Knowing When to Cut Bait

Lane writes about her non-negotiable rules when flying.

FL0604_FlyingLessons_lane

FL0604_FlyingLessons_lane

The action is so simple, requiring such a small amount of effort. And yet I can't quite seem to get myself to perform it.

My hand is poised on the throttle knob. All I have to do is pull it back. And yet, in that move is the surrender of my own home and bed for at least two days. If I leave the throttle where it is, I have a chance of making it home tonight. The minute I pull it back, that chance is gone. And because weather is moving in, it will also probably leave me stuck in some remote motel for longer than I care to think about.

I look ahead. The Salinas Valley stretches in front of me in the deepening dusk. Flight Service is still calling the visibility six miles at Salinas, although it's deteriorated to three at Palo Alto and Livermore. If I could even make Salinas, I could conceivably rent a car and drive home from there. But Salinas is still 100 miles away, it will be full dark in only 15 to 20 minutes, and I'm already having trouble distinguishing the ridgelines from the valley in the hazy evening sky. I think about following the lights on the highway, but there's not enough traffic to really see the road clearly.

I reflect back on the flight so far. After the most amazingly thorough weather briefing a human is capable of receiving, I'd taken off from the Mojave desert in 85-mile visibility. There was fog in the San Joaquin Valley west of Mojave, but the satellite photos showed a clear patch at the southern end of the valley. That meant I couldn't follow my intended route north, since I have a non-negotiable rule about flying over a solid fog bank, but I could go west from Lancaster, hop over a couple of ridges by the Gorman VOR and then shoot across the southern stretch of the San Joaquin to the next valley west, which was also showing clear. Divert northwest to Paso Robles, head up the Salinas Valley, then up over San Jose to home. Not the most direct route, but it would get me there.

And yet, when I cleared the hills by the Gorman VOR, a stunning sea of white met my eyes. There was no clear patch in the San Joaquin Valley. There was, in point of fact, no San Joaquin Valley. At least, not that the eye could see. Below me was a thick cotton blanket of fog that stretched at least 3,000 feet up the mountainsides. But the fog stopped at the western edge of the valley, and the path beyond looked clear. I looked at the engine instruments. All was exactly as it should be. I considered the distance to the ridgeline. No more than 30 miles.

If I stayed over the mountains, I could see the ground just fine. I just couldn't land there if the engine quit. If I stayed over the valley, I'd have a better chance of making an emergency landing, except for the minor detail that I might not see the ground until I hit it. But it was only 30 miles, and the engine was purring like a contented kitty. It seemed an acceptable level of risk.

As I watch the Salinas Valley fading into the misty haze of dusk, however, the risk feels decidedly higher. The visibility even south of Paso Robles was worse than reported, and now it's getting dark. And I have another non-negotiable rule about not flying at night with less than a steady six miles of visibility, especially if there's terrain anywhere around. But I've hardly spent more than six days at home at a stretch in the past 12 months, and I want the comfort of my own bed, pillows, morning coffee and home so badly I ache for them.

My hand stays poised on the throttle as I debate my options and the seconds tick by. Finally, my inner adult gets tired of waiting for me to do the right thing and speaks up in loud tones.

"Exactly how many non-negotiable rules do you plan on violating today?" it asks. I don't respond immediately. "Okay," it continues. "How would the NTSB report on this read?"

The NTSB reference is a private rule of thumb I developed a number of years ago. My friend Kimberly and I were returning to Chino Airport from a flight over Los Angeles in her Luscombe when I saw lightning coming from a disconcertingly black storm cloud north of the field. I was about to alert Kimberly when she called Chino to announce our approach. The tower controller responded instantly, in terse, clipped tones.

"Aircraft calling Chino, be advised that there is a thunderstorm cell eight miles to the north, moving toward Chino. We have just taken a direct lightning strike on the field. We can provide no services. We advise that you do not land. If you continue, you do so at your own risk."

Kimberly looked at me. "What do you think?" she asked. "Do you think we can make it?"

