Never Again: Camping trip

January 1, 2010

I flew to Saranac Lake, New York, for an August canoe camping trip with my kids. I fly a 2007 Cessna 182T equipped with a Garmin G1000 cockpit. With three teenagers and one adult, and 200 pounds of tents, sleeping bags, cooking gear, and food, the only way to safely get off the 2,500-foot runway at Mount Snow, Vermont, was to reduce the fuel load at takeoff to just 30 gallons.

But this story is about the flight before—the one in which I planned to arrive at my home base with reduced fuel—and it didn’t go according to plan.

I departed Teterboro, New Jersey, late Sunday afternoon after a weekend in New York City. We had lingered to catch a Sunday matinee show and, by the time I was ready to depart, a line of afternoon thunderstorms was working its way into the metropolitan area. I had received a weather briefing while en route to the airport; it was IMC along my route of flight, so I filed IFR.

A quick check of the weather radar on my cell phone and again at the FBO confirmed that there was a large mass of rain with embedded thunderstorms moving across New York from west to east. There was another small mass currently over my destination in southern Vermont also moving west to east. It looked like I could fly off to the east on departure and stay in front of the storm, and then head back west and come in behind the mass moving through Vermont.

I took off on schedule at 5:30 p.m. for the planned one-hour flight. I was flying in IMC through rain for the first half- hour as I diverted to the east to get in front of the storm. Finally, I found myself in between layers at 8,000 feet, but with an unexpected and unplanned 30-knot headwind. I had successfully flown around the storm headed for southern New York State, and the storm over Vermont had moved through. It looked like clear sailing into my home base, except I had burned 15 gallons more fuel than I had planned, and I would be arriving less than 30 minutes before sunset because of the circuitous route and headwinds. Sunset was at 7:55 p.m.

I asked Boston Center for, and received clearance to fly, the RNAV/GPS Runway 1 approach at Mount Snow (4V8). There is no weather information at Mount Snow, so I was scanning weather reports from other nearby airports: Bennington, Vermont; North Adams, Massachusetts; Keene, New Hampshire. I couldn’t raise any of them on the radio, but I could read the XM weather reports on the G1000. Bennington had a 1,000-foot ceiling, but there was no way to know what I would find at Mount Snow. I decided to give it my best shot and press on.

I joined the approach, ATC released me to switch to the advisory frequency, and I felt very, very alone silently gliding through the gray pall. I added 10 degrees of flaps, ran through my descent and prelanding checklists, and joined the final approach course to the runway. I was approaching the minimum descent altitude on the approach and still had nothing but thick gray clouds all around. I added another 10 degrees of flaps and studied my position carefully. I was on course, on glide path, at the proper approach speed of 90 knots.

Down to 700 feet agl on the approach, I still couldn’t see the ground. Stillness and thick gray clouds still enveloped me. I pushed the throttle forward, took off 10 degrees of flaps, opened the cowl flaps, and flew as fast and as high away from the ground as I could.

Back up to 4,000 feet, I called Boston Center and advised my missed approach. The controller’s response: “Climb to 5,000 feet, and what do you want to do now?” I had been so focused on the storms I had not planned an alternate.

I looked at my fuel and realized I was down to just 15 gallons, or one hour flying time. Bennington was closer than Keene, and I was familiar with Bennington, but if I had to go missed would I have enough fuel to reach Keene? What if I couldn’t get into Keene either?

I had wanted to arrive with low fuel so my airplane would be light for the upcoming camping trip. The weather and headwinds had ruined the thin margin of safety I had planned. I was so focused on avoiding the storms that I hadn’t anticipated they would leave low ceilings in their wake. The problem was compounded by the fact that Mount Snow has no weather reporting, but the signs were there: a forecast of light and variable winds and the temperature and dew points converging as the evening hours approached.

I now slowed down, dialed back the prop, and leaned the engine as much as I dared to conserve fuel.

I pulled out my book of approach plates. Bennington had a GPS approach to Runway 13, but what were the winds? The G1000 said 200 degrees at four knots. A light crosswind, but good enough. Bennington it was. I advised ATC of my intention and was cleared to the initial approach fix. I began my descent again. Down to 4,000 feet at the initial approach fix, then 3,500 feet and still in the clouds. On final approach at 2,400 feet, I was still in the clouds. Slowly, eerily gliding down the glide path at 1,300 feet agl there was still no runway in sight.

“Minimums! Minimums!” the G1000’s computer voice called out. And there it was! I never thought I’d be so happy to see the ground coming up to meet me. I landed successfully. The FBO was closed for the night and the airport was locked up tight. No rental cars, no taxis, but I was on the ground and alive.

The G1000 with its XM weather, and other modern avionics, give us tremendous new capabilities and situational awareness. But even with these exceptional new safety tools, it’s still possible for fickle winds, weather, and local conditions to provide unwelcome surprises and alter our carefully laid plans.

Robert Lerman, AOPA 5885865, is an instrument-rated private pilot and owner of a Cessna 182T. He started flying in 2007 and has logged more than 600 hours. “Never Again” is sponsored by the AOPA Insurance Agency