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Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Rule Says What?!?

I discussed why we have rules in aviation in an earlier article. I observed, if we all did the right thing all the time and were all experienced, we’d probably need few rules and regulations in the aviation business. Unfortunately, not all of us are experienced. And none of us are perfect. Therefore, we have rules to compensate. 
From the days of the Wright Brothers, there have been lessons from many sources, including accidents. They’ve led to the rules we live with today. Of course, we’ve learned over the years and migrated away from being a reactionary community waiting for the next accident to being more proactive. Instead, we make better, more detailed guidance by anticipating the next mishap. Unfortunately, our crystal ball isn’t as clear as we hope. Some of those well-intentioned and forward-thinking details of guidance actually cause more harm than good. I came face-to-face with this just last week.

photo compliments of Tom

Down here in New Mexico, we’re in the middle of annual monsoon. For those who don’t know, July and August can be quite pleasant in the summer instead of blazing hot because our desert is in the midst of it’s rainiest time of the year. Due to a predominate flow of moist air from Mexico, the hot afternoon sun warms the ground, causing vertical movement of that water laden air. 
As all aviators know from the meteorology section of our basic training, warm moist air rising into the cool upper atmosphere creates a perfect spawning ground for thunderstorms. Almost like clockwork, we have large thunderstorms in the afternoon and evening this time of the year. If you’re flying around here, even though the forecast may only announce isolated thunderstorms, you should plan for worse of thunderstorms being in your way. You just never know.

Last week I was flying a test mission on the Whitesands Missile Range in our C-12. We took off with plenty of fuel to cover the mission and a healthy reserve to deal with contingencies including what might happen to the field with the ongoing monsoon. Of course the forecast doesn't require the reserve. We just know to hold it because we know what happens this time of the year. Good thing, because we ended up needing that extra gas. The perfectly clear airfield was closed due to “lightning within 5nm.” After an hour of droning directly over the perfectly land-able but closed airfield, we finally coordinated special permission to land.

What happened? 

About 15 years ago the Air Force suffered a multi-fatal incident during which maintenance personnel recovering fighter aircraft while outside of the protection of a structure were struck by lightning. Because there wasn’t specific guidance on how to handle lightning, the Air Force adopted the 5nm rule. 
In general, all airfield operations are supposed to cease when lightning is observed within 5nm. This moratorium is held until 15 minutes after the last strike within 5nm. It’s a good and effective general rule of thumb. What I didn’t know was this rule is implemented differently from airfield to airfield in the Air Force.

We all knew the rule and the reason behind it. 
We incorrectly “thought” how the rule was applied locally at our home field was similar to many other places we’d flown. We “thought” during lightning within 5nm, we’d be able to land and wait in the aircraft until the danger had passed. What we didn’t know was the local rule was much more stringent. Not only were ground operations prohibited, all flight operations including full-stop landings were prohibited. In-fact, the local rule said diverts were required instead of landings when the airfield was under “lightning within 5nm” unless you have special permission from “above.” We didn’t know all these specifics until last week.

After our mission, the storms were just starting to build with a single rain-shower on top of the field. We elected to hold away from the shower until it passed the field then make our landing. We didn’t expect it to take long and certainly didn’t anticipate the storm would only move a few miles north and stall. Actually, the rain was well north but it was producing lightning a few miles away, making the airfield implement its protocol.

If you’ve flown in the Southwest during monsoon season, you’d know what these storms look like. They’re isolated and extremely well-defined. In many cases, they look like a vertical puffy cloud with a column of water flowing onto the ground out of their base like it was coming from a faucet. Many of them, like this little storm, produce lightning, thus keeping the airfield closed.

While the field was closed, we did orbit after orbit after orbit over the field, coordinating approval from the powers-that-be to allow our landing. The real issue was the best weather anywhere was right in the little orbit we were holding. 
Weather to the south, north, east, and west was much worse, making a divert a substantial issue. The best option by far was to land. All the other options, like diverting or even orbiting like we were doing, were worse. But, the rules in place specifically said “...when lightning is within 5nm of the airfield, aircraft will be diverted unless circumstances dictate otherwise.” We thought circumstances dictated otherwise. It just took a long time for those in charge to agree.

