When a pilot flying a rented Piper Arrow with only an inaccurate VOR installed took two friends on a flight for dinner, the decision to fly home under low ceilings and marginal conditions resulted in an encounter with night instrument meteorological conditions, an unauthorized climb on top, and eventually an escape based more on luck and good memory than airmanship.
With about an hour of fuel remaining, diversion was out. Fortunately, the pilot, who was instrument-rated and had trained locally, recalled that the destination airport offered an airport surveillance radar (ASR) approach, which the pilot requested from the approach control facility.
Well, not quite. The event, recounted in a filing with the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), easily could have become a Hollywood-style scary airplane story, had several not-unlikely plot twists occurred.
It was theater at its best, for example, that an ASR approach was available. According to a report to the FAA on criteria for canceling instrument flight procedures, “Precision Approach Radar (PAR) and Approach Surveillance Radar (ASR) procedures represent approximately 1% of all IFPs” in the National Airspace System.
Phew, that was close. But the tension could have ratcheted up again, had the pilot been informed that no controller qualified to control an ASR approach was available—in no way a disingenuous dramatic distortion. As the 2016 report—which recommended reviewing civilian ASR approaches for cancellation as the system streamlines its offerings—notes, “Currently there may be civilian facilities in the NAS with published PAR or ASR procedures but no air traffic controllers certified to clear aircraft on these approaches given the infrequency of use. This creates potential risk and uncertainty to the operator as to whether a given procedure is available to fly.”
One way to minimize that risk, the report recommended, is for the FAA to ensure that qualified controllers are available to provide any radar approaches that may endure into the future.
Failing that, “the FAA should notam those procedures out of service until such time that staff is trained.”
The pilot’s ASRS filing did not state whether the two passengers enjoyed their flight for dinner.