Utilizing Personal Minimums


The FAA defines personal minimums “as an individual pilot’s set of procedures, rules, criteria, and guidelines for deciding whether and under what conditions to operate (or continue operating) in the National Airspace System.” Have you actually given thought as to why we choose the personal minimums we do? From the beginning of initial pilot training, weather minimums were established for day-to-day training and during solo flight. I didn’t realize it at first, but I later learned these limits were not just an insurance mandate, but these minimums were set at the time to safely operate an aircraft based on my “then” current experience.

So here’s the question: what are your personal minimums and WHY do YOU have them? Do you ever lower or raise your minimums? Are your minimums based solely on your overall experience level or do they take into account other variables such as advanced avionics? For pilots that fly multiple aircraft like I do, can and do your minimums change in regard to category or type of aircraft you are flying? It’s a judgment decision on how you chose your minimums. However, it’s important that time is taken before you strap into the cockpit for each flight to critically think about the different risk factors and variables which may affect your decision for the minimums you choose.

To guide us, let’s try briefly apply the FAA’s Personal Minimums Checklist to see how risk factors might shape what personal minimums or decisions we make for the day. Remember, just because you have been flying with a certain set of minimums one day, doesn’t mean you can’t adjust your minimums to a higher value given an ever-changing situation.

The acronym most pilots have heard is PAVE:

Pilot– We all should be familiar with the acronym IMSAFE associated with this. It addresses variables such as Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, and Emotion. But how do you adjust your personal minimums using this guideline? Have you ever thought about raising your minimums for a training flight if you only got 4-6 hours of sleep, instead of 8? Or if you anticipate a hard IFR flight with a long day, maybe taking a safety pilot to mitigate the chance of a mistake if you’re forecasting having to shoot an approach to your weather planning minimums.

Aircraft– Personally, this is a really important factor for me when deciding what minimums to apply. I often spend a large majority of my time asking myself; is this aircraft properly equipped for the flight? This question goes beyond just looking at the logbook for a properly equipped and legal aircraft. A professional pilot should think further. Am I flying a traditional 6-pack “steam gauge” layout, non-slaved compass card, with a separate OBS gauge for course guidance? What if the aircraft doesn’t have an auto-pilot? What if I’m flying an aircraft equipped with a dual auto-pilot, dual GPS with an integrated glass cockpit? I can comfortably say my personal minimums change depending on the equipment I have available.

A pilot should also look at his/her recency with the aircraft. For example, if you are qualified to fly both airplanes and helicopters, maybe you should choose to have higher personal minimums in one particular airframe or if you haven’t flown that airframe within 30, 60 or 90 days. This is a very important factor for the owner/pilot.

EnVironment– Most of the time, when we think of environment, we ask ourselves, is the weather legal for me to take off and, more importantly, can I conduct this flight safely? Basic flight planning should have taught us to take into consideration crosswind limits, day versus night, and the type of airspace the flight is conducted in. Thought should also be given to how you set your personal minimums in regards to the particular type of environment you might rarely encounter. Flying an approach to your minimums in the flat plains of Texas during the day is one thing, but how would you adjust your weather minimums flying to a new airport, at night, with no moon illumination, in the mountains of Colorado? Could you reduce the risk and adjust your minimums in this scenario with two pilots?

External Pressures – What external pressures are affecting your flight? Passengers, the owner, “get-there-it is”, the desire to impress someone? Although external pressures should never be a factor when conducting a flight, they almost always play a role in your decision whether to conduct the flight or not. For example, a professional pilot gets hired to do a flight and the weather is below their personal minimums. The pilot could be tempted to lower their minimums by 100 feet to take the flight for a paying customer. This scenario plays out every day across the country whether it’s a professional pilot or owner/pilot. It would be foolish not to consider this type of pressure. Always make sure you have a plan if and when you encounter this situation. Planning your flight and having a plan to deal with these potential scenarios ahead of time ensures you stick to your minimums. It can be as simple as telling your passengers, or the owner, well ahead of your flight what your personal minimums are to accept the flight, and to ensure they, or you, have a back-up plan!

