Changing Destinations in Mid-Flight

When the destination for whatever reason is out of reach, pilots have to change their usual way of thinking.

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Color_TomF

Robert Goyer was on a flight back from Syracuse when the controller called him. "Let me tell you about your situation," the controller offered. But Robert already had a pretty good idea. He'd been "looking ahead" and knew there were weather doings on his trip back to White Plains' Westchester County Airport. He'd been in touch with Flight Watch (122.0) and been advised that things were closing down. The controller told him that everything south of Albany was well below minimums and if he needed to get to VFR conditions, he'd have to go as far west as Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Robert elected to cut short his trip. He flew the ILS approach at Albany, left the airplane there, rented a car and drove home. I was impressed that his discretion outweighed any concern about valor or misguided machismo.

The decision not to complete a flight as planned is never an easy one to make. And, if accident statistics are any indication, the decisions to press on, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it's not prudent, have resulted in bad endings to good people.

How often do we read accident reports in which a pilot, at the controls of a perfectly functioning airplane, has, with dwindling fuel reserves, elected to continue on? Invariably they overfly open and inviting airports to end up landing in a field just short of their destination airport.

Or even more frequently we hear about a pilot who descended below minimums during an approach and ended up plowing a furrow along the extended centerline. And typically the duck under doesn't happen on the first approach or even the second but on the third or fourth try. What do they say? Insanity (or in this case a disregard for risk assessment) can be defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

And then there are the accounts of VFR-only pilots who "continued into meteorological conditions." We all had to learn to make a 180-degree turn with reference to the instruments during our primary training, so, at least in theory, every private pilot should be capable of turning back and getting out of the soup. Is it that they wait too long to admit they've gotten in over their heads? Do they believe the conditions are going to improve?

What makes a reasonably intelligent and capable pilot throw caution-and concerns for self-preservation-to the wind-or weather? I think there are several things at play. One is the reluctance to abandon a plan made on the ground often well before the departure date and before the weather forecasts are available. Add to the mix passengers who are expecting to reach their intended destination on schedule and you've upped the ante-and the pressure to complete the mission.

Another factor is what might be called expanding the risk-acceptance envelope. Every time we push our limits and nothing untoward happens we raise the bar a bit. We attribute the successful outcome of an encounter with a risk to our superior piloting skills when it may have only been the consequence of a smile from Lady Luck. We should conservatively fly within the confines of the envelope established for us by the regulations, our instructors and our intelligent and dispassionate assessment of the actual risk.

I came close to violating that rule on a flight from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to Pierre, South Dakota. When I checked weather just before the flight, the controller advised me that there was a line of thunderstorms west of Pierre and moving east. But according to the controller, with my estimated time en route I would probably beat the storms to Pierre. I heard what I wanted to hear and decided to launch.

Nothing showed on the Stormscope until I was about 40 miles out from Pierre. The storm line was still on the far side of the airport but closing rapidly. Calculating the distance of the storms and my groundspeed, I was still confident I would beat them to the airport. But as I got closer the line of storms was suddenly joined by individual returns in all quadrants of the Stormscope display. I was surrounded.

It wasn't a good situation. Although it still looked like I could beat the onward marching line to Pierre, I had allowed myself to get into a situation in which I had no other option but to proceed to the airport. Then, to add to my concern, Minneapolis Center informed me I would have to hold for other traffic in the queue ahead of me for the approach to the uncontrolled field. Before an airplane could be cleared for the approach, the pilot of the airplane ahead had to report on the ground. I was finally cleared for the GPS to Runway 5. As I descended on the approach and just as I started to get ground contact, the wind strengthened and wrapped around to a tailwind. The airplane began to descend rapidly. I added power to abort the approach and requested vectors for the ILS to Runway 13, the runway the wind was now favoring. But I had to go to the back of the line.

The sky was ablaze with lightning flashes, but so far the ride wasn't as turbulent as I expected. I turned up the panel lights and fought to maintain my altitude. I wanted to be on the ground. Now! The good news, when I was finally cleared for the approach, was that the wind was right down the runway; the bad news was that because of the strength of the wind, it took forever-with lightning all around-to power down the glideslope to the runway. Finally on the ground, I was met by wingwalkers sent out to help me taxi in by the FBO, Capital City Air Carrier.

This was my first real experience actually flying in thunderstorms, and my first reaction was of relief that the airplane and I had come through the encounter unscathed. But then I had a more potentially dangerous reaction when I thought, "Gee, that wasn't so bad. Hmmm. I can handle thunderstorms." The thought lasted only a second before reality kicked in. "You idiot!" I chided myself, "You were just lucky. Sure you got through those storms without any damage. But storms come in different sizes, and those were little ones. Just because you survived this encounter doesn't mean the outcome will be as propitious the next time!" I hadn't expanded the envelope; I'd busted it!

I know the desire to complete a flight-get-homeitis or get-thereitis-is a powerful force and one we have to constantly be on guard against. In most cases, the decision to begin a flight isn't where we run into trouble; it's down the line when things begin to work against us. A continual assessment of our fuel status, the weather ahead, whether we'll arrive in daylight, how fatigued we are and other considerations should be considered in deciding whether to give up on trying to reach our initial destination and opt for an alternate.

Diverting to an alternate shouldn't be an admission of defeat or an indication of a lack of piloting skills. Just the opposite. It should be chalked up as a wise decision and a victory over the odds. There's a good reason your instructor presents you with a scenario on one of your dual cross-country flights that your destination airport is closed-or the weather ahead is a problem-and requires you to choose and fly to an alternate.

There are a number of reasons that make diverting a wise choice. The wind has picked up and is a direct crosswind blowing with more gusto than your comfort level. Opting to land at another nearby airport that has a runway lined up with the wind will make you more wise than wimp. Concern about your fuel situation is another reason to divert. Were the tanks really full when you checked them? Have you leaned the mixture so the fuel burn is what you'd flight planned? And of course the weather-seen through the windscreen or acquired from Flight Watch-may often militate for a change in plan.

Pilots are frequently warned by controllers or briefers about conditions above and beyond their capability and yet still elect to go. But I'd argue that going isn't the mistake they make. The error is in continuing on when it becomes obvious that the view out the windscreen confirms that pressing on is not prudent. We should begin every flight with an alternate plan in mind as an option.

Sometimes an alternate plan does apply to the decision not to make a flight. Robert called me a couple of days after he left the airplane in Albany to see if I could give him a ride to retrieve it. He wanted me to fly down to Westchester, pick him up and fly him back up to Albany. It sounded like a fun way to spend the afternoon, but when I called up the Columbia County AWOS site on the internet (www.chestercountyaviation.com/awos/troy/sai.html) to check on the current conditions, the wind was from 300 at 15 gusting to 20 and there had been a gust of 31 knots within the hour. The decision wasn't an easy one to make and I knew Robert would be disappointed, but I declined to make the flight. Unlike changing horses in mid-stream, changing destinations in mid-flight may well be the option of choice!