Pick Your Poison
Making the go-no/go decision is always a topic guaranteed to generate comments and war stories among pilots. Add family and friends to the equation, and the pressure to go becomes enormous: The war stories can sometimes lead into hearing someone say, Im glad I didnt go that time, but I really miss her(or him). Often, the choice is to go and risk life, limb and sheet metal or to stay, find an alternate transportation mode and suffer the wrath of those depending on you. Sometimes, you pick your poison.
All of this was brought home to me quite clearly last Thanksgiving. The day before, I needed to pick up my son at his college in Lynchburg, Va., and fly him back to my home plate at Manassas, Va., about a 45-minute one-way trip, versus 3.5 hours to drive. Ive flown this route often enough that I know the frequencies and routings by heart, so its normally not a challenge.
Except on the day my son wanted to be picked up. Widespread low IFR prevailed over the region, with forecasters saying it was going to stay that way until that night, when a fast-moving cold front would start coming through. In this instance, the ceiling at Lynchburg was bouncing between 100 feet and 400, while Manassas hovered around 500 feet overcast. Im proficient on instruments and the airplane was ready, but it had been a while since Id shot a for-real ILS to 200-foot minimums.
After taking a close look at the ceilings and visibilities over a few hours, I decided to launch for Lynchburg since things seemed to stabilize at 300 feet. The en route portion was pretty much as advertised-in and out of stratus layers, no ice, smooth ride. Soon, I was getting vectors to join the localizer for Runway 4 at Lynchburg. I broke out right at the 200-foot decision altitude with good visibility and landed without a problem. The trip back was even easier, since I had a tailwind and the ceiling at Manassas was around 500 feet, again with good viz underneath. Once on the ground and driving back home, I learned of a fatal Cessna 310 crash on approach to a nearby airport. While my flight wasnt easy, it was easy to do safely.
The next day was Thanksgiving. That fast-moving cold front? It was going to be an all-day affair, bringing gusty surface winds, turbulence, snow showers and icing at altitude. I needed to get to the Albany, N.Y., area, where I planned to join my girlfriend and her family for the holiday.
While Ive flown that route before, I really only know enough about it to know I didnt know much. And Ive heard plenty of stories about picking up ice over the mountains south of Albany. Once I factored in the forecast for moderate-to-severe turbulence, read the ice-laden Pireps and considered my willingness to deal with all of it, I decided the flight was too hard to do safely, left the airplane in its hangar and looked for an alternate mode.
As it turned out, I didnt make it to Albany that day at all, and celebrated the holiday at home. A couple of weeks later, an airline-pilot buddy of mine who lives in the Albany area told me Id made the right decision. The girlfriend remains unconvinced I made the right choice for the right reasons, but Im still around to debate it with her.