From my Desk to the Sky: PAVEing the way from AZ to KY

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

When we list and broker airplanes for people, sellers can choose to sign a “Demo Listing” agreement. This allows the owner to basically turn their aircraft over to AirMart while it is listed.  A demo aircraft receives a full detail, and space in our showroom- making it easy and convenient to showcase to potential buyers and since we are located right on the field, demo flights are quick, easy and convenient. Such was the case for a Dakota that was based in the Phoenix area.  As an AirMart ferry pilot, I was sent out to pick the plane up and fly it back to Lexington.

I chose my route carefully out of the Phoenix area because of the unforgiving terrain. I chose to fly directly to a fix, pick up the airway it was on, and proceed on that airway northeast bound at 11,000’. As part of my planning, I made sure to bring a data card with a current database for the Garmin 430 that was installed in the Dakota. The card had the full Americas on it, as opposed to only the western US. I had peace of mind knowing I could navigate anywhere I needed to, IF I needed to.

The first leg took me to Texas, and then over Oklahoma, just north of the former Clinton-Sherman AFB - now a civilian airport (KCSM) - whose 13,500’ runway made it an alternate landing site for the Space Shuttle. On a previous trip I had done a few touch and go’s here, and you could (in theory) pretty much take off and land several times going down that long runway, at least in a small aircraft. I was soon watching both Oklahoma City and Tulsa pass below the wings, and as I entered the Arkansas airspace, the sun was getting lower in the sky. As I approached Walnut Ridge, AR (KARG), my second fuel stop, it was almost dark. I had flown 530 miles since departing Amarillo.

From Walnut Ridge to Lexington is only 324 miles, which, after two 500+ mile legs, seemed almost like a short hop. I had been studying the weather all week in preparation for this trip. Everything I had seen was indicating marginal VFR (1000-2000’ ceilings, 5 miles visibility, give or take) at Lexington at the time of my arrival. Since a cold front was due to pass later that night, I felt confident that even if the ceilings were lower than forecast, the freezing level would be relatively high. It turned out to be true that the air down lower was above freezing, and that wasn’t really a problem. But the ceilings at LEX were much lower than forecast. I watched the Garmin Aera 796 that I brought along, which is equipped with XM weather, and to my dismay, the METAR (current weather report) at LEX was showing ceilings 300’ and visibility 2.5 miles in mist. I noticed this when I was just south of Owensboro, KY. It didn’t take me long to make the decision to divert to OWB, whose ceiling was much higher.

Disappointed that I couldn’t make the trip in one day, I was nevertheless relieved that my day was done and, in effect, the weather had made the decision for me. What is too low? What are my personal minimums? It was a good lesson in trusting that “gut” feeling that was telling me that this was, in fact, below my personal minimums. Had the ceilings been 800-900’ with 5+ miles of visibility, I would have been comfortable shooting an approach. After all, I had been flying this particular plane all day and I was pretty comfortable in it and felt familiar with the avionics.  These types of considerations go into making the decisions that affect the safe outcome of a flight.

There is an acronym in flight training and flight safety, used to evaluate hazards associated with flight:

     P- Pilot (experience, fitness level, fatigue, currency)

    A- Aircraft (airworthiness, equipment on board, etc)

    V- enVironment (weather, airports and airspace, air traffic control procedures and clearances)

    E- External Pressures (family expectations, weather worries, “get-home-itis”)

Basically, a pilot should take all of these factors into account when planning a flight; during a flight it is a great way to evaluate how the flight is going, where it is going and how it might end. For most of my flight from Phoenix, all the “boxes” were checked, all the “lights” green. There were no worries, relatively speaking. But when I was only 120 miles from home, and I saw the weather at my destination, some warning flags started to get my attention.

First, it was after dark and the ceilings were much lower than forecast (environment). Second, I was tired, although not too tired (pilot). Third, although the plane had a basic autopilot, it wasn’t one that would fly an approach automatically (aircraft). If the plane had a more modern, 2-axis autopilot, I may have considered continuing on. But again, what if I had experienced an engine failure, electrical failure or vacuum failure (aircraft) in the dark (environment), when the ceiling was only 300-500’ (environment)? I would have been in trouble. (By the way, my son was playing a basketball game the next afternoon [external pressures]. I really wanted to be there, and thought I would’ve made it, but unfortunately I was unable to.)

This PAVE checklist, while very useful, isn’t something a pilot should use a lot of time contemplating (unless, of course, he has a lot of time to do so). On the contrary, it should be used as a quick mental evaluation of the pros and the cons of making/continuing a flight. For me, my decision was made very quickly once I saw the weather. I knew myself and there were too many cons – too many risks – to continue the flight. I was very confident in my decision to divert that night.

Unfortunately, the next day wasn’t great as far as the weather goes. Marginal VFR conditions prevailed, and the cold front had ushered in lots of cold air, making icing a very real threat. I was able to get the airplane all the way to Bardstown, KY, but no closer to Lexington, due to weather. I was not willing to risk flying IFR for fear of encountering icing. In a sense, it felt like a failed mission because I had not reached my ultimate destination. But at the same time, I was the winner because I had chosen wisely not to put the airplane, and more importantly myself, into unnecessary risk.