Most pilots will never break a hard limitation such as an airframe cross wind limitation, or engine limit, but the chances of breaking a personal minimum are realistic. Think about the last time you went on a diet and broke your plan because you were tempted by your friends or family during an outing. Self-imposed personal minimums can be hard to enforce and we need to acknowledge this as humans. Here are a few techniques that you can use to assist in making a decision using personal minimums and help reduce the influence of external pressures.

Step 1: Sit down with your CFI/CFII and fill out a personal minimums worksheet. Filling one out by yourself is a good start but having an outside objective view will help in making sure your personal minimums are realistic. Remember, it is easy to convince ourselves that we can do something even though we have set personal minimums. Talk with other pilots to see if you have set realistic expectations.

Step 2: Preflight planning must start a few days in advanced. It can be as easy as checking what the forecast might be and looking at the projected route, near-by alternate airports, and various approaches. This can be done quickly and will give you a heads up on whether the flight can be safely conducted or not. By alerting the passengers or owner early enough, alternate plans can be developed. An extra pilot can be added, the passengers can fly commercial, bring along a CFI, or cancel the trip altogether and seek alternate transportation. The main point is the decision was made well ahead of the flight when conditions didn’t look favorable. This helps in removing external pressures and ensures you don’t go below your personal minimums.

Step 3: Never be afraid to ask for a second opinion. Part 135 operators have set procedures for conducting flights which assist the pilots in making decisions. These set procedures help remove external pressures by allowing the pilot to say, “The rules don’t allow for this, or this is how we will conduct the flight!” However, under Part 91, the pilot has to take ownership for all phases of the flight. This is where talking it out with another pilot helps with mitigating external factors and the environment. Ideally, this person should have more experience and be able to talk through the situation. For instance, if I’m flying to a new destination, I often seek the advice from another pilot who’s familiar with the area. They may have key insights into weather patterns, preferred approaches, or hazards to avoid. In certain situations, asking for another pilot’s opinion might be what influences your go/no-go decision! You’ll be amazed how much you can learn just from talking to other pilots.

Step 4: Continue to build your experience and knowledge base. Building experience requires us to push our abilities, and sometimes this may be to the limit. However, this can be done in a controlled training environment or just going out and experiencing it. Get a new license, fly regularly with a CFI/CFII, and always try and take advantage of training opportunities. For example on your next flight from point A to point B, practice hand flying an approach, do a short field landing, a quick steep turn, etc. Quality flight time is always better than quantity. Continue to challenge yourself and try not to become complacent.

Personal minimums are a tool to assist in every pilot’s aeronautical decision making process. Use your personal minimums to guide your final go/no-go decision and remember to stick to the plan. I encourage you to review the FAA’s Risk Management Handbook (FAA-H-8083-2). Appendix B has Sample Risk Management Scenarios and reviewing them will give a better understanding how to apply the techniques discussed to your everyday flying.

Pedro Vargas-Lebron is a King Air 200 and uH-60 Blackhawk Instructor pilot with the Texas Army National Guard. Pedro is a CFI/CFII/MEI both in airplanes and helicopters with over 4000 hours of flight time, half as an instructor pilot.

Angle of Attack (AOA)


You are hand-flying an in-the-weather descent, power back, heading for the FAF. You start a 30 degree banked turn at your lead point to cross the FAF, when your passenger behind you gasps. Looking over your shoulder, you see he has spilled his drink into his lap…too bad for him! However, when you turn your head back to your panel, your inner ear tumbles and you see 45 degrees of bank, 15 degrees nose low, airspeed increasing.

Congratulations! You have managed to get distracted and sucked into an unusual attitude recovery. By the book, you should roll wings level, pull to the horizon, and adjust power as necessary to keep the airspeed within limits. In this scenario, if you had not experienced vertigo, you might have been able to roll to less than 30 degrees of bank, recover your turn, pull the nose up to less than the original descent attitude, pulled a bit of power to slow back to your desired penetration speed and then resumed your desired ground track. However, this would only be appropriate if you had full situational awareness as to the deviations caused by the look over your shoulder, plus full confidence that the moderate corrective actions would put you back on your desired flight path.