Eventually we were allowed to land. Coordination was achieved though it took about 45 minutes. After the coast was clear, we shut down the aircraft and gave her back to maintenance. All was done with the mission, though I started to think about this rule that kept us from landing. 
What would’ve happened if we were terribly short on gas? What would’ve happened if an off-station aircraft not familiar with the weather patterns had arrived without holding fuel, let alone fuel to divert? Then I thought, "Why have a rule that unnecessarily created more issues than it resolved?”

I don’t know the whole history or why this rule was instituted. I could see how some people, when reading the draft rule, would not realize the “what-ifs.” In our case, “what if” we didn’t have the gas to hang out? That would’ve led to issues likely unforeseen by the original authors. I’m also sure this situation is very improbable in that the need to divert aircraft for safety reasons is much less an issue than simply letting them land as their fuel allows.

The final point is:
“What will you do when you encounter such a rule?” 
Something that doesn’t make sense...
What action will you take?

I plan to discuss this with the person responsible for drafting these rules locally to see if we can remove the restriction or at least shorten the approval process so it has less of an impact. I ask, “What will you do?” because we do have to take advantage of cheap lessons when they’re given to us. If we don’t, the “system” will certainly react after a preventable mishap sometime down the road, just like in the old days when we didn’t have any rules. By then, it’ll be too late.

Tom Hill


  1. Q: "What would you do..."

    A: Invoke 91.3(b): "In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency."

    1. Yes... we can always deviate in light of an emergency. Which leave a good question... can we deviate before the situation becomes an emergency. Interesting thought. I say... do what saves your life. Thanks for the comment.

    2. Hi, Karlene!

      Let me draw attention to some guidance from the AIM:

      "6-1-2. Emergency Condition- Request Assistance Immediately

      a. An emergency can be either a distress or urgency condition as defined in the Pilot/Controller Glossary. Pilots do not hesitate to declare an emergency when they are faced with distress conditions such as fire, mechanical failure, or structural damage. However, some are reluctant to report an urgency condition when they encounter situations which may not be immediately perilous, but are potentially catastrophic. An aircraft is in at least an urgency condition the moment the pilot becomes doubtful about position, fuel endurance, weather, or any other condition that could adversely affect flight safety. This is the time to ask for help, not after the situation has developed into a distress condition."
      (Emphasis added by me.)

      I think that's pretty good (and clear) guidance.


    3. Frank, this is an excellent point. The pilot's personality more than often prevents them from identifying they are in trouble, until they are in deep trouble. Heck, they can do anything. Right?! Nobody wants to admit they are doubtful. I suspect that could have something to do with issues escalating. And interesting thought that will be developed further. Thank you!

  2. This is really interesting, I wasn't aware that airports have to close when lightening is observed within 5nm. I thought it was only when it was observed at the airport.

    1. This is a local rule at our base. But, you bring up a great great point in that the expectation is different which is precisely my point with the local establishment. If you didn't know, the USAF give tremendous leyway with the local leadership to establish local rules. Sometimes they conflict with common sense which was my problem.

      As for "emergencies", yes we can always do whatever it takes when in an emergency. Still, why should rules make us go down that road. The systems should be designed so we don't have to declare emergencies.


    2. This is the point... can we deviate before we escalate to an emergency? I say yes... do what it takes and do the rug dance later. :)

  3. I always call my lawyer before I touch an airplane. Aviation is always safer when lawyers get involved.

  4. Great post, Tom!
    This is a major theme in my book, "The Last Bush Pilots."—Alaska pilots flying by the rules Mother Nature dictates, that are often in conflict with Man's rulebook, written by bureaucrats thousands of miles away!

    Good "There I Wuz" story, with an important point.

    1. Yes.. a great theme. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do when that mother throws her wrath! Thanks for the comment!


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