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SKYBIRD:
Dale Brown’s Ops Report
Copyright © 2005, TDPI

SECONDARY TARGET SELECTION -- Go, No-Go Decision-Making

[IMAGE] I'm always evaluating and re-evaluating my aircraft, flying skills, capabilities, and shortfalls. Buying, maintaining, and upgrading an aircraft is always a balancing act between maximum capability versus cost and desire versus actual flying needs and experience.

I recently planned a trip to my mother-in-law's place in Newport, Oregon. Weather for departure was marginal VFR (visual flight rules) with moderate cloud cover--no problem. Weather at the destination was the same--pretty good for the central Oregon coast in December, in fact.

The return weather forecast was entirely different. Departure weather from Newport was IFR (instrument flight rules) with rain and surface temperatures in the low 40s, which meant freezing levels were just 2,000 feet above ground. Although Newport itself is at sea level, the terrain rises rapidly any way you fly (except westbound over the Pacific Ocean--not a direction I wanted to go), so I'd have to climb through freezing rain until I got into air too cold for ice to adhere to the plane, which was about 8,000-10,000 feet in that area.

The Cessna P210 Pressurized Centurion is fast (for a single-engine plane) once it gets to altitude, and it is heavy, firm, and stable, but it is not the fastest-climbing plane out there. If I was lucky, I would be in the ice for about 16 minutes.

That's 15 minutes 30 seconds longer than I wanted to be in icing conditions.

My plane has deicing equipment which helps shed ice on the leading edges of the wings and stabilizers, propeller, windshield, and pitot tube, but it's never a good idea in a single-engine plane to knowingly fly into icing conditions. If the ice is heavy the deicing equipment might not shed it quickly enough; if I lose a vacuum pump some equipment won't work at all (how long HAS it been since those pumps were replaced…?); and in a climb there is the good possibility of ice building up on unprotected parts of the plane, such as the belly and wheel wells. Not good.

In my experience, sixteen minutes can seem like an eternity if you're watching ice build up on the wings and windshield and the airspeed starts to drop. Deicing equipment in most small airplanes is designed to get you out of unexpected icing conditions, not to empower you to fly into known-icing conditions, even if your plane is "known-ice" certified.

The weather back home was marginal VFR, but there was rain along the flight planned route. Even if I managed to make it up to altitude from Newport, I'd have to descend through more ice back in the Reno area. Although ice breaks off easier at higher airspeeds, it also accumulates faster. Even if I made it through the ice I might be carrying a load of airframe ice all the way to landing, and that is definitely not good.

So I decided to fly Southwest Airlines instead of taking my plane. I hated the idea of flying the airlines and leaving my plane behind, but the cards were definitely stacked against us.

The flight from Reno to Portland and drive to Newport were uneventful and the weather was good. Newport is the epitome of the old saying "If you don't like the weather, wait ten minutes." I have had weather in Newport change from "clear-in-a-million" to horizontal rain while flying the Instrument Landing System instrument approach. But so far on this trip, the weather was nice, which only made me wish I had brought my plane.

But things were very different on the return. The 150-mile drive from Newport to Portland normally takes 2.5 hours, but it took us THREE HOURS just to drive the last 50 miles between Salem and Portland because of snow, ice, and dozens of vehicles on the freeways skidding everywhere. Fortunately everything in and out of Portland was delayed, so we made it out on time. It was raining in Reno and snowing over the Mount Rose highway summit at 8,000 feet elevation on the drive home, but we made it home safe and sound.

So what's the lesson?

My P210 has just about every gadget available on it to fly safely and comfortably in day, night, VFR, and IFR weather. It is powerful and capable. I have lots of hours and experience in these planes and have flown them coast-to-coast in lots of different weather conditions. I am current, the plane is in great shape, and I was prepared. Although all the danger signs were there, there were no actual ice forecasts or pilot reports of ice.

If I did run into problems, I had options--I wouldn't be forced into charging ahead into rapidly-deteriorating conditions. For example, instead of flying through ice and risking landing at a high-elevation airport like Reno or Minden loaded down with airframe ice, I could divert to Sacramento instead, where there was a good chance any ice on the airframe would melt before landing.

