“Miami Center, can we get direct Ft. Pierce,” I asked eying the ominous looking dark clouds at our 12 o’clock.
“Unable for the next 10 minutes. Maintain heading,” responded Miami Center.
We had departed Bimini, our final halt in the Bahamas before heading back to the States. It was cloudy and IMC along the Florida Coast and we had filed an IFR flight plan for the return. Bimini is a mere 10nm miles from the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ ) and with luck, we had circled as we climbed to altitude and after multiple attempts, finally established radio contact with Miami Center. This was not only crucial since we were in-bound, crossing the ADIZ, but also because weather along our route was mostly IMC.
We proceeded as directed, continuing to watch the rapidly approaching weather system, straight ahead. When is the best time to tell the controller I am unable to follow his directive, I pondered. The system ahead looked turbulent and moisture laden. It is not fun heading into this mess in a Cessna 172. But I was also curious to see how it felt, how I would handle it, and understand my limits. Fortunately, just as we started penetrating the mess, Miami Center, cleared us direct to Ft. Pierce, so we could avoid the system.
Unable might seem like a taboo word, something you should never use or one you feel affronted to use since it admits a weakness of some sort or some such frivolous reason, but believe it or not it is the most effective word in your pilot lingo that might just save the day.
It is perfectly alright to respond with Unable if you are not able to follow any directive from ATC without jeopardizing the safety of yourself or your passengers. In flying, safety always comes first. As a pilot, your first prerogative is always the safety of your passengers and you. Once safely down, you can always deal with the consequences of your Unable actions. This doesn’t mean that you can now be frivolous and use Unable on any occasion that you feel you should or want to.
I can count the number of times that I used this most effective keyword in the last 14 years of my flying career on my finger tips. There were times when I came close to using it. But most times I override my desire to be a cautious flyer, to allow me to safely stretch the limits of my tolerance, to experience events that otherwise I couldn’t.
“Cessna XXX, cleared direct AVX, descend and maintain 5,000,” cleared LA Center as we neared the Venture VOR (VTU). This meant flying 50nm across the ocean, direct to Avalon, our intended destination. I had been conservative in my planning and filed:
This allowed us to trace the California coastline all the way past LAX and allowed us a short 25nm hop to Catalina Island. But here we were, not only flying lower, but also 50nm across the ocean. Definitely not within gliding distance to land. Neither my co-pilot, nor I, was worried. It was a pristine VFR day and experiences such as these are valuable. Being on an IFR flight plan, ATC knew exactly where we were, and there were hundreds of boats along the way!
As a pilot, it is up to you to determine what those limits are and when it is essential to use Unable. Remember, safety always comes first. But it is not necessary to be so conservative that you exclude all experiences and use your safe word prematurely.
On a wholly different flight, my friends and I were returning from the Key West on a VFR flight. The weather was iffy and our return trip meant dodging clouds along the Florida coastline. Unfortunately, I was not IFR current and hence had to maintain VFR for the duration of my flight.
“Climb to 2500 ft and contact Ft Lauderdale Tower,” directed Miami Approach.
My response was succinct, “Unable,” as I lowered the nose a little below 1,000ft.
“How high can you go?” queried Miami Approach.
“Not much above 1,000ft,” responded I.
“Stay out of Class Charlie Airspace and contact Ft Lauderdale Tower,” with that Miami Approach bid adieu. We headed further out to the ocean, away from the Intra-Coastal waters, to stay out of Ft. Lauderdale airspace,and contacted Ft. LauderdaleTower.
“Cleared through the coastal route, descend and maintain 500 ft,” cleared Ft. Lauderdale Tower, once we established contact.
It was music to our ears. The clouds continued to darken around us and we could feel the occasional drizzle on the wind shield. Off in the distance, a partial rainbow gleamed in the eastern sky, patches of blue still visible in the evening sky. While a little south of Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport (where we planned to land), the dark rain bearing clouds looked ominously threatening, hovering just a shade away from the airport edge. We landed in the nick of time, just as the storm started to pass over the airport. Tying down the aircraft in a drizzle, it felt good to be back and out of the storms way.
Unable is the most effective word in your back pocket. It is okay to use, if you are in a sticky situation. Use it wisely, and sparingly. Remember safety comes first!