To Brief or Not to Brief

Posted by in Aviation, Safety

One of the dirty little secrets about aviation is that you can spend as much time preparing for a flight as you do actually flying. This is not always the case, of course. It depends on many factors. What you’re flying, how far you’re going, and so on. But the point is, preflight activities are vital to safety in the skies.

The law — 14 CFR 91.103, specifically — requires pilots to obtain “all available information” about a flight before departure. That’s a pretty broad mandate, especially in the Information Age. But it makes sense, because while aviation may be a relatively safe activity, it’s not terribly forgiving of carelessness.

For a typical flight, “all available information” includes weather reports and forecasts, takeoff and landing distance requirements, alternates available along the route, ATC delays, fuel requirements, and a whole host of other things.

Prominent among these “other things” are what aviators refer to as NOTAMs, or Notices to Airmen. NOTAMs are the FAA’s method of disseminating information about runway or taxiway closures, airport construction, flight restrictions, unlighted obstacles, airport lighting issues, and so on.

Even if you’re not a pilot, those items probably sound kind of important. And they are. This point was reinforced recently when a high-ranking United States Senator, James Inhofe, landed his aircraft on a closed runway in Texas which was under construction, causing the construction workers on the runway to scatter.

The FAA has confirmed it is investigating the Oct 21 incident in which Inhofe landed a Cessna 340 on an occupied closed runway at Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport, Texas, He was reportedly carrying three others in the light twin when he made the landing on a runway bearing oversized painted Xs, a large red truck, other vehicles, and construction workers. The workers were using loud equipment at the time and didn’t hear the plane’s approach, so one person ran to warn them. A supervisor immediately reported the incident to the FAA and told he was “still shaking” when he reached the hangar to confront the pilot. For his part, Inhofe said he didn’t see the Xs until late on final and was concerned he might not be able to abort safely. He said he landed “well off to the side” of the workers. There were no injuries.

Clearly, Inhofe made a big mistake. I wouldn’t hold him up as a negative example but for the fact that his response to the incident was to claim that not only did he not check for NOTAMs before departing on that flight, but that he never checks them. He went on to claim that “people who fly a lot just don’t do it”, and that he wouldn’t commit to checking them in the future.

Excuse me? People who fly a lot don’t check NOTAMs? I think the good Senator has spent too long living in the Biosphere isolation bubble which masquerades as our nation’s capital. I fly a lot, and I check NOTAMs every single time. If he wants to implicate himself in a public forum like a major newspaper, fine, but at least leave the rest of us out of it.

As if this wasn’t enough, a few days later Inhofe took off from the airport using a taxiway after advising an airport official of his intent to do so. While this was not necessarily illegal or unsafe, I question the wisdom of this action as well. As a politician, Inhofe is no stranger to public relations. When he needed a mea culpa, he gave the impression of a mea innocentia instead. I really hate to see this sort of thing from him. Inhofe is a pilot in a position of power in Washington, DC at a time when GA really needs an ally there to protect our right to fly. Like it or not, he represents everyone who holds a pilot certificate. All 613,000 of us.

As if this wasn’t enough, I read Paul Bertorelli’s blog entry on the subject with a bit of a raised eyebrow today. Bertorelli is the editor of AVweb, a major aviation news publication. In his missive, Bertorelli took Inhofe to task for not checking NOTAMs while in the same breath admitting that he doesn’t obtain a weather briefing before flying:

I was discussing this with a friend over the weekend who informed me that not only did he not check NOTAMs before every flight, he didn’t think he knew any pilots who did. What continues to amaze me about this pilot thing is how many different universes seem to exist. In the crowd I run in, I would say most pilots do check the NOTAMs file before departing, even for a local flight. Here in Florida, where a weather briefing is superfluous, NOTAMs are the only thing I check. I do that every time I fly.

Why would a weather briefing be superfluous? Because the weather if Florida is always good? Here in Southern California, the weather is always good as well, but that doesn’t stop me from obtaining all available information before a flight, including weather. It’s just a good habit to get into, even if you’re not going more than a few miles from the field.

I’m not sure if it’s laziness, complacency, or a lack of proper tools that’s keeping these guys from doing their due diligence before takeoff, but it’s 2010 folks, and unless you’re flying out of a place so remote that you can’t get phone or internet service, obtaining all available information for your flight isn’t difficult anymore. What is tough is explaining to the FAA, the police, CBP, the Secret Service, or your insurance company why you busted a TFR, landed on a runway under construction, hit a barrier while trying to enter a closed taxiway, or did something equally dumb.

Those who don’t obtain briefings before flight might feel like it takes forever to gather the needed information on those rare occasions when they do decide to get a briefing. Ironically, if they got the briefings more frequently, they’d be faster at collating and absorbing the material.

The tools one uses makes a difference, too. I’ll be the first to admit that I do not always use DUAT or a call to Flight Service to obtain my information. There’s nothing regulatory or common sense-wise which dictates that only those sources may be used (unless you’re operating under Part 121 or 135, where the General Operating Manual or other documents may specify where briefings may be obtained).

In fact, some of the information you may need is not even available via those FAA-sanctioned sources! One such example: FDC NOTAM 9/5151, better known as the “stadium TFR”. This NOTAM states that, unless authorized by air traffic control, pilots may not fly below 3,000′ AGL within 3 nautical miles of any stadium with a seating capacity over 30,000. The restriction applies from an hour before to an hour after any MLB, NFL, or NCAA Division 1 football game. It also applies to NASCAR Spring Cup, Indy Cup, and Champ series racing events. Believe me, there’s nothing in any QCIP weather source which will provide that information. Yet pilots are still legally responsible for it. You have to know where the stadiums are, what the capacities are, what the altitude of the stadium is, and when the events will be starting and ending!

My briefings come from Things are color-coded, in plain English, and are formatted for my computer or my iPhone automatically. I have yet to miss any kind of NOTAM, TFR, etc. in more than 5,200 hours of flying. Briefings are logged and archived for at least 30 days, so if you have to prove to the FAA that yes, you did obtain a briefing before departure, you can do so.

As an instructor, I’ve come to think of this as a pivotal time for briefings. It reminds me of the days before full glass panels were available. You’d have a Frankenstein-like combination of round gauges and electronic multi-function displays. I recall one Columbia 300 where the altimeter had to be set in seven different places! Altimeter, autopilot, CNX80, MX20, standby altimeter, and a couple more I’m forgetting at the moment.

Preflight briefings are the same way. The technology exists to make the information easy to obtain, but the tools are not universally available yet. Sure, Weathermeister works great if you’ve got internet access. But in the air? You still have to be able to read things like this:

METAR KSNA 152353Z 23006KT 10SM CLR 23/09 A3000 RMK AO2 SLP157 T02330089 10261 20233 55005

At some point in the future, these coded briefings will probably fall by the wayside. For now, however, the ability to read the codes is still important. Many FBOs have weather computers which will only give you coded information. Likewise, due to space restrictions on glass panel screens, many XM receivers provide data in coded format. Learning the codes is time consuming for students, but I have to teach it. It’s one of the things I enjoy least about instructing. Teaching weather theory is one thing, but the codes are annoying, especially when working with students who are not computer saavy. It’s like trying to teach them to debug code.

The bottom line is this: however you get the information, just get it. It will save you a lot of headache. It might save your life. And for the love of Pete, if you’re a U.S. Senator who flies, recognize that your actions — good or bad — will reflect on us all.