons method. If we’re scared of the dark, we don’t fly at night. If ice terrifies, we ground it during the winter. And so forth. And that’s where the personal minimums idea falls apart for me. Because of my personal risk profile—I’m not risk averse—sticking to artificial rules chaffs if there are mitigating circumstances to the contrary.

When I lived in the northeast, we would get those sodden stationary fronts that would hang around for days, dropping the ceilings to 200 or 300 feet in a mile or so. I reveled in that stuff; great fun to go out and get in a half-dozen approaches. In a single-engine airplane, that’s a real risk that some aren’t willing to take—a perfectly rational decision, just not one I would always make. So the hard personal rules, for me, were just too limiting to make much sense.

Many of our readers are conflicted about icing. During the winter, it’s often in the forecast but not always in the clouds. You can construct a personal minimum that makes all kinds of exceptions for PIREPS and freezing levels and tops, but the only minimums that really work are the hard ones you adhere to no matter what. And that would be if ice is in the forecast, don’t go.

Then there’s the zero-zero takeoff, a topic that’s almost as good at igniting hangar shouting matches as say, pattern entries. I have never done a zero-zero takeoff because I have never seen zero-zero. If I had, how would I have even found the airplane on the ramp? But I have done plenty of takeoffs in 1/8th mile. Again, this entails risk, even high risk. But if you’re current and proficient on attitude flying and you can see the centerline for 100 feet, how much more risky is it than taking off into a 100- or 200-foot ceiling? Can you put a number on it? Where to draw the line? (Some pilots won’t depart an airport in IMC they can’t immediately get back into. I preferred to have a plausible takeoff alternate, and usually did.)

So I remain ambivalent about structured personal minimums, preferring to measure each situation sui generis and decide accordingly, considering all the variables. Sometimes your gut is a good guide, sometimes not. Personal minimums and ops specs certainly can’t hurt. I just wonder if the pilots disciplined enough to use them really benefit much.

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Comments (8)

"I think they're generally feel-good pieces that describe an idea that has little safety impact for people disciplined enough to actually commit personal minimums to some kind of formal document or structure."

I completely agree. Furthermore, Part 91 single-pilot personal minimums should be constantly in flux. Having a crosswind component limit of 10kts might be unnecessarily conservative one day if I've flown recently in gusty/windy conditions in a plane I'm familiar with, but overly liberal on another day if I'm flying in a new plane or haven't flown in a while.

Personal minimums do have use when it's a flight instructor handing them down to a student pilot for solo limitations, and they can be useful to a new pilot as it forces them to think about certain situations ahead of time. But the real value is in learning the skills to appropriately evaluate any given situation and determine realistic minimums for that moment. Some days I just feel really good and know I can push myself a bit beyond my previously-handled maximum, while other days I'm essentially grounding myself because I just don't feel like flying.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | July 3, 2014 4:01 PM    Report this comment

Paul's comments seem to boil down to "are minimums rules, or are they suggestions?" Where the latter is true, it probably doesn't matter very much whether the "personal" values are higher than, equal to, or lower than the published ones. Since they're "soft," they're unlikely to be adhered to consistently.

It in the context of every-day respect for and execution of published minimums, I still teach zero-zero ILS landings as a someday-this-may-save-your-life skill - NOT as a "do this whenever the weather gets low" skill. That lesson gets taught only after I've satisfied myself that the student is unlikely to treat execution of the skill as a routine way to adopt lower-than-published minimums. If I can't arrive at that conclusion regarding an instrument student, I discontinue their training, and won't endorse the student for the checkride. Read the recommended endorsement - if it doesn't give you pause, you've either become complacent or you never took mental possession of what you're signing.

Posted by: Thomas Yarsley | July 3, 2014 4:10 PM    Report this comment

We hear the "higher personal minimums" concept most often applied to IFR operations, where the pilot does fly IFR but will avoid any flight that he/she fears may terminate in an approach worse than some arbitrary but high minimum, for example 1000 & 3. Presumably, this is based on a personal evaluation that they cannot safely fly the approach to published minimums.

The problem with this sort of mind-set is that a situation may very well arise where the weather becomes, against all predictions, worse than 1000 & 3 at all possible landing airports. At this point the pilot has no choice but to perform an approach that is beyond his/her skill, or at least personal comfort zone, which not a good thing.

Thomas Yarsley obviously has the right idea....insure the student can safely and comfortably fly to published hard minimums and maintain that as their personal performance standard rather than settling for lesser skills based around some "soft" limit that may well lead to trouble.

Posted by: John Wilson | July 5, 2014 4:33 PM    Report this comment

Richard Collins, former editor of FLYING magazine (and perhaps the leading proponent of single-engine IFR) opined against "personal minimums". Many people set 1000/3 as their "personal minimums"--that's VFR--meaning that they rarely get their nose wet in the actual crud. When the weather DOES go below forecast, they break out in a sweat as they have never actually been in IFR conditions. We refer to these pilots as "ticket holders"--they exhibited the skills for the checkride, but never use them.

You've been TRAINED to go to FAA minimums--the approach has been FLIGHT CHECKED to minimums--it is no less safe to take it down to 500' than 1000 feet.

Many non-aviators today believe that additional government regulations make us safer--and I'm sure these same people believe that SELF-IMPOSED regulations also make us safer. As pilots, we revel in making our own decisions. We may be comfortable taking it down to minimums on a given day--in a familiar airplane--to a non-terrain-challenged airport--but may not feel comfortable in different circumstances. That decision is up to THE PILOT--let US decide.

Posted by: jim hanson | July 7, 2014 10:17 AM    Report this comment

I do have personal minimums in my kneeboard and which I revisit about once a month. They are a reminder about how I felt at the time when I wrote them and a little cross check about how proficient I feel "today". I then adjust them as necessary. When I am flying a lot and "on" my game - I will usually soften them after due consideration. Though in the summer when it is hot - I might actually toughen up the runway length.

When I am "off" then they are a useful reminder as to why I wrote them the way I did and I usually adhere to them till I feel I am back on my game.

Posted by: Graeme Smith | July 7, 2014 10:35 AM    Report this comment

"So why not apply Part 135 or Part 121 standards to private, non-hire flying?"

I'm glad you wrote this article. One of my pet peeves is with columns written over the years in AOPA, EAA and other publications, maybe even here, telling us to be "PROFESSIONAL". By definition, that is against the FAR's for those of us without a Commercial ticket and operating under Part 91.

Posted by: Jim Lo Bue | July 8, 2014 8:03 AM    Report this comment

"...if ice is in the forecast, don't go..." I understand that while this is a personal minimum for the author, it's like many other things in the weather forecast and not quite so black and white as maybe he is implying. If you didn't fly in the northwest when ice is in the forecast...best buy a nice car and give up flying. I've found ice in clouds in July/August...so what to do? Establish personal procedures to deal with it much like thunderstorms, frontal passages, mountain obscuration, turbulence, etc...and of course, stick to them.

Posted by: robert peach | July 8, 2014 12:50 PM    Report this comment

"I understand that while this is a personal minimum for the author, "

Let me clarify. It's not a personal minimum for me. I was merely citing it as an example. I can't count the number of icing forecasts I've flown into.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 9, 2014 1:09 PM    Report this comment

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