The Wild (Not So Blue) Yonder Mitigating Risk in the Flight Operating Environment

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 Parson presents the framework developed by Robert Buck in Weather Flying. To recap, Buck lists three ways in which weather affects an aviator:

  1. Weather can create wind.
  2. Weather can reduce ceiling and visibility.
  3. 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 and 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

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.

The condition of your runway, whatever it is made of, is an important factor.

Photo by James Williams

Mitigating Factors

When it comes to environmental risk mitigation strategies, preparation is key. A great place to start is with educating yourself at You can find online courses on a variety of topics from airspace to weather. You can also search for local seminars or webinars. In the case of the Washington, D.C. area, you can also find the required training course for the SFRA.

There’s another way the FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) can help you. The FAASTeam is made up of volunteers and FAA employees across the country, all dedicated to helping improve GA safety. You can tap into the network of local experts through the FAASTeam directory on This directory allows you to search for FAASTeam leaders in your area or in future destinations. The FAASTeam Program Manager (FPM) for a certain area is usually your best point of contact. Be aware that there are FPMs for both Operations (pilots) and Airworthiness (aviation maintenance technicians). These FAA employees can help with advice or direct you to resources that will be helpful.

I got firsthand experience of this valuable local knowledge when I contacted FPM Mike Yorke of Anchorage. “One of the things most visiting pilots don’t know about is the Alaska Weather Camera program,” explains Yorke. “The cameras allow pilots and briefers to get a first-hand look at exactly what the weather is doing at many airports and mountain passes. It’s a really great resource and I’m always surprised how many pilots aren’t aware of it,”

Another thing you can do to assess, manage, and mitigate risk in the flight environment is to develop personal minimums. For a short primer on this topic, check out “Your Safety Reserve” in the March/April 2015 issue ( of FAA Safety Briefing or, for still more detail, “Getting the Maximum from Personal Minimums” in the May/June 2006 issue (

Another environmental risk assessment aid is coming soon. Be on the lookout for the FAASTeam’s forthcoming Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT).

It’s a big world out there — and GA is a great way to explore it. Just be sure that you carefully evaluate the flight operating environment before you launch into the wild blue yonder.

Learn More

James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2017 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
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