The aircraft checklist includes fuel reserves, your experience in type, the aircraft's performance (weight and balance, density altitude, etc.) and the equipment on board and your knowledge and ability to use it.
The environmental factors include the airport conditions (crosswind, runway length) and the weather. Will the weather at the destination be sufficient for the approaches available at the airport?
Perhaps the one factor that has caused more accidents than any other is external pressures. The pressures of returning after a weekend, of going on vacation, of proving that you're a "good" pilot, of not wanting to have someone waiting for you at your original destination, all may force you to attempt flights that, in hindsight, should never have gotten off the ground.
The checklist is an objective way to consider the various elements that combine to affect a flight. Space is provided on the checklist for you to complete a personal minimum for each item. For example, your minimums might require a forecast of a ceiling of 1,000 feet above the minimums for a non-precision approach and 500 feet for a precision approach.
Once you've assessed the risks and decided that there's no reason not to make a flight, you should continuously perceive, process information and perform based on the most conservative action. Using CARE you can consider the Consequences of the situation (weather, headwinds, fuel, etc.), determine what Alternatives are available (a different route, a precautionary landing, etc.), accept the Reality of the situation and deal with the External pressures. If the idea of developing personal minimums by filling out a form feels a bit like a homework assignment, Parsons offers an easier method in a recent article in the FAA Aviation News. She suggests you consider the lowest IFR conditions you have comfortably, recently and regularly experienced and set those as your minimums. It's not how low you've gone but how low you've gone comfortably. Be honest!
You can also establish minimums for crosswinds the same way. What were the most challenging wind conditions you comfortably experienced? Not the most challenging you have managed to survive without bending an airplane. Again, be honest.
Personal minimums, Parsons wrote, are "a 'safety buffer' between the demands of the situation and the extent of your skills. Think of personal minimums as the human factors equivalent of reserve fuel. You shouldn't consider making a flight that requires use of skills at the 'reserve' or (worse) 'unusable fuel' level of your piloting skills."
Having established your minimums there may be circumstances when you might want to raise them. For example, for a night flight to an unfamiliar airport, you might want to raise your visibility and ceiling minimums.
As your experience level increases and your skills and judgment improve you can consider reducing your personal minimums. But a word of warning: No matter how tempted you are, never reduce your minimums during a flight. The strategy of using personal minimums is to give you specific criteria for conducting a safe flight. If you arbitrarily reduce your minimums in flight, you've defeated the purpose.
Pilots have a tendency to challenge conditions and if they're successful, reduce their anxiety and caution the next time they encounter similar circumstances. But weather is not constant and what you've survived once may be sufficiently different the next time to rise up and smite you.
After each flight hold a personal debriefing and assess how you did. Analyze how the flight went. Was it as safe as it could have been? What would have made it safer? Should I have asked for a diversion sooner? Briefed the approach better? Compensated better for the crosswind during an approach? Taken more time for the preflight? Arranged my approach and en route charts better? I don't know about you, but I've never flown a "perfect" flight. There was always something I could have done differently that would have been better. Be honest and plan to do it better next time.
The best way to learn to use the IFR rating is to incorporate the lessons learned from your own experiences. They say, "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." Using the Perceive, Process and Perform method of assessing and responding to conditions, working with a PAVE checklist and using CARE in the air should help you have safe experiences without making bad judgments as you learn to safely use your instrument rating. 7