By Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt Some scholars play a critical role in founding a whole field of study: Sigmund Freud, in psychology. Noam Chomsky, in linguistics. Albert Einstein, in modern physics. In the field of safety, Dr. James Reason has played such a role. In this field, no single name is better known. Dr. Reason […]
Steve Rossiter is an ATP/CFII in both helicopters and fixed wing; flying two tours in Vietnam and two tours as an Army Instructor Pilot (one in helicopters and one in airplanes). He has been a CFI and professional pilot for over 50 years.
“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!
It can happen in a heart beat!
The single biggest threat to GA accidents/incidents has been VMC flying into IMC for the longest time. Engine failure might have been another. But times have changed.
As we continue to fly newer aircraft, such as the Cirrus, Cessna G100, Diamond and more, there has been a shift in the cause of accidents/incidents.
No surprises here. Advanced weather information in the cockpit provided by XM Satellite, TIS, and ADS-B has considerably improved the safety of flying in bad weather in leaps and bounds. This does not necessarily eliminate weather related accidents/incidents completely. VMC flying into IMC is no longer so much a threat. But if unprepared, latency in updates to weather information, can still result in accidents and incidents.
According to the latest safety statistics, Loss of Control during flight, is the single biggest contributor of accidents to GA flights. Not only that, compared to other categories of flight such as Commercial and Air Taxi, GA accidents/incidents continue to increase!
I can remember a time, when I flew with a single VOR receiver in the cockpit. My sole knowledge of en route weather was what I garnered during preflight planning, any en route HIWAS weather or ATC provided weather updates. Whenever inclement bad weather was expected, I choose to stay home.
Loss of Control during flight is whole different matter. It is one, we rarely prepare for. True, we do learn stall recovery, but loss of control during flight, is a valid threat. There are so many factors that can contribute to loss of control: loss of rudder control, stall, spin, loss of aileron and more.
And, it can happen in a heart beat!
Recently during a flight into Lakeland, FL, I experienced a slight loss of control. No stall warning. If there were one, I am trained to react. Neither did the controls feel mushy. The nose didn’t drop left. Instead it oscillated to the right. I am still uncertain of the nature of the error. And hence unsure what the correction should be. Unfortunately, I didn’t check airspeed at the time. The last time I checked, it was 69 knots.
To my credit, I can only claim a long day, with almost 8 hours of flying at least half of them as PIC, some of them in IFR, and some of them holding, flying and following directions. My first thought was wake turbulence or some sort of winds…
What do you think?
I recently attended the 4th in the series of Safety Seminars hosted by NTSB, in collaboration with FAA, SAFE, AOPA and Flight Safety, where GA Safety is still a major concern.
Loss of control is still, in my mind, a major threat. One that is difficult to plan or prepare for.
True, stall and spin training are there.
But what, if you don’t know what is happening? How can you react then?
Women, reputedly, have exhibited, or lay claim to, a greater sense of ESP, clairvoyance or at the least, a heightened sensitivity to situations. This should serve us well when we are measuring our personal limitations, as in what weather we shall fly in.
VFR limits are usually proportional to one’s experience. However, sometimes, they are inverse. For instance, if you, as a new pilot have experienced unforecast three mile visibility, or flown into a haze layer while climbing into the sun, you may have decided that five miles visibility is way worse than you want to fly into, for pleasure and set your limits at 7-8 miles in familiar territory (which is still far worse than what we usually encounter around the San Luis Obispo area on normal days).
It may be that, as a new pilot, you set 10 miles visibility as your limit and found that by planning obvious checkpoints & navigation, whether by visual or radio navigation you operated fine in 6 miles visibility when you were prepared for it. Your limitations just transitioned.
As far as scud-running, picking your way underneath a low overcast in poor visibility-FERGIT IT!
Listen to that still, small voice that is saying to you…”I don’t like the way this feels and I don’t have a specific reason for it!” Discuss it with a CFI or another experienced pilot and verbalize what you are sensing. …..and USE THE TELEPHONE…AWOS, ASOS numbers are appearing with great regularity….call those destination airports and en route airports to back up what your FSS person told you. Learn to be a discerning pilot.
Whatever you do, listen to your inner feelings. If you are going to be uncomfortable, is this pleasure flying? Also, think about the closure rate between airplanes when there is only 5-7 miles visibility.
Originally appeared in The Slipstream, a monthly newsletter of the SLO99s in 2005
Posted by permission on Flynthings.net (now defunct) and re-posted here in memory of an excellent CFI, FAA Examiner and fellow 99.