Sunday, February 4, 2024

Always Have an Out

Stir Crazy

In aviation safety circles, a mental condition colloquially known as "get-there-itis" characterizes a pilot so mission focused, so determined to reach a destination, that they make unsafe decisions. While accidents might result from dangerous weather, poor fuel management, or hastily overlooked maintenance issues, an underlying root cause may be a pilot falling prey to these situations due to a laser focus on completing the mission in spite of circumstances that make flying unwise.

More often than not, winter flying in Upstate New York is contingent on the ceiling. When the Lake Ontario "permacloud" creeps across our region at 1000 feet from November to March, access to the sky can be severely limited. Ceilings are often too low to fly beneath and slowly climbing through a cloud layer of indeterminate thickness in sub-freezing temperatures risks icing. For me personally, this means that winter IFR departures are out of the question unless the cloud layer is so thin that the blue of the sky can be readily discerned through it. In the name of avoiding prolonged periods of time in freezing clouds, I put my instrument rating on a shelf for the winter unless cloud exposure will be minimal.

Because of this, Upstate pilots become antsy as winter weeks pass without any "altitude therapy". This can result in a strong case of "go-flying-itis", a variant of get-there-itis more focused on merely getting into the air rather than trying to actually go someplace. The pilot I watched wreck a Rochester Air Center Skyhawk on a windy winter day at Le Roy in 2009 definitely had go-flying-itis. 

As February 2024 unfolded following a gloomy January, many of us contracted serious cases of go-flying-itis. Much like alcoholism, there is no cure, but the condition can be managed with careful flight planning and disciplined judgement.

Like Lucy Pulling the Football Away from Charlie Brown

For Saturday morning, February 3, four pilots were inspired by a promising forecast and excitedly planned a flight to Keene, New Hampshire. However, a persistent low ceiling scuttled those morning plans. With some patience, I managed to fly solo in the late afternoon on a local sightseeing flight. Though it was not what I originally planned, it was literally a glorious experience and go-flying-itis was safely ameliorated.

Plans for a group flight shifted to Sunday morning, this time with a destination of Lake Placid for brunch at the Big Slide Brewery and Public House. Both the airport and the restaurant are favorites of everyone in the group with one exception. Dave had never been to Lake Placid at all

Sunday morning dawned clear and beautiful at 25°F with lawns, trees and rooflines sparkling with a frosty, crystalline coating. Terminal forecasts and MOS outlook models differed greatly on whether a ceiling would roll in after our planned departure. Forecast discussions suggested that a low, thin cloud layer was expected to slide over central New York from Canada by mid-morning, creating a risk of shutting us out of our home airport on return. While Tom and I texted back and forth that morning, I scrolled through the forecast materials and came to the following conclusions:
  1. By all indications, Lake Placid was to remain VFR with a high ceiling all day. Getting back out of Lake Placid and the Adirondack Mountains would not be a problem.
  2. I had no concerns flying over a low -- if extensive -- cloud deck to get home because that would carry no icing risk.
  3. The cloud layer expected to cover central New York for our return was forecast to create a marginal VFR ceiling at home. However, it was also expected to be thin, icing severity was forecast as trace (FIP, Forecast Icing Product), and there were no icing AIRMETs posted during the timeframe of the round trip flight.
Thus, the primary risk was returning to Sodus with a low overcast. Because I am willing to descend quickly through a thin cloud layer during the winter, an instrument approach into Sodus would be my "out" if the forecast for a marginal VFR ceiling came to pass.

While I felt that I had a suitable Plan B and conditions under which I could safely exercise it, I was on the very edge of a "no go". Variables that would have tipped the decision would have included:
  1. If there was a credible threat of an overcast forming above Lake Placid, the combined risks of icing (climbing slowly through freezing clouds of indeterminate thickness) and mountainous terrain would have been unacceptable. I had zero desire to depart Lake Placid under IFR.
  2. If the en route clouds were forecast to occupy typical cruise altitudes between 6,000 and 8,000 feet, the icing risk would have been too great owing to exposure time.
  3. If the ceiling over Sodus was forecast to be IFR (below 1000 feet), the risk of not successfully completing an approach into our home airport would have been too high. Current minimums on the RNAV-28 are 558 feet AGL since we lost our LPV approaches due to obstructions.
  4. If the ceiling over Sodus was forecast to be more than 1,000 feet thick, I would have deemed this to be too much time in the clouds with potential icing risk.
  5. If the FIP model predicted more severe icing than "trace", even a brief transition through the clouds may have been unacceptable.
I declared on the group text that I was willing to go and why I found the risks to be acceptable. Tom agreed. Ed, who is not instrument rated, decided that uncertainty around that ceiling was too great and wisely bowed out. And Dave, who is instrument rated but not current, opted to fly with me.


Our two aircraft launched from Sodus at 8:30 am, Dave riding right seat with me in Warrior 481 and Jamie riding with Tom and Alicia in Two Six Romeo. Dave and I have flown together many times over the years, including a memorable trip to Cleveland in 2016 and, more recently, as a regular safety pilot.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
04 Feb 2024N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - LKP (Lake Placid, NY) - SDC 3.4 2779.3

It was a beautiful morning to fly through smooth, crystal clear air under a vast cerulean dome. Although Lake Placid has been a popular destination for Williamson Flying Club pilots, this was to be Dave's first visit. He was in for a treat and, sure enough, as soon as the Adirondack Mountains were discernible as distant ripples on the horizon, Dave was snapping photos.

