I was just over three hours out of Santa Barbara on my way to Honolulu in a Piper Chieftain when the HF radio suddenly went quiet. “Hmm, not good,” I thought, “but not a world-shaking emergency.” The HF was my old reliable Kenwood TS-50S ham rig, temporarily “mounted” on the right front seat. For 12 years, it had served me well on the oceans with never a hiccup. Now, it was dead.
Sadly, I have to admit my first thought was whether I could simply bluff my way across the Pacific using position relays through the airliners overhead and maybe find service in Hawaii. I was making a fixed-price contract delivery to Australia, and turning around would cost me at least 250 gallons of fuel, plus probably two extra nights in a hotel. That meant an extra $1,000 straight out of my pocket.
The regs were clear, or were they? An HF radio is required for the Pacific crossing from the West Coast to Honolulu, and of course, it’s also mandatory for all the international stops beyond. (That’s why airliners carry two of them.) Mine had been working for the first position report, and I had filed IFR, so I could probably argue that I was entitled to continue. The rule for loss of communication in IFR is to continue to your destination, shoot the approach and land. Of course, conditions were VFR, and when I got to Hawaii, I could communicate normally on VHF. If I had a problem mid-ocean, however, I’d have no way to call for help other than on 121.5 and hope an airliner heard me.
I thought about it for a few minutes, and reluctantly, decided the smartest course of action was to turn around. The Chieftain was running perfectly, and I probably could have continued, but in the final analysis, my tender pink body was worth a lot more than $1,000, at least to me. I switched to the guard frequency (121.5) on VHF, asked for an airliner’s help and when United came back, I asked them to advise San Francisco Oceanic that I was aborting the flight and returning to Santa Barbara.
In 200 trips across the Atlantic and Pacific, I’ve been faced with similar decisions two dozen or more times, and no, I haven’t consistently aborted. Apparently, the fact that I’m still here suggests I must have made the right decisions at least some of the time. Abort when you don’t need to, and the consequences are usually nothing worse than inconvenience and economic loss. Fail to abort when you should, however, and the result could be far worse.
Economics should never dictate whether to continue a flight, but the simple fact is that money often rules. Many readers may recall the case of a British Airways 747 that lost an engine on takeoff from LAX in February 2005. The tower controller witnessed the failure right at rotation and advised the crew that there were “flames shooting 20 feet out of the number two engine.”
The aircraft circled LAX for a few minutes while the crew consulted with the home office. Rather than dump fuel and be forced to compensate passengers nearly $200,000 for the delay, the captain elected to continue some 5,000 nm to England on three engines.
What he apparently didn’t know was that fuel for the number two engine could not be transferred when the level dropped below 6,000 pounds. That might not have been so bad except that, in keeping with Murphy’s Second Law of Accumulated Failure, the flight was assigned a relatively inefficient altitude for the crossing, suffered unfavorable winds, and eventually, the captain was forced to divert to Manchester because of low fuel. I’m not an airline pilot, but that certainly sounds like economics overruling safety. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
There are probably dozens of other factors that could dictate an abort, but perhaps the top consideration for most GA pilots is weather. How do you decide to continue or abort if the atmospherics are worse than advertised? Teaching weather judgment is a Herculean task under any circumstances, certainly not the province of a single magazine article, but there are factors that can ease the decision of when to divert or abort.
If you’re flying VFR, the weather decision is fairly easy, or at least, it should be. You have no excuse for even considering pushing weather. Every year, CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) or UFIT (the uncontrolled equivalent), two of our oldest enemies, are consistently among the top probable causes of fatal accidents. If you can’t see where you’re going, you divert, at least temporarily—period. I know, I know. In the real world, it’s rarely that simple, but there’s no way to adequately warn a pilot untrained for instrument conditions about the dangers of continuing into adverse conditions except to say don’t.
Bruce Landsberg, director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, says there’s a relatively easy cure for the problem, but pilots seem reluctant to practice it. “Too often, pilots who stumble into accidental IFR often do exactly the wrong thing, descend straight ahead in hopes of popping out the bottom,” says Landsberg. “The smarter course is nearly always to initiate a climb, preferably in conjunction with a 180-degree turn, to return to known VFR conditions, assuming they’re still there.”
Instrument-rated aviators have a tougher decision. The vast majority of instrument pilots tend to err on the side of safety, but some insist on pushing the odds, knowingly continuing into weather they may not be qualified to handle.
The question is always how to recognize when you may be pushing too hard. In 25 years of ferry flying, I’ve gone to school on those folks who do it better than I ever will (which is practically everyone). Though many of our legs are across oceans where there are essentially no alternates—you either continue to your destination or return to your departure point—one good friend was in the habit of always asking the briefer, “Where is it good?” If the weather was questionable on any portion of a leg, he wanted to know in advance which direction to divert.
Another most excellent aviator was in the habit of checking destination weather once every hour during a flight to make certain he didn’t arrive to an unexpectedly 0-0 airport, out of fuel and ideas at the same time. That very thing happened to me once, on a flight from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Narsarsuaq, Greenland, six years ago. Near-ground-level fog formed and rolled in from the fjord, catching everyone by surprise. I wound up having to sneak in up the fjord the best way I could, far below published IFR minimums. (No, there were no repercussions. My choices were either land or die. My alternate—Godthab—had also gone down, and I had no choice if I didn’t want to park it on the ice cap.)
Other factors that may influence the abort decision include mechanical problems, avionics concerns, passenger considerations and the condition of the pilot. Mechanicals can be a tougher call than you might imagine. Traditional wisdom has it that if anything stops working, you abort. Simple rule, huh?
Not necessarily. Any problem that affects engine power is obviously justification to abort, but what if a fuel gauge stops indicating? Should you abort? Probably not. If the needle merely drops straight to the bottom of the dial, that’s usually indicative of a gauge problem. If the needle moves smoothly but quickly down the dial, that could be a sign of a fuel leak and reasonable cause to abort. Another clue might be if the engine quits.
How about if an alternator doesn’t function or an electric fuel pump won’t in a twin? If you think that’s not critical (“Gee, isn’t that why you have two of them?”), imagine what could happen if you lost the other one. You get the idea.
Similarly, how many radios do you have to lose before you “should” abort? The old salts of aviation sometimes suggest “all of them” and decry pilots who rely too heavily on radar and GPS. Again, the question of VFR or IFR rules. Radios are less critical when the atmospherics are clement, you can see the ground and follow your position on a topographic chart. (Remember those?)
Even in VFR, loss of a transponder can also ruin your day and cause you to divert. A few years back, the lights went out on the one and only transponder in a borrowed Cessna 340 while I was en route to the Reno Air Races. Despite pleading that my rental car was at Reno-Cannon and there was no way I’d find another one somewhere else, the Reno approach controller told me in no uncertain terms to go somewhere else. I diverted to Carson City and spent $110 for the cab ride to Reno. But after all, this is aviation.
Pilot and passenger mental and physical condition are two more real concerns that might dictate an abort. The pilot’s condition is, obviously, most critical, but passengers need love, too. If anyone is having trouble with turbulence, complaining about the noise and vibration level, or forgot to use the bathroom, you may be better served to accommodate their wishes than force them to endure. Remember, even if it’s a rental, you’ll probably have to clean it up.
One of my earliest instructors, now long since elevated to the great hangar in the sky after 40 years of instructing, used to always preach, “If you have a choice to make in aviation, better to accept the consequences of the known than choose the unknown and take your chances.”