I was a “weather coward,” and I made the right decision

It was my wife’s birthday, we were eating at one of our favorite restaurants and the waitress had just delivered a huge sopapilla with cinnamon and ice cream. Did I mention we were spending the night in a brand new hotel that may be the best value ever! Ok, a little over the top but what’s so special about a guy taking his sweetie out for a celebration? Read on – it could have been so different.

Three days earlier we arrived via our company’s Cessna 310 for three fun-filled (not) days of technical training. We had hoped to land at McKinney Regional but a line of thunderstorms suggested we stop at Denton, 35 miles to the west.

Now, the training was almost over. I had been watching the weather all day, hoping to see the line of storms that had been to the west either dissipate or move on. Almost like a miracle, there was a huge break in the line of storms so that we could go direct back home. Things were looking up!

Thunderstorms
Hope is not a strategy when it comes to thunderstorms.

Or were they? My wife had to vacate the hotel room mid-day but the training dragged on to 4:30. She pluckily sat in the rental car for the afternoon doing hand work on a quilt she had been making. Finally, we set off in rush hour traffic, making our way back to Denton. An hour later we finally arrived at the airport as the sun crept ever so slowly toward the horizon.

That giant gap in the storms had changed to be sort of two parallel lines of storms with a 20-mile separation between them. We would have to fly a zig-zag pattern, going around the north end of one line of weather, then running parallel between the lines for 30-40 miles, then turning back on course home after passing the south end of the second line of convection.

I had been up almost 13 hours by then, but we were both really ready to be home. Besides, the dogs at home needed to be fed. No time to be slacking off now!

I loaded (jammed) the airplane full of our ample supply of suitcases, bags, computers, etc. Back into the FBO to drop off the rental car and hit the bathroom one more time. The sun settled ever so slightly. I checked the radar one last time and the storm direction vectors show there was a slight (?) chance the lines could converge. Surely not.

As I stood in front of the FBO counter, I couldn’t… quite… let go of the car keys. My mind raced back to an earlier trip bouncing around in crummy weather followed by landing at a third-world FBO somewhere in a neighboring state. It would be getting dark soon.

But I couldn’t chicken out now. I had loaded the stinking airplane for Pete’s sake! What a sissy, they’ll be saying. I looked at my tired wife and really really didn’t want to disappoint her by bailing out now.

“Hey jerk face!” my conscience screamed. “What about PILOT IN COMMAND don’t you understand? Who makes the decisions around here? The line boy? Is this a good idea or not? If it’s not, grow a pair and do what you know to do!”

I couldn’t believe the words came out of my mouth: “We’re… going… to… have… to… cancel…” The look on the young lady at the FBO desk was incredulous. Really? You’re not going? The FBO manager gave me a “loser” look and wandered off.

I asked the girl at the desk to help us find a hotel. At first we tried for the upscale hotel but got treated like Little Larry on the basketball team. Ok, ok, we’ll take that other, cheaper hotel. This was shaping up to be a very costly cancellation. My wife looked resigned to another third-world adventure.

Arriving at the hotel, I was pleasantly surprised that someone hadn’t called them to warn that a “weather coward” was coming their way. Our reception was gracious and we were directed to a room on the top floor. Walking to the room, we were impressed with the appointments of the new hotel. Was that a glimmer of light breaking through the emotional gloom? The room was quite nice, larger than most hotel rooms with high ceilings and upscale furnishings. Now it was off to supper. Didn’t we see the family-owned restaurant we like so much? Let’s try to find it.

As they say, the rest is history. The decision to cancel the flight led to a pleasant stay in a better than expected accommodation, a good meal and a memorably good birthday celebration. Contrast that to the teeth-gritting/heart-stopping run for your life between two lines of thunderstorms that had awaited us.

This turned out so good, I may make cancelling a flight a regular part of my schedule!

Doing “the right thing” really is a good idea. Go figure.

18 Comments

  • Good on ya’ Joe! Excellent aviation decision-making and I hope to emulate your choice whenever possible. Just excellent!

    I wonder how many pilots (and passengers) would still be alive had the PIC made the same decision you did? I’d wager more than a few…

    • I agree with Joe and John. Excellent decision. As the saying goes ( if I get it right) “there are old pilots and tere are bold pilots but there are no old bold pilots”. Many years ago when in pilot training in Oklahoma and flying with my instructor we can up to a fast moving front and I said I was doing a 180 and going back to the airport. The instructor gave me a hard time, a test, but returned to the airport and the instructor said on the ground ” good choice” returning.

