Sunday, January 31, 2010

Snow another cause of low IFR

This recent snow storm caused me to remember a flight I made in a Pa-31 Navaho Chieftan in the middle of the night into Saranac Lake, NY (KSLK) one January. I got a call late in the evening from the FBO whom I flew for occasionally. They needed me to fly to KSLK and pick up an injured skier and bring him back to Burlington,Vt as he apparently was badly hurt. I agreed to fly the charter . When I arrived the plane was already on the tarmac, free of ice and snow, having been hangared. I checked the weather and filed an IFR roundtrip to Saranac Lake and back. The weather at Burlington was not bad. Light to moderate snow 1 mile viz and a ceiling on the order of 1000 feet. It wasn't clear exactly what to expect at KSLK. The plan then was to fly to Saranac, shoot the ILS and hope to get in. If I couldn't land my alternate was back in Burlington, if not there Montreal or maybe even Albany.

The flight to Saranac Lake took about 15 minutes. I filed for 6000' the minimum safe altitude due to a 3800' mountain located only 8 miles to the SE of the airport. I made sure my pitot heat was on and frequently checked the wing leading edges with the ice light to make sure there was no ice accumulation. The approach went well. Intercepting the localizer about 10 miles out and then tracking it and the glide slope to the minimum altitude (1863'). As I didn't know if the field was above minimums, I studied the missed approach procedure and hoped for the best. Fortunately, as we neared the MDA (minimum descent altitude) the field showed up through the snow and haze. It was a welcome site as otherwise I would have had to execute the missed approach and try again or head back. The landing went well in spite of three to four inches of fresh snow on the runway. Feeling somewhat relieved, I taxied to the terminal and spotted the waiting ambulance.

The patient was carefully placed in the back of the plane and strapped down in the stretcher. A nurse came with him and we headed back. Fortunately, Burlington stayed well above minimums so landing there was no problem.

The moral of the story. Sometimes you have to make a flight without knowing exactly what conditions to expect. As long as you follow all the approved procedures (especially MDA's) you can give it a try. If unsuccessful, go around on a published missed approach procedure and try again, fuel permitting or go to your alternate.

Friday, January 1, 2010

You can't land when even the birds are grounded

It is awful to read about skilled pilots trying to land in the fog, way below minimums. Even trying unsuccessfully to land in heavy IFR conditions at an airport with only an Rnav approach. You don't believe me? Go to the December 09 NTSB reports. One pilot on a short business flight in Texas in a Bonanza tried to land in 1/4 mile visibility with an indefinite ceiling flying a presumed RNAV approach with 1300 ft minimums. This guy had all the ratings including ATP, Instr. instructor etc. He augured in 750 ft off the runway. What was he thinking?

The next one was also in Texas in a Pa-34. Another qualified pilot (on paper): Commercial-Instr.-Instructor. There was no published instrument approach at this airport and the nearest reported weather reports were about 20 miles away. Although they had almost VFR weather there, it was unknown at the desired destination. Anyway it did not deter this maniac from trying to make up his own approach and land in uncertain conditions. He was observed by approach control to desend to 700 ft and then disappear from radar. He crashed in a body of water killing the occupants. That was irresponsible.

The moral of the story is not to second guess the weather and fly only published approaches observing all the Notams and not busting minimums. This latter thing, busting minimums is a classic killer and part of the "get home itus" syndrome. I remember a case of that I had several years ago when trying to return to Kenansville,NC from Raleigh in my C-340. I got so close but at minimums couldn't see a thing. Fog! Rather than try again, sometimes that works, but it was dark out and unlikely to improve so I returned to Raleigh and rented a car to get home. Frustrating yes, but I lived to write about it.

So if you want to avoid the above fates, don't try to beat the system. Rather, follow the rules, use good sound judgement and live to fly another day.