Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hold As Published

When that clearance is issued it is normally followed by, “Expect further clearance in xx minutes.” In this case, expect further clearance in about a year.

Let me explain.

This blog is going to enter a hold for about a year for several reasons. The first and most obvious is that it has been in slow flight for a couple of years anyway, and there are two reasons for that. The first is that I have kind of run out of war stories and important flying concepts to write about. The second is directly related: I’m not flying anymore. I don’t experience new situations and even when something comes up, in the news for instance, I’m not sure my now 10 years lack of direct experience with aviation makes me a relevant commentator anymore. Everything in aviation is now flat screen and computer generated, even at the general aviation level, and my experience with that stopped with the Boeing 757/767, an early hybrid of both round dial and flat screen displays. ADS-B was just coming in as I was going out. Virtually all navigation is now GPS, supplemented with DME and INS—if you’ve got it, use it--but GPS can function perfectly at all levels on its own. So, even though navigation is kind of one of my areas of expertise, there isn’t much to add anymore.

So my legitimacy as an aviation writer is somewhat suspect at this point. But there’s more. I was diagnosed with lung cancer (adeno carcinoma, for the medical aviators among us) about a year ago. I was lucky enough to get into a research trial sponsored by Bristol Meyers Squibb and got lucky again when I was randomly assigned to the group that receives two of their immunotherapy drugs. So far I have responded well with minimal side effects. I will stay on this regime for as long as the therapy is effective and doesn’t turn on healthy organs, which it can do. The trial ends for me a year from now, and after that my treatments will probably be continued outside the study. Hence the “expect further clearance” in about a year.

This also means I can’t hold a Third Class Medical. (At least, I assume I can’t.  I don’t want to take a chance on trying to get one, get turned down, and lose my chance to fly Light Sport Aircraft.) So my thoughts about flying turn from what sort of serious transportation type aircraft would I like to have, if I could just find a way to finance one, to if I’m limited to LSA, what might that be. I’m thinking Champ, an aircraft I have had a long longing for. We’ll see.

In any case, the picture above, taken at Oshkosh several years ago of an award winning Ryan PT-22, and probably the most beautiful aircraft I’ve ever seen (but you can see a bunch of beautiful aircraft at Oshkosh), is my inspiration.

I leave you with one aviation thought: Good landings mean nothing. Anyone can pull off a good landing, even after a horrible mess of a flight. But managing an aircraft to arrive, uneventfully, at a point where a safe landing can be made means everything. Don’t ever forget that.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Slam Dunk


