Windsock

A few years ago I was getting ready to depart from a busy east coast airport to California. It was very crowded and chaotic. Normal for this airport. Making matters worse was a fast-moving front coming from the south, bringing stiff, gusty winds, dark clouds, sporadic sunshine, and rain. Rather pretty actually.

You didn’t need a wind sock because the departing airplanes would instantly weathervane a good 40 degrees to the east. Pilot reports consisted of moderate turbulence and wind sheer. And worse. As I was getting the clearance, I asked for reports from the departing aircraft. Same thing. Bad rides and moderate turbulence with wind sheer.

I watched a crew wrestle their jet down the runway and taxi into the FBO where I was parked. After the passengers disappeared I asked the captain about the approach. He laughed and said he probably should have diverted. As he walked away I decided I would delay our departure. After all, according to the radar reports the system would pass about 45 minutes after our scheduled departure.

Windsock

What are we trying to prove by flying in such conditions?

I have to admit I felt like I was doubting my judgment because everyone else was coming and going as if it were a pleasant weekend morning. I would be the only pilot admitting trepidation, but it was just common sense to wait.

My passengers arrived on time and I called ground control for taxi. I informed them that we would like to taxi out to the runway but delay our departure until weather conditions improved. On our way to the holding area, ground asked how long we needed.

“Approximately 40 minutes based on the forecast,” was my response.

We informed our passengers that we were going to hold for a short time to allow for the weather to improve. They accepted the plan. After a few minutes I heard the aircraft behind us tell the tower that they would be delaying their takeoff. Shortly thereafter two more planes did the same thing. Then a fourth crew asked to hold.

I made a mental note to review what just happened. Not only was my self doubt erased, I felt justified in my decision and learned an interesting lesson.

I realized that some pilots that day were not comfortable flying in those conditions but kept flying anyway because everyone else was—one definition of peer pressure. Nobody was willing to say no. Or at least willing to wait. But when I announced over the radio that we would wait for better conditions, it seemed to give permission to the other crews to delay.

Sometimes it takes someone to make a decision in a better direction for others to take notice. Pilots seem to forget the concept of Pilot in Command.

No one remembers their delayed flights. But they sure relive the worse rides of their lives.

Eric Leveque
Latest posts by Eric Leveque (see all)
39 replies
  1. Roca
    Roca says:

    Happy to find that this was an example of “positive” peer pressure! I’m tired of jocks bragging about flying in awful conditions. Do yourself and your pax a favor and don’t.

    Reply
    • Tom Osinkosky
      Tom Osinkosky says:

      I wholeheartedly agree! I have been flying and teaching for who knows how many years and hours and then some. By far, the article, to me is simply the best I have read. My hats off to the author and Roca you are so correct. Peer pressure goes a long way in a positive way! I’ll make one more comment. A number of years ago I had been flying charter in a Twin Commander. We had been carrying soon to be governor of Virginia, Mark Warner. While waiting for him to return in Lynchburg, Virginia, the weather simply turned terrible with storms throughout the area. When Mark returned I told him we were “waiting the storms out” and he never questioned the decision. While waiting for conditions to improve a Cessna 414 landed and taxied into the FBO among driving rain, strong winds and lightning in the area. As the passengers got off umbrellas were blowing all over the place. I simply thought “it wasn’t worth it” and remained on the ground for another 90 minutes. Later, our departure was uneventful as we saw the remnants of the storm in the distant south. An uneventful flight back to DCA. No matter who you happen to be carrying on board it’s never worth it to fly beyond your comfort level, no matter who happens to go into, perhaps, “uncharted territory.”

      Reply
  2. Mark Sletten
    Mark Sletten says:

    As a young boom operator on my first assignment I recall mission planning the day before refueling missions—this was pre-computer. The mission planning room was large enough for a half-dozen 4 x 6 tables. One morning I reported at 0730 to plan the next day’s mission only see a large platter filled with donuts, cupcakes, cookies, and various other goodies sitting on one of the tables. Only trouble was, it was covered with cellophane, and nobody knew who brought it in or who it was for.

    That platter sat there untouched all morning—until precisely 1030 hours. That’s when our Ops Officer returned from the morning briefing. As he walked through the mission planning room he remarked, “Hey, who brought in the goodies?”

    “We don’t know, sir. They’ve been sitting there all morning.”

    The Ops Officer, a LtCol, bent over the platter to get a better view, peeled back a corner of the cellophane, and nabbed a cookie, then proceeded on to his office.

    That was all it took—three minutes later the platter was empty. I’m convinced it was some sort of social experiment.

    Reply
  3. Thomas Brown
    Thomas Brown says:

    What a great message. You never know what kind of example you are to someone else. This applies to aviation, the workplace, and raising your kids. Good work!

