Low-Vis Takeoffs: There Oughta Be A Law

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If there’s anything certain about second-guessing another pilot’s judgment after an accident, it’s this: The wreckage is Exhibit A if you insisted before the fact—or even after—that he shouldn’t have done whatever he did. If he pulls off what he shouldn’t have done without incident, he’s just crazy. But if he doesn’t, he’s crazy and stupid.

That seemed to be the reaction of whatever talking heads the local news outlets could roust up after a horrible accident here in Florida the day before Christmas. A Cessna 340 crashed on takeoff from Bartow, having departed in dense fog on a flight to Key West. Five people were killed in the accident. The ASOS had the weather at less than a quarter mile and 300 feet in calm wind. The local sheriff was aghast that the pilot would take off in such conditions, a perfectly understandable reaction. According to news reports, the 70-year-old pilot had earned his private certificate in 2010, but no reports that I could find gave his total time or time in type. He was a Florida resident, so that suggests not a lot of exposure to a range of IMC. Tellingly, he had the airplane towed to the ramp because he thought the vis was too low to taxi safely.

I know from long experience in writing about such things that this is a binary judgment-type accident. That’s to say some pilots would be as shocked as the sheriff was while others would say, so what? I’m in the second group, albeit with some qualifications. When I was learning to fly instruments and later, when I instructed, simulated zero-zero takeoffs were commonly practiced. Sometimes these were done under the understanding that they were just a proficiency exercise and sometimes not. I told students if you want to do this in anger, that’s your business. But you better bring an A-game because there’s little margin for error.

I have done such takeoffs myself and have concluded a couple of things about them. First, zero-zero is a misnomer. I’ve never encountered conditions where I couldn’t see at least a few hundred feet of runway centerline or enough to accelerate and rotate. Second, in a single, this is at the far edge of the acceptable risk spectrum for me and is outside it for many people who automatically say no. For that reason, I’d never expose passengers to this risk. I did once—in Florida, perchance—but never repeated it. Third, my reasons for doing it were sporting—just to do it. I never did a low-vis takeoff because I had to be somewhere. My rule has always been no trip is so important as to take on marginal risk just to get somewhere. Ever. It’s probably a distinction without a difference that people fearful of jumping out of airplane doors might not get.

Being a lawman, the sheriff would probably be shocked to learn that there’s no specific regulation against low-visibility takeoffs for Part 91 operators. He might opine that there ought to be. Breaking that down, what’s the valid argument against a Part 91 takeoff minimum, say the standard Part 135 minimum of 1 mile? My sole argument against it is the usual boilerplate against over-regulation. It would be just another line item in the regs meant to forestall—or at least discourage—a very rare kind of accident indeed. Part 91 exists to be not like Part 121 or Part 135. If you want to fly to those more restrictive guidelines, you’re free to do so. You could even have your own drug testing program.  

Despite all our yapping about it, Part 91 remains—relatively—the wild west. As regulations go, it allows largely unfettered freedom to you, the individual, to operate your personal airplane as you see fit. That’s just the way it is and ought to stay. The abiding attraction of general aviation is that is that it affords the individual the ultimate responsibility: the freedom to decide and to sometimes decide for others. 

John Young: A True Extra Terrestrial

The weekend’s news feed brings the sad announcement that astronaut John Young has died. He succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 87. Although less known or perhaps celebrated than the early crews of Apollo—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell come to mind—he was inarguably the most accomplished of the NASA flight corps.

He flew in space six times. Twice on Gemini, twice on Apollo—including two trips to the Moon—and twice on the Space Shuttle. He commanded the first Shuttle mission in 1981, which marked the first time NASA had launched a manned system without preceding it with an unmanned test.

Young was a Navy veteran and an aeronautical engineer with a reputation for a piercing ability to understand and analyze complex spacecraft systems. He was highly critical in his career of NASA’s oversights in two major Shuttle accidents.

Last year, I read his autobiography, Forever Young. I recommend it. But my favorite anecdote about Young is mentioned in this clip from the film In the Shadow of the Moon. If you haven’t seen it—or heard Philip Sheppard’s fabulous score—I promise you this: You’ll watch it more than once.

As the Apollo astronauts enter their final years, we’ll be seeing more such announcements. And while I might have hoped they would all live forever, I’ll recuse myself from maudlin essays about the death of heroes. That’s an overused word and what people say when they can’t think of anything else. I never considered them heroes anyway, just the most visible stars in the bright constellation of remarkable people who put humankind on another planet. That’s legacy enough. I am privileged to have lived through it.

