I Learned About Flying From That: A Bad Feeling

Trust your instincts when something doesn't feel right.

ILAFFT Bad Feeling

ILAFFT Bad Feeling

** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go
to barryrossart.com.**

Our county medical society was hosting a winter conference at Sun Valley, a ski resort town in Idaho. Being an avid skier and pilot, I jumped at the opportunity to scratch both itches and fly to the conference. The FBO at my field had a Seneca II available, with oxygen, boots and hot props (but not a flight into known icing system). This was in 1992, so the panel didn’t feature direct inflight weather information or onboard thunderstorm detection equipment. The week before the conference, I was happy with the airplane and my proficiency. During my last checkout flight, I invited Dave, my instructor, to come with me to the conference as a buddy. Being a starving young flight instructor, he jumped at the chance for a free ski trip. It was nice to have another pilot along as well.

The day of departure came, and it was clear air from Seattle to Sun Valley. We had an absolutely gorgeous flight to the ski resort. Winter flying in good weather over the mountains is an incredible visual experience. After arriving, my 8-year-old son, Chris, Dave and I enjoyed great skiing and also an educational conference each day.

On the last scheduled conference day, a storm arrived. “Oh well, we get to ski an extra day,” I thought. It was tough, but we suffered horribly in all the fresh powder snow. It continued to snow, and we got a second extra day, which we had allowed for in our plans. The next morning saw improving weather, with forecast tops expected around 9,000 feet. Since there is no IFR departure procedure from Friedman Memorial Airport (SUN), we had to be able to remain VFR for the initial climb. After removing more than a foot of snow from the Seneca and thawing it in a warm hangar, we were one of about 10 airplanes that departed quickly when the weather cleared for an hour. When we were above the mountain ridges, we picked up our clearance and headed home for what I expected to be an uneventful flight.

We were climbing and climbing, now on oxygen, and nearing 17,000 feet. But something didn’t feel right. That nagging feeling that only a fool would ignore was starting to work on me. It is the old subconscious warning you of problems in your immediate future. As a physician, I’ve learned to pay attention to this feeling; it has proven to be very valuable. I had a bad case of it, but Dave did not. He was just happy as could be letting someone else fly and enjoying the lack of any real responsibilities.

I wondered why we were having to climb a lot higher than expected to get into clear air. I called approach, but they didn’t offer any information that explained the differences in planned as compared to actual conditions. Likewise, Flight Service didn’t have anything to add to reassure me. There were no pireps available for our route.

I was still very uneasy with the lack of information received. For no good reason other than that persistent bad feeling, I decided to listen to ATIS at Boise, Idaho, which was about 50 to 60 miles directly ahead (due west). We were barely able to hear it but made out “a line of thunderstorms east of Boise,” with no distance given. Neither approach nor Flight Service told me about this line of storms during discussions just minutes before.

At this point, I wanted to get out of the clouds and actually see what was going on. We were now past the mountain range, over a plateau and able to descend. To Dave’s surprise — since he still wasn’t really concerned — I also requested a heading change of due south along with the descent. I didn’t want to go another foot west without knowing the exact position of the thunderstorms ahead of me. When we finished the descent and were VFR about 5 to 6 minutes later, we saw a huge thunderhead at the end of a visible line of storms just behind our right wingtip. The storms were less than 5 miles away, probably rising to 45,000 feet.

We would have penetrated them during a westerly descent had I not also deviated 90 degrees from our course, and most likely we would have come out of the bottom of the cell in pieces, since I descended in the bottom yellow well above maneuvering speed (oops!). Dave and I decided to land in Boise and sort things out from the safety of the ground. It appeared that the weather had come in unexpectedly, with strong winds, severe icing and thunderstorms continuing along farther west over the Cascade mountain range to the Seattle area.

The saddest part of this story was that while we waited out the weather in a hotel in Boise, two separate aircraft full of student pilots crashed in the Cascades along our original planned route. There were several fatalities. I’ve often wondered if any of those young pilots who died that day had a bad feeling but didn’t act or couldn’t act upon it until it was too late.

That afternoon, I watched with a sense of wonder at life as my son was sliding down the water slide in the hotel pool, yelling and screaming with pleasure. He had no concept of how close his life had come to ending a few hours earlier. He is now a physician in training, and this event is just a distant memory and nothing worse.

That night, Dave and I discussed what it means to have a bad feeling and its relationship to inflight decision making and life in general. We both thanked God for our deliverance from a potentially deadly situation. Was it a guardian angel speaking to me; was it good training working on my subconscious, or was it a combination of things?

We flew home the next morning in solid IFR without any problems of icing, thunderstorms or strong winds.

We learned that day that no matter how well equipped your airplane, sometimes you need to have a good book, find a hotel and stay on the ground. Sometimes you need a very complex and well-equipped airplane to complete a safe flight, and sometimes even that is not enough. This flight had so many decision trees it was scary. Some we did well, and some we could have done better. And there were many of them that, decided differently, could have led to a bad outcome.

Despite the easy availability of near-real-time weather information in the cockpit today, you should still maintain a high level of suspicion if any aspect of your flight seems not as expected. Always listen to that bad feeling — it could save your life as it did ours. Even if the other pilots in the airplane don’t have a safety concern, your bad feeling may be dead on, so persist in figuring out why you feel uncomfortable until the reason is clear.

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