Not my time to die

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road obscured by low clouds
image: © askolds | Adobe Stock

Correct decision-making can be difficult when the pressure is on. When was the last time you told your chief pilot, ’No‘?

By Robert L Cassidy

In 1984 I was flying cargo from San Carlos Airport, just south of San Francisco, to Reno, Nevada. On this day, I was returning to the San Francisco Bay area in a Cessna 206.

Flying across the Sierra Nevada mountain range one can feel a bit like Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic, with nowhere to land if the engine quits—the mountains are 9600 feet in that section.

There was a fast-moving cold front forecast to cross that afternoon, with areas of moderate to severe turbulence, mountain wave activity, with scattered cumulonimbus, rain and snow showers. IFR was not my preferred choice because the aircraft was partial panel. Worse, one of the instrument panel’s anti-vibration mounts failed, so the panel was sagging to one side—providing built-in ’leans’. The owner/chief pilot provided no oxygen masks. Instead, there was an unhygienic tube my fellow pilots would stick in their mouths to suck oxygen from—yuck.

After I received a thorough weather briefing, my next telephone call was to the chief pilot telling him I wanted to delay my departure due to weather.

I was read the riot act. I protested and was threatened with my job if I did not take-off as soon as I could get back to the Reno airport. There was a Federal Aviation Administration ramp check scheduled for that afternoon and the chief pilot did not want inspectors sniffing around that tatty 206. So, I really had to take-off—or so I thought at the time.

I decided that if I could not delay my departure until the worst of the weather passed, the base of the clouds was high enough for me to navigate through the pass over Highway 80, if I really had to. I departed on a VFR flight plan.

Flying west from Reno, I was beneath the clouds and visual, over a large reservoir. However, when I looked to the west-southwest toward Donner Pass, where early settlers to California resorted to cannibalism, the cloud bases lowered—I could no longer see any light at the end of the tunnel.

‘Sh**!!’, I thought to myself. I raised the right wing, then the left, exploring options. It was looking ugly and then there was a shaft of snowfall ahead that I did not want to fly into, because it would mean a downdraft. That forced me to decide to turn back. I raised that left wing again, long enough to get a better look and take it all in. The weather had closed in behind me, so I could not see where I had come from.

I had to make a plan to escape this bad situation. I could look straight down to the water. That would be viable if I was flying a helicopter—I could easily identify the dam to the southeast. So, the visibility was not great. That situation had materialised unexpectedly and quickly. I flew toward the dam. The ceiling was getting lower, so I descended—into a trap, it felt like. It was getting uglier, quickly.

Thankfully, I had been a US Army helicopter pilot before I was an aeroplane pilot. I had done a heck of a lot of low level and nap-of-the-earth flying, no faster than 90 knots, because the ol’ Bell Huey (B205 Iroquois) would really throb and hop, much above that airspeed. Now I had to fly a Cessna 206 like a Bell 205.

I lowered the flaps for three reasons: to reduce stall speed, slow down to 65 to 75 knots and give me better forward visibility and reaction time—because now the only way out was by nap‑of‑the-earth flying, not far above the treetops. I could see the them clearly, but not much else.

I used the compass to fly south‑easterly and picked my way through the weather. I didn’t care about altitude, only visual height above the trees. I had power set, with a good margin above stall speed, and used the VSI to prevent any climb into the ’soup‘ or inadvertent descent. Essentially, I hover-taxied the Cessna 206 down the side of the mountains like I would hover taxi a helicopter to reposition it. Then, when I was brave enough to look out front, I found myself south of the town of Verdi, over highway 80 and in the clear, and called Reno for clearance to land.

Keeping calm and having presence of mind to think through a bad situation, and developing a plan saved my ass that day. I did not have a lot of total flying experience and was building time flying freight, gaining ’real’ flying experience—rather than merely flying circuits and doing chandelles as a flying instructor—with a view toward getting on with the airlines after earning my ATPL.

I called the chief pilot from the airport to tell him about my unsuccessful attempt to fly to San Carlos VFR, due to the weather I had already warned him about. He insisted I go IFR.

After refueling I blasted off on an IFR flight plan. Of course, it was turbulent. North-west of the Tahoe VOR, in cloud, ATC instructed me to climb, for traffic; however, the Cessna 206 could not climb and instead slumped into a 500‑fpm descent due to the ice I was carrying. I told ATC I needed a radar descent to keep me clear of the high terrain.

My destination, San Carlos Airport, was closed due to weather. I got clearance to San Francisco, my alternate, where it was incredibly windy and gusty on final approach.

I struggled to make it to the parking area in front of the fire station. The firefighters rushed out to help me tie down the Cessna that was lurching like a bucking bronco. I was down, safe.

Soon the chief pilot arrived in a big beautiful Cessna 404 Titan. He wanted me to go back to Reno for another load of cargo. I told him I would do it in the Titan but would not fly the 206 in that weather. He said he didn’t find the weather bad—in a Cessna 404 that weighed more than twice as much as a 206, he may not have. But then why did he divert to SFO?

I took the key ring with the aircraft and hangar keys out of my pocket and threw them down the aisle of the Titan and told the chief pilot, ‘Go fly it yourself!’ I should have said that before I departed Reno the first time.

I did things wrong and right that day. After allowing my better judgement to be overruled, I applied crew resource management and threat and error management precepts, years before I heard about them in the classroom.

A pilot’s go no-go decision-making should encompass, knowing your aircraft, inside and out, a fear of a CASA violation with possible loss of licence or worse, and awareness that your death could be the price for making the wrong decision when you should just have said ’no‘. No pilot should be put into the position of fearing for their job if they do not take a flight.

No pilot should be put into the position of fearing for their job if they do not take a flight.

Did walking off that job or away from any shonky operator adversely affect my career? No! On 1 July 1999, I graduated from the flight safety/Boeing transition and captain upgrade course for the Boeing 747-400. My first revenue trip, as a fully fledged captain, was to Australia in September 1999.

I stayed.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Good on you, some great lessons learned, a great read. Your experience saved you, thanks for sharing.
    Pretty good down under 😊 🇦🇺

  2. What an incredible career captain R L CASSIDY . rotory fixed , jet . an amazing aviater. an inspiration to all pilots , safe flying .

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