As a military aviator, I learned unusual attitude recoveries based upon hard maneuvering at extreme pitch and bank angles. In the hard-maneuvering environment, an unusual attitude could be 90 degrees straight up, airspeed decreasing below 120 kts…or 80 degrees nose low, 135 degrees of bank, airspeed increasing through 500 kts… etc. In these cases, understanding angle of attack, or AOA, is critical to maintaining controlled flight and returning to a normal attitude.

In an extreme nose-high attitude, a military aviator is trained to roll the aircraft to 90 degrees of bank, ease off the back-stick pressure to reduce AOA, add power as required, and allow the nose to slice back towards level, rolling to wings level as the nose approaches the horizon. If nose low, the recovery procedure is to roll rapidly, within asymmetric g limits, until wings level, then to pull at optimum g loading to recover to level flight. For the nose-low recovery, power was normally reduced until airspeed could be assessed and brought under control. However, when doing the nose-low pullout at 7-9 gs, pulling the power for too long would leave you much to slow to resume combat.

The AOA gauge on a fighter’s glare shield is a primary reference during hard maneuvering and for landing. The AOA for optimum maneuvering is 13 degrees, displayed as the green circle or “green donut” on the gauge. The red chevron on top represents a slow condition of 15 degrees or more and the yellow lower chevron represents 11 degrees or less.

For normal landing in the F-16C, the pilot slows to 220 kts and configures abeam the touchdown point while mentally computing the final approach airspeed of 136 kts plus 4 additional knots for each 1000 lbs of fuel. When rolling off the perch and flying the final turn, the pilot would usually only glance once at the airspeed once to ensure final turn airspeed of 180 kts while using the AOA sight gauge as the primary indicator of a best performance turn. As long as the AOA was green donut (13 degrees) or less, you would not stall. If on speed and 13 degrees wasn’t going to get you around the turn to line up with the runway, you knew you were going to overshoot. You never wanted to see the red chevron of 15 degrees or more as that meant you were too slow, pulling too hard, and in danger of building an un-recoverable sink rate!

Few GA aircraft are currently equipped with AOA indicators, though there are several after market devices available for retrofit. However, knowing the impact of AOA and how to manage it is vital to safe aviating, even without an AOA gauge. The bottom line is, as long as you don’t ask the wing to produce more angle of attack than it can handle, you won’t stall.

Practicing final turn stalls, to know what the wing feels like as you get too slow or pull too much on the controls, increasing AOA past the critical point, will keep you safe when you encounter that unexpected overshooting wind or you find yourself inadvertently on too tight of a downwind leg. Better to overshoot or take it around to try again, than to pull too hard and exceed critical AOA.

Mike Hostage is a retired USAF pilot with 37 years of experience, flying a wide variety of aircraft.  An instructor pilot for more than half of his 4800 flight hours, Mike is currently qualified in a Cirrus SR-22T and regularly flies his two homebuilt sailplanes.

AOPA Air Safety Institute: More Difficult Decisions


The AOPA Air Safety Institute is making it’s annual loop through Texas this January. The topic for this Safety Seminar is “More Difficult Decisions: Choices & Consequences.”

The seminar is geared our the decision making process that we as pilots face on each flight. Some decisions are easy (what altitude should I pick?) while some have much greater consequences and should be taken very seriously.

This event will be interactive for the participants as several scenarios will be presented. The goal is to help pilots learn to think through each decision, weighing the consequences along the weigh to arrive at the safest outcome of the flight.

The first area seminar will be held on Tuesday, January 21st at the Stinson Field Airport (KSSF, 8535 Mission Road, San Antonio, TX 78214). The second area seminar will be held on Wednesday, January 22nd at the TXDOT office in Austin (200 E. Riverside Dr., Austin, TX 78704). WINGs credit is available for all attendees.

Learn more here.

A Tow Pilot’s Near Disaster


by Lance Stick & Hank Gibson

A couple of months ago, I had a life-threatening experience while flying. Thankfully, with my flight training, along with a lot of luck, I am here to talk about it.

One of my many piloting jobs is as a glider tow pilot. For those not familiar with gliding, since a glider doesn’t have an engine, every time a glider pilot goes and flies, it’s a team effort. A powered airplane (anything from a Super Cub to a turbine powered Air Tractor) is attached to the glider via a tow rope, which is about 200 feet long. Once the glider pilot gives the go ahead over the airport’s CTAF, then the tow plane begins it’s takeoff roll, pulling the glider along behind it.

