Yellow, the Most Dangerous Color

Pilots who transition from flying strictly for pleasure to a combination of pleasure and utility face a whole new set of challenges. For instance, weather conditions that might have kept a pilot on the ground if he had no place in particular to be suddenly present a conundrum for the same pilot who has made a commitment to arrive at a particular place at an appointed time.

We can remind ourselves that we should never become ensnared by the traps of “Get-there-itis,” but the truth is, if we're regularly using our airplanes for transportation, we are routinely planning trips that are designed to start and end on a given day at more or less a specific time. No trip is so important that it can't be delayed by a day or two if the weather is miserable — but what about those other times, when the weather is maybe not so bad?

Certain types of operations — EMS helicopter flying, for example — often use a color-coding system to ascribe risk levels for flying on a given day. As you might guess, green means good flying weather, red usually means poor weather or a combination or poor weather and darkness and yellow means caution. Green and red are usually the easy colors to deal with because the choices are often clear-cut. It's the yellow-shaded areas, when the weather is marginal, that are likely to get us into trouble we didn't expect.

When the weather is below my personal minimums I like to go on and search for basic IFR airplanes like Cessna Skyhawks or Piper Cherokees and see who's flying and how they're doing. I recently tracked a 172 on a night flight from Michigan to Connecticut through foul weather and probable icing that would have stretched the Skyhawk's fuel right to IFR limits — and marveled that the weather suddenly improved at the pilot's destination right before he started his approach. Did he know something I didn't or was he just lucky? (Considering it was the night before Thanksgiving, I think I know the answer.)

How far you’re willing to push the limits to use your airplane as a transportation tool will depend on several factors, including your experience level, the airplane you’re flying and how honest you’re willing to be with yourself when the conditions are likely to stretch the capabilities of either. Our advice is to develop personal weather minimums and stick to them, while also always having a backup plan that will make your decision easier when the risk meter creeps into the yellow.

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