If you’ve done much flying into busier airports—and even some not so busy but with defined arrival and departure procedures—you know all about the dreaded “Slam Dunk.”  The Slam Dunk happens when you are held much higher close in to the airport than you’d like to be, and then are finally given a descent to the altitude you wanted, only now with an airport right underneath for a visual approach, or with the localizer right in front of you and the glide slope underneath you.  Why do they have to make this so hard?
The most common assumption is that it is for noise abatement: trying to appease all those people on the ground who knew they were buying a house next to a busy airport and then complained about all the noise.  So we get The Slam Dunk.
Noise abatement is a factor, but it isn’t a big one.  The real reason is air traffic control.  Let’s take a look at that.
Separating arrivals and departures at airports that aren’t very busy isn’t hard.  There seldom are more than one or two aircraft in the local area and they are coming and going in different directions, so separation can be as simple as assigning vectors to keep them apart, maybe holding one at one altitude while the other climbs or descends through it, or a speed adjustment—something simple that doesn’t affect the descent profile substantially.  A lot of that is done at busy airports too, to get everyone in line and sequenced properly.  But it isn’t enough.  Standard departure and arrival patterns have to be created to organize and simply the controllers duties, and one of the most important component of those procedures is to hold departures down to one altitude until they have gotten some distance from the airport, and to keep arrivals above that altitude until they’ve gotten to the point where they are past the traffic departing.  Once the departure is out past the arrival, he is allowed to climb and the arrival (finally) is allowed to descend.  Otherwise you’d have traffic climbing and descending right into each other.  In order to not hold the departure down any longer than necessary, they keep the arrivals above the departures until that point where the arrival has just enough airspace to get on down.  That’s The Slam Dunk.
Now you could say, “’Just enough’ according to whom?” According to Airways Standards personnel who don’t have to actually fly them in real world conditions? According to standards for turbine powered aircraft, disregarding the concerns of recip pilots who don’t want to shock cool their engines?  Both good points, but the situation isn’t so bad if: 1, You know The Slam Dunk is coming and you don’t try to fight it but are ready for it; and 2, You know you have tools available and are ready to use them, all of them, as necessary.  So let’s go over that.
The first point is the easy one.  There isn’t any point in requesting lower over and over in this situation.  Unless you have an emergency, or are arriving late at night with only a few freight dogs around, it just isn’t going to happen.  All you’re doing is wasting time that could be spent getting ready for the descent when it does come.  So that leaves the tools.  Let’ talk about engine shock cooling.  Mike Busch, who writes a maintenance column for the EAA magazine “Sport Flying”, and who runs a business managing maintenance for GA pilots, someone I respect very much, says there is no hard evidence that rapid engine cooling damages engines, but plenty of evidence that hot cylinder head temps does.  Of course, it’s still better to manage engine temps and not subject them to rapid changes, but pulling an engine that has been coasting along at 50% power or so back to idle is probably not going to do a lot of harm.  So if that’s what it takes, that’s one tool.
But remember, you don’t have to come all the way back to idle every time.  A recip at idle creates a lot of drag.  At idle the propeller has changed from pulling the aircraft to turning the engine, pumping a lot of air and overcoming a lot of internal drag, while a turbine at idle is still generating thrust. (For turbine aircraft, their ace in the hole is speed brakes, and not being able to generate drag with the engines is why they have them.)  You can duplicate that by bringing power back to whatever power setting equates to zero thrust. (Listen for it—the sound changes as the engine starts to “back pedal”.) That’s a good place to start and won’t shock cool the engine as much as coming all the way back to idle does.
The other tools are pretty obvious: gear and flaps.  Gear should probably go out first—it creates a lot of drag and has to go down sooner or later—flaps next.  Flaps don’t add much drag until you get down to landing flaps, but you can start with the first notch of flaps once the speed is below the flap extended limit.  So now you have power at zero thrust, gear down, approach flaps.  In many cases that will be enough.  If not, reduce the power to idle and when slow enough go to full flaps.  If you know The Slam Dunk is coming and you start aggressively configuring drag the second you get your descent clearance, it should work out just about right, with a level off just before localizer intercept and underneath the glide slope.  Acting immediately and aggressively, throwing everything at it if you have to—power to idle, full flaps—is the key.
Once you understand that Slam Dunks are not some evil joke that controllers like to pull on pilots just because they can, but are an inevitable part of air traffic control at airports with more than local traffic, you’re well on your way to dealing with them.  And it feels pretty good when you know what to do, are ready for it, and it all works out, sitting on the porch with the big dogs, and looking pretty good doing it.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Professionalism and Non-Professional Pilots