The glider becomes airborne prior to the tow plane, then the tow plane will circle the airport environment till it get’s to the pre-determined altitude to release the glider. Some tows are pattern tows and some are higher (not usually above 3,000 AGL), depending on the request from the glider pilot. Once the altitude is reached, the glider pilot pulls a handle in the glider to release the tow rope, then begins his glide. The rope stays attached to the tail of the tow plane, which in turn descends back down to the runway and lands. The tow plane also has a tow rope release handle in case of emergency.

On this particular tow, the plan was to tow the glider up to 3,000 AGL. Upon reaching 2,500 AGL, the glider pilot called me on the radio and stated that his rear canopy had opened up. I looked over my shoulder and sure enough, the rear canopy was fully opened while he was still in level flight behind me. I asked him if he wanted me to tow him closer to the field, but he didn’t reply.

Now, as an experienced tow pilot, I know a glider canopy popping open should not be an emergency situation. It’s definitely abnormal, but would be similar to a door or window popping open in a powered airplane. Not a big deal. If too much force from the relative wind is applied to the canopy, it would snap off; however, a glider can easily land without a rear canopy.

About 5 seconds after I radioed the pilot (and received no reply), I felt my tail instantaneously lift up into a completely vertical position, which caused my nose to go straight down. The next thing I knew, a whole lot of earth suddenly filled my windscreen and I was in what’s known as a graveyard spiral.

A graveyard spiral (as defined from the Airplane Flying Handbook pg 4-23), “is a descending turn during which airspeed and G-load can increase rapidly….the airplane is flying very tight circles, in a nearly vertical attitude and will be accelerating since it isn’t stalled.” It’s also known as a spiral dive.

Back to the story. At this point, I tried to reach for the glider release handle. Unfortunately, due to the shoulder straps holding me against the seat, plus the g’s, and also the quart of oil and tow bar that flew forward and hit me in the back of the head, I couldn’t reach it. I was semi-upside down at a certain point, which dislodged the oil and tow bar from the floor of the baggage compartment. They sailed over the seat and nearly gave me a concussion.

At this point, 2,500 feet above the ground, I had a choice to either fight for my life at a very low altitude or to sit back and become part of a big explosion.

I decided to fight for my life.

As I was spiraling to the ground, I felt the tow rope snap. Up to this point, I had still been attached to the glider. The rope snapping was a good thing, as my airplane was now under my control, not attached to, and being affected by, a glider (more on that later). I now had a lifeline, no pun intended.

After I felt the rope snap, my instincts and training kicked in. I initiated the spin recovery procedure using the PARE acronym. This task was difficult to do as I had a lot of debris flying from the rear of the plane to the front, blocking my view out of the windshield. There was also debris around my feet, hampering my ability to use the rudder pedals. The spiral finally stopped and I recovered approximately 500 feet above the tree tops. It took my heart a lot longer to stop spinning.

After barely regaining my emotions, I tried to evaluate the condition of the plane. Were all the pieces of the plane still there, was the engine damaged, did my control surfaces still work?

Once I advanced the throttle and saw an increase in my engine RPM, I started an immediate climb to give me altitude to get back to the airport. I had engine power but I wasn’t sure how long it would last if I had damage. Now, what they don’t teach you during spin training is that when this happens unexpectedly, you will become very disorientated. You have just been spiraling unexpectedly and your equilibrium will be out of whack. As I leveled out just over the tree tops, I was too low to visually see any landmarks, nor could I see the airport. Once I was able to climb, I was able to orient myself and figure out where the airport was.

I had to be very careful getting back to the airport and landing without radio communication, since my radio was knocked out with all of the FOD from the baggage area. Thankfully, the landing was uneventful. After I landed, I saw the glider limp in over the trees. The rear canopy was totally gone, while the front canopy and other parts of the glider had suffered major damage. Miraculously, my airplane wasn’t damaged, except for the wire from the radio which came loose during the spiral.

