The Pilot's Lounge #99: Turn Back? You Bet!

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Press on. Finish what you started. You're better than the rest. What do the voices in your head tell you when you're considering turning around in the middle of the flight? AVweb's Rick Durden had to fight those voices during a winter VFR flight, as he tells in this month's The Pilot's Lounge column.

The Pilot's Lounge

I was in the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport, a place normally for good friends, good conversation and some support when things were not going well. Yet, Old Hack's voice was dripping with scorn as he addressed me from about three inches away: "You miserable excuse for a pilot. Now we truly know what sort of chicken-livered, never-will-be you are. It's about time your true colors emerged. I'm just amazed you had the temerity to show your face around here after it became clear that you aren't really a pilot."

I frantically looked for the door; but when I turned one direction, there was Sandy, face as red as her hair, yelling, "And I once let you fly my Citabria. I'm just lucky you didn't roll it up into a ball. Are you even sure that you can read a map or is that too scary for Mr. Macho Pilot?"

I knew there was a door somewhere. I'd gotten into this chamber of horrors through it; I just had to find it again. I turned the other way, past Hack's venomous glare, only to be accosted by Armand: "Gawd, and I took dual from you. Now the FAA wants to re-examine me for both my commercial and CFI certificates. It's all your fault. You better be ready to shell out for the aircraft I'm going to have to rent while I got through this whole "repeat of my checkrides" stuff. The FAA is convinced your incompetence has rubbed off on me. They won't listen when I tell them that I learned in spite of you."

There. I see it. I'm certain. It's over there, to the left. The door. I start for it, but my feet won't move. I'm suddenly up to my waist in quicksand. Now the door is receding from me no matter how hard I struggle towards it. Now the room is packed full of pilots, pilots that I thought were my friends, chanting, "You turned back, you chickened out, you turned back, you chickened out ..."

I awoke, sweating, shivering, and breathing hard. I got out of bed, grabbed my robe and headed down the hall to get a glass of water.

Sitting at the kitchen table, I took stock of the situation. It was four in the morning. The house was quiet, my wife and daughter were sleeping. I was alive and well. Yet, my psyche refused to let me let go of a decision I'd made about 12 hours before. Because of the decision, I was alive and well. Had I chosen to behave differently, the result might have been most unpleasant. I had started out on a flight to pick up my daughter. About 15 minutes into it I decided I did not like the weather ahead, turned around and came back to the airport from which I had departed. I put the airplane away, got in my car and drove. The aborted flight caused me to be delayed in picking her up by two hours and I drove through one of the most blinding snowfalls I'd ever experienced.

Siren Song Begins

OK, I'll back up. When I had looked at the radar and talked with Flight Service prior to the flight, there were scattered areas of light rain and snow. No returns were greater than the lowest echo level, Level 1. The reporting stations along my route showed scattered clouds at about 3,000 feet, with a broken layer about a thousand above that. The worst reported visibility was nine miles. No station was reporting precipitation. The briefer and I suspected that some of the radar returns might be just virga; and we discussed an event the previous week when the radar was showing widespread snow but none of it was reaching the ground.

The forecast was for scattered rain and snow. Temperatures were above freezing on the surface and were forecast to remain so, but there would be ice in the clouds. The tops were in excess of 9,000 feet. It looked to be a good day for a VFR flight. In fact, it was a day I would not go IFR because the minimum en route altitude of 4,000 feet would probably put me in the scattered layer of clouds, which meant I would very likely collect rime ice. Even though the clouds were probably layered and the worst report was that they were broken, the airplane I was to use did not have the performance to climb through what ice I expected to be present in the clouds to get on top.

The nearest reporting airport, about five miles away from my departure point, was announcing 3,500 scattered on the ATIS as I took off. Turning north, I saw areas of showers, as depicted on the radar; however, the clouds near them had bases that were far lower then 3,500 feet. They were more in the 1,500 foot AGL range. I had leveled off at 2,500 feet, or about 1,500 feet AGL. Going through the showers would mean descending to about 1,000 feet AGL, which would mean I may or may not be legal should I go over any congested areas, and it made clearance over the numerous towers dotting the landscape much less than would be comfortable.

To add to this joyous state of affairs, I could not see through the big snow or rain shower that was directly along my intended route of flight. It was about 12 miles away, so I had time to consider my alternatives. My rule of thumb when VFR and dealing with rain or snow is that I have to either be able to see through an area of precip. or be convinced I have at least four or five miles of visibility ahead of me when I first enter the rain or snow. I certainly didn't have the former with this dark, wide shower ahead of me. As I drew nearer, I was rapidly convinced that, at most, I might have a half-mile of visibility once inside.

On top of the other less-than-stellar variables, the air temperature was down to -1C. That was more than a little surprising because the surface temperature when I took off a few minutes ago was 3C. A 4C temperature-drop in 1,500 feet vertically and less than 10 miles horizontally is an indication that there is more to this weather than just scattered showers in a stable atmosphere. Nevertheless, I decided to divert left, to the west, around this shower.

The Picture Changes

As I chatted with the controller about my intended diversion, he referred to what I was looking at as a cell. That added another bit of less-than-favorable information to the equation: If he's calling it a cell, the precip. return is certainly more intense than the Level 1 stuff I'd been looking at on the radar on my computer all afternoon.

About then I flew through light snow. It did not adhere to the airframe, and it did not adversely affect visibility, but it started creating a little static in the radios, so I knew the static wicks on the airplane were well past their prime. It was yet another inducement to stay out of the snow showers.

