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Making the No-Go Decision

In flying, we all face the Go/No-Go decision. Sometimes it's easy. Either a blue-sky, calm-wind day, or torrential thunderstorms bad enough that it's got the ducks walking. The trick comes when it's a marginal sort of thing. I think there's a trend to push the boundaries, which is, more or less, the whole point of gaining experience and feeling more comfortable in the safe zone that used to be the edge of experience. While gaining that experience can be a bit nerve wracking, it seems that the harder part is when the flight would put you on the far side of the safe zone and the decision is for a No-Go—except it's not a clear no-go, it's one in which you must decide that it's just too risky. Not a complete failure-is-assured situation, just one in which the risks are too high and cannot be comfortably mitigated.

I had a situation like that recently (April 3rd, 2009), and figured I'd jot down my thoughts on it.

The Trip

There was a horse show in Columbus, Ohio. I had been to such a show 6 months or so ago with a friend who owns a horse. I know a bunch of people in Columbus. I haven't taken an overnight trip flying anywhere in over a year. My friend enjoys flying. I've flown into the Columbus airport a number of times. So the idea was that my friend and I would take a Friday off, take a long weekend, and go to Columbus. Leave Friday morning, get there in the early afternoon, attend 2-3 days of the shows and seminars, stay with friends of mine, hang out, have fun, and leave on Sunday.

I flew some instrument approaches to brush up on my IFR work. I got my night currency back to give me more options. As things got closer, I checked the VOR log and GPS database of the plane a few days before the flight to make sure they were current. I tried to get a Detroit VFR sectional chart because mine had expired, but everyone was out of them because the new ones were due soon. Didn't really matter, as the trip would be all IFR anyway.

I started following the weather forecasts about 5-7 days out and watched as it got closer. It seemed like there'd be some IFR weather, but nothing too bad. As it got closer, the weather service wasn't really talking about any thunderstorms or anything that would immediately cancel the flight.

As I'm fond of saying, "What could possibly go wrong?"

The Day Arrives

I had made plans with my friend, who was going go into work early to put in a few hours at the lab and then take the rest of the day off. I got to the flying club, looked at the plane (didn't do a preflight inspection yet). It was behind another in the hangar. One of the hangar doors was open, the rest were closed. And there was a primary student preflighting a plane—perhaps an irrational optimist. I went back inside and got a weather briefing. I spent 23 minutes talking to the briefer on the phone.

There was a low pressure system sitting over Columbus now. It was going to be moving, basically, to Ithaca later in the day. Looking at the forecasts, it made sense. Easterly wind now in Columbus, westerly by the time of arrival. Similarly, we had an easterly surface wind now. Frontal passages tend to be bumpy—moderate turbulence was forecast along the whole route.

At Columbus at the arrival time, winds were forecast to be 290 at 25 gusting to 32. That would be almost straight down Runway 28 (Left), so the crosswind component isn't a big deal, but that's a lot of wind. Still, it's not an immediate no-go. Taxiing would be challenging but possible.

An IFR student laughed at how easy the decision it would be for him and then went home. But it wasn't for me. A CFI there was merely quiet. In the hangar, the student continued to preflight his plane for a lesson that would be canceled.

Wind Gusts to 38 at Ithaca

Then I pulled up the ATIS (current weather recording) for Ithaca. It was different than what the briefer had given me, probably had just been recorded. The wind at Ithaca was now 130 at 25 gusting to 38! The plane will stall around 35-45 knots, which means it could either get airborne while taxiing or simply be so light on the wheels because the wings are producing enough lift to support 90% of the plane's weight, that it would have no directional control and get blown off the taxiway into a ditch or tip over in a gust.

The gusting to 38 knots exceeded any reasonable safety limit I had. So we wouldn't launch now, but that still doesn't answer the big Go/No-Go question. I looked at the forecasts for the afternoon and considered how the low would impact the weather, here, at the destination, and along the route as it moved throughout the afternoon and beyond. I sat and pondered for a minute or two and then my phone rang. My friend had just come back from the lab and was ready to head out to the airport.


I like having alternate plans. At that moment, I really didn't have any. But as I explained the situation, I started to formulate them. I told her that as of right now, we couldn't fly, it was too windy here to be safe. There are a lot of other factors I was considering and didn't have a good answer. For the moment, she should stay at home and I'll call back in 15 minutes or so with an update on things.

I looked at the different forecasts and "prog charts" forecasting what was supposed to happen in the next 12 and 24 hours. To be honest, it was a bit unclear. The wind in Columbus would remain steady and howling all afternoon. It wouldn't die down until after dark. Late at night, after midnight, they were forecasting "sky clear." As the low approached Ithaca, the weather would simultaneously get better and worse. The howling wind would die down and become relatively mild, but there'd be rain and the ceiling and visibility would drop. That's not a no-go, as a) we were only trying to leave here and not get back to Ithaca, and b) the conditions were forecast to be nowhere near IFR minimums, even if we had to return. Still, it was going to get worse. After the low passed (the classic swing from easterly winds to westerly), the winds will pick up again. But there might be a window in the late afternoon. I'd be flying through a front, which involves dynamic weather and flexible plans.

