A pilot-buddy and I were flying two airplanes to the runway at Cape Hatteras, N.C., to spend the day on the beach. Both my rented Cessna 172 and his recently purchased Piper Warrior were loaded with people and gear for the trip, and we both had departed with restricted fuel. We’d hooked up en route at a prearranged time, location and altitude, and were chatting back and forth on the air-to-air frequency. Plan A was to stop in Elizabeth City, N.C., and take on enough fuel for each of us to get back to our respective bases that evening without stopping.
About 10 minutes out of our planned fuel stop, we both got the ATIS, which included a Notam about a temporary airport closure. As it happened, the airport was going to shut down for a couple of hours, beginning in about 15 minutes. My buddy asked on the other radio about a Plan B, but it didn’t register; landing at Elizabeth City and getting fuel was the flight’s mission, and I wasn’t going to let something silly like a mere Notam interfere.
I was on short final when the tower, at my buddy’s urging on the same frequency, flatly told me the airport was going to close for two hours right after I landed. It finally dawned on me what was going on and I went around, thanking the tower controller and climbing back to altitude. We ended up getting fuel that morning in Manteo, N.C., and hopped on down to Hatteras for the day. Our respective flights home that evening were uneventful.
In thinking about what happened and if there was anything I could learn from my fixation, it basically came down to two things: better situational awareness and a commitment to abandoning Plan A without reluctance if it made sense. At Elizabeth City, I wasn’t listening—to the ATIS, to my buddy or to the tower—and I wasn’t aware of my situation. Some part of my decision to ignore my buddy’s input also involved my having more experience than him. It made sense to abandon the Elizabeth City plan because Manteo was a quite reasonable alternative to Elizabeth City, and it was both a logical and drama-free solution to the problem. In hindsight, the only reason I persisted in approaching Elizabeth City was because I was inflexible and reluctant to change.
Since then, I’ve encountered similar events while airborne in which, for one reason or another, it became clear Plan A wasn’t going to work, and something else was needed. The events mostly included unpleasant weather, but there were a few mechanical and passenger-related reasons, too. Thankfully, I don’t think I’ve ever been as fixated on completing Plan A as I was that day at Elizabeth City.
I learned that Mother Nature, among other players in the game, often doesn’t care a whit what you were trying to do and how fixated on it you might be. It’s sometimes a challenge to know what to do and when. But facing and overcoming challenges is rooted deep down in the DNA of anyone who flies.