Preflight Mistakes and Weather

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Many needless accidents are directly attributable to a careless or nonexistent preflight. The following example, which I did not make up, demonstrates just how dangerous it can be when a pilot decides for some reason or other that he or she is the exception to the rules.

The pilot, who held an Airline Transport Certificate, skipped the preflight altogether and hopped into his friend’s Cessna 182 intending to simply fly away, but a dead battery delayed his plans. He decided to try a prop start and on the second pull on the prop the engine roared to life, and to his surprise and horror rushed past him off on its own. Still on the ground, the aircraft gathered speed as it crossed the active runway, lost its tail as it passed under (almost) an irrigation system, and crashed a half a mile away in a gravel pit. The pilot, who had quit chasing the aircraft after the first 100 yards, could only watch with frazzled nerves as a $150,000 aircraft was smashed into pieces, knowing his carelessness was to blame and now it was too late to do anything about it. Oops, there goes the plane and your reputation and career went with it and you know you’re going to sound stupid trying to explain this one.

Proper planning and preflight would have certainly avoided this accident. Even a student pilot should know to set the parking brakes; chock the aircraft; tie it down; turn off the mags; turn off the fuel; or leave the mixture full lean. After all, wasn’t the plan to start the plane? So having it start shouldn’t come as a complete surprise.

There are more than enough problems associated with flight without going out of your way to tempt fate. A safe flight begins with proper preplanning and continues from there. Don’t shift the odds by a poor or nonexistent preflight of yourself or your aircraft.

The weather
An integral part of preflight planning is checking weather conditions to be encountered during the flight. Improper respect for weather conditions can transform a pilot into a statistic. The NTSB and FAA files are full of accident reports of pilots who continued flying beyond experience/capability limits into known adverse weather conditions.

The word limitations, so often found in accident reports, is the key to much of the problem. Each and every aircraft has its limitations. Each has its own gross weight, Vx, Vy, etc. Each pilot also has his or her own set of limitations, whether they are known or unknown. You should find your own limitations for a given condition and then never try to push yourself beyond them.

These limitations include such items as ceiling and visibility minimums, wind velocity and direction, and duration of flight. Of course, these will vary depending on whether the flight is to be VFR or IFR, local or cross-country, dual or solo. My own personal minimum preference is a 500-foot ceiling, 1-mile visibility, about 30 knots of wind at the surface, and not more than 2 hours per leg if on a cross-country. Also, I’ll do just about anything to avoid flying into icing conditions. I have developed a very healthy respect for the forces of weather. Weather is undoubtedly the most powerful force in aviation (contrary to popular opinion at the FAA); weather has brought down everything humans have ever put into the air at one time or another.

If your proposed flight is going to be local, you can usually look out the window and tell if the conditions are favorable for the safe completion of the flight. However, the weather can change for the worse in a short period of time, so rather than take a chance, why not place a call to the nearest Flight Service Station or National Weather Service? The personnel at the FSS and NWS can inform you of present conditions, weather at nearby areas, and a forecast for the next 24 hours. For a cross-country flight, this service becomes invaluable to ensure you won’t encounter weather conditions beyond your limitations later on during the flight.

Weather information can be obtained via personal computer as well. A pilot can dial up the Weather Channel or AccuWeather and gather weather forecasts, winds aloft, etc., for the entire nation and most of the world. Another source that requires a computer and telephone modem is the government-sponsored DUAT (direct user access terminal). DUAT will bring you up-to-the-minute weather to the screen. One drawback of DUAT is that you have to decode it and are solely responsible for your interpretation of the weather briefing. I prefer to call FSS and let them read it to me; as a bonus, they keep a log of all briefings given.

Of course, everyone knows that the prediction of weather is not an exact science. Sometimes they are wrong, so you must exercise common sense and compare your own limitations to the forecast. Speaking of common sense, it doesn’t make much sense to utilize a weather briefing service and then attempt a flight regardless of the forecast. NTSB File # 3-3803 is an example:

On December 31,1976, a 59-year-old, non-instrument-rated private pilot took off from the Auburn Municipal Airport in Auburn, Washington. The intended destination was Royal City, Washington. Witnesses reported seeing the aircraft take off, enter an overcast layer in a climbing turn, dive steeply, pull up into the clouds again, and then dive into the ground. The weather at the site was 150-foot ceiling with one mile or less visibility, with fog. The pilot had been briefed by FSS personnel. The type of weather was IFR. Type of flight plan—none. Moral of the story: If the weather conditions are IFR and you are only rated for VFR flight conditions—don’t go. The situation exceeds the pilot’s limitations.

Here are some guidelines that will help both you and the FSS personnel when obtaining a weather briefing. You must be specific and clear and know what you want. Open the conversation by telling them who you are, where you are, and where you are going. Then, tell them when you propose to leave and if the flight is to be VFR or IFR. Also include your proposed route of flight and aircraft type. Now they have the appropriate information and will inform you of all pertinent weather data, such as general weather along the route of flight, winds aloft, terminal forecasts, area forecast, NOTAMs, etc. Be sure to write down the information. If you are unclear on any point, or if they happen to leave out something you need, ask for it. Ask for any pertinent NOTAMs. It beats getting ready, flying to an airport, and finding it closed for repairs.

Pilots, whether a student or more advanced, are going to have to deal with some form of weather from the time they untie the aircraft until it is safely tied back down. Get to know the weather and the people who predict it. Set your own limitations and stick to them. You will be glad you did.

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