A day-long snowstorm had just passed when I flew Jean to Phoenix to see her mom. Lingering flurries receded to the east, while from the west approached the intense cobalt skies seen only after snow.
By the time I dropped Jean and steered for my next appointment at Prescott, a few new snow showers sprinkled northern Arizona’s mountains. No worry–Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks beckoned clearly from between them for my subsequent flight home.
Ninety minutes later, I preflighted for my final fifty-mile hop. Prescott’s Love Field Airport lies in an open valley, with Flagstaff 2,000 feet higher at the base of Arizona’s tallest mountains. Therefore you can usually see Flagstaff’s “Peaks” directly from Prescott’s airport tiedowns.
Now, however, the snow showers between here and home were denser than before…
“Oh, and the St. Johns VOR is out of service,” said the flight service briefer before we departed Santa Fe for Scottsdale.
In those pre-GPS days, St. Johns was the only enroute radio navigation aid on Victor-190, the 274nm instrument airway between Albuquerque and Phoenix. No matter, I anticipated good weather throughout the 2½-hour flight.
Launching late afternoon in a rented Cessna 172RG Cutlass, we cruised clear skies southwestward. Entering Arizona, however, I spotted unexpected clouds ahead. It turned out that an unforecast stratus layer had developed almost to Phoenix. Fortunately, visual flight conditions prevailed underneath, the only concerning weather being a line of heavy thunderstorms paralleling our route 30 miles to the north.
Soon we cruised under clouds at 8,500 feet, ogling intense distant lightning off our right wing. I’d anticipated reaching lower country by nightfall, but we’d been slowed by headwinds, and darkness falls early under clouds. I calculated ceilings to be 1,000 feet above the highest ridges ahead. While usually plenty in daytime, that’s risky for night flight over mountains…
Every pilot experiences a bit of pucker factor when descending through clouds on an instrument approach.Am I really where I think I am, safely separated from the ground?
I was reminded of the stakes when my friend Mark phoned after landing at Colorado Springs with his wife and another couple.
“After clear weather through the mountains, we encountered an inversion east of the Rockies,” he said. “Colorado Springs was reporting 1000 broken, 1500 overcast, so I requested the ILS Runway 17L approach. The vectoring and intercept seemed fine, but we broke out of the clouds just above the trees while still several miles from the runway. It was quite a scare, and I want to determine the cause so it never happens again.”
For you VFR pilots: an instrument landing system (ILS) consists of two intersecting perpendicular radio signals projected from the ground. By centering the associated vertical (localizer) and horizontal (glideslope) needles, pilots are guided to the runway.
Mark wondered if the problem was with glideslope signal or receiver, or if he’d made some serious error in executing the approach. The approach plate showed terrain 1,000 feet above field elevation north of the airport, so I suggested he might feel low breaking out there. That didn’t satisfy Mark, however…
Earning your wings requires hand-eye coordination, but instrument flying (IFR) is a brain game.
Yes, mastering flight by tiny needles is tough, but navigation, holds, and approaches are exciting and fun. And while IFR may be the hardest rating, it’s also the most safety-enhancing, rewarding, and practical. When I earned my cloud wings forty years ago this month, my flight-completion rate doubled overnight to over 90%.
Instrument flying, of course, gets you where you’re going without sight of the ground, and “instrument approaches” deliver you safely to landing.
As with VFR cross-countries, instrument flight plans are crafted around checkpoints, but using predefined fixes from an IFR chart. These days, thanks to GPS and moving maps, we can fly great distances and shoot programmed instrument approaches almost as readily as by looking out the window.
Winter offers spectacular flying, but its fickle and unforgiving weather can make longer aerial journeys daunting.
Jean and I annually flee snowy Flagstaff to visit our neighbors Tim and Hedy Thomas for a California vacation. Usually we meet in sunny Oceanside or Carlsbad, but this January they invited us to sample Monterey’s rugged coastline, bountiful sea life, scrumptious seafood, and renowned aquarium. Afterward, we planned to visit other friends two hours northeast in Truckee, California, and from there fly home through Nevada.
Although straightforward in good weather, this is an ambitious wintertime journey. Mountainous northern Arizona and California’s coast, deserts, Central Valley, and Sierra Nevada all feature different if interrelated weather patterns, which must coincide for safe air passage across the route. Truckee, in particular, high in the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe, averages 41 inches of January snowfall, yet perfect flying weather would be required to land there.
So rather than attempting to hard-schedule our vacation, we negotiated a three-week “visit anytime” travel window with our respective hosts.
Even then, weather concerns arose. By early January, closely spaced winter storm systems were lined up to steamroll California and Arizona. Our travel needed to be accomplished during one- to two-day gaps between storms…
“Be prepared to turn around,” I cautioned Jean as we launched under dark clouds. Keeping options open would be key to safely completing this long journey east.
We were bound from Arizona to Illinois for my mother’s 90th birthday and a high school newspaper reunion. Unable to justify flying ourselves 9-10 hours each way for a long weekend, we’d originally planned to go by airline.
But then we learned my mother would be gone over reunion weekend, stretching our stay to a week. That changed everything. By Flying Carpet we could use the free time to visit long-missed friends, relatives, and locations.
