An Old Dog – New Lessons.

by Ken on November 24, 2009

Learning is a lifetime experience. Being humble or being able to be humbled is skill that I think some of us lose – to our own detriment.

I’ve been a pilot, as of this writing, for over 37 years. I’ve lost friends to the sport but have many, many more who are alive and well today despite their seemingly countless years and hours in the cockpit. What is it that separates the successful and the unsuccessful? There is a factor of luck – there is no doubt. But this is field where we make our own luck in so many ways and for us to forget that can be a dangerous ommision.

Though an IFR pilot for many years I’ve settled into the comfortable routine of flying very few instrument flights. Don’t know why. I really do enjoy sitting back with the view and the relative ease of fair weather flying. Its not that instrument flying is hard – much the contrary. But I’ve somehow gotten away from it. My flights today are mostly business and I choose the days to my advantage.

But one thing that has developed, and I was reminded of this today, is that I’ve let certain things go as standard equipment and materials to keep with me.

The “get-there-itis” bug does strike. We all know that it is a serious disease and each of us has professed to never become victim of this. But then that day comes – especially with business flying, where you’ve made a promise to be there or you really want to get home – didn’t even really bring a change of underwear for that long hotel night, alone, that might come up. You really want to launch.

Today I was on such a mission. The weather predictions proved inaccurate and as I remained on the ground doing my business and professional missions I reluctantly looked up to a diminishing sky. I did NOT want to remain in the town that night. I did not have a tooth brush or anything.

I got into the airplane after checking local AWOS report and it looked like the “soup” I observed would be lessening as I headed north (my direction of flight). The ceilings were reported to be about 800 feet local but rising quickly to the north. I surmised that they would lift to about 1200 as I journeyed homeward. So I lit the fires and was off the runway heading north.

I immediately observed a thick blanket just above me. I leveled off a bit low and headed into the misty skies – which I really thought would be clearing as I proceeded.

But as I proceeded this did not happen. I shifted east, towards light, and did not like it, and turned west and that was bad. Then I turned around towards where I had left and – guess what. It was no good. I turned into an area, remaining out of a close by Bravo Space, that looked like about 4 miles of a circular patch of view. But it was locked in on all sides. Looking up, the clouds went into an unknown region in all directions. There was no way to slip low and get under because the clouds were beginning to near the ground creating, basically, a little clear patch for me to use for my circling to the right.

Well – now I started to think. This is not good. Wrong time to realize it – but there I was.

I realized my only way out was to file IFR. So I began looking for frequencies to file. I had some VFR charts but to brief the situation (study it) while controlling a hand full of airplane was the wrong thing at the wrong time. But what were those frequencies? How do I file? I could not remember. I had not filed, while in flight, in at least 8 years. I’d gotten lazy and fat and dumb and – well, you know. So I called Flightwatch – magical 122.0. I wanted to say “Help!” but what I said was – “I want to file an IFR flight plan, can you get me some service station frequencies?” She gave me 3. I tried the first two – no luck. I continue circling (about 2500 feet). The 3rd one responsed. She says, okay, please give me your plan.

Plan??? What plan. So I skirmished around the cockpit looking for a flight plan form – I have always had it on the back of my kneeboard. Kneeboard? Damn! It was back in my hangar sitting neatly on a shelf – WITH MY F’King LOW IN-ROUTE CHARTS AND MY – APPROACH PLATES. Okay, I’ll handle that later.

“Maam, please guide me through it”. My Tail number is ——-, etc. I want to go to Ocala, I am a PA-28 180D and please, remind me – oh please, oh please” I didn’t really say that – but that was my thinking.

When it came to declaring a fix – I had no idea. I saw an intersection on the GPS and named it – she accepted it.

Man she was nice – as I circled the heavens between the walls of hell. After a bit she said – okay, I’ve got it – you can contact Approach to get your clearance.

“Okay”, I said. “But was is their frequency?” She gave me two.

I made contact and called several time. The clouds were not getting any thinner.

“Cherokee – unable – please stand by”. He was busy. So I waited – thump, thump, thump. Finally, “ Who was that who called”. I responded”

“There is no flight plan here for you”. What? I just filed it!

“I am circling out here in a diminishing VFR patch and need to get an IFR clearance”

He then said, “Try re-filing an check back”.

Around and around.

So I called FSS again and got the same gal. “We have already sent that in – recheck – he should have it now”.

So back to Approach. “No, not here. Where are you going?



Tick tock, tick tock.

“I don’t have your plan but I can give you an IRF clearance to the edge of my space”.

