As pilots, we understand that flying a light general aviation airplane carries with it a certain amount of risk. The challenge for us, as pilots, is to manage these risks and minimize them whenever possible with our decisions and actions. The problem with managing risks is that each flight and every pilot's personalities are so different it becomes impossible to have a concrete model with which to base our decisions. However, I believe if we evaluate a few certain key parameters we can better understand the risks of each flight.
First, we need to do a little self evaluation and give ourselves a "preflight" inspection. We should start with our qualifications. What is our total time? Are we instrument rated? How much experience do we have with the type of weather conditions that are present on this flight? This is a sticky situation, because statistics show that low time pilots are more likely to get themselves in trouble in certain weather situations that a more experienced pilot would not, like a 15 knot crosswind for example. So how do pilots get the experience they need without ever having been in a particular situation? Well, in all honesty we can't. We just have to be smart in how we build experience. When I was a low time pilot, 7 knots was my max crosswind component. After a short time, that went to 10. Once I built confidence at 10 knots, it went to 12, and so on. Therefore, if you are a relatively inexperienced pilot, be smart until you build the knowledge and experience to handle more situations, and always leave yourself a plan B and C if things don't go as planned. When we are doing this self evaluation, we should also look at our health and stress levels. We should postpone the flight if we feel that an illness or stress in our lives would negatively effect our ability to make good decisions in the airplane.
Second, we should obviously pre-flight the airplane to determine it's mechanically safe for flight. Another factor we should consider is our time in the airplane type or the particular airplane we are flying. When we fly, there are many things that can draw our attention away from flying the airplane. In my opinion, if we are not yet comfortable in a particular airplane, we should give ourselves time in good VFR weather to get comfortable with the airplane before we go out and do hard IFR flying to unfamiliar airports, for example. Also, how well equipped is the particular airplane for the type of flight we are doing? If a pilot is instrument rated but doesn't spend a lot of time in the clouds, does it make sense to start off on a long instrument flight without an operating autopilot? For many, this goes back to experience level, but I know a lot of pilots who will not fly single pilot IFR without an autopilot, especially hard IFR. Personally, as it relates to the airplane, I spend a lot of time looking over NTSB accident reports involving the specific types of aircraft I fly as a way to understand and better manage risks. I do this to try to determine if there are nuances with my type of airplane that have gotten pilots in trouble in the past. I have found many accidents that relate to pilots either not having enough time in the airplane or not understanding the aircraft's systems. Several years ago, we owned a 1955 Beech Travel Air, a light twin. As I looked through accident reports I found it was common for pilots to inadvertently turn off the fuel when switching tanks, a lot of times when coming in to land, which resulted in accidents. Sure enough, when I looked at the fuel selector knob, I could see how easy it would be to accidentally turn off the fuel instead of switching from the aux to the main tanks when coming in for an approach to land. In fact, I had a young lady who was flying with me in our Travel Air who inadvertently turned the fuel selector to the "off" position just before landing. Because I had researched this, I noticed it immediately and reached over and turned it back on before our critical engine quit. Make no mistake, time in make and model is a huge factor.
Third, the flight conditions need to be closely examined. We all know about the big hazards; thunderstorms, visibility, ceilings, winds, etc. What about the other potential hazards that we look over many times in flight training, like the terrain beneath us, risks of night flying, etc? Let's face it, if we are flying a single engine airplane at night, it presents a higher risk than during the day. In the area I fly most often, if I were to experience an engine failure during the day I would likely have several good fields below me. At night, I can't see those fields, so an off airport landing would be significantly more risky. The same goes with terrain. It is more risky flying a single engine airplane over the mountains that it is over flat terrain, that's common sense. What does this have to do with risk reduction? Well, I've had many flights where I could alter my route 20 miles or so to the north or south, and it would eliminate me having to fly over vast areas of hilly or mountainous terrain. That does, in fact, eliminate a potential risk. On a flight several years ago from Southern California back to Kentucky in the Travel Air, I had a friend tell me to take the southern route home and follow I-40. I decided not to do that and take a more direct route. That resulted in almost an hour of flying over desert and canyon terrain where we saw nothing, not a house, not a road, not anything. If we would have had a problem and had to put the airplane down, I would have much rather been near I-40 rather than in the middle of the desert. I will listen next time.
Lastly, and often overlooked, are what I call outside factors. These are the factors that cause us to ignore our gut and take on much more risk than we should. This is when we have schedules to keep, passengers we are trying to please, or families we don't want to disappoint by delaying or postponing the trip. Trust me, making the decision to turn around and not make a family holiday gathering is a hard decision, but many times it can be a life or death decision. Before we take off, we should analyze the flight, but we should also determine if any of these outside forces would alter our decision in any way in implementing our back up plans for a particular flight.
When studying and analyzing accident data, it is clear that most accidents are a series of poor decisions, not just one. When looking at these risk areas, your experience level will likely dictate how many of these risk factors you are willing to accept. For example, if you are an experienced pilot with 5000 hours and a lot of instrument flight experience, you may determine that a cross country flight with marginal VFR conditions at night over mountanous terrain is safe for you, and it very well may be. However, that same flight with a newly certificated private pilot, in my view, is probably a too risky. My advice is to look beyond the weather and determine all the various aspects of the risks of flight, many of which I identified, and try your best to eliminate or reduce them. If you do that, it is likely you enjoy many years of flying and build some great experience along the way.