Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The regret of the 'no go' decision



Sometimes, I think I'm too risk-averse to be a pilot.

For the past six weeks, I've been planning a trip to Arizona with my youngest (25) son. We're both big Cleveland Indians fans and wanted to spend a couple of days watching the Tribe. My friend, Darwin Barrie, offered to put the RV-7A up at his airpark and give us his truck for the week to use.

And so began weeks of planning for the trip, which -- for me -- consists of six weeks of worrying, playing "what if?". I pored over the charts and established the best route. I consulted with Darwin on the best approach into Phoenix' airspace. I'd go to sleep at night thinking of the approach and memorizing every mile of the route, the fuel stops, and the time.

Last fall, I met a gentleman who was kayaking from the Northwest Angle of Minnesota to Key West. Daniel Alvarez started in June and hoped to reach Key West on New Year's Eve. He actually reached it last week. But when I talked to him at the time, I was planning a trip to Massachusetts. "I'm a little nervous about it," I admitted to him.

"If you're not a little nervous," he said, "you're not going far enough."

As I prepared for this trip, I heard his words. Constantly. The nervousness was fine, I told myself, because I'm going far enough. It's good.

About two weeks ago, the weather discussions at the National Weather Service regional sites (they reallyare very interesting and informative reads) began to encompass the departure weather -- today -- and more "worrying" as the "what ifs" grew to encompass every section of the route, weatherwise. What are my limits? What are my alternates? How prepared am I to make the no-go decision?

Of course, it's impossible to know for sure that far out what the weather will be, which necessitates more "what ifs."

Although a blizzard came through Minnesota yesterday, I was fairly confident we'd be able to get out of here this morning. (I'd already scrapped a Monday departure last week on the basis of the the weather data I'd been gathering for a week and analyzing every four or five hours). The gusty winds were to die down to about 20 knots this morning, I checked the airport yesterday and they'd done a good and quick job removing the blowing snow, and the sky was supposed to be scattered clouds at 2500 feet. It would be cold, but I was fairly sure we'd survive the three-hour trip in high headwinds to Lexington, Nebraska, our first fuel stop, and be able to get out of there before the winds were forecast to pick up there. The rest of the trip looked weather-good. I started dreaming about being one of those people who posts trip pictures on Van's Air Force.

I'd earlier been concerned about getting Patrick home in time for a shift he had scheduled on Sunday, and a test at school (he's in the nursing program) for Monday. So I bought a $550 refundable one-way ticket on Southwest from Phoenix to Minneapolis for Saturday for him, and figured if need be, I could stay in Phoenix for a few extra days and fly back alone. But at least he'd be back in time.

Otherwise, we'd plan to fly back on Friday, maybe Saturday if the weather was good from there to here.

He was excited for the trip, especially with temperatures here 20-30 degrees below normal for this time of year. All of Minnesota is experiencing seasonal disorder, as is custom, and a couple days of watching baseball was the perfect antidote. It would have been a fabulous flight down and a great experience between father and son to remember forever.
This is why I built an airplane.

I spent yesterday on final preparations for the plane, plugging in the engine heater, organizing what's staying and what's going, and trying to figure out how close to gross weight we'd be. As it turns out, I learned just how quickly two 170-pound pilots and baggage can exceed the 1800-pound limit on an RV-7A with a full load of fuel. It'd be close.

Late last evening, flight plans filed, plane ready, peanut-butter sandwiches and water packed, I made one last weather check before a go-no go decision, only to discover the weather discussions from the National Weather Service sites from the Texas panhandle (Dalhart, TX was a fuel stop) all the way to Minneapolis began mentioning precipitation and clouds for Thursday into the weekend, where they had mentioned none previously.

But it's impossible to know at this early stage what sorts of clouds and what kind of precipitation. Steady rain? Showers? Low clouds? High clouds? Clouds I can snake around or clouds that keep me on the ground? Clouds that might entice me to fly scud? There was no way to know for sure. Then I read that the two main computer models -- one from the U.S. and one from Europe -- disagreed on what might happen. The European model was suggesting the system would stall over the Dakotas through Monday. The U.S. model was suggesting it might not.

Now I had to make a decision: Which one to believe? In previous analysis of weather discussions, I felt the European computer models were more accurate, so I chose to believe them.

