November 22, 2013
By Dan Namowitz
Airborne on a holiday expedition with all seats occupied, you acknowledge descent and frequency change instructions issued by a busy center controller and prepare to contact the next sector. This should be your last leg with center before a handoff to the destination’s approach control. Maybe approach won’t be so busy; the frequency congestion has been quite unlike those IFR training flights in your local area.
Those were good training sessions: enough cloud time to provide confidence for this trip with family in IMC in a rented Cessna 182, and enough flexibility to practice a variety of approaches. You also relished hearing the CFII’s stories about quirky aircraft, weather whimsy (especially ice), and handling the fine art of passenger management.
This center frequency is also abuzz with check-ins, handoffs, a flight requesting direct, another agitating for advantageous altitudes.
"I have the request," the controller responds evenly, then advises another pilot to “check your transponder’s Oscar November switch.”
Your last-assigned altitude puts you in the clouds that you have been skimming—to the delight of the passengers—so now you cut yourself off from cabin chatter to concentrate on instrument flying, reminding yourself to pick up the ATIS at the large airport near your nontowered destination at the first opportunity.
You reach for the push-to-talk switch to contact center, but another flight beats you to it. Then the flight seeking an altitude change calls again, "looking for lower, we got a little ice on the windscreen now."
ATC replies, "I’m working on it for you."
You are about to try again but there’s a tap on your shoulder. A back-seater points outside, and says, "What’s that?"
Ice is what that is. (Try not to look surprised.)
Center asks if you are on the frequency.
"Descend and maintain four thousand; contact Springfield Approach on 124.95."
Approach confirms radar contact and clears you direct to ATOPE. “Expect the VOR/DME-A approach to Aurora” Municipal Airport. Occasionally you catch a glimpse of lights below in the gathering darkness.
Circling minimums for the approach are 1,960 feet (526 feet agl). Your alternate, Springfield-Branson National Airport, is reporting winds from 150 at eight knots, few clouds at 700 feet, 2,100 overcast, altimeter 30.06 inches.
You might get in at Aurora, might not. Hard to know.
Another tap on the shoulder. A passenger asks, "When will we land?"
Pretty soon, you answer.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
After a complete electrical failure during an initial climb from the departure airport, the pilot of a Beech King Air 200 learned a valuable lesson from a simple but costly omission.
No one likes to blow a radio exchange with ATC, but it's not possible to know exactly when a handoff from one center sector to another, or from a center to approach, is going to happen.
When was the last time you were instructed by a controller, or requested by an instrument flight instructor to fly an uncharted hold?
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