A Day to Remember



Yesterday was unquestionably my most challenging flying day (and night) ever. Unlike previous IMC experiences I’ve recounted on this forum (e.g., a failing alternator, water in the static system), there were no equipment issues this time: just weather, wind, fog and more wind. As the night progressed, the winds and IMC conditions were so severe that I wondered half-seriously if I’d ever find a place to land: I had enough fuel to reach Georgia, and at one point I mused that perhaps I should start out for Jekyll Island a few days early.

My logbook entry for November 24, 2004 shows 9.4 hours of solo cross-country time: all of it was in IMC and 5.1 hours were at night. During the course of sixteen hours I landed at four airports: Cincinnati Lunken (LUK), Niagara Falls, NY (IAG), Newburg, NY Stewart Airport (SWF) and Teterboro, NJ (TEB); and went missed on two different flights into my home base of Westchester, NY (HPN). In this period I actually managed to satisfy virtually all of my night and instrument proficiency requirements for the next 90 days and six months: two night takeoffs and three night landings, six instrument approaches and almost two hours in holding patterns. Plus countless course intercepts.

The day began at 7:30 am with an Angel Flight from Niagara Falls to Cincinnati Lunken. It was IMC all the way, and ATIS reported the conditions at the destination as 1.5 miles visibility, rain, mist, sky 700’ broken, 3,300’ overcast, wind 040 degrees at 5 knots, altimeter at 29.55”. I broke out of the final cloud layer and finally spotted the runway at 400’ above ground level (it turns out the sky was much closer to overcast than “broken”). Little did I realize that this low IFR approach would be the easiest and smoothest of the day.

My Angel Flight passengers went to the hospital for tests and treatment, I went to lunch and took a nap in the pilot’s lounge, they returned around 3:30 pm, and we departed for the return flight to Niagara Falls. We climbed to 9,000’ and benefited from a 55-knot tailwind. Again, it was IMC all the way (but fortunately no ice all day), and ATIS reported the conditions at Niagara Falls as 2.5 miles visibility, rain, mist, sky 700’ overcast, wind 050 degrees at 19 knots gusting to 25, altimeter at 29.53” and dropping rapidly. There is only one ILS approach at Niagara Falls, for the 9,000’ long runway 28R, so as I briefed the approach I debated whether to use its extensive length and land with a tailwind or circle to land on runway 6 (a nighttime maneuver which many commercial operators do not condone). What the ATIS did not advise was that there was significant windshear: in fact, when I broke out of the overcast layer at 600’ above ground level (it was night by now) the wind was an incredible 52 knots! I was in no mood to try a tailwind landing under those conditions, even with a 9,000’ runway, so I circled to land on runway 6. This was a piece of pure stick and rudder flying which fortunately I’ve had previous experience with, although during my IFR training we only talked about it. It was definitely among the top five most challenging landings I’ve ever done, but the night was still young and little did I realize that there were four more approaches yet to come.

I dropped off my passengers and headed home to Westchester around 6 pm. Sixty miles from the airport ATC advised that fog had just rolled in, shutting down the field to arrivals. I throttled back to conserve fuel and entered the published holding pattern at NOBBI intersection. I asked for and got 10 mile legs, and was pleasantly surprised when studying the chart to see that CASSH intersection is just 11 miles away, so I punched that waypoint into the Garmin flight plan and used this improvisation to vastly simplify the procedure.

The other NYC airports were still above minimums, with nearby Stewart Airport reporting 3 miles visibility and 700’ overcast, so that was my best and closest alternate. With the throttle set to the speed of a Skyhawk (just below the detent), I had over four hours of fuel left. After spending 45 minutes in the holding pattern, ATC advised me that three corporate jets had just landed at Westchester, so I lined up for the ILS 16 approach. The ATIS had not been updated in over an hour, so it still reported visibility of 1/16 mile, fog, mist, ceiling 100’ indefinite, wind 170 degrees at 8 knots, altimeter 29.68”, but again, no mention of any low-level windshear. When I flew the approach at 120-130 KIAS I learned firsthand that the wind was anywhere from 35 to 50 knots down to 700’ above ground level, and it was still at 25-30 knots at the decision height of 200’. To call it a ferocious descent would be an understatement: the PFD trend lines showed tremendous updrafts and downdrafts, and even the chevrons popped up a few times indicated an impeding unusual attitude. Upon reaching the decision height I took one quick glance out the window, saw nothing, kept sweating and went missed. The windshear on the climbout was worse than during the approach, and I was exhausted enough by this point that I requested vectors for Stewart rather than going to the back of the line to try this approach again.