Comments (29)

A mile seems like overkill, even if you wanted to regulate. North of your border, the limit is 1/2 mile vis (1/4 mile for rotorcraft) for both private and commercial ops, modulo any special restrictions in DPs, etc.

I have...let's say, a friend...who once took off (without pax) with ⅛ mile vis in a fixed-rate Cherokee and no A/P when he was younger and less cautious. It was a complete non-event with that plane and weather (he broke out of the fog after climbing a few hundred feet), but my friend flies with stricter limits now anyway.

Posted by: David Megginson | January 6, 2018 2:50 PM    Report this comment

I flight instruct almost every day. Haf the time is instrument instruction. I am confident, current and proficient yet no-no to zero-zero or take-offs at approach minima. It's under the category of NOT necessary for me so I do not encourage or excuse.

On Captain Young. Norman Rockwell could have not imagined a better image of an American. RIP.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 6, 2018 4:19 PM    Report this comment

Paul, can you just continue this blog?
Just do it! Thanks!

Posted by: Jason Baker | January 6, 2018 5:01 PM    Report this comment

I was at Edwards AFB in 1977 during all 16 of the initial Approach and Landing test flights by Enterprise -- the last five of which were air drops. I can tell you that to see that thing go by atop a 747 would leave you speechless. Likewise, I can't even imagine what it must of felt like to be Fitzhugh Fulton ... the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) PIC. WOW to the whole program.

Joe Engle once famously quipped to the tower during the test program that the pilots were taxiing in the tallest airplane when the Shuttle was on top of the SCA. Something like 65 feet high? RIP !

Posted by: Larry Stencel | January 6, 2018 5:39 PM    Report this comment

While low-visibility takeoffs (properly) are a matter of personal choice, I will point out that zero/zero takeoff roll technique DOES eliminate one of the biggest killers in instrument flight: failure to transition to flight by sole reference to instruments in a timely manner. In for a penny.....

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | January 6, 2018 7:29 PM    Report this comment

Im with Jason.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | January 6, 2018 9:30 PM    Report this comment

I agree Jason. PB is the man!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 6, 2018 10:24 PM    Report this comment

Having flown all three Parts, my personal limitation is the T/O vis must be good enough for a return approach.

Posted by: Hans Miesler | January 7, 2018 8:18 AM    Report this comment

Taking off in ~zero visibility in a propeller twin means that both cold engines and props have to perform equally and flawlessly OR you veer off the runway and you become a smoking corpse. Even if you lift off, you now have double the chance of an engine failure and then will end up as a smoking corpse over on the approach end of the runway.

This was a stupid and 100% avoidable risk and we need to say so as loud as possible to the public.
We need smarter passengers who won't sit quietly as they are towed out for a game of Russian roulette with 2 chambers filled.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 7, 2018 8:30 AM    Report this comment

"...zero/zero takeoff roll technique DOES eliminate one of the biggest killers in instrument flight: failure to transition to flight by sole reference to instruments in a timely manner. In for a penny....."

I'm with Yars. Hard to see why a loss of control after transition accident is any worse if it happens following a low-vis liftoff rather than one into a 100-foot ceiling or a black hole situation.

Posted by: John Wilson | January 7, 2018 8:46 AM    Report this comment

Regulations are often promulgated following a terrible accident where innocent victims are killed. As such, this situation is rife for Congress and the FAA to DO SOMETHING, whether logical or not. The NTSB will probably also join in on the chorus, so do not be surprised if Part 91 gets an addendum.

Having lost an engine on takeoff in CAVU conditions, I would really hate to try it in near zero vis. As Paul says, any problem in those conditions give you a razor thin margin to survive. And regardless of your personal tolerance for risk, when you have passengers relying on your abilities, the conditions for safe operation should get much higher. My personal limit is no takeoff into conditions that are below minimums for an immediate return. But that's just me. YMMV.

I too was sorry to hear about John Young. Whether or not we call him a hero, he was a true professional that did his job with little fanfare. He did not seek the limelight for his personal accomplishments, but instead for the program and space exploration. We need more like him and he will be missed.

Posted by: John McNamee | January 7, 2018 11:59 AM    Report this comment

Forget Regulations: "You Cannot Cure Stupid".

To take off from a field that you cannot get back into because of visibility is not smart. I have delayed for hours and on a few occasions days waiting for visibilities to get above minimums. The trips cancelled were far more pressing and important than taking friends on a one day jaunt.

The industry needs to start preaching CANCEL! CANCEL! CANCEL! just like we do for "Declare an EMERGENCY!" without hesitation.

