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." />

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.”


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