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Personal minimums: Problem or protection?

 

A recent aviation publication article on personal minimums really got my ire up. Normally when I find an article I don’t like, I write off the experience to a difference of personal opinion, because the article is usually some one else’s personal opinion in the first place.

But some writers seem to like inviting controversy with their completely left-bank or completely right-bank beliefs, when something more towards wingslevel (puns are unintentional) is the most reasonable.

This time, the writer’s personal take on the use of personal minimums struck me as being outright counter to safe flight protocols. At the very least, the tone was slightly condescending to pilots that might have set their own personal minimums a tad too conservatively.

Although taken out of context, let me quote one of the statements, “..The problem is that the higher [personal] minimum implies a lack of proficiency or confidence…” The writer goes on to acknowledge a slightly less controversial stance on the issue, but the implication certainly stuck in my craw.

So I’m thinking, whoa… wait a minute, what’s wrong with higher than minimum personal minimums? Does this really imply a lack of proficiency, confidence, or both, or rather the good judgment to recognize either? Giving the author the benefit of the doubt (but just for a few short moments) I put the issue in context of my own level of proficiency and confidence.

First, I’m thoroughly instrument current, as well as proficient. I’ve shot hundreds of instrument approaches in aircraft and at least as many in simulators. Second, my confidence in my instrument skills is fairly high. I’ve flown all kinds of airplanes in all kinds of weather over the last 27 years. I’ve had regular flight reviews with other qualified instructors to keep my skills from casually lapsing in to mediocrity.

Could I safely fly an ILS to minimums, or even lower in an emergency? You bet! But the question is not really one of “can I or would I do it” but rather would I plan a flight where I thought I might need to do it. It’s a question of “should I do it.” For me, purposefully flying into weather that requires going to minimums is like flying your aircraft at Vne; i.e. you’re asking for trouble.

What kind of trouble can you get into by planning to fly in minimums weather conditions? Put simply, your options to safely complete a flight diminish substantially when the weather is at minimums. The lower the weather, the fewer the suitable approaches to get into any particular airport. Low weather also makes choosing an alternate airport more difficult. Available alternates within range decrease exponentially as the weather sours.

Perhaps personal minimums should not be thought of as defining proficiency or confidence in one’s skills so much as they define what operations the pilot chooses to engage in. For example, some pilots won’t fly IFR at night, some won’t fly circling approaches, some won’t fly IFR in a single-engine airplane. These decisions have little to do with proficiency or confidence and more to do with risk avoidance.

Many commercial operators have restrictions on circling approaches because they require extra low altitude maneuver at slow speeds and in generally poor visibility. It’s a level of risk they desire to avoid.

You wouldn’t dare say that an airline’s pilots were not competent to do the manoeuvre, but it is ok to say that they choose to avoid unnecessary risk!

Instrument proficiency is of course required for safe flight, and anytime you fly IFR you should be prepared for the possibility of flying lower than your personal minimums. Despite the best preflight planning, there are times when the weather does things you just can’t predict ahead of time.

However, if you’ve never flown an approach to minimums in actual weather conditions, it’s not advisable to try it for the first time without another qualified pilot or instructor acting as a safety pilot. If you cannot devote the time to maintain a high level of proficiency you should seriously question whether you’ll be safe, regardless of where you’ve set your personal minimums. Also bear in mind that meeting the regulatory requirement for instrument manoeuvre currency does not necessarily mean you will be proficient at those maneuvers.

Another “protection” aspect of personal minimums is the decision rules that you set for use with those minimums. Specifically, will you descend below your personal minimums if still in the clouds? You might be legal to do so, but you need to decide how to apply your personal minimums. Personally, I will not go if I know I’ll need to fly to minimums, but once airborne, if the need arises I will certainly not let minimums deter me from shooting the best approach considering clouds, visibility, and winds.

Personal minimums are not necessarily absolutes. They provide individual rules based on the risk a pilot is willing to assume. They can be used to temper the pilot’s actions relative to proficiency and/or confidence level. They can be used to help plan for a flight prior to takeoff.

Perhaps the best case for setting personal minimums is that they force a self-assessment of skills and may alert a pilot to the need to seek extra proficiency training. If proficiency is really the issue, then know that with proficiency comes confidence (normally). This confidence can not be easily assessed by an instructor, as with proficiency, but rather is something you build with practice and experience.

You may be more than proficient but feel the need to start out with high personal minimums to build your own confidence level (convince yourself that you are indeed proficient). That’s perfectly fine. When I received my instrument rating, I was more than ready, and proficient, to fly to minimums. But I didn’t. I started my solo instrument experience by flying in conditions where I would always break out of the clouds about a thousand feet above minimums. I was building my confidence level up to that of my proficiency level. Don’t let anyone shame you into building your confidence in any other way!

So as I complete my reflection on the article that originally caught my attention, I find that in part, the author could be right. A lack of proficiency and/or confidence might lead to personal minimums higher than the lowest legal. Is that bad? I say it isn’t, as long as the pilot is honest with him or herself as to the reason. And if neither proficiency nor confidence is at issue, you may still have higher minimums as a result of general risk avoidance. That’s ok too!

Whatever you chose to do, as pilot in command of your craft you still have an obligation to assess your own capability in regard to the weather conditions and your aircraft’s capabilities. If there’s a mismatch of any of those, seriously think about the motivation for going!

This month’s Pilot’s Primer is written by Donald Anders Talleur, an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor and Researcher at the University of Illinois, Institute of Aviation. He has been flying since 1984 and in addition to flight instructing since 1990, has worked on numerous research contracts for the FAA, Air Force, Navy, NASA, and Army. He has authored or co-authored over 200 aviation related papers and articles and has an M.S. degree in Engineering Psychology, specializing in Aviation Human Factors.