I looked at the runways, which we could see clearly, only a few miles away. Chances were, we could get to a runway before the storm did. But there weren't any guarantees. And we were in a 900-pound taildragger.

"Maybe," I answered. "But the winds in front of a thunderstorm can be pretty awful. And if we ball this thing up on the runway, this is how the NTSB accident report is going to read. It's going to say that two VFR pilots continued on to the only airport in the entire area with a thunderstorm bearing directly down on it after being specifically advised by the tower not to land. And that they did this with no fewer than …"

I looked back behind us, where the day was still clear and sunny, and did some quick math.

"…no fewer than six, count them, SIX, airports within 15 minutes' flying time that had perfectly clear skies." I paused for a moment. "I don't know about you, but I don't want to go out looking like that much of an idiot."

Kimberly laughed. "Okay," she said. "We'll go someplace else."

It's a guideline I've used ever since-a shortcut that immediately eliminates my personal filters and gets straight to the objective conditions and risks. Anytime I'm not sure whether to go, stay, land out or continue, I think of how the NTSB report is going to read if things don't go my way. If I'm going to look like an idiot, I figure I probably shouldn't do it.

But even so, the decision isn't always a simple one. There are many factors that weigh in every inflight decision I make, and the situations I actually face in the air are rarely clear-cut, textbook problems. Not once have I been flying along in clear blue skies and just accidentally flown into a puffy white cloud, necessitating the classic 180-degree turn. More typical of real life is that conditions aren't as reported. Visibility isn't great, but I can still see. The ceiling lowers, but it's still higher than my plane. Rainshowers lie up ahead, but rain doesn't necessarily mean unacceptable visibility, and perhaps conditions have deteriorated behind me, where the terrain is higher, as well. Or I'm above a broken layer that's becoming more solid, but it's still supposed to be good at my destination. Or the haze is thickening, but I know the terrain and surrounding landmarks well.

I know there's a point when I need to cut bait, reel in the line, and either turn around or land. But where, exactly, is that point?

There are times, in life as well as in the sky, when the decision is clear. Before the entrée is even served, you realize you're on the date from hell. It's pouring rain with zero-zero visibility. No agonizing over those calls. But much more common are situations where a relationship has good points and bad points. The job isn't great, but it's not so horrible as to make the decision to quit easy. The weather isn't good, but it's not scary bad, either. At least-not yet.

Figuring out life's more ambiguous calls involves a much more complex decision-making process that goes beyond clear right and wrong. Consciously or unconsciously, we weigh all sorts of factors-our desires, feelings, priorities, knowledge, past experience, comfort levels, the objective facts of the situation (as best we can discern them), and some kind of projection as to whether we think the situation is likely to get better, worse, or stay the same. And since many of the factors that go into those decisions are subjective or personal, our answers won't all be the same. One person might stay in a job or relationship far longer than someone else would choose to do. Some pilots might decide to land earlier, while others with more equipment, experience, knowledge of the local area-or just a higher tolerance for risk-would opt to press on.

And yet, most of us have some point where all the inputs combine into an intuitive feeling that it's time to quit. We may or may not listen to that feeling, of course, but that's another issue. I'm never happy about having to land out from my destination, or tie the airplane down again after planning a trip or departure. But I've done it any number of times, with no regrets-and not just because I don't want to look stupid on an NTSB report. It's because I've learned to respect the wisdom of the supercomputer within me that processes more information and factors than I'm even aware of and churns out an answer in the form of a simple, gut reaction that just doesn't feel good about going any further.

Poised at the entrance to the Salinas Valley, I reflect on my non-negotiable rules, and the wisdom or stupidity of breaking them in this particular situation. I consider how the NTSB report would read if I had a problem en route to Salinas. I look back toward the two runways at Paso Robles, which I can see clearly, then gaze at the deepening dusk and mist of the valley ahead. On the far side of that canyon lies the comfort of my bed and home. But the voice of my gut is clear. For whatever combination of factors and reasons, it just doesn't feel good about going any further.

I sigh, pull the throttle back, and turn toward Paso Robles. Home will just have to wait.