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There’s always a choice

Between the pressure our families put on us to visit and the pressure we put on ourselves to fulfill our obligations and complete the mission, flying during the holidays can be more fraught with traps than a normal trip. Managing the stress while still making our commitments comes down to a few personal strategies. Here are five of my go-tos.

Be realistic with previous experiences

Think back to flying with your family in times of low stress and good weather. How did it go? Was everyone relaxed, calm, and cool, or is it an anxiety-producing affair that you find distracting and beyond your comfort zone? Now add winter weather and extended family expectations to that. How do you think this will turn out?

Sometimes we must be honest with ourselves and resist our flying urges or strict adherence to a schedule. You might be an old pro flying with the family, but weather could be notoriously bad along your route. Be realistic about the anticipated weather, family needs, and your schedule during the planning stages. I would be OK planning to fly from Jacksonville, Florida, to Miami for Thanksgiving, for example. But there’s no way I’m making a commitment to fly from Frederick, Maryland, to Buffalo, New York, for Christmas.

Set expectations early

So much conflict and suffering in life comes down to poorly managed expectations. If you’ve told your mom that you and the family will absolutely be there for Christmas Eve, imagine how much more difficult it will be to divert or cancel entirely when you’re facing adverse conditions. Similarly, imagine how much harder it will be telling your kids they have to spend Christmas Eve in a hotel if they had no concept that was even a possibility.

It took me a long time to learn this lesson, but now I use it religiously. If a trip is coming up I tell my family I hope to be there. I tell my kids I’d like to go flying on a particular day, but we won’t know for sure until that morning. I tell my wife we can fly, but getting there is optional. In other words, I’m a mushy, noncommittal mess, but it certainly makes it easier when I decide to cancel a trip, delay it by a day, or divert en route. If you tell everyone the destination and the estimated time of arrival are subject to change, making the right decisions in the face of adverse weather or mechanical problems becomes much easier.

Buy a refundable airline ticket

This tip comes from Brad Pierce, a successful business owner and passionate general aviation pilot and Cirrus owner. Pierce uses his airplane to fly to meetings all over the country, but he always has the airlines as an easy out if he needs it. Thankfully the airlines are making this easier than ever. If Thanksgiving this year includes your parents and extended family you haven’t seen in years, and they are counting on you to be there, buy a refundable airline ticket well in advance. Doing so gives you a (somewhat) reliable backup plan, and makes it easy to pull the eject handle on your flying plans. It turns your flight from a “have to” to a “want to” and that can make all the difference.

Have a Plan B before you need it

Similar to buying an airline ticket in advance, having a viable Plan B before you need to use it can be a great pressure release tactic. My wife and I recently planned a kid-free getaway. I scheduled the airplane, found a great hotel, reached out to the babysitter, and packed a few bathing suits. Everything was in place until the morning we were scheduled to leave. The weather at home was great, but at the destination it was marginal at best. The destination airport didn’t have weather reporting so there was no way to know the conditions for sure, and I was tempted to give it a shot. But then it hit me—the destination was irrelevant.

The goal of our weekend wasn’t to visit a specific place. It was to get away from our kids (no offense if you’re reading this). I called off the flight, no doubt disappointing my airplane partners in the process. In the spirit of setting expectations, I hadn’t reserved the hotel in advance because it was nonrefundable. I knew that if I had money on the line there would be additional pressure to complete the trip. We quickly repacked for the mountains and drove.

Later on in the drive I was upset that I hadn’t made the decision to change the trip earlier. My desire to fly weighed heavily, but so did that get-there mission mindset. Selecting a second hotel in another location or one within driving distance would have made the transition much easier.

The same goes for flight planning. Having a Plan B ready to go makes the decision to change while in the air much easier. The Plan B updates as the trip progresses because being caught without an alternative can be great motivation to continue, even when you shouldn’t.

Step out of your mission mindset

We pilots are a mission-focused group. In many scenarios that’s a plus. But when it comes time to make the go/no-go decision it can be a trap. Many people use acronyms and other reminders to go through a mental readiness checklist before a flight, but I prefer to keep it less organized. Checklists feel too mission-focused. And our tendency is to answer affirmatively to all the questions.

A better tactic can be to simply find five minutes of quiet to stop thinking of how you’re going to complete the flight and focus on if you’re going to complete it. Think about how you’re feeling. Did the weather give you any pause? How do you feel physically? Are you abnormally stressed or anxious? Have you set the expectations properly? Do you have doubts? Lately I’ve been flying in an unfamiliar environment that generally pushes me out of my comfort zone. I find that sitting with my thoughts for just a few minutes can bring great clarity to the go/no-go decisions. There’s no formal checklist or decision matrix. The goal is to raise your self-awareness and be realistic about the situation. Do you really want to make this flight? Is it truly a good idea? What are the consequences of succeeding and failing?

As a pilot, you must develop a process that works for you. As the holiday season heats up, the pressure on you to perform naturally heats up as well. Finding a system that works best for you to effectively evaluate the environment and your external pressures will help keep you and your family safe during holiday travel and beyond.

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