Then I thought about trying to fly home, and running into ice, or low clouds and not being able to find a way through. I started to think about Get Home-itis, when the urge to get home forces pilots to make bad decisions. I thought about forcing Patrick to get in a plane on Friday to try to make it home before things (maybe) got bad -- and then getting stranded in Kansas, with him missing his work shift and his test -- rather than waiting a day and putting him safely on an airliner, and I thought about me sitting in Phoenix waiting for springtime weather to be good from Phoenix to Minneapolis, paying for a motel, not getting back to work on time at a place that isn't as excited about what I do as it once seemed to be.

And then I called the trip off.

I called Patrick and told him. "It's OK," he said, although I knew it wasn't. He's already scheduled the days off. He'd already given his car away to his girlfriend to use because hers is on a bad tire. He'd already packed. He was looking forward to the experience, and somewhere along the trip, I was going to teach him the ins and outs of flying.

His goal on the trip was to play catch with his father on the hill beyond the right field at the Indians' park in Goodyear (even though they'd be on the road for the two games we'd watch, but the Reds play at the same park). "Don't forget to pack your glove and ball," he said a few days ago.

The day this morning dawned bright and sunny, though cold and windy. But it's a beautiful day to fly. "All that worry, and for what?" I said to myself as I set one foot out of the bed, and then another. My back was aching from yesterday's snow shoveling. I read the paper then sat in the rocking chair by the front window, bathing in the sun, and found myself thinking, "I'd be landing in Lexington right now."

And that's my punishment for the next few days. I'll watch the Indians game tomorrow and think "I'd be there right now," and even worse, I know my son will be doing that too. I will spend them wondering if I made a bad call.

Although I'm hoping a blizzard comes flying through the Plains on Friday on into Monday, it wouldn't surprise me if the weather turns out to be flyable, which will be an even greater punishment -- the knowledge that we could've done the trip and we missed out on a great experience. Together.

We're taught early in our flight training to use good judgment, and that many pilots have regretted trying to fly when they shouldn't.

But they don't tell you about the other kind of regret. The regret that maybe I was too cautious.

The regret that I missed one more game of catch with my son.


6 comments:

  1. What a beautiful story, showing your passion for your son(s) and flying and baseball. As hard as it is, you made the right decision. Maybe take Patrick somewhere in Minnesota during his time off, even if it's not to a baseball game?

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  2. I know it sucks but you did the right thing, Bob. Hope you get another chance to plan a trip like this with your son.

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  3. In your heart you know you did right, in your mind you'll review your decision for days. I was thinking of posting a story of my own first attempt at a long cross-country but I won't...instead, this:

    Cross-countries are easy, you just need a credit card with a high limit, a good GPS, and lots of time. Time to stay in some place for days waiting for good weather, time to not return to work, family, and real life, time to burn.

    Oh, and if you have passengers, you need guts, or, you need to be able to turn on ass-hat mode: to cancel the flight. To turn around part way. To stop part way, put your pax on a return flight or bus home. You planned for all that, so you're ready for cross-country flights.

    Here's an idea. Plan another cross-country somewhere, but solo, or maybe with another more experienced pilot. As above, allow plenty of time for delays. Wanna come to Northern California? We'll put you up. But plan, and attempt, another XC without the non-pilot pax pressure. Reply here if you think NorCal is a possibility, my offer is real.

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  4. Well done, my friend. (And a wonderful write up, as usual!)

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  5. Bob, sorry the trip didn't work out. As a person who lives on the cautious side of life, I feel you made the right call. You should have no regrets at all. If in your gut it didn't feel right, it wasn't right.

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  6. I wish I had a gallon of 100 LL for every time I’ve gone through a slice of the painstaking planning and guesswork you’ve just been through. I’d have enough fuel to fly on for the next 20 years.

    Unless you sell your plane tomorrow, you know there’ll be more opportunities for trips. And you know that you’ll build on what you learned from planning this one — even if you didn’t take it.

    I like Ralph’s suggestion of making cross-country trips with another pilot. Reading this entry brought back vivid memories of lightening, thunder and sheets of rain outside my bedroom window before dawn on the September morning of a planned trip from southeastern Minnesota to Mississippi in a Cessna 182 some years ago. Had I been the solo PIC, I likely wouldn’t have begun the trip. But I was going with a more experienced pilot, a CFII. What a relief it was to share the weather evaluation and pre-departure flight planning that morning. Short story is we waited for the convective weather to move off and flew the trip. There was more weather along the way, but we discussed and planned as we went.

    I’ll look forward to reading about the next trip.

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