Sunday, January 17, 2010

Reality Check--January 16, 2010

Woke up at 8:15 A.M.  Didn't really want to move.  I had a TERRIBLE time sleeping last night...just tossed and turned with my mind moving a mile a minute.  Matt was the same...I could hear him moving all around.  At one point, I got up and tried to make the room darker and lower the temp.  I stepped outside.  We think we were both wired from some 8:00 McDonald's coffee.  BAD move.  I'm not sure when I finally went under...

Grabbed breakfast...I guess the cook had walked was terrible.  I had a choice of cereal and biscuits and gravy, more or less.  I grabbed Rice Krispies.  And then two pieces of toast.  I tried not to complain, as Haiti was on my mind.  It's been there a lot lately.

Ate, then finished the packing I began last night.  It takes about 5 minutes anymore.  A life on the road makes you pretty good at it.  We checked the weather, and it was descent there in Texarkana...clouds were around 5000 feet.  But down in Longview, the clouds were forecast at 1300 overcast.  And we had rain from Texarkana all the way down.  It would be an IFR day.

Headed to the airport, filed a flight plan, printed off my charts, and prepared for the flight.  It was going to be a short 40-minute flight...and I was flying direct.  Not too difficult.  But an IMC day necessitates extreme simply can't fly poorly.  Your own life is at stake.

I was cleared as filed to Longview, Texas...just 74 miles away.  I took off Runway 4 and headed southwest.

Although it was rainy and misty the entire flight, I didn't actually enter the clouds for a few miles.  But it didn't take long.  I was "in the soup" pretty quickly after departure...just a few short miles south of the field.  The controller advised me of an area of moderate rain along my route of flight.  "151, I'll expect that."  He was just giving me a heads-up...there wasn't much to do but just prepare for some rain!  But the flight wasn't too bad.  I was in heavy overcast and couldn't see anything, but at least it was smooth.  And I made the decision to hand-fly this whole flight just for good practice.

There are days when I love flying IFR, and there are days where I just hate it.  This leaned more towards the hate side of it.  And I'm not sure why.  I think it's because it just requires 100% attention at all times.  All times.  You literally can't get distracted for anything.  You can't take your eyes off of your gauges for more than a few seconds at a time.  When you read something in your lap (like the approach plate), you have to keep looking up, looking down, looking up, looking down.  Plus my eyes kind of burned from the brightness (I put on my sunglasses), and my body was playing tricks with my head.  Most of the time I'm fine in IFR conditions, but today was just kind of discomforting...I won't lie...I had some fear.  I trusted the instruments, but it seems like every time I fly in hard IMC, I have to build that confidence back up again.  And it was back and forth, constantly adjusting to stay on course, watching my altitude...nose up, nose down, turn left, turn right.  It's amazing just how unstraight you can fly when you just fly by the instruments.  Subtle changes is all it takes, but you just have to keep doing them ALL the time.

I got the ATIS Foxtrot at Longview, and landings were being done on Runway 36...the approach chart that I chose not to print off.  <sigh>  I had the ILS to 31 and the VOR-A approach.  So I requested the ILS.  The controller gave me vectors for the approach.  I was cruising at 131 knots down there, so I was moving at a pretty good clip.  He gave me a heading of 220.  Then 230 as I got closer.

Then he said I was 5 miles from the outer marker, and I could turn to a heading of 160 and descend to 2300 feet as I intercepted the localizer (I had started at 4000 feet but was given 3000 20 miles out).  I started my turn and watched my localizer needle swing QUICKLY over.  Crap.  He gave me a late turn with these northern winds.  Grr!  I stayed in my turn until 110 degrees.  My approach course was 131 degrees.  I was able to keep the needle just a couple of dots off center after that turn...then brought it center...but I had to maintain a 110-degree heading!  Those northern winds were strong!

Then I hit the outer marker, and I began my descent down to 860 feet.  And that is when my flight just fell apart.  All of a sudden, I lost my northern winds.  My 110-degree heading put me way to the left of the centerline...crap.  The needle swung out.  I tried to correct.  The controller even saw me off-center and advised me that I was north of course.  I acknowledged.  A little embarassing, but I was definitely BEHIND the airplane.  Not a good place to be.  I turned to 150.  The needle came back.  I turned for 131.  But I was just all over the place...literally chasing the needle like a student pilot.  Agh!  I was switched over to Tower and cleared to land on Runway 36 after circling from the ILS 31 approach.  I even waited a few seconds to call Tower as I focused on getting on that centerline.

And all the while, I was descending.  2000.  1500.  1000.  And I was still thick in the soup.  Hmm.  The latest ATIS said clouds were 1300 overcast.  That would mean breaking out around 1700 feet MSL.  But I sure wasn't. 

Dang it, Andy, FOCUS!!!  Get on the centerline!  I had to almost yell at myself in my head.  I was low, and I was flying very poorly.  Never a good combination.  I glanced down at my circling minimums.  I could drop down to 860.

1000.  900.  890.  880.  870.  Nothing.  Still in the airport in sight.  860.  And my needle was still swinging pretty badly.  860.  860.  860.  NO sight of the airport.

Then it hit me.  "Shit."  It just came out.  I was NOT in a good position.  You see, I very rarely cuss.  VERY rarely.  But that word has surprised me and come out at the most unopportune of times...most notoriously about 1 second before I crashed my motorcycle into the back of a minivan.  But there it was.  The word shot out.  I was in a situation that I just didn't prepare myself for.  Looking back now, I never really even considered it.  And that was TERRIBLE pilot decision-making.  I needed to get out of there and fast.