What does professionalism have to do with general aviation—with pilots who don’t fly for a living? A lot, I think, but first let’s look at what we mean by “professionalism.”
The word “professionalism” gets thrown around to mean a lot of different things.  It’s one of those words like “fairness” that means something different from one person to another, and even to any one person depending on the circumstances.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  One of the beauties and strengths of the English language is its flexibility.  But it can lead to misunderstandings, and worse, to manipulation: when someone asks you to “be fair”, they usually mean “Do it my way”.
Professionalism, in the literal sense, means to act according to the customs, methods and ethics that have been established for that profession.  The connotation, if not the actual sense, is always one of service first, profit second.  Thus medicine, the law, accounting, are considered to be professions.  But we often use the word in a broader sense.  Commercial pilots are often considered to be professionals, even if we think of their work as more of a job than a profession.  But there certainly is a service first aspect to professional aviation and there certainly are customs, methods and ethics related to it.
I often hear people use the work “professional” to mean “objective” or “not emotional.” They say, “I put on my professional face.” “I tried to act professionally, despite his unreasonableness.”  “As a professional, I tried to give him a balanced response, even though it was clear there was only one way to go.” And so on.  There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as it is clear that that is the meaning intended.  But it is more of a side effect than it is a description: a person acting professionally will be objective and unemotional, but that’s not all there is to being professional.
There is another characteristic of professionalism that I think is very important, particularly for our discussion here.  Professionals work with other professionals.  A surgeon doesn’t operate alone, he or she operates in the company of other medical professionals.  The lawyer’s arguments and briefs do not exist in a vacuum, they are read and reviewed by other legal professionals.  The violinists doesn’t play alone, he or she plays with other musicians.  And they all know what they are seeing, because they all do the same things themselves.  They can judge.  A professional continuously subjects his or her work to the opinions and observations and judgments of other professionals, people whose judgments matter.
In a professional cockpit, there are always at least two pilots, often more—jump seaters, check airmen, FAA inspectors. A professional pilot doesn’t fly alone, he or she is always being observed by someone else and, consciously or otherwise, being judged on his or her performance.  Good performance is noted and admired and bad performance is noted and remembered.  A professional pilot has a real incentive to do a good job and avoid mistakes: both will be noted.
In turn, there are two different aspects to that performance, one that I would call systemic and one that I would call operational.  The systemic is the overall training and experience level of the pilot in question--his or her competence in a general sense.  Does this pilot seem to be generally well trained and experienced and know what he or she is doing?  The operational is specific: How good was that descent planning? How good an approach was that? How good a crosswind landing was that?
Pilot hiring for professional positions is largely about determining that the candidate first has the systemic training and experience to do the job and fit in with other professionals, and second can perform at a level that insures safety, efficiency, and comfort.  The first part is done by verifying training and experience claims and the later part with simulator rides.  Backgrounds are checked and performance is observed.  As it will be every time that pilots flies.
Where does this leave general aviation, those who fly as single pilots (except for check rides, refreshers and review)? Their performance is almost never observed by another pilot.  He or she can operate the aircraft well, badly, carefully or carelessly.  Unless there is a violation observed, a rarity, or an accident or incident, also rare, no one knows. 
Which brings up another important difference between the professional and the non-professional pilot: for the single pilot, no else is there to correct, critique and instruct.  Professional aviation is really an apprenticeship system: copilots learn from captains, generally directly, but also indirectly, by observing the captain’s performance, both good and bad.  The two pilots have each other to help each other, to learn from each other and to correct each other.  (And copilots do correct captains, even if they have to be a bit diplomatic in doing so: “Hey Boss, weren’t we cleared for the Back Course?”) So not only are observations going on and judgments being made, instruction and correction are happening, too.  None of this happens in a single pilot general aviation aircraft. No one’s fault, it just can’t happen.
So what can the non-professional do? The first thing to recognize is that you can’t have too much training.  The systemic part—the background and general competence level comes mostly from training.  A little comes from experience, usually obtained the hard way, but training is much more concentrated and effective.  So if all you’re doing is a biennial flight review, you’re not expanding your systemic knowledge at all, or very, very, little.  If you haven’t got an instrument rating, start.  Even if money is tight, start.  Every hour will help.  Think about a new rating: seaplane, glider, tail dragger, or start work on a commercial certificate.  If you are instrument rated and fly mostly one type of aircraft, take a ground school and simulator refresher course every year.  You don’t “learn to fly.”  Flying is always a matter of continuing education. If you aren’t getting regular training of some sort, you aren’t getting any better as a pilot.
In the aircraft, imagine another pilot there, one with a lot more experience, maybe even someone specific like the guy down the street who flies for FedEx or the kid next door who went on to fly C-17s for the Air Force. How much more careful would you be and how much better would you try to fly if that person or someone like that were there in the airplane with you? This isn’t play acting, this is discipline.  If you would want to make the best possible approach and landing for someone who knows what you’re doing, why wouldn’t you want to do the same thing any time, even alone?
Here’s one way to know you’re doing a really good job, even if no one is there to observe and comment who is qualified to make that call.  If no one says anything at the end of the flight except maybe, “Thanks, I enjoyed that,” that’s a good sign.  When you do a really good job, it seems ordinary, even boring. People are hard pressed to know what to say.  When you do a lousy job, they may not know what went wrong, but they’ll have a lot to ask and say.  A really well planned and well executed flight is boring: you take off, climb to altitude, cruise along for a while, descend and land.  No big deal. What’s there to say?
So, train often, plan every flight thoroughly, assume an experienced professional pilot is riding along with you, and treat yourself to a little, knowing smile when you walk away from the airplane and no one says anything. You earned it. Captain.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Weather Matters