The approach to Stewart offered a new kind of challenge: ATC kept me at 4,000’ to allow a Gulfstream (which had gone missed at Westchester right after me) first priority on the Stewart ILS 9. That altitude was above the glideslope, and by the time I was established on the localizer the 50 knot tailwind was pushing me to the FAF much faster than expected. I was able to descend quickly before the glideslope got out of reach, but again it was quite a battle to keep the ILS needles centered due to the huge swings in wind speed and direction. I broke out as advertised at 700’ and 3 miles, shook off one last battle with the winds and landed at 8:15 pm. There were soon four corporate jets on the ramp that had also diverted after going missed at Westchester.

By 9:30 pm the METAR showed a slow improvement in the visibility at Westchester, and we learned that several other planes had made it in. So I took off for the ten-minute flight to my home field. Once again there was no mention of low-level windshear in the ATIS, but I knew that it would be brutal, so I carefully planned my speed, power and flap settings to be able to deal with it. While I was waiting for my turn to join the localizer, a Northwest Airlines jet just ahead of me broke off its approach right after crossing the FAF because the winds did not allow it to get properly established (much like the problem I had at Stewart), and there were some testy communications between the cockpit crew and ATC as they requested better vectors to final. ATC offered them a 20 mile final, which they took; a few minutes after my approach aborted I heard them go missed as well and request a diversion to Newark.

This being my third approach that night, I already had a deep appreciation for the problem faced by the Northwest crew, so my strategy was to get established on the localizer and capture the glideslope at 110 KIAS with 50% flaps: fast enough to have a speed cushion to deal with the windshear, yet slow enough to be able to land if the opportunity arose. In fact, the ride was very bumpy but manageable, and this time I was able to deal with the windshear all the way down to the 200’ decision height. When I was two miles out, the tower controller advised that the RVR was back up to 1,400’ and the sky was still 100’ indefinite ceiling. This may seem to be below minimums in most quarters, but at Westchester Airport runway 16 has excellent MALSR approach lighting and so these conditions do not necessarily preclude a safe approach, especially when the winds are calm to moderate. And when I finally got to the decision height I was, in fact, able to clearly see the approach lights, but due to the last round of windshear the nose was oriented at least 25 degrees to the left. I turned right to track the lights inbound when out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of parked vehicles through the fog. Instantly my brain flashed that those vehicles shouldn’t be there and I was probably near the NetJets hangar, at the outer width of the ILS course. Rather than hunt for the runway with abundant low-level windshear still lurking around, in that split second I decided to go missed again. I went into a holding pattern for another 45 minutes, waiting to see if the conditions would improve as the TAF had forecast. But by this time no one else was flying into Westchester and the RVR stayed stuck at 1,400’, so I decided to throw in the towel and divert to Teterboro (which is close to my home).

The approach into Teterboro was uneventful, but only by the perverse standards of that day. Once again, the wind was 45-52 knots all the way down to 800 feet; but I broke out at 1,100’ with 2.5 miles visibility and landed at 11:15 pm. Twenty minutes later I called Flight Service to check today’s weather, and learned that the visibility at Westchester had just gone up to the published minimums of one-half mile and 200’ ceiling. So if I had been willing to spend two hours in the holding pattern I could have probably landed there, but that was way beyond my tolerance level and I had no regrets over the decision to divert to Teterboro.

Earlier today I took a cab back to Teterboro, waited for a break in the various low pressure fronts moving through the NY area, and flew my Cirrus back to Westchester in windy but clear VFR weather. I landed just after a line of thunderstorm had moved through.

In retrospect, what made yesterday so challenging was the complex combination of skills that would be drawn upon: instrument approaches, stick and rudder flying, ever-changing exit strategies, fuel planning, holding patterns and the constant question of when did I have enough. I probably should have hitched a ride back to Westchester around 8 pm with some of the other pilots stuck at Stewart Airport, rather than trying one last flight.

Of all the wonderful equipment on the Cirrus, I have to say that the MVP in yesterday’s marathon was the wind vector on the PFD. It gave an instantaneous readout of the day’s most important weather factor and enabled me to fly the approaches, circle to land, and do endless loops in the holding patterns, with far more precision and situational awareness than would otherwise have been possible. A close second would be the MFD, with its ability to scroll in and out, and change perspectives from Forward to North Up, as the circumstances required.

