After having told my story about aborting a flight due to unexpected weather, you may be asking yourself why I’m writing about this, too. I’m going a little deeper this time, not because I think you didn’t get what I was saying but because I read an article the other day extolling the virtues of getting an instrument rating. I don’t disagree with that; but no matter if you have an instrument rating and can use it or are flying VFR, an underlying mindset of “having to get there” is very dangerous, and it sometimes may not be so clear to you that you have it.
For instance, the author in that article stated that one of the reasons to get an instrument rating was that “being limited to VFR-only flying far too often puts you in the dilemma of having to choose between being stranded somewhere or pushing your luck”. I submit that there is a hint of “get home-itis” in that mindset. I don’t disagree that having an instrument rating and being instrument proficient does increase the utility of your airplane and, if used wisely, increases your safety; but flying with the proper perspective is the real issue. No matter what airplane you are flying or what type of flying you are doing, your Number One Priority needs to be staying alive and unhurt. Anytime you start thinking you “gotta get there”, you’re flying in the wrong direction.
As always, weighing the risk factors involved in a flight is one of the most important duties a pilot must perform, and that starts with being honest about your condition and capabilities, those of your airplane, and performing a realistic evaluation of the external conditions you’re going to have to deal with. Of course, weather is sometimes the most uncertain part; even though weather forecasting is generally accurate, it is still an art as well as a science. (The earth has a life of its own, and what it’s going to do is not always predictable by us humans.) So here’s how I look at a cross-country flight as a VFR Sport Pilot:
(1) The Sport Pilot rules are designed to keep low time pilots out of trouble and are what I must follow to remain safe and legal. I don’t always like all of them; I think that the “without visual reference to the surface” part of the rule is too restrictive for already certificated pilots (Private or above) flying under Light Sport rules. But, if I stay with them, I won’t fly inadvertently into IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) or have an emergency push me into them, even if it’s very inconvenient…and it sometimes is!
(2) In general, whenever I am planning a long VFR flight (more than 6-8 hours flight time out or stays more than two days), I pack a couple of extra days into the schedule to accommodate changes in weather. Weather forecasts more than 3 days in advance can’t really be depended on; and even inside that window, weather sometimes changes in unanticipated ways. If I must be somewhere on a tight schedule and still choose to fly VFR, I think through a backup plan to get home, even if it means retrieving my airplane later. (And I have done just that..left my airplane somewhere and retrieved it later when the weather got better. It’s not fun and can be expensive, but it’s less expensive than a wrecked airplane and a lot less costly than being dead.)
(3) If my first instinct is to divert or land, I do it! It’s always easier to sort things out on the ground when I know me, my passenger, and my airplane are safe. If I land when I didn’t really need to, so what? Better that than not landing when I did need to and then having to tell the FAA or NTSB about it…if I survived it.
(4) Despite what some of my pilot buddies have told me, I’d like to die of old age and not in an airplane.
When I was trying to fly to see my one of my sons, who was visiting the States during an Afghanistan deployment, I was badly tempted to press ahead with that flight. I initially felt I could simply override the autopilot’s malfunctioning pitch servo and thought we had it powered down, but I chose not to go because over the years I have held myself to conservative standards about what was acceptable to fly with and what wasn’t. I thought about the consequences of being wrong and aborted. I launched out the next day after working with my A&P to ensure the airplane was in a known and workable configuration. I had done what I thought was a very thorough weather check, so I couldn’t believe it when I encountered the unforecast low layer. I couldn’t believe I was running into a second setback. But I had to acknowledge to myself the situation wasn’t what I was expecting, I didn’t really know what was going on, and I needed more information. XM weather in the airplane saved me from having to call Flight Watch or flying further into bad conditions; I knew there were IFR conditions ahead that had been supposed to clear. So, I diverted to Jennings, sorted out what I could on the ground, and decided to turn around and go home before the weather trapped me where I was. While it wasn’t the first time I had ever turned around to stay out of IFR weather, I hated calling ahead and telling those waiting I wasn’t going to make it; but it was what I had to do to keep myself out of harm’s way.
When you drop that idea of “having to get there” which is a variant of “Better dead than look bad”, you might get to fly at least one more day.