Friday, October 11, 2013

There But for the Grace of God...

Recently, one of our club planes was involved in an incident/accident.  This occurred at night, and I learned about it from a Chicago-area aviators Facebook page the next day.  My exclamation of "oh my Lord!" got my wife's attention, and that was less than ideal given that I would like her to fly with me once in awhile.  But honestly I could not contain my concern for the pilot. 

Throughout the morning after the incident, I was able to gather the most important information - that the pilot was unhurt except for his pride, and I have a reasonable picture of the basic facts.  It would be imprudent to share them at this time, but suffice it to say that it has led me to think about how we as pilots deal with incidents and accidents.

In the last 12 months, we have seen a few major accidents from major carriers that have garnered national news and what seems like too many GA accidents in my area.  We've had a surgeon and his wife killed in a Cirrus near Clow (1C5), a fuel-exhaustion accident on approach to Chicago Executive (KPWK), and an emergency landing of an experimental aircraft on Lake Shore Drive in downtown Chicago.  In the last two, no one was seriously injured. 

In each of these incidents, I sought as much information as I could about what occurred so that I could learn from these incidents.  I confess that I sometimes have to fight back some judgment and righteous indignation about what happens.  If the comments of some pilots on discussion boards and Facebook groups are any indication, not only am I not alone but some of us are completely unconcerned about it.  I pray I never lose sight of pride going before the fall.   

But I really have a hard time understanding how one can run out of fuel... until I put myself in the situation of having plenty of fuel for my trip but due to storms making such broad deviations that all my reserves are burned up.  I can relate to this.

And I can't understand how a father with two of his three kids and the friend of one of them on board can continue flying in IMC despite not being instrument rated and ATC trying to help him land.  The Air Safety Institute put a program together from this fatal accident, and it was hard not to well up as I listened to the pilot's communications with ATC.  Honestly, I can hear the fear in his voice.  Yet, his decision making was very poor as his not wanting to be weathered in overrode getting him and his passengers on the group.  But suppose you really have to be somewhere and you are already in the air.  I can relate to this optimism that things will just work out ok.  

And I can't really understand how one can let one's airspeed decay to such a level that there is a stall/spin accident.  That is, I can't until I put myself there with my kids yelling despite the fact that I've explained to them the need for a sterile cockpit 100 times.  Or I remember that time I went around from a botched landing, and while watching other traffic in the pattern my own airspeed dropped below the green arc.  This is one reason I am frequently cross-checking my airspeed since I do not trust my butt to tell me I'm in trouble. 

Not so clever now, are you?

This incident the other night was different.  No, I do not feel judgment about what happened.  I can place myself in that cockpit; in that aircraft and approaching that very same runway.  I've probably done just that within the last 90 days.  I know this pilot.  Not well, but he has been a member of the club for a long time and I do not know a single person who would have said that they would not fly with him.  I would have flown with him that night had that worked out. [And let me be clear - I am not in this forum attempting to say that this was pilot error or any other cause at this point in time]. 

We can all make mistakes.

I HAVE made mistakes, and even caused some minor damage to an airplane (this does not need rehashed here... but it is the original reason for the "CURSES" tag).   

And I have made mistakes that did not result in an incident.  During the flight I wrote about last week, I did not run the pre-landing checklist.  Yes, I did a "GUMPS" check as I crossed the final approach fix (even with a fixed gear since I now fly a retractable).  But I never turned on the taxi and landing lights.  Minor... and I was distracted by flying the approach.  I have forgotten to put the mixture full rich before takeoff TWICE... once with my kids in the plane.  It was this moment that I decided that I was not too good for checklists, and disabused myself of the false belief that I was smart enough to remember everything I needed to do in each phase of flight.      

I think that we as pilots can look at incidents and accidents with a bit of smugness thinking that we would never do the things that lead to them.  But this is a mistake.   It is in this reflection that the true meaning of "it can happen to me" in the face of invincibility comes to life.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Out to Pasture - The Chanute Air Museum

I have been looking forward to the chance to take a flight down to Rantoul, Illinois (KTIP) in order to visit the Chanute Air Museum.  This airport was the site of Chanute Air Force Base from 1917 to 1993, and the museum memorializes the history of the base and the city.  Most interesting to me, it has a number of military aircraft (and even a few nuclear missile silos!) on display.  While it was fascinating to learn about all that the museum has to offer, it was also disheartening to see all the aircraft that had clearly seen better days.  Faded paint, corrosion, flattened tires, bird deterrents, and painted glass to protect the cockpits corrupted planes that were far from their prime.  To the staff's credit, there are active efforts to restore these planes so that they can be seen in their former glory.

