January 7, 2007

More Crappy Weather...

Well, it's been a week since my last adventure. Today has been just like every other day... Low ceilings and strong winds. Michigan + Winter = Marginal Conditions! (Ok, not always, but more often than not).

It's a Sunday morning and I have that itch again. As I call the airport to check availability of my new friend (the airplane), my wife proceeds to pull the Sunday paper away from her face and roll her eyes. It's available for a few hours this morning. A quick check of the weather shows marginal conditions with strong winds. I figure if I get up and its too crappy, I will just practice more crosswind landings.

Arrival and preflight was uneventful. As I departed to the west and climbed through 2,000ft visibility was lowering. It was very bumpy as well. As soon as I hit 3,000ft agl it got clear again was very smooth. I was sandwiched between this haze / scattered cloud layer and an overcast layer. I thought this was the COOLEST thing! I didn't wander too far from the airport, but just spent some time dinkin' around soaking in views most people never get to experience.

I headed back to the airport and did about 7 takeoffs and landings. There was a cross wind gusting about 15knots, so it made for some good practice.

I took some video of the cloud layers and one of my landings:

January 4, 2007

Go... No Go

For Christmas, my Mom's boss got his kids a plane ride to Soaring Eagle Casino... and I was the going to be the Pilot. It's not very far, only about 40 min flight from my home base - D95. We planned this flight only a couple days prior and I was hoping for good weather. The morning of, things looked ok. The winds were what was concerning me. They were blowing a steady 16knots, gusting 25 out of 220. The ceilings were not a factor, but a haze layer made for lower visibility.

When the passenger (3) arrived at the airport, I asked if they had strong stomachs... partly in jest, with a side of serious. In a small plane, lots of wind means a bumpy ride. They were enthusiastic about the thought of bumping around, so off we went.

We first went sight seeing around the Metro Detroit area, flying over their house and such. Then we headed towards Mount Pleasant - KMOP. The GPS gave an ETA of about an hour, this was due to the 70knot headwind we were hitting at an altitude of 3,500. So far the flight was smooth (after ascending above 2,500).

As we headed northwest, I contacted Flint approach so I could transition through their airspace. As soon as I did, it felt like we hit a wall. We were getting tossed around like a rag doll. As the autopilot did its best to maintain altitude, I cranked open my air vents to help avoid the nausea. I asked the controller for a different altitude to find smoother air and was granted anything above my current altitude of 3,500. A northwest flight chirped up saying it was smooth at 3,600... only 100 ft above me! Sure enough, it stopped as quickly as it started. I kept climbing only to find rough air at 3,800. Turbulence is funny like that, sometimes only allowing minor pockets of smooth air. Thankfully my passengers rather enjoyed the rocking and rolling - I did not!

As we continued to fly, the haze layer was getting thicker and the western sky was not looking happy. Flint approach passed me to Saginaw and they vectored me into Mount Pleasant. Saginaw ATIS was still reporting 10 mile visibility and overcast at 4,500. I was getting close to the airport. The controller asked if I had the field in sight, I did not. I set the range on my GPS screen to 10 miles and waited for the airport to show while I continued to scan out my windscreen. Almost as soon as it showed on the GPS I had the field in sight. So, the ATIS was dead nuts on, visibility was 10 miles. But it still didn't look all that good. Saginaw approach terminated my radar services and I descended for the field.

As soon as we got below 2,500 feet the roller coaster ride began. It wasn't the best landing, but given the windy conditions, it was good.

After we taxied to the parking ramp and got out, I called the casino to send a shuttle. They are more than happy to pick you up so you can loose your money :) As we waited in the pilot's lounge and listened to stories about the knee replacement of the airport mut/security dog, I thought it would be a good time to check the forecast. When I did my flight planning in the morning, they did not call for the weather to move in until 22:00. But what I saw on the screen was different, the forecast changed and it looked like we only had about 2 hours of "ok" weather. I conferred with another pilot in the lounge and he remarked, "You could do some scud runnin'" (loose audio reenactment by me)... I replied sarcastically, "it's too bumpy for that". Because I am not an instrument rated pilot (yet), the weather has to be at least 1,000 foot ceilings and visibility of at least 3 miles... and those conditions are considered marginal or MVFR.

So, here is the reason for todays title. The Go/No Go decision a pilot has to make... I have read countless aviation articles on bad decision making, and the results are never good. In fact, just this past Sunday, a client of the man on board with me, died in a small plane crash near Romeo airport (see the preliminary NTSB), talk about hitting close to home...

As pilots, we are trained to understand factors that effect flight and be able to make safe decisions, regardless of what prior plans may be disturbed. Without much hesitation, I decided to cancel the current plans and head home. I explained to the passengers that we only had a couple hours of good weather and we should probably head back. They didn't mind and understood why I made the decision. So, we never made it to the casino... back in the plane and heading southeast, the picture out of the window looked a lot less ominous.

Thankfully, that headwind we were fighting on the way up, pushed us all the way home in only about 25mins. The landing at my home base was very challenging, a stiff 15-20knot direct crosswind, but I handled it like I knew what I was doing and had a baby soft touchdown.

As I look at the weather tonight, I see that the front stalled a bit and we may have been able to stay and gambled for a few hours. But I feel good about my decision making today. I'd rather err on the side of caution than get in over my head.

This is the first time I had a full load of passengers with expectations that were spoiled. You want everyone to be happy and you want to fulfill the "mission", but at what expense? I am a betting man, but Safety is not something I'm willing to gamble...

Check out our route of flight: