Friday, November 18, 2005

At pilot's discretion...

-Atizapan traffic, IXP is taxiing into position 04-
-Roger, IXP. Takeoff at pilot´s discretion...-

At pilot´s discretion always sounded to me like a "are you sure you want to do this?" kind of recrimination from someone who probably knows very little about the hazards involved in a low visibility takeoff. But I could see the phrase on the radio making his effect when my friend Andres (and PIC for that flight) suddenly looked to me and said, more inquiring than anything else... -Eh, maybe we should not attempt this takeoff...-
He had just finished aligning the plane on runway 04, in our home airport.
-At pilot´s discretion means exactly that, you have to decide for yourself- I said with a distracted air.
-Do not let him intimidate you- I continued a second later, -just aknowledge the message and make the decision based on the facts, not on someone else´s perception that maybe you should not do this-.
Actually I understood his hesitation. He is under 200 hours total and he is not yet all that confident on airplanes; not to mention this was only his 10th or so hour behind the controls of the 337 Skymaster that we co-own. In addition, he was surely thinking about the rest of the planes waiting, apparently, that someone else decided to go up first.
The fog that was rising so many doubts appeared, like so many days in the late autumm, from nowhere. In the time it took us to start the engines and taxi to the runway, the day changed from sunny-perfect to completely foggy. You see our home airport is kind of an aircraft carrier stuck in the hogh mountains surrounding the west part of Mexico City. So curiously enough, the fog always appears to come from the lower terrain towards the city. But it also makes an interesting effect. Since the terrains flattens a little bit in the airport surroundings, many times the fog completely covers the Hangars but leaves the runway clear. This cannot be seen from the hangars or the tower, but from previous experience I knew this could be the case so I decided to taxi all the way to the runway... And voilå, there there was the whole extension of therunway ahead of us with almost no fog even thoug we could not see the hangars to the north side of the airport.
Since our airport is officially uncontrolled we completed our checklists and advised on the frequency that we were rolling fro takeoff.
Andres smiled a bit but still looked concerned about the fog just beyond the limits of the airport that appeared to be headed our way.
-Nothing to worry about- I said. -Remember that we will be more that 200 ft above the runway when we get there even on one engine- reminding him of our preflight review of single-engine procedures and performances earlier that day.
-So do you think is safe to takeof like this?- he insisted.
-I do, but remember that today you are the pilot in command and It is your call-.
This is a common situation with low time pilots and students, they feel inclined to delegate the responsability on the instructor or the more experienced pilot in the cockpit. This might seem conservative and a good practice, but I always turn down this behavior and refuse from making the call unless I see some danger in them.
You always find a situations like this in aviation and the bottom line is that to be a pilot you have to be comfortable with the decisions you have to make a hundred times a flight. And sometimes you encounter external noise, in the form of another pilot in the cockpit or the dreadful "at pilots discretion" we just heard. But still, you have to make your own decisions. So, I waited for his...
Andres is very prudent and thorough, so even if unexperienced, I regard him as a very good pilot. He made his decision.
-Ok, lets go said through the intercom- and to the traffics: -Atizapan traffic, IXP starting takeoff roll-.
The takeoff was of course uneventful but kind of dramaatic to the eye, from the back seats, Andres's wife and my girl told us later that for them int was like seeng nothing and then emerging on top of a beautiful lit white carpet of clouds (actually it was fog). A right towards the city and south put us into position to see the airport we just left. It was very odd seeing the airpot completely covered in fog, except for the norrow strip just above the runway. I made a pirep for the traffics.
-Atizapan traffic, IXP left runway heading and is bounded south-. Then continued: -The runway trajectory is clear of fog up to runways end, beyond that the top of the fog is 200 ft agl, though I would not try to outclimb it in anything less than a 182-. I knew the 150's from the school had like 20 minutes waiting for takeoff but the instructors know me and the message was for them. Turn off your engines, your practice area is in solid fog and the 150's would most surely penetrate the fog in front of the runway after takeoff at these high altitudes (Atizapan is at 8120 ft).
As we climbed we took a glimpse at a C206 turbo climbing above the fog departing to the north and reporting the same we had informed. So the message was clear, if you have a turbo and able to climb fast the fog was no problem, if not stay on the ground. The students and instructors stayed on the ground. Clmbing south we saw that all Mexico City was under the fog and the controllers there were reporting 1 and a half mile visibility. The atmosphere was calm and cool.
In a couple of minutes we enjoyed the spectacular view of the volcanoes showing its peaks above the fog and always making an opportunity for a photograph... If, you bring the camera that is. I have to make a travel checklist.
An hour and a half later we were less than half an hour from our destination in the beach and the pilot had to face another decision. His wife has always problems inthe descent of more than 500 ft/min., but the thing is that our destination in the beach is also very close to mountains topping about 11,000 ft. So, either you end up 5,000 ft high on arrival or drop like a brick after the mountains... At least at first sight. Predictably enough, the question finally arrived.. -What should we do?-
-At pilot's discretion- I responded with a sarcastical smile.
After a short silence I added:
-Use everything at your disposal, distance, altitude, and TERRAIN info on the GPS-
Being a smart guy the solution presented itself to him right away. He started studying the terrain info in the GPS.
-Ok...-he probed -if we deviate slightly to the right we can pass lower terrain sooner and then turn back right!-
-Correct, that is the logical thing to do and it will not add more than a 5 to 10 miles to the total trip- I said, kind of proudly.
It is impossible to teach anybody every possible situation they will find in flight and everyone gets its license long before knowing all the complexities of airplane systems, weather and like in this case, navigation complicated by very high terrain.
By the way, the GPS terrain turned out to be an invaluable help in this case since from a distance, it would have been very difficult tu judge that the terrain was lower to the right side of the trajectory because it was very hazy.
As typical and simple as this flight was, it illustrates the fact that general aviation, at least in Mexico, faces every day: it does not matter if you have a C172 or a twin Cessna 431, or if you happen to have 40 or 5000 hours on your logbook, you are on your own when it comes to making decisions. And the only way to cope with that, even if you are rather inexperienced, is being prepared...
So, pilot... pilot!