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." />

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.


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