The key to safe holiday flying, and winter flying in general, is good decision making under pressure. Stress, fatigue, time pressure, weather, and shorter days are just a few elements known to challenge good decision making. Taking time for proper planning, self-evaluation, and communication can help get you and your family home for holidays.
Get familiar and plan ahead
Whether you’re taking this trip for the first time or the fiftieth, it’s always important to familiarize yourself with your route of flight and destination airport. Leave room on both ends of the trip for delays, so as not to feel pressure to arrive on time. What are some challenges that may present themselves along your route? Have there been any changes at your destination airport or at airports where you may be landing for fuel? If you plan to transport items to and from your destination, be careful to monitor weight and balance and take extra care in securing any heavy items. Taking the time to create or review your flight plan and weight and balance can save you from surprises along the way.
Weather, especially during the winter season, can change quickly and without warning. Receiving a weather briefing in the hours leading up to your flight can keep you from having to divert, or worse, fly into a weather event you weren’t prepared for. If you’ve been delayed for any reason, even if things looked great a few hours ago, it’s a good idea to receive an updated weather briefing before you take off. It’s also important to remember that the days are shorter, so plan accordingly and get an early start.
You can get weather information by contacting an FAA flight service station. Call 800-WX-BRIEF to speak to a pilot weather briefer. Pilots should also check airport weather observation reports and pilot weather reports.
Personal minimums and self-evaluation
Establishing personal minimums and decision-making criteria before takeoff can keep us from pushing ourselves past our abilities in the stress of the moment. The AOPA Air Safety Institute recommends updating your personal minimums regularly to reflect your current proficiency in the aircraft you’ll be flying.
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It’s also important to stay hydrated and well rested. Be cautious about alcohol intake (remember, eight hours bottle to throttle) and the delayed effects, especially at altitude, for yourself and your passengers.
Has it been a while since you’ve flown this aircraft? How long has it been since you’ve flown at night or in IFR conditions? Being honest with yourself and your currency is an important step to keeping you and your family and friends safe. Schedule time with a flight instructor or take time to yourself to get current.
Brief your passengers, family, and friends
Advise friends and family on both ends of the trip of the flexibility that safe general aviation travel demands. It’s also a good idea to brief passengers, of any age, on proper aircraft etiquette to keep distractions at a minimum.
Have a plan B
It’s a tale as old as time, the dreaded case of “get-there-itis.” All things considered, being a few hours late or rescheduling altogether is better than the alternative. If weather deteriorates, if there’s a problem with your aircraft, or even if you just aren’t feeling up to it, having a plan B can keep you from feeling pressured into taking a flight you know you probably shouldn’t. It’s always better to be on the ground wishing you were up in the air than the other way around.