Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, November 6, 2012

When To Abort

Aborting a flight—either on takeoff or in the sky— can be one of aviation’s most difficult decisions

The problem arises when you're forced to consider an off-airport landing with a perfectly good airplane under you. I made one of those in Alaska 30 years ago because of a stupid weather call. I had plenty of fuel, the new Mooney's engine was running perfectly, but the ceiling/visibility was rapidly deteriorating toward zero/zero. At the time, I was doing what Alaskan pilots do all too often, scud running. The scud simply got lower than I expected.

Fortunately, there was a convenient straight stretch of highway nearby and no traffic in sight. Landing on a highway is legal in Alaska (provided you don't hit anything), a benefit not shared in most states. I taxied the airplane to a wide spot, shut down, tailed it as far off the road as I could, and settled in to wait out the weather. An Alaska Highway Patrol officer stopped to check on me, hung around and talked airplanes, then went on his way, with a smile and a, "Be careful."

But let's say you're basically out of options, you're faced with an off-airport landing, and there's a good chance you may damage the airplane in the process. That's a tougher call. Do you continue in inclement weather and take your chances, or do you do the best you can with whatever's below? Unfortunately, too many pilots choose to continue on the premise that things are bound to get better. Bad idea. In keeping with Murphy's Law, things are perhaps more likely to get worse.

Another typical scenario is the pilot who runs his fuel reserves too tight because of poor planning or unexpected winds. (The rule is: Any attempt to stretch fuel is guaranteed to result in stronger headwinds.) Then, he must decide whether to make a controlled precautionary landing at a preselected site while power is still available or be forced into accepting a power-off landing at whatever semi-flat location he can reach within gliding distance.

A single-engine instrument readout shouldn't necessarily be cause to consider a precautionary landing. A high or low cylinder-head temperature, unsupported by any other abnormal instrument indication, may not be enough to justify aborting a flight.

The bad news about a precautionary landing is that you may damage the airplane or perhaps even suffer some injuries. That tends to discourage some pilots from aborting a flight, simply because they'll have to answer questions later and perhaps admit they made a mistake. Pilots are a proud bunch, and serious mistakes that might result in a bent airplane or an FAR violation aren't part of the profile.

The good news is that landing before the situation becomes too critical may provide the benefit of time. If the weather is deteriorating rapidly and you need to put the airplane on the ground now or risk hitting an unseen mountain, you may have few options. If a lack of fuel dictates a precautionary landing, however, you may have the option of examining several possible emergency sites before choosing one. You'll also have the relative luxury of preparing the cockpit for the touchdown; securing loose items, making certain everyone is strapped in firmly with seat belts and shoulder harnesses fastened, popping the door in the flare, etc.

Dozens of books exist on how to land off airport, and we won't attempt to summarize them here. What happens after you make the decision to abort a flight depends upon dozens of factors, not all of which you can control.

If you do decide to abort any portion of a flight, you've probably made the right decision. Better to err on the side of safety than continue and make a bad situation worse.


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