Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The regret of the 'no-go' decision.

Sometimes, I think I'm too risk-averse to be a pilot.

For the past six weeks, I've been planning a trip to Arizona with my youngest (25) son. We're both big Cleveland Indians fans and wanted to spend a couple of days watching the Tribe. My friend, Darwin Barrie, offered to put the RV-7A up at his airpark and give us his truck for the week to use.

And so began weeks of planning for the trip, which -- for me -- consists of six weeks of worrying, playing "what if?". I pored over the charts and established the best route. I consulted with Darwin on the best approach into Phoenix' airspace. I'd go to sleep at night thinking of the approach and memorizing every mile of the route, the fuel stops, and the time.

Last fall, I met a gentleman who was kayaking from the Northwest Angle of Minnesota to Key West. Daniel Alvarez started in June and hoped to reach Key West on New Year's Eve. He actually reached it last week. But when I talked to him at the time, I was planning a trip to Massachusetts. "I'm a little nervous about it," I admitted to him.

"If you're not a little nervous," he said, "you're not going far enough."

As I prepared for this trip, I heard his words. Constantly. The nervousness was fine, I told myself, because I'm going far enough. It's good.

About two weeks ago, the weather discussions at the National Weather Service regional sites (they reallyare very interesting and informative reads) began to encompass the departure weather -- today -- and more "worrying" as the "what ifs" grew to encompass every section of the route, weatherwise. What are my limits? What are my alternates? How prepared am I to make the no-go decision?

Of course, it's impossible to know for sure that far out what the weather will be, which necessitates more "what ifs."

Although a blizzard came through Minnesota yesterday, I was fairly confident we'd be able to get out of here this morning. (I'd already scrapped a Monday departure last week on the basis of the the weather data I'd been gathering for a week and analyzing every four or five hours). The gusty winds were to die down to about 20 knots this morning, I checked the airport yesterday and they'd done a good and quick job removing the blowing snow, and the sky was supposed to be scattered clouds at 2500 feet. It would be cold, but I was fairly sure we'd survive the three-hour trip in high headwinds to Lexington, Nebraska, our first fuel stop, and be able to get out of there before the winds were forecast to pick up there. The rest of the trip looked weather-good. I started dreaming about being one of those people who posts trip pictures on Van's Air Force.

I'd earlier been concerned about getting Patrick home in time for a shift he had scheduled on Sunday, and a test at school (he's in the nursing program) for Monday. So I bought a $550 refundable one-way ticket on Southwest from Phoenix to Minneapolis for Saturday for him, and figured if need be, I could stay in Phoenix for a few extra days and fly back alone. But at least he'd be back in time.

Otherwise, we'd plan to fly back on Friday, maybe Saturday if the weather was good from there to here.

He was excited for the trip, especially with temperatures here 20-30 degrees below normal for this time of year. All of Minnesota is experiencing seasonal disorder, as is custom, and a couple days of watching baseball was the perfect antidote. It would have been a fabulous flight down and a great experience between father and son to remember forever.
This is why I built an airplane.

I spent yesterday on final preparations for the plane, plugging in the engine heater, organizing what's staying and what's going, and trying to figure out how close to gross weight we'd be. As it turns out, I learned just how quickly two 170-pound pilots and baggage can exceed the 1800-pound limit on an RV-7A with a full load of fuel. It'd be close.

Late last evening, flight plans filed, plane ready, peanut-butter sandwiches and water packed, I made one last weather check before a go-no go decision, only to discover the weather discussions from the National Weather Service sites from the Texas panhandle (Dalhart, TX was a fuel stop) all the way to Minneapolis began mentioning precipitation and clouds for Thursday into the weekend, where they had mentioned none previously.

But it's impossible to know at this early stage what sorts of clouds and what kind of precipitation. Steady rain? Showers? Low clouds? High clouds? Clouds I can snake around or clouds that keep me on the ground? Clouds that might entice me to fly scud? There was no way to know for sure. Then I read that the two main computer models -- one from the U.S. and one from Europe -- disagreed on what might happen. The European model was suggesting the system would stall over the Dakotas through Monday. The U.S. model was suggesting it might not.

Now I had to make a decision: Which one to believe? In previous analysis of weather discussions, I felt the European computer models were more accurate, so I chose to believe them.

Then I thought about trying to fly home, and running into ice, or low clouds and not being able to find a way through. I started to think about Get Home-itis, when the urge to get home forces pilots to make bad decisions. I thought about forcing Patrick to get in a plane on Friday to try to make it home before things (maybe) got bad -- and then getting stranded in Kansas, with him missing his work shift and his test -- rather than waiting a day and putting him safely on an airliner, and I thought about me sitting in Phoenix waiting for springtime weather to be good from Phoenix to Minneapolis, paying for a motel, not getting back to work on time at a place that isn't as excited about what I do as it once seemed to be.

