Any one of us

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background image: Layne Lawson | Unsplash, plane image: murmakova | Adobe Stock

by Thomas P. Turner

I was in the right front seat of a Cessna twin en route from Cowra to Archerfield airport near Brisbane. After teaching at an Australian Beechcraft Society event my friend and host was flying me toward his home, after which my wife and I would return to the States. Although the skies were clear when we departed, as we flew inland and parallel to the coast we could see a series of towering cumulus building along our flight path. As an experienced thunderstorm flier, that is, one who diverts and delays around a lot of big Kansas thunderstorms, I was helping my pilot evaluate the changing weather picture.

We had unwittingly put a lot of pressure on ourselves, expecting the forecast of clear skies to hold true. It was just past noon in mid-March, so we had many hours of daylight remaining. But my return to the US was booked for the next morning. If we couldn’t make it back to Brisbane my wife and I would face challenging and perhaps costly rebookings for later flights. My pilot friend had not flown around storms much, wisely remaining well clear at all times. He, too, felt pressure to get us to Brisbane on schedule. So, with pressured optimism we began angling our way between the cells. With Coffs Harbour just off to our right we simultaneously came to the same conclusion—although we were still well in the clear the weather was only getting worse. We needed to set down and wait it out. We landed in sunny skies at Coffs Harbour, making our way with our wives to the terminal for a nice cup of coffee as the squalls hit and drenched the airfield. Two hours later we enjoyed a sunny ride the rest of the way.

There was an amazing temptation to continue around and toward the growing thunderstorm cells because of pressure we had put on ourselves to adhere to what had become an unrealistic schedule. Despite my friend’s great experience, and mine, we had to work hard to convince ourselves that what might result tomorrow if we didn’t make it to Brisbane was not as bad as what might happen today if we continued to try. ‘Get-there-itis’ can happen to any of us.

We never become immune. Several years later, last November in fact, I faced a similar challenge. Returning home to Wichita, Kansas, from a family celebration in Ohio to the northeast, we’d left on Sunday, a day earlier than planned. A winter storm would hit Kansas Sunday and impact Ohio Monday morning. My plan was to fly the A36 Bonanza southwest as far as we could on Sunday, in the warm sector around the freezing conditions, and then scoot home in clear skies behind the front Monday morning.

After a two-hour fog delay we launched toward our overnight stay along the Mississippi River. We flew in mostly clear skies at 4000 feet. For the last 40 minutes we plunged into thick stratus clouds. The temperature was still +10°C at 4000 feet so I wasn’t worried about ice—although that time of year I’m always thinking about it. Our destination airport reported a 1000-foot ceiling with great visibility beneath. Tower gave me a wind check—180° at 25 knots. I touched down smoothly, not requiring much ground roll into the stiff wind.

Overnight temperatures plunged well below freezing. The forecast called for overcast skies improving to scattered around 10 am. I filed for an 11 am departure for the three-hour flight to Wichita. At 7 am, however, it was still 2800 overcast and below freezing. The clouds extended halfway along our route and conditions suggested ice in the clouds. I told my wife we could have a leisurely brunch before going to the airport, then amended my departure time to 12 pm.

There was an amazing temptation to continue around and toward the growing thunderstorm cells because of pressure we had put on ourselves to adhere to what had become an unrealistic schedule.

First temptation

At noon I was still checking the weather … and things were not improving. As much as I study accident scenarios, as much as I’m a stickler for limitations and the rules, the longer I waited the more I felt myself being tempted to go ahead and ‘give it a try’. I rationalised that I could launch into the clouds and climb through the icy layer. I mulled over the relative merits of climbing rapidly through the clouds at VY speed versus a shallower, faster climb. I even mentioned to my wife that, if we launched and I started to pick up ice, I could ‘just’ turn around and land. When I heard myself actually say that, out loud, I stopped then and there. I just relearnt I am just as susceptible to temptation and ‘get home-itis’ as a newly minted private pilot. We all are. I told my wife we’d just have to wait it out.

The accident record is full of pilots who thought they’d ‘give it a try’ in hazardous weather or convinced themselves they had an ‘out’ they could exercise before things got too bad. Being away from home for five days at that point, with my wife—who is great about weather delays—wanting to get home, and with hotel, restaurant, rental car and hangar fees slowly but continually adding up, I can see how even someone who is as disciplined and attuned to the mishap record as I try to be, may be tempted to launch into unacceptable conditions … or continue into them, until it is too late.

