When in doubt about a possible course of action, I think about how any subsequent NTSB report might read. Recently, a student and I had already started the engine, but the ATIS reported a direct crosswind gusting to the aircraft’s maximum demonstrated crosswind capability. The student was ready to go, but I stopped him and we terminated the flight.
This ties in directly with my earlier tip about purging the word “probably” from your flying vocabulary. In all probability, the wind would not have reached a peak gust at the exact moment we took off, and we would not have had an accident. However, to proceed would have been to take a gamble. While I’d like to think that I’ll always be lucky, that’s a self-delusionary thought. Realistically, no one can be lucky all of the time.
I’d also think to think—perhaps as you do—that I’m an above average pilot and can rely upon my superior flying skills if there were a problem. But that is also delusional thinking. Surveys consistently show that more than 80% of pilots rate their skills as above average. The logical conclusion is that pilots are a confident bunch and we overrate our abilities. We may also have poor math skills, since only 50% of pilots could be “above average!”
With the high crosswind takeoff, we were dealing with compound probabilities. To take off would be to hope that the wind didn’t exceed the aircraft’s capabilities, but if it did, to hope that our superior skills would extricate us from that situation. That’s a lot of hope and candidly, I never want to have to fly a plane on hope alone.
After we shut down the engine, I asked my client, “if we had had an accident, how would we have explained it to the Chief Pilot?” The most honest answer I could think of was “that we were stupid.” I’m real glad I didn’t have to have that conversation!