Would you hesitate to declare an emergency?

The fact that all three of my passengers were throwing up simultaneously left me three options: Tough it out and press on to our destination; join them in their nauseous state; or declare an emergency and get the hell on the ground.

My right seat passenger was a Horizon Air first officer. She thought she was used to bumpy rides. I was flying her to her domicile. She was supposed to report for work there within four hours of our scheduled arrival time.

To top it off, it was only the 11th month of her 12-month probation period. Missing her show time could be reason enough to fire her. I wanted to press on…believe me. I wanted to impress her with my weather flying skills in hard IMC. I wanted to be her hero. But mostly I wanted her to walk my resumé in to her chief pilot the next time a hiring window opened.

Everything in me said, “continue.” Even my front seatmate pleaded for me to gut it out, so I hesitated.
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The Black Hole Departure disaster

A dark cloud has recently settled on the general aviation community from the fatal airplane crash of Babar and Haris Suleman. They were a father and son pilot team who were attempting to fly around the world. They had become popular through social media.

Followers of their journey wonder what happened that their Beechcraft could depart in ideal conditions — a 10,000-foot sea level runway at midnight — only to crash nose first into the inky black ocean seconds later? Speculation continues to light up many online forums, while the investigation remains ongoing. The leading theory is that they succumbed to the elusive and dreaded Black Hole Departure.

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Presence of mind

The first time I took the aircraft controls away from a copilot, it was from a Marine Corps aircraft commander. He’d flown in Iraq. He’d balanced his Sikorsky CH-46 Sea Knight transport helicopter — a twin-rotored behemoth — off the edge of a San Francisco high-rise while troops “on exercises” stormed out the back.

Me? I’d gotten my private helicopter license less than three weeks earlier in a Robinson R-22, a runt of an aircraft — the same helicopter we were now flying along the LA coast.

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Fatigue: The pilot’s common cold

Returning from a short tropical vacation, I barely napped on the transatlantic red-eye. It was the night before my third airplane instructional flight. During the ground lesson, I thought I was hiding my jetlag pretty well from my instructor. It turns out he saw through my ruse and blindsided me with one of his own.

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Pilot bias

The first time I rode in a helicopter it was to chase down Donald Trump’s yacht. It would be another six years before I would get my own pilot’s license, so the pilot told me to keep my feet away from the rudder pedals and not to move them — no matter what.

I opened my mouth to assure him I wasn’t going to mess up this opportunity, but he cut me off. “Don’t take it personally. It’s my standard practice to tell anyone sitting in the seat next to me the same thing. Even the cameraman who flies with me all the time gets the same message. Every day.”

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Expectations and fixation

My first flight lesson was out of Virginia’s Leesburg Executive Airport (KJYO), inside the Dulles Class B airspace. We took off and performed some air work in the practice area. Then we headed back toward the airport. My instructor told me to find the airport so he could show me how to do a pattern entry. I looked and looked but I could not spot little Leesburg Airport. Finally I told him, “I can’t find the airport. It’s too small!”

My instructor was a recent émigré from New Delhi, India. In his most patient Indian-accented English he replied, “It is not the fault of the airport that you cannot see it. It is exactly the size it needs to be.”

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