An aeronautical decision that changed my life

In aviation, we live in ever changing environments, dynamic scenarios, all dressed up in human factors. Our performance depends on the decisions we make. In some cases, we see how a decision takes an immense toll on the lives of many.

From an early beginning, I understood that decisions were the meat of the matter. During my pilot training, I lost friends and acquaintances who took a seemingly small decision that ended up taking their lives. I was shattered by the enormous tax on wrong decisions in the career I had chosen. One moment we were laughing, and the next we were looking for survivors.

I had just left my teens, and these accidents were making a mark in my life. I couldn’t calculate risks as I do now; I couldn’t see threats as I see them now. I could only ask questions to get the wisdom from others, wisdom I would gain with many years in my line of work. I needed it then and there.

And this is how it happened.

Maule M-5
A Maule makes a fine backcountry airplane, but IFR in the mountains is asking for trouble.

I had been cleared to fly a Maule M-5. My first commercial solo flight in the Maule was with a passenger that needed to go west through the mountains, and into a high elevation airport in a small valley. Everything went my way, the weather was fine, one passenger wasn’t bad for the performance of the aircraft, and the passenger was a calm person who had flown in the Maule before. Nervous: yes. Cool demeanor: check.

As I returned from that flight, I had proven to myself that I could do the job, and unbeknownst to me, also proven to the chief pilot that I could be a pilot in the company. I was greeted joyfully by mechanics and friends from the office. Such a great moment that lasted minutes until they began saying that now they had a pilot to fly to all the places people needed to go, when they didn’t want to pay for the chopper. Then and there, I felt butterflies. I never saw it like that. I never thought that the very minute I understood the job, I was going to feel like I was lacking the experience to do it. That thought and feeling was short-lived, as the laughs and cake they bought me took my mind off of my worries.

The flights for the Maule began, and I was lucky enough to be getting easy places. No one wanted to go deep in the mountains in bad weather. I was flying a very capable aircraft into easy fields. I was making progress in my confidence, and also getting better at handling the aircraft.

Until one day.

I was called into the chief pilot’s office on a Friday afternoon. He had been wanting to reposition some communication radios located in villages on the mountains to better suit our operations. And there was one that was far away, in one of those lost mountains.

As he explained the task to me, I could see how that afternoon turned rainy and grey. Bad weather for the weekend was expected, and the orders were: fly the Maule tomorrow to this airstrip, take a car to where the radio is, pick the radio up. If you need to overnight, talk to the gentleman there, bring the radio here for maintenance.

By the time he adjourned the meeting, it was pouring. I thought he was going to mention the weather, but no, he had made arrangements for the Maule to be free from work until Monday, and the plan was in motion.

That afternoon was emotionally dense, I wanted to do the job, but I knew clearly I was biting off more than I could chew. I went home, and did not mention any of this to anyone. It was me, milling over how I was going to do this, and avoid having an accident. Yes, it was clear to me that if I took the aircraft with this weather into the mountains, there was a high chance I was going to get in clouds, and under those circumstances I most certainly would have an accident. On the other hand, if I didn’t do the job, I felt I would lose the opportunity I cherished so much.

Minutes turned into hours, and worrying turned into daylight. I didn’t want to drive so I requested a lift to the airport. I was accompanied by my flight bag and a small backpack. They left me there, and I got out of the car into a wet parking lot. I walked to the ramp and the aircraft was already out – a decision had to be made.

Clouds in mountains
To go or not to go?

My decision was to go. I needed to prove myself as a dependable person, an airman they could trust. The journey began and the rain didn’t stop for one minute. The weather was below the mountain tops and, in some places, it came all the way down to touch the trees. I could hear the wind whistle. With every mile, I felt my life changing. To this day I carry vivid memories of a damp, dark green and grey landscape, and raindrops flowing on the windows. Compressed to seconds are my recollections of the trip, thinking of the choices we make and the consequences they have. I felt alone.

On Monday, I was called to the office. A report to the chief pilot informed him that the radio was going to be refurbished in-house, since it only needed minor repairs. He called me and a couple of members of the team to arrange the place where the radio should be taken after the repairs had been made. As we were talking he said to me, “I thought you were going to postpone the trip, since there was such nasty weather over the weekend.” And then he asked, “How many hours did you fly?” From then on, the conversation went something like this,

Me: [silence]

Ramp manager: “He didn’t take the Maule!”

Chief pilot: “What did you take? I specifically said the Maule. You didn’t take the chopper, did you?”

Ramp manager: “He didn’t take anything. He came here, looked at the airplane, glanced at us, and turned away. He didn’t say a word.”

Chief pilot: “Hey, what did you do? How is the radio here?”

So I spoke my truth:

“I came early in the morning and I thought that the weather was too bad to go out flying. I understood from your explanations how important communication is to our operation, and why you needed it here. So I took the decision to go pick it up, just not by air. I decided to go to the bus station and take a chicken bus to put me near the place we talked about. I then traveled by pig truck to meet with the gentleman with the radio, and returned yesterday night the same way I went.”

Everyone was silent, and suddenly someone began to laugh. Everyone laughed, even me. When the laughter stopped, the chief pilot told me that it was a good decision not to fly that day, and that if I would have told him of my plan, he would have given me a truck to do the job.

This decision is one of the first important aeronautical decisions I ever made. It changed me. I had unintentionally taught myself to make conservative decisions which could keep everyone safe, and furthermore I understood that I was not alone. I could lean on a team to help manage many situations.

Our decisions are affected in many ways by our points of view. It is challenging to clean up your decision making process to be able to make unvarnished decisions. Aeronautical decision making is hard because you have to maintain your situational awareness in a changing environment. It takes at least a proper attitude, practice and the will to learn, to get better at it.

Richard, the chief pilot then, continues to be a dear friend of mine. And still laughs when we remember the “flight” to pick up the radio.

14 Comments

  • I love this story! This is the kind of story GA needs to hear; how GOOD decisions resulted in a good outcome. When discussing safety topics we are often bombarded by stories of people who bent metal or hurt someone because of the decisions they made. It can be overwhelming for someone new to GA.

    The problem is, unlike this story, most involving “good” decisions that result in a good outcome are boring. “I checked the weather, determined it was too dicey, so I drove instead.” Good decision; good outcome; BOOOORING!

    All in all, I prefer boring to exciting when it comes to aviation. I like it when my passengers say, “Well, that wasn’t nearly as exciting as I thought it was going to be.” That’s a success story for me.

  • Nice story – well written with a happy ending and resultant long fulfilling life for many years thereafter. Well done Mr. Pineda. You are a credit to aviators everywhere.

    • Thank you Skycon for your kind words. Many years have passed from that day, and I’m happy to say, it has been a joyful journey.

      Fly safe!

  • Beautifully written! Your story reminds me of what a friend said years ago: “The good life can look pretty boring from the outside.” As Mark wrote, good decisions leading to safe flights (or no flight) look pretty boring from the outside. I tried to be a very boring pilot.

    • You are absolutely right. Although believe you me, making good decisions at heart, is always exhilarating.

      Safe flights!!

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