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Trading places

Father and son attempt a marginal VFR flight

By David Weisman

In November 1986, my father and I, along with two family friends and their dog, embarked on our annual trip to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving in my father’s 1964 Cessna 182.

Illustration by Alex Williamson
Zoomed image
Illustration by Alex Williamson

The weather forecast for the trip was marginal VFR to IFR. My father was instrument rated and the airplane was marginally equipped (no autopilot, no HSI). I held a private certificate with about 450 hours and was an aspiring instrument pilot (i.e., no training yet). We elected to have me sit in the left seat to gain some actual instrument experience thinking that, if required, my father could make an instrument approach from the right seat. This was the first of several stupid mistakes that, were it not for some luck, would have resulted in five fatalities.

Our flight to Rochester, New York, for fuel was uneventful, and I was able to log almost two hours of instrument time. We often made this trip with no fuel stop but, atypically, we had a strong headwind going eastbound. It was when we reached Concord, New Hampshire, that things became “interesting.” I don’t recall the exact ceiling and visibility, but we were very much IFR when we were cleared for the ILS 35 approach. It was then that my lack of training became evident. I was able to get established on the localizer but very quickly observed a full deflection of the needle and declared a missed approach.

My second attempt was no better, and we determined to go to plan B where my father would fly the approach from the right seat. This was not a good time to discover how difficult it is to complete an ILS from the right seat and my father also went missed.

We discussed our predicament and agreed that our safest option was to fly to Albany, New York, where we determined we could utilize an airport surveillance radar approach. I had flown several during my primary training and felt confident that with the excellent help of approach control we would soon be on the ground.

The winds had reversed while we were missing approaches in Concord, and now we had a headwind going westbound. I declared an emergency.Our progress to Albany was much slower than expected. We had been flying for more than an hour on what should have been a 75-minute flight and were still a good distance out.

Thinking I might improve our timing with a more direct routing I requested direct to Albany from the controller, stating that we were “minimum fuel.” He asked how much fuel on board. “About 45 minutes.”

“Four-Three X-ray, at your present ground speed I show you an hour from Albany.” Uh oh. The winds had reversed while we were missing approaches in Concord, and we now had a headwind going westbound. I declared an emergency.

The controller asked what my intentions were. I thought by declaring an emergency, the controller would take over and everything would be OK.

There were no VFR airports within range of our position, so we decided to try our luck at a different airport in New Hampshire. Manchester was close to our ultimate destination and had an ILS. I asked the controller for vectors to a long final with gentle turns. We zig-zagged down the localizer, even pegging the needle at one point, but I was desperate to be on the ground. At some point I saw the approach light system through the clouds and almost dove at the ground. (Did I mention it was getting dark?) By getting lower over the airport, I was able to see enough of the surface environment to make a circling approach and land. I taxied in, exited the airplane, and kissed the ground.

I’ve told this story several times in the 38 years since it happened, and I have not been as embarrassed as I am now, seeing it on paper.

Clearly, we did a lot of things wrong. We absolutely should have had the instrument-rated pilot in the left seat. We should have had a better sense of how the weather had changed while en route and what our fuel consumption was as our flight progressed. It would have helped to have a more capable instrument airplane.

A few people have asked why my father and I didn’t trade places, so he was in the proper seat. It never occurred to us to try. I think it would have been tricky, especially without an autopilot. I’ve since gotten my instrument rating, but I still am very nervous flying on the gauges.

David Weisman is an instrument-rated pilot in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who has been flying for 50 years.

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