Callback Choices: What Would You Do?

By Scott Spangler on February 8th, 2009

Like a lot of aviators, I like to read about the problems faced by other pilots to learn how they dealt with them, and to refresh my memory of lessons I’ve already learned. A number of aviation publications present these scenarios, but none beats Callback, the monthly publication of the Aviation Safety Reporting System, run by NASA.

JetWhine_NASA Callback_logo The January issue, which arrived last week via email notification, offered an interesting–and valuable–interactive component. The issue’s introduction inferred that it had done this before, but because I’ve only recently started reading it again (see Getting Reacquainted With NASA Callback), and I must have missed it.

Callback set the scene for four situations, one from a GA pilot, one from an air traffic controller, one from an air carrier flight crew, and one from an airline captain. In each of them, readers get to to answer this question, “What would you have done?” by selecting one of the four possible outcomes.

JetWhine_Mtn_Wx Preparing for a cross-country over the mountains, the GA pilot got a DUAT briefing and “interpreted” CAVU weather for his route. At the mountains he found poor visibility under the clouds. Receiving flight following since departure, he told ATC that he was climbing from 8,500 feet to get over the clouds. At 10,500 feet he saw that the “line of clouds” was an overcast, and as he continued toward his destination, he climbed to stay above it, eventually reaching 14,000 feet, without oxygen and reaching his airplane’s service ceiling.

As the interactive pilot, I had four choices: 1. Turn back to the departure airport. 2. Confess the dilemma to ATC. 3. Declare an emergency? 4. ???

Had I been pilot in command I would have turned back well before climbing into oxygen altitudes, and when I moused over that selection, my cursor didn’t give me the expected “pointy finger” that would link me an expected explanation of the different outcomes.

It did point at the “What Would You Have Done?” question, and the click led me to the action taken by the pilot who filled out and submitted the NASA form. He confessed to ATC, and explained why: he kept thinking the weather would improve. And then it gave the rest of the story, which changed how I would have handled the situation.

JetWhine-ATC ATC suggested that the pilot call Flight Watch to learn where the good weather was. Flight Watch gave the pilot some fair weather options that enabled him to complete the flight. In retrospect the reporting pilot said he should have stayed under the clouds, adding that he failed to consider his best option–and my first choice–turning back. 

The lesson for me was to think things through before automatically acting on the safest choice. In retrospect, when seeing the poor visibility over the mountains and under the clouds, my first action should have been to give Flight Watch a call to get the latest information before making my decision.

Although I fly for fun, I found the other situations educational as well. In an airliner the pilot flying got takeoff clearance at the same time a flight attendant told the non-flying pilot that a passenger had left his seat for the lavatory, creating a fair amount of confusion for all involved. In the third situation, a controller was working an inbound airplane that suffered an avionics failure just before the handoff to another controller’s airspace. And in the final situation an airline captain had to deal with a disabled passenger in an aisle seat who supported his paralyzed legs with pillows, blocking the escape route for those in the window and center seats. 

I learned something from all three: Sort out any confusion on the ground, not in the air. Follow the last instructions received from ATC; controllers are pros and will clear the way. And I made the right decision in not pursuing a career with the airlines, and my hat is off to those do, because dealing with a cranky passenger is a situation I’d rather not face.

But I do look forward to the challenge of flight, which is why I eagerly anticipate each issue of Callback. — Scott Spangler

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One Response to “Callback Choices: What Would You Do?”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    These are really interesting. Where did you find the option to subscribe by email?

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