The end-run I started became a five-mile deviation to the west before I could turn north on my way. Once around the "cell," I estimated its size to be 10 miles east to west, and about four miles north to south. In addition, the low clouds I'd seen along the south and west sides spread a significant distance north from the boundary of the precipitation. I recalled that all afternoon the movement of the precip. was to the south, driven by a low that was about 100 miles northeast.

Having gotten around the cell, I was able to again look to the north. Great, the way was blocked by another wide snow shower. There were showers to the northeast and northwest that I could easily see through. The one straight ahead was solid black; no light was showing through it.

Point of No Return

I had several minutes to weigh the alternatives, as the black shower was still more than 10 miles away. The shower I had just circumnavigated and the one straight ahead were both far heavier than I'd anticipated based on the information I had prior to flight. The direction of movement would put them over my departure airport, or quite near to it, about the time I had planned to return. Because that airport was unlighted and had no instrument approaches, and assuming that the precip. intensity wasn't going to diminish, I wasn't going to get back home if one of these two "showers" were above it.

If there were more of these fairly heavy snow showers on my course line, the time I would spend deviating might just delay me from getting back to sweet, unlighted, home plate until after dark, another less-than-ideal situation. That would mean a diversion to the larger airport nearby and a possible instrument approach. However, the temperature was -1C at my altitude, which is below the initial altitude for the instrument approaches, and the clouds associated with the cells were at about this altitude. If I had to enter any clouds at all, I was going to get ice and this airplane won't carry enough to make a margarita. If this airplane were turbocharged and approved for flight in known icing, the trip would be pretty easy. But, I had to deal with reality.

I had to be realistic: This routine, VFR run involving light precip. had turned into a situation that just plain stunk. As I'd heard an understated friend of mine say once, "... the successful completion of the intended flight is doubtful." As a lawyer I'd watched evidence pile up on one side or the other of cases before, and here it was steadily and inexorably piling up on the side of "Give this up as a bad deal and get back to the departure airport before it's too late."

Second Guessing

Yet, suddenly, I started thinking about irrelevancies. I started thinking about what I'd have to do if I turned around. It meant a number of telephone calls to revise plans. I'd be about two hours late picking up my daughter. Good grief, what was I doing thinking about that when I was only five miles from a solid wall of precip. in below-freezing temperatures? The fact that I'd be late simply didn't matter. She was not in any danger. She wasn't lying somewhere bleeding to death in immediate need of me flying in to rescue her. I wasn't carrying some serum to save the town from certain death if I didn't get there in the next 40 minutes. All turning around meant was that I'd have to admit I made a wrong decision about the weather and that I was in an airplane that was not capable of making that flight, at that time, in those conditions.

As the distance to the precip. fell to four miles, I thought of those years of flying Part 135 charter in the "bad old days" where I never cancelled a trip for weather because I would have lost my job. Now, I was going to turn back; to admit I couldn't cut it.

And, as the irrelevant thoughts continued, I thought of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' seminal work on death and dying and how humans face knowing they are going to die and the stages in dealing with it: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I didn't think I'd gone through all the stages in a decision to turn back, perhaps because it was only a situation that involved doing something I'd rather not do. But, suddenly, the thoughts of the thousands of pilots who had not turned back, who had pressed on into crummy weather and either hit something or lost control of the airplane came to me and I thought, briefly, that things couldn't be this bad, that I could go on and that I didn't want to turn back.

Then I thought of Doc Walt's immortal approach toward crummy weather and decision-making: If nothing else, I didn't want to look stupid in the NTSB report.

Better Part of Valor

Enough of the irrelevant-thought crap and "press-on-regardless" foolishness. I freely and voluntarily admitted I couldn't make the trip on that day, in that weather in that airplane. I was in clear air, well above obstructions and a little more than three miles from a snow shower that was utterly black. It was time to boogie while the boogie-ing was good.

I rolled into a steep right turn and called Approach to advise that I didn't like the weather north of me. I said was returning to my point of departure and that I would need to divert around a snow shower on the way. He responded by advising that I could follow whatever route I chose as there weren't any other airplanes out there.

Fifteen minutes later I was on the ground and pushing the airplane into the hangar. I made a series of telephone calls, one of which was to my wife. She was extremely happy to hear from me as it was snowing hard at the house and she was concerned.

I made the drive northbound through a few, light, snow showers and picked up my daughter. We laughed and talked as we headed back south until, about 20 miles from home, we drove into the heaviest snow I've experienced in some time. Great, fat, wet flakes cut visibility to about 200 yards and we crept along for 10 miles before coming out of it. I thought about the fact that, had I been flying, those flakes would not have adhered to the airframe, but they would have blocked the engine air inlet in a big hurry.

I was very glad I wasn't aloft wishing to be on the ground.

Friendly Support

Later, I called some of my friends who frequent the Pilot's Lounge. I chatted with each one about the decision to turn back when a trip isn't working. All allowed as how they had done so and admitted that they'd spent some time second-guessing the decision both as they made it and afterward. A few also volunteered that even when they cancel a trip before takeoff, due to weather, they go through a brief period of discomfort with the decision even while they try to tell themselves never to Monday-morning-quarterback a decision not to fly due to weather, equipment or pilot condition.

Funny, the only voice I heard trying to second-guess my decision to turn around was that little macho pilot inside me; it must be the one who generated that dream because, on the phone, Hack, Sandy and Armand all said turning around was one of the smartest things I'd done in some time. And Hack immediately went on to say that I don't do many smart things.

I think he gave me a compliment someplace in there.

See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.