The pilot in command (PIC) of an aircraft is directly responsible for and is the final authority for the operation of that aircraft. The list of PIC responsibilities is long, and nothing should be overlooked. To exercise those responsibilities effectively and make effective decisions regarding the outcome of a flight, a pilot must have an understanding of personal limitations. Pilot performance from planning the flight to execution of the flight is affected by many factors, such as health, experience, knowledge, skill level, and attitude.
Exercising good judgment begins prior to taking the controls of an aircraft. Often, pilots thoroughly check their aircraft to determine airworthiness, yet do not evaluate their own fitness for flight. Just as a checklist is used when preflighting an aircraft, a personal checklist based on such factors as experience, currency, and comfort level can help determine if a pilot is prepared for a particular flight. Specifying when refresher training should be accomplished and designating weather minimums, which may be higher than those listed in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 91, are elements that may be included on a personal checklist. Over confidence can kill just as fast as inexperience. In addition to a review of personal limitations, a pilot should use the I’M SAFE checklist to further evaluate fitness for flight. [Figure 13-3]
Curiosity: Healthy or Harmful?
The roots of aviation are firmly based on curiosity. Where would we be today had it not been for the dreams of Leonardo da Vinci, the Wright Brothers, and Igor Sikorsky? They all were infatuated with flight, a curiosity that led to the origins of aviation. The tale of aviation is full of firsts: first flight, first helicopter, first trans-Atlantic flight, and so on. But, along the way there were many setbacks, fatalities, and lessons learned.
Today, we continue to learn and investigate the limits of aviation. We’ve been to the moon, and soon beyond. Our curiosity will continue to drive us to search for the next challenge.
However, curiosity can also have catastrophic consequences. Despite over 100 years of aviation practice, we still see accidents that are caused by impaired judgment formed from curious behavior. Pilots commonly seek to determine the limits of their ability as well as the limits of the aircraft. Unfortunately, too often this leads to mishaps with deadly results. Inquisitive behavior must be harnessed and displayed within personal and material limits.
Deadly curiosity may not seem as obvious to some as it is to others. Simple thoughts such as, “Is visibility really as bad as what the ATIS is reporting?” or “Will the 20-minute fuel light really indicate only 20 minutes worth of fuel?” can lead to poor decisions and disastrous outcomes.
Some aviators blatantly violate rules and aircraft limitations without thinking through the consequences. “What indications and change in flight characteristics will I see if I fly this helicopter above its maximum gross weight?” or “I’ve heard this helicopter can do aerobatic flight. Why is it prohibited?” are examples of extremely harmful curiosity. Even more astounding is their ignoring to the fact that the damage potentially done to the aircraft will probably manifest later in the aircraft’s life, affecting other crews. Spontaneous excursions in aviation can be deadly.
Curiosity is natural and promotes learning. Airmen should abide by established procedures until proper and complete hazard assessment and risk management can be completed.
The PAVE Checklist
As found in the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, the FAA has designed a personal minimums checklist. To help pilots with self-assessment, which in turn helps mitigate risk, the acronym PAVE divides the risks of flight into four categories. For each category, think of the applicability specific to helicopter operations:
- Pilot (pilot in command)
- Physical, emotional readiness.
- Flight experience, recency, currency, total time in type.
- Is the helicopter capable of performing the task?
- Can it carry the necessary fuel?
- Does it provide adequate power margins for the task to be accomplished?
- Can it carry the weight and remain within CG?
- Will there be external loads?
- Helicopters are susceptible to the impact of changing weather conditions.
- How will the change in moderating temperatures and DA affect performance?
- Will controllability be jeopardized by winds, terrain, and turbulence?
- External pressures
- Do not let the notion to accomplish “the mission” override good judgment and safety.
- Many jobs include time lines. How often do we hear “time is money” or “time is wasting”? Don’t sacrifice safety for an implied or actual need to meet the deadline!
- Do not allow yourself to feel pressured by coworkers, family events, or friends.
Incorporated into preflight planning, the PAVE checklist provides the pilot with a simple way to remember each category to examine for risk prior to each flight. Once the pilot identifies the risks of a flight, he or she needs to decide whether the risk or combination of risks can be managed safely and successfully. Remember, the PIC is responsible for deciding about canceling the flight. If the pilot decides to continue with the flight, he or she should develop strategies to mitigate the risks.
One way to control risk is by setting personal minimums for items in each risk category. Remember, these are limits unique to an individual pilot’s current level of experience and proficiency. They should be reevaluated periodically based upon experience and proficiency.