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A Tale of Two Diverts

by Michael Lenz
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Once upon a time, two flights set out from two different east coast cities to attend a meeting in Indiana. Both pilots planned to fly their personal Technically Advanced Aircraft to the meeting. One pilot was Jack Pennypincher and the other Sally Brightlites.

The weather was originally forecast to be good enough to complete the trip VFR. There was a low pressure center expected to move over the route of flight from the southwest and spread rain and snow showers later that Sunday night and into Monday. This system was then going to move out of the picture and nice weather was expected along the route for the mid-week return trip at the conclusion of the meeting.

Mother Nature threw a monkey wrench into the mix, however, as the low pressure system intensified and began moving faster than anticipated. Both Jack and Sally, being accustomed to the volatile nature of weather, dutifully checked the weather while en route by calling Flight Watch.

As the clouds lowered and some rain and snow showers began blocking the route of both pilots, they each made the decision to divert, re-evaluate the weather from the ground, and then decide whether to fly or drive the remainder of the trip.

Jack Pennypincher saw a general aviation, non-towered airport with an 8,000-foot runway and several instrument approaches. Jack figured this would be a good place to stop. It was right on his course, probably had cheap gas and he would be able to get any service he needed, like food and lodging, while enjoying the lower prices of a small town on the chance he would have to spend the night.

Sally Brightlites thought about the same airport for her divert, but ultimately decided on Big-City International, which was 30 miles north of her course.

They both looked at the weather when they got on the ground and decided it would be best to complete the trip via rental car' about the same 175 road miles for each of them.

The next day, they had both arrived and realized during the self-introductions that they had something in common and struck up a conversation at the first break.

Sally told of her divert to Big City International and lamented about the fast-talking controllers, landing fee, and rather pricey rental car rates.

Sally looked well rested and composed. Jack was rather haggard. Jack did boast that he was the only one on the Unicom frequency and was cleared direct to his divert airport. The airport was nice and fuel was inexpensive. He said he got a great rate on the rental car, but that's where Jack's experience and Sally's experience started to diverge significantly.

Jack said that, because it was Sunday night, no one was around, and he had to call out the fueler. Although the price per gallon was low, the callback surcharge cancelled out that savings.

Then there was another call out for the rental car company. The only company in town was Real Cheap Carz and they too had a Sunday night surcharge. But a couple hours later, and close to midnight, Jack had his car. Sally said she was almost to the meeting hotel around midnight.

Jack said the heater didn't work in his car and when the windows fogged-up, he rolled down his window. That brought quite a chill into the car and, when he attempted to roll up the window, the handle broke off in his hand. Jack continued down the cold lonely country road, shivering, and waiting to drive into an area of cell phone coverage in order to call his wife. When he was able to place the call, his teeth were chattering so badly that his wife had trouble understanding him. Sally said, "That's too bad." The rental car company she used was in the terminal, and they felt sorry for her, and gave her a luxury car at the standard rate.

Jack grimaced at his decision to go to the small, friendly airport and continued with his tale. He said, when he hung up with his wife, the engines overheat light came on and he realized why the heater didn't work. There was not enough coolant in the radiator. Jack called Real Cheap Carz and got the answering machine. He left a message describing his situation and asked that they call him back on his cell phone. They called him back and said he was too far away to bring him another car and he should call a tow truck. They'd be happy to pay for it. It was now about 1:30 a.m.

Jack found the number and called the tow truck. It took about an hour for it to arrive. The car was finally on the hook, Jack jumped in the truck, and they drove off. Jack asked the driver where he put his briefcase and cell phone, but the driver hadn't seen it. Jack realized it was on the roof of the rental car and must have fallen off by now. He asked the driver to go back to look for it. The driver said "Sure," but there would be an extra mileage charge.

Jack figured his luck was finally changing as they approached the spot where the tow truck picked him up' he saw his briefcase on the ground. The tow truck driver spun around and stopped as a crunching sound was heard. That was Jack's cell phone under the tow truck wheels. Oh, well!

The tow truck driver pointed out that the garage was closed for the night, so the cooling system repairs and fill would have to wait for the morning, but he'd be lucky enough to be first to get service and be on his way. Halleluiah! But wait, there's even more good news. There is a hotel right next to the garage, and it was right above an all-night bowling alley, if he was looking for something to do. It doesn't get much better than this!

Pennypincher decided he couldn't take any more as they pulled up to the garage. He checked into the hotel, forfeiting his deposit fee for the first night at the hotel where his meeting was held. The bowling alley was in full swing, even at 2:30 a.m., and there were lots of happy and loud bowlers enjoying themselves. It was league championship night'too good to be true! Sally said she didn't hear a peep all night as the king-size bed had been turned down and a couple of fancy chocolates were placed on her pillow. Jack just rubbed his tired eyes and shook his head.

Jack said he did finally get to sleep, right after the bowling awards ceremony. Then the phone rang and he wondered who was calling him in the middle of the night and what was that light outside? It was 6:30 a.m., and it was his wake-up call.

Sally said she had trouble getting out of the warm bed too.

So where's the aviation side of this story. It lies in flight planning, but has nothing to do with the usual weather, routing, or other flight factors. It rests with the simpler basic needs, like food and shelter. Once the pilot decides to stop short of the destination, the aviation stories usually stop. But those basic needs, when they can't be met, can pressure a pilot to press on.

First it rests with a pilot diverting on a fairly important trip and not finding any services. At least Pennypincher was able to get a car and place to stay. If the car hadn't been available, he might have been tempted to press on in the face of the approaching weather. As bad as his ground experiences were, deciding he had to get there and continuing with the flight, could have been far worse.

In studies of weather accidents, we find they almost always occur on cross-country trips. Many times the pilots stopped short of their destination for weather or repairs and then surprisingly continued. In the accident investigation, it usually looks like nothing changed in the weather forecast or the problem with the plane persisted, and there was no mechanic around. So the pilot continued to the accident scene.

If the services, both human and aviation, could have been met, the alternative, an accident might have been avoided.

Some preflight "Divert Planning" can be a good idea, particularly if the trip is important. Consider, those places where there is:

  • Food
  • Ground transportation
  • Lodging
  • Aircraft repairs and service
  • Fuel availability

In a real or near emergency, like a rough-running engine, the nearest airport is the only smart option. But many times we have a degree of discretion in where we go. In the story, Jack and Sally both made reasoned decisions as to where to divert. Luck just wasn't with Jack that night. He could have stacked the deck in his favor by following Sally's lead to Big City International Airport.

Larger airports, particularly those with passenger service, may be the best bet when diverts are necessary. If you like the smaller airports and friendlier service that typical general aviation airports offer be sure they're open during the hours you might be arriving and can meet your basic needs'either with facilities on the field or nearby. This is easy to figure out and adds only an extra few minutes to your flight planning. There are numerous airport directories available that show all airport services, aviation and otherwise. The Web is great for getting the latest information on those airports that you may be considering. Jot down some of the phone numbers before you go or give a call or two to your most likely alternate airports to confirm which services will be available.

It beats trying to read the small print in the cockpit at night when time is becoming critical. And it really beats pressing on in the face of challenging weather or mechanical problems, when you know you should stop or turn around, but flying the plane is becoming all-consuming. We don't want to read about you!

Michael Lenz is a Program Analyst in Flight Standards Service's General Aviation and Commercial Division.