HERE’S A judgment-test for you. Don’t be concerned, it’s just a little quiz, and of course our lives depend on your decision:
It’s early April. You are I are flying the Lake Amphibian from Florida to Washington State, westbound out of Rawlins, Wyoming at noon toward Twin Falls, Idaho. It was summer in Florida, but right now we’re 30 miles east of Ogden and the outside air temperature is 12 degrees F. I’d like to turn the heater on, but I haven’t run it since last winter and if some bird built a nest in there we’ll have a fire when I hit the Heater-Start switch and I’m not up to a fire just now I’d rather freeze.
We’re cruising at 10,500 feet, about as high as the Lake can go…we might make 11,500 with takeoff rpm, still air and a lot of patience. Wind is 14 knots from the west.
The weather was supposed to be clear ahead, but by the time we got here it looks like…well, it’s what we see in the photo. The ceiling at Logan, off to the north, is 2,000 feet broken to overcast.
So look ahead for a bit and then I’ll turn to you. “What do you think?”
You frown. “Hm. Up or down.”
Sure enough, we can climb above the undercast ahead, cruise right on over the mountains, let down northwest of Ogden and make it to Twin Falls. But what if there are no holes in the undercast when we get northwest of Ogden? Neither one of us is instrument-current so there’s no descending-through-clouds for us.
Or we could go down beneath the cloud deck, try it that way. You can see the visibility’s not so good underneath. The terrain runs around 7,000 feet…If the bases are at 9,000, there’ll be not a whole lot of room between us and the clouds above, between us and the rocks below. Not many places to land if the engine stops.
Nearest airport is Evanston, behind us now. It’s open.
We can divert now and make it back to Evanston, but there’s only 20 miles of rough country ahead. If we make it, the pass at Ogden, it’s smooth sailing all the way to Seattle.
Fly high, most likely there’s a hole on the other side. What if we get downdrafts…we’re right at our service ceiling and a downdraft drags us helpless clawing down a thousand feet a minute. What if the engine fails when we’re on top over all that rugged land, waiting hard and patient under the cloud? Do you relish gliding down on instruments, everything’s fog outside, wondering whether we’ll break out with enough altitude to pick some place to land or will it be rocks we see mid-cloud, a half-second before we hit?
And look at that…the GPS just failed! Of all the times for the thing to quit…
We’ve got a paper map. And we ought to be right about…here’s this little river…
“Let’s take it down.”
Go down low, and try for it? I agree.
Remarkable, the way flying clears the mind!
So down we go, and sure enough the visibility drops to three miles, a little less. There the peaks are jutting snow up to the clouds. Map says that one’s at 7,760, that one’s at 8,767 and it’s into the overcast. No sight of human life below, no ranches, no roads, no nothin’. Engine quits now we can land wheels-up in the snow, but we’ll never take off again in this high country.
One more ridge in front of us, clear it and we’ll be able to drop down a little lower. Leave room for a 180-degree turn if it goes to fog ahead of us, nice easy turn in thin air. Visibility’s going down.
Only fifteen miles to go! So close! Turn back now to Evanston, or press on?
You think we can clear that ridge, just squeak over it? And what if the weather’s worse on the other side, it closes down to the ridge-top behind us? Then we’re forced to go on instruments, climb as best we can through the clag, hope to break out on top?
She’s a close call, this one. What’s your choice?
– End of quiz –
Here’s the terrain, on a map that doesn’t show clouds, snow, turbulence, downdrafts:
Soon as you disappeared from the cockpit, I made my decision. I turned back to Evanston. It was snowing when the wheels touched the runway.
Some wise pilot once told me, “I like to ask myself about my dumb ideas, ‘How will it look on the accident report?’ ”
We probably would have made it, of course, flying low. Weather probably would have been fine. But would I bet my life on it, would I bet yours? Say we cleared that ridge, and the weather was worse on the other side, and if in the middle of some downdraft trying to climb through the clouds we ran our airplane into some granite cliffside — the report would say that I chose to do that, chose to risk our lives for the sake of a few miles and a few hours. Not a good-lookin’ document.
Next day the weather was better, a fading reminder of yesterday’s storms.
My video of that flight is all iPhone amateur, and just long enough to suggest that we’re up there for more than a hundredth of a second, when we’re flying, we’re in the air minute after minute, hour by hour.
The sound’s amateur, too, but perhaps you can hear what “faithful engine” sounds like, purring on over jagged land. It helps imagine how pilots come to love their machines.
Would you prefer to land at Rawlins or Evanston? : )