Discretion vs. Valor

Tom has self doubts when, after getting all set for a long cross country, he decides not to go after all.

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I made a list of the people I had to call. There were 10 people on the list ranging from Bonnie, who was scheduled to house-sit for our Aussie shepherds, Rueben and Whoopi, to my mother, who watches the weather and knows-even before I do-where bad things are happening.

One of the names on the list was Hal Shevers, founder of Sporty's Pilot Shop. I had to let Hal know I wasn't going to be able to make lunch and the presentation of the Flying Editors' Choice Award to Sporty's in recognition of its DVD-based pilot training programs. I wasn't sure how Hal would take my decision to cancel my flight to Batavia, Ohio. Because I am a senior editor of Flying magazine it's often incorrectly assumed that I can deal with conditions that might have less experienced pilots waiting out the weather.

The afternoon of the day before the flight, I had loaded my airplane, updated the databases in the UPS-AT MX20 and GX60 and the Trimble Approach Plus GPS and plugged in the Reiff preheat system. I had sorted out the en route and approach charts I would need for the trip and arranged them so they would "fall readily to hand" as airplane reviewers used to write about cockpit controls. The airplane was ready to go. It was up to the weather.

At a little after 1:00 a.m., the morning of my planned flight, when Julia Roberts got ready to announce that her good friend Denzel Washington had won the Oscar for best actor, she said, "I love my life!" Her comment was in the back of my mind as I went up the stairs to my office and opened Destination Direct's flight planning software on my computer and asked it to get the weather for my trip to the Batavia, Ohio, Clermont County Airport (I69).

The nonstop flight to Sporty's with a 20-knot headwind worked out to about four-and-a-half hours-right at the far edge of my acceptable leg length. The outlook briefing indicated I wouldn't be traveling under VFR rules, and the winds aloft forecast promised the trip could be as much as an hour longer than my initial flight planning had indicated.

In fact, the forecast was for marginal IFR conditions, meaning I would require an alternate. The planned direct course went right over Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a bit east and south of Pittsburgh, and since it was at just about the halfway mark, I plugged it in as a fuel stop. I listed Latrobe (LBE), Pennsylvania, as the required alternate for Johnstown and Covington (CVG), Kentucky, as the alternate for Sporty's. I had Destination Direct file the flight plans for the two legs and went to bed.

Any flight in March from the Hudson River Valley heading west goes across the hilly icemakers of New York and Pennsylvania, and with IFR conditions and the mountaintops obscured, ice is always a consideration-and concern. A recent trip to Nashville, in almost identical conditions, had worked out well with no ice in the climb to clear layers above for the early part of the trip. Later, in Pennsylvania it became prudent to descend from 6,000 feet (which was right at the freezing level) when the snow turned to rain and then to mixed icing. At 5,000 the temperature was above freezing and the airplane got its periodic washing. Since the trip to Nashville, covering the same ground and with a similar forecast, had worked out, I expected the trip to Batavia would happen.

I fell asleep with images from the Oscars of Gwyneth Paltrow and Halle Berry dancing in my head like visions of sugar plums. Unfortunately, the pleasant images evolved into visions of the leading edges of wings coated with buildups of ice. I didn't sleep well, and I woke well before the alarm was set to summon me. When I let the dogs out, the red hand on the big, round thermometer mounted on a tree outside the kitchen window indicated that the freezing level was at the surface. The temperature reinforced the need for me to feed the wood stove and to get an update of my weather briefing.

It wasn't pretty. Airmet Sierra for IFR conditions was promising mountain obscuration with occasional ceilings below 1,000 feet and visibilities below three miles in precipitation/mist/fog from Syracuse, New York, to Hancock, New York, to East Texas, Pennsylvania, to Covington/Cincinnati, Kentucky, to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Detroit, Michigan, to Syracuse, New York.

Airmet Tango was calling for occasional moderate turbulence below 10,000 feet due to gusty westerly low-level winds and the system moving through the area from Buffalo, New York, to 40 miles south of Lynchburg, Virginia, to Holston Mountain, Tennessee, to Henderson, North Carolina, to Covington/ Cincinnati, Kentucky, to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Buffalo, New York.

More disquieting than the IFR conditions and the turbulence was Airmet Zulu, which was calling for occasional moderate rime/mixed icing in clouds and precipitation between the freezing level and FL 200 from Saint John, Canada, to 120 miles east of Nantucket, Massachusetts, to Coyle, New Jersey, to Elkins, West Virginia, to Covington/Cincinnati, Kentucky, to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Detroit, Michigan, to Barre/Montpelier, Vermont, back to Saint John, Canada. The freezing level was described as being from the surface to 4,000 feet in the northern portion of the area, sloping to 4,000 to 8,000 feet in the south.

It would be a bumpy ride in clouds and there was a good chance, if I could not get between layers, of picking up some ice. But, I still hadn't 86'd the trip. I reasoned that since Covington/Cincinnati was at the southern end of the forecast icing area and the freezing level was expected to be above 4,000 feet, the trip still appeared doable.

The area forecasts (FA) for Pennsylvania called for a broken (five-eighths to seven-eighths coverage) ceiling at 2,000 feet, overcast at 4,000 feet with the tops layered to FL 200 and visibility of three to five miles in light snow. Ohio was calling for a scattered layer at 4,000 feet, overcast at 8,000 feet with tops layered to FL 200 and with an occasional overcast at 3,000 feet with scattered rain showers. Not too bad.

There were several pilot reports-even at that early hour. A pilot in a twin-engine Piper Seneca reported being between layers at 5,000 feet near Stonyfork, Pennsylvania. That was encouraging. But another pilot, again in a Seneca, at 7,000 feet reported that he encountered moderate mixed icing near Williamsport, Pennsylvania. There were other reports of ice. A Dash 8 pilot reported moderate mixed ice at 10,000 feet, and a Boeing 737 pilot reported light clear ice between 7,000 and 13,000. Light clear ice on a 737 would be much more significant on my Cardinal.

The final factor in my decision would rest with the recent observations en route. My fuel stop, depending on the wind, would be about two hours after departure, so I was looking at weather that would be moving in to Johnstown relatively soon. Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Airport, 50 miles directly west of Johnstown, was the closest with weather and the scheduled observation at 1150 UTC (about two hours and 40 minutes before I would arrive at Johnstown) was visibility of four miles in light ice pellets, rain, mist, five-eighths to seven-eighths coverage at 400 feet, overcast at 800 feet. The temperature and dew point were both at 32°. Not good. And the weather would be arriving at Johnstown at about the same time I would. There would be no question of a close encounter with ice during the descent to land. If I had to make a missed approach-a not unlikely event with the temperature and dew point the same-and press on to my alternate at Latrobe, I could potentially be carrying a load of ice to an airport where the weather was visibility four in light rain and mist and overcast at 600 feet. That wasn't an attractive alternative.

I assessed the risk and, though it was not easy, decided, like Julia Roberts, that 'I love my life.' And rather than make a list of people to thank, I began to make the list of people to call to let them know that as pilot in command I had made a command decision and had cancelled my flight.

The first person I called was Hal Shevers. I left him a message and he called me back soon afterwards. "Don't feel bad about canceling," he said. "Richard Collins also decided it wasn't worth the effort. You're in good company."

I didn't need the validation, but I felt vindicated, nevertheless, to know that even Richard Collins, with deice boots on his airplane, had made the same decision. I was disappointed not to get to Sporty's to present the Editors' Choice Award-Hal had planned a real celebration-but the trip to Batavia has been rescheduled and I'll live to make the flight another day. Once again discretion was the better part of valor.