There is nothing to stop a 70-hour private pilot from launching on a 600-mile cross-country under 1,500-foot ceilings in the rain (aside from common sense). Demonstrated crosswind components aren’t performance limitations, so that same private pilot can feel free to try his luck in the pattern in 30-knot gusts perpendicular to the runway (at least if he owns the airplane). As a brand-new instrument pilot, he’s legally entitled to take off into below-minimum weather—with passengers. Flight instructors can only do so much but try to do what they can. Teaching stall recoveries and emergency landings is great, but the long-term goal is to equip new pilots to appreciate the difference between what the regs permit and what they themselves can actually handle. Teaching its graduates to do so consistently should be one of any school’s principal goals, if only for the sake of repeat business.
It’s also worth hammering home that a collection of challenges that might be manageable individually can become overwhelming in combination. The accident record continues to point out examples.
The pilot of the Baron that crashed northeast of Topeka, Kan., on April 22, 2011, would have to be considered “brand-new” to instrument flying. He’d passed his instrument checkride five months earlier but had only logged 0.7 hours of instrument time since. In all, he’d flown 61 hours by instrument references including 11 in actual IMC. The weather that morning was low, with ceilings varying between 400 and 900 feet. Visibilities, at least, were good underneath: 6 to 10 miles in light rain.
Besides being new on the gauges, he was also pretty new to the Baron. He’d gotten his multiengine rating two months before. His logbook showed less than 30 hours of multi time, 17.5 of them in the same make and model, out of 438 hours overall.
He departed Scott City, Kan., with three passengers at about 10:45 a.m. An hour later he checked in with Kansas City Center, was cleared to descend to 5,000 feet, and advised that Topeka was “broadcasting for the back-course localizer approach” to Runway 31. The controller offered vectors to the final approach course, which he accepted.
This might have been a good time to consider other options. Back-course approaches aren’t common, and while we don’t know how many he might have flown in training, the number couldn’t have been large. True, with vectors to final the procedure’s not especially difficult provided one remembers to fly away from the needle. But with little instrument experience and almost none of it recent, even that complication might have been better avoided.
The controller’s phrasing in issuing the vector may not have helped, either. He instructed the pilot to “fly heading 340, intercept the Topeka 129 radial for the back course Runway 31 approach.” As the NTSB noted, the phrase “intercept the radial” is more typically used with reference to a VOR. The Topeka VOR is located five and a half nautical miles northeast of the localizer transmitter, and after reading back the vector the pilot flew through the localizer, then began a left turn to a track of about 309 degrees magnetic well north of the approach course. The controller noted the deviation and issued a new vector of 280 “to intercept the 129 radial for the back course.” This time the pilot was able to get established on the localizer, but intercepted it at the final approach fix 700 feet above the charted step-down altitude.
Two minutes after being handed off to Topeka tower, the pilot transmitted that he was initiating the missed approach. The tower controller and two other witnesses saw the Baron break out about 1,000 feet past the threshold and well left of Runway 31; it flew down the runway at about 200 feet above the ground before raising the gear and beginning a slow climb into the clouds. Initial missed-approach instructions were to climb to 4,000 on runway heading, but after a bit of confusion the pilot was instructed to maintain 3,600 and turn right to begin setting up for the GPS approach to the same runway. Radar data showed the Baron levelling at 3,400 as it turned east, reversed course to the west, and then began turning back to the southeast. At 3,300 feet it abruptly disappeared from radar. A fireball consumed most of the wreckage, but what was left suggested that it hit the ground 25 degrees nose-low, banked 45 degrees to the left. The NTSB concluded that the pilot had lost control while trying to set up the GPS approach.
A more seasoned IFR pilot would have been less likely to confuse the Topeka VOR with the localizer, but would also have recognized the option of requesting a different approach to the same runway. In addition to conventional CDI indications and no ambiguity about the inbound course, the GPS approach actually offered slightly lower minimums—and even that extra 60 feet could have been useful on a day the ceilings were flirting with the MDA. But as someone both new to and fairly rusty at instrument flying, the best approach might have been to recognize that a single-pilot flight in those conditions wasn’t the best way to start brushing off that rust—never mind taking passengers along for the ride.