Legally, this would be the point where I would quicky initiate a Missed Approach.  Since I didn't see the airport at the necessary altitude (860 feet in this case), I would immediately climb and try the approach again or head to another airport.  I mean, it's not like I didn't think about it.  After all, I HAD filed an alternate, I did have that alternate's approach plate on my lap, and before flying the approach, I did read the Missed Approach instructions.  But I literally just got behind the airplane.  And I fully expected to break out of the clouds.  Sadly, a Missed Approach just wasn't an option for whatever reason.  I knew that it was possible, but looking back now, I guess I never really even believed it.  I was certain that I was going to pop out.  But I was wrong.

I did see the earth real quick.  For just a split second.  Then it disappeared.  And it's amazing what the mind does.  I glanced at the altimeter, and I began to wonder what was out there around me.  I envisioned me blazing through pine trees, or maybe clipping a tower somewhere just off of the approach course.  It only took a split second, but that thought crossed my mind.

800 feet.  And then I don't even remember.  I made a quick glance at my GPS, made a slight turn to get that extended course line pointed to the airport and looked outside.  I honestly don't even know how low I dropped.  It didn't take much more, but it was illegal.  And very unsafe.  But I BARELY saw the first portion of Runway 31.  I certainly couldn't make out the rest of the airport, was hidden behind clouds.

What a nightmare.

I kept that Runway 31 in my view and started a gentle turn to the south for a downwind to 36.  Then I could see the 18 on the runway.  Then I saw the length of the runway.  This was getting better.   But man, was I low.  Just 400 feet above the ground.  Maybe a little less.  Then CRAP!!!  The runway disappeared to my left.  I had clouds here at 400 feet.  I lost the runway for a bit, saw the buildings below, so close.  I kept looking over...then I saw the runway again.  And I just now realized that I wasn't set up for a landing, so I quickly slowed up, put the first notch of flaps in, and kept flying out my left window.  I was NOT going to lose this runway.  What would I do for a missed approach anyway now?!  I was now 50 degrees off course from my approach.

I added the 2nd notch on base.  Man, was I low!!!  I turned tight, kept my airspeed up, and lined up for final.  And just like that, I landed with no problems on Runway 36.  It was over before I knew it.  It was pretty stinkin' good to be on the ground.

I taxied over and shut down the airplane.  It was still misting and raining.  I had flown just 1.0 hour exactly.

I almost just needed some time in my airplane by myself!  I had made a stupid move that many a pilot has not walked away from.  It was just unsafe on all accounts.  But the line guy walked up, and I had to get out.  Life was moving on.  I talked to Matt, and he was ecstatic from a beautiful VOR approach.  His confidence shot up 300% after a perfectly-executed approach...breaking out of the clouds at 1000 feet with the runway directly in front of him.

I was just pretty silent.  I let him know about my experience, but there just wasn't much to say.  I was pretty somber.  Just in thought.  This would have to be a learning experience, and frankly, I awaited the time to write about it.  I needed to relive it moment by moment, figuring out where I was ill-prepared.  Figuring out what I did right...and wrong.  What was smart...and stupid.  What was safe...and illegal.  What could have gotten me killed.

Yeah, I did a lot of reflection today.

A lot of thoughts, too.  Just the realization that I can die.  In flying.  Shoot, the thought crosses my mind more often than not...especially since I fly by myself all the time.  I am the only one responsible for me living.  But today it hit me pretty hard.  I can be just another statistic.  And the world would go on without me.  It would be sad, people would miss me, but I could be dead.  It's very possible.  And also the regret, frustration, and anger at a perhaps poor instrument training experience.  I know a lot, but the more I fly, the more I realize there is so much I don't know.  Stuff that I really need to know.  Stuff that I wasn't taught.  Stuff that can keep me alive.  I really, really, really wish I was more proficient at flying IFR.  And then there were thoughts about how could I have had an absolutely awesome execution on my last ILS approach (in Ft. Lauderdale) followed by such a terrible one today?  Yeah, just a lot of thinking and reflection.  Hopefully for the better.  I know I'm not the only pilot who has dropped below minimums.  I know I'm not the only pilot who has made a mistake.  But frankly, it's no excuse.  And it's just terribly stupid and unsafe.

I was just very, very unprepared.

Learn from this, Andy.

The afternoon was leisurely.  Grabbed the rental car (Enterprise chose to give us a different price than what we reserved it at...AGAIN).  This happens a good 80% of the time...which is why I print off my confirmations now.   I showed them the paperwork, questioned them as a company, and was told it was my fault.  I'm sure they make hundreds of thousands of dollars off of it, but it's really starting to tick me off.  I need to start video-taping every experience.

Grabbed some lunch at Jack in the Box.  Grabbed a hotel, caught up on my finances, went out to eat at Texas Roadhouse, and then worked out a little.

Also found out tonight that one of my brother's classmates died in fire tonight.  Today was the funeral of my friends' dad back home, too.  Death all around.  And I think about Haiti quite a bit, too.

Forecast is for mist tomorrow morning at 8 o'clock.  But clouds at 5000 feet.  Who knows if we'll be able to work or not.  Clouds are high enough.  But we can't have moisture.

Went to bed too 12:45.

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