The day started bad. Weather had rolled in overnight and had filled the valley with low clouds and misty rain. My destinations to the south were not reporting weather over the HF radio either, which was usually a bad sign.
I’d arrived at the airport at my normal time of 5:30am to do my pre-flight inspection hoping for a 6am take off. By the time I was done preparing for my flight day, it was clear that I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Sipping my coffee at 7:30am I discussed options for getting any flights done with another pilot. Neither of us were sure anything was going to happen that day. But by 8am, we were both off the ground to see what we could do.
The Baliem valley where we live tends to have ground fog in the mornings, but improves significantly by mid-morning. Once the airport is open, normally the weather stays good throughout the rest of the day. I had no idea how thankful I would be for that later that day.
On my first flight, I attempted to fly to Holuwon, a small airstrip just 25 miles away, but outside of the Baliem valley and on the southern side of the mountains. The short 20 minute flight became nearly an hour as I searched and searched for a way to get to Holuwon, and then worked just as hard getting home without having landed anywhere. The route to Holuwon was sufficiently open, but haze, thin clouds, and rain made it difficult to see and to have adequate safety margins for turning around and going back. It was a rough flight, and I was physically and mentally tired after landing back in Wamena.
By 11am I was ready to go home for the day, but our flight scheduler cornered me. I had been scheduled to fly to Mulia that day to meet another MAF plane and bring some folks back to Wamena. You must go to Mulia and get them, he said to me.
Must. What a powerful word. I’ll be honest. I buckled. At 1:30 pm I lifted off the ground and flew to Mulia getting 25 minutes of hard instrument flying at 13,500′ on a 40 minute flight in the mountains. I had been told must and I had accepted it.
The passengers were grateful. They were even gracious and understanding at my lateness. The 45 minute return flight was just as bad. The turbulence was light, but solid IMC for nearly 30 minutes was unnerving.
I was watching the time, airports close at 5pm in Papua, and if I couldn’t land in Wamena, I would not be able to make it in time to an airfield with an instrument approach. Fuel was getting low. I had my reserves, but they couldn’t actually get me to any viable approaches and be able to fly a full procedure. The outside air temperature was right at the freezing point. I was already at 14,000′ could not climb any more to avoid icing with passengers on board, nor could I descend to warmer temperatures since I was on a IFR route in the mountains. The pressure was mounting.
The relief I felt when I finally broke out of the clouds just ten miles from home was palpable. I arrived in Wamena at nearly 4:30pm. I’d made it. After I’d had some time to calm down from the stressful day, I began to reflect back on what had transpired.
Why had I taken that flight? What had possessed me to leave so late in the day with such bad weather? It was outside pressure. I’d given away my PIC privilege because someone had used the word must. I had let someone else, someone who was not a pilot, who was not personally invested in surviving the flight decide for me if I should fly.
I’d made it, and I got lots of thanks from my passengers and co-workers. I even got called Pilot Hebat or amazing pilot by our local employees. But I knew deep down I’d really screwed up. I’d given away my PIC authority because of the word must and I regretted it. It’d turned out alright this time, but I promised myself that I’d try to never do that again.
Have you given away your PIC authority to outside pressure? Have you forgotten who is in charge of your airplane like I did? What happened?