A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

November 2009

When Do You Say NO

Continuing VFR into IMC. We read that short statement in aircraft accident reports far too often. And by now you'd think pilots would know better. You DON'T fly, in fact you CAN'T fly visually in instrument meteorological conditions. It's a simple fact. So why then, does it continue to happen and cause crashes? Why are people dying and perfectly good airplanes being wrecked by pilots trying to beat the unbeatable odds?

These are accidents that don't need to happen. They're predictable, and therefore avoidable. It' s all about decision making. When to say, "No, I won' t fly into that area, those clouds, that weather" . Let me try to sort this out.

A young pilot with a brand new license in his pocket will often turn back from bad weather sooner than a more experienced one. At this point in his career, that good decision usually has nothing to do with good judgment, but rather it\rquote s fear. He is afraid of cloud because in his relatively short time flying, he's been in nothing but clear conditions, supervised by his instructor. Weather distractions are usually not a factor in the learning environment. His low-time is an advantage, and may save his life more often than he could possibly know.

Now put that same pilot in a similar situation after he's built up four or five hundred hours working in a small charter operation. By this point in time, he has no doubt flown in a bit of 'soup' , but has made it through without too much trouble. Chalk up the good outcome from each of those flights to good experience. His confidence is increased as long as he's not hurt. It's an important, necessary process. The weather doesn't accommodate pilots or air operators with clear, VFR conditions all the time. Some calculated risks and bending of the rules are a fact of life. The pilot gains experience quickly, but unfortunately it usually happens too fast, and his age, maturity and good judgment lag behind.

This is not a good thing. This is when he becomes dangerous to himself, his airplane, employer and his passengers. The pilot at this stage, has beaten the weather enough times to figure out the risks have rewards. So he continues to take them. Every one of us has flown into and through something that we know we should not have been in. We do that because there are usually good 'reasons' for continuing on into deteriorating conditions. We push ourselves to complete a flight because of pressures of the job or from passengers on board.

Someone once described a good pilot as one who relies on his excellent judgment to avoid the situations which require his exceptional skills to get out of. A true statement if I ever heard one!

Clear judgment must be accompanied by the courage to make the right decisions too. A pilot may judge a situation to be unsafe, but without the courage to say "no" to his passengers or employer, he remains a reckless risk. Both judgment and courage come with experience, and with age. I've always believed that the older the pilot, the safer he will be. Of course that comes with the caveat that there's a point where the mind starts to slow down and have trouble with solid reasoning too.

This is all philosophical ramblings from someone who thinks he\rquote s old enough to know better, and not old enough to feel he's on the downward slide. And when I was younger, I probably thought I was wiser too. But that really wasn' t so. I'm a lot wiser now, and I have no problem turning back from weather or conditions that, years ago, I would have proceeded into and may have wound up in serious trouble. Luckily it never happened, because undoubtedly there was some degree of good judgment happening then too.

Looking at all the accidents that result from the VFR flight into IMC scenarios, I'm left wondering why it happens so often? In my experience, the one (or two) times I flew into bad weather, it scared the pants off me. Although I made it through in one piece, I wasn' t proud of it. In fact I was mad at myself for getting into something I knew I should not have. Then I resolved it would never happen again. And it didn't. Apart from those incidents, there's not been another decision I could still not defend as being the right one. That leaves me out of a lot of hangar discussions that evolve into bragging and boasting about how bad the conditions were, and how the storyteller made it through. They're all interesting, some embellished almost beyond belief, but that' s OK . Some people are just plain lucky. They say they've made it through time after time in conditions they describe as something of a nightmare to me. "No thanks" I say. I'll play it safe. My airplanes have never been bent, and nobody ever got hurt. You can' t argue with decisions like that.

I'm giving the final word on this topic to someone on the AVCANADA internet forum. I am not a member of the group that writes in the forum, so I know nothing of this person\rquote s background or experience. But his words of wisdom say it well. Quote: " This is part of the learning process, as time passes you begin to realize how soon these trips we thought just had to go regardless, were actually of no real importance once some time has passed."

After over a half a century of flying I can not remember even one trip that I refused to do that resulted in someone getting killed because of my decision not to fly.

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