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Are We There Yet?

Are We There Yet?
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 PAUL WENDZEL
C Company, 2-147th Aviation Regiment
Iowa Army National Guard
Boone, Iowa


It was a fairly straight-forward, routine mission; pick up a VIP and staff, fly to two bases 45 minutes apart for meetings, then return home. Weather for the time of flight was forecast as visual flight rules with the possibility of light snow showers en route. Several hours after mission completion, the forecast was expected to become instrument flight rules. Everything indicated it was a good day to fly.

I arrived several hours early to ensure all the paperwork, planning and details were taken care of. Even though the forecast was VFR throughout our time of flight, I decided to plan an IFR flight as well, just in case. The radar was making me second guess the forecast, and I didn’t want to be unprepared should weather come in sooner than expected.

During the crew brief, I let everyone know for each leg of the flight what we’d do in the event weather didn’t cooperate and our VFR flight turned into a day of instruments. I reiterated that we were not going to push the weather if it deteriorated. The IFR conditions were planned for and briefed; we could file IFR in flight if necessary.

After picking up our passengers, it wasn’t long before I could see in the distance the “light” snow showers that were forecast — although they didn’t look so light. The closer we got, the worse visibility became. The airport we were abeam to was calling six miles visibility. In reality, however, that wasn’t the case. This was the first indication that maybe the day wasn’t going to be as smooth as I initially thought. We talked about filing IFR, but the cell was small, so we elected to fly north for a few minutes and then turn back on course.

When we landed at our first destination, I went straight to operations for a new weather brief. Just as before, they were calling for VFR conditions; however, the radar, Meteorological Terminal Aviation Routine Weather Report and Terminal Aerodrome Forecast for the next destination just weren’t adding up. How could a cell just sitting over my next stop, and building, not be producing deteriorating weather?  

After talking with our base ops, I made the decision to cancel the next stop and return home, even though on paper I had the weather to continue. After notifying the VIP, he cut his meeting short and we headed for home. On the way back, the cell we encountered earlier had become much bigger and darker. Although it wasn’t in our flight path, it appeared to be building, eventually impacting our flight. Halfway home, operations sent a Blue Force Tracking message that weather at the stop I’d canceled (40 minutes north of base) was reported at 100-meter ceiling, quarter-mile visibility — nowhere close to my weather brief or TAF.

After dropping off our passengers, we had a 15-minute flight back to base. It appeared the weather was deteriorating in the last leg of our flight, even though at our current location there was no ceiling and unlimited visibility. Weather at home base was OK, but not great. Before takeoff, we discussed waiting to see what the weather was going to do, but we all wanted to get home. I decided to go ahead and give it a try. After all, it’s only 15 minutes and the weather at our current location was perfect. How bad could it really get in just a few miles? If needed, we’d simply turn around or file IFR and shoot an instrument approach.

After takeoff, our great weather disappeared in the blink of an eye. Even though turning around or going IFR was briefed and discussed, the drive to get home became more powerful every mile we were closer to landing. As we pressed on, my CE continually called out where the good weather was if we needed to turn back, while my co-pilot and I vigilantly looked for the runway.

Finally, I’d had enough.

We were still barely VFR, and I decided I wasn’t going to push it anymore when we had a good plan in place if we encountered this. I lifted my foot to press the floor mike and let everyone know we were turning around. Even though we were just a few miles from landing, it just wasn’t worth it. At that very moment, a pocket opened and we had the visibility to make it the last few miles. Within 20 minutes after landing, the airfield went to nearly zero-zero.

As a young PC, I had to make several tough decisions, from telling the VIP I’m canceling a stop to multiple weather calls throughout the day. I learned a lot. Taking the time to plan for the worst before it shows up will help alleviate unwanted stress at critical moments. Although we never went IFR, we had a plan for it and everyone knew what to do . Ultimately, the decisions were up to me, but the entire crew’s input was equally important. After all, if one member is uncomfortable, their mind won’t be on the task at hand, which could be the difference in success or failure. Most importantly, I learned that no matter how close to home you may be, don’t let that cloud your decision to make the right call.

  • 1 December 2013
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 1275
  • Comments: 0
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