Five Diversion Details

Choosing a divert airport isnt rocket science, but here are five things you need to consider before making a bad situation a worse one.


Some days are like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall: Youve planned well, the airplane is ready and fueled, youre fit to fly the trip…only the trip isnt ready for you. Best-laid plans and all that, but along the way something changed. You have to divert. You need a new plan.

Maybe its because Mother Nature threw up a wall with swirling black clouds


spelling out, “Go away!” or spread soft-but-deadly IFR scud on the flight path of the VFR pilot. Maybe someone landing at your destination forgot to put down the gear before flaring above the airports only runway. The Fates can deal up a common ground loop or any one of a dozen other ways to effectively mark a big white “X” on your destinations runway.

Whether Nature or Fate, the result for inbound pilots remains largely the same: sending them on a quest for an appropriate alternative airport and diverting there. Regardless of what forces it, you need to make informed diversion decisions. Weve distilled five points to consider for any diversion, regardless of its reason. But first, a note to the obstinate.

Failing to Divert?

Its uncanny how often pilots relate stories of ignoring signs and instincts and happily plunging ahead despite numerous detour signs. Ignoring weather is the worst. The safety journals and statistics keepers know this phrase by heart, given its grim frequency in accident reports: “…continued VFR flight into instrument conditions.”

Failure to make a new decision shows up in other types of accidents with disturbing frequency: Accidents borne by second and third landing attempts in the face of an initial failure until the final failure-landing short, a runway overrun, a ground loop or fuel exhaustion. Being diversion-savvy, comfortable and competent to deal with changes on-the-fly will take a pilot a long way closer to surviving the day, regardless of what caused the search for an alternative.

Conversely, trying repeatedly to force success in the face of multiple failures compounds risks to the point of risking a failure more dramatic, hurtful, even fatal.

Recently in these pages, we delved into the issues involving safely executing the go-around, for those times when the answer to the question of this approach is “No, not this time.” Presuming you made the call to divert based on circumstances at your desired destination, youve already resolved to move on to a new decision.

Some of the considerations for the new destination must balance against why you decided to divert.

So here we go with the details.

1. Airport suitability

You likely want to focus your search on finding a runway equal to or better suited in potential than the one youre abandoning; after all, theres no point adding an extra handicap. And if youve been coming up long at a 3000-foot strip in a 90-degree cross, going to a 2500-foot runway oriented at “only” 45 degrees to the prevailing wind wont decidedly improve your situation. Twenty-five hundred feet with the wind straight down the runway is a better option; another 1000 feet wont hurt a thing.

The goal is to get down with the airplane in condition to fly again-and do so before another too-frequent-accident-factor issue rears its ugly head.

Beyond runway availability, what about services, especially if the reason youre diverting involves a mechanical issue or fuel? Although a number of resources are available to us on the ground, once airborne were pretty much on our own unless ATC or Flight Service has nothing better to do than make some phone calls for you. And theres been more than one occasion when we were the last arrival of the night, long after everyone closed up and went home. There will be more.

2. Proximity (Or, Got Gas?)

Youve tried and it just aint happening at this airport. Weather, flat tire on the runway, whatever-youre going elsewhere. When in need of an alternate, what could feel more comforting than a suitable option merely 15 minutes away? Well, only if you have at least an hours fuel. If arriving with FAA-minimum fuel, five minutes away would be far more comforting. Closest gets my first look every time.

And remember to factor into your calculations everything that transpired before you decided to divert and apply that knowledge. Maybe you had to go off-course, or climb higher-acts guaranteed to increase the fuel consumed. Also, selecting an airport too far away only increases the chance of a forced landing and deprives you of a better option behind you.

The takeaway is you probably want the closest suitable airport. Whats suitable? Youre the judge on that, but its probably something similar to your original destination. Ideally, you want to arrive at your divert airport with more than enough fuel to handle an added case of Mother Nature, Fate or even Murphy fooling with you again (more on Murphy in a moment…). Its not a reach to consider that something else could hinder, or worse, your use of your chosen alternative.

All of which is well and good, of course, but what if theres no suitable airport within your dwindling range? Its probably “E”-word time. Use it to try getting into your Plan A, or finding an off-airport location to set down.

3. Mother Nature, Again

Regardless of whether weather factored into your diversion decision, its generally a good idea to avoid embracing worse weather at your alternate regardless of whether youre IFR or VFR.

So, youve selected Airport B as your alternate; its only 15 minutes away, youve got fuel for more than an hour and its weather fits your personal minimums. Right now.

What about conditions in between your current position and Airport B? Whats it forecast to be in 30 minutes? Can you get there without scud running and compounding a bad situation with a worse decision?

If you steered off course to avoid a cloud layer blocking your filed destination-and this easily can happen even with the field reporting excellent VFR-its a good idea to keep an out in mind all the way to the alternate. Even so, the smartest decision may be the simple 180-degree turn.

If, against all considerations, youre diverting to an airport where an instrument approach awaits, are you prepared? Will you be prepared by the time you need to start the approach? Got the plate needed? Already talking to ATC?

4. Terrain And Obstacles

While not up quite as high as VFR into IFR or dry tanks in risk, controlled flight into terrain-particularly at night or in marginal VFR-has its own special place in the world of general-aviation accidents and safety investigations. And outside of fire (more on this in a moment) nothing warrants immediate action more urgently than a terrain-imminent situation.

If you abandon Plan A for another airport before starting down from your cruise altitude, you need to brief yourself on the new destination and any peculiar challenges it presents. Many an airport scattered around the country share elevations with another 20, 50 or even 75 miles away, but in between the terrain may rise quickly into an unforgiving barrier.

If youre still at altitude, you need a new descent plan and-particularly at night or in marginal weather-need to know as much about where not to fly as you do about where youre flying. Staying high as long as possible can provide extra cushion.

If the new decision came after arriving at your planned destination at or near pattern altitude, the possibility of encountering natural or man-made obstructions rises significantly. If weather and fuel conditions allow, climb back up to at least 1500 agl or higher for comfort-at least until you sort out the en route considerations. Generally, higher is better, but if fuel is suddenly a consideration, dont waste it putting more air between you and non-existent obstacles. Flying never hurt anyone; sudden stops, however, are another story. Take our word on this.

5. Mister Murphy

Even after weve decided on a new destination The Fates can throw stuff at us like a broken airplane on that runway, or maybe a maintenance crew that was Notamd. Of course, since you werent planning on that airport, didnt brief it or its Notams before departure. Time to brief it now with a call to Flight Service or any other FAA facility you can reach.

A sharp young woman we know recently found herself dealing with a balky gear-extension system. In the event, she took her time deciding where to go and-thanks to keeping a cool head and what appears to have been excellent ground-based support-figured out a way to get the gear down and make the kind of landing we all want: after which the airplane can be used again.

In New England recently, another pilot flew more than 100 miles with his gear stuck down after diverting from his original destination. In both cases pilots opted to go where their maintenance was based-because they could. But other decisions could be just as appropriate.

So consider the reasons for the diversion. Maybe you need more than a small towns fire truck and ambulance standing by; maybe a medical issue prompts the diversion-in which case EMT access and a nearby hospital might factor into the decision.

All were saying here is, Murphy is alive and well and occasionally hitches a ride with us; be mindful that you do have options.

Dave Higdon is a Wichita-based aviation addict who writes about and photographs aviation subjects to fund a flying habit picked up during the Disco Era.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here