Posted by: dl vincent | January 8, 2018 6:57 AM    Report this comment

"Regulations are often promulgated following a terrible accident where innocent victims are killed."

Correction: regulations are promulgated only in domains that don't have very strong lobbyists behind them. Especially for "rich boy" hobbies like GA. It's also ironic how the same law makers that say enough regulations already exist in some areas go on to say how we need more regulations in other areas that also already have sufficient rules.

Part 91 does still have the "careless and reckless" catch-all clause, and unless you're a pilot who has significant recent actual instrument experience (or sufficient equivalent experience for the same level of actual skills), are fully instrument current and experienced in the type of aircraft they're flying, and have recently practiced a zero-zero takeoff in simulated (or have recent actual experience) conditions with a competent instructor, a zero-zero takeoff could easily be considered "careless and reckless".

I haven't read Forever Young (though I may have seen In the Shadow of the Moon - I've seen so many space documentaries, I can't recall all of the ones I've seen by name), but what I do know about John Young impresses me. What struck me is how unassuming he was as a professional, and if I didn't know who he was, I would never guess he was an astronaut, let alone one as accomplished as he was. And when you think about what it meant to fly the first Shuttle flight without any previous unmanned attempts, it's even more impressive that he took on the job and did it well.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | January 8, 2018 8:10 AM    Report this comment

Being based at an airport in the mountains, a zero-zero takeoff just never seemed like a good idea. I did practice them occasionally and it was kind of fun but even in the flatlands I never seriously considered one. That said, I don't condemn those who do. A good friend based at the same airport used to to zero-zeros on a regular basis in his Baron and Bonanza.

Posted by: Richard Montague | January 8, 2018 8:23 AM    Report this comment

Re: 0-0 take off, a pilot needs to know what he/she is not capable of doing safely. Too many folks who received their own NTSB file number were legends in their own minds. This is another component of a safe flight where the PIC must be that, a PIC and not airplane systems operator. Each has to perform their own FMEA (Failure Modes and Effects Analysis), develop a CIL (Critical Items List) and then perform the risk analysis for the given situation. How deeply to dig down into the possible failure modes, depends on each PIC and each situation. Although deciding that I will make the flight solo but not with passengers is a noble thought; it contains a great degree of callousness. If the attempted take off ends catastrophically, the PIC is not the only person affected. There are the first responders, medical professionals, family, friends, business associates, general public, aviation community etc. who also become unwitting participants and victims of this decision.

If departing in very low visibility and the PFD (Primary Flight Display) fails what is the effect? Can I maintain control while switching to reversion mode? Can I maintain control while going onto back up instruments? At what altitude will this failure mode become critical? Was the failure due to ADHRS failure or display failure? What is my Plan B, Plan C and Plan D?

During my aerospace career, I had the privilege of participating in the FEMA CIL for the shuttle Challenger disaster. It has had a lasting effect on how I view system reliability and failure tolerance. Yes, the loose nut behind the yoke is part of the equation, just as are the bits and pieces that make up the entire system.

John Young played a key role in addressing previously ignored safety concerns with the Space Shuttle. He never became full of himself, instead he always remained focused on the safe performance of the mission. RIP John, we need more men and women of your standing.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | January 8, 2018 10:44 AM    Report this comment

Thanks Leo.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 8, 2018 11:45 AM    Report this comment

I'm with Jason too.

Posted by: John Savant | January 8, 2018 4:10 PM    Report this comment

I can't believe some of the comments here, if every-time someone bought the farm, and then that eminently super intelligent entity known as the government stepped in and decided to make that aforementioned action illegal, taking a leak would be illegal.
I often do a part 91 low vis or rather very low vis take off especially with all the fog we get in Florida and I see it as near routine. No big deal! If you have self doubts about it just don't do it.

Posted by: Max Mason | January 8, 2018 6:18 PM    Report this comment

It's always prudent to have a takeoff alternate, but it's not an automatic that it be the departure airfield. Example: if I blast off into the typical morning clag at Simsbury, CT, my preferred "Plan B" sites are BDL, BAF, and CEF. Each is minutes away; each has long, wide runways and ILS approaches; each offers the option of a successful zero/zero emergency landing.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | January 8, 2018 7:48 PM    Report this comment

Agree with Tom Yarsley (both comments) and Max Mason. I did one at Hartford-Brainard airport 12 SE of where Tom flies when a couple of centerline stripes were in sight. At the time Hartford-Brainard was the only airport in the state not vfr. As Paul mentioned he's done, I have done several simulated zero-zero. I would not want to lose the option.

