Getting There for the Holidays?

December 22, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

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The Northeast got hammered this week by an early winter (OK – late fall) snow storm and it totally disrupted the airline flow but there were no accidents that I heard of. There are a couple of messages here. Even with all the hardware and support that the airlines have, it took a day or three to sort things out. Say what you will about the airlines – they have their act together relative to the SAFETY aspects of bad weather. Granted, jets usually have little trouble with icing but the problem shifts to taxi, takeoff, landing and gate availability. It’s tougher with turboprops. They’re still pretty capable in the air and a good bit easier to handle on the ground.

For GA, our challenges tend to be either simple or much more complex. In extreme weather – it’s simple. No Go. It’s when things are “marginal” that it gets difficult. Factor in the aircraft’s capability, our capability, the ground environment (airports closed to snow in this case), the probability of mission-squelching weather and the importance of the trip.

Think about that last one for a minute. In my view it shouldn’t play at all. Getting to a business appointment, home for the holidays or completing the famous hamburger hop is completely irrelevant. What’s tough, really tough, is our emotional and perhaps, financial investment. We told the family we’re coming. Perhaps they’re flying with us. It’s costing $500 per day in cancellation fees at the resort. My reputation is on the line, other pilots are doing it – you know the drill – we’ve ALL rationalized before.

When good professional pilots make decisions, they’re totally detached from the nature of the trip. It’s a job for heaven’s sake – why turn it into an adventure or something much worse? Here’s where the professionals can usually blame someone or something else. The decisions regarding weather, schedule, equipment are mostly made ahead of time so emotion doesn’t get in the way. If the weather is X then we have to do Y. If fuel drops below this point then we must land – now. You get the idea – it’s not my fault, Mon. I know there are 135 operators who have “occasionally” put pressure on pilots but those are bottom feeders.

I recall a South Carolina trip as a new instrument pilot. Really wanted to get there and the weather was marginal – very hazy, crummy radios and a good chance of adverse weather drove an hour to the airport, loaded family into the Piper Arrow and launched. Twenty minutes into the odyssey, stuff just wasn’t working and I decided to turn back. The epilogue – another hour delay getting back, aircraft secured, reload the car and start driving. The muffler fell off in Richmond and we sounded like a freight truck for the rest of the 9 hour drive. Arrived at midnight instead of 4 pm. It’s laughable now – wasn’t then. The point is we arrived and the family forgave me.

I have a trip to Pennsylvania this week and while some may question the wisdom of that destination, I have my reasons. Safe to go? We’ll see.

Perhaps you have a hangar tale of trips taken or not?

Bruce Landsberg
President, AOPA Foundation

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10 Responses to “Getting There for the Holidays?”

  1. Don Says:

    I have a story to tell where I experienced “get thereitis”. I tried to make the trip and I’m still paying the penalty.

    It was Christmas Eve and a few weeks earlier I’d convinced my wife that we would fly to her parent’s for Christmas. Over the last few days I watched the weather closely and was disappointed to see that the weather going to be marginal for the last 50 miles of our 350 mile trip. I launched into beautiful clear skies with my wife and two year old son, but the weather was nagging me. Before we climbed into the airplane I knew I might have to disappoint the family and I was feeling the pressure during the entire flight.

    A few hundred miles later, right on schedule, I was forced to descend below a 1500′ ceiling about 50 miles before our destination. The OAT was -26 Celcius and the forecast called for PROB30 mist. (I had gotten an updated forecast and talked it over with a wx briefer at an intermediate stop, and signs were clear – don’t go) Now, we were so close to our destination and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. I figured we only had about 35 minutes before we arrived and maybe we’d get lucky.

    Minutes later my wife pointed out strange looking white dots on the windshield. And only seconds later we were caked in ice. The windshield was covered and I looked outside and our struts had a layer of ice. I immediately applied carb heat and made a 180 back to the clear skies. In order to defrost the windshield I lowered the flaps to create some drag to slow us down, then applied full power, opened the cabin heat all the way and then placed a map in front of the windshield. I actually lost control of the aircraft for a brief few seconds and immediately recognized the rushing sound and instrument indications of a spiral (from less than 1500 AGL at this point). We were out of the mist in about 10 minutes and back in the clear, and after another 20 minutes we arrived at our diversion airport. I had an area of about 5″x5″ defrosted in the windshield – enough to make the landing. We ended up borrowing a car from a friend and driving the rest of the way. We arrived a couple hours after Christmas dinner but we got there safe and sound.

    The house was full of guests and by now all of them had heard about our harrowing experience. I had to eat a lot of crow that night as everyone had questions about what happened and why I didn’t cancel the flight, etc. My father-in-law still teases me about what I learned during that flight and my mother-in-law worries like crazy when we fly out. I still feel pangs of guilt for the danger I put my wife and my two year old son in. And my wife rarely flies with me anymore. She’s afraid of the weather and prefers to travel by car. I’m trying to earn everyone’s trust back, but it’ll take years, if it ever happens.

