Learning From Mistakes


This article originally appeared in IFR Refresher, July 2006.

Throughout more than 8000 hours and 20 years of flying, I have, like most of us, had numerous opportunities to scare myself and marvel at my own incompetence.Flying — and especially instrument flying — is such a complex endeavor that, given enough time, it’s inevitable that we all do something that’s … well … not so smart. It’s a process that’s unavoidable and one that strikes even the best of us.The uptick is that each misadventure can serve as a lesson for the next pilot. I’ve learned more about staying alive from hangar flying sessions than anything I’ve read in a flight-instruction book. So, to the old-timers who loved to spin a yarn, I’m forever grateful.Since we can learn from each other’s mistakes, I’ve decided to ‘fess up about some of my personal misadventures. These occurred when I was freightdogging it in light, piston airplanes. Perhaps you’ve already been in similar situations. If not, hopefully you’ll recognize them as they happen and take a better course of action. I learned from these lessons. Maybe you will, too.

A Day At The Beach

I’m assigned to fly a Cheetah on one of my favorite routes, which will take me from Raleigh, N.C., to Wilmington and the North Carolina coast, back to Raleigh, then on to Roanoke, Va., before returning to Raleigh to finish the day. The morning brings the promise of a beautiful summer day, confirmed by the forecast I get from the briefer at the Raleigh Flight Service Station.The reason I like this trip is that there is a long sit in Wilmington. Fortunately, the company has left a rattletrap car for us to use, and I spend the down time at the beach working on my tan. In KRDU it’s a quick turn, where I offload the bags before I continue on to Roanoke. A quick mental calculation tells me that I have enough fuel for the trip there plus the requisite IFR reserves. No sweat.But half an hour later, I am indeed sweating. The Roanoke ATIS is calling it right at the minimums for the LDA RWY 6 approach, the lowest one available. Somehow fog has formed in the valleys and it’s not local, either: Lynchburg, 40 nm to the east, is calling for the same conditions. It, however, has an ILS with lower minimums. I am now faced with a dilemma. Because the Roanoke forecast I received early in the day called for good weather, I hadn’t planned for an alternate. I can reach Roanoke and hold for 45 minutes, but then I wouldn’t have enough fuel to proceed to an alternate. For a minute I play with the idea to going directly to Lynchburg, but Roanoke is closer, so I elect to proceed there. If I go missed at Roanoke, I will immediately turn towards Lynchburg and land there.The controllers give me a big U-turn onto the localizer. At least the setting sun is on my back so I won’t be staring into it on the approach. I slow the Cheetah more than I normally do and remind myself to look left at decision height to find the landing runway. But at minimums, I have no luck. I climb away and advise tower of the missed. Suddenly, there’s a break in the clouds and I see that I’m right over the runway. I get a hurried new landing clearance and sideslip the airplane to get down, using up almost every inch of the pavement. The wet air feels refreshing as I slowly taxi to the FBO.Conclusion: I failed to get an update on the Roanoke weather, assuming it was still OK, because the TAF indicated so earlier. As a former Air Force meteorologist, I, of all people, should have had the sense to know how finicky the weather in the mountains can be.I have seen this in myself and in others since then, especially in pilots flying slow airplanes where one doesn’t cover much distance on each leg. After a couple of sunny hours on the beach, my mind was subconsciously programmed to take for granted that this would last for the rest of the day and flight.I’ve also revised my personal fuel reserves, realizing that the FAA-mandated ones are just that — minimums. I don’t plan to ever land with less than an hour in the tanks, irrespective of the circumstances. Worse weather mandates more padding and this has done wonders for my ulcer.

Wrong Number

This is another trip that starts benignly enough. I pick up the Raleigh ATIS and note that the pressure has changed little since the airplane — in this case, a Baron — was flown last the previous day. I barely need to twist the altimeter to set it. Elevation checks and preflight checks complete, I blast off on my way to the coast.This Baron’s got new engines and it feels powerful on takeoff. The standard level-off at 2000 feet comes much quicker than normal. Checking in with Departure, I’m cleared up to 4000 feet, with the added instruction to proceed on course when leaving 3000 feet. As I read back the clearance, I notice I’m already at 3000 feet and start to make the turn. Hmmm, they never do this. I’m about to cross the final for the intersecting runway.Then it hits me! ATC gives the altimeter setting to someone else before I can ask, but I realize I’m an inch off. My altimeter is set to 30.50 inches and not 29.50 inches that the ATIS called for. I’m 1000 feet lower than what the altimeter is indicating. I’m shaking with anger at myself and the day is totally ruined. Of course, it rained on the coast.Conclusion: The pressure had dropped almost exactly an inch since the plane was flown the previous night but I had adjusted only the last two figures off the ATIS, not catching the thousand-foot pointer 1000 feet high. This was obviously extremely sloppy behavior on my part. Had I written the ATIS down, as is standard operating procedure, I would have been more inclined to catch the discrepancy.On a deeper level, this is a situation of letting your mind wander at the start of a very simple and routine flight. It is also a matter of “seeing what you want to see.” A further lesson learned is something that I’ve come to realize more and more through the years: If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, it probably is.

