What are you going to do? THAT’S the question. In every pilot’s career he’s (BTWI always use”he” when referring to pilots. It’s not that I’m sexest, my daughter is a pilot, it’s just that I that having to write “he or she” ten times a day.) Anyway, in every pilot’s career he’s going to have to make a tough decision every now and again. You know, go, or no go? Most of the time it’s based on the weather, sometimes it’s that something’s wrong with the plane, or maybe you just drank too much the night before and you’re not feeling one hundred percent. (not that that ever happens to pilots for pity’s sake) Now for most non-professional pilots the decision is usually an easy one. If everything isn’t perfect, just say screw it and head to the bar. Easy. But for pilots who heard pieces of junk through the sky in return for little bits of colored paper (money) there are other factors that come into play. “But Kerry, I thought you weren’t supposed to let outside factors influence your decision making process!” you might say. And I might say to you dear reader that if you believe that bull sh*t you’ll believe anything they tell you in flight school. Remember when they told you that pilots make tons of money, lead lives filled with adventure and that chicks dig them? Well, OK,all that true, but when the mechanic tells you that the plane’s supposed to make that noise, that’s bull. Dang, Where was I? Oh yeah, outside pressures to fly when things aren’t just right. Guys who have people counting on them to make that flight happen might just give it a go when the weather is marginal, one of the radios is acting up or they just feel like hell. It’s called professional responsibility. Also known as “pressure” Of course the real trick is to know when the situation or circumstances are such that you head to the bar despite the pressure. And making that decision correctly, my friend, only comes from experience. And like the old saying goes “Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.”
So, without further ado. A bad decision.
A long long time ago in a country far far away, I was hired to help ferry an Embraer Phenom 100 from Sydney Australia to Las Vegas. The Phenom is a sleek, sort of fast, business jet that is a ton of fun to fly but has one vital flaw. It has short legs. Not landing gear, range. 800-900 miles is about the limit it can go with out stopping to re-fuel. In the jet world that’s not a lot. But you can’t have everything and when you’re ferrying, you don’t get to choose what planes you fly and how they were designed. You just deal with what you’re dealt. The trip was amazing but due to the short range of the Phenom it had a lot of stops and a lot of legs that didn’t leave us with a lot of reserve. The longest was a leg from Petropavlovsk to Anadyr, or from the southern tip of the Kamchatka peninsula to just shy of the Bering Strait. A little over 900 miles, right on the edge of the Phenom’s range.
When we got to Petropavlovsk our handler (another beautiful but grumpy Russian woman)informed us that the weather forecast for Anadyr wasn’t exactly what we’d been hoping for, in fact it was downright gloomy. She told us that the weather was currently 900 feet overcast with 5 miles visibility, not bad. Unfortunately the conditions were supposed to be worse by the time we got there.
“After that?” we asked, “Worse”
And after that? “Even worse.”
The lower ceilings forecast and visibility were right on the edge of what we could do safely. The biggest problem with going was that if the weather system moved in faster than was forecast we could find ourselves in a pickle with nowhere to go because the only other airport way up there on top of the world was west of Anadyr and that’s where the bad weather was coming from. Nope, we said take us to the hotel and we’ll try and recover from our crushing disappointment by drinking smooth Russian Vodka and chatting up the beautiful but grumpy Russian women. We’ll be fine.
That’s when Natasha (seriously, that was her name and she looked and sounded just like Natasha from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show) informed us that at this time of year when those big weather systems roll in from Siberia the Kamchatka can sometimes be shut down for up to a month.
Well, that certainly puts a different spin on things doesn’t it?
The Captain and I were certainly willing to spend a day or even two chilling at a hotel in exotic Russia. But a month is something altogether different. We poured over the forecast some more, mumbling, hemming and hawing, looking at each other with “what do you think?” eyes. All the while knowing that the longer we waited the closer the bad weather was to Anadyr. The captain was unwilling to make the call alone because even though it was his career on the line it both of our asses. Not wanting to spend a month cooling my heels I suggested we launch immediately and see how things looked enroute. If by the time we got to the point of no return the weather still looked good we’d continue, if it looked like it was going down faster than predicted we’d turn around. Simple, safe, aggressive. OK, it wasn’t simple or safe, but one out of three isn’t bad.
We took off and when we arrived at the point of no return called for a weather update for Anadyr. 500 feet, 2 miles visibility. Not great, but not too bad. They told us that the clouds were dropping and the fog was thickening but very fast. Dang, not a slam dunk either way. Once again we gave each other the “what ya wanna do?” look. In the end we decided to push on rationalizing that at the rate the clouds were dropping it should still be above our 200 foot limit by the time we got there, and besides, we had a great plane with a glass cockpit and a state of the art autopilot that could take us right down to the runway if needed. Onward!
We crossed the point of no return optimistic about our chances. So of course twenty minutes later ATC called to inform us that the conditions at the field had dropped to 400 feet and the worsening trend had increased.
20 minutes after that 300 feet.
Things were starting to get a bit gloomy in the cockpit. We’d made our choice and were committed so the was nothing much to say but our silence said it loudly anyway.
200 feet. 1/4 mile vis.
With 30 minutes left to go the sun went down, which in a low approach situation actually makes it easier to find the runway in the fog. Of course if we couldn’t find the runway and ran out of fuel we’d have no chance of surviving an off airport landing. As we approached the airport we had enough fuel for three or maybe four approaches but we agreed that if the first one was looking good we’d continue down past the missed approach altitude even if we couldn’t see the runway environment. Our reasoning was that the conditions were just getting worse as time went on so we might as well make the first one count. On the approach the captain monitored the autopilot and instruments while I called off the altitude and looked outside for the runway lights. 500, 400, 300, 200, 100…LIGHTS! Throttle to idle, touchdown.
Didn’t get killed….again.