Overly Confident or Carefully Cautious?

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"After reading Dick Karl's article 'The Practiced Art of Airline Safety' in the October issue, it becomes obvious that the best way to instantly improve the safety of flying and the medical profession is to ban Dick Karl from practicing either of them. I would not want him performing surgery on my open chest or any other body part while he casually daydreams about flying. As for flying with or anywhere near him, I wonder if he might be thinking the following while on an instrument approach to minimums in the mountains at night: 'I wonder what ever happened to the guy I operated on the other … zzzzzz.' " So reads a letter to Flying by Tom Stark of Alachua, Florida. He wasn't the only one.

You may be wondering what I could have written to elicit such a scolding. Well, I admitted to thinking about the commonality of surgery and flying while closing a patient's chest after an esophageal resection. Though I spend most of my time practicing surgery, a week earlier I had spent four great days with fellow columnist Les Abend as he plied his trade as an airline captain. The trip had been very much on my mind and I remarked as to how far medicine has to go in order to become as safe as the airlines. No doubt Mr. Stark and others have never had a stray thought while at work, but I have, as countless readers now know.

Ironically, these reprimands by readers come at a time in my professional surgical life when I have become much more focused on safety. I no longer play music in the operating room; I give a lengthy brief before each case and generally try to mimic what I've seen in aviation. Come to think of it, I am much more focused on safety in airplanes, too.

You wouldn't know that, though, if you read a letter from Dr. Tom Navar of El Paso. Responding to a piece in the December issue where I described a flight from Tampa to New England during which I took our recently out of maintenance Cheyenne way west of course in order to circumnavigate the remnants of Hurricane Ernesto, the good doctor wrote: "To fly any airplane into an area of such weather as Hurricane Ernesto caused, especially following a hot section overhaul is, at least, questionable; at most, irresponsible. To applaud such actions by publishing them in your magazine parallels this. No airplane must fly, regardless of the pilot's ego."

These letters of disapproval were rattling around in my mind over the Thanksgiving holiday when, again, my wife and dog and I were intent on reaching New Hampshire from Florida. The problem was a low that had parked itself off the coast of North Carolina. I remember thinking to myself: "Am I really as unsafe as readers think? Or do I write about my profession and my flying in a way which exaggerates the risk and downplays the caution I try to exercise? Or, are some magazine readers misanthropic scolds with no life of their own, who are essentially, well, jealous?"

Now that I've got 4,000 hours in the logbook and a Boeing 737 type rating on my license, not to mention yearly recurrent training in the Cheyenne at FlightSafety, I find that I've got a growing sense of confidence. Or is it a false sense of ability?

Just how foolish would a flight skirting the Thanksgiving weather be? Our turboprop is a solid airplane, good for 235 knots. The trip would be made on the back side of the low and thus headwinds, not the customary tailwinds, would prevail; up to 80 knots' worth at Flight Level 180. We are certified for flight into "known icing," but I've never taken much solace nor put much stock in this appellation. The whole scenario seemed to be very similar to the flight that Dr. Navar found so inappropriate.

Given the necessary course deviation and obligatory fuel stop, we'd be arriving in the mountains of New Hampshire after dark. Lebanon, New Hampshire, was calling for 5,000 scattered, no significant weather, visibility 10 miles all day and all night. The low was still way south of New England, but it was making a mess in Virginia, North Carolina and, later, New York. There was no moon to help.

I must say that the 737 training changed things. I spent two glorious weeks with people who fly for a living and, although their airplanes are way more capable than ours is, they expect to go. Every time, almost. Many of them had been captains for regional airlines and had tons of turboprop time. Some had flown checks at night in Aztecs and Cessna 310s. At night in ice. Every night.

Was their matter-of-fact approach to weather contagious? They are professionals and I am not. Yet, I do have some experience and am by nature cautious. Isn't this the kind of trip that King Airs and Cheyennes were built for? I thought about those admonishments by readers that I should only think and talk about surgery while operating. I also thought of something a Southwest Airlines captain told me: Keep the cockpit alert and focused, but be sure that things are informal and comfortable. Don't be uptight. Get to know the pilot sitting inches from you. Those informal moments will be an asset if there's an emergency.

We settled on Knoxville as a fuel stop. Two plus 42 said the flight plan. We took off at 10:30 and only climbed to 16,000 feet. The airplane burns 500 pounds an hour that low, compared to 400 pounds an hour at 220. But the winds were just obnoxious, so we stayed down. I could hear another Cheyenne on the Jacksonville center frequency. He had decided to climb to 220 to "help with the fuel burn." He seemed to be on a similar route. We had light, occasionally moderate chop. I was uneasy.

Ordinarily on this trip we'd be going over Savannah, Norfolk and the eastern end of Long Island. Instead we went right over Atlanta. Nonetheless, we were in the clear and turbulence is a lot easier to tolerate when you can see. I could see the Knoxville airport from 30 miles out and we were cleared to 5R straight in. I was following a simple principle here: It is okay for me to start out if the departure weather is okay and forecast to stay that way. We can always turn around. On our second leg, the same rule applied. We can depart. If I see something I don't like, we can retreat. Keep the escape hatch in view. I wouldn't choose to spend Thanksgiving in Knoxville, but we'd find a way to enjoy it.

As we refueled, the other Cheyenne landed and taxied in with a great roar of beta (reverse pitch on the props). Though prop noise is often unpleasant on the ground, I loved hearing this because it was a forceful sound and the airplane making it was the same as ours. Still, why come roaring into the FBO like that? Soon I saw the pilot, whom I had met once before on the ramp in Florida. He was en route to Teterboro and had made the same course decision I had. He was going to have to deal with the weather in New York, though. The pilot answered my unspoken query about all the prop reverse. His left brake had failed on landing and he was using the beta to stay slow while taxiing. While he went off in search of a mechanic I saw a boy, wife and little dog looking forlornly out of the airplane. Happy Thanksgiving in Knoxville, I thought, we may be seeing you again.

I checked the weather and paid the bill. Our flight plan called for 3 plus 33, with gradually increasing ground speeds as we pulled away from the low. Our climb out ground speeds were low, in the 120s, and the GPS predicted a six-hour trip. We were going to need some help here.

We got it. Tracking across Pennsylvania into the southern tier of New York, we broke into ground speeds in the 230s. Airliners bound for New York and Newark were stacked up over Williamsport; we could see them in the last waning sun, circling like huge hawks, waiting for a chance to penetrate the weather and take their holiday celebrants to a safe, albeit late, landing.

The sun took its time going down. I shed sunglasses for bifocals, turned on the cockpit lights, checked the flashlights. I was grateful that I had prepared for winter by renewing the batteries and doing some landings in the dark right after daylight savings time went away. Finally dark, we were instructed to descend to 11,000 feet and head directly for Lebanon. It was clear, but black. I could see the lights of Rutland, Vermont, but not its airport. I looked up the highest obstruction in the area on the LEB approach plate and vowed not to descend below 3,700 feet until the runway, not the rotating beacon, was in sight.

We were told to expect Runway 36, which I knew from past experience would be obscured by a hill given our direction of flight. Boston Center turned us over to the tower. I was relieved when the tower called us in sight. We couldn't be about to run into a mountain if he could see us. Finally 36 inched into view. Our landing was soft.

That night I looked up our ground speeds and track on flightaware.com. I also looked for the other Cheyenne. Though he was delayed by the brake repair and had to penetrate what looked like snow on the radar, he landed after six. It must have been dark in New Jersey, too.

Another pilot made similar decisions to mine. He appeared to have safely landed at his destination. Isn't that why we fly?