Jet Journal: Higher Minimums

Jet Journal: Higher Minimums

Jet Journal: Higher Minimums

Does flying your family onboard influence the level of conservatism you employ?

Professional flying is nearly always an extremely relaxed, highly controlled and almost boring affair. When you depart, under what conditions, where you are going, and by what routing is often entirely under the control of a complex set of rules and a team of experts, of which you are only one. You certainly feel professionally responsible for the outcome, but that responsibility is shared by the group, and you rarely have someone who is personally dear to you (other than yourself), who is at risk. 

Personal flying, particularly with family members on board, is an entirely different ballgame, and unless you have done both, it is maybe difficult to appreciate that difference. A flight I was on last year, and the circumstances that followed, again reminded me of this.

Lori, our pilot-scheduling manager answered a call from Mike, an ex-airline pilot she used to fly with in her cabin attendant days. He told her that he has just bought a Cessna 414 in California and his insurance was requiring a pilot they could approve to help him fly it back to Washington. After some nosing around among the company’s pilots she finds I am the only one readily available to do the trip. And so, after making some arrangements with the insurance company, I fly airlines down to Oakland, then take Uber to Concord where I meet up with both Mike and Dave, an airline pilot friend of his, neither of whom have done much personal flying in a long time.

The three of us carefully go over the fairly clean 414, and an hour or so later, we are northbound to our first stop in Medford, Oregon. On the way I determine that both Mike and his friend Dave are exceedingly competent pilots, who have absolutely no problem flying the 414. And as often happens, we become what my wife likes to call “pilot-type” friends. 

It turns out Mike started flying back when he was 18 just like I did, flew floats, then Navajos in the bush of Alaska to build time, and then got hired by the airlines to fly 737s. 

Following some airline industry failures and mergers, he wound up at one of the three big U.S. carriers, where he flew DC-10s internationally. After several years however, the routine of airline flying combined with the long absences from home made him decide to quit flying for a living and start his own business. At this he was quite successful, hence the 414, which he planned to use mostly for personal and family trips.

After we returned from that trip, Mike had some further improvements made to the airplane, I got busy doing other things and we lost track of each other for a while. But as time passed I kept seeing his nice shiny airplane, now with new RAM engines and Garmin avionics languishing on the ramp and not being flown much. Finally, we ran into each other and I asked him how the airplane was working out. 

His answer struck a nerve with me. He said that even though he had thousands of hours and professional pilot credentials, he found flying the 414 with his family on board in anything but pristine weather to be unpleasantly stressful, and for this reason he had not been using the airplane that much. In fact, the airplane we flew up from California just a year ago, was now for sale. 

Now it might seem odd that a pilot with a wallet full of ratings, 10,000+ hours and experience ranging from bush operations in Alaska to heavy iron international airline flying would find flying a personal airplane at all stressful. But truth is, I often feel the same way myself. That is, those of us that fly professionally often find purely personal flying to be much more stressful than the flying we get paid to do. This is particularly true if we are flying single pilot with family members on board. The stress is not only unpleasant, but can alter how we make decisions as pilots, and it shows up in a number of different ways.

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“Many high-time professional pilots note this attitudinal difference
between personal and professional flying. Why is that?”

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For example, if scheduled for a Lear trip I rarely feel compelled to check the weather until the morning of departure. If the weather at that time is at or above published IFR minimums, with no dangerous convective activity in the area, no problem, I am quite relaxed and good to go. On the other hand, if scheduled to fly somewhere in my own Cessna 340 with wife or grandkids on board, I start monitoring (perhaps better described as “worrying” about) the expected weather a week in advance. 

For the personal trip I am very hesitant to fly in any weather that I cannot easily top, or if on top I cannot safely descend through into VFR conditions should some mishap occur while in flight. Whereas when flying professionally these are not concerns I would have a week before the trip, if at all.