All in all, a day to remember.


Maybe I should have been more explicit in stating my reason for posting this experience: in fact it was to offer a perspective and stimulate thought and debate on how one should think about personal minimums and one's capabilities, especially when the "available information" is bound to be incomplete and can change dramatically while enroute: e.g., there was no mention of windshear in the various TAFs and ATISs that night and, in fact, the TAFs indicated that the destination weather would be above minimums.

As we all know, the weather doesn't always deteriorate at the times forecast in the TAF, nor does it improve on schedule. So even though the return flight to Niagara Falls was earlier than expected, the weather deteriorated dramatically faster than forecast in the 20 minutes before arrival (I recorded three different ATIS updates in that period). Similarly, the TAF indicated that the weather at Westchester during my arrival window would be no worse than the other NYC airports.

When I first started flying IFR alot in the Cirrus my personal minimums were quite high (higher than your's, in fact); but as I became more proficient and encountered a variety of situations I eventually adjusted those personal minimums. More importantly, I always carry the FAA's PAVE personal minimums checklist in my flight case, and review it regularly as a self-critique of whether I should be adjusting my minimums based on the mission at hand and the PAVE factors at that time. In fact, I treat it as the most important checklist for my flying activities.

One of my personal minimums is to not attempt more than one approach unless the weather improves dramatically, and I stuck to it the other night. I've met plenty of professional pilots who will do as many as three approaches before giving up, and I saw enough of that happening the other night. Good for them; its not an aspect of flying that I care to engage in. Instead, I've gotten used to flying around in holding patterns for an hour or more if necessary to wait for the weather to materially improve from the conditions which existed when I went missed.

Another personal minimum is to have at least two hours of fuel in reserve on a flight when there are any IFR conditions either enroute or at the destination. So I'll either fly way lean of peak, or throttle back dramatically, or divert for refueling, if there's any question about being near that reserve level. So the other night I had at least four hours of fuel when I was shooting each of those approaches: enough to be comfortable that I could go to the other side of the weather system if necessary to find a suitable airport for landing.

Another personal minimum is to have all avionics systems working perfectly for a flight that has any IFR component. For example, if the autopilot won't capture altitude properly, or the MFD screen is dim on one side, or the SIU fails because of static, then I'm landing immediately rather than trying to fly IFR with anything approaching the poor equipment that I had during my private pilot and IFR training days. The Cirrus is a great plane because it has excellent and redundant avionics, so I just won't fly without a full deck.

Another personal minimum is that I'm fully rested and well fed before the return flights on a long day. On days like this past Wednesday, when I've planned a series of Angel Flights, I always arrange the flight times with the passengers so that I have time for a real lunch at a restaurant and time for a nap before the return trips begin.

Another personal minimum is to always have an alternate with a working ILS approach. I do not like shooting non-precision approaches anywhere near minimums (although I've done more than my fair share of these), especially since those kinds of airports usually have poor lighting systems. So even if you're in the right spot, it can be quite difficult to see or find the field if you're not a native. ILS approaches invariably come with very decent lighting systems, so I've got an alternate that gives me a better advantage than the non-precision airport I might have gone missed at.

Another personal minimum is that I do not fly non-precision approaches in night IFR, nor do I fly VFR at night. I do lots of Angel Flights to obscure places in northern Vermont and western NY state, and I advise the passengers from the start that they may very well end up at a big city airport one or two hours away simply because it has an ILS and I won't do a non-precision approach at night.

In the winter I always fly with the TKS tank full, even on days when I'm nowhere near the freezing level, because "Ice Happens", as the Cirrus ads once said. I also carry on board an additional reserve equal to a full tank. And if I actually start using TKS during a flight, another personal minimum is that I will land immediately once half the tank has been used.

After the experiences of the other night, I'm considering how to better deal with the heavy winds which invariably arise in low pressure systems. Like the Northwest pilot said, he wants much better and longer vectors to final. He's the customer, and ATC gave him what he wanted. Food for thought, even when everyone else is happy being turned onto final just 4 miles before the FAF despite the fact that a 50 knot tailwind can wreak havoc on getting comfortably established.

I'd be happy to discuss these and my other personal minimums if you wish, but I hope this gives a better picture of some of the thought processes and parameters which bracket each flight.