Flying is not just a game of aviation skills and systems knowledge but one of decision-making.

Thinking back on it, I probably would have completed the flight just fine, although with some anxious moments to say the least. If things went wrong, I had options. But problems have a tendency to pile up at inopportune moments, and in my experience your options decrease exponentially with each new problem.

And then I think about my son sleeping in the back of the plane, and my wife in the right seat nervously watching the ice build up and the skies get darker and darker, and at that point the risks--and outright potential dangers--suddenly outweigh the advantages of private aviation and the inconveniences of commercial aviation.

Risk is everywhere. We deal with it constantly. There is no question that general aviation is dozens of times more dangerous than commercial aviation. But thousands of private airplane flights are completed every day because we pilots manage risk: we match up our skills, knowledge, and experience, and the capabilities of our equipment, with the known and forecast conditions, and we make a "go" or "no-go" decision.

Yes, I was at first unhappy about not flying my plane. Southwest Airlines is dependable--the recent accident at Dallas Love Field notwithstanding--and inexpensive, but the thought of being crammed in with all those other holiday travelers was not appealing to me. Taking the airlines would mean 7 hours door-to-door to Gramma's house, versus 4 hours in my plane.

But hopefully any pilot's "go, no-go" decision is never a coin toss and never affected by emotional factors like "get-home-itis"--the unreasonable and illogical urge to just blast off despite the danger signs--or my thoughts of "I have this awesome plane, let's use it." I decided not to use my plane because the risks outweighed the rewards and I didn't listen to that little voice saying "Be a hero, fly the plane" over and over in my head. I kept it on the ground, stuffed myself into those 737s with all the other passengers…and made it home safely, if not a little frazzled.

I'll never know if I would have made it OK in my plane. Even knowing the weather conditions as I do now, I'm still unsure if the conditions would have prevented me from completing the flight or even having to exercise one of those "escape" options. There was bad weather in Portland, but I wasn't flying to Portland; there were no forecasts of ice along my route of flight; the snow around Tahoe was scattered. Would I have had to divert? Would I have made it in? I'll never know.

But that doesn't matter: I made a decision, erring on the side of safety, and stuck with it. The plane is still good, my family is still good, and I'm in one piece. That's all that counts.

Click here for more on Act Of War

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Act Of War (June 2005)

ACT OF WAR introduces a whole new hero and a new conflict to techno-thriller fans around the world.

A series of deadly terrorist attacks in the United States and South America--including a nuclear attack near Houston, Texas--has the entire world on red alert. The attacks appear to be targeting an American energy company, but the terror group that calls itself GAMMA seems to be more than the anti-globalization, pro-environmental activists it claims to be.

Enter U.S. Army Major Jason Richter and his partner, Dr. Ariadna Vega of the Army Research Lab's Infantry Transformational BattleLab. These two young engineers have designed and built a land combat system designed to replace an entire motorized infantry squad: CID, or Cybernetic Infantry Device, a piloted robot with the speed and firepower of a weaponized Humvee, the strength of a bulldozer, and the agility of a special ops commando.

The hard-charging National Security Adviser, Robert Chamberlain, pairs Richter and Vega up with an FBI intelligence expert, Special Agent Kelsey DeLaine, and a veteran special ops expert, Command Sergeant Major Ray Jefferson, to form Task Force TALON, the first joint military-FBI unit charged with hunting down and stopping terrorists anywhere in the world. With CID's speed, power, weaponry, and amazing capabilities, combined with the talents of the U.S. Army and the investigative skills of the world's greatest detective agency, TALON is designed to put terrorists on the run around the globe.

But putting conflicting and single-minded personalities like Richter and DeLaine together is like mixing oxygen and gasoline: do it right and it produces horsepower--do it wrong, and it creates an explosion. Even the National Security Adviser can't seem to control his team. Can Task Force TALON survive long enough to hunt down GAMMA and its secret puppetmaster, the shadowy Consortium, before the next deadly attack?

"The novels of Dale Brown brim with violent action, detailed descriptions of sophisticated weaponry and political intrigue... His ability to bring technical weaponry to life is amazing."
--San Francisco Chronicle

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