Know Your Options
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 CHRIS DAVENPORT
B Company, 2nd Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment
Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia
Late 2012 found me on a four-day mission flying a UC-35 to transport distinguished visitor passengers to various locations throughout Europe. The second day of the mission had us departing Byrdgosz, Poland, at mid-morning, refueling in Bucharest, Romania, then continuing to Ankara, Turkey.
As is my practice, I reviewed the current meteorological aviation reports and terminal area forecast for our destinations prior to departing the hotel so I could get an idea of what our weather brief was going to look like. The current METAR for Bucharest indicated less than a quarter-mile visibility and less than 100-foot ceilings with freezing fog. The TAF indicated the conditions would not be lifting until mid-afternoon, long after our planned arrival time there. The DD 175-1 we received from the U.S. Air Force forecaster told a different story. It indicated the same as the METAR for current conditions, but forecasted the conditions would improve greatly within the next hour.
When I questioned the USAF briefer during the validation update of the brief, he indicated that he didn’t agree with the TAF, so he briefed us for the better conditions. Not completely trusting the information we received, I requested a brief for an alternate of Burgas, Bulgaria, which I knew from the METAR/TAF had visual flight rules conditions forecasted for the entire day. Armed with this information and a planned — but not required — alternate, we departed on time for the first leg of the day.
As we came within range of Bucharest, the controller asked if we had the current weather for our destination. ATIS was barely breaking through the squelch, so the controller recited the current info: less than 100-foot ceilings, less than 200 meters visibility with freezing fog. Deciding immediately that we needed to divert to our alternate, we asked for the current report for Burgas and heard the same story.
My mind started reviewing Eastern Europe geography for other airports, and I asked the controller for conditions at Constanta, Romania, and Sofia, Bulgaria. Both indicated the same poor conditions and freezing fog. We expanded our geography and asked for conditions in Istanbul, Turkey, after finding that VFR conditions existed at the field. We diverted to Attaturk International for fuel and after a tour of the airport to clear immigrations and customs, continued the mission to our destination for the day.
Many lessons were learned or confirmed from this experience. First, remember that as the pilot in command, you have the right to question things, most notably in this case, your weather brief. Assuming you conduct a little research on your own, feel free to question the briefer if what they say isn’t jiving with what you saw. Just because you are not required to have an alternate by regulation, don’t be afraid to follow that gut feeling and get briefed for one anyway. Running out of options is never a good thing, so be sure you have plenty available. Getting on the ground safely with options still available means you had enough at your disposal.
Finally, know your geography. Helicopter pilots have a potential landing site at any open field, but fixed-wing pilots really like to have a runway available to them. Being aware of airports that are viable alternates, regardless of weather conditions requiring it, just adds to your list of options.