The important decisions a pilot has to make don’t all occur in the air
Everyone who takes on a pilot in command role has decisions to make. Ultimately, that is the skill that defines a truly competent pilot: the ability to crunch the numbers, digest a wide assortment of information, and make a good decision. Sometimes those decisions come easily. Sometimes they are somewhat harder to make. Either way, like it or not, peer pressure or other outside influences can occasionally throw us a curve at exactly the time we need it least.
If good decision making is a core requirement of a good pilot, then getting to the root of any problem is a skill that deserves development. Aviation is generally perceived as complex, and it is the appearance of complexity that can turn an otherwise simple decision into a real head scratcher. From Bernoulli’s Principle to the inner workings of an internal combustion engine, pilots have to learn to simplify the complex and get to the inner workings of their problems. While the uninitiated might find the sound of a stall warning horn to be disquieting, and the buffet before a stall to be truly worrisome, a good pilot knows to simply lower the nose a tad and bump the throttle up slightly, and the problem is resolved. Similarly, a rough-running engine that results in an rpm drop might worry an observant passenger. But if the pilot recognizes the high humidity of a summer evening and connects the dots to arrive at the conclusion that carburetor ice is the culprit, the solution is as simple as applying carburetor heat and waiting for the obstruction to clear.
The important decisions a pilot has to make don’t all occur in the air, however. There are many opportunities to prevent an issue from even becoming a problem, provided the tell-tale signs of trouble are recognized while you’re still on the ground. Sometimes not flying is the best decision you can make. As an example, being able to differentiate between stratus clouds that will do no more than potentially present you with drizzle and a cumulonimbus monster that has the potential to rip your tail off and fling you into the dirt, is the sort of insight that can allow pilots to make a good decision about whether or not they should go flying today.
Consider this real-life scenario to see how a simple decision can become a difficult decision, and why it is important a PIC knows on which side to err.
In the tourist capital of the United States, where theme parks are plentiful and vacationing is a major industry, hot air balloons are clearly visible on most mornings. The stretch of highway that constitutes the major east/west corridor through central Florida just happens to approximate the direction of the prevalent winds on the peninsula, which puts colorful, bulbous bags of hot air overhead at low altitude on a regular basis. The sight presents literally tens of thousands of tourists and locals with an inspirational, living advertisement for the serene, unique experience that is available to them. Hot air ballooning is aviation in its simplest form.
Over the past 38 years the annual Sun ’n Fun Fly-In has grown from a small local event into the second largest aviation gathering in North America. With an estimated economic impact of $64 million, there is hardly an aspect of life in the host city of Lakeland, or the surrounding area, that is not affected by the influx of performers and guests.
Couple that with the hot air balloon show that goes on in central Florida all year long, and it is not surprising that one of the most highly anticipated events at Sun ’n Fun is the mass hot air balloon launch.
Sun ’n Fun 2012 was no different, except that the turnout to see the balloon launch was higher than in past years.
This slow-motion event is traditionally scheduled for early on a Saturday morning. Most adults don’t have to go to work, and most kids aren’t in school. So the gates tend to be flooded with early arrivals as sleepy children accompany adult family members through the turnstiles. They meander through rows of airplanes tied down in the grassy infield. Heavy dew moistens their shoes as they make the trek from the parking lot to the balloons, which are being unfurled onto the grass just south of Runway 9/27. Volunteers on foot and mounted on motorcycles separate the spectators on the south side of Taxiway D from the balloons and their crews on the north side.
While the number of people on the north side of the taxiway is relatively fixed, only swelling by the number of media crews that join the fray in the hopes of catching some exceptional video clips for the evening news, or a stunning still photograph that is worthy of a magazine cover, the population on the south side of the taxiway grows by the minute. By the time the first balloon leaves the ground, there can be thousands of people milling about on the edge of the taxiway, enjoying the show.
But as with all things aviation, safety is the overriding factor in the balloon launch. That means a no-go is a distinct possibility, even though making that decision will disappoint all those spectators, not to mention the pilots, passengers, event organizers, sponsors, media, and ground crew members.
The early signs of trouble came when the first balloons to rise to their full height began to dance around a little more assertively than the organizers might like. The announcer, who had been keeping the gathering crowds informed and entertained, mentioned the winds, but nobody was alarmed. After all, the skies were relatively clear, and the winds weren’t exactly howling. They were just a little brisk. Then they got brisker. The forecast was for the winds to continue to build, and that is a problem for balloonists.
Balloons don’t land into the wind like airplanes do. They land with the wind, and at the speed the wind is moving. A light breeze at the surface provides the conditions for a gentle touchdown, followed by champagne and smiles. A wind of more than five miles per hour on the other hand sets the stage for a bouncing arrival that can cause the basket to be dragged, potentially causing damage to property and injury to people.
The surface winds were at six miles per hour when the announcer broke the news to the assembled crowd: there would be no balloon flight this year. The winds were too high, and they were forecast to increase as the day wore on.
Hearts may have been temporarily broken, and dreams may have been delayed, but no groans rose up from the crowd. More important, no physical harm came to anyone as the balloons were deflated on site and the crews folded their envelopes and tucked their baskets away for another day. A good decision had been made. It may not have been the most popular option available to the organizers and pilots, but it was the right decision. Thankfully, the people responsible for the flights were thinking like PICs, and not like entertainers.
The surface winds rose to 12 miles per hour later in the morning. They were even higher at altitude. Safety would have been compromised if a balloon had launched, so the decision to err on the side of safety, rather than on the side of appealing to the audience was a smart one. Safety over showmanship—that is the key to long-term success in the airshow business.
Every pilot will face a decision like this one at some point in his or her flying career. Whether they are hobbyists or professional pilots, they will feel pressure at some point to make a flight when the conditions aren’t right. Maybe there is fog on the field you planned to take off from, or a fast-moving cold front is in between your departure point and your destination. Some of us will face reports of icing while piloting an airplane that lacks deice or anti-ice equipment. Or perhaps we will confront something as simple as frost on the airframe when we arrive for an early-morning flight. We can only hope that we will be true to our training and make a sensible and safe go/no-go decision. There is always another day, or another time to go flying—unless we compromise safety for expediency. Those who fall prey to that mistake sometimes lose their opportunity to fly ever again.