Flying my Diamond DA40 home from a conference in Las Vegas with two colleagues on board not long ago was uneventful, until I came to the formidable mountains that comprise part of the Transverse Range. While most of the flight from Las Vegas is over the wide Mojave Desert, my home airport in Santa Paula is tucked in a valley on the other side of those mountains. The tops of the mountains were obscured completely by a line of clouds that extended as far as I could see in both sideways directions, and the tops of the clouds were higher than my normally-aspirated airplane could climb.
For an instrument-rated pilot this would present no problem, but I have yet to get that rating, so for me it was a challenge. It wouldn’t have been difficult, mind you, but it would have been entirely illegal, and certainly unsafe for me and the passengers on board given my lack of “actual” (as opposed to virtual) time in the clouds.
After looking in both directions, it became clear that I immediately needed to alter my flight plan and make a diversion. I disconnected the autopilot, and started a slow, wide turn to the left, with the intention of doing a wide circle while I figured out my next move. I informed the passengers that there might be a delay getting home, and then called ATC to let them know that I was altering my planned route due to the line of clouds in front of me. The composed voice came back with the query, “Are you instrument capable and qualified?”
I answered quickly that I was capable but not qualified, which means I have the appropriate instruments on board but was not certified. The business-like voice simply said, “OK.”
I was considering diverting right or left to see if there was a clearing in the line of clouds that I couldn’t see yet, and what airports lay in wait below or just behind, and what the best place might be to spend the night, when the controller came back on the radio. “One Romeo Alpha, it looks like there’s an opening in the clouds about 10 miles to the north.”
At about 150 miles an hour, that’s a pretty short diversion, so I thanked the controller and headed north. Sure enough, there was a nice gap in the clouds that took me over the mountains near Santa Barbara, and I was able to turn south and head down the coast to my home airport with only a short delay.
Most pilots hate diversions. Diversions make those aboard late, and usually create additional expense in fuel, time and lodging. But diversions are a necessary part of getting there safely.
I would like to believe that having to divert is one of the more wonderful things about flying. It forces us down a road that, if not less traveled, is certainly less anticipated. And it forces us to live in the moment, a skill I have never been very good at, managing to immerse myself in the nostalgia of yesteryears, or the expectations and fantasies of life downstream.
There is a wonderful story that has been circulating the internet for many years now about how being a parent of a child with autism is like expecting to take a trip to Italy and ending up in Holland. The point of the story is that if you live your life mourning the fact that you aren’t in Italy you’ll end up missing the beauty of Holland.
I do think that people who are good at accepting life’s diversions do so partly because they don’t allow themselves to get too attached to outcomes. Lao Tzu said it best when he said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”
I hate surprises, but I am convinced that surprise is where the adventure begins. If the original goal, the runway on which you intend to land, is suddenly unsafe, then it’s time to open the throttle and find another one.
When I think of that simple diversion required of me to keep out of the clouds, I think of some small things I might have done differently. It forced me to think under pressure, and later to review those decisions and therefore rehearse doing it better the next time. But we all arrived safely, and enjoyed extraordinary scenery along the way that we would not have seen otherwise: wispy clouds teasing the mountain ridges, the beautiful Pacific Ocean and the California Coast, and the rolling foothills accompanying us home.