I got a request the other day from someone who wanted to use one of my articles in his online aviation course on computer flight planning. His business is called,  and I checked it out and it got me thinking about weather.  I haven’t tackled aviation weather since I was writing full time back in the mid 80’s, and with another 10,000 hours of so of experience since then,  I thought it might be time to think about it again. Specifically, what kind of weather matters, and what doesn’t?
First, what do we mean by the word “weather”? Weather is atmospheric conditions. A severe clear day with no wind is still weather.  But in aviation, when we talk about “weather”, we mean the stuff that can adversely affect our flight.  If the skies were never any worse than scattered clouds, visibility greater than 10 miles and winds under 10 miles per hour, we really wouldn’t ever need to worry much about the weather—it’s always a “go”. But that’s not the case, not even in the relatively dry southwestern states (US), so weather is something we have to take into account.

For the VFR only pilot, “weather” is not so much a question of avoiding the stuff that can really hurt you as it is having adequate visibility to navigate and avoid terrain and obstacles.  Of course the VFR pilot wants to avoid freezing rain and thunderstorms and heavy turbulence, but that should largely take care of itself if he or she has adequate visibility in the first place. So what is “adequate”? “It depends” is always a safe answer but doesn’t get us very far.  The normal VFR visibility minimums of 3 miles might be adequate, or it might not be.  The VFR only pilot flying a Champ at 80 mph on a very hazy summer day on a very short trip over terrain he or she is totally familiar with can probably call 3 miles visibility adequate.  Another pilot flying a Piper Arrow or a Cessna 182 on a longer trip over unfamiliar terrain would be asking for trouble in those conditions.  So visibility depends a lot on speed and familiarity with the terrain.
What about clouds? VFR minimums say you must be at least 500 feet under any clouds, 2000 feet away from any clouds, and at least 1000 above any cloud.  It’s okay to fly between them and it’s okay to fly over them as long as you stay that far away from them.  (This is to provide some reaction time in case an aircraft, one presumably operating under Instrument Flight Rules, comes popping out of one of those clouds.) So I guess that means that as long as we are willing to stay under the clouds, we could fly even with overcast skies.  And for short trips that probably is okay.  The problem with overcast skies is that the ceiling almost always gets lower as you approach the system that is causing the overcast.  If you are flying away from that system, toward higher ceilings and eventually broken, then scattered clouds, fine.  Otherwise, you better not be going far because you’re going to find yourself having to go lower and lower to stay under the overcast, and down that road lies trouble.

The real problem with VFR only flying is its intended purpose: If you intend to fly VFR for transportation you are going to run into problems; if you intend to fly VFR for pleasure, you are probably going to have a ball.  (See numerous previous posts on “Oshkosh”—Air Adventure—to get an idea of how much fun flying for fun can be.)  And the reason is quite simple, even if it is still quite hard to accept: flying for transportation, that  is, flying at a given time to a specific place over a given distance and course, requires tools to deal with the realities of weather, and VFR only flying doesn’t have those tools.

The only way to consistently and reliably fly for transportation is under Instrument Flight Rules with an appropriately equipped aircraft and by a suitably qualified and current instrument rated pilot.  That takes care of the visibility limitations of VFR only flying, and it takes the risk out of flying on top of broken clouds or overcast skies, but now the problem of avoiding hazardous weather doesn’t take care of itself.  So what are those hazards, and what can we do to avoid them?

I like to think of hazardous weather as any weather I don’t ever want to encounter in any aircraft.  The L-1011 was a fabulous aircraft, I think the best air transport ever made. (Certainly newer aircraft have better systems and are more efficient, but manufacturers have discovered that aircraft don’t have to be the best that can be made, just good enough.)  As good as it was, I still wouldn’t want to take it into thunderstorms, or  severe turbulence, nor would I want to take it through heavy icing, hail, or freezing rain on takeoff, approach or landing. There are limits to the stresses any aircraft can take, and there are limits to the amount of ice it can carry and damage it can sustain. General aviation aircraft are normally certified to greater G limits than transport category aircraft, but I still wouldn’t want to take any aircraft into a thunderstorm or heavy turbulence.  (That includes an F-16 stressed to plus 10 G’s, not that I’m going to get a chance to try.)

