As a pilot, you know the importance of performing a thorough preflight inspection to ensure the aircraft you’re about to fly is safe and airworthy. While you wouldn’t skip the preflight check of your aircraft, you might sometimes forget to do a self-assessment of your own fitness to fly.
When it comes to identifying risk and assessing your preparedness to fly, you must be willing to ask yourself three questions before every flight: Am I healthy? Am I legal? Am I proficient? Answering these questions honestly before each flight will help you mitigate potential risks and keep the skies safer for everyone.
“Am I Healthy?”
The FAA recommends using the acronym “I’M SAFE” as a personal checklist to assess your health before getting ready to fly. Here’s a breakdown of the checklist:
I – Illness
As a pilot, it’s your responsibility to make you’re healthy enough to take the controls. Anything from a cold to an upset stomach can affect your ability to focus on flying the aircraft. If you’re not feeling up to par, don’t fly. Always use your best judgment and stay on the ground if you feel unwell.
M – Medication
Some prescription and over-the-counter medications can make flying dangerous. A 2014 study revealed that the most common drug found in pilots’ systems after fatal aviation accidents was diphenhydramine, an active ingredient in many cold and allergy medications that may cause impairing side effects. If you’re taking medication, check the labels to see if there are potential side effects that may impair your flying abilities. Do your research and contact your Aviation Medical Examiner with any questions about your medications before flying.
S – Stress
Most people experience stress on a regular basis, but for pilots, stress can be particularly distracting and negatively impact performance. In general, there are three different kinds of stress that pilots can encounter: physiological, environmental, and psychological stress. Physiological stress is caused by a lack of sleep, illness, unhealthy eating, or another physical ailment. Environmental stress includes external factors such as temperature, loud noises, or inadequate oxygen levels. Psychological stress is caused by mental, emotional, and/or social pressures or anxieties. Before flying, evaluate your stress level. Are you feeling stressed or anxious? Practice positive habits to cope with stress, such as meditation, exercise, or breathing techniques.
A – Alcohol
Like drinking and driving, alcohol and flying just don’t mix. Most pilots are familiar with the FAA’s 8 hour rule directing pilots to leave a gap of 8 hours from “bottle to throttle.” The FAA also prohibits flying an aircraft with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.04% or higher, which is half of the legal limit for U.S. drivers. Even if you haven’t had a drink in over 8 hours, the effects of a hangover can also impair your ability to fly, causing nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and problems focusing. For this reason, the FAA recommends pilots wait 24 hours after drinking before flying.
F – Fatigue
Pilot fatigue is another threat to aviation safety. Sleep deprivation caused by time changes, jet lag, stress, or flying long hours can impact your ability to focus and hinder your decision-making skills. Caffeine and cold showers can’t replace a good night’s sleep; be sure you’re well-rested and refreshed before getting behind the controls.
E – Emotion
Ask yourself if you’re in an emotionally stable peace of mind before taking off. If you’re feeling upset, angry, or impatient, you should stay grounded. No matter how hard we try to hide them, negative emotions can get the best of us, especially in stressful situations.
Some pilots swap out “Eating” for the “E” in I’M SAFE to emphasize the importance of being well-nourished before flight. It’s always a good idea to bring some healthy snacks to keep your energy up during flight. Be sure you’re also drinking enough fluids to prevent dehydration, which can cause dizziness, fatigue, and confusion.
Following the “I’M SAFE” checklist will help you determine if you’re fit for flying. It’s also wise to ask your passengers the questions on the checklist, too. The last thing you want is a sick passenger on board, as they could pose a health risk to others. If you have any doubts about an item on your checklist, don’t fly!
“Am I Legal?”
Next, it’s important to double check that you meet the legal requirements for the type of flying you want to do. The FAA sets clear standards for what’s required before you can fly as pilot in command. For a complete list of these standards, reference the Federal Aviation Requirements (FARs).
When was your last flight review? Your private pilot’s license is good for life, but to act as pilot in command of an aircraft, you’ll need to successfully complete a flight review with an instructor of your choice within the preceding 24 calendar months. At a minimum, the flight review must include at least one hour of ground instruction and one hour of flight instruction, and it can be flown in any airplane in which you’re rated. The flight review isn’t pass or fail, but rather a way to ensure pilots brush up on current rules and procedures. Your flight review is also a great time to practice any maneuvers or skills that you don’t use on a regular basis. The FAA has some exemptions to the flight review, which include exemptions for pilots who earn a new type or instrument rating, flight instructors, and pilots who complete any phase of the FAA WINGS proficiency program.
Are you current to carry passengers? Generally speaking, in order to transport passengers, the FAA requires those acting as pilot in command to make at least three takeoffs and three landings within the preceding 90 days in an aircraft of the same category, class, and type of which you’ll use to take passengers. To carry passengers at night (between 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise) the pilot in command is required to make at least 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop in the preceding 90 days during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise.
Can you operate under instrument flight rules (IFR) or in weather conditions less than visual flight rules (VFR)? If you’re an instrument-rated pilot, you will need to fly and log the following in your logbook within the preceding 6 calendar months to maintain currency:
Reference the FARs for additional information on using full flight simulators or flight training devices to achieve the tasks required to maintain currency. If you’re not current, you’ll have a six-month grace period to accomplish the above tasks before you must pass an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC) to file IFR.
“Am I Proficient?”
Currency isn’t the same thing as proficiency. Being proficient requires a pilot to go beyond meeting the minimum standards set forth by the FAA to maintain currency. Proficient pilots don’t settle for merely satisfying the currency requirements; they are constantly looking for ways to hone their flying abilities and continue building new skills.
Proficiency also plays a critical role in aviation safety. It’s been shown that many general aviation accidents have less to do with flying time and more to do with the pilot’s lack of proficiency. Here are a few tips for maintaining proficiency:
To get the most out of your proficiency training, set personal goals and define what you want to accomplish on each flight. Make sure you’re practicing basic skills often, which might include maneuvers like soft-field takeoffs, landings, and go-arounds. Take the time to practice some of your rarely-used skills and learn some new ones, too. On days when you can’t go flying, review your POH or do some armchair flying and run through your checklists to practice cockpit flow. Practicing abnormal and emergency procedures will also help you gain a better understanding of your aircraft and improve your likelihood of a successful emergency response.
Practice with a CFI or a more experienced pilot
Your flight review isn’t the only time to fly with a flight instructor. If you’re feeling rusty in any area, don’t be afraid to enlist the help of an instructor for a refresher flight. An instructor can provide feedback that will help you refine your flying skills and promote better safety. If you can’t fly with a CFI, ask a more experienced pilot to accompany you on your next flight. Joining a flying club is a great way to connect with fellow pilots who can provide helpful coaching, advice, and mentorship.
Take advantage of flight simulator programs and safety seminars
Another cost-effective way to maintain proficiency is by using flight simulators and training programs. Today’s pilots have access to a variety of high-tech simulator systems that provide realistic, scenario-based training for any experience level.
Pilots can also take advantage of continuing education programs and safety seminars to keep their skills sharp. Some popular resources include the FAA’s WINGS pilot proficiency program and AOPA’s training and safety programs.
Remember, good judgement begins before you climb into the cockpit. Taking the time to complete honest evaluation of your health, currency, and proficiency will help you determine if you’re ready for your next flight.