Proficient Pilot

On approach

June 1, 2009

The Cessna 310 and I had begun the decades-ago trip from Los Angeles to Innsbruck, Austria, several days earlier using Greenland and Iceland as stepping stones across the North Atlantic. It had been a fatiguing flight characterized by short, sleepless nights caused by having to outrun weather.

I knew from the time I had picked up the forecast folder at Shannon, Ireland, that I would have to shoot a localizer-DME approach at Innsbruck. At most places, this would be no big deal, but the more I reviewed the approach plate while en route, the more I realized how much of a challenge it would be. The procedure is so involved and convoluted that it took a two-sided, double-size approach plate to properly describe it. (I kept that chart so that my naysaying friends at home would believe me.) It made the Cheung Chau (checkerboard) approach to the now-closed Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong seem like child’s play. The more I studied the approach, the more I wondered what kind of sadist had designed it. But its complexity was understandable given the nature of the terrain surrounding the airport. Innsbruck lies in a short, narrow valley defined by steep, towering alpine sentinels.

The approach is so challenging that the chart contains this paraphrased note: “Because of local terrain, the maneuvering required, and the unusually steep descent path required during the instrument phase of the approach, it is strongly recommended that pilots intending to fly the procedure first practice the approach in visual meteorological conditions.” Furthermore, the approach is prohibited at night. (Years later the notation was changed to require that pilots using this procedure first obtain authorization from the Federal Office of Civil Aviation.)

Unfortunately, this was my first visit to Innsbruck, and I had not had the opportunity to practice. It did not help that I was so tired that I needed toothpicks to prop open my eyelids. But what the heck, I thought. All I had to do was follow the lines on the chart and abide by the minimum altitudes. Duck soup. I wasn’t the slightest bit concerned. I was young, daring, and immortal. (That I survived my early flying years is inexplicable.)

We were skimming the tops of the thick undercast and were cleared direct to the Kuhtai NDB. “Maintain 11,500 feet,” we were told in a thick German accent. Better slow this thing, I thought. The descent portion of the approach into the valley was steep and would require a 500-foot-per-nautical-mile (4.7-degree) drop to the minimum descent altitude of 5,000 feet, something not easily done in a Cessna 310 with a tailwind even when the gear and flaps are down.

After passing the beacon, we took up a heading of 105 degrees to intercept the localizer at which point the “dive” began. Down we went with the engines almost throttled. The procedure was fulfilling its promise of challenge and the addition of light ice and moderate turbulence didn’t help. Even though it made my easterly descent more difficult, I was grateful for the westerly wind. The chart says that pilots need to be “extremely cautious” during Foehn (southeast) wind conditions and frontal passage because of possible “severe turbulence and strong downdrafts.”

As I descended through 7,500 feet at 11 DME, I could see from the chart that I was actually almost passing over the airport and would be heading away from it for the next seven miles while descending to the MDA. I finally leveled off at 5,000 feet (3,100 feet above the airport) and thankfully could see the ground. Visibility in the rain and haze seemed to be as advertised: 3,000 meters (about two sm).

The decision had to be made at the 4.0-DME fix as to whether or not conditions were suitable to make the necessary 180-degree turn in visual conditions and then fly visually to the airport, which was seven miles behind the tail. Minimums seemed to exist, so I initiated the turnaround, which according to the chart had to be made with no more than a 0.9-nm radius lest one become too intimately acquainted with the Alps.

Turn completed, I strained to see the airport, but I knew that I would not see it for another five miles. The chart recommends headings that can be used to take one to the downwind leg for Runway 8 (surface wind was easterly), but they seemed to take me uncomfortably close to the mountains on my left. I instead veered right and followed a river that the chart shows passing immediately south of the airport.

I prayed that the airport would come into view—the sooner, the better. I had absolutely no desire to execute a missed approach. It required making another 180-degree turn, re-intercepting the localizer, following it over the mountains at the eastern end of the valley, and holding at the Rattenberg NDB above the Alps in icing conditions. The airport thankfully came into view and the adrenalin began to subside.

An early mentor once told me, “If my foresight were as good as my hindsight, I’d be out of sight.” I, too, have 20/20 hindsight and realized after I had landed that I should have diverted to Geneva where the weather was severe clear and the greatest risk to which I would have been exposed was enjoying a dinner of cheese fondue and descending steeply into a soft bed.

Visit the author’s Web site. Barry Schiff was inducted into the National Flight Instructor’s Hall of Fame in 2003. Barry Schiff was inducted into the National Flight Instructor’s Hall of Fame in 2003.