A Bad Day

A day when just about everything that could go wrong, went wrong.  However,  I kept calm and flew the plane and made rational decisions.

This flight took place in the early 1990s. I was flying a Piper Arrow for a local car dealer.  The aircraft was equipped with dual King KX165 NAV/COM radios and a KNS 80 RNAV.  This was a few years prior to GPS making its way to general aviation aircraft.  On this particular morning we were flying from Montgomery County Airpark KGAI to Lancaster Airport KLNS, a route that I did two or three times a week for this company.

We had planned for a 7 AM departure however the night before we had a few inches of snow and with rising temperatures in the morning we had thick fog.  Low IFR everywhere.  Our departure was delayed while we waited for the ceilings to lift.  The entire mid Atlantic region was covered with fog and low IFR conditions.   The low IFR/fog was so widespread, that I had a hard time finding a legal alternate within my fuel range.  This is a disadvantage of needing to file an alternate, you need to have enough fuel to get to the alternate. 

Once the ceilings started lifting towards the minimum for the ILS at Lancaster,  we decided to launch.  One last check of the weather showed signs that the ceilings around us were also on the rise and the forecast was calling for higher ceilings as well.  So off we went.  Shortly after be handed off the Harrisburg Approach we were informed that the weather went below minimums (bad thing #1) at KLNS and also that the glideslope had just been NOTAMed out of service (bad thing #2).  Click here for an article I wrote regarding how to spot a glideslope failure.   At the time, the KLNS ILS had a 200 foot decision height.  This was prior to the era  of  XM weather and satellite weather, so I had to leave the approach frequency and contact flight service to get an update on the weather at my alternate.  Flight Service informed me that my alternate was below minimums and in fact, most of the area was showing 100 foot ceilings or less (bad thing #3).  So I simply throttled back to give myself some time to think about my options.

Basically I had no where to go that I could land (legally).  This is a rare occurrence, however it can happen.  Nothing within my fuel range was above the landing minimums.  My best option was KLNS.  I had been flying there two or three times a week for several years.  I was very comfortable and familiar with the airport.   Another thing on my side was that I had over 700 hours in the Piper Arrow that I was flying that day.  I could have held somewhere to wait and see if the weather improved.  I decided against that because what if the ceilings and visibility got worst. 

My plan was to shoot the localizer  approach and at the MDA I would just set up a descent in the landing attitude (like a glassy water landing in a seaplane) and just fly down to the runway.  I knew the power setting and rate of descent that kept me on the glide slope, so with some slight adjustments, I set up for a glassy water landing (so to speak).  As long as I kept the rate of descent that I normally saw on an ILS, I should land close to the landing threshold.  The runway was almost 7,000 feet long (this was in my favor).

Once I was handed over to the tower, I was cleared to land.  And the tower added “N9175Z report on the ground”.  We did in fact land and I reported on the ground.  I was within 100 feet of the runway before I had it in sight.  I was asked to report clear of the runway and when I did, the tower asked at which exit did I take.  And in that area, the fog was so thick, I could not see the taxiway sign.  So I told them that I was clear and that I did not know at which taxiway.  I was cleared to taxi to the parking ramp which I found very carefully.  For the most part, it was an uneventful flight, although it did produce some pucker factor.

Training and discipline is what got me through this.  My first flight instructor had a very similar incident.  And during my training for my instrument rating, two of my instructors would routinely have me land the plane under the hood from an ILS approach.  So I did it in practice and on this particular flight, I had to do it like my life counted on it.  Yes, there may have been numerous other options.  My decision to land at KLNS was based on the fact that I was flying there two or three times a week for several years, so I was very comfortable with the environment.   And I was very familiar with the aircraft and avionics.

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