IFR Fix: Rotate, or the river?

May 20, 2013

The pilot had taken pains to hedge his inexperience in the newly acquired complex single before launching on the 200-nautical-mile out-and-back flight. In the right seat sat an old friend, an instructor. The destination airport, home base to both, was comfortable as an old shoe.

That was key; with a high hill south of the airport and a rocky river wrapping around its northern boundary, arrival demands a nice touch. No extra knots allowed.

Especially on a moonless night with the wind blowing.

The hill isn’t much to look at on a chart, but oh, how it fills a windscreen. And now there are wind turbines under construction on top.

Once you’ve passed the hill, slow up. The 2,800-foot runway isn’t roomy.

The aircraft owner had toyed with starting his instrument rating, but had not yet proceeded beyond bouncing the idea off his airline pilot son.

Even a comfortable home airport can turn unforgiving if you arrive before you’re ready, uncertain that you can reconfigure with your customary prompt precision. Now it wasn’t the hill the pilot was concerned about, but the river as the runway slid beneath the undecelerated airplane.

If this were a movie, one of the pilots would deadpan, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

The pilot did. He began a go-around. You could say that his instrument training began at that moment.

Pitching up into the black hole was an awful sensation. He sought refuge on the flight instruments, but the panel’s pre-six-pack layout defied rapid cross-check. Torn between too much rotation and too much river, the pilot struggled against himself for control.

Go ahead and exhale. A safe return and landing followed. Later the pilot briefed his son on the flight. His son, a former general aviation instructor, passed the story along.

You’ll recall a brief discussion from primary training about how “dark nights tend to eliminate reference to a visual horizon. As a result, pilots need to rely less on outside references at night and more on flight and navigation instruments.”

Then we turned the page. But as this account and others of different outcome affirm, a pilot can put off earning an instrument rating, or recovering proficiency, indefinitely, but needing the skills may not be subject to postponement.