Plane & Pilot
Sunday, April 1, 2007

When To Abort


Continuing a flight with a known problem may be possible, but is it wise?


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." />
When To AbortI 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.”




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