Tough takeoff decisions
“‘Being a fairly new pilot I wanted your feedback on my weather decision this morning,’ said my buddy Mark Harris when he phoned. ‘I’m driving from Flagstaff to Lake Havasu City for a meeting. The forecast predicted a 50% chance of snow this afternoon, so I decided not to fly. But after traveling for hours under cloudless skies, I’m wondering whether I screwed up by not flying.’
“‘Takeoff decisions can be tough, especially when you feel pressed to make an appointment,’ I observed. ‘No one’s immune. Just last Saturday Jean and I planned to fly to Tucson to see visiting relatives. Like today, the morning was clear. But with a storm forecast to threaten Flagstaff by evening, I canceled. When the skies were still clear at bedtime, I kicked myself for not going. The next morning, however, we awoke to two feet of snow; had it arrived earlier, we’d have been stranded for days. So in retrospect my decision was good. I suspect yours was, too.’
“At the Flagstaff Airport that afternoon, flight school owner Orville Wiseman lamented a recent accident where a well-regarded pilot took off into difficult weather. The accident report suggested that during trying economic times the pilot anticipated signing a highly desired business contract at his destination meeting. The circumstances reminded me of my own most difficult takeoff decision ever…”
Continue reading my July Flying Carpet column, “PRUDENT PILOTS,” here. (Mobile device version here.)
Photo: Lake Havasu City Airport, Arizona. Sometimes it’s wisest to stay on the ground.
©2013, 2020 Gregory N. Brown
If you enjoyed this story, you’ll love Greg’s book, Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane. Autographed copies available!
3 thoughts on ““Prudent Pilots,” Greg’s July Flying Carpet column”
Dear Greg Brown and AOPA,
Just read your article in the July 2010 edition of Flight Training about making tough takeoff decisions.
I wanted to share with you some of my thoughts about decision making. As a newly minted Private Pilot, I can’t regale you with stories of wisdom, though I have collected a few. However, as an experienced physician, I have experience and wisdom to share.
As en ER physician, every day I am called upon to make thousands of decisions. Many of those decision will directly affect the life and well-being of those that call upon me. I take that responsibility seriously. It took me years to become comfortable making those decision. I used to go home every day and worry about each decision and second guess every single one of them.
I now look at every decision as a balance between risk and benefit. I realize that every thing that we do has some amount of risk attached to it and some amount of benefit attached. As the scales tip toward the risk or benefit side, the decision is made. The balancing point is different for each person. How much risk are you willing to take for the gained benefit is something that each person needs to answer for themselves. Each decision is made with the most information possible at the time. After the decision, there is plenty of time for second-guessing, but I resist that urge. Instead, I use that time to learn. I look at the information sources I had and compare them to the result and see how much fidelity there is. Assessing fidelity, how reliable a source is, allows the decision maker to figure out how to rely upon on that source in the future.
There is always a discussion of whether the decision was a right decision or a wrong decision. I just don’t see it that way. A decision leads to an outcome which may be good or bad. But the decision has no inherent right or wrong to it. You can always make decisions with good outcomes by never taking on risk (if you never fly, you’ll never crash). But, as experience accumulates, the assessment of risk becomes easier and the decisions lead to more good outcomes.
Thanks for the chance to share my perspective.
James W. Custis, Jr. MD
Thank you for your insightful and thought-provoking comments, Jim! I have linked to this from my public Facebook page in an effort to further share your insights with other pilots. Great stuff!
Those go-no-go decisions are so vital! Our Cessna 172G does not like hot, humid weather. We rarely take passengers on these hot days because it’s not worth the risk! When we take up a good part of the runway just to lift off, we often wonder what it would be like if we were loaded down. We won’t be finding out, that’s certain! Thanks for sharing this article – a very valuable lesson for anyone considering what that gentleman decided to do. How unfortunate that many people paid a dear price! Thanks.