If you watch any of the TV crime shows (my wife’s favorite is NCIS, in case you were wondering), they talk about BOLOs. It took me a while, but I finally got that this means “Be on the lookout.” This is a government agency’s terminology to alert their community to be alert to a person or situation that is important to monitor or address.
For us pilots, we can use this same intentional alertness to observe and influence our flying and specifically our choices. During a recent long day of flying I had a chance to experience aviation’s version of completion bias—the drive to complete a flight—also known as get-home-itis. I learned a great deal from it and want to share the experience. First the set up and then we’ll unpack what I did right and wrong.
That day’s mission was to retrieve an airplane three states away. It was a four hour flight just to get to the pick-up point. We made an early start to the day because the weather was forecast to steadily degrade in the area we were flying toward as a front approached. Traditional summer convection was possible in the afternoon for the return trip but no fronts or lines of storms between us and home. The flight out was smooth with great ceilings and visibilities until we were within about 20 miles of the destination. By the time we got to the end of our first leg, steady rain had started and convective activity was about 100 miles further west. Needless to say, it was in our best interest not waste time on the ground getting turned around.
I was out of the airplane as the prop stopped turning. I realized quickly that Murphy was firmly in charge when I couldn’t find the airplane keys and that the airplane needed gas as the rain got steadily heavier. The line crew was fueling the plane by the time I found the keys and began the pre-flight. My rain coat saved me from a real soaking. Thank you North Face!
I picked up my clearance and departed into solid IMC for the first 30 miles and then spent the rest of the trip deviating around build-ups. It was getting pretty hot out there and the cumulus clouds were steadily building. By the time I was an hour from my landing in the DC area, I was hot and tired after seven hours in the cockpit.
As I got closer to my destination, Martin State Airport in Baltimore (MTN), I started seeing areas of precipitation from the ADS-B Nexrad display. Two primary areas, one very close to Joint Base Andrews (formerly known as Andrews Air Force Base) and one near Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall airport (BWI). The cell over BWI was headed northeast toward my destination but MTN was solid VFR and I thought I could get in before the weather, based on judging the updates of the Nexrad images and the general look at build-ups through the windshield.
The MTN ATIS was telling arrivals to expect a visual approach to runway 15. Potomac Approach cleared me to arrive from the northwest, as I would have expected. Then Potomac told me to plan the LOC 15 at MTN and began to vector me toward the final approach course.
I could see build-ups off to the southeast of my position and started to watch the conditions, carefully comparing the ADS-B with the conditions out the window. Everything still looked good, though the BWI cell was now closer to MTN and another had now developed northeast of the airport. There was lots of VFR in between these.
Just as I was about to intercept the localizer, it started to get pretty bumpy and I was seeing more cloud—although I was still in visual conditions. I did not have a visual on the airport and I was starting to get rain on the windshield. As quickly as the rain started it intensified a great deal, started to darken and I immediately broke off the approach and told Potomac I wanted to divert back in the direction I came (toward good VFR) and land at Carrol County Airport (DMW) about 32 NM northwest, to allow the weather to clear. See the flight track below:
In retrospect I made good choices and bad choices. Let’s look at a few of each.
- I topped off my fuel before my takeoff so I had plenty of gas and had monitored/managed my fuel burn effectively.
- I asked ATC for altitudes to largely remain in visual conditions as I got closer to weather at the end of the trip to allow continuous visual assessment and reduce my single pilot IFR workload.
- I was well equipped to be able to monitor weather with ADS-B tools and used the gear to maintain my situational awareness throughout the flight.
- I broke off the approach and diverted when the weather started to get worse while still in visual conditions and didn’t resume until the weather was well clear.
- I allowed myself to get too close to a cell. Recommendations are at least 20 miles. I was much closer as the cell little grew across the final approach course.
- Weather is dynamic and was changing right in front of me and I was not reacting fast enough. I should have been reminding myself that what I’m seeing is changing in ways I might not necessarily totally observe.
- I was fatigued. I should have eaten on the ground between the flights as opposed to just snacking on the way home. I was likely dehydrated as well. Your brain and body need nutrients to serve you well—especially making good decisions.
- I allowed completion bias to cloud my judgement. When I finally diverted I was less than 9 miles from the runway threshold. I allowed the “I am almost home” to really distract me and I procrastinated.
As I have learned from mentors and tell my students, we want to be “lifelong learners” when it comes to flying and everything we want to be good at! So what did I learn for my next long trip?
- During the trip I should ask myself, “how am I feeling and how is my flying?”
- Watch the weather carefully and more holistically. Imagine what I while do if it’s worse than forecast so I’m already planning my next move. It’s less about reacting and more about planning if completion is doubtful.
- Be “spring loaded” to divert quickly.
- Remember the impact of bad choices in the cockpit on the ones who care about me (and you). Think carefully about the risks I am taking on in every phase and condition of flight. Most of us have friends and family who also are hurt if something happens to us.
I am thankful to learn from this experience and share it with the Air Facts family. Be on the lookout in your own flying for areas where you could have made better decisions and think through how you would choose in the future should something similar occur.
Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].