Wind And Water

The weather at the coast is terrible and I end up holding over the airport waiting for a thunderstorm to move away. It doesn’t look bad visually and it is only moderately bumpy; but according to the AWOS, the winds are all over the place and the visibility is below minimums. After a while, the storm moves away enough for the conditions to go above the legal limits and I shoot an approach to Runway 17 with a circle to Runway 5. I break out at the missed-approach point and proceed for a tight circle in the hail and rain, feeling relieved on short final that I’ve made it.Well, it ain’t over ’til the fat lady stops squawking. With higher-than-normal approach speeds due to the gusting crosswind, I touch down a few hundred feet further down than normal, at which point the airplane hydroplanes and starts to veer into the wind. Full control deflections make it go straight again but there’s no braking action. With the end of the fairly short runway rapidly approaching, I think for a split second of trying to steer the Baron on to the grass for a softer stop. Then suddenly the tires start to grab the pavement and I come to a shaky stop, having used the entire runway.Conclusion: I concentrated on the problems of shooting a difficult approach to the exclusion of anticipating a difficult landing situation. With a thunderstorm just having moved off the field, I should have known that there’d be a significant accumulation of water on the runway, making the possibility of hydroplaning highly likely.

Iced Up And No Place To Go

There is ice forecast and reported for the flight up to Richmond, so the regular Piper Lance is substituted for an icing-certified Piper Seneca. Since I’m an instructor in the Seneca and the regular pilot — let’s call him Homer — is scheduled to transition to the twin, I feel that this will make a good training flight.It’s snowing heavily as we taxi out and Homer’s really gunning the throttles to keep us moving. I soon realize he’s riding the brakes, his subconscious showing discomfort with the situation. Dragging brakes is always bad, especially so in winter.We pick up a fair amount of ice in the climb, most of which is duly shed as advertised, although the airspeed settles at some 15 knots below normal. Engines are also running rather hot, so the cowl flaps stay open and leaning is less-than-optimum. It now dawns on me that we’re in a short-range Seneca. Hmmmm. “It’s just an hour’s flight, anyways,” says one side of my brain. “You sure?” asks the other.When I ask Homer what he’s filed for an alternate, he tells me Charlotte. “Everything around here is pretty bad,” he says. I don’t even need to ask him how he figured that one out. It’s an hour up to Richmond, two to Charlotte, plus 45 minutes reserve. That would work on a good day, but this isn’t one. Legal it is, but safe it isn’t.My brain has now definitely shifted out of neutral. I suggest to Homer that we should check the weather at different locations to have an out in case we need one. Much unfolding/folding of charts and flipping of plates commences, confirming my sneaky suspicion that things are going downhill fast. Not only is Richmond reporting an RVR of 1600 feet in heavy snow showers, all the satellite airports are equally unpromising.We’re being given several long vectors while picking up more ice, and we’re now more than one and half hours into the flight. Once on the localizer, Homer never gets fully established and we go missed. We come back for a second try and I’m thinking to myself that if he screws up again, I’ll take the controls. We really need to get down now. This time bright red flags greet us and I’m guessing that the localizer antenna is frozen over. Great. We go missed again.Homer’s sweating bullets and I’m not too happy myself. A one-hour flight has become a two-hour flight, most of it with higher-than-normal fuel flows. A decision to divert someplace must be made right now … the question is to where? Since nothing nearby is anywhere near non-ILS weather, I decide to stick with Richmond. I brief Homer that we’ll fly the exact GPS course for that runway down to localizer minimums and hope that the ILS comes back up at that point, which is what happens a mile or so from the threshold. Either some ice melted off the antenna, the signal became strong enough or both.Homer pulls off a greaser — how could you not with a foot of loose snow on the runway? — and we taxi slowly to the FBO. “We sure handled that pretty well!” says the now very cocky Homer. I walk away in disgust.Conclusion: This was mostly a classical mistake of two experienced pilots (Homer was an ex-airline guy) flying together, both assuming that the other knew what he was doing.Weather can be worse than forecast and unusual things happen, but it’s up to the PIC to plan accordingly, and when absolutely necessary, improvise. This requires intimate knowledge of weather and the limitations of your equipment — what it can do, and most importantly, what it can’t.

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