Just as a Cabinet Secretary in the USA serves at the pleasure of the President, so a pilot flies and navigates by the leave of Nature.
Weather can often be negotiated with the help of careful planning. But that emphatically does not mean that a go decision can be taken for granted. The next time you feel frustration when you get a gate hold because of a line of thunderstorms moving through your destination, you might remember that a thunderstorm can rip the wings off an airplane. Any airplane, including your airliner.
The big dangers are thunderstorms and icing.
Thunderstorms contain violent updrafts and downdrafts, often in close proximity. It is the G forces as you fly through the shear which can rip off the wings. Golfball-size hail can reduce a beautiful wing to junk in seconds. At low altitude the outflow from a storm can bring down an airliner (and has done so).
Icing occurs when an aircraft encounters supercooled water. (Water in the atmosphere can remain liquid at temperatures below 0°C. At the first disturbance (an airplane wing, for example) it will crystallize and freeze instantly.) Ice on an aircraft increases weight and drag and reduces lift.
Modern airliners have heated wings and tail and engine cowls that can melt ice or prevent it from forming. But ask any pilot who has experienced icing about how fast it can accumulate – it is often a matter of seconds. And freezing rain or anything beyond moderate icing is a no-no – even for airliners.
But there is more: turbulence, wind shear, low ceilings and visibility, fog, wake turbulence, surface winds, slippery or icy runways, ice or snow or frost on the airplane you want to fly. All of these must be treated with the greatest respect, and each dealt with carefully to eliminate the danger.
An airline has Flight Dispatchers to do the research, plan routes, and file flight plans. A solo pilot does all that as well before he even gets on board.
The wind and weather will affect the route, the speed and altitude flown, and the choice of an alternate airport for arrival (and even for departure, if the weather is bad). NOTAMS (Notices to Airmen) warn of equipment outages and runway closures, among many other things. Then a Flight Plan is filed, opened, flown, and closed to communicate all the particulars of the flight to Air Traffic Control and to Search and Rescue.
An airliner has a PF (Pilot Flying) and a PNF (Pilot Not Flying). The Captain and the First Officer usually alternate in these roles. The PNF does the radio work and paperwork, gets and reads back clearances, calls the checklists, and generally does everything that takes two hands. The PF concentrates on flying the airplane, even if he is using an autopilot to do so.
The single pilot does all of this and more. It can get quite busy.
Arcadia does not have an autopilot. The pilot has to fly the airplane 100% of the time. This can be fairly relaxing (at cruise in visual conditions) or extremely demanding (flying in cloud and turbulence while talking on the radio and trying to get weather and choose an alternative plan of action).
Any airplane, left to its own devices, will gradually roll into a turn. The most basic autopilots are called wing levellers. The pilot’s first job is to keep the wings level. But flying in cloud, on instruments and on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) Flight Plan, he must also stay at the cleared altitude and on the cleared track. This is his part of the bargain with the Air Traffic Controller, whose job it is to keep airplanes a safe distance apart. The controller can see aircrafts on his radar. Each target has a a small databox attached, showing the the airplane’s identification, altitude, and groundspeed. The controller issues a clearance, specifying the route and altitude to be flown by the pilot.
Technology is wonderful. With GPS, digital displays, and satellite communication, a pilot’s workload can be greatly eased. But there is a tradeoff: to be helpful, each technological wonder must be understood. This is not to say everyone has to go and get an engineering degree. But the pilot must know how each device is calculating the information it presents and what might cause that information to be wrong. He must have a plan to deal with the failure of each device.
There is more. The pilot’s job – to put it in the baldest terms – is to survive. His greatest asset in that effort is his ability to visualize what the airplane is doing: how it is moving relative to the invisible air, where it is (even bouncing through solid cloud) relative to terrain, other aircraft, and the approach path. Pilots call this situational awareness. Technology can lull pilots into laziness. They can lose their visualization, their situational awareness. Needless to say that is very dangerous. Accident reports are full of such cases, the archetype being the L-1011 that descended into the Everglades while the three pilots were trying to change a light bulb.
Both Chris and Arcadia are old. While old does not necessarily mean incompetent, age does bring limitations.
Chris is lucky to be in good health. He is also grateful for health care. One of his great heroes, J.S. Bach, died at age 65 after a cataract operation. Chris has two intra-ocular lenses which have brought his distance vision back to 20/20.
But at 70 he is more subject to fatigue. Long duty days are a thing of the past. Just as he must respect Arcadia’s limitations, he must also plan for his own, eating healthily and getting enough sleep and down time. Flying, he must use SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures), checklists, and memorized drills. He must rehearse these more often than a young person.
Arcadia is 53 years old. Although she has much new equipment and has just been lovingly restored, each system has its own cycle of required inspections and repair. And as with an airplane of any age, a snag could mean a scrub. That is, some equipment failure could mean a flight cancellation until the snag is fixed.