Just south of the equator in the mountains of Papua, Indonesia on the island of New Guinea, pilots spend their days carrying food, building supplies, doctors, pigs, and passengers into some of the most remote and extreme airstrips on the planet. That’s where I fly.
Each morning I load my Cessna Grand Caravan with 2,600 lbs of (insert strange cargo here) and depart my home base of Wamena just after the sun sends its first rays of light across the waking skies above. I spend my day winding through narrow valleys and crossing high altitude mountain passes with building clouds and poor communication, only to land on short, narrow airstrips with steep slopes and little room for error. Most of these one-way in, one-way out runways require me to commit to landing well before touchdown due to terrain that is too close to allow for a safe go-around. Everything better be right when I cross that decision point or I could be in for some excitement.
The need to keep wide margins of safety might seem obvious in environments like mine, but that doesn’t make them any less important where you fly. You may be a new pilot or an old timer, but keeping your margin should always be on the top of your priority list.
Let’s unpack this further. Margin is not just maintaining the regulatory requirements for cloud clearances or minimum altitudes. It’s more than planning for an alternate airport or carrying the required fuel reserve. Margin is breathing room. It is that extra maneuvering room, the Plan C, the well thought out options that provide you multiple “outs” in any given situation. Margin is what gets you home when things take a turn for the worse.
Margin comes in all shapes and sizes. For myself it includes maintaining double my required turn radius in narrow valleys or choosing not to land when my groundspeed is just 1 knot too high at a short and slippery airstrip. For you, it could be determining a ceiling or visibility minimum requirement that is more conservative than the legal ones or setting a wind limitation that you know is reasonable. When it comes down to it, keeping your margin means you don’t push to the ragged edge of your skill or the aircraft’s capability.
Margin can also refer to your mental or emotional capacity. Are you mentally prepared to divert and miss that important event because the weather is getting bad? Are you ready to handle the disappointment of passengers when you arrive over your airstrip and choose not to land due to approaching rain or a factor that is difficult for a non-pilot to understand? Are you willing to cancel a flight on an important client because you are coming down with a cold or didn’t get adequate sleep? As the PIC of your flying machine, you alone are responsible for the safety of the aircraft and the people on board and those are the tough calls that only you can make.
Fatigue, overconfidence, and complacency are the biggest obstacles to keeping your margin. They are all very subtle dangers and you may be experiencing them without even recognizing it. Fatigue can slow down your thought process leaving you behind the plane and backed into a corner before you know it. Overconfidence might cause you to push weather or commit to a course of action that has no favorable alternatives. Complacency will lead you to believe that, because you have 2000 hours in a particular make and model, you don’t need to do a thorough preflight or complete the pre-landing checklist.
Regardless of experience level, operating environment, fancy avionics, and level of proficiency, margin is something that we all need plenty of. So as you go about your upcoming flights, be asking yourself what you can do to build in more margin. It just might be what gets you home.
Pete Greenwald is a transplant to Atlanta, Georgia who has fallen in love with all things Southern, including his wife, Ashley. As a pilot and A&P with Mission Aviation Fellowship, he flies the Cessna Grand Caravan in Papua, Indonesia serving people who live in isolation. In his spare time he is on the hunt for the best burger around.