The L-1011 had every kind of anti-icing equipment imaginable, of course, and it also had something else—it could climb rapidly through the lower altitudes where serious icing is normally found up to the flight levels where the temps are so cold that icing is seldom found. Anti icing for turbofan aircraft is mostly  a matter of keeping the engine cowling clear and the pitot/static system heated.  General aviation aircraft are different, not just because they spend a lot of time at altitudes where icing occurs, but because it affects them differently.  It is fairly easy to protect a propeller driven, reciprocating engine from ice: you need “hot “ props and an alternate air source. But keeping the aerodynamic surfaces clean—the wing, the tail, the rudder—that is a different matter.  In some 12000 hours of flying jets, I can count on one hand the number of times I had to use wing deicing.  In some 2000 hours flying general aviation aircraft, I can’t count the number of times I had to use wing deice—“the boots”—and I do remember many times when they didn’t work very well. Approval for flight in known icing is great, but only to get you out of it if you happen to fly into it.  General aviation aircraft should avoid any icing conditions and, if encountered anyway, get out of them as soon as they can. 
The L-1011 also had an incredible radar, with a bunch of power and a great big antenna up in the nose, and I learned from experience to trust it and  to rely on it: If it showed a red area inside a cloud, you could bet your 401(k) that that cloud was a thunderstorm.  If it showed mostly green areas of precip with a few smaller areas of yellow (heavier rain), you could feel safe entering, avoiding the yellow areas. Radar in general aviation aircraft aren't nearly as powerful or as sensitive and can’t be relied on for weather penetration.  They should be used to avoid areas that might contain thunderstorms.  The same goes for ground based weather radar relayed to cockpit displays.  They paint a good picture, better than most aircraft radar pictures, but they are refreshed much less often than aircraft radar, so they aren’t real time.  The two should be used to together, if you have both, to stay completely away from any weather that might contain thunderstorms. Remember, you don’t ever want to fly in a thunderstorm in any aircraft. One time is one too many.
One final note on avoiding thunderstorms from an “old guy” who has been there a lot: the best way to avoid thunderstorms is to flight plan away from them. I don’t care how far out of the way you have to fly, do whatever you have to do to avoid any chance of having to deal with them.  And I don’t care if it means you probably shouldn’t fly at all that day. No airplane can fly anytime under any conditions.  The less weather capability you have, the more often you will come upon those days, and the further out of the way you will have to fly on days you can, but so what? There is no trip so important that taking a chance on hazardous weather justifies it.  And please don’t be tempted to try a “look-see” under VFR.  That leads to nothing but trouble, like when you turn around and the weather has closed in behind you as well.  Just stay away from thunderstorms.
You want to stay completely away from freezing rain and hail in flight, but they are not the same kind of hazard.  Hail comes out of thunderstorms, and you shouldn’t be anywhere near them.  We went over that.  Freezing rain happens when rain falls into colder, freezing temperatures.  At the first hint of freezing rain, climb if you can.  You usually only have to go up a couple of thousand feet to climb into warmer air with rain.  If you can’t do that, turn around. Going lower almost never works, and trying it exposes you that much longer to what can quickly coat the aircraft and add hundreds of pounds of additional weight.  It isn’t worth the gamble.  Go back.
That leaves turbulence not associated with thunderstorms, and it really doesn’t matter what kind of turbulence it is—mountain wave, convective, jet steam, clear air—if the forecast or reported turbulence is severe or extreme, don’t go there.  If it is moderate, you may not want to go there—the ride will be awful and aircraft control will be a tiring, constant battle, but it won’t hurt you.  Unless it gets worse.  Turbulence of any sort is best avoided, but it’s the severe stuff that will hurt you. Again, the best way to avoid turbulence is in the preflight planning, and the only way to find out about it is with a complete weather briefing.
Actually, I tried to summarize all of these elements of safe cross country flying back when I was writing full time, first in my book Fly Like a Pro and later in Improve Your Flying Skills. The result was a mnemonic (like GUMP, for the prelanding check).  My mnemonic for preflight planning was BILAHs, pronounced “bylaws”.  That may have been a long time ago, but the basics never change. Here’s how it works:
  • The B is for briefing, meaning weather briefing.  Always get a complete weather briefing for every flight outside the local area.
·         The I is for IFR.  Always file IFR, if you can, and if you can’t, either accept that your flying is going to be mostly local, or start working on it.  The reason to file IFR every time is that that is the only way to stay current and be comfortable with the ATC system.  If you aren’t comfortable filing IFR on a good day, how comfortable are you going to feel on a lousy day when you have to?
·         The F is for flight log.  Always make a flight log with legs, times, fuel estimates and keep it current enroute.  It is the only way to see trouble coming.
·         The A is for alternate: always have one, required or not, and make it a good one.  A solid gold alternate with the fuel to get there is the best “out” in aviation. (See January 2010 post, “The Other Part of Flight Planning” for more on this.)
·         The H is for hazardous weather.  Stay away from it.  That’s what this post is all about.
If you follow these simple BILAHs of cross country flying, you will eliminate 90% of the problems general aviation pilots get into. Commercial pilots don’t have any choice, they have to fly this way.  You have a choice, but do it anyway.  It’s a little more work, but in the long run it’s a lot more fun and sure beats scaring yourself to death.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ace in the Hole

