Like you, I have on occasion cancelled a dentist appointment. Even at the last minute, with almost no warning, I’ve cancelled plans to attend a wedding or a birthday party. A friend of mine just cancelled a dinner he had been planning.
Cancellations happen. We might be disappointed, but we adapt. We overcome the sorrow of a lost opportunity and regroup. There is almost certainly another date on the calendar somewhere in the not-too-distant future when we can make up that nullified appointment or invitation.
That is, unless the activity you choose not to cancel is a flight. If peer pressure causes us to fly when we shouldn’t, there may be no tomorrow.
If our sense of invulnerability overcomes us and we launch off into roiling black skies when overtired and underfed and maybe only seven hours removed from the bar where things got out of hand last night, we very well may forfeit the opportunity to fly another day.
Make no mistake, you are vulnerable. So am I.
The summer of 2015 will go down in the annals of time as the year I became the King of Cancellations. Here I sat with plenty of opportunities to fly, a beautiful airplane at my disposal, and a boatload of appointments that were accessible by air — if only the weather would cooperate. There was the day I was supposed to go to Deland to speak to an EAA chapter about the wonders of founding a flying club. Except the ceiling at my home airport was 400 feet. I made it to the meeting, but I drove there.
Then there was the Rusty Pilot seminar I was presenting at University Air Center in Gainesville. On the morning of the presentation, the fog of Paynes Prairie rose to 200 feet and hung there like a snuggly, puffy blanket. It burned off by mid morning, but well beyond the time when I needed to be on the ground engaged with guests. The forecast had been right. I drove to that event as well.
This scenario and other substantially similar scenes repeated themselves over and over this summer. That was frustrating. But being frustrated and traveling by surface roads is far better than the alternative had I flown on those days.
I will be honest with you. I am not a brave pilot. Rather, I’m deeply established on the conservative side of the decision-making process. If there’s known icing, you can find me sipping coffee by the fire. If there are embedded thunderstorms, I’ll take up residence in front of a wide screen television and start surfing channels.
My airplanes of choice are light, small, have minimal instrumentation, and generally pack fewer horses under the cowl than your average fighter jet. Yet I love flying these inexpensive flivvers. They’re all the fun I ever wanted and they get me where I want to go. They have that ability for this simple reason: I refuse to abuse their capabilities, or mine.
When I was 7 years old I came upon a Cessna 172 in the woods near the summit of Mt. Higby in Meriden, Connecticut. The nose was in the dirt. The tail was on the ground, but had clearly been elevated prior to my arrival on the scene, stuck well up in a tree on the hillside. The aircraft was inverted. I’ll spare you the rest of what I remember about the airplane itself. It wasn’t pretty.
The weather was bad. Visibility was zero. The ceiling was on the ground. Fog and drizzle blanketed the area. All of which led to a maddeningly predictable outcome for a low-time non-instrument rated private pilot who chose to make a flight he shouldn’t have made. Ostensibly, he flew without a briefing or a flight plan in an effort to get his friend home on time after the two of them spent a weekend on Block Island. Weather be damned, he launched off headed for home, regardless.
The pilot was killed in the crash. That’s as good as the news gets on this one. The passenger, who was the pilot’s good friend, found himself trapped by the collapsed instrument panel and buckled firewall. He was inverted. His buddy hung next to him, dead. It was August. Six days later search crews found the airplane. The passenger was still alive. He died in the hospital a short time later.
This is not a child’s nightmare, it’s a real occurrence. There’s an NTSB report that details the crash and its outcome. I’ve read it, although I didn’t have to. I saw the wreck. I know what it looks like when you play fast and loose with the odds. Sometimes you lose, and you lose big.
Years later as a relatively newly minted CFI, I flew professionally from a nearby airport. I flew over Mt. Higby every day, looking down on the spot where I’d come across the best example I’d ever see of why it’s so important for a pilot to be willing to say, “No, I’m not going. Not today. Not like this.”
I passed that lesson on to my students. Now I’ve passed it on to you. I suspect I’ll keep telling this story, too. Because it’s important.
They were just 15 miles from home when their Cessna impacted Mt. Higby. Had they taken the ferry to the mainland, rented a car, and driven home, they’d have had a few problems to deal with on Tuesday morning. Yet the challenge of schlepping out to Block Island to retrieve the airplane, and paying the bill for several hours of extra rental time, might seem like small potatoes compared to the outcome they experienced for plunging into the soup dead set on getting home. Because they didn’t get home. They just got dead.
Winter is coming. Here in Florida my weather is about to improve dramatically. If you live up north yours may get substantially worse. Either way, let’s commit to this simple promise. Let’s take great care in the decisions we make before we take off. Once airborne, let’s not be shy about admitting we’d be better off on the ground, even if the place we land isn’t the place we intended to land. Then let’s meet back here next year to cover the topic again.
If we can commit to those simple rules, I’ll bet both you and I will be here next year to have that conversation. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?