    Reply
  4. Tom
    Tom says:

    I’m a fixed wing pilot but love all flying. The difference between balloon pilots and all other pilots is that they always appreciate help.
    I was in Page Az for their balloon festival a few years ago but the official launch was cancelled because of winds.
    Pilots were told that flying was at their own discretion and the crew I volunteered for decided to be the first to try.
    Two young ladies from Tampa were going up with the pilot and he explained that they would try to fly over Lake Powell and then dip down as they flew up Antelope Canyon.
    Damned if they didn’t do just that. We lost sight of the crown as those girls got the best views possible of one of nature’s most beautiful carvings.
    Behind them was a line of balloons following the same flight path.
    Once recovered the girls thought it was “really nice” but the pilot was ecstatic !!! He had only been able to do that a few times before.
    All flying is a slave to the weather. Some just requires a little more knowledge and perseverance.
    Anyone that doesn’t believe that balloon pilots are real pilots needs to go to Festival in Albuquerque and see the balloons on the approach coming back to the same field they launched from and looking like the lineup for approach to Newark.

    Reply
  5. Matt Berg
    Matt Berg says:

    A large airline flying all B737’s went off the runway at KMDW (Chicago Midway) several years ago. The NTSB report cited numerous errors including the quartering tailwind on a snowy runway. But what stood out was the comment of the flight before us didn’t have a problem.

    Reply
  6. Rick Junkin
    Rick Junkin says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Eric. You not only “gave permission” to the pilots behind you that day to do a wise thing, you’ve encouraged everyone who reads this story to follow your lead and make their own wise decision the next time it’s prudent. Well done.

    Reply
  7. George
    George says:

    For several years before my reflexes became challenged and I sold it my wife and I owned a great Piper Dakota. She took the pinch hitter course, just in case, and became our ace navigator. She claimed the right to go-no-go privilege as part of our aviation practices, and in over 20 years of flying she only exercised it twice. Both times a departure would have required an IFR clearance, so we waited for better weather. On one flight the delay lasted for a little over 2 hours and we had a great flight from ELP to DVT and enjoyed a 2 day visit with parents. From my standpoint making that agreement was one of our best and resulted in flights in which we were both comfortable and enjoyable. At my present age of 92 I only fly when a copilot is along. The MORAL? Recognize and heed your limitations to live to enjoy all of your years.

    Reply
  8. Frank Faludi
    Frank Faludi says:

    I have no problem at all to follow my instincts, based on training of course. As a one time instructor I gradually developed this sense for deciding if a certain situation or course of action no longer makes sense and it’s time to revert to plan B. And I carried this through to the rest of my flying career. This is WHAT they are paying us (the big bucks) for.

    Reply
  9. William R Pinney
    William R Pinney says:

    A couple of years ago, inbound to Dulles with pax, in a Gulfstream 450, we experienced un-forecast extreme turbulence. Nothing like being out of control for a few seconds at at time! After landing we noticed a Cirrus taxiing out….numerous crews were trying to talk him out of going, ground control letting us talk. Eventually he realized he was about to die, and went back to the ramp. I like to think that collectively, we saved a life that day ……

    Reply
  10. William Campbell
    William Campbell says:

    Great article describing the “herd effect”, not a lot of thought by anyone just following the preceding cow possibly over the cliff. I grew up in a “safety culture” aviation training environment coupled with re-enforced concepts of thinking for yourself regardless of others reactions. It has served me well over fifty years of PIC flying. I have cancelled or delayed flights, sometimes to the disappointed “aws” of passengers. I have never hesitated to tell ATC “unable” in appropriate circumstances.

    Reply
  11. Eric
    Eric says:

    I had been at the Wichita Falls, TX airport doing my 2 week ANG summer training and was eager to depart in my PA-24-180 for home in Michigan. Unfortunately, the weather was pretty bad with tornado alley living up to its name. The storm front had arrived, the sky was black, and the winds and storms were kicking up. The windsock was straight out and the driving rain was falling sideways, not up and down. There had even been a tornado touch down in town. All us pilots were huddled in the FBO watching the radar on tv when a small turbo prop driven airliner came in for a landing. It went the entire length of the runway with one main wheel on the ground and the other wheel high up, tipping the wing into the crazy wind. I asked the FBO guy who that was and he said, “Oh, that’s RIo Airways. Those guys don’t get paid unless they fly”.

    Reply
  12. Peter Cheney
    Peter Cheney says:

    All the pilots before me are high time commercial ATP types. I am just a pvt pilot. I fly a complex high performance aircraft. I was going to a fly in breakfast today. It had rained hard all night. If I was going to a paved strip, I would have gone. The weather now was clear. But I was going into a short pvt grass strip. so decided I would not go. Called my friends and said the breakfast is off. Now I get to plan another breakfast trip for another day. I am safe my friends are safe and my plane is safe. All is good. I just turned 72.I have always felt this way. There is always tomorrow.

    Reply
  13. Stephen j Dillenburg
    Stephen j Dillenburg says:

    I was stationed at SAFB from 1977 to 1980. It was the worst climate I have ever lived and flown in. Winds regularly exceeded the crosswind limitations of the Northrup T-38. Fortunately the runways were built for B-52 training: 300 feet wide and 13,000 feet long. Always have something in reserve!