FAR Sec. 91.3

Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command.

(a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.

(b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.

(c) Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of the section shall, upon request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.

People often ask me if I had any emergencies during my flying career, and of course I did, everyone does, but there is a big difference between a simple engine failure on a lightly loaded aircraft and catastrophic failure that takes all of the hydraulics with it. I had the former, the pilots of United Airlines Flight 232 had the latter. We experienced high vibration on the center engine shortly after takeoff from Orlando enroute to Boston. I shut it down, converting our three engine L-1011 into a twin engine L-1011, circled back and landed. Except for the fact that it happened on Christmas Eve, where we spent the night, it was no big deal. The DC-10 that the crew, with the help of a check airman who happened to be onboard, managed to get on the ground in Sioux City, Iowa, after losing all hydraulic power had one of the most serious emergencies in all of aviation. So there are emergencies and then there are emergencies.

You won’t find this elaborated on in the regs, nor will you find a definition of an emergency anywhere in the regs or a list; i.e., “ The following are emergencies, everything else is not.” The reason is simple: an emergency is anything the pilot in command thinks it is. The pilot in command may be asked to explain later why he or she exercised his or her emergency authority, but the point is, “The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.” Period. If you have something that you consider to be an emergency, do whatever you have to do to resolve the matter. We’ll talk about it later, on the ground.

This means you don’t even have to “declare” an emergency. We often use the phrase, “the pilot declared an emergency,” and of course you can: “ATC, this is N1234X, smoke in the cockpit, unknown source, declaring an emergency, making a rapid descent for landing at the large airport five miles ahead.” That would be a good thing do, if you can, but “aviate, navigate, communicate” still rules. The fact the you didn’t “declare” an emergency doesn’t mean you didn’t have one. If you’re still not sure about that, reread 91.3 again. You won’t find the word “declare” there.

Back in my early days in aviation I flew for a corporation out of Lebanon, NH. The Chief Pilot and I took off one morning in a Falcon 20 and, on the climb, fairly high up, the door seal became detached creating a leak and resulting in a rapid decompression. We donned our masks, told ATC we were making a rapid descent and, once things were under control, I called ATC and told them what our intentions were (which was to descend to below 10,000 feet and return to Lebanon). When we got on the ground the tower told us to call Boston Center. All they wanted to know was, did we have an emergency? The Chief Pilot said, “Yes, we did. We may not have declared it but we did.” They said, “Fine, no problem, but since you did deviate from your clearance, we have to make sure you had an emergency.” And that was the end of that.

So does this make FAR 91.3 a “get out of jail free” card? No. It’s more like an ace in the hole. Let me try to explain. Let’s say you leave your aircraft by the fuel pumps with a standing order to top it off. Everyone working the line at the FBO thinks someone else fueled it, it gets put away with whatever fuel was remaining, and the next time you go fly you just get in and go, fail to note or disregard the fuel gauge, run out of fuel, declare an emergency and put it down in a field. You did have an emergency, and you won’t be violated for landing off field, but you will still be held accountable for careless and reckless operation because you failed to conduct an adequate preflight inspection and you were unaware of your actual fuel load. Your emergency authority won’t help you there.

