The Pilot’s 6th Sense

by Chris Findley, CFI, CFII

Where do we draw the line between backing down from a challenge and simply exercising prudent judgment?  How do we know if we are simply “chickening out” or when we’re correctly avoiding something hazardous.

The truth is in many cases we don’t.

The go/no go decision is sometimes easy.  Clear day, calm winds and a well-maintained airplane?  Count me in!

Weather below minimums with a 40 knot crosswind with thunderstorms nearby?  You’ll find me at Barnes and Noble reading and drinking a kick-butt strong cup of coffee. I’ll fly another day thank you very much.

But you and I know that its the in-between days that make decision-making difficult.  It’s the marginal days where the numbers are just good enough, barely.  There’s a student or passenger looking expectantly at you and waiting for your decision.  You know you could go.  But should you go?  Is this just a challenge? Or is this a gremlin daring you to fly and get yourself in over your head?

We need to develop our 6th sense.  Call it your gut.  Call it intuition.  Call it ADM.  Call it experience. Whatever you want to call it, it can save your ass.

Let’s be honest, pilots.  You and I know that we learn from our mistakes.  I learned my best lessons not when things go right and I make every decision perfectly, but when do a major screw up and then fix it.

I remember a flight when I was in college in a Piper Archer.  I was so concerned with trying to sneak back home at night under a solid overcast layer that I failed to swtich fuel tanks.  I kept wondering why the right wing was so heavy!  It was only upon landing and asking for fuel that I discovered my mistake.  A simple mistake, but one that I know has caused others to lose their lives. Then there was that time when “get-there-itus” brought me way too close to a thunderstorm.

How do we develop this 6th sense in ourselves and (if we’re a CFI) in our students?

1.) Develop personal minimums and stick with them. See my article here for more info on that.  Having personal minimums and sticking with them will help take much of the grey area out of your decisions. Decide ahead of time, when there is no pressure to fly, what you are comfortable and capable of handling.  As you grow in experience you can always reevaluate and adjust.  Just don’t do it IN the situation!

2.) Stay proficient! Often pilots get themselves in trouble by thinking that just because you’re legal, then your ready to fly.  Keep your chops proficient.  Practice, read, study.

3.) Take the counsel of others. Talk to your instructor or a pilot-friend with more experience than you and present them with your situation and see what they say.  If you need to practice, or if you think it’s on the edge of your skills, then take them with you.

When you’re faced with a grey-ish decision and you’re wondering if you are being chicken, always review your personal minimums, your proficiency and talk with someone you trust.  There will be days when you could have gone, but didn’t.  It’s OK.  If you are really uneasy and feel like this flight is going to be too much for you then keep your posterior out of the plane.

Undoubtedly you’ll also have a few flights in your logbook that you will later label, “Shouldn’t have done that one…”

In any event, you will learn to listen to your 6th sense.


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