No, No, I Won't Go!

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I didn't sleep very well. I kept going over the DUAT weather briefing in my mind trying to make it read better than I knew it did. I was scheduled to fly the short flight over to Exxel Avionics at Hartford (Connecticut)-Brainard Airport (KHFD) to have the biennial IFR certification performed on my Cardinal.

In January, the aircraftlogs.com logbook program had automatically sent me an e-mail alert warning that the requirement for the biennial recertification of my two transponders and the altimeter system had gone from green to yellow. I had programmed the software to first alert me with the change to yellow a month before the month the certification was actually due. Again, as programmed, on the first of February I got a second e-mail from aircraftlogs.com, this time warning me with a red alert that the certification was due before the end of the current month. As religious as I am about the items that have to be periodically completed in order to keep both me and the airplane current, it's easy for things to slip by. Having aircraftlogs.com keeping me legal and up to date has been a real help.

When I had gone to bed the night before the scheduled flight, the outlook for flying over to Hartford in the morning was pretty good with a forecast for a ceiling of 8,000 feet. My concern was for the return trip later in the day. At 2100Z, the terminal forecast for Bradley (KBDL) in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, the closest reporting station to Brainard Airport, called for: "Wind from 130 degrees at 5 knots, visibility 5.00 miles, weather light snow, rain, mist, sky scattered 3/8-4/8 coverage at 2500 feet, overcast at 4000 feet."

Okay, I thought, I can get to Hartford and assuming no problems with the work that had to be performed, I might be able to leave early enough to make the trip back home in legally VFR conditions. With a 4,000-foot ceiling, I should be able to dodge the scattered layer at 2,500 feet. And even with the Berkshire Mountains and the Taconic Hills between Hartford and home, the pucker factor would be attenuated by the terrain and obstruction database in the GMX 200 augmenting the forecast five-mile visibility.

What kept me awake, though, was the forecast later in the day, that called for "light ice pellets rain, sky overcast at 3500 feet." If the work took longer than expected, or the weather moved in sooner than anticipated, the flight couldn't be made VFR and, with the freezing level starting at the surface, it wasn't going to be the kind of day I'd want to be IFR in the clouds.

Nevertheless, I went ahead, planned the flight and packed my flight bag -- added a couple fresh batteries and another backup flashlight in case night beat me home. In the morning when I made my final check of the weather it hadn't changed. I still planned to go. Worst-case scenario, I'd spend the night in Hartford. As a mitigation of the pressure to make the flight, I had scheduled the work early enough in the month so there would be sufficient time to have the certification completed before it expired.

As I scraped off the ice that had accrued overnight on the window of my car, I was aware of a cold dampness on my face. The ceiling appeared about as forecast but the dampness didn't feel good. That did it. I took my flight bag out of the car and went back in the house to call Larry Anglisano at Exxel to let him know I wasn't coming.

The go/no go decision is an easy one to make when the conditions are so ominous that the choice is obvious. The hardest decisions occur when things "aren't that bad," "might improve" or "this isn't that much worse than the time I did it before."

I often suggest when a decision is hard to make, it's because both of the choices -- go or no go -- are so close in equal value. If you flip a coin in a situation where you can't easily make up your mind, often you'll find that the way it comes up makes you realize that's not the choice you really wanted to make. And if it comes up the other way, you realize that that was the choice you subconsciously preferred. With my decision not to go to Hartford that day, I knew just from the feeling of relief after I made the decision that whatever the weather was going to turn out to be, it was the correct option.

Sometimes, when you scrub a trip for weather, the sun breaks out and you feel foolish and resentful for not having made the trip. But, it's worth reminding yourself, and I do frequently, that it's always better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground. The day I scrubbed my Hartford flight, freezing rain started by 1:00 in the afternoon. I was glad to be on the ground.

Although we've gotten used to the idea that the airlines can delay or cancel flights due to weather -- and often do -- for some reason, maybe because the whole concept of general aviation is the freedom to go when and where we want, we don't as easily allow ourselves the freedom to delay or cancel a flight. The pressure to make a flight is still a major cause of accidents, typically as a result of "continued VFR flight into IFR conditions."

Fortunately, many of my trips involve visiting companies that are involved in aviation and typically understand the vagaries of keeping to a schedule. I remember when we bought our Cardinal in San Diego when Judith and I were vacationing there and had to fly it back to the east coast. I called Jim Holahan, editor and founder of Aviation International News, for which I was working at the time, to explain why I might not be back to work as scheduled from my vacation. His response was essentially, "Take your time. However long it takes. Fly safe." His attitude relieved me of any pressure to try to push the envelop on the flight home. As it was, since I wasn't current on instruments, it took Judith and me five days to cross the country VFR. Turned out to be a wonderful trip and a great way to get comfortable with the new-to-us airplane.

As pilots, we need to educate our passengers and people meeting us when we arrive in our airplanes that we're really not that much better than the airlines and there are going to be times when we'll have to delay or cancel flights.

Risk assessment is not just a matter of making a go/no-go decision before a flight, but requires a continued updating en route of the conditions and circumstances of the flight. Is the headwind stronger than forecast? If it is, will that cause a potential for fuel exhaustion? Is the weather at your destination still as forecast or is it improving or deteriorating? If the destination is a single runway airport, has the crosswind increased enough to make it prudent to land at another airport with a runway more aligned with the prevailing wind? On a long cross-country flight I'm constantly reconsidering my original flight plan. Having XM Weather on the Garmin GMX 200 and on the Garmin 496 lets me stay aware of the current metars at my destination and airports along my route so that well before I arrive in the terminal area I have a pretty good idea what to expect. It also gives me time to make other plans before the situation becomes critical.

As I'm writing this, both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton have had to cancel scheduled campaign flights to Wisconsin the day before the primary there because of weather. It's not hard to imagine the incredible pressure that must have been brought to bear to complete their travel plans. The go/no-go decision had to be a difficult one. But the correct decision was made. It's a good lesson for the rest of us.