New instrument pilots find out fast that wielding the privilege presents new and complex decision-making challenges—and reports from the field are mixed on how well pilots respond.
The decision-making process isn’t mysterious: It starts with evaluating the weather here, the weather there, and the weather en route—even the weather at different altitudes en route.
Next step: Factor in your aircraft’s performance and navigation capabilities, and your proficiency and currency in managing that aircraft and equipment. Measure your capacities against the most severe scenario you would be willing to take on during the flight; don’t forget to include the pilot-fatigue factor in the calculation.
If the weather is low enough at your airport of intended landing, the question of selecting an alternate airport arises. A good alternate is close enough to your intended destination to be reachable safely and distant enough to have better weather. Does such a place exist?
Some skip this step entirely. The pilot of a single-engine North American Navion in California, skeptical of ceilings in a computer-generated forecast, “attempted to get on top by climbing to 12000 ft,” but soon found that the altitude offered no insurance against clouds and airframe and pitot icing. The Navion lost airspeed indication after penetrating clouds, sinking several thousand feet in a mushing power-on stall before recovering.
“Decision to take off into suspect icing with an unclear forecast and no PIREPS was foolhardy for an aircraft not (flight into known icing) equipped,” the pilot wrote in a filing with NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System. “Not wanting to divert to an airport I hadn’t prepared for, in IMC was the rationale, but again, poor,” the pilot conceded.
Another report was filed by a Cessna 182 pilot who had put off choosing an alternate airport the night before flying, then neglected to reconsider the issue before departing. The omission bit when an instrument approach in low weather fell apart as the pilot struggled with an uncooperative autopilot.
“The ceiling was below my personal minimums and I should have considered diverting; perhaps worse, I did not consider where to divert,” the pilot reported.
The ASRS report added that the flight flew a missed approach, eventually diverting to an alternate selected by air traffic control.