So maybe it’s more like a carte blanche or a wild card: once I have an emergency I can do whatever I want. Not really. Paragraph (b) says you may deviate from any regulation “to the extent required to meet that emergency.” So there a limits. An emergency, for instance, does not justify doing what is convenient for you, like continuing on to your home airport. It allows you to land at the nearest suitable airport. After that your emergency authority runs out.

But here’s the important part that many pilots don’t fully comprehend: when bad things happen to good pilots, your emergency authority is your ace in the hole. This is a very powerful card the FAA has given you. Maybe the best way to illustrate this is with another “war story”. This one again involved an L-1011.

The trip was a charter from Newark, NJ to Oporto, Portugal. We were flight planned for one of the mid 30’s flight levels, I can’t remember exactly which one, but probably FL 330 at Mach .84. But when we picked up our Atlantic clearance we were held down to FL 280, still at Mach .84. I knew this meant we were going to be going like stink—the lower the altitude the higher the true airspeed for a constant Mach— but I also knew we would burn a lot more fuel per hour, and the net would be a negative, a higher fuel burn than planned. But we had a lot of fuel at that point, so I talked it over with the crew and we agreed to watch it closely approaching the Azores, which was on our route of flight, and if we didn’t like what the fuel remaining at destination looked like at that point we would shoot into Lajes. We had an “out.”

Approaching Lajes the estimated fuel remaining at Oporto looked good and the weather there was good, broken clouds, six miles visibility, forecast to stay that way. Estimated fuel remaining at the alternate, Lisbon, was a little bit tighter, but the weather there was even better, it was very unlikely we would ever need to go there and technically an alternate wasn’t even required anymore. So we trucked on.

That turned out to be a bad decision. The winds aloft shifted, the fuel situation got worse, and at some point I said, “We no longer have the option of doing a missed approach at Oporto and continuing on to Lisbon. Whichever airport we head to is the airport we’re going to land at.” The weather and the facilities at each were both good, and Lisbon was a little further away, so there really was no advantage to going there. So, again, we trucked on.

Arriving at Oporto, the flight engineer checked the ATIS and said, “We’re not approved for Cat III approaches, are we?” I said, “No…why?” He said, “Visibility is RVR 300 meters, ceiling indefinite. They are only approving Cat III approaches.” Oporto is right on the ocean, and a fog bank must have moved in. That visibility was well below our authorized landing minimums of 200 foot ceiling and ½ mile visibility. The L-1011 is perfectly capable of Cat III landings, its autoland system is probably the best ever made and will put you right on the centerline, right in the middle of the landing zone, on speed, every single time, and we often used it when shooting ILS approaches at or near minimums. But, due to the considerable extra expense of maintaining it to Cat III minimums, we were not authorized to use it below standard ILS minimums.

We no longer had the fuel to divert to Lisbon. We didn’t even have enough fuel to hold for awhile and hope conditions got better, which was pretty unlikely anyway. We were going to have to land at Oporto, Cat III authorized or not. And we did. The L-1011 autoland system did a perfect job—I knew it would. But it required me to exercise my emergency authority, my ace in hole, which I didn’t hesitate to do, nor should you if you find yourself in a jam.

Could I have handled this better? Absolutely. Everything I did was according to regulation and if the FAA had wanted to come after me for getting in a situation where I had to exercise my emergency authority and land below minimums they would have had a very tough time making the case. But just being legal is a fairly low standard. What I should have done, as soon as we got our clearance to cruise at FL 280 instead of FL 330, was call Stockholm Radio on HF and get a phone patch through to the company and have dispatch run another flight plan through the computer for FL 280, Mach .84, get current weather, talk to operations, and together come up with plan. It might well have been the same plan, but that help was available and I didn’t use it. Instead I took a “wait and see” approach that went sour and ultimately required me to turn over my ace.

I don’t want anyone to think for a moment that I am encouraging you to take a chances because you always have this ace in the hole to use if it doesn’t turn out alright. But I also don’t want you to make a bad situation worse because you were afraid to exercise your emergency authority. Do the best job as a pilot you possibly can, be as careful as you can, exercise good, conservative judgment , and when it still doesn’t work out, do whatever you have to do to get it on the ground. You have that authority. You’re the pilot in command.

(I want to thank my good friend Rusty Sachs, lawyer, former FAA Pilot Examiner and former head of the National Association of Flight Instructors, for reviewing this post and offering several very helpful suggestions.)