A good day for a drive

Last weekend my wife and I were planning to fly from our home base in Frederick, MD, to Titusville, Penn., for a family get-together. With us was our young son, who with the aid of a portable DVD player and Dora the Explorer, doesn’t care what we do or when we do it.

The night before the flight the weather forecast called for a chance of thunderstorms during our departure time–not an unusual thing in our area during this time of year. The next morning, however, the thunderstorms were absent from the forecast, and I was getting excited about the possibility of flying.

As the day went on I checked the radar carefully and began to see showers pop up. That’s no big deal for an IFR flight, and I felt good. Two hours prior to departure, however, I looked and it was like all the world’s atmospheric energy had decided it was time to strike the Mid Atlantic all at once. Over an hour period I watched light rain showers build to massive thunderstorms like those time lapse videos you see illustrating the power of weather. But things were still fairly widely scattered, and I continued to think about flying.

What sealed it for me was thinking about my wife, who a week earlier had almost gotten sick in an airplane. She has fairly bad motion sickness, and I was concerned she would be miserable. So I decided to scrub. On the six-hour drive north (an hour flight, by the way), I began to kick myself as we drove under clear skies.

Later that night after we arrived I talked to a few family members and they said the area had received about an inch of hail. Finally my decision was justified!

The decision to not fly can be extremely difficult. Airplanes offer us the promise of quick, painless journeys, and the joy of flight is hardly ever outdone by a long trip in the car. I can always think of a thousand reasons to fly–joy, adventure, time savings, maintaining proficiency, and more. So the decision to push all that aside for hours on end in the car is tough. But it’s a decision that must be made on occasion, and doing the hard thing and not flying is almost always the right choice when faced with the go/no-go problem.

How do you make that decision? I try and make the entire process easier by asking myself a few simple questions.

1. Is there a chance I’ll be sitting in the airplane an hour from now regretting this? I’ve only felt this way once, and let me tell you that once was enough. I flew into some icing conditions as a result of get-there-itis, and I’ll never forget the feeling of wishing I was on the ground. There have been other situations where I felt challenged or even a bit nervous, but I think those are healthy emotions in most cases. Fear, on the other hand, is not.

2. Will my passengers be scared, feel sick, or have a negative reaction? It’s sometimes hard to remember once you start flying passengers, but many of them have no sense as to the risks of the flight. Many will be more scared than the conditions warrant, and it’s up to you as the PIC to ensure they feel safe. Often that means exercising your authority as PIC and never turning the prop.

3. Do I have an out? If things are questionable somewhere in route or at the destination, I’ll sometimes leave anyway so long as I have one or more options. Widespread low clouds in the winter is not one of those times. But widespread thunderstorms in the summer is. If things aren’t developing too quickly, I’ll often depart knowing that there are many airports between my departure and destination that offer the sanctuary of Mother Earth and a bathroom and computer weather. In other words, I think stopping at an unexpected airport sometimes adds to the fun, and I believe having that attitude means I won’t venture beyond my capabilities.

Regardless of how you make the decision, remember the old expression–it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.

As it turns out the weather for our weekend trip was worse than forecast for the entire three days. The drive was long, but well worth it.

–Ian Twombly

  • Suzanne Athey

    The old expression–it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground. No truer words were ever spoken. I am a new pilot an am challenged with weather decisions almost everytime I fly. My husband says trying to figure out what the weather is thinking is worse than trying to figure out a woman. I guess that’s why they call her mother nature.