Limits: The Sky Is The Limit

Lots of limits in aviation, and different types. There’s weather limits, limitations of aircraft design, legal limits, even speed limits. (Yes, in certain places there are speed limits in the sky, though even those don’t apply if your aircraft stalls at a high enough airspeed.) And then there are personal limits.

Things like weather limits are easy to define, though not always so easy to implement. Stay five hundred feet from clouds vertically, and one thousand horizontally. Okay. *Gets in the plane.* Okay, there’s a cloud, how far away is it? Am I five hundred feet above it? (Is my instructor on board? No?) Sure, I’m callin’ that five hundred feet. Visibility can be easier to judge around Manitoba at least, since all the roads in southern Manitoba are mile roads, so you can just count how many roads away you can see to estimate visibility. But if it’s all trees, or water and lakes, you’re guessing.

Until you get into a control zone and they have terminal weather reports an tower control that can tell you the visibility is X. If you’re out busting VFR weather minimums, that’s generally when you’ll get caught, from what I understand.

Then there’s wind and crosswind – schools or anyone renting planes will have rules on how much wind you’re allowed to fly in. There will be a limit on wind in knots (usually twenty). And then a limit of gust factors – how much the wind is gusting up to – the low and high max. Gust factors of five of more take some special consideration when landing – you want to come in a little faster so that when the gusting disappears, you don’t suddenly find yourself near stall speed close to the ground.

Then there’s crosswind, and a school will usually give you a maximum crosswind factor you’re allowed to go out in. That’s, for the uninitiated, how much the wind is blowing across the runway. Obviously the easiest wind to land in, is a steady one, blowing straight at you, straight down the runway. The farther off the end of the runway the wind is originating, the trickier it is to deal with. Also, in a Pilot’s Operating Handbook, there will be a “demonstrated crosswind limit” which is basically what a test pilot has proven the plane can handle. It’s not a hard limit though. A good pilot may be able to land in a stronger crosswind than the POH has demonstrated if they know what they’re doing, and it’s not breaking any laws. Though it would likely be breaking school rules, if the pilot isn’t flying their own plane.

Of course, the wind can pick up and change  while you’re flying, which is why you want to get a weather briefing if you’re going anywhere far from the airport. Getting a weather briefing is important. It’s just a quick phone call, and you have someone on the phone that really knows their shit. A lot of new students, me included, are shy about calling flight information services, and feel like they’re a bother. But having talked to them some, I know now, we’re not a bother at all, any more than when I’m at work (telephone tech support) and customers call saying “sorry to bother you, but…” No, people answering phones in a call center are paid to answer phones and give you information. They’re always happy to talk to me, and I can see why my instructor encouraged me to call them as often as I like.

Visit To Winnipeg FIC

When we’re doing cross countries, we call Winnipeg Flight Information Centre, both to file our flight plan, and (if we’re smart) get a weather briefing. One day (the day of my flight test, actually) the guy I talked to told me I should come in and visit them. I didn’t realize it, but they also do onsite weather briefings in person – you don’t even need an appointment, it’s just a walk in thing.

So I went to visit them a few weeks ago, and they lamented how all the pilots check the online weather now, and they never come to see them anymore, and they even prefer if you come see them, because it’s easier to point out things on a screen than describe it over the phone. That and they lamented that pilots were all briefing themselves with the online resources and frequently missing things that they would have been able to make sure they knew about. They said certain times of the year, three quarters of their calls are from Harv’s Air students, and they seemed I sat and chatted with them for a while, and they told me funny stories about idiot pilots:

An American pilot who flew with roam maps instead of aeronautical charts, and his radio frequency info was five years out of date, so when he got to Canada, and some of the frequencies had changed, who charged into FIC complaining that no one had answered him on the radio.

A whole flock of cadets going on solo cross countries called in to file flight plans who, when asked if they wanted a weather briefing, all assured the briefer that they had briefed themselves online, and subsequently called in, one by one to amend their flight plans when they had to turn back upon encountering fog the briefer would have told them about.

And another story about a couple of Cadets who lost their licences after crashing their plane. They had told Transport Canada that they’d had engine trouble, and tried to land in a field of cows, but when the Transport Canada investigator found a camera on the ground at the crash site, the pictures revealed that they’d been buzzing the cows from only a few feet off the ground.

The weather thing is big. There’s so much that can happen in the weather. People joke about how inaccurate weather forecasters are, but if you look at what they have – they’re actually far more accurate than we realize. When I take off, and the clouds are consistently right about the height they told me they’d be at – damn, I’m not gonna tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about. The thing is, if you’re standing in one place, like, for example, in a town or city, it could be raining on one side of Winnipeg, and not on the other, so half of Winnipeg is going well, I guess they were right, it did rain, and the other half is going, ha, ha, they were wrong. But that’s not how weather works – it moves around in masses and when the masses touch they interact in relatively predictable ways. What happens in the five to six feet from the ground to the tops of our heads is such a tiny part of what weather is, and there’s so much that happens in the winds aloft, at different altitudes, the amount of detail they can give us pilots to prepare for what we’re taking off into is really impressive.

The final thing I want to mention is one interesting element in the conversation between a weather briefer and pilot. A weather briefer isn’t responsible for a pilot’s decision on whether or not to take off. They’re there to help the pilot make the decision, but they have no idea what the abilities of the pilot calling in are. They might say something like, “It looks like great flying weather today” or “It’s going to be some rough windy weather out there” or “The visibility is very poor, just barely VFR minimums”, but they’ll never say “The weather is bad, you should stay on the ground.” So it’s interesting, on those iffy days, listening to the briefer’s tone after I tell him that I’m relatively inexperienced, to try and gauge whether or not he thinks I should go.

Anyway, they’re awesome, and so very integral to aviation. We couldn’t fly without them.