How to Not Fly an Airplane

One of the most challenging parts of being a pilot can be knowing when to keep a plane out of the sky.

David Moir / Reuters

Eight out of nine passengers, and the flight attendant, were throwing up—whether from the turbulence itself or from fear, I couldn’t tell. We’d already been thrashing around for an hour and a half on what was ordinarily a 30-minute trip, rain pelting the windows as the flight captain and I struggled to make it through a thunderstorm. And then, as if to reinforce my guilt over letting us take off in the first place, we got struck by lightening.

The flight was one of my first as a new employee of a small regional airline based in Burlington, Vermont. I was the first officer on a Saab 340, a twin-engine propeller driven aircraft. Before joining the airline, I’d taught crew-resource management to aspiring commercial pilots, helping them learn how to effectively communicate and share piloting duties over the course of a flight. Two pilots don’t make better decisions than one, I’d told my students, unless both are actively involved in the process and communicate any concerns.

Crew-resource management has been required training at most airlines since 1972, when Boeing-727 crashed into the Everglades with two pilots and a flight engineer at the controls. No one was paying attention to flying the plane—all three pilots were so distracted with changing a light bulb for the landing-gear indicator that no one noticed the autopilot had been disengaged. The Boeing made a slow descent into the alligator-infested swamp.

Sitting in the Saab’s cockpit as the violent wind shook the plane, I cursed myself for not heeding the same lesson I’d taught so many times: If you have a concern, voice it to your co-pilot. The captain thought we could beat the line of thunderstorms, known as a squall line, between Hartford, Connecticut, and Albany, New York. I was positive we wouldn’t.

Was he sure he didn’t want to wait it out? I asked as we prepared to take off. The storm looked like it was coming in fast, and we’d already experienced some pretty bad turbulence coming in from the previous leg of the flight.

It was a short flight, he assured me, and we’d most likely reach our destination before the storm could catch up with us—and if not, we’d just fly around it.

I could barely hear the captain over the pelting of the rain and the whacking of the windshield wipers as we taxied forward. As we approached the runway, it became clear that everyone else was waiting out the storms: The normally congested radio frequency was eerily quiet, and the taxiways were empty except for the puddles and us. Because we were still in the relatively calm downpour before the storm hit at full force, the control tower cleared us for takeoff.

The first 10 minutes of the flight were bumpy but tolerable. Then the turbulence started in earnest.

In extreme circumstances, turbulence can break an airplane apart in midair. The turbulence associated with thunderstorms is composed of strong updrafts and downdrafts, and rapidly changing wind conditions known as wind shear. It feels like a giant hand clutching the airplane, shaking it until pieces come off.

From the colorful radar screen, with its reds and yellows, and the greenish color of more clouds to the west, I knew we were not going to beat the squall line.

“Could you ask for a block altitude?” I yelled at the captain, struggling to make my voice heard over the sound of the rain. A block altitude would give us a range of altitudes to fly—with the strong updrafts and downdrafts, it was impossible for us to stick to just one.

The reply that came back over the radio from air traffic control was revealing: “You’re the only plane in the area. You can have any altitude you want.” No one else, it seemed, had been stupid enough to take to the skies in this weather.

When the lightning hit us, the two computer screens in front of me—the screens containing all the flight information, including airspeed, altitude, and navigation—went black. I had to use a few small and awkwardly located backup instruments to fly the plane. Fortunately, everything turned back on after a few seconds, and we were eventually able to break out of the clouds. The incident had left its mark, though: As soon as we landed in Albany, the flight attendant quit.

On the way to the hotel where we were staying for the night, the captain conceded that waiting out the storms probably would have been a better idea. But his words didn’t do much to lift my spirits. It was my job—a job I’d trained so many other people to do!—to advocate for the safest course of action. The captain was a congenial kind of guy. He probably would have been fine with staying on the ground, if only I had made my case more effectively. I had to stop myself from quitting along with the flight attendant.

* * *

Over the course of my first year at the airline, I moved up in seniority; by springtime, I was assigned more favorable schedules, which eventually meant that I found myself flying with the most senior captain at the airline. The opportunity can be hit-or-miss for newer pilots—some senior captains are eager to share their expertise with first officers, while others use the disparity in authority to make sure their decisions are never  questioned. I didn’t know which scenario I would encounter as we began our first flight together, a four-day trip through upstate New York.

On the third day of the trip, we found ourselves behind schedule. We were supposed to end up in Ithaca at 11 p.m., but it was after midnight and we were still on a leg into Binghamton. It was a frustrating trip—the captain was close to the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots, and the later it got, the more he seemed to be falling behind. He missed radio calls from air-traffic control, forgot to call our company operations center to tell them we were inbound, and had to be reminded repeatedly to finish our required checklists. It was as if he was asleep with his eyes open.

So when we landed in Binghamton, I was relieved to learn that fog had moved into Ithaca, which would ground us for the night and give us both a chance to rest. Flight regulations known as landing minimums dictated that for every landing, the forecast needed to show that we would have enough visibility to see the runway. Usually that meant that we needed a forecast that said we could see half a mile, but some runways had higher requirements for various reasons; for Ithaca, the landing minimum was three-quarters of a mile, but the forecast showed that visibility would be half a mile until sunrise. It was simple: We’d have to spend the night in Binghamton.

The captain, though, didn’t realize that Ithaca’s runways had a higher landing minimum, and the company dispatcher who provided us with the weather hadn’t told us to stay grounded.

If we had taken off on the next leg of the trip that night, we would have been in the precarious position of looking for the runway in fog and darkness. If we didn’t see the runway, then we would have to abort the approach, a fast-paced maneuver that required several different tasks to be completed in a short period of time. It was also something that rarely happened, which meant both of us were rusty; the last time either of us had practiced was in our last training session. Trying to absorb the approach would be like throwing a fourth ball to a juggler who had spent months practicing with only three. Besides, even if we’d been on track for a perfectly smooth landing, the captain wasn’t up to par at this late hour.

I told the captain to contact operations and inform them that we wouldn’t be flying, but unaware of the need for greater visibility—and of his own dwindling focus—he assured me that we were good to go. Twice I asked him to call; twice, he tried to quell my anxiety.

In crew-resource management, I had stressed the importance of collaboration, of two pilots working together as a team to ensure that everything went smoothly.

For the second time, I ignored one of my own lessons.

“I’m going to get the rental car and head to the hotel,” I told the captain.

The flight attendant was standing next to me, seemingly bewildered at this conflict between the two pilots who were supposed to be working together.

I looked at her and said, “We can’t go. I am going to the hotel. Care to join me?”

Without hesitation, she said yes.

The captain looked dismayed, but now he was paying attention.

“We can’t go. It’s below minimums. We need three-quarters of a mile,” I repeated.

The captain called the company dispatcher again and confirmed that I was right. “Let’s go to the hotel,” he told us when he returned. He then went on to explain in detail why we couldn’t go, as if it were new information to the flight attendant and me. I didn’t care. I had learned one of the most important lessons for a pilot: how not to fly.