  2. Don Says:

    What I learned from my experience is:

    - always have a backup plan (i.e., take a car or airline)
    - call the trip off early if the weather may be marginal
    - don’t make promises (i.e., “we’ll try to fly out, but if the weather’s bad…”)
    - talk to passengers about the possibility of cancelling the filght due to weather or other factors

  3. Lyndon Says:

    I fly on a quite regular basis for AngelFlight in the northeast US. I cancelled a flight this week based on a “cumulative risk analysis” – counting various marginal risk elements, and making the go-nogo based on the cumulated risk. I fly a known-ice certified pressurized twin; I’m instrument and night current, with an IMC comfort level to about about 400′ on a precision approach. Most of my flight is single pilot. For the flight in question, factors were (1) night-time approach; (2) non-precision approach in use or (3) precision approach with circle-to-land at night; (4) expected 1,000 foot ceiling with 2-3 mile visibility; (5) snow showers (hence reduced visibility); (6) snow-contaminated runway; (7) end of day flight after a full working day. So, I counted 5-7 risk points, against my comfort level of 3. Even though the decision inconvenienced the passenger, the nogo decision was logical and hence simple. And all lived to fly another day.

  4. Dave Guerrieri Says:

    For many years, I’ve had an idea how icing could be circumnavigated more safely on the West Coast. I wonder if anyone would let me give it a try?

    Since our winter weather is not normally nearly as icy as on the East Coast, there are often times that flying low could keep an aicraft below the freezing level. However, we have many different mountain ranges that tend to force high MEA’s, so there is a school of thought that scud running under VFR might be safer than IFR in the ice. Ideally, one would like to find an IFR route below the freezing level, but that is often not possible, leaving the remaining alternatives a choice between two poor options: (1) scud run VFR in Class G airspace along the shoreline and disturb nesting wildlife (which is now illegal, and punishable, apparently), or (2) pick up a little ice during a climb to get on top, having it sublime in cruise, then pick up some more in the approach that hopefully melts before anyone sees it when you land. A “no-go” is most likely the best answer, but I have heard many stories from the locals that they feel the risk of icing is manageable here. There are a fair number of fatal accidents that prove that some pilots are not as effective risk managers as others, or that the laws of averages just got them. As Googlers might say, “Do you feel lucky?”

    I’ve always wondered if the advent of GPS routes such as T-Routes might give us on the West Coast additional options. Could GPS routes be created off shore a couple miles, but within gliding range so that aircraft could fly at say, 4000 or 5000 feet 4 miles off shore, when the freezing level is at 7000? If there is adequate radio communications, could non-radar procedures be used today for a few aircraft at a time even before ADS-B is deployed? If there is not adequate radio coverage at those altitudes, would it be worth the cost to expand that radio coverage?

    Some day, I’d like to try to get ATC to approve such a route during good weather under VFR to see if we could make this work. Could I define a route using well-known nav aid radials and distances that ATC could use to keep track of me with the old “Position Time Alt, Position Time, Position” reports? I would propose to navigate using my WAAS-enabled GPS between those user-defined points and promise to maintain my own terrain and obstruction clearance. Maybe if I had the backing of someone like Bruce Landsberg, it might be possible, eh?

  5. Bruce Landsberg Says:

    Dave….

    Consider it under advisement. We have some friends in high places in FAA and will ask the question. I’ve learned to be a “little” cautious on suggestions because of unintended consequences and the intricate nature of ATC/ airspace but this is certainly worth discussing.

    Thanks for bringing it up……Safe Flights!

  6. Nate Says:

    I, too, recently scuttled two short trips in the airplane in short order…first to Venice, FL and the second a weekend getaway to Jekyll Island, GA. Both due to marginal ceilings and gusty winds. Its very hard thinking about all the money I’ve invested in flying to not be able to use it when I want to. One of the ways that I rationalize a NO decision is the fact that addition to it being potentially dangerous, both trips would certainly have been uncomfortable for my wife/passenger. A bucking-bronco trip in a Skyhawk, with her airsick and hanging on for dear life at the grab strap might turn her off from flying entirely, and where would the fun be in that?