It is almost embarrassing to admit that as a well-trained and current professional pilot, if the trip is a personal one with family members on board, I simply don’t “want” to go (and rarely do) if the weather particularly at the arrival end is anything close to low IFR. Whereas if flying professionally, anything above bare minimums is no problem at all. And as time has passed I found this conservatism has increased rather than decreased. In fact, I am much, much more conservative with personal flying than now I used to be even 10 years ago. My minimums for a personal flight are now pretty much clouds that are easily topped, no or minimal forecast of ice, plus VFR conditions at the arrival end. If all that doesn’t exist, I usually find a reason to delay the trip or simply not go.

“Many high-time professional pilots note this attitudinal difference between personal and professional flying. Why is that?” It may be at least in part due to just the natural conservatism that comes with increasing age, but I think there are quite a few more issues at hand than that.

The phenomena remind me a bit of when I was doing obstetrics as a physician and my own wife was pregnant. Even though exceedingly competent at that activity, would I deliver my own wife even in a very good hospital? Not a chance. Instead we made sure she was cared for by very competent and well-trained doctors (more than one) who could be very objective in their professional decision-making process, and in a hospital with the very best equipment. Delivering babies is (like flying) a mostly safe and routine activity. But when things go awry, you have to quickly make some difficult professional calls, all of which are much more competently arrived at by an objective mind than one impaired by personal and emotional involvement with the outcome.

Then there is the question of the effect differences in the equipment has on our personal flying minimums. Generally, the airplanes we fly professionally are turbine-powered and capable of staying aloft in the high flight levels even if one engine fails. They are also capable of handling any ice that might be encountered with much greater safety than airplanes we are likely to fly personally. And when you fly professionally, this difference becomes very apparent. There is a huge difference between the capabilities of say a FL450-capable Cessna CJ3, and a FL250 capable Cessna 340. The CJ (or B737) will almost always put you 2 miles above weather you don’t want to have anything to do with. Whereas unless you are very careful, the C340 and a lot of turboprops are pretty good at putting you right in the middle of it.

Personal flights are also usually flown as single-pilot, and the lack of a two-pilot crew is also highly influential on stress level. Flying, particularly in adverse conditions, can be a very intense activity. The ability to share some of the work load and decision-making with another properly trained and qualified pilot is immensely relieving. 

But that individual has to be trained and qualified. From time to time, I fly airplanes wherein a low-time private pilot employee of the owner wants to sit up front and “help.” Almost always, this makes the task of piloting more rather than less difficult. Even if you have all the ratings, there is an art to competently flying as a two-pilot crew, and it takes a lot of training and time to learn it well.

Another thing many of us observe is a reluctance (or at least a lack of burning desire) on the part of our spouses to fly with us on personal trips, but not so when flying in the back of the jet we are flying professionally. We point out that doesn’t matter which airplane we are in, we are exactly the same person with precisely the same foibles, but that does not seem to change the dynamic much. This attitude on their part is probably a reflection of what we are feeling ourselves. That is, a very high personal and emotional investment in the outcome, and because of this a desire to distance oneself from involvement with the event.

Sometimes all this can create an awkward situation when in the pilot lounge with small kids and wife hanging about. Some fellow with 800 hours and an instrument rating is flight-planning a trip that most of us high-time pros would readily fly professionally, particularly as a crew, but would not touch personally, even though it would be perfectly legal and probably reasonably safe if looked at objectively. Hard to know what to say in those circumstances.

So, Mike and I ruminate on all this for several hours while his now-for-sale C414 is being worked on. We wonder if we owned a jet (say a CJ that both of us are rated in) would it entirely resolve the greater level of conservatism we have both noted in our personal flying. In the end we decide that although it may help a bit, we still would be very emotionally involved with the flights’ outcome and that would continue to influence our thinking. We are professional pilots after all, and know from experience that If anything goes wrong, the workload in a jet can get very high, very fast. We decide that concern about that possibility with family members sitting behind us single-pilot, would be very distracting. The end result being, we would assign ourselves higher minimums, just like we do in the piston twins.

In medical school they teach you about the need for professional objectivity and point out that because you are emotionally involved, you should not take care of immediate family members for anything except very routine matters (the flying equivalent of very good VFR conditions). And for physicians, realizing those implications and behaving in that fashion is considered a sign of mature professional competence.

Maybe we should happily adopt that attitude and not worry about our “higher minimums” when doing personal flights with family members on board. I suspect we would all be safer.

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