Thursday, June 10, 2010

Marginal Weather Flying ~ No Out

Soon after the flight described in Marginal Weather Flying ~ Smooth Sailing I had a very similar mission to the same area, and I once again had to pickup a ROK Navigator at the same airfield near Hwacheon. My co-pilot on this flight was the company's Executive Officer: CPT. Rice. The XO is second in command to the CO.

There was weather covering the area again. It was different from the other time though. The Buffer Zone was still clear, but the entry to the route we took to the airfield previously was blocked off. Farther to the west was clear and there was a small connecting valley that would take us to the rice paddy route to the airstrip if the weather would allow us to make it through flying nap of the earth.

The green arrow on the Google Map below points out the connecting valley.

View Larger Map

Entry to the valley looked good. There was weather above it capping its top, but there appeared to be adequate maneuvering room through the valley below the weather to transition through, so we pressed on.

This was a different situation from the one previously described. This valley was tight, narrow, and rugged. There were no convenient rice paddies available to land on should the need arise. We were considerably below the tops of the peaks. Should the weather close off on us while in the valley executing IIMC procedures could prove quite difficult due to the close proximity of the rugged terrain. Attempting to land could be just as difficult due to the rugged nature of the valley floor. And, there was no room inside the tight valley to safely execute a 180 degree turn to return to better weather conditions should our route through the valley become impassable.

I have mentioned previously that flying is an exercise in stacking the deck in your favor. Here I had chosen a tough hand to play and I did not do a very good job of stacking the deck. I really had "no out" should the weather decide not to cooperate. An out is simply an available alternative course of action should the chosen one prove unworkable. It is a very good thing to have whenever you go flying. You always want to be asking yourself, "What if?"

Harry Reasoner wrote a classic piece titled: "Helicopter Pilots are Different". Reasoner's depiction portrays the attitude of the right stuff for a helicopter pilot. When I entered the valley I was in "the glass is half full" mode. That way of thinking can get you killed if you are a helicopter pilot, e.g. optimistically telling yourself, "The weather's getting better!" When it is really getting worse can cause you to encounter a cumulous granite. "Cumulous Granite?" Yea, that's a cloud that is not all soft and forgiving, but is rock hard and deadly because of the mountain it obscures.

Halfway through the narrow valley the weather started to close in on us. I had no out. The deck was not properly stacked. It could have easily been all over with for myself and CPT. Rice right then. I focused and maintained my poker face and did what I could which probably included a little bit of silent praying even though I had still not been born again. For a brief moment I only had ground reference through one narrow opening through the weather. If that had closed off we would have been IIMC in a very poor spot to have that happen. My pucker factor cranked up a few notches. Captain Rice never knew.

The weather did open back up through that one tough spot and the rest of the flight was inconsequential. After making it through the valley Captain Rice said, "Wow! Probably couldn't have done that with anyone else." I just smiled thinking, "If only he really knew just how close that was he wouldn't be so impressed." It was a good lesson for me. I would be more careful to better evaluate what I was about to put myself through in the future.

Except for my first for real IFR flying experience which I have yet to tell, I've always done a much better job of stacking the deck and insuring I had an alternative out available for all my subsequent marginal weather flying situations. Whenever your pucker factor begins to crank up it usually means that it is time to exercise an available alternative option. If you press on in the face of an increasing pucker factor you're more likely to encounter disaster. If you have other options available to you, experiencing an increasing pucker factor is usually a good indicator that you should do something else besides your present course of action. That's playing your cards. And, always insuring that you have other options available to you would be considered stacking the deck in your favor.

If you fly, fly safe!


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