Posted by: Warren Webb Jr | January 8, 2018 11:50 PM    Report this comment

Having demonstrated a few 0/0 takeoffs during instrument training, I found the maneuver not particularly scary, but I was definitely committed NOT to do this with a single, ever, unless the zombie apocalypse was imminent or planet eating apes required a quick relocation to a more sunny location. I did not do such a departure again before I was in a Part 91 operated twin, a few years later.

My main concern wasn't visibility, it was ice and aircraft load. Not having ice is a calming factor and flying an aircraft that is likely to continue climbing on one engine is another building block on the road to having another bowl of cornflakes, later down the road. I like to think of it as the Four E principle. Each E stands for an important part of my ADM Go/Nogo decision making process. Environment, Equipment, Ego and Emergency.

Environment = Weather, Terrain, Wind. Equipment = Status of aircraft, experience in particular aircraft, avionics and instruments available, services and approaches available. Ego = Self evaluate for tiredness, medical fitness, annoyance level, stress, ability to focus, emotions and complacency. Each surplus of one of the E's can compensate a little bit of a deficit of another. In case of EMERGENCY, (planet eating apes, imploding planet, dying person in the back) then throw it all out the window, take your HAT (Heading, Altimeter & Transponder) leave the gun and take the Cannolli.

Posted by: Jason Baker | January 9, 2018 7:23 AM    Report this comment

"It's always prudent to have a takeoff alternate, but it's not an automatic that it be the departure airfield."

That's a good point that a lot of people don't think of, and that I teach my instrument students. My general rule is if my departure field's weather is less than a guaranteed approach back in to it, I pick a nearby field within 20 minutes that I can fly an approach in to.

And Yars, I had no idea you were that close to me (my home base being Danbury).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | January 9, 2018 7:28 AM    Report this comment

I'm curious if the new "synthetic vision" software is making pilots think that they can take off zero-zero?

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 9, 2018 7:41 AM    Report this comment

BAF is my home field. I used the local Simsbury example because it's so easy to see on a chart.
I use DXR for my students' second dual XC. When circumstances allow, they're always impressed by a runway 17 departure through the pass. Not to mention the old Victor 3 transition to the Hudson River corridor flight.
In pre-mall days, there was a great 2nd-floor restaurant at DXR, too. I still recommend FIT for breakfast. EEN had a spectacular salad bar; long gone. Sigh... (Burp.)

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | January 9, 2018 7:57 AM    Report this comment

"Ought to be a law"? When you look at the accident record, there is no one enforcing the current laws so we need to encourage extremely conservative decision making, especially given the lack of recency and proficiency of the vast majority of recreational pilots. There are enough circumstances that arise in the normal course of flying that will require many pilots to reach into a shallow well of experience and pull off a successful outcome that we need not advocate for them to try real zero-zero takeoffs. Takeoffs, as the old saying goes, are optional, but landings are mandatory.

Posted by: Randy Richmond | January 9, 2018 9:42 AM    Report this comment

One can be offended once or perhaps a million times. But, one can only be killed once. On one occasion it can be by a silly or unwise action. Error in judgment. A temporary mental lapse. The decision to take off under the conditions was a killer. Plainly stupid.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 9, 2018 1:04 PM    Report this comment

The sheriff's comment is irrelevant unless he holds an Instrument rating and has spent time in the clouds as PIC.

As a very proficient instrument pilot (I've held Cat II ILS authorization in a Cessna 172), I've done one T/O in 100 and 1/4 mile vis. It's not really a big deal. Watch the centerline and rotate at the right speed but know what attitude/speed to hold for normal climb and climb on runway heading.

The consequences of losing the engine aren't any different than a T/O at 200 and 1/2; you're gonna (sic) have a bad day. Of course have the plate out and radios tuned for your takeoff alternate but you should be doing that anyway if the departure airport is close to minimums.

I've practiced many simulated 0/0 takeoffs. My rules: set the compass to exactly a heading ten times to runway number (e.g., 250 if using runway 25) for easier interpretation, require at least a 150 foot wide runway, and require

Posted by: Bob Toxen | January 9, 2018 3:58 PM    Report this comment

... and require

Posted by: Bob Toxen | January 9, 2018 4:07 PM    Report this comment

"The sheriff's comment is irrelevant unless he holds an Instrument rating..."

Since the 4 passengers were also unrated, let's just take sheriff's comment as representing for them.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 9, 2018 4:14 PM    Report this comment

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