Diversions Happen

"We were in solid IFR with icing conditions at night and now we were completely changing our route of flight and destination."

Part of a pilot's training is learning how to deal with the unexpected. If you are a student pilot, your instructor is probably throwing you curve balls occasionally, just to test your ability to react. As you near your Private Pilot checkride, those curve balls from your instructor should happen more frequently and they should be more challenging. If you are a certified pilot, you probably remember getting those curve balls from your instructor and maybe you've even had a couple of unplanned events during your days of flying. Either way, unplanned events will come up if you are a pilot. Some are more serious than others, but sometimes the undesired, unplanned event will preclude you from making it to your intended destination. In this case, you will need to divert to another airport. This winter we had a trip in the Learjet where we had to divert mid-trip.

One of the biggest storms of the winter had slammed into the west coast and was causing unfavorable flying conditions for most of the western United States. We knew it was dicey getting into our planned destination before we even departed. Our arrival weather was forecasted to be a few hundred feet above the ILS minimums. However, our filed alternate airport was better. If we happen to go missed and proceed to our alternate airport, the weather there at our time of arrival was forecasted to be at least 800 feet above the minimums. This was within regulations for us to use that airport as our alternate, considering the FAA's alternate airport requirements.

We had two passengers on board and they were anxious to get to their destination. Our time enroute was scheduled to be about two hours. With no RVSM capability in the Learjet, we were planning to level off at 28,000 feet until we could burn off some fuel. This, in turn, decreases the weight of the aircraft, which allows us to continue our climb up to 43,000 feet. The headwinds that day were also right on our nose and near 150 knots. This made our ground speed around 290 knots. That's way off of our normal true airspeed of 440 knots.

The Decision
The preflight planning revealed that even with the strong headwind, we had enough fuel to get there with 1,000 pounds of fuel in reserve, which is our normal preferred reserves upon arrival. But, as we checked on our destination weather and alternate airport weather while we were enroute, we realized that our alternate airport had changed its forecast. With a good chance that we would be forced to go missed off of the instrument approach and proceed to our alternate airport, it was not a comfortable scenario for either one of us. The cards were stacked against us. We decided we needed to divert.

I contacted Flight Watch (a weather service for pilots) on the radio and began asking for the weather at numerous airports within about a hundred miles of our current location. This huge storm was causing hard IFR conditions all over the West. He mentioned Las Vegas, Nevada having fairly high clouds, at least 2,000 above the ground. So, Las Vegas it was.

I told the air traffic controller (ATC) that we were requesting to divert to Las Vegas and he quickly cleared us to our new destination. We were in solid IFR with icing conditions at night and now we were completely changing our route of flight and destination. This is when you thank God that you are in a crew situation and not a single pilot. Fortunately, we have GPS so the new course was programed in about 15 seconds later.

Now, it was my job to get out the appropriate enroute charts, arrivals, and instrument approach plates for Las Vegas. I remember thinking, "This is where all of my pilot skills, especially navigation, that I have learned over years of flying is being called into service right now." Honestly, experience matters. We were both definitely earning our pay that night, but never was there any doubt of the outcome of this flight. We just did what we as a professional crew know how to do best: Fly this airplane safely to our (new) destination.

If You Have Good Weather, They Will Come
After we were on our way to Vegas, we began hearing several airlines requesting Las Vegas as their new destination. Evidently, the Phoenix-Sky Harbor Airport was closing due to high surface winds. All Phoenix-bound planes were being told to go somewhere else. Well, just as we had done, those other pilots began to look for an airport with the best weather conditions. They quickly discovered, as did we, that Las Vegas was it.

After clearing three or four airliners to divert to Vegas, the controller had to tell the next crew asking for Vegas that the McCarran Airport was not accepting anymore inbound flights. Las Vegas was overwhelmed with diverting aircraft. After he told the airliner that they were being denied Las Vegas, the pilot came back and advised that if they could not proceed to Vegas then they would have a critical fuel situation. In the end, the controller forced the crew to officially declare "low fuel" before he cleared them to Las Vegas-McCarran. Thank God we had already been cleared before the poor soles that were getting turned away from the only airport in the area with descent landing conditions.

The approach into Las Vegas was in thick IFR with icing conditions. Thankfully, the jet has nice and hot bleed air (hot air from the jet engines). The leading edge of the wings and the engine nacelle intakes are fed hot air directly. Other aerodynamic surfaces on our Learjet 24 are kept clear of ice with electrothermal heaters. Light to moderate ice is just not a real concern in a Learjet.

During the ILS into McCarran, we broke out of the clouds around 2,000 feet AGL. The approach and landing was routine and we taxied to the general aviation parking.

After engine shutdown, I had a sense of accomplishment. We had made a timely decision to divert to a new destination and we executed the diversion in a professional, expert manner. We worked together as a crew to arrive at our new destination in the safest way possible. After all, isn't that the number one job of a professional pilot? I believe it is.

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