A Startling Development

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This page last updated on 04/17/2017.

Copyright 2001-2017 by Russ Meyer


Jane:  "We have date night this Friday!"
Russ:  "What do you want to do?"
Jane:  "I want to go fly instrument approaches."
Russ:  "You do...really?"
Jane:  <nods enthusiastically>
Russ:  "Wouldn't you rather go out to eat or to a movie?"
Jane:  "No, I want to go flying."
Russ:  "You're not just saying that because you think that's what I want to do, are you?"
Jane:  "Nope, I really want to go shoot some instrument approaches."
Russ:  "I can't believe you'd really want to waste your date night flying instrument approaches."
Jane:  "Well, I can't think of anything else I'd rather do."

...and so the die was cast.  I reserved a plane for Friday night, 5359K.  Jane would be my safety pilot and I would fly some practice instrument approaches out at McKinney.  Just the usual:  Holding patterns at SLANT intersection, followed by a VOR/DME-A approach at McKinney, an ILS 17 at McKinney, and finally an ILS 15 to round out the night back at Addison.

The weather was great all day Friday.  Light southerly winds, clear as a bell, warming to the mid-60s; not bad for December 3rd.  Texas has great flying weather most of the time.  Jane and I dropped all the kids  at church (except Serena, she was coming with us).  We grabbed a drive-through dinner at McDonald's and headed for the airport.  As I preflighted the plane, I showed Serena everything I was doing.  She was very interested.  She says she wants to get her private certificate some day...that's my girl!

As I piled into the airplane, Jane asked about the dew point.  "Dew point?  Why are you worried about dew point," I asked.  "I don't know...it looks kind of humid," Jane replied.  I looked around and noticed a lot of fogging on the inside of the windows...could be a sign of high ambient humidity or maybe just excessively cold plexiglass.  "Did you get ATIS," I queried.  "Yeah," said Jane.  "Well, what was the temperature/dew point spread?"  "The temperature was 17 and the dew point was 11," Jane stated.  "Ok, so that's what...6 degrees.  That doesn't seem too bad.  We'll keep an eye on it," I decided.  A temperature/dew point spread less than four degrees could allow fog to form.  If fog formed over the airport while we were aloft, we might not be able to land back at Addison.  That would be extremely inconvenient because it would make us very late in picking up the kids.  I wasn't too worried though because the sky had been clear all day.  Still, the wind was strong from the south, carrying a lot of moisture up from the gulf.

We taxied out and took off.  Once aloft above 2000 feet, I discovered there was a 42 knot wind from the south.  Wow, the surface winds were only about 10 knots; that's a pretty big difference.  I was trying to use the GPS and autopilot in the airplane for the first time for instrument work.  As a result, I made a number of minor gaffs that resulted in us wandering off course.  Our holding patterns were a total mess.  Of course, the high wind at altitude probably contributed to the problem.  After fooling around with the hold for about 30 minutes, we gave up, climbed to 3500 feet, and headed off to do the VOR/DME-A approach.

As we buzzed along, getting positioned to enter the approach, Jane commented about how dark it was outside.  A few minutes later, she asked, "What's all that flashing around our wingtips?"  I was under the hood but thought she must be seeing the flash of the strobes.  "That's the strobes," I answered.  "How come I can see them so well," she asked.  I pulled up the hood to take a look.  Each time the strobes flashed, they illuminated a faint milky haze.  Uh oh...it looked like we were skimming just below a cloud layer.  I was not on an instrument flight plan, and needed to maintain VFR.  I immediately descended to 2500 feet to get away from the cloud.  It was so dark that the clouds weren't really visible...just sort of a darker patch in a dark sky.  I looked around and noticed that I could only see ground lights for about three miles in any direction.  Yikes, the visibility had dropped alarmingly.  We were in marginal VFR conditions.  Jane had been right about that dew point!  It was quite possible Addison could get fogged in.  Thoroughly alarmed, a surge of adrenaline made me tighten my grip on the yoke.  "We're heading back to Addison," I blurted.  I called up McKinney tower and told them we were breaking off the approach and returning to Addison.

I turned the airplane around and started bucking the 42 knot headwind; the best ground speed we could manage was 78 knots.  I noticed visibility varied between one and five miles.  I could clearly see ground lights, so fog hadn't yet formed.  In addition, most of the time I could see stars overhead.  So, apparently, we were in a deep layer of obscuration and thin cloud.  Once in a while our landing and navigation lights would cast a ghastly ,vaporous reflection as we passed through an errant wisp.  I chastised myself for becoming so startled by this turn of events.  For Pete's sake, I was on instruments and had everything needed to land safely back at Addison.  There was no reason to be worried.  I wouldn't have even known we were in instrument conditions, if Jane hadn't told me.  I had been happily buzzing along practicing instrument approaches.  Realizing this settled me down quite a bit.  I think my old VFR self had become startled and very worried when I saw the low visibility.  It was an old, instinctive VFR response.  I wasn't expecting conditions this poor and I it threw me.  If I had launched into instrument conditions, it would have been no problem.  Something about the unexpected change in the weather is what scared me.

Bucking the headwind caused our return to Addison to take an inordinate amount of time.  We checked Addison ATIS and found the temperature still about 17, but the dew point had risen to 14...definitely fog forming potential.  Addison was also reporting winds 16 with gusts to 23, but straight down the runway.  The wind was a bit high and the gusts were becoming significant; it could be an exciting landing.  When we checked-in with Addison tower, they mentioned that a Lear 25 had reported 10 knot wind shear on short final.  Oh great!  Better keep the airspeed up all the way to touchdown.  Our ground speed down final was only 58 knots.  Below 2000 feet we got knocked around in turbulence quite a bit.  I actually enjoyed that; made it a challenge to fly the ILS approach properly.  A wind check on short final indicated only 8 knots with gusts to 14.  Not bad at all.  I decided to make a "no flaps" landing; it would give me better roll control, just in case the wind became gusty at the last moment.  We flared and floated down the runway, scrubbing off excess speed we carried over the fence.  The touchdown was smooth as silk.  Whew...what a relief.

Between fighting the GPS and autopilot, poor visibility, disrupted plans, excess adrenaline, and landing worries, I didn't have much fun.  However, I figure it's flights like these that grow a bit of hair on your chest.  You come out tougher and more resilient; less brittle when things don't go as planned.  In that sense, this practice flight was very productive.  I've also decided I need to check the TAFs more closely before I depart.  I just assumed conditions would be fine because the weather that day had been wonderful.