So, how did all this happen, you ask? Well, the glider pilot made 2 huge mistakes. First, in gliding, the moment the glider pilot loses visual sight of the tow plane, you are supposed to release the tow rope. He did not do that and almost killed both of us.

Second, as pilots we are taught to always fly the airplane first. Everything else, no matter what it is, always comes after flying the airplane. As I stated previously, the loose canopy is not an emergency situation, but since the glider pilot did not aviate first and was distracted, it was almost a fatal day for 2 people and 2 airframes.

So, what caused this chain of events? By getting distracted by the open canopy, the glider pilot inadvertently pulled back on the stick while trying to close the canopy. Then, by not releasing the glider from the tow plane, the glider pilot climbed rapidly with an excessive rate of climb while still being attached to me. The rapid climb is what pulled my tail up, causing my nose to drop and put me into the spiral. The tow rope snapping set into motion my recovery, since up till that point, I literally had no control. An extremely high lift wing was attached to my tail, pulling it up, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

We all spend time practicing and demonstrating emergency maneuvers during our flight training and during flight reviews. Many times you might think, I’ll never need to use this stuff. Thankfully, some of the procedures I learned in the past kicked in at a time of need, even though my heart was beating out of my chest.

At some point in every pilot’s career, some type of spin training or Upset Recovery Training would be highly recommended. Then, when things go wrong, remember to always aviate first, then handle all the other things that need to be handled.

Interested in spin training or Upset Recovery Training (UPRT)? Check out the list of Malibu & M-Class Owner’s and Pilot’s Association (MMOPA) approved UPRT vendors and schedule UPRT training today.

PIREP: IFR Clearances at Uncontrolled Airports

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There is great news coming for all IFR pilots who utilize the multitude of uncontrolled airports across the US.

From the beginning of aviation time, the process of getting an IFR clearance at an uncontrolled airport has been arduous. For airports under Center controlled airspace, you had to dial the Clearance Delivery line, which ported you to Flight Service. Then you sat on hold till someone picked up, gave them your information, then sat on hold again while they called the Center. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the briefer came back with your clearance and departure instructions.

On a busy day, this could take ten to fifteen minutes, which can be really annoying when a pilot is trying to take off and get somewhere.

In my opinion, this also led to a lot of unsafe (and probably illegal) VFR departures when conditions were either clearly IFR or unsafe if buzzing around at low altitudes and high speeds in Class G airspace.

RCO’s (Remote Communications Outlet, 2nd column, halfway down) and Clearance Delivery Frequencies are in place at some airports, but by and large, the above process was how you got your clearance.

Departing from a TRACON controlled airport usually was easier and quicker. The TRACON has a direct line that is available for pilots to call to speak directly with a controller, but not all these phone numbers are published.

As of June 20th, the FAA is implementing this at all uncontrolled airports. On the chart supplement for all IFR charts across the US (not including Alaska), the FAA will publish the Center phone numbers and remaining TRACON phone numbers for pilots to call directly to receive their IFR clearances and departure instructions, and to cancel their IFR flight plans (A lot of TRACONs already have their phone number published).

Flight Service will no longer be taking IFR flight plan cancellations. Pilots will still be able to cancel with Center or TRACON in the air, but will now need to call the number on the chart supplement on the ground for cancellation.

Now that the FAA is modernizing this process, hopefully more pilots will decide to call on the ground for their clearance on a MVFR or IFR day instead of taking off and trying to pick it up in the air.

Finding the Chart Supplement on Foreflight

Where is the Chart Supplement? I’m so glad you asked.

Before iPads, everyone carried around the green book, officially known as the Airport/Facilities Directory, or A/FD. With the advent of Foreflight & Garmin Pilot & others, all the information in the A/FD is now easily accessible in each of the Apps.

Foreflight may integrate the clearance delivery phone number for each airport into their airport information page, but in the meantime, here is how to find the Chart Supplement.

On Foreflight, go to Documents along the bottom of the App. In the Catalog on the left, tap FAA. Chart Supplement will be about 1/3 of the way down the page. Tap that, then tap the region you need and it will download into your Documents Library.

Once it is downloaded, check the Table of Contents for FAA Telephone Numbers and NWS. Go to that page and scroll through to find the Center or TRACON you are needing, then dial the number.

Happy Flying!