No Exit

I don’t know if it was Chuck Yeager, Tom Wolfe, or anyone else in particular that should earn extra credit for this gem, but it doesn’t matter. It could be Klem Kadiddlehopper, for all I care. What is it? It’s that, in the interests of safety, may pessimism know no bounds! Applied in plain language, that means: always have an out.

The antithesis of this credo I suppose would be flying up a box canyon, which as most of us know, pilots have done. Unlike any suburban cul-de-sac of course, there won’t be any Federal equivalents of a “NO EXIT” sign posted at the entrance. Just a few weeks ago, I had a business trip out west, and I did some flying in Grand Junction, Colorado. In addition to getting a taste of 8,000-foot density altitudes, I also got a taste of canyon flying. When I expressed my apprehension that we were going to be flying right above the Colorado River, my instructor reminded me that although we would be below the rim, we wouldn’t be that far below the rim, and we would be keeping our speed up. That way, at the first sign of any trouble, we could pull back, trade our airspeed for altitude, and ask questions later. Now that is what I call having an out…literally!

The basic premise of this most basic of aviation doctrines is to never put yourself in a place from which there is no safe escape. A further corollary is that, while you’re doing everything else during a flight, consider just what options you have on a regular (that is, constant and continuous) basis. If you’re like me, you may like watching improvisational theatre or comedy … but I’ll bet you sure wouldn’t feel very comfortable if you got called up there on stage and had to do it yourself. Having a plan beforehand is better than trying to come up with one in a hurry. Even a Comedy Club headliner has a repertoire of funny stuff, and the more he or she practices it, the better he or she gets. It’s the same for us. By definition, an “out” usually invokes some stigma of retreat; it implies something you’d rather not have to do. The question of “where do I go if the engine quits…right now” is pretty cut and dry (as long as you’ve been looking out the window and down, as the countryside rolls by beneath you). For example, considering beforehand a plan of action in detail, such as studying your airport topography and that of any remaining open fields nearby is immeasurably preferable to figuring it out at 300 feet AGL during an upwind leg engine failure. There’s little ignominy inherent in an ambush (which is what it is, if your engine goes stone cold dead). However, there is intrinsic dishonor in denial and inaction. When you have an out, but because of external pressure (a passenger whom you do not wish to inconvenience, a relative waiting to meet you at the airport, or the guy who has the airplane after you) you don’t exercise it, that compounds the problem.

Here’s another scenario: again, with me as the Poor Slob on center stage. This one involves helicopters, one of my vices which I often remind my wife should be preferable to my drinking, smoking, or gambling (none of which excite me, and none of which I do, as I can’t stand the taste of alcohol, the smell of tobacco, and I know the House always wins). Yeah, I know; I’m a real Boy Scout. Spare me. Anyway, I had a Robinson R-22 and I was going to give general aviation a little PR, the neighborhood kids a taste of some real glamour and excitement, myself a little fun, and land it in front of our house (actually in the court out front, with a half-acre of asphalt to aim for). It was my birthday. I’d warned all the neighbors. I’d even alerted City Hall, the Police Department, and done everything possible to arrive anything but unannounced. In fact, there were dozens of people waiting for me, with cameras at the ready. Even the weather (oh, yeah, that) was good. As I made my high altitude reconnaissance (which for a small helicopter, means 500 feet AGL), I was aware that there was now a fairly steady breeze of at least 15 knots, and that it might be a problem as I descended below treetop height. (The courtyard was and is surrounded by tall trees.) I could get trapped in a “wind shadow” as I dropped down under 50 feet and I was concerned about losing what’s called “effective translational lift” and getting trapped in my own downwash (called a “vortex ring” state). There are ways around that, sure, such as descending really slowly, or making a tight spiral, but I wasn’t up to pushing the dead man’s curve (and my luck) any more than I had to. As I started my low-altitude reconnoiter and approach, it became obvious that the wind was just as strong lower down as it had been, higher up. So what did I do? I boogied on out of there, left everyone wondering what happened, and flew back to the airport. Were they disappointed? Sure. My answer? Tough noogies.

A local pilot–we’ll call him Frank — launched on one of his first few solo cross-country flights one warm late summer afternoon, not long ago. The briefer had told him that there were no flight precautions along his route (although that had been five hours earlier) and that the forecast winds aloft were expected to be light and variable. Although he hadn’t requested flight following, he was monitoring adjacent frequencies, and fifteen miles from his destination, he became aware that communications with the next TRACON downstream were taking on something of an urgent tone. What really set the alarm bells ringing was the controller’s use of the phrase “deviate at your discretion” to several inbound aircraft ahead of him, on the frequency. He was also asking several others about their intentions. What Frank surmised was happening was that a line of thunderstorms was moving in faster than anyone had anticipated. He remembered one of those arrows in his quiver of vicarious experience, something his instructor had told him that he’d called the “conservative response rule which was to choose a more conservative option from those available, and do so decisively. The more urgent the situation, the more conservative should be his response, he’d said. In this case, Frank was feeling uneasy, so he did what he thought made the most sense, all things considered. He made contact with that controller, told him that he was a student pilot, and asked what was going on. When he found out that there could indeed be convective activity in his immediate future, he decided to request vectors for an immediate about-face, back to where he’d started. (True, a more experienced pilot might have simply picked a different destination, but you get the point.) Forty-five minutes after he had tied the airplane down, he found himself driving out of his airport’s parking lot with his windshield wipers on the “intermittent” setting. But by the time he’d reached the main road two minutes later, they were on high, he couldn’t see more than 100 feet in front of him, and everyone was driving really slowly. He was annoyed that his planned cross-country was history, but hey, now he was only driving in this stuff, not trying to fly in it!

At a safety seminar in northern Virginia once, not too long ago, the speaker displayed a sign with an unpretentious yet catchy credo. Well worthy of being preserved in needlepoint, I thought it was as profound as anything else I might ever learn in this life, and it has stayed with me always. Word for word, it read as follows: It is far better to arrive late in this world than early in the next. What that says to me is similar to something that Barry Schiff once learned, and has since passed along to the rest of us, in his writing. Whenever something interfered with long-standing plans, whether it was weather related, mechanical, or whatever, a friend of his once taught him to view waylaid plans in a philosophically similar way, as though from a perspective somewhere off in the future — actually, five years, if I recall right. The fact is, if you didn’t make that meeting, or whatever, five years from now, what will it matter?

The bottom line is, you’ve gotta be ready with that insufferably over-used Plan B and you’ve got to be ready and perfectly okay with using it, despite the “consequences“. They ain’t gonna be nearly as bad as they could be.