car crash in snow

The Flight Not Taken

Let’s talk about a road not taken, less romantic than Frost’s.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

My phone rang one night and I answered to hear Sven’s voice. He was training to get his pilot’s license and had been asked to plan his next cross country flight. This one was to be at night across farmland in the middle of the country, from one small airport to another small airport. Sven wanted help figuring out the best way to handle the flight. I started asking Sven questions.

Me: How would you navigate there?

Sven: I would use the VOR [a radio navigation instrument].

Me: Does the plane have a GPS or an ADF [alternative radio navigation instruments]?

Sven: No.

Me: So if the VOR fails? [Pilots always have a Plan B, in case a radio or instrument breaks.]

Sven: Ummmm.

Me: Could you follow the interstate? The lights of the cars can be easy to see at night.

Sven: No. There isn’t an interstate running anywhere near my destination.

Me:  Is your destination airport near a town with lights that you can see?

Sven: Nope. The nearest town is 30 miles past my destination.

Sven’s instructor had posed a tough problem for him. He was to fly to an airport that would be particularly difficult to find at night. He would be flying an airplane with just a single navigation instrument. Sven’s only backup would be “dead reckoning,” a technique involving meticulous attention to airspeed, heading, and time. Now I understood Sven’s concern.

Me: If your instructor was not coming along on this flight, would you do it? Right now, with the skills you have today, would you try that flight alone?

Sven: No.

That was “the answer” and the end of Sven’s flight planning. This flight was too risky.

I congratulated Sven on figuring this out for himself, on knowing his limits. I encouraged him to tell his instructor about his decision.

After that, Sven and I talked about some of the other risks of a night cross-country flight: the difficulty locating a suitable emergency landing spot if the engine quits, the difficulty simply maintaining level flight when you cannot see the horizon, and the difficulty confirming your location mid-course when there are no visible landmarks.

By the end of our call, Sven had two answers for his flight instructor. First, he was going to say that he would not take the flight. Second, as an academic exercise, Sven was going to explain how he would fly the route if he were to do it. I think that was the ultimate goal, to get Sven to learn something about judgement and also to plan a night cross-country flight.

We can apply the same judgement to all of our trips and, most of the time, we do. But sometimes, we forget the bottom-line question: Should I take this trip at all? I missed that question one night when I was a teenager.

car crash in snow

I had been visiting a friend in Chicago one winter. By the time I was ready to drive home to Indiana, it had been snowing heavily for quite awhile. The roads were tough, to be generous about it. Less than a mile after I got onto the tollway, I lost control of my car, mashed the front end of the car into the concrete barrier on the right side of the road, bounced across both traffic lanes, crumpled the back of the car against the center divider, and came to a stop on the left shoulder. I had thoroughly wrecked our family’s good car, the one that my step-father used for his daily commute. While I was catching my breath, the snow plow drove by. Had I been one minute later, I would have been following the plow on clear pavement. Had I been a more experienced driver, I would have still been at my friend’s home, waiting for the next day and better weather to take my trip.

As I have gotten older, I have gotten less insistent about making every trip exactly when I first planned to make it. I am not more fearful; I am just more conscious of the risk-benefit balance.

Should you take that trip? Not necessarily.

One thought on “The Flight Not Taken”

  1. In October of 2001 the only GA aircraft allowed to fly were the ones on IFR flight plans. My friend is a highly competent and experienced IFR pilot who owns a well-maintained and -equipped C-182. He called me up and asked if I was up for an off-season trip to OSH to see the museum. I asked if I could invite another friend along…no problem.

    We launched from KSUS early on a Saturday morning that featured low clouds, drizzle, and generally crappy weather (nothing violent). It was that way all the way to OSH…we never saw the ground until we were on final.

    We spent the entire day seeing the museum and hanging around. Later that day, my friend announced that he wasn’t feeling too great and didn’t want to make a night IFR flight. We ate a nice dinner and then grabbed a hotel room.

    The next day was severe clear, and the only reason we filed IFR was because that was still required that soon after 9/11. Great lesson.

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