“Good enough” – I thought to myself, “Get me into that safe IFR cocoon.” I’d forgotten how wonderful it is to be on an IFR flight plan – so comforting to know you are being nutured through space in a block of safety.

So he took me to 4000, heading 270 out over the gulf. Soon he got me turned towards Ocala and I got into and remained in the clouds – solid IMC”.

Now I began looking for those breaks. The ones that, remember, I thought would be there.

They were not there. It thickened. I shot out into the open space a few times but the clouds and rain surrounded me. I was heading to Ocala.

But, alas, I had no approach plates. I did not even know the Localizer frequency. Where was that? I looked and looked – maintaining my eyes on the instruments – etc.

No where. I checked my 496. I know it is in there. I could not find it.

So, as I have always remembered, “Confess”.

“Jacksonville Center – what is that localizer frequency for the ILS 36 at Ocala?” He had me standby and, without a hint of scold, said “111.5” – I switched to it – listened to the Code identifier, and the needle swung to the right just like it ought to. I was okay.

The rest of the trip was easy – in the soup the whole way – he got me on the localizer but made me hold altitude till the guy in front of me, on the same approach, was able to see the field and to cancel his IFR plan. As soon as he did, I was let down to 2000 until established and cleared into Ocala. He terminated radar while I was on the glide slope and reminded me to cancel soon as I saw the field.

I broke out at about 800 feet and loved the site of that runway.

After landing I chose to remain at Ocala because the mist and cloud bank to the east went to the ground. My little grass strips, at home, were and are no place to be shooting instrument (and blind) approaches.

A call to Kim got her out to pick me up and the airplane remains there tied up tonight.

Several lessons:

I’m a pretty good IFR pilot (but that does not mean a damned thing given the real lessons:

  1. “got to go itis” is bad. But we all know that. This changes nothing. The time will come. Somewhere, sometime, it will bite and bite at a bad time.
  2. To be flying without having all charts, all probable approach plates, is foolishness; even on a beautiful day.
  3. One should drill and drill the action of filing an IFR flight plan from the air. One should have all necessary materials there and be familiar with them.
  4. Know the frequencies in the area – drill and stay on top of the FSS frequencies. Print them out on the panel if necessary. Most of us remember Flight Watch – but how often have you not had them respond? For me – many times. It’s leaving too much to luck.
  5. If one has a Garmin 496 (or any other) – dammit – learn how to use every nickle’s worth of it. Trying to figure out any gizmo, in IMC conditions, is the wrong thing at the wrong time.
  6. Keep a kneeboard in the airplane and know where it is.
  7. Keep a pen.
  8. Review the materials (charts and plates) in the airplane and make sure they do not become little items of permanent storage that you move out of the way  each time we are looking for something.
  9. And – if  are IFR rated – fly IFR every once in a while. Keep the the practice in – even on nice days. Just using the system keeps you lean and mean. It is safe and reassuring.
  10. Oh – and, if not IFR rated or current – don’t push the margins. I did so, foolishly. I had the IFR capability (both airplane and pilot) in the back of my mind, but was not really prepared to go that route. I have a friend who carries a sky-blue card in his wallet. Before he flies he holds it up to the sky. If it and the sky match – he flies. Otherwise – he stays on terra ferma. Overly cautions? Probably not.

Do you know all the above points?. Of course you do. And so do I. But look what happened to me today. Fortunately I’ve done enough IFR stuff that most of it came back. But I was sloppy with the system and, seeing what I was missing, you can see why. I should never have allowed myself into that position.

This is my confession. It is the confession of a relatively experienced pilot who lost his fear and apprehension about flying decades ago. Maybe I also lost a  bit of that healthy caution that keeps us out of trouble. This sport can kill us. We all know it. We got to be reminded – without dying to do so.

Hope you have spotted one or two things in your own flying that you might vow to correct.

I darn well have. I start loading the airplane up tomorrow.

Ken Risley

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bryan Risley November 28, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Good writeup. Might want to add a change of underwear and a tooth brush to your kit as well. Not a bad idea.

Connie Arthur December 4, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Whoa! I sure hope you have or will consider sharing this with any and or all the flight training publication, and AOPA so it may bring this stark reminder to pilots of all levels of experience. This is pure gold when you consider all the scenarios that drive the “got to go itis” to the culmination of a fatal crash. I know in my heart that John Kennedy was driven to this by his babbling females who harangued him to get to a wedding. Passengers have to be willing to support the “go, no go” decision, as well as as a pilot becoming over confident and willing to ‘wing it’. Thank you for your ‘confession’, please share it where it will make a huge impact.
Thank you,

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