Confirmation and inspiration

Another pilot entered the FBO, a young man who had flown a Piper M600 turboprop in earlier that morning. He told me he had encountered ‘a lot’ of clear ice on the way in, and that was while ‘at 280 knots descending at 2500 feet per minute’ through the clouds to minimise his exposure.

I called up the latest weather on my phone. The satellite showed clouds continuing to break up, very slowly, along my route about 150 kilometres west of where I sat. Eighty kilometres to the southwest, however, the cloud shelf ended at a huge gap near Poplar Bluff, Missouri, that extended another 175 kilometres or more west. It was clear at Wichita. A new Plan B began to form in my mind.

I file IFR for virtually all trips away from my home local area. I like working ‘in the system’ and I enjoy the added safety of someone watching over me. I was in an IFR mindset, knowing I could not go because to depart en route would require me to climb into ice-laden clouds. The M600 pilot confirmed this.

A more creative plan, however, was to fly VFR in great visibility, under the cloud deck, to Poplar Bluff. From there, the satellite image told me, I could climb VFR to be over the thinning clouds further west, then contact Air Traffic Control to obtain an IFR clearance for the remainder of the flight. I’d avoid all chances of ice because the skies were entirely clear near my destination, and the clouds out west were so thin there was no mention of ice there in the forecasts. I’m very familiar with the low, flat terrain in the area. I could easily fly at 1800 feet AMSL, at least 500 feet below the clouds. I was confident that the VFR hop to Poplar Bluff was entirely safe. Upon reaching Poplar Bluff I would fly no more than
30 kilometres further before deciding (1) I could make my unrestricted visual climb, or (2) I would immediately turn back and land at Poplar Bluff.

Second temptation

We loaded the Bonanza, I fired up XM Weather on my Garmin 796 portable GPS and called up the satellite image, and I called Ground for a VFR departure to Poplar Bluff. As I completed my before-take-off checklist I heard the pilot of another Bonanza check in on the instrument approach. Temptation reared again. Someone else was up there in it—if he could do it I could too. The sky was getting lighter in my direction of flight. I thought I might be able to see wisps of blue sky among the gray. I found myself wanting to rationalise picking up my clearance and departing IFR after all.

I called tower with a request: ask the Bonanza pilot whether he was in ice on the approach, and if he could report the cloud tops. Tower asked; the answer was ‘mixed ice during the descent and cloud tops at 5000 feet’.

That meant about 2000 feet of ice-laden clouds for climb. ‘Stupid,’ I told myself, ‘no amount of ice is acceptable’. I called the tower again: ‘Ready for departure, VFR southwest-bound.’ ‘Cleared for take-off,’ the controller replied. ‘Have a good flight to Poplar Bluff.’

Aim for the blue

At 1800 feet AMSL, 1500 feet above the flat terrain and 600 feet above the highest obstacle in the quadrant ahead—a transmission tower was nicely painted on the aeroplane’s synthetic vision display to one side of our course. The horizon was that bright mid-yellow that hints of clearing skies ahead. About 20 kilometres out, the clouds above began to part, quickly becoming a broken layer in the direction we wanted to go. I could see that the clouds here were very thin. Time for the second half of Plan B. Air Traffic Control answered my call immediately, clearing us direct to the destination at 6000 feet.
A couple of screen touches and I had a magenta line direct to home, turned the aircraft westward and climbed through a gap in the clouds.

As I made the turn a big swatch of blue sky opened. My wife put on her headset and called from the back seat, ‘Aim for the blue.’ She knew that’s where we needed to go to make it home without any chance of ice. Although she is not a pilot, ‘aim for the blue’ was the best decision all day.

No matter what your experience, we are all susceptible to ‘get-home-it is’ that tempts us to rationalise a ‘go’ decision. We often perceive more pressure to meet a passenger or family member’s schedule than that person actually exerts on us. An educated non-pilot probably knows when you shouldn’t fly and, presented the facts, will support your delay/divert/cancel decision.

I’m convinced that most pilots who are involved in weather-related crashes know even before they take-off that they shouldn’t be flying in those conditions. They overestimate their abilities or the capability of the aircraft; contrive an unusual escape plan in case things go wrong that may or may not solve the problem; and/or succumb to peer pressure because other pilots are out flying in it. They allow these rationalisations to overrule their better judgment. If conditions worsen during a flight, as they did for my friend and me en route to Brisbane, pilots most likely know it’s ‘bad’ before they change their plans.

The only defence against rationalisation is to take a firm stand on the rules of pilot and aircraft certification, regulation and currency: Accept no compromises.

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