Photo by Dave.

Much like my house that morning, the upper elevations of the Adirondacks were frosted white, making them a starkly beautiful sight as they grew in the windscreen. We flew over occasional cloud scrims that partially obscured the ground. With the Saranac Lake ASOS continuously calling out a clear sky in real time, we proceeded above the gauzy layers with confidence that we would not become trapped above them.

Whiteface Mountain in the distance. Photo by Dave.

As we flew closer, I used a chart to show Dave that Lake Placid sits in a bowl defined by the Adirondack High Peaks and how there was a break in the wall to the northwest toward Saranac Lake. I described how we would break off from our direct track to the airport from the southwest in order to circle northward and follow the low terrain into the valley.

Whiteface Mountain. Photo by Dave.

The view of Whiteface Mountain was stunning as we entered the local area around Lake Placid, the mountain’s frosted upper elevations contrasting sharply with the darker terrain below. I fished around in the back seat for my camera, but it was buried beneath our coats and I was too busy for a lengthy search. Fortunately, Dave captured the scene. When he texted this photo to his wife, her response was, "You look low. I hope you're landing."

Hey! That's me! Photo by Dave.

Pilots like to show off for other pilots and I was pleased to accomplish a smooth landing with Dave as witness. Honestly, I think Dave was too dazzled by the beautiful scenery for my artful landing to make any kind of an impression on him. Rightfully so; this is why the Adirondacks are a year-round favorite destination of mine.

"Rise and Swine"

Two Six Romeo, Dave, Alicia, Tom, and Jamie.

We paused for a quick group photo before walking to Big Slide via the back exit from the airport parking apron.

Photographed 15 February 2020.

Big Slide boasts a seasonal menu of whimsically named dishes (like "Rise and Swine") with locally sourced ingredients. I went the savory route with biscuits and gravy (including buttermilk biscuits from Bake Placid Bakery) while Tom and Dave indulged in the sweetness of lemon blueberry French toast. Alicia's regular French toast and Jamie's Hangover Helper breakfast sandwich rounded out the orders. Reasonably priced, beautifully plated, and delicious as ever, meals at Big Slide never disappoint.

Jamie's ordering of a sandwich caused me and Tom to reminisce about the time he ordered "The Stearman" at the West Wind without reading the menu carefully enough to realize that the massive burger was cradled between two grilled cheese sandwiches instead of a conventional bun. The look of pure terror in Jamie's eyes when that ostentatious burger was placed before him was priceless.

I really enjoyed this morning outing with some of my favorite people. We talked about flying, about trip ideas for 2024, about other personalities around the airport ("What the f*ck is REDACTED thinking?"), and monitored weather conditions back in Sodus as they fluctuated between marginal VFR and VFR during our absence. We debated about departing VFR and picking up a pop-up IFR if needed versus filing IFR from Lake Placid and ultimately decided on the former.

Aptly Named Whiteface

Obligatory shot of Warrior 481 on the ground at Lake Placid.

On departure from Lake Placid, Tom turned directly for home whereas Dave and I banked east to circle Whiteface. Because it was his first visit to the Adirondacks, I wanted him to have the full experience.

Fortunately, by the time we departed, I had located my iPhone and was back to capturing images of the world beyond the Plexiglas.

Seeing a plume of snow billowing from the peak of Whiteface, I was concerned about experiencing turbulence downwind of the peak, but the air remained benign all the way around.

Peak of Whiteface with Lake Placid behind it.

Pop Up

Several miles out from Lake Placid, we overflew a solid overcast consistent with predictions in the forecast discussion. Lake Ontario was obscured entirely and a lump in the otherwise flat cloud deck marked the position of the cooling tower of the nuclear plant in Oswego. Closer to home, with the airport weather reporting marginal VFR, Tom and I separately picked up IFR clearances from Syracuse Approach and requested the RNAV 28 approach to Sodus. As we progressed westward, it was obvious that the ceiling was breaking up and, determined to log an approach no matter what, I went under the hood while Dave served as safety pilot. Even if we managed to miss all the clouds on our way down to the waiting runway, I would still be able to count the approach toward currency. In actuality, we never went IMC. 

It never fails. Whenever I get excited about exercising a well-considered Plan B, conditions work out in a way to render it unnecessary. But in the end, having a backup plan is far more important than needing to execute it. Sometimes a single backup plan is not enough. What if we had returned to a much thicker cloud deck than forecast? We intentionally launched that morning with full fuel, which meant that we returned to Sodus with three hours remaining. This was Plan C, giving ourselves plenty of additional range to find a safer landing site if needed.

Flying is not without its dangers, but by taking well-considered risks and providing ourselves with backup plans to manage reasonable challenges, we can counteract the influences of get-there-itis and go-flying-itis and prudently experience the majesty, fellowship, and wonderful destinations that our airplanes help us experience. This morning was a prime example.

Always leave yourself an out.


  1. It looked like a great flight! It's all about having outs, good job, and a reminder to all pilots to plan ahead.

    1. You betcha! I hope the fly-in at Lancaster today was a good time. Sorry I couldn't make it. Both my car AND my airplane were undergoing their annual inspections this morning!