Never Again Online: An unfamiliar aircraft

November 1, 2006

My good friend and I had each lost our airplanes the previous year in a hangar collapse resulting from the weight of a 24-inch wet snowfall in the Pittsburgh area. We were anxious to get back in the air, and we had been scouring the various trade publications looking for our replacement wings. My friend located a Piper Warrior at Bowman Field (LOU) in Louisville, Kentucky.

Our problem was that I had not yet found my new wings to fly my friend, who was still a student pilot, to Louisville. However, the small airport where we were based had a Piper Cherokee PA-180 that I could rent. I agreed to get checked out and signed off in it and fly my friend to take a look at the Warrior. My checkout went well, and we were ready to plan our trip.

The morning of our departure was overcast, and the weather was forecast to be marginal VFR all day with a chance of light precipitation. The freezing level was forecast at 5,000 feet in Pittsburgh and 7,000 feet in Louisville. Although I had accumulated more than 1,100 hours, and I had an instrument rating, I planned to make the trip under VFR conditions, since I was not completely familiar with this airplane. It had two navigation and communication radios, an ADF, and a transponder with Mode C. The aircraft also had a LORAN, with which I was not familiar. I did not take the time to review the aircraft and engine logs. Although conditions appeared very marginal, we were determined to go — after all, I had an instrument rating. That's about all the thought I gave to the possibility of IFR flight in an unfamiliar airplane.

We departed into approximately five miles visibility with a 5,000-foot ceiling and no precipitation. The weather remained that way for about 20 minutes, and then it started to go downhill — the ceiling crept lower and visibility began to diminish. By the time we were approximately 10 miles northeast of the Parkersburg, West Virginia VOR (PKB), the ceiling had dropped to 3,000 feet, and visibility was around three miles. Precipitation had started as well — some of it frozen.

I did not like the situation at all, and with sweaty palms I made the decision to land at Parkersburg Airport to check things out. I got no resistance from my friend. At that time Parkersburg had a flight service station, and it did not take very long with the good flight service folks there to learn that we best give up on this trip and return home. A much better decision would have been to check into a Parkersburg hotel and wait for conditions to improve.

By this time the weather had turned IFR in both directions and the ceilings continued to drop. The forecast for the Pittsburgh area now projected visibilities and ceilings for IFR conditions. But, I had an instrument rating.

I filed an IFR flight plan back to our home airport, and we departed as soon as we could. My filed and accepted altitude was 6,000 feet — dangerously close to the freezing level. As the aircraft climbed out in solid IMC, I quickly learned that one of the two radios was virtually useless — on both the nav and the com sides. Thank God the other radio was working well. I realized I would be in deep trouble if I lost it, a thought that was not comforting at all. Then we heard the sound of solid precipitation hitting plastic and aluminum as we reached 6,000 feet. This was quite a bit disconcerting, although we were not picking up any ice — yet.

When we got closer to our home base the visibility was around five miles, but the 2,000-foot ceiling was too low for ATC to vector us in low enough for a visual approach-the only approach available at our airport.

A relatively standard procedure is to change the destination to Latrobe (LBE), which is about 10 miles east of our home base, fly the ILS approach at LBE, break off the approach when breaking out into VFR conditions, and fly back to our home base. Although we finally did pick up leading edge clear ice on the approach, this procedure got us down into marginal VFR conditions, the ice finally departed us, and we proceeded to our home base.

My friend and I remained calm and positive throughout the flight, but I can assure you that we were both very happy to be back.

I learned that I should not attempt to fly an airplane into instrument meteorological conditions without first personally checking the airplane thoroughly, including the performance of all avionics. Also, a diligent review of the airplane's logbooks with regard to mechanical, electrical, and electronic components is an important step to thwart problems. And, I will ask the airplane's mechanic and/or owner a lot of questions if I can before attempting a flight in an unfamiliar aircraft.

We soon found replacement wings — my friend bought a Warrior, and I an Archer.

Broadus N. Bowman is a semi-retired mechanical engineer. He holds an instrument-rated private pilot certificate and has more than 2,000 hours of flight time.

You can find additional information about the importance of IFR preflight at the following links:

Look for the latest installment of "Never Again" in the December issue of AOPA Pilot. The pilot learns that schedule demands can spell trouble.

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Posted Wednesday, November 08, 2006 10:18:33 PM