CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 TOM WIGGINS
Systems Integration Management Office
U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command
Fort Campbell, Kentucky
Young men and women volunteer for pilot training to fulfill often long-held desires to break the bonds of the earth. The luster of flying eventually fades for some, but for the rest of us, aviation remains an important life focus. Given that passion, it’s hardly surprising that many military aviators choose to fly on their own time in civilian aircraft. I know from personal experience. And while U.S. military pilots receive the best flight training in the world, we must not forget that the fundamentals always apply — whether you’re in a 21,000-pound helicopter or a 1,400-pound private airplane.
I found myself in Tucumcari, New Mexico, eager to get my airplane out of storage and start a long trip to Florida. I conducted a thorough pre-flight and checked the weather forecast, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Notices to Airmen and temporary flight restrictions, which noted the visual flight rules forecast along my entire route to Bainbridge, Georgia, my first day’s destination.
During my pre-flight inspection, I noted my fuel tank was only half full. I decided to save time and money by not topping off immediately. A fuel stop in north Texas advertised aviation gasoline at a full dollar cheaper per gallon than at Tucumcari, so I planned to fuel up there.
I lifted off into a sunny but cool New Mexico spring morning. Crossing into Texas, however, I noted a billowy white layer on the horizon, just off the earth’s surface. The weather forecast that morning failed to mention any ground fog, but as I approached, I got a sinking feeling. The fog stretched to the horizon. “How far does this go?” I asked myself. Wondering if my destination was socked in, I contemplated returning to Tucumcari. Instead, I made my second stupid decision of the morning.
Looking down, I noticed a low-lying wash. From my map study, I knew it led directly to my destination. (At least I did something right by studying my map.) I descended, determined to let the terrain funnel me to the airport, staying beneath the clouds the whole time. As a flight instructor, I knew better. Cold air and its associated fog sinks into the low areas, which is why it’s called ground fog.
Despite the logical part of my brain screaming, “No,” I pushed the stick forward and descended. Within minutes, the fog slowly closed in around me and jolted me back to sanity. I turned the aircraft 180 degrees and started climbing with my nose pointed to a clear, open horizon. I called flight service and changed my flight plan, got an instrument flight rules clearance and continued on to my destination, which was indeed overcast with low ceilings. In fact, the low ceilings extended from Texas to Arkansas.
I broke the accident chain on that trip, but not before forging several of the links myself. Looking back on the experience, I realize the factors leading to my lapses in judgment were hardly unique and some young pilot may face them in the future as well. I hope that pilot reads this article and considers my analysis.
On my eastbound flight, I risked flying in poor weather with a partial fuel load because I wanted to save time and money. During military flight operations, aircrew members plan to execute their missions as safely as possible while using the least amount of resources. We know Uncle Sam has deep pockets and we often don’t think about fuel prices. Things change when we pay for our off-duty flights with our own money on our own time. If the price of fuel becomes the prime factor in airport selection, we may push the limits of fatigue to save precious leave and spend more time with our loved ones and less time in the cockpit. As private pilots, we should always take off with a full load of fuel.
Everything we learned in military flight school also applies to civilian aviation. No matter how fast or cheaply we want to get somewhere, the laws of physics will not change for us. We may conveniently “forget” how fog forms, hoping it clears up; but rest assured, if the conditions are right, fog will form. Instead of hoping and cutting corners like I did, approach every civilian flight like a military operation. Take the extra time to plan a new route when unexpected weather pops up. Spend the extra money for a full tank of gas. Accept the financial and time burden of a hotel if it’s the prudent thing to combat fatigue on a long, cross-country flight. Saving a few dollars in gas is pointless if you’re not around to spend it.