  • Like you, I would have agonized about the decision, then made the no-go decision; unlike you, thereafter, I would have tracked the weather all night to see if I had made the “right” decision.

  • Hi Joe: Great story … good decision … wonderful writing style … makes all the difference to any yarn.

    Jim Griffith

  • Thanks all, for the kind words. The siren’s seductive message of “complete the mission” is so powerful. I’m facing the same temptation tomorrow to fly an Angel Flight mission in worsening conditions. To defuse tomorrow’s temptation I used airline “points” to have an airline seat for the Angel Flight passenger, just in case. Hopefully I can fly the mission but we’ll have to wait and see. Without the pressure I can make an intelligent decision. Y’all fly safe out there.

  • I applaud your courage and thinking processes. It’s not easy being the “bad guy.” I suppose at times it might help to have available a ‘decision tree’ in order to substantiate and define a difficult decision (conclusion) via a pathway through proven, empirical data. That way, you can explain your decision to whomever with statistical logic and reasoning. It sounds good anyway… In our Operations and Flight manuals (airlines…) are many decision trees and waterfall charts to help guide us in making such stressful decisions.

  • Dave your idea of having a decision tree appeals to the engineer in me. More frequently the ex-Thud-driver in me more frequently takes over and makes the decision based on the “that idea stinks” test.

  • Joe, well-told and an object lesson for all. As the old saying goes, better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air desperate to be on the ground. I recall both situations from my flying days. The first is definitely better than the second.

  • Thanks for an enjoyable feel-good story about a good safety decision. Once it’s ‘no-go’, stress gone.
    Also previously purchased tickets using miles as a back-up for Angel Flights. Not required or expected, but it helps (me) knowing mission-success remains independent of the go/no-go decision. It’s easier knowing the patient gets to destination either way. … how did it turn out for the 4th?

  • The Angel Flight mission went really well, thanks for asking. Having the commercial flight as a backup eliminated all external pressure.

    The day started with a fifteen minute reposition of the airplane that involved the worst weather of the day: 800′ ceilings with 600′ minimums on the approach. We filed/flew IFR (no scud running here) and it went just as planned. The lesson of that exercise is that the length of the flight has nothing to do with the its significance.

    Once the passenger was loaded we had flew 2.5 hr to Houston that was in/out of clouds most of the way but with zero turbulence. Motoring around the Houston terminal area in general aviation aircraft is always entertaining but the controllers were professional and all went well. The biggest challenge was a 2.51 hr bladder capacity.

  • Joe:

    Great story. And you may identify with the following…

    When my son was learning to fly in the last century (! ), I told him to pay attention to his mind/body combination. If he was getting into territory that was slowly slipping out of his control, his body would let him know.

    Anybody who’s ever pushed weather or pushed fuel will know the feeling. I guess anxiety would best explain it.

    Watching the available altitude slowly slip away as the flight altitude is slowly reduced to stay out of cloud, watching flight visibility reduce as the fog intensifies, watching the fuel gauges accelerate downward as the ETA and the zero fuel state approach each other. You enter a heightened state of awareness as various mental solutions are entertained, massaged, and discarded. Any passengers will note that you’re not as talkative as is your wont.

    My son was told that if he was doing any of the above and that he noticed that he was tensing up, displaying evidence of anxiety, or felt like he was sucking up yards and yards of seat cushion material, then that was his body trying to tell him something. He was being conflicted by the original desire to get to destination and the slowly dawning awareness that he might not.

    I reiterated that his body would tell him if he was doing anything incredibly stupid.

    However, on the flip side, his body would also tell him if he was doing something incredibly smart… Like reversing course to get out of the lowering weather or diverting to get fuel. The relief that floods through the body when such a decision is made is palpable.

    Once made, that decision may cost you an extra hour or two or even an overnight; however, you will arrive at destination in one piece.

    Again, Joe, good decision and good story.

    John

    • John,

      Great observations. I think I have experienced all the things you described, along with the sense of relief once the decision is made. It is like a pressure relief valve opened up!

  • John you make an interesting point, that maybe deep down inside we all know something is wrong. Do you suppose our ego gets in the way and keeps us from doing the right thing? What would be the antidote?

    • Joe:

      Sometimes events conspire to make difficult, if not seemingly impossible, to do the “right thing”. I’ll put together a little story later concerning same son and a trip that could have ended very, very badly…

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