    Reply
  14. Joshua Morowitz
    Joshua Morowitz says:

    Many years ago, while flying my family on vacation, I made an unscheduled stop in Savannah to let a line of thunderstorms pass by. Waiting in the FBO, I was chatting with a corporate jet crew as we were both watching the radar, discussing when it would be safe to depart. My teenage daughter looked at the crew in their crisp white shirts and epaulettes and then turned to me. She said “I’m not going if they’re not going.”

    Reply
  15. MICHAEL A CROGNALE
    MICHAEL A CROGNALE says:

    I was hired to fly a P-Navajo out of an update NY airport. My last day on the job I was to pick up the owner at a downstate controlled field. I called for a wx brief and the field was reporting WOXOF. I called the tower at the field to get an on-scene look. They verified it. I called the owner to explain that I couldn’t come because of the weather. He shouted at me that airplanes were king off. I tried to explain that they could depart but that I couldn’t even start the approach. He shouted that he would find someone else. I said fine. Left my key in the plane and went home. Never heard from him again and he moved the plane somewhere else.

    Reply
    • eric leveque
      eric leveque says:

      You did the right thing. If I’m not mistaken the former President of Poland was killed when the pilots were pushed into bad weather

      Reply
      • MICHAEL A CROGNALE
        MICHAEL A CROGNALE says:

        Thanks, I never second guess once I make the decision. Been in this game for 58 years. Lots of dumb “stuff” when I was young and stupid. Survived. Learned. I enjoyed your story. God bless you.

        Reply
  16. John
    John says:

    Sometimes others don’t take the hint. Ten years ago I was invited by a friend to fly with him to his (short unpaved strip) back country cabin. It was summer, but with two in the C172 with a Penn Yan engine STC… no problem. Then he invited a couple more guys, both pretty good sized. The nice performance margin for his aircraft evaporated before my eyes. I declined at the last minute. It was interesting to me that a third friend immediately said he would take ‘my’ now vacant seat. No, there wasn’t an accident. Just a max gross departure from a long paved runway followed by an approach to a tricky back country strip surrounded by tall trees, a successful landing, and near gross takeoff from that same strip. I reasoned there was no imperative to fly with minimal margins. I’m glad it worked out… but it might not have.

    Reply
  17. Suresh Kumar Bista
    Suresh Kumar Bista says:

    Your decision to delay departure is great. ‘Peer-pressure’ very much accountable for nasty incidents. I did delay my departures many times when others were flying. I felt like a ‘sissy’. Maybe the pilots that were flying had a higher tolerance level. But waiting for better conditions is always good.

    Reply
  18. Chris Barker
    Chris Barker says:

    Thanks for this story. It’s an interesting phenomenon and one which I experienced about twenty years ago. I was the OC Operations Wing at a busy Tornado base and I was due a night check in a Tornado GR1. My Staneval (flying instructor pilot who was checking me) was in the back seat as we taxied out on a dark night, made darker by the deep clouds; there were two or three Tornados taxying behind us. We could see flashes of lightning occasionally in the distance. I mentioned to my checking pilot that I was starting to consider the weather as being unsuitable and he seemed to relax as he said, “So you think it’s unfit, sir?” I agreed that it was probably wise to launch into what might easily become a thunderstorm and he told ATC that we were cancelling our trip and returning to the HAS (Hardened Aircraft Shelter). Almost immediately, the other aircraft on the taxyway called ATC with the same message and no one flew that night from our base.

    It might have been the effect of my seniority, or perhaps it was the sense of “permission” being granted to take the sensible path, but the result was the same. And I’ve seen and read about incidents that might not have occurred had someone piped up with a “Knock it off.”

    Reply
    • eric leveque
      eric leveque says:

      Must have been really something to fly that aircraft!!
      I once read a comment from a general in the USAF … “There’s no reason to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime!”

      Best

      Reply
  19. Allen W Inks
    Allen W Inks says:

    So…. why would you load you passengers into the aircraft, and go out to a holding area for 40 minutes, instead of letting them lounge around in the uncramped FBO waiting area, with real restrooms, etc.? I understand why commercial scheduled flights do that (not for the comfort of their passengers, but to preserve on-time departure performance metrics, and because of gate scheduling), but presumably, you weren’t flying a scheduled airliner.

    Reply
    • eric leveque
      eric leveque says:

      Good question.
      Because TEB can get very busy and it’s faster to be waiting in line at the runway hold area than the fbo. Especially with weather. One can easily get hours long ground holds so being ready at the runway is generally much faster

      Reply
  20. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    This discussion is kind of one sided, isn’t it? What if the departure conditions indicated potential ice on climb with tops at 2000′ and a 172 in front of you announced cancelation due to weather and returning to the ramp? Do y’all follow him back? In the end, the decision has to be based on the analysis which includes your capabilities and experience, your airplane’s capabilities, passenger comfort if passengers are onboard, and the environment that you are about to launch into. What other’s do is perhaps an interesting bit of data, but certainly not the primary deciding factor.

    Reply

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