IFR Fix: No alternate needed

October 9, 2012

It was to be a routine flight, destination Las Vegas, where the weather was VFR, if somewhat windy.

The aircraft departed with “no alternate or contingency fuel,” and none was required.

As the flight joined the ILS approach to Runway 25L at McCarran International Airport, the tower announced a microburst alert for the runway. The flight broke off and accepted vectors for an approach to a different runway, for which there was no alert.

Then the tower announced a microburst alert of 30 knots for the alternate runway.

Time to request holding instructions and evaluate the situation.

While established in holding at Boulder City, and working out a new plan, the welcome news arrived that alerts had been lifted for Runway 25L.

Back on the ILS, more bad news arrived: another microburst alert. The pilot called the missed approach and, having decided to divert to Phoenix if the approach was not successful (as other aircraft were now doing) informed departure control of that intention. The pilot also declared a minimum fuel advisory.

The initial departure vector, however, struck the pilot as less than responsive to the urgent situation that was developing, so he declared an emergency and proceeded direct to Phoenix, where the aircraft landed safely.

Sound like the adventures of a green instrument crew who had become victims of their own complacency?

Not at all. This was an air carrier crew piloting an Airbus who reported the harrowing experience in one of 12 narratives about fuel emergencies or advisories that were filed between January and June 2012 with the Aviation Safety Reporting System.

As a case study for any IFR pilot, the narrative stands out not just for the variety of the scenarios is presents, but to illustrate the failure of multiple efforts to interrupt the event chain before it led to a fuel-exhaustion accident.

It’s conventional fare to urge instrument pilots always to have a Plan B. This time Plan B didn’t pan out, and Plan C (if you are keeping score) only succeeded after the E word was invoked to bring about a satisfactory conclusion.

News reports commonly assert that an aviation accident occurred on a “routine flight” or during a “routine training mission,” but those terms ignore the challenges posed by the flight environment on any given day.

If routine flights are somewhat mythic, any flight is a potential training flight.

Topics IFR, Technique