However, this P-51 Mustang was absolutely awesome!  There was no one to ask if this aircraft was airworthy, but she sure is beautiful.

This F-4 Phantom II peaked my interest as my father was a mechanic on these while serving in the Marines in Vietnam (although this is the Air Force version).  He does not tell many stories about the war itself (common amongst veterans, as it turns out), but he does talk about the thrill of running one of these bad boys up to make sure that everything was operating properly after maintenance.  He also mentioned a few shenanigans about "re-assigning" parts from Navy planes.  

This F-15 is in need of some restoration, but I remember dreaming about flying one of these or an F-14 Tom Cat (thanks, Top Gun) when I was about 12.  Honestly, I still do.

The museum also has a T-6 Texan and a B-25 Mitchell Bomber that are in the midst of restoration, a Skymaster, a number of other fighters,  a C-130, many other vintage aircraft, and even a room full of old Frasca simulators.  The entire list can be viewed here, thought honestly I don't recall seeing all of these aircraft.  Makes me wonder if I missed part of of the museum.  Eh, guess I'll just have to go back. 

Over the City and Above the Woods

I was accompanied on this flight by my mother, who flew with me several months ago along the Chicago shoreline.  This day we would be flying in that Diamond Star DA-40 that I wrote about a few weeks ago.   I initially planned to take the school's G1000-equipped Skyhawk since I knew that she could get in and out with little problem (and I have around 70 hours in type), but because of bad weather Thursday morning it did not fly and thus had too much fuel on board.  I really need to work on my contribution to weight and balance.

I picked up my IFR clearance: cleared from Waukegan (KUGN) to Rantoul (KTIP) via vectors JORJO - BACEN - BLOKR - RBS - DIRECT.  Some of these are points on the JORJO1.RBS departure procedure.  This took us over the metropolitan Chicago area just west of O'Hare (KORD).  We saw plenty of aircraft coming and going from KORD and KMDW.  

Departing runway 5, I was turned on headings that essentially took me along the shore line of Lake Michigan until I was turned southwest.  Before long, we had broken through the clouds and were skimming along at 7000.  This was the first time my mother had the experience of going through clouds and being essentially VFR on top (except that there were more clouds and the overcast layer hardly made for a good horizon).  

As we began our descent into Rantoul, we had to fly an approach in order to come down through the scattered to broken layer.  Smooth sailing and a very gentle touchdown on runway 18 earned some accolades from the very satisfied passenger.  

Great Hosts

The folks at KTIP were great.  They set us up in a courtesy car, and suggested a nice little home-cookin' Mexican place called Sol Azteca.  The food was very good; seemed very authentic, tasty, fast and very reasonably priced.  I'd highly recommend checking this place out if you are out that way.  

After lunch and visiting the museum, we needed to spend a little time at the FBO while we waited out some storms that were passing through the Chicago area.  Soon, we were off and on our way back to UGN... maybe.  

The Pink Dot

Picking up my IFR clearance, we were cleared to KUGN via PNT - PLANO - OBK - DIRECT.  We had more time above and through the clouds as we motored along at 8000 MSL.  Based on my weather check at the FBO, I knew that I was going to need to fly an approach into Waukegan, and that I'd expect Runway 5.  I was all set up for that and briefing the approach by the time I crossed PLANO, and as I checked the ForeFlight weather from the Stratus I see the... dreaded... pink... dot.  UGN had gone LIFR due to fog with 200 foot overcast  However, I was flying a non-WAAS aircraft and there is only an RNAV approach into runway 5.  There was no point in flying this approach as the non-precision minimums were far higher than the weather.

I began considering my options when ATC advised me that two jets had just gone missed from KUGN.  Having checked the weather at other reporting stations, I decided to fly the ILS 16 approach into Chicago Executive (KPWK).  Although I had only flown this particular approach in a simulator, I am very familiar with this airport since I did my private training primarily from this location.  My approach and landing were quite solid, and we taxied to Signature and shut down to enjoy their very comfortable accommodations while I sorted out what I was going to do next.    


