IFR Fix: 'Missed the gorilla'

January 28, 2014

It was a productive proficiency flight. Air traffic control worked you hard enough to take the routine out of "routine training mission," and you skillfully deflected your instructor’s many faux instrument failures and cagy distractions.

You’re happy. He’s not.

You coax the reason out of him:  "Too smooth today."

Not your flying. He means the ride. From takeoff to touchdown, not a burble in the sky. Comfy, but leaving a question mark alongside the checkbox for basic attitude flying skills.

You can sidestep a CFII’s attempts to distract you, but actual turbulence, moderate or greater, or unexpected, can’t be ignored. The question isn’t whether turbulence will distract you. The question is how long it will divert your attention, and what the consequences will be.

Consequences made themselves known to an Airbus A321 crew that had landed at a New York City airport without clearance. A suspected wake turbulence encounter with a heavy aircraft ahead on the approach initiated the distraction. Then the crew requested landing clearance on a mistuned radio. Clearance never came, but the approach continued.

"Captain (pilot not flying) focused on possible wake turbulence from the heavy 747 to the exclusion of normal operations; missed the gorilla so to speak," the crew reported in a filing with the Aviation Safety Reporting System.

You can be prepared for turbulence but still unprepared for what awaits if localized conditions amplify the effects of a moderate route forecast. Localized extreme turbulence, and ice, may have downed a Cessna P210 on Feb. 10, 2005, in Lebec, Calif.

"The flight was level at 9,000 feet crossing a mountainous area when the pilot reported to air traffic control (ATC) controllers that he was encountering light rime icing conditions. Shortly thereafter, the controller observed the aircraft descending and the pilot asked for a lower altitude. The controller said the flight was already at the minimum altitude that could be assigned. The pilot responded that he was in extreme turbulence. The aircraft then dropped off radar and no further radio transmissions were received," reported the National Transportation Safety Board, adding that "conditions were favorable for localized mountain wave activity, and supported the potential for moderate to severe turbulence, rotors, and downdrafts to 1,500 feet per minute."

Winter brings the most pronounced clashes of opposing air masses, with turbulence inevitably present. Confronting those conditions is part avoidance, part practice, and part not missing the gorilla.