By the time I talked to my friend again, I described a number of alternative plans.

I had decided that Plan F was not viable, because by the time we'd get there, we'd miss most of Saturday's horse show (one of the purposes of the trip), and might have to cut Sunday short too. If we were going to take the trip, it would be today or nothing. While that sounds like it's putting extra importance on the trip, to me it actually made it easier. There was a definite closure to the decision-making process, it wouldn't drag on all weekend. As a corollary, I said that no matter what happens, at this point we will definitely not see any of the show today. It's now out of consideration, as there's no way we can make it to Columbus before today's events are done.

I said that while I will make the decision if we can make the flight or not (go/no-go), I did want to get her input in terms of her thoughts on the other plans. I said I really wasn't that interested in driving 15+ hours in a weekend. She agreed, so we eliminated Plan B from further consideration.

If she wanted to cancel the trip now, that was OK. If she didn't feel comfortable flying at night, that was OK. She said she was willing to try for the other options, including a late flight and understood if they didn't work, the trip wouldn't happen. We agreed to check back with each other around 4pm which meant that she now had 5 hours free to do things she didn't think she'd have time to do today.

I sat and looked over more weather forecasts. The CFI said that he generally wouldn't fly when winds get this strong. I appreciated the tacit support of my decision (while letting me make the decision myself).

Weather Limbo: Wishful Thinking or Learning?

I don't mind if the weather is shitty. That's easy: find something else to do, plans are canceled. And of course if it's wonderful, then you launch (assuming everything else falls into place). It's the "no-go, but maybe it'll change, but probably not" weather that tends to just suck me in and consume my time. Once I make a no-go decision, I won't go back on it. But I will keep watching the weather. A comedian once talked about how he'd look at ads in the paper for items even after he bought that item. He said that it was stupid, yet he did it. As if he was thinking, "I bet I was a real idiot for buying that thing at the price I let me do some research to try to support my theory."

Once, I was stuck in Youngstown after going to a friend's graduation. While still at their home, 20 minutes from the airport, the weather briefer asked "Can you get off the ground in the next 5 minutes?" A line of thunderstorms was moving in across the path from Youngstown to Ithaca and would continue all night. I spent a few hours that evening watching the weather channel with my friend's aunt as the radar pictures clearly showed an impassable wall of severe storms blocking the path and any chance of going around it. It was like I had to see it, to experience it for hours, to go through all of the possible alternatives and verify that none of them would have been viable, to understand that staying the night was the right choice. Of course the trip back the next day was uneventful and the weather was fine.

So I had said I would make the decision about Plan B around 4pm. New weather forecasts would come out at 2pm. I spent more time at the club chatting with a few people (since no one was flying that day) and talked about the status of my plans with our chief instructor. He thought the situation was a bit tricky, as it wasn't clear how things would work. If the low happened to pass south of us, there'd be an easterly wind and I could even get a tailwind heading to Columbus. But it could also pass north of us and be crappy. I went to lunch. At lunch, I saw another pilot who is also a CFI (flight instructor), and we talked about flying (what else?). He mentioned how the weather channel the past few days had been talking about the triple threat, of how once the current low passed that there was another system behind it to the west and another one behind it. We were not due to have much in the way of good weather for a while. It was also raining pretty solidly now.

Back at the club, I checked the forecasts, and things were kind of improving. The wind had settled down to a more moderate level, it was raining, but the ceiling was still about 1200 feet or so. Weather reports from the past hour indicated that thunderstorms has passed through the area. What? I didn't hear anything and they were not forecast. Looking at the radar map, I saw rain along the route, no surprise. No thunderstorms. Good. But from western New York, through the northeast part of Pennsylvania, and into eastern Ohio, the map showed the rain as blue, not green, with a white line separating all of the green rain echos in the rest of NY and PA. This "finger" of blue extended down from Michigan through the great lakes and across my flight path. Green means rain. Blue means snow. White means the transition, around the freezing level.

New Data, Lower Temperatures

The morning's weather briefing said turbulence below 10,000 feet. Icing from the freezing level up to 20,000 feet. The freezing level was 8,000 feet. I would be at 6,000 feet, safely below it, getting bounced around. Moderate turbulence, while not pleasant, is much better than ice in that you can continue to fly safely through it. But now things had changed.

I looked at the "winds aloft" forecast and it now included two charts. One that covered the winds through about 4 or 5pm, and a new forecast after that. While earlier at 6,000 feet, the temperature aloft would have been 5°C or more above freezing, now it was below freezing. At 3,000 feet, it was, perhaps, 0-2°C, right in the freezing zone.