  7. Dave Guerrieri Says:

    Thanks, Bruce. I’m on the Net-centric Operations Working Group at the NextGen Institute, and I’m a member of their R&D Standing Committee so I’ll see if I can get some traction there too. It would be nice to get some more participation from AOPA, NATA, NBAA, etc, in that working group because I think they are just getting started to move forward more and there are some very complex issues to be ironed out. They would certainly welcome the input. I originally got involved through the Personal Air Transport Alliance (PATA) for Air Taxi operators. We are currently working out the “Communities of Interest” engagement, ie, how to best involve all stakeholders in the process. One thing we have done that I am very proud of, is we have set up a “wiki” so that folks can jointly develop guiding documents like this engagement plan, but I must admit it has had limited success up to now. New processes in Government do seem to take a lot of hard work and patience to get started and keep going.

    Thanks again for the great blog. I certainly hope to see more of this kind of great interaction in the New Year! Fortunately, we’ve been blessed with beautiful weather out here this Holiday, so far.

  8. Jim Dulin Says:

    Years of pipeline patrol flying taught me that, in marginal weather, visibility is much better low level and the air is warmer. However we cannot see towers and other obstructions safely with more than light precipitation of any kind.

  9. robert k stassen Says:

    December a friend not a pilot purchased a 177 cardinal from pam bay Florida 700 mile one way trip me a private pilot 850 hrs no IFR rating caught a delta flight from Louisiana to Florida after work on Friday. got up sat morning made the deal and headed home only made it to ocala fl 100 miles landed with 1000 ft ceiling 3 miles visibility rain. waited for rain to stop then headed out again found hole got on top and headed to perry fl 90 miles. talked to app. perry reported overcast 200 feet visibility 1 mile turned back to ocala to find almost solid over cast made it down called it a day. next day weather bad headed to perry could not get down turned north 1500 feet direct to Jacksonville fl got fuel at Jacksonville headed to tallahassee fl made it to with in 28 miles forced down to 400 feet agl visibility less than 3 miles hit nearest on gps landed at private grass strip .OK now don’t want to stay here all night got back in plane headed out strip not as long as it looked from the air had 10 degrees of flaps stall warnings going off trees getting real big told my friend I am sorry but we are not going to get over those trees added 20degrees flaps plane just cleared top of trees leveled off and got some speed and headed back toward Tallahassee only to find myself back at 400 feet coming into controlled airspace with no radar service at this alt .gps screen red with towers. turned back hit nearest this time made sure it was a hard surface this was 30 miles north of my position weather bad behind me and in my direction of flight no where to run then the rain started. got on valdosta app in Georgia they sent me to tower and 1st thing i was ask are you VFR yes sir i am at this time i was instructed to land number 2 behind jet extend down wind 1 mile i was never so glad to get on the ground. another night away from home another day off work.next day Valdosta direct to bonifay fl good flight.weather from there to la bad fog low ciling rain,another night and off work hotel in Bonifay that night hard rain all day could not fly at all .a nother night away from home and off work again Wed morning clear skys 3 hour flight all the way home boss mad wife mad friend mad and the man would have delivered it next weekend for free.hay man check the weather close and now working on

  10. robert k stassen Says:

    December a friend not a pilot purchased a 177 cardinal from pam bay Florida 700 mile one way trip me a private pilot 850 hrs no IFR rating caught a delta flight from Louisiana to Florida after work on Friday. got up sat morning made the deal and headed home only made it to ocala fl 100 miles landed with 1000 ft ceiling 3 miles visibility rain. waited for rain to stop then headed out again found hole got on top and headed to perry fl 90 miles. talked to app. perry reported overcast 200 feet visibility 1 mile turned back to ocala to find almost solid over cast made it down called it a day. next day weather bad headed to perry could not get down turned north 1500 feet direct to Jacksonville fl got fuel at Jacksonville headed to tallahassee fl made it to with in 28 miles forced down to 400 feet agl visibility less than 3 miles hit nearest on gps landed at private grass strip .OK now don’t want to stay here all night got back in plane headed out strip not as long as it looked from the air had 10 degrees of flaps stall warnings going off trees getting real big told my friend I am sorry but we are not going to get over those trees added 20degrees flaps plane just cleared top of trees leveled off and got some speed and headed back toward Tallahassee only to find myself back at 400 feet coming into controlled airspace with no radar service at this alt .gps screen red with towers. turned back hit nearest this time made sure it was a hard surface this was 30 miles north of my position weather bad behind me and in my direction of flight no where to run then the rain started. got on valdosta app in Georgia they sent me to tower and 1st thing i was ask are you VFR yes sir i am at this time i was instructed to land number 2 behind jet extend down wind 1 mile i was never so glad to get on the ground. another night away from home another day off work.next day Valdosta direct to bonifay fl good flight.weather from there to la bad fog low ciling rain,another night and off work hotel in Bonifay that night hard rain all day could not fly at all .a nother night away from home and off work again Wed morning clear skys 3 hour flight all the way home boss mad wife mad friend mad and the man would have delivered it next weekend for free.hay man check the weather close. and now working on IFR CERTIFACATION

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