Cape Cod caper

January 1, 2006

ASF Executive Director Bruce Landsberg flies general aviation often for business.

Cape Cod is renowned for prodigious fog. There are likely few parts of the world that tally a higher number of actual instrument approaches by general aviation aircraft, and the system works well as long as pilots hold up their end of the bargain. I had a speaking engagement last fall in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which is at the northernmost tip of the Cape. The weather promised to make the flight interesting as Tropical Storm Ophelia was working its way up the mid-Atlantic coast. A low-pressure system to the west was driving a warm front ahead of it, and the whole sloppy mess was forecast to come together at or near the Cape. The only question was when. Sounds like a lot of my planned trips, and a few get canceled.

A while back we discussed using GA aircraft for business trips and how it was absolutely necessary to have alternate travel plans if you needed to be somewhere. All the trip eggs can't be in one GA basket. A few days prior to the trip I scoped out the alternate ride — the airlines could take me to Providence, Rhode Island, or Boston, and then there would be a three-hour jaunt out to P-town. Door-to-door time was more than double what it would be by Beechcraft Bonanza but it was an ironclad alternative.

I enjoy planning trips even if they don't always get taken. It's good practice to go through the drill of gathering all the information for a trip as required by FAR 91.103. The air traffic control (ATC) system in the high-density Northeast creates IFR routings from the mid-Atlantic area to the Cape that are always circuitous. Go east of New York City or go west. I chose west to stay away from Ophelia on the well-loved Victor 93 airway. In this day when IFR GPS is becoming very much the standard for regularly used traveling aircraft, why are we still tied largely to the old airway system? Probably a rhetorical question.

The A36 Bonanza is a fabulous traveling machine but with one slight shortcoming in standard configuration. On an average-length IFR trip with big weather, you can wind up short of fuel when keeping critical options open. A light load and this Bonanza, equipped with tip tanks, nicely resolved that problem. With a bigger load or no tips, a fuel stop would have been smart and necessary.

I'm fortunate to fly several different aircraft, but each has a different GPS so it makes review and practice on the home computer, as well as periodic practice in the airplane, a necessary exercise. Loading and modifying flight plans, loading approaches, holding patterns, and diversion to an alternate were all very real possibilities for the Cape trip, so a two-hour computer practice session was just the thing to bring all the right moves back.

AOPA's Airport Directory online has a unique feature that allows members to look into the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's accident database to see all the fixed-wing GA accidents that have occurred at the potential destination. The history lessons go back to 1983. While I was gathering the approach charts, also available in the airport directory, for my home GPS practice session, it seemed prudent to look at the accidents that had occurred at P-town. This makes good reading and is highly recommended for any trip. There were seven accidents over the years, with three resulting in fatalities. The last fatal had occurred in 1998. Six of the seven accidents involved weather so it was worth digging a little deeper.

Provincetown has an ILS to Runway 7 that is about as simple as an approach can be, with no fancy step-down fixes or complicated arrival routes. The minimums include a ceiling of 200 feet and visibility three-quarters of a mile. But there is one minor item that tripped up several of the pilots in the database — the runway is only 3,500 feet long. That's short for a full ILS with minimums that low — especially if you're flying anything fast. The accident briefs revealed several minor or no-injury accidents where aircraft had slid off the end. So it stands to reason that if the weather is down in heavy fog or drizzle, the runway is likely to be wet and slippery. Important safety tip for a P-town ILS: no extra speed. It also meant no hunting for the runway when "right" at the decision altitude.

The fatal accidents included one aircraft that descended below minimums without the proper frequencies being tuned, which doesn't seem like a formula for success. Another involved a Piper PA-28 flown by a VFR pilot who made six phone calls to flight service, shopping for a forecast that would allow him to leave Provincetown because he just had to get back to work the next morning. Recall our opening discussion about alternatives. The calls took place from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. just before the accident. The pilot had an estimated total time of 57 hours accumulated over five years and just five hours of night experience. The FSS briefer advised him on several occasions that VFR was not recommended and provided actual weather to confirm that sometimes-overused warning. The flight made it less than two miles from the airport, where witnesses estimated the ceiling at between 100 and 300 feet and one-mile visibility.

I had difficulty seeing how the Piper's mishap could be called an "accident," which is an unforeseen occurrence — that tragedy was virtually guaranteed. But the IFR approach mishaps and the subsequent slip sliding off the end were things to consider since the environment paralleled my proposed flight operation. Any tailwind when the weather was down could be problematic. On a normal ILS with a long runway, the ceiling and visibility would drive the decision more than a slight tailwind. Not so at P-town.

The early evening forecast from the night before showed that Hyannis, at the other end of the Cape, was going to be at or below minimums. But forecasts are like buses, and there'll be another one along shortly. The revised guess was that at the time of my arrival, around 2 p.m., the ceiling would be 500 feet and visibility five miles. Fat City! Providence, off the Cape, was predicting greater than six miles and 800 feet overcast. It seemed reasonable to sleep on it rather than book the airline ticket just yet.

Next morning at 8:30, when I logged onto AOPA's Real-Time Flight Planner, P-town was still asleep and Hyannis was running 100 overcast and 2.5 miles. Not so good. Plymouth, about 40 miles away on the mainland, was one-quarter mile in fog, ceiling indefinite. However, Providence was already coming up, having flirted with minimums earlier in the morning. The plan was set — take off at 11 a.m. for arrival around 2 p.m. when the temperature-dew point spread would be the greatest and the chances for fog the least. That would improve my odds but in the Cape microclimate there are no guarantees. The weather goes up or down very quickly, and there are accidents to prove it.

The alternates were Hyannis, first, because it was closest with an ILS, followed by Providence. My gold-plated reserve was Groton, Connecticut, which was forecast to have five miles in light rain and 900 broken. You now see why I wanted the airplane awash with fuel. There is something perverse about the ATC system such that when you're a little tight on gas, there is always some character who is taking his sweet time on the approach or who forgets to cancel IFR when on the ground. That can easily chew up 30 to 40 minutes and then it's no longer fun. Everything has to go exactly right from there on in.

The weather en route to the Cape was relatively benign with some towering cumulus and lots of stratus/moisture, as you would expect to find in a warm front. I paid close attention to reporting stations along the route and when the time came, Provincetown was reporting four miles and 400 overcast. The next time I checked, it was down to 300 overcast and two. Hyannis and Providence were both holding comfortably above minimums. The short runway and the need for good speed control as learned from the accident reviews were looming large. The approach went smoothly and we broke out just above minimums. The weather played up and down until about 5 p.m. when it shut down for good.

This flight went as planned but even if it hadn't, there were multiple alternatives all along the way, which lowered the stress level tremendously. This type of flying is much more about head games than physical skill. To be sure, there is some of that but with the right mind-set to create options that you're willing to use, it's a great source of satisfaction to make such a flight.


ASF online: "Weather Wise"

Most pilots don't realize that low ceilings and restricted visibilities are aviation's most deadly killers. With a little knowledge, you can minimize the risk these conditions pose. Visit the Web site to take the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's online course. The ASF online courses qualify for the safety-seminar portion of the FAA Wings program.

AOPA's Real-Time Flight Planner

Plan your route around airspace, current or imminent temporary flight restrictions, and real-time weather. AOPA's Real-Time Flight Planner, powered by Jeppesen, is launched from your personal computer's start menu or desktop. You may download and install AOPA's Real-Time Flight Planner by visiting the Web site.