Defining The Decision Factors

Its important to understand the often-impulsive desire pilots have to make a flight. Do you recognize the difference between needs verses wants?


Visit any flight school, flying club or FBO and you’ll hear many “go or no go” discussions. Rarely will you hear a “need to or want to” discussion—and yet the correct answer to this fundamental decision is the one that can keep you alive and thriving. You say you’ve never had to make this decision? Let’s take a quick look at it— before we discuss the other decisions made prior to each flight.

According to dictionaries, a “need” is something that is necessary for an organism to live a healthy life. Needs are distinguished from “wants” in that a need is a deficiency that causes a clear adverse outcome: a dysfunction or death. In other words, a need is something required for a safe, stable, and healthy life, while a “want” is simply a desire, wish or aspiration. Too often pilots say they need to make a flight, when in reality they want to go.

Never, in 12,000+ hours of flight experience, have I been presented with a flight that I needed to make. I’ve delivered organs for transplant and children to dying parents, but never has there been a flight I needed to make. Yes, it’s a very selfish decision, and yet it is one you must make correctly.

Go Or No Go: Pilot

The decision starts with a personal reflection—are you trained, rated, experienced, current and capable of making this flight? We’ll assume you have an instrument rating, but have you taken any IFR refresher training lately? Do you meet the requirements of FAR 61.57 for instrument proficiency? What is your total time, instrument time, and actual IMC time? Cloud time is important because, as you discovered the first time you entered one, it’s a different animal than hood time. If you don’t have any cloud time, go get some ASAP—but take an instructor along that first time.

The weather you may attempt to conquer on any flight is directly related to your total cloud time and recency of experience. When I was flying every night, I was comfortable with weather at ILS minimums for approaches and solid cloud enroute. Now, my situation has changed, and basic VFR is about right for me!

As important as your certificates and ratings are, it’s your competency on the day of the flight that counts. Are you well rested? Is your mind free of overwhelming worry/sorrow in your personal life? Can you give total attention to this flight without any major distractions creeping in? Work the IMSAFE mnemonic to assure that there are no physiological or psychological hang-ups.

Go Or No Go: Plane Capabilities

Typically the aircraft dictates the type of weather you can venture into. I wouldn’t take a C-172 or PA28 into much more than stratus clouds with VFR bases and that has more to do with power available than number of engines. Power plant output will dictate some of the weather constraints.

Higher power aircraft with anti/ deice equipment rated for flight into known icing is needed for most flights into the clouds in the winter in the northern parts of the country or at higher altitudes in other parts. You need the power to climb quickly to weather either too warm (in an inversion—think of freezing rain) or too cold (more likely scenario) for icing. Weather avoidance radar is needed if thunderstorms are present or forecast. And remember, the radar is there to assist you in avoiding thunderstorms, not penetrating them.

An autopilot—For all but the most innocuous of IFR weather and the shortest of trips, an autopilot is necessary. Hand-flying an airplane in actual IFR conditions is tiring and (unfortunately) the part of the flight requiring the most precision comes at the end—the approach. You need to be as fresh as possible for that approach and an autopilot will help. If you must use an airplane without a functioning autopilot, consider taking a pilot friend with you. The other pilot does not have to be instrument rated—although that helps—but it’s nice to have a companion to help with refolding charts (oops, find the right display on your EFB), tuning radios, and reviewing options.

Wait—you say you don’t need charts because of the wonderful avionics package and beautiful displays you have in the aircraft you’re flying? Bravo! Have you ever heard of a guy named Murphy? Have the charts ready and available just in case. Displays can fail and electrical systems can fail. You can never be “over prepared.” It’s far better for the folks in the pilot lounge to be laughing at your over prepared state than reading your NTSB report.

Knobology—Are you totally familiar with the avionics package in the airplane? The midst of a minimums approach or unanticipated deteriorating weather is not the time or place to be rustling in the flight bag looking for the operating manual for your radios.

Go Or No Go: Weather

Many pilots seem to focus solely on the weather when making go/no go decisions, but, as we’ve discussed, it truly is only one part of the decision-making process—although an important one. Many pilots approach the weather decision as an “all or nothing” situation when, for the most time-efficient flight it may be a “how much and how far” decision.

Think about a flight you may contemplate taking to an airport southeast of your home base. There’s currently a line of frontal thunderstorms between you and your intended destination. Do you delay your takeoff until your destination is clear of TRWs? That may not be the most time-efficient way of managing this flight. Consider when the front is forecast to clear your destination. Has it been traveling as forecast up to the time of your latest briefing?

Is there an airport short of your destination that will be located in the clear after frontal/ TRW passage by the time you get there? (Is there an FBO with a decent pilot lounge and good coffee?) Consider landing there, refueling, and relaxing in contemplation of an approach at your intended destination. How close to your destination will this put you? You might consider renting a car and driving the rest of the way. This is a viable solution if the front seems to be stalling out or if the weather at your desired destination will remain too low for you to feel comfortable making an approach. Flying/driving trips can be a viable—and sometimes much safer —alternative.

And finally, the approach. You should have thoroughly studied all approaches available at your destination before you launched and should have the paper copies readily available. Have the procedures for setting up the approaches on your avionics package firmly in mind. Don’t forget the missed approach procedure.

If you’re receiving radar vectors for the approach do not accept a short turn-on unless you can see the runway from your present position. Before reaching the final approach course make sure you have the aircraft trimmed for your desired approach speed. (Yes, we always trim for a speed, not an altitude.) You should only take one try at an approach. If you don’t see the runway or the runway environs when the time/altitude runs out, of course you will execute a missed approach procedure. The only reason you should attempt another approach is if you can identify something you did wrong, that if corrected, would have resulted in a successful landing.

Linda D. Pendleton is a 40-year CFII, an ATP ASMEL with type ratings for the Cessna CE-500 and LRJET, and 12,000 hours.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue ofIFR Refreshermagazine.

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