The score so far: we have winds to make taxiing, takeoff, and landing difficult. Probably no crosswind for takeoff and landing, only taxiing. We have turbulence to make the flight unpleasant. We would have night to add to the challenge (though I was current). The cloud tops were high, so we'd probably be in and out of layers the entire flight, which means I'd have to be staring at the instruments intently for 3.5+ hours. We have headwinds anywhere from 30-50 knots to add to the duration and expense of the trip. This Skyhawk had extended-range tanks with 50 gallons, so it was good for 5-6 hours. And now there was the risk of icing and the freezing level was such that I could probably not get below it and cruise (it did not go to the surface, but even in flat Ohio, the minimum en-route altitudes would be 3-4 thousand feet). And add to that that the return would be "challenging." Sunday weather in Ithaca was supposed to be decent. Saturday in Columbus was good, with Sunday starting OK and deteriorating with crap behind it on Monday. So our return would require diligence on my part requiring me to keep an eye on the weather the whole time. This also meant that we probably would not be able to see much, if any, of the show on Sunday.

The forecast was predicting rain and snow in Ithaca Friday night. I didn't like the look of Plan B and after dark as things got even colder, Plan C was no longer looking viable.

The Decision

There was finally enough information to make a definitive decision. There were too many risks, too many unknowns, and not enough fall-backs to make the flight safely. Regardless of the absolute answer, the flight was unsafe and beyond my skills, capabilities, and comfort level. I called my friend and told her Christmas was canceled. Actually, she was fine with it, disappointed, sure, but never a question or second guess. That would be my job for the next few hours.

The Pilot, the Plan, the Plane

I did check the weather a few times after that to see if I could have been wrong. If there was some magic window of safety I missed and more importantly what clues would indicate such an event. It didn't happen. I also looked to see what clues I used to make my decision, could I have found them earlier. Maybe, but I don't want to cancel flights at the first hint of a cloud.

So then the next question I pondered was: was the flight unflyable or only unflyable for me? Another important point: this is not to say "I suck" because if I am uncomfortable with a flight and think it's unsafe, the right decision generally is to cancel unless flying with someone more skilled and experienced (and all the caveats that apply there). But I wanted to know where the limitation is: the plan, the plane, the pilot, or a combination.

First, the plane was light enough that taxiing in a 38 knot gust would be risky at best. The plane would have to be much heavier than anything I fly to be safe for that. Second, none of our planes are certified for flight in known icing conditions. Without deice and anti-ice equipment, the strong possibility of in-flight icing is another reason to stay on the ground.

The plan was to fly in a relatively straight line. We couldn't go much lower due to terrain. Perhaps 4,000 feet, but that would not have helped with the icing conditions. And climbing would do no good either. It might be possible to deviate way south into southern PA to avoid icing threats, but that would add an hour or more to the flight, probably require a fuel stop, and jack up the cost by more than $100. It was a possible option, but not appealing. The trip wasn't that important.

And then there was the pilot. I was instrument current and fairly proficient having flown some practice approaches recently. I was also night current, so I had that option, though that did not offer any better possibilities. I've had some experience timing departures to get in before weather arrives or wait until after it clears. The original flight was supposed to leave around 10am and I was evaluating departures as late as 8pm. I saw no safe window during that period.

In the end, I didn't feel like there were any essential skills I was lacking that made me shy about the flight. I did want to get there, but I did not want to scare my friend, kill or injure my friend nor myself, nor strand us in Columbus for a few days if the return weather blocked us. And adding to the mix, it's possible there was the pilot's ego of trying to accomplish the mission and maybe even impress my friend with my skills. Regardless of how strong those factors were, I did take them into account, which further supported my decision not to go.

In the end, there's no second guessing, it was the right choice and given the weather, the only other safe option to get there would have been to drive.


I had dinner that night with a few friends, including the almost-passenger. She had had a good day and was able to ride her horse (something she didn't have time to do a day or two before in getting ready for this trip) with the extra time. She said her mother had said to tell me that she was happy that I exercised judgment and "didn't behave like some 18-year-old boy." I can attend a baby shower for a co-worker's wife on Saturday that I would have missed. And our usual Saturday ultimate frisbee was moved to Sunday due to the rain, so I can go to that as well.

There's the sense of having bothered a bunch of people (the friends in Columbus with a house were we would have stayed, the one who would have picked us up at the airport, etc. etc.) all for naught, but I know that it's no big deal for them, since I'm not imposing on them and I'll visit another time. In general, things all sort of worked out.

It's a good exercise, having to cancel a flight that you don't want to cancel, but don't need when the weather is somewhere in that gray zone.

Oh, and the new Detroit VFR Sectional charts arrived at the club that afternoon.

Written on April 4th, 2009.

This page last modified Jun 28, 2009.
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