And then I called the trip off.

I called Patrick and told him. "It's OK," he said, although I knew it wasn't. He's already scheduled the days off. He'd already given his car away to his girlfriend to use because hers is on a bad tire. He'd already packed. He was looking forward to the experience, and somewhere along the trip, I was going to teach him the ins and outs of flying.

His goal on the trip was to play catch with his father on the hill beyond the right field at the Indians' park in Goodyear (even though they'd be on the road for the two games we'd watch, but the Reds play at the same park). "Don't forget to pack your glove and ball," he said a few days ago.

The day this morning dawned bright and sunny, though cold and windy. But it's a beautiful day to fly. "All that worry, and for what?" I said to myself as I set one foot out of the bed, and then another. My back was aching from yesterday's snow shoveling. I read the paper then sat in the rocking chair by the front window, bathing in the sun, and found myself thinking, "I'd be landing in Lexington right now."

And that's my punishment for the next few days. I'll watch the Indians game tomorrow and think "I'd be there right now," and even worse, I know my son will be doing that too. I will spend them wondering if I made a bad call.

Although I'm hoping a blizzard comes flying through the Plains on Friday on into Monday, it wouldn't surprise me if the weather turns out to be flyable, which will be an even greater punishment -- the knowledge that we could've done the trip and we missed out on a great experience. Together.

We're taught early in our flight training to use good judgment, and that many pilots have regretted trying to fly when they shouldn't.

But they don't tell you about the other kind of regret. The regret that maybe I was too cautious.

The regret that I missed one more game of catch with my son.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Who roots for the sea?

It's funny how the news can take you back to being 8 years old again.

This is the picture-of-the-day for the storm that's hammered the East Coast today. It's on Plum Island, a long spit of sand that runs along the north shore of Massachusetts, on the New Hampshire border.

The house, as you can imagine, is a goner. The people who own it are at their house in Florida and that'll have to do. Their old house, and the land on which it once lay, belongs to the ocean again. (See some amazing pictures in this Facebook album)

That's the way it works on Plum Island. And yet, people keep building as close to the ocean as they can.

Plum Island, which sits in the town of Newburyport, was a working-person's enclave back in the day. Newburyport was a fishing and shoe-making town until the '60s, when textile companies abandoned New England for the south. Now, it's high-priced real estate for the wealthy.

I know that because when I was a kid, we had the oceanfront lot. We were the '50s and '60s pre-wealthy inhabitants.

Our home, though, wasn't the multi-million dollar structure here or the type that, no doubt, are on either side of this home, awaiting their own fate. It was just an old trailer in which somehow, we fit seven people. When you were a kid on Plum Island back then, it wasn't about your fancy house, it was about exploring what was around you. My parents would turn us loose in the morning and we might come back by dinner.

There was treasure to find that washed ashore overnight, the occasional tuna that was hoisted down at the Keezer boat works when someone got lucky, the bike to ride to Fred's variety to pick up an Archie comic, sea worms to dig and get rich selling, and, occasionally, the spectacle of the drowning victim being hauled ashore from the Coast Guard cutter.

The Simmons family -- he was a milkman -- had the little cottage in front of us until the sea came calling and they moved it back a half mile or so to escape it. The Burkes had a little pink house across the sandy road, until they -- and we -- found it tipped upside down on the beach one spring. It had fallen into the path of an angry ocean and, apparently, nobody had noticed until it came time to open the cottage for the season.

That happened all the time. Like taking attendance at the beginning of class, we'd start each summer by determining what homes were no longer where they once stood.

The town tried everything to stop the ocean. Rocks, bigger jetties, old cars, truckload after truckload of sand, and for a time it seemed to work, but nature can be very patient. Even the sprawling Coast Guard station next door gave up and moved a little farther inland. In the end, you just can't shovel sand against the tide.

We never got much of a chance to find out how our own plot would fare against it, though. A few years after the Simmonses moved their house, something else came calling -- a man with money to make. He had offered my dad money for the land, but my parents wouldn't sell. He loved the place and so did their five kids.

The next winter, someone took an axe to the trailer and, probably not coincidentally, the man called my father asking if he was interested in selling now. He was. And so a prime piece of beachfront property went for $5,000. I was too young to understand what a bitter pill that must've been for the old man.

A few weeks later, the trailer mysteriously burned down -- the guy said he was working on the plumbing with a torch at the time -- and in its place rose a multi-million dollar home, which as far as I know, still stands today.

The same thing happened up and down the beach. The old cottages gave way to the big homes, the working-class was mostly pushed out, leaving a generation of boys -- now old -- feeling only a little bit guilty and not at all proud of occasionally rooting for the sea.