Thursday, March 26, 2009

Radar Contact - Better Stay Alert

I was flying VFR at 9500 feet in an A-36 in the Harrisburgs approach sector "radar contact". The weather typical of August, murky with scatered CB's and visibility lower than you like. Destination was Bloomsburg not over 5o miles away. All of a sudden out of the corner of my left eye I saw an airliner heading north slightly higher than we were and about 1/4 of a mile away. Hey what gives I queried the controller. He replied US Air such and such IFR at 10,000 feet, no factor. Maybe not for US Air with his TCAS system and all their bells and whistles. Well it may be legal, but 500 feet vertically really doesn't provide much separation. To add to the adrenaline rush not soon after I happened to look down and right under us, perhaps 500 feet below was a twin turboprop commuter. Once again I ask approach what gives? "Oh, our error the trainee working the site forgot to call out the traffic to you". Great I think to myself, what next? Well things happen in threes. The Stormscope had been showing a line of lightning strikes (cells) at our 9 0'clock approximately 1 mile away. Suddenly there was a big boom and a flash, the plane bucked and dropped a few hundred feet and the autopilot uncoupled. My wife screamed. In the center of the Stormscope now there was an x, indicating a new lightning strike.

Now someone might say we should have been IFR to get better separation from traffic and get weather advisories, but I say yes but in the murk with CB's all around I don't trust ground radar to keep us out of the big stuff. Also remember that you only may have a 500 foot altitude separation. So, you pays your money and takes your chances. In the best of worlds you would have your own radar to keep you clear of storm cells. I have flown with it and thought it very helpful.

So in summary, we were lucky with two near misses and avoiding a catastrophe with the near lightning strike. Don't let your guard down when "Radar Contact". Remember that the responsibility for flying the plane rests squarely in the left seat.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Watching the Pros do it!

Yesterday was heavy overcast (300/1) at KCLT, and as I needed a flying fix, I drove out there and stood at the approach end of 36 center. The planes came in out of the mist, landing lights announcing their presence. One after the other, rain/water vapor streaming off their wings, all on the glideslope. One heavy scared me a bit as it was very low overhead, touching down just beyond the threshold. Well, so what? I guess the thing that strikes me is that there is one thing in common to all these perfectly executed landings: precision. Precision is achieved only by following accepted procedures practiced under all conditions over and over again.
So, don't expect to fly an ILS with both needles centered down to minimums without having done it many times before (using the auto-pilot for a coupled approach is not considered here,as autopilots can malfunction). One of the key things in any procedure such as instrument approaches is planning. Planning for all sorts of contingencies. For example: you are a bit low on fuel and #1 on approach when you are told to go around because a plane is on the runway. You must comply and that could mean another ten to twenty minutes in the air depending on airports and traffic. Or the glide slope has gone off the air and now the minimums are too high to land at the airport and you must go that alternate you quickly gave as you filed your flight plan. Both of these complications can be handled if you planned properly and have enough fuel aboard.
Many other things can and do go wrong all the time. So Practice, Practice and Practice again. Realistically and with a good competent check pilot.
Years ago in the Army Sgt, Keller gave us this acronym: PPPPPP-Prior Planning Prevents P-s Poor Performance. I have never (well almost never) forgotten it.
Posted by Walter F. Erston at 10:33 AM