Climate Change & Preflight Planning

By Scott Spangler on April 29th, 2024

With climate change continuing the slow and steady march to ever warmer records, 2023 set a new record. (I can hear 2024 softly asking us to hold its beer.) “After seeing the 2023 climate analysis, I have to pause and say that the findings are astounding,” said NOAA Chief Scientist Dr. Sarah Kapnick in a NOAA media release. “Not only was 2023 the warmest year in NOAA’s 174-year climate record — it was the warmest by far. A warming planet means we need to be prepared for the impacts of climate change that are happening here and now, like extreme weather events that become both more frequent and severe.”

Being of a pilot’s mind, the climates have surely made preflight planning increasingly more important and challenging. Avoiding extreme weather is just part of the equation because “extreme” can be much more than stormy. It can also be hot. “The 10 warmest years since 1850 have all occurred in the past decade. In fact, the average global temperature for 2023 exceeded the pre-industrial (1850–1900) average by 2.43°F (1.35°C),” said NOAA. “Looking ahead, there is a one-in-three chance that 2024 will be warmer than 2023, and a 99% chance that 2024 will rank among the top five warmest years.”

Simply put, if you want to have the safest flight possible, you better refresh and refine your abilities to compute density altitude and apply that information to the latest, most accurate performance data for your aircraft. You don’t want to be like the Ercoupe pilot who rolled off the end of a 5,000-foot midwestern runway when 90 hp wasn’t enough to drag his little bird into the thin 99° air at a field elevation of about 700 feet MSL. The really puzzling part is why he didn’t abort his takeoff attempt after rolling halfway down the runway.

Making sure the aircraft will safely perform in toasty weather is only half of your preflight planning challenge. You must ensure that you are physiologically ready for the flight. Heat stress and dehydration can quickly impede anyone’s thought processes and ability to make reasoned and rational decisions. I learned that lesson in the 1990s on my cross-country return to my Kansas City-area home drome on a triple-digit CAVU day and couldn’t find the single runway airport. Fortunately, I was reviewing a Trimble handheld GPS, and the controller in his airconditioned cab said I was the only heat-addled bozo in the area, so he urged me to follow it until I saw the runway, and then he’d clear me to land. – Scott Spangler, Editor


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