by James Williams, FAA Safety Briefing
The enVironment portion of the PAVE (Pilot, Aircraft, enVironment, External Pressures) risk assessment checklist addresses one of the pilot’s most critical risk assessment and decision making responsibilities. It’s a huge area, because it includes so many permutations and combinations.
The most obvious risk element is weather, a powerful and often fickle factor in the equation for assessing environmental risk for flight. But wait — there’s more. Other environmental factors include terrain, obstacles, lighting, airspace, airports, traffic and probably more. On its own, each factor has an impact on flight, but it is also essential to assess their combined impact. It’s a daunting, but very necessary, task. Let’s take a look at how to do it.
The Whither and Whether of Weather
Nowhere is our human difficulty in dealing with probabilities on better display than when it comes to understanding and assessing weather. By its very nature, weather forecasting is all about probabilities. What will happen where, and with what certainty?
FAA Safety Briefing Editor Susan Parson addresses the application of this topic to GA flying in detail in a previous issue that is well worth your time (“The Whither and Whether of Flying in Weather,” July/August 2010 at http://go.usa.gov/x8T9M). Parson presents the framework developed by Robert Buck in Weather Flying. To recap, Buck lists three ways in which weather affects an aviator:
- Weather can create wind.
- Weather can reduce ceiling and visibility.
- Weather can affect the aircraft performance.
Parson recommends evaluating each of these factors in terms of both the pilot and the aircraft to be flown. The specific pilot-airplane combination is a team that, like any team, is only as strong as the weakest link. When it comes to weather flying, even the best-equipped airplane cannot make up for a pilot with deficient knowledge or skill, and even the world’s best pilot cannot overcome the performance limitations of a given airplane.
Making the evaluation that Parson suggests starts with getting solid weather information. To get tips on that critical process, I contacted Monica Bradford, the Flight Service Safety and Operations Manager of the FAA’s Flight Service Directorate. This office manages the contract with Leidos (formerly known as Lockheed Martin).
The world has changed since the days when a telephone call to Flight Service was your only option for a weather briefing. You can now visit a number of government and commercial websites to get a briefing. “Our data shows pilots primarily use web-based tools to obtain flight services, with 95-percent of FAA-provided preflight briefings done via web services,” Bradford explained. “Regardless of what website they use, pilots should verify the weather sources. It is helpful to ensure that the website logs briefing activity and that it can provide an alert when the data is no longer valid. Pilots are not required to use FAA-contracted websites, but www.1800wxbrief.com and www.duats.com both have FAA oversight.” She also urges pilots to take advantage of the expertise Flight Service can offer: “If you are unsure about things you see online, contact a Flight Service specialist.”
More Than Just a Map
The terrain, or lack thereof in the case of water, is more than just a pretty scene to enjoy from aloft. It may or may not impact your thinking and planning. Is the terrain rough or flat? Is it wooded or open? Is it densely populated or uninhabited? All of these things play a role in safely traversing the environment of your flight. They also potentially impact factors in other areas of the PAVE checklist, like equipment or pilot skills. These impacts may be regulatory in nature, like supplemental oxygen requirements to get over high terrain. Or they may be more practical, like ensuring that you have survival gear when flying over desolate areas or floatation gear when crossing large bodies of water.
The four elements of the PAVE risk assessment checklist.
Terrain can also put your piloting skills to the test. Mountain and bush flying are skills generally not taught at most flight schools. Along the east coast, mountains can generally be avoided by simply flying over them — not a problem for most GA aircraft. The western part of the country, though, boasts peaks that are beyond the operating capability of most GA aircraft.
Clearly, these factors create additional risk if you don’t have the appropriate training or experience, not to mention currency and proficiency.
Obstacles are another potential hazard in the flight environment. Most of us have seen thickets of “airplane stickers,” aka antennas and cell phone towers which can appear anywhere — including near airports. When flying in an unfamiliar airport environment, be sure to study a current chart to note the location of these obstacles.
The Regulatory Rainbow
Another aspect of the GA operating environment is airspace and ATC. Here in the nation’s capital, we have a rainbow of restricted and controlled airspace. Between Mode C, Class B, Restricted, and Prohibited airspace combined with a Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) and Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ), flying in the nation’s capital may have you thinking our Terminal Area Chart (TAC) is something out of an Onion story.
Another example of complex airspace is the area surrounding New York City. New York’s collection of very busy airports, both GA and air carrier, means that the controllers in center and approach control need to work and talk very quickly. This reality can present a problem for pilots who are less comfortable with the pace of operations. We provided some tips to help with this in “Don’t Cower from the Tower,” in our Jan/Feb 2012 issue available at http://go.usa.gov/x8q8K.
Remember that airspace “gotcha” factors can exist anywhere, or appear in the form of temporary flight restrictions (TFRs).
Once on the ground, more risk management opportunities appear at unfamiliar airports, especially “big airline” facilities with multiple runways and taxiways.
Careful study reveals that it is all quite manageable but, again, risk management and decision making require that you do your homework.