The Flight that Didn’t Happen: PIC Responsibilities on the Ground

When an aviator functions as Pilot In Command he or she shoulders a serious, weighty responsibility.  The PIC is responsible for the safety and well-being of the passengers and plane, and I — like any well-trained PIC — take that responsibility to heart.

The other day I had the opportunity and privilege to fly a full planeload of Seattle visitors on a recreational flight from Paine to the San Juans for a 4th of July day trip.  Two of the three other passengers has never been in a light aircraft before; the third has some experience.  The goal of this recreational flight had been to gently introduce the other two to the joys of general aviation. But I stopped the flight before it even happened; I’d like to discuss my decision chain up to cancelation.

Summer has been late in coming to the Pacific Northwest, and the weather this weekend was iffy at best, following a predictable pattern: a solid morning overcast that would lift and break up as the air heated.  On this particular day the clouds were stubborn; they only broke to patchy coverage that varied between three and six eighths, with bases at 2,900′.  Marginal VFR, but light surface winds and good visibility.  There appeared to be no layer above the first layer but that was moot, since there was no safe climb-through for a trip of this duration: the highly-variable conditions at all reporting stations clearly suggested that a plane might be able to descend back through a hole — or the holes might close and trap a plane on top.

I asked my three guests to stay home while I went to the airport to “take a look.”  There was already the mild-but-present pressure of wanting to please the others, and I knew that having three expectant faces staring at me at the FBO would only worsen it.  On the other hand, I knew that I could make a rational decision at the airport after observing actual condition trends and speaking with a pilot or two.

In the end it boiled down to a no-go decision based on comfort, stress and safety.  The factors I considered were these:

  • A heavily-loaded Skyhawk 172S at max-gross with partial fuel
  • Highly variable, marginal VFR conditions
  • A maximum cruising altitude of 2,400′, unsuitable for water crossing and mostly unsuitable for engine-out options
  • Guaranteed turbulence below the cumulus layer
  • My worry of VFR-weekenders crowding underneath the layer without correct hemispheric-rule separation
  • The concern for stressed passengers negatively impacting my piloting abilities

Did I make the right decision?  Absolutely, and I have no regrets.  I’ve earned a reputation as an extremely cautious pilot.  (I’m the fellow that scrubbed his own FAA check flight with the motor running and the DPE in the right seat with headphones on.  I’m accustomed to making these hard decisions.)  Mishaps are often the result of a series of links in a chain rather than one particular devastating event; on this particular day, in retrospect, there was clearly the possibility of forming such a chain.  As PIC I decided — rightly — that giving my guests mild disappointment on the ground was superior to giving them major disappointment in the air.

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