Maximizing your options
It was about 9:00 a.m. I was at the flight service station at the North Bend, Oregon, airport getting a briefing for the flight back to San Jose with my brother and aunt. The ceiling was indefinite 100 feet, sky obscured, and the visibility below instrument approach minimums, but it was expected to clear up by early afternoon. The briefer said that most of southern Oregon was covered by a layer of low clouds and almost all of the Oregon airports were below IFR minimums, but that it should be no problem to depart IFR and that, once we were above 500 feet, it would be clear above and that, once we got down to California, the low level clouds would disappear. I was IFR capable, and there were planes departing, but I just didn’t like that option. If I had a problem after departure I couldn’t get back into North Bend, and the closest airport I could get into was in California. I decided to wait. It worked out well. We ended up departing about noon in VFR conditions and crystal clear skies for an uneventful flight back to San Jose.
I am a firm believer in maximizing your options on flights. This also is called risk management. It doesn’t mean that I only fly VFR on crystal clear days where there is no wind, because I have flown in the clouds, over mountains, in windy conditions, and at night (though, preferably, not all at the same time), but it does mean that I consider the risks of a particular flight and think about available options to minimize those risks. This doesn’t just apply to weather; it applies to route selection, fuel reserves, and equipment you might carry in the plane, as well. I’ve learned a lot about this from my own experiences, listening to the experiences of others, and reading accident reports in the several aviation magazines to which I subscribe.
So, let’s see how this works in practice. As an example, let’s take a flight from Palo Alto to Bishop, which is a route that I have flown frequently. I know that weather conditions can be much more of a problem over the Sierra than they are in the Bay Area, so I will check the weather forecasts several days in advance of when I want to depart to see if it is likely that the flight can be made, as well as checking it on the day of departure. Winds aloft are critical both in direction and speed. Strong southwesterly or westerly winds can mean mountain waves, rotors, considerable turbulence, and strong up and down drafts on the eastern side of the Sierra. Northwesterly winds are more benign, because they parallel the mountains, though also can cause significant turbulence. When the Reno zone forecasts for Mammoth include wind gusts over the crest above 50 mph it gets my attention. I also know that surface winds in that area pick up in the afternoon and, especially in the summertime, it will be clear in the morning, and then thunderstorms will develop over the mountains in the afternoon, so I generally plan my flights in the morning. (The trick often is to get out of here after the low clouds and/or fog burn off, but before the winds or clouds build up in the Sierra.)
When I plan my flights, I try to select routes that provide me with as many options as possible for airports or potential emergency landing fields en route. I also try to fly routes that keep me close to highways and populated areas, rather than extensive flight over wilderness areas. For our flight to Bishop, in VFR conditions, I usually go via Tracy, Modesto, then 60 nautical miles east of Modesto, then directly toward Mammoth Mountain. If IFR: SJC, Vinco, V-107 Cathe, direct Friant, then cancel the IFR and go via V-230 direct toward Mammoth mountain. Both of those routes pass by a number of airports. Usually I don’t go IFR over the mountains because the minimum altitude they will give me over the mountains is 15,000 feet. If there are clouds, that is frequently above the freezing level and that can result in icing in the clouds. The route from Friant north on V-230 to Mammoth Mountain follows the upper San Joaquin river valley and the terrain is much lower than the surrounding mountains. Although the terrain is mostly mountainous, there are a few good sized meadows that would be potential emergency fields crossing the mountains. I know from experience that this route is frequently cloud free, even when there are considerable clouds over the mountains. If I can’t go VFR over the mountains, then I have to decide if I can go IFR safely, should divert to Fresno, or take an alternate route.
There are other potential routes that I could take, as well, though they are somewhat longer. If there are weather problems to the north, it may be possible to go south via either Lake Isabella, or Tehachapi pass, although sometimes winds in the Owens valley preclude these routes. Or, if there is weather to the south, you may be able to go further north along highway 50, or possibly over Yosemite. I don’t recommend extended flights over the high mountains or wilderness areas, particularly in the winter, simply because you don’t have a lot of options if you have problems over those areas. I once flew an aircraft starter from Bishop to Bakersfield for a fellow pilot from Bishop. I flew down the Owens valley and crossed the mountains by Lake Isabella both coming and going. I was rather surprised to find out that, when he left Bakersfield, he had flown GPS direct to Bishop, a flight path that took him over some of the highest and most remote terrain in California. Probably a great view, but not something I would have done. Planes have disappeared in that area and have only been found years later.
I don’t really need to tell you to have enough fuel on board to cover contingencies. You never know what might happen. I remember a flight we had from Jackson Hole to Sun Valley (Hailey), Idaho, in my Archer. We had left Jackson with fuel to the tabs because we were carrying a lot of camping equipment with us, even though there were only two of us in the plane. I was getting flight advisories en route and, when I checked in with the next sector the controller told me that now I wasn’t going to Sun Valley. He said that the airport had closed due to a Bonanza landing gear up on the only runway. I decided we didn’t have a lot of fuel to go there and hold for a while and then go somewhere else, so we diverted to Pocatello, got some more fuel, had lunch, and by that time the airport at Sun Valley had reopened and we completed the flight without problems.
When I fly across the mountains, or on an extended flight, I generally take a warm jacket with me and also I have some lightweight blankets inside the plane. Especially in winter, I take hiking boots (unless I’m wearing them), a sleeping bag and a lightweight tent in the baggage compartment. When I fly across the desert, I usually take a jug of water with me. I also carry a “space blanket,” silver on one side and red on the other, for use as a conspicuity panel. Other than the jacket, I’ve never used any of those as a result of a problem with a flight, but I carry them just in case--because it increases my options if I did have a problem.
As to the departure from North Bend that started this article, I’m “almost positive” that we could have departed considerably earlier without incident on our flight to San Jose. After all, other planes were departing without incident, and what are the chances that I would have had a problem? When I read the accident reports, though, many of those accidents are cases where the pilot just didn’t consider all of the factors and ended up running out of options. Two cases in point are the crash of the twin Cessna carrying Tesla executives in Palo Alto in February 2010, which departed in zero visibility conditions, and the crash of the Bonanza in Idaho last December, with a San Jose pilot, that flew into forecast icing conditions and iced up to the extent that the engine quit. If we had departed from North Bend and did have a problem with the plane and needed to get back on the ground as soon as possible, California was a long way off, and there wouldn’t have been many other options. It was wise to wait. It gave us a lot more options.