How Bad Could It Be?

April 6, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

Despite all the excitement regarding pop-top Boeing 737s, and I rode on two of the old birds last week to Sun N Fun,  I’d rather solicit your thoughts on how we should be reaching pilots who have a slight flaw in their risk assessment skills, in my view.

It would  be an understatement to say that Florida was meteorologically active last week. The F1 tornado that hit the airshow on Thursday was the finale and condolences go out to the pilots and vendors who lost aircraft, inventory and sales to the storm. But step back one day to Wednesday late afternoon. The skies had been threatening all day and the airshow was curtailed as a line of thunderstorms approached Lakeland from the west.

The airport was reopened and the exodus began – not unlike any other day after the the show ends. Dozens of aircraft were launching into an approaching squall line. The winds were about 20 knots with higher gusts and you could see the airplanes fishtailing and yawing noticeably. I got to thinking about the logic of a pilot getting ready to go.

It might go like this: If I wait, the storms could damage my aircraft. The weather behind the storms is still going to be unsettled with plenty of IMC. There are no hotel rooms this side of Tampa and it will cost at least $200 to overnight. It will be getting dark in two hours and I can see better now. What are the odds that I’d get into the weather or collide with another aircraft? I’ve got weather datalink and traffic avoidance gear (or not). This aircraft is equipped with airbags and a parachute (or not).  This has always worked before. How bad could it be — Let’s go!

Here’s another way to think of it:  Unless I’ve got an IFR slot reserved, this flight will be VFR and there will be no IFR clearances available within 50 miles of LAL.  There is a lot of IMC about in the form of clouds and rain showers. There is a line of thunderstorms approaching.  I’m about to go aloft with another 50 aircraft who are all hell bent on getting to their destinations and will be looking to get through the sames holes in the weather that I am. How bad could it be? Under the wrong set of conditions – fatal.

Safety people are always looking at half empty glasses while risk takers are the optimists. Most of the time the optimists win but when they lose, they lose big. To my knowledge, there were no accidents Wednesday evening which perhaps proves the previous point. The question that always needs to be asked, as we build a dossier of successful decision-making is, “Are the conditions this time different from what I’ve faced before?”

See the poll for your chance to vote.



Bruce Landsberg
President, AOPA Foundation

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9 Responses to “How Bad Could It Be?”

  1. Hank Says:

    I was there, and you could not have paid me to take off on Wednesday evening! I did run out and snap some “before” pictures for insurance, though, including interior shots showing control locks in place. That there were no accidents during/after the exodus was simply good fortune.

  2. Glenn Plymate Says:

    Bruce,

    Another great blog!. This is the third one I’ve been moved to complement you on!

    Regarding the Wednesday weather at LAL, there is no question on what I would have done. Been there – done that. So many rimes, that if there was an award for 180 degree turns and RONs at strange places, I would be a top contender. Erral and I took a different view; we always looked on those as opportunity for new adventures. Sure, our trips turned out a little longer but we got to meet new people, explore some new territory, try out different food, get a good night’s rest and almost always had a pleasant flight the next day, in benign weather, relaxing on our way to our destination. No stress – no mess. And, no bent airplane!

    I always look forward to your blogs. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for next week.

  3. Brian Turrisi Says:

    This is one of those often issues where the answer is that “it depends”. many factors go into a decision to make a flight or not. I was not there so my answer to the poll was “need more information”.
    It is tough to talk about this type of decision making in an abstract. But it does raise the point that going to flying events does add a “schedule time pressure’ to your mission which will get the “get there itis” engine fired up. We always need to consider those aspects when we take that kind of trip.

  4. Lee Gilbert Says:

    Perhaps, when a pilot makes a poor decision that ends in a good result, he/she might do a post flight reassessment and admit mistake instead of using the successful result to bolster a false sense of accomplishment. In any case, a post flight assessment should be made of every flight including an honest personal pilotage evaluation.

  5. Michael McIntosh Says:

    How often have we looked back and said, “What the heck was I thinking!”? Just because we’ve been lucky in the past with poor decisions, doesn’t make the decisions any better the second time around. I’ve found that when experienced pilots talk over a risky choice, they usually choose the smart choice, but when pilots make decisions on their own, personal considerations usually trump good sense. When in doubt, I always bounce my potential decisions off another pilot. We are smarter in numbers than we are alone.

  6. Paul Sciortino Says:

    Great article – sure glad some people have some sense in our flying community.

  7. Ben Says:

    I watched the lines of storms roll through on Thursday morning from my hotel room, on the TV and the internet:

    http://flyingdonald.blogspot.com/2011/03/sun-n-fun-becoming-flood-n-mud.html

    There were a couple of small quiescent periods between the waves of bad weather til the really bad cell hit around midday, but they were barely long enough to get many planes off the ground. And then there was the problem of where to go to. Sadly, tie down and pray was probably the best approach from 9 am on Thurs. Whether people could have, and should have, evacuated on Weds evening is a trickier proposition. Again, the sheer number of planes would have been an issue.

    I do have one gripe, though. It would have been useful to have an APB to the entire show, at 9:15 am Thurs, that a LARGE cell was headed inland off the Gulf of Mexico. Based on several interviews I heard, less than an hour’s notice was given to some people. Three hours of notice might have saved a few more planes (and could have saved lives had the situation not been as fortunate as it was). Why no emergency broadcast of the approaching storm at 9:15 am? Planes should have been tied down and all people evacuated from the field by 11 am latest. I had the information in my hotel room in Winter Haven, but it wasn’t me who needed it most! That’s definitely something for the SnF organizers to tweak for later years. Live and learn!

  8. Dave Says:

    I was there on Wednesday and had to make that exact decision. My heart said that this was my baby that I always keep her safe in the hanger. It was only an half hour flight home. (to the west) I had over 100 hours in this aircraft in the last year alone and was very comfortable with her abilities and mine. I could always turn around.

    Then I engaged my mind. The weather briefers at Sun-n-Fun were great and showed me all the pertinent facts and radar returns. The center of the storm was in the purples and the winds were up pretty high. Then I remembered what the friend that I purchased my baby from has said. “It is better to be on the ground wishing your were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground”. Ultimately I am sure that I would have made it home safe, but I would have pushed a bad decision just a little and then might have build a little courage to make another greater bad decision next time. How far could I push my luck till it ran out. I called my son and imposed 3 plus hours of driving on him to pick me up.

    I was sure nervous when I flew back with my friend on Friday to see what might be left of my plane. I had put six tie downs on it before I left…..but a tornado? One small scratch and a little bend, and lots of water in the cockpit and air inlet. My A&P said your fine, fly it home. I flew back Saturday with my family.

    I have to commend Sun-n-Fun for all the hard work through the night to restore the ground for Friday. Allot of the aircraft I saw taking off on Wednesday were turn hard to the South. I do not judge those who left, but know that I am going to do my best to not be a statistic. I never want my loved ones to say “He died doing what he loved”. I want to die of old age in my sleep.

    Dave

  9. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    Excellent discussion! Good insight into various thought processes. Although there aren’t many who seems to be taking a divergent view – but then they likely don’t blogs such as this.

    I did have a brief discussion with John Burton, the head of SNF about my observations relative Wednesday ( not Thursday) and he agreed that that it was something to think about. The warning and evacuation process for any large outdoor gathering is extremely complex and we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of establishing. However, just as in flight, it’s essential to anticipate the emergency and think how best to handle in advance.

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