“If in doubt, chicken out!”

I started rock climbing when I was sixteen, and have since spent many hours out in the hills, on rock faces and crags in both the summer sunshine and the depths of the icy winter darkness. For several years now ice climbing has been one of my main passions in life, and it came to mind today just how similar some elements of aviation are to life in the mountains.

The mountains and the sky are both places I feel at home, places of immense beauty and majesty, and yet are also both environments that are prone to turn hostile with very little warning. Take for instance a winter climb on Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain: I can remember once making the 3 hour trudge into the base of the cliffs to be¬†confronted by snow conditions that on another day I may have deemed to be ok – another day I might have decided the risk was acceptable. That day however, I had a bad feeling, as did my partner.

Sometimes that’s all it is – a feeling. Sometimes you can’t put your finger on what it is that concerns you, logic may be telling you that everything is fine and yet, somehow, a deep-rooted, primal part of you just feels uneasy. As mountaineers we refer to this feeling as our ‘sixth sense’ and it is this sense that we listen to above all else.

That day up on Ben Nevis, my partner and I both felt uneasy, our ‘sixth senses’ leading us to turn around and re-trace our trudge back to the car park. The next day we heard that the snow slopes beneath our chosen route had avalanched…

Just a tiny part of a huge mountain

Today I arrived at Shobdon feeling jaded from a couple of night’s worth of poor quality sleep, and still ever-so-slightly under the weather, having driven through a couple of rain showers that set my mind ever so slightly on edge.

After the usual time spent preparing the aircraft and my somewhat complex seat cushion arrangement, Paul left me to it and I sat there in the cockpit for a couple of minutes contemplating the maneuvers I was wanting to practice, and yet somehow just not feeling quite committed.

Sometimes it’s a bad feeling, sometimes it’s something obviously wrong and sometimes it’s just a combination of unknown blank spots in your mind, but when the negatives and unknowns start to pile up something has to give.

I sat there today in SKNT, feeling like I was staring through the instruments rather than reading them. I looked up to see the fuel filler cap only partially in and had to release my harness and step out to sort it. By then the greyness in the west had begun to finally convince me that I wasn’t really happy to go and fly. I climbed back in, did up my harness, still half-heartedly going through the motions, thinking over the list of ’emergency diversion airfields’ Paul had given me a few minutes previously – I’m not sure this had helped, or perhaps it had? Eventually the calculations were all done in my mind and I stepped out of the aeroplane back onto the ground, back to safety.

Spot the Pitts Special...

Ten minutes after I’d made my decision not to fly, we sat looking out of the cafe window at SKNT in the pouring rain.

Decision making is a skill, as is risk assessment, and both require the ability to read the subtle signs around you – be it the colour and lay of a snow slope, a subtle drop in air pressure and change in wind direction, or just the mild uneasy feeling that your sixth sense is trying to tell you something. It doesn’t take much to go wrong for the outcome to be fatal, so sometimes the best decision is to not take the risk.