IFR Fix: Surprised, even unnerved

May 3, 2013

It’s been a bumpy ride, in and out of clouds. Hand-flown IFR can sap your strength—even invite spatial disorientation—if you keep switching between instrument and visual references. You’ll be more disciplined about your technique next time.

The several hours flying above accustomed cruise altitudes have taken you past your peak of piloting performance. So you give a sigh when you get a descent and a handoff to your nontowered-airport destination’s approach control. It will be good to get on the ground.

Credits for recognizing the onset of fatigue. It’s bad for physical skills, worse for judgment. Otherwise this has been a routine instrument flight.

There’s an aircraft on the approach ahead of you. Now its pilot complains that the destination’s automated weather is unavailable. (Fortunately, the last report didn’t suggest anything that an ILS approach couldn’t handle.)

Maybe the problem is the other guy’s radio; it sounded pretty scratchy. You try the frequency Nada. The AWOS really is OTS.

What grabs your attention moments later is the pilot calling a missed approach. He sounds surprised, even unnerved. He requests direct routing to his alternate—the same as yours—40 nautical miles away.

Poor guy. When he lands, the FBO will be closed. No fuel. He will be an hour by car from the original destination. And if like you he’s in town for the weekend, he’ll have two choices: spend part of Saturday repositioning, or set the alarm clock for an inhumanely early Monday wake-up.

ATC has your initial vector now. The controller evenly mentions that previous traffic has diverted to the alternate, where the reported ceiling is a lofty 1,500 broken. The unspoken question hangs in the air.

You too are feeling surprised (but unnerved? Never!). You visualize your punctual friends, waiting for you down below. They must have heard the previous flight go missed, and wondered.

It’s tempting, really tempting, to press onward and “take a look.” (But no ducking under; that’s where you’d draw the line.) At worst, continuing might leave you with a little less gas in the tanks. And there would be that missed approach to fly, in the dark.

Or, you could head for the alternate, present position direct, and deal with the inconvenience tomorrow.

So many decisions—and even some temptations—on this purely “routine” instrument flight.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.