February 1, 2010
By Thomas B Haines
I have never liked the unrealistic nature of most flight training experiences. Whether training for the instrument rating more than 20 years ago in a Piper Warrior or more recently getting a jet type rating in a multi-million-dollar high-resolution Level D flight simulator, the pace of the flights never felt right or very realistic. Rush, rush, rush. Fly an approach to “minimums;” flip off the hood (at least you don’t need a hood or Foggles in the sim); miss the approach and come back around for another type of approach, and then another, and then another. It’s true that every once in a great while we actually have to miss an approach in minimum conditions and then go to another airport to fly a different type of approach, but at least in real life you actually have time to set up for that second approach as you tool along—probably at a reduced power setting—to the alternate. There’s generally no reason to rush.
Of course, as demonstrated on a recent flight, having too much time to plan can be almost as tedious as not enough.
A big low pressure system over the central Mississippi Valley spawned a stationary front that arced across the entire Southeast in mid-November, plummeting ceilings to just hundreds of feet off the ground and visibilities to fractions of miles from Georgia through Virginia. My last-minute mission was to pick up AOPA Air Safety Foundation President Bruce Landsberg at Greenville Downtown Airport (GMU) in South Carolina. When I took off from Frederick, Maryland, for the 415-nm flight, the conditions at GMU were reported as winds from 40 degrees at 8 knots, visibility 2.5 miles in mist, overcast at 300 feet with a 1-degree spread on the temperature/dew point scale—12/11. The visibility was forecast to decrease further toward evening. I would be arriving right at dusk. The ILS at GMU has minimums of 200 feet and three-quarters of a mile.
Before leaving, I spent a couple of hours watching the trends for the entire Southeast, trying to find a reasonable alternate. I finally decided on Dekalb-Peachtree (PDK) near Atlanta, where the forecast was for clouds to be scattered at 1,000 feet and visibilities of more than six miles. The 45-minute flight from GMU to PDK was right at that magical fuel-planning number outlined in the FARs for an IFR alternate. Fortunately, I had plenty more gas and could plow on into Florida if needed for better weather.
I filed for 8,000 feet, right at the top of an airmet for moderate turbulence. Higher would put me into even stronger headwinds. As it turned out, the turbulence was not bad and the temperatures at altitude were several degrees above freezing, relieving concerns about icing. The XM satellite weather on the Garmin GNS 530 showed numerous patches of light to moderate rain starting in central Virginia. While flying along, I hammered on the 530 for updated METARs, hoping that my extra keystrokes would somehow bring the updated data in more frequently.
Unlike training situations, I had nearly three hours to get ready for the ILS 1 approach to GMU. I studied the chart, checked for obstacles near the approach path, and envisioned how ATC might bring me in south of the initial approach fix. And I studied the missed approach procedure, thinking that a landing at PDK might be in my future if the GMU ceiling went down much further. While the PDK weather had been low earlier in the day, it was forecast to improve by early evening. However, as I checked the updated METARs throughout the flight, the weather there didn’t improve as forecast. So, I ranged farther for possible places to land.
Meanwhile, other pilots and ATC were dealing with their own issues. As the skies grew dark, one Cessna Citation pilot growled at a controller because he didn’t clear the jet for an approach in North Carolina even as the jet passed the initial approach fix—despite reminders from the pilot. When finally cleared for the approach, it was too late and the pilot was forced to go around. “Don’t take us out very far,” the fuel-anxious pilot insisted. The pilot of a Piper Cherokee Six did the right thing and confessed to ATC that the weather all along his route was lower than his personal minimums and that he was nearing a fuel critical situation. Could they find him a place to go? The controllers vectored him to an airport with somewhat better weather, but anyone flying in the Southeast this day would be making a low approach.
As I neared Greenville, I heard the local controllers vectoring other aircraft onto the ILS. The weather had deteriorated to 300 feet and one mile in mist. The controller turned me in just as I had envisioned and I started down the banister at dusk and in the soup. I asked the tower controller whether the lights were on bright, having once been in an airplane where a crew missed the approach at a nontowered airport because the pilot forgot to key the mic to bring the lights up.
A few seconds before reaching decision altitude, I glimpsed some parking lot lights out of the corner of my eye. The crosswind had pushed me a dot to the left. I looked a little right and saw the approach lights emerge from the mist and then, immediately, the runway lights. Seconds later the tires touched the runway, the airport lights shrouded in mist. As I taxied to the FBO, I let out the breath I didn’t realize I had been holding and mumbled to myself, “Better training than any training mission.” No rush this time.
Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines upheld tradition and flew his first flight in 2010 on New Year’s Day. E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.
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