When NOTAMs Fail: Life Lessons From Flying

Published: Jan 12, 2023  |  

Public speaker, comedian and entrepreneur

In light of the recent NOTAM outage and all the chaos it’s caused, I thought it would be fitting to share this story…

I’m in pilot training, flying with an intimidating instructor, Captain Guy Stallworth. As a young second lieutenant (the lowest officer rank), flying with a Captain (higher than a second lieutenant), Captain Stallworth is an imposing 6 feet, I-don’t-know-how-many inches tall. His reputation as a solid stick (translation: kick-ass pilot) is more imposing than his stature, and flying as his student is more imposing than his stature and reputation combined. Bottom line, this is a nerve-wracking flight. I’ve already established myself as a student who is not good, nay, awful, at landings, and I can only predict the ass-chewing I’m going to get from Captain Steady Hands having to lower himself to fly with Lieutenant Bouncy Landings.

We do our typical pre-flight stops: life support for our helmets and parachutes, weather desk to see if there might be any meteorological explanations for my terrible landings; maintenance to grab our aircraft assignment and the base operations desk to check the NOTAMs.

NOTAMs is another acronym in a dictionary of words made—in this case, it stands for “Notice to Airmen” (although fast-forward to today, it’s “Notice to Air Missions”).

NOTAMs provide real-time status about the airfield you’re departing from or the one you’re flying to and the air highways in between. It might be about lights that are out, volcanic ash in the air, runways that are closed or important people coming to the airfield.

Today, the NOTAM check is just another part of our pre-flight and so far, nothing is out of the ordinary.

Captain Steady Hands and his pupil head to the jet for a 1-hour sortie where we’ll be working on aerobatics. We’ll be “playing” in an MOA (a TLA for “Military Operating Area”) (TLA = “Three Letter Acronym”) right near the airfield we’re starting from, so we won’t be far from home. This is important in case my instructor morphs into Captain Had Enough.

We get airborne, and right before the tower controller passes us off to another radio frequency, they remind us, “Don’t forget the airfield will be closed for the next two hours for a ceremony.”

To “forget” implies we knew some piece of information in the first place. The fact that “the airfield will be closed for the next two hours” is a new piece of information we’ve yet to learn and therefore can’t forget.

My instructor tells the tower, “There was nothing in the NOTAMs about an airfield closure.” Tower flippantly replies, “Hmmm, there should have been.”

Oh, why didn’t we just check the “should have been” section? Right: because there isn’t one.

Tower clarifies, “Oh, looks like it didn’t make it into the NOTAMs.”

We could have told them that. Actually… we already did.

Captain Stallworth calmly calls back to the tower, “We need to return to the field now. We don’t have enough fuel to stay out here for two hours.”

Tower: “Negative sir. The airfield is already closed.”

I sit helplessly next to my instructor. I wonder if we’ll divert to an airfield we didn’t prepare for, or get up as high as we can and see if we can make the plane stay airborne for two hours, then fuel-lessly glide the rest of the way down, or maybe use the parachute on our backs after we eject.

Without skipping a beat, Captain Quick Thinking calls the tower, “Copy. We’ll be in MOA number 5, and in about 45 minutes, we’ll be back in the pattern declaring emergency fuel.”

Declaring “emergency fuel” would supersede any non-life-threatening events, like a ceremony at an airfield, and we would be given priority sequencing, and the tower would be required to let us land.

Tower, less-than-calmly, calls back, “Confirm you’re declaring emergency fuel now?”

Captain Quick Thinking, “Negative. We will be declaring emergency fuel in 45 minutes.”

Silence on the radios.

A new voice controller on the same tower frequency, “Roger that. Why don’t you return to base now? Landing is authorized.”

Well, don’t mind if we do.

Captain Calm and Steady, “Roger. Returning to base.”

I am in awe. No wonder Captain Stallworth has the well-earned reputation he has. His reputation isn’t just about his stick and rudder skills. His reputation is also centered on his airmanship skills.

Those skills that require a pilot to be way ahead of the aircraft, knowing its limits.

Those skills that require a pilot to be ahead of every situation, thinking of other options based on the information as it’s received.

Those skills that require a pilot to have a plan, calmly communicate that plan and be ready to execute that plan.

Those skills that elevated Captain Stallworth to epic heights in my hall of heroes, not just in the cockpit, but in life. Because, even though that incident happened nearly 30 years ago, I think about it nearly every day, when something doesn’t go as planned (which is nearly every hour).

I can choose to let it unravel me, point fingers, freeze and fail to act.

Or I can pull a Stallworth—stay calm, accept responsibility for the situation regardless of what information might have been withheld, come up with a plan and execute that plan.

So yes, always check your NOTAMs—but be ready to deal with the stuff that gets left out of them.

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