(copyright 1994, David Cohn)
approx. 750 words
Twenty miles out of Allegheny County, enroute to Boston through the haze of western Pennsylvania, I decided to take the train home.
I was coaxing the ancient Commonwealth Skyranger through 7500 feet, hoping to get into the clear air above before the ground disappeared into the gray muck below. I was on my way home from Oshkosh and a week on the road. I’d been camping under the wing and sleeping on friends’
couches when I could. It had been a long trip and now my own bed, with fresh flannel sheets, was just a few hours away.
But it would be an unpleasant few hours. Flight Service was calling it marginal VFR — no ceiling, with visibilities 3 to 5 miles in haze and fog for the entire route. It was not forecasted to change anytime
soon. Not today, and not for the rest of the week.
While planning the flight that morning, I remembered similar times during my primary training. I would be agonizing over a go/no-go decision, and would hear some other pilot say he was going to “go up
and have a look.” If it didn’t look good once he was up, he said, he’d come back. It sounded like a simple, rational thing to do: if you can’t tell what it’s like on the ground, get up in the air and make
your decision then. Today seemed like a good day to “go up and have a look,” so off I went into the lingering haze.
The reports from Flight Service were accurate. Visibility was marginal with no horizon, just a smooth transition from the gray below to the gray above. But, I thought, I had adequate terrain clearance, and I had constant sight of the ground. I also had an instrument rating, but the 1946 Skyranger was not built for instrument flying. Still, I had legal VFR, so I’d go on a little farther.
Imperceptably, I pushed my go/no-go decision a little further still — ten miles out in the haze, then fifteen. Maybe if things didn’t clear up by Wilkes-Barre….
I then realized that I was delaying the decision that should have been made fifteen miles ago, on the phone with Flight Service. I realized that in the face of such uncertainty, the right decision was to have tied the plane down until better weather prevailed. I realized that my decision to “go up and have a look,” was my way of trying to get out of the no-go decision I should have made back on the ground.
So, what if I did turn back now? I knew that on the long train ride home that night, I’d be plagued with doubt, with thoughts of how I could have made it through the weather. With thoughts of how I’d
have to take another day off to ride the train back and fetch my abandoned aircraft. And with thoughts of the time and money I’d probably wasted. I knew that, barring a (literal) thunderbolt out of
the sky, the decision to turn back would never be affirmed with the knowledge of having made the “right decision” and escaping certain death. It would just be another inconvenient no-go decision.
Eagerness to get home tugged at my conscience. I could probably make it. It was legal VFR, and it was probably even safe. I pushed the decision — maybe I’d go just a bit farther. I remembered other pilots pushing their decisions.
I then also remembered, years ago, when get-home-itis had nearly done me in. I had pushed the no-go decision then, too. As the swirling fog had closed in from below and stolen all reference of earth and sky, I remembered thinking how angry my friends, family, and fiancee’ would be. I remembered cursing myself for impatience, for my selfish desire to get home. I remembered the icy terror of the emergency turn and climb, and the profound, almost religious relief of breaking out into brilliant sunshine on top. And I remembered the night our club’s Grumman never made it back. Its pilot, too, had been eager to get home.
I remembered that my fiancee’, soon to be my wife, had made me an offer: if I were ever unsure of the safety of a flight, she would foot the bill for a ticket home. Twenty miles out in the haze of western
Pennsylvania, I remembered how much she said she’d miss me, and I decided to turn around and let her buy me that ticket.