Last time, I wrote about why it’s important to ask questions, the ways in which your flying skills erode, and the sad fact that as soon as you leave on a trip, everything is going to break back home. Here are a few more flying (and life) lessons that definitely weren’t in the commercial pilot ACS.
All ATC Delays Are Reserved for the Leg Home
Day one of a four-day trip never fails to go flawlessly. The ATIS reports weather that’s clear and a million, ground on point-niner taxis you to the nearest runway, and you get an unrestricted climb, “direct destination.” The next few days go about the same. It’s all good times and discretionary speeds.
Then it’s time to wrap it all up and go home. You call clearance with a bright and sunny disposition. “Clearance, good morning, Falcon 7EC requesting IFR clearance to home base.”
“Falcon 7EC, clearaaaaaance. [Sigh of discontent.] Standby.”
Hmm, that’s weird. I’m sure they’re just putting some notes on our strip so we won’t have to slow down on the arrival. I’ve already put my pen back in my pocket at this point because I’m sure we’re going to be cleared as filed, climb and maintain our highest certified altitude, squawk 0001.
“Falcon 7EC, full re-route, call 30 minutes before engine start, delays going back home due to traffic, construction and wild horses giving birth on all runways.” [!!!!!!]
Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but that’s how it feels when it’s time to go home after a few days of living in hotels, growing mold sitting around FBOs, and navigating the intricacies of obtaining “hold for release” clearances in various parts of the country from non-towered airports.
The best course of action is to take a deep breath, accept your fate, and embrace the suck. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t a section in the 7110.65 that allows ATC folks to create delays just to inconvenience pilots. Given the opportunity, I bet most of them would point us directly toward home base and let us go. I say most because, you know, there’s that one—and you know who you are—who would definitely hold us up if they could.
The Fastest Way To Get the Weather to Clear up Is to Cancel the Trip
When you’re a student or private pilot, canceling a trip or a lesson is a no-brainer when the weather is overcast at 1,000 feet. If you’re an instrument student, overcast 1,000 is nothing short of a beautiful gift. What if you’re an instrument-rated commercial pilot tasked with getting passengers a few hundred miles down the coast in a single-engine piston airplane to an airport that’s reporting clear skies? Piece of cake. But what if 250 of those miles are covered by a solid layer of 100-foot overcast with no chance of lifting?
So long as the engine keeps purring along in your trusty Arrow, that low overcast will be nothing more than a pretty, pillowy carpet that you’ll magically punch up through and fly over. But what if it doesn’t? Remember that time in the 150 that the engine started eating itself and turned the prop into a speed brake? Or the time that the 172 had just enough power to get you airborne but not quite enough power to keep you there?
Yeah, it’s always fine…right up to the point when it isn’t.
The example above isn’t completely made up, but it’s not entirely true, either. I was going to fly a cross-country with a friend in my school’s Piper Arrow one day. Our airport and the destination airport were both reporting clear skies. The ENTIRE route between us was overcast between 100 and 200 feet. I agonized over the decision for an hour or two but decided to scrub the trip on the grounds that, as long as the engine kept running, it’d be an easy flight. But if the engine decided to quit, shooting an engine-out approach to minimums, if I was lucky, in an airplane that has the glide characteristics of a magnetic brick over an iron quarry didn’t sound like a good time to me.
Shortly after I gave the airplane up, the weather magically cleared up against all odds…and forecasts. I went to lunch locally with a couple of flying friends, and after kicking myself for canceling a trip I could’ve made, everyone agreed that it could have easily gone the other way. I certainly couldn’t argue with that logic, as I tried not to read into the fact that we all ordered chicken wings. I’m not sure if it was the “chicken” part or the fact that these wings didn’t get to fly, either.
“It’s not turning big rocks into little rocks with a claw hammer in August in Mississippi. Lighten up, and maybe dust off your sense of wonder now and again.”
You’re Going to Run Into People Who Are All Over It
We use amazing, gravity-defying machines to punch through gloomy overcast layers into brilliant sunshine-soaked air over pillowy blankets of clouds, but it’s still a job, and some days are just worse than others. Flying is an undeniably cool job, but, as with every profession, some people are utterly and completely over it.
I was standing beside a corporate pilot with several decades of experience one evening. An airplane took off in front of us, and as the airplane went by, he said, “That looks like so much more fun than it actually is.” That was before learning to fly was even on the horizon as a possibility for me, and I had a hard time processing that statement. I’ve been flying for almost five years now, and I must admit…I still can’t process that statement. Sure, it may be different if I had started my aviation life as a pilot instead of a maintenance tech, and I completely get that there are times of burnout and various other low points in the job. But come on, man.
It’s not turning big rocks into little rocks with a claw hammer in August in Mississippi. Lighten up, and maybe dust off your sense of wonder now and again. Look out the window and enjoy watching a build-up form right in front of your eyes instead of thinking, aww man, I guess we’re going to have to deviate around this thing. I know, I know. I’m just the preachy newbie who’ll be singing a different tune in another 20 years. That’s possible, of course, but I really doubt it. I know many pilots with tens of thousands of hours, and I’ve seen the look on their faces when we pop up through the overcast. It’s almost always followed by the words, “Man, that never gets old.” At least one of those pilots will pull back on the yoke a little more than usual to get a higher-than-normal pitch attitude so that when we blast out of the clouds, it looks like we’re a dolphin leaping from the ocean.
I suspect that there are people like that in every profession, no matter how great it is. Count yourself as fortunate for not being one of them, which leads me to my last lesson learned.
You’re Just a Pilot; You’re Not As Cool As You Think You Are
I’m pretty sure this isn’t a thing. Have fun, find wonder in the day-to-day, and keep the dirty side down.
And never forget that you used to be that kid looking through the fence at all the cool airplanes and saying to yourself, “One day…” Now that you’re on the fun side of the fence, remember to look back and give that kid a wave and a smile to let them know you’re still having a good time.