Sitting on the ground at PWK, I started to review options.  The organization from which I had rented this plane recently stopped operations at PWK, so this removed one option.  It was a 45 minute cab ride home, and I could have taken my wife's car and my mother to retrieve my car from UGN.  I finally got a hold of the owner of the school, who said that he had just come in not long ago on the ILS 23 approach with a slight tailwind but no problems, except that it was right down to minimums.  "Do you think you can do it?"  

I thought this over for 20 minutes, and decided that the two-axis autopilot that I had been using all day because of my low time in the plane could fly the approach - it didn't know it was dark and down to minimums, after all.  Though I had hand-flown the other two approaches, this seemed to be the time to allow the computer to earn its keep. 

Earning a Manhattan

We loaded up in the Diamond Star and were cleared vectors to UGN.  I briefed the approach on the ground because it is a VERY short flight (it was all of 16 minutes according to my track at Flight Aware), and I just wanted to hit the highlights for review in the air.  I had everything loaded up and ready to go when I was cleared for takeoff.  

I was a bit worried because PWK had been marginal VFR and then went IFR with a 600 foot overcast as I was preparing to leave.  There was a guy who really wanted to depart VFR to the east out over the lake, and the controllers were really trying to talk him out of it.  I hope they did because that would have been pretty high risk.  But I hoped that these changes did not reflect further deterioration at my hoped-for destination.  

Here was the METAR from my weather briefing: 

KUGN 042252Z 02004KT 4SM BR OVC002 18/18 A2996 RMK AO2 SLP138 P0001 T01780178

Now doesn't that look like fun?  I know some of you are jealous.  

As I am passed off to the departure controller, it occurs to me that I am flying in pretty solid IMC in the dark and flying my first night approach in actual IMC (although I have flown quite a few approaches to minimums in simulated conditions during night flight).  I saw myself as focused, but my mother informs me that she knew I was a bit nervous.  She was thrilled by the whole thing and really enjoyed the entire day of flying, but I had to tell her that I was pretty focused and needed a sterile cockpit until we were on the ground.  She understood and was quiet.  

"419AM, turn left heading 260 to intercept the localizer.  Cleared ILS 23 approach, maintain 2500 until established."  It's on, and I'm in the soup past my eyeballs.  Two miles from the final approach fix, I am passed off to tower and am cleared to land.  I peak up and see only clouds through the windscreen, but I am on path and glideslope, but a bit fast.  

Descending through 1600 for 930, I am able to see the ground.  At 1100, I am very happy break out and see the runway.  The controller then states that "things are clearing here if you'd like to circle to land on runway 5, that's approved."  Was this guy crazy?  It was pitch black out, I just broke out and he thinks I might like to circle to land.  Umm... no.  I'll take that five knot tailwind when I have a plane that can be stopped in well under 1500 feet and I have 6000 feet of runway.  "9-Alpha-Mike will stay with 23."  

Although I floated a bit because I was a bit fast, I had my third gentle and on-centerline touchdown of the day.  "Oh, yeah!" I failed to mention to my mother that this was the first time I had flown an approach at night in actual instrument conditions.  I did offer to send her home in a cab and I'd go by myself, but she insisted on going with me.  However, she claims to have not been worried the whole time.


I have to say that I would have been far less anxious had I been flying my club's Arrow or Archer because I am so much more familiar and comfortable in them. The only part of the flight I've really spent time reflecting on was my decision to fly the short flight and approach into Waukegan.  It worked out well, and the flight was never in any risk beyond the typical risks of flying in these conditions.  But was we know, night IFR is the riskiest flight in which most GA pilots will ever engage.  Add to this that I was flying a pretty new-to-me aircraft and I had a passenger, and it seems that it was "pretty interesting" to say the least.  

However, I had been using the auto pilot all day because I was not yet totally confident in my ability to hold altitude solid in this plane.  I always use it while briefing an approach or doing some other task with high cognitive demands.  So although I prefer to hand fly most of the time, this last flight was not the time to decide to give it a go (although as I mentioned above I hand-flew the other two approaches).  It obviously worked out just fine, and fortunately I was overall pretty well practiced in approaches and night current.