A Safe Pilot is Always Learning

External pressures…

You (a Private Pilot) and your family are all set for a flight from Lincoln Park to Montauk, on the eastern edge of Long Island, to visit family for the holidays. Weather checked. Looks like a beautiful day, no significant weather forecast and no flight restrictions affecting your route. The plane is fueled and preflighted. No issues. Passengers are boarded and excited to go.

Enroute, the flight is smooth, tranquil and uneventful – like a flight with family should be! New York Approach is relatively quiet, providing only occasional traffic advisories as you fly at 5500’ over the busy northern coast of Long Island.

About a half hour and half way into the flight, conditions start to change. Nothing sudden, just a subtle change in the look of the sky and a several degree counter- clockwise shift in heading to remain on course. The clear, crisp horizon is now less crisp. You note the change, but keep on flying. Ceiling and visibility still seem excellent. Ten minutes later, you note a few snowflakes. Visibility begins to deteriorate and familiar landmarks and islands at known distances vanish into a fuzzy, whitewashed sky. What do you do?

For everyone at every experience level, initially there will be pressure to complete the flight…to push on and make it to Montauk with family. This outcome is convenient. It’s what you planned, so naturally it’s what is expected…that you’ll be home, on time, for the holidays. But therein lies the problem. This is where external pressures to push on can be extremely powerful, incipient and…dangerous.

How to mitigate the risk of external pressures? This starts long before the flight and needs to be ingrained in the culture and attitude of you and each and every passenger you ever fly with. You, as Pilot-In-Command, need to set the expectation and communicate it not only in your passenger briefing, but as soon as friends and family express interest in becoming your passengers. This should happen even when you are still learning to fly. It is up to you to be absolutely certain all who will be your passengers, as well as those awaiting your arrival at your destination, agree with the following sample briefing…

“General aviation is much different than other forms of transportation. Due to weather, mechanical issues or circumstances outside of our control, we may not make it to our intended destination. We may need to return to our departure airport or divert to another airport, where we may potentially need to remain overnight until conditions change. If you are not prepared for this potential outcome, we should postpone or cancel this flight. Our alternate mode of transportation to our destination is to call Uncle Bob to drive and pick us up from Montauk. He isn’t drinking so he will be ready to do so.”

Of course, you’ll need to substitute Uncle Bob for a cab, rental car or airline flight, depending on the particular flight. Unless, of course, you have a willing Uncle Bob always at-the-ready! Always plan for time-critical events, such as meetings, weddings and parties, so you have time to make a no-go or diversion decision, then still get there with ample time to spare, using your alternate mode of transportation. Otherwise, you will again have external pressures weighing on your aeronautical decision-making. Unfortunately, these same pressures also weigh on our judgment, often with unfortunate outcomes.

So, back to our flight to Montauk with deteriorating visibility caused by snow…

This decision should be easy. Turn around and divert to one of Long Island’s other many airports. Islip is looking good right now. So is Brookhaven. Wherever you decide to go, you should feel no pressure from passengers to do otherwise. This should be the case if you have done a good job ingraining this in the culture of general aviation flying. If not, just fly the plane, isolate yourself from the conversation with that particular passenger and focus on the diversion. Once on the ground, rethink how you talk about flying and how you brief your passengers. Also, make sure the passenger who was pressuring you knows they’re taking the LIRR next time, regardless of the weather!

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