Yes, it’s a long flight to Chicago. But from there, many Midwestern destinations are only an hour or two away. Newly excited, we compiled a wish list encompassing three time zones and six destinations in four states. It was an ambitious itinerary, given the vagaries of spring weather.
Indeed, the forecasts were alarming as departure day approached. The Great Plains suffered near-daily tornados, showers were predicted throughout our Midwest stay, and two storm systems threatened Arizona. Rain hammered our roof the night before departure.
We awoke to dark, racing clouds, but for the moment Flagstaff boasted a flyable 1,400-foot ceiling. From nearby Winslow east, Arizona featured fair weather.
Northern New Mexico reported marginal visual flying conditions, with possible mountain obscuration. That might require staying over in Gallup, but we’d cross that bridge when the time came.
For now the objective was to beat the storm out of Flagstaff. Snowflakes pelted our windshield as we drove to the airport…
**READ THIS MONTH’S ENTIRE COLUMN,“THREE TIME ZONES.”**(Allow a moment for the article to load.)
Top photo: “The clouds break up near Santa Fe, New Mexico.” Lower photo: “Braving a bitter wind at Centerville Municipal Airport, Iowa.” SEE MORE PHOTOS!
It was one of those awful stories you assume happens only to other people…
Jean and her sister Jo were chatting by phone after Thanksgiving, when they suddenly realized their mom hadn’t returned their holiday phone messages.
They contacted their mother’s residential community manager, who discovered the unfortunate woman lying in her bathroom where she’d fallen on Thanksgiving Day, five days earlier. Jean jumped into her car and drove two hours to intercept her mother at a Phoenix emergency room.
When Jean returned home four days later, she was clearly shaken. Her mother had sustained serious injuries, and even if she survived it was questionable whether she could ever live unassisted again.
We arranged to temporarily park a car at Glendale Airport for easy hospital access via Flying Carpet. Jean asked me to fly her there a few days later when Jo arrived from Illinois, so the two could rendezvous at the hospital.
Sunday morning we awoke to rare ground fog in Flagstaff. I filed an instrument (IFR) flight plan and told Jean to expect a takeoff delay. However she was eager to go so we hurried out the door.
Only at the airport did we realize how dense the fog was; we could barely see past the first tie-down row. The sun dimly shone through, however, with occasional patches of bluish sky.
“How long until this lifts?” asked Jean.
“Who knows?” I shrugged. “Maybe 45 minutes?” We pulled out the plane, preflighted, and waited…
READ THIS MONTH’S ENTIRE COLUMN,“FOGBOUND.”(Allow a moment for the article to load.)
Top photo: Awaiting blue skies at Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, Arizona. Lower photo: Low stratus lingers just beyond the airport boundary at takeoff.
Pilots often have difficulty maintaining the localizer on ILS (or GPS-LPV) approaches:
“I’m always chasing the localizer needle and get so frustrated that I forget to maintain the glideslope needle; then I have to miss the approach.”
In my experience, this common problem most often occurs when pilots make excessive heading changes, rather than because the wind has changed. These pointers should help:
1. Join the final approach course far enough out to allow time to nail down your wind-corrected heading before joining the glideslope. Ask ATC to put you on the final approach course a mile or two outside the final approach fix. That will reduce your workload.
2. Commit to memory the heading you’ve identified to fly, and return to that heading whenever you drift off. Say you’ve determined that, with wind correction, you need 360 degrees inbound heading to stay on the localizer. Now MEMORIZE that 360 heading, AND RETURN TO IT EVERY TIME YOU DRIFT OFF HEADING. If you look away for a moment, your heading has likely changed. If your heading is not exactly 360 when you look back, turn immediately back to 360, level wings, and THEN check the localizer needle to see what it’s doing. This will stabilize your heading on the approach.
3. Limit final approach course heading corrections to 5º at a time. (You’re probably used to using 10° corrections or more to track VOR or enroute GPS.) If you do need to correct the heading, MEMORIZE the new one. So if you’re inbound on that 360° heading and notice the localizer needle drifting to the left, make a CONSCIOUS HEADING ADJUSTMENT of five degrees left (355º), turn to it, and memorize it. Again, if you drift off that heading turn immediately back to 355° before making any other corrections.
4. Make all localizer or LPV heading corrections using ½ standard rate turn. (That’ll reduce the “chasing.”)
5. Throughout the approach, continually reset the heading bug on your heading indicator to mark the heading you want to fly. If you have no heading bug, consider installing an add-on bug, or an indicator that has one. A heading bug helps tremendously in keeping you pointed where you want to go using minimal brainpower.
All this may sound elementary, but it’s not. Most pilots are busy enough on precision approaches that they chase the needle rather than consciously selecting, remembering, and holding a heading. But stabilizing your heading anywhere near the correct one prevents the needle from drifting much, so it’s easier to correct. That’s why it’s more effective to hold a heading (and return immediately to it if you drift off) than to chase the needle without a specific heading in mind.
Obviously, it’s hard to absorb this sort of thing from reading. But try these tips when you next practice precision approaches, and I think you’ll be pleased with the improvement. (See also my post, “IFR made easier…“)