Are Personal Minimums Practical?
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.