About 120 nautical miles separate Winchester and Lynchburg, Virginia. But even a nearby destination may prove strangely difficult to reach.
The pilot-owner of a 1964 Cessna 210D, a 50-year-old physician with about 300 hours, left Winchester for Lynchburg, alone, a few minutes before 8 o’clock on an April evening. He had made the same trip, in both directions, many times. Several of those had been in the past few weeks, and, with a newly acquired instrument rating, he had filed IFR on each of them. One of those trips was at night, but the eight-tenths of an hour of solo actual instruments that he had logged had been in daylight. He had flown in actual instrument conditions, with an instructor, during 4.6 hours of his training; the rest was simulated. This was his first solo night IFR flight in weather. Its every detail would be recorded and preserved, second by second, by an electronic engine and systems monitor and data logger.
Lynchburg was reporting 600 overcast and three miles in mist, with calm winds. The flight began uneventfully, but after 15 minutes the Potomac Tracon controller noticed that the 210’s heading was 270, whereas it should have been 210. He called the discrepancy to the pilot’s attention. The pilot, then level at 8,000, said that he was “just a little disoriented here” and proceeded to correct his heading.
Tracon then offered vectors around weather, which the pilot accepted, and for the next quarter-hour he weaved, with the controller’s guidance, among areas of moderate rain.
He appears to have been hand-flying the airplane, whether because its autopilot was not working or because he thought it desirable to gain experience hand-flying in IMC. His altitude control was generally accurate, but his heading wandered continually. About 27 minutes into the flight, the 210 turned around northward in the space of a minute and lost 1,000 feet of altitude. The doctor, a specialist in diabetes, was himself an insulin-dependent diabetic, and one of the conditions of his medical certification was that he check his glucose level at one-hour intervals while flying and within 30 minutes before landing. Perhaps the brief excursion from controlled flight occurred during such a check.
About an hour after the start of the flight, he was cleared down to 3,000 with vectors for the Runway 4 ILS at Lynchburg. He missed the approach, reporting to Lynchburg Tower that he had problems with his “engine monitor.” Indeed, the manifold pressure and percent-of-power traces on the engine log drop to near zero before the start of the approach and remain there, implausibly, even during the climb portion of the miss while several other indicators show the expected increase in power. But it is unclear why those obviously spurious indications would affect an ILS approach.
Back with approach control and making right turns to regain the ILS, the pilot neglected his altitude, which decayed from 3,000 to 2,200 feet. The controller issued a low-altitude warning, and the pilot replied, “That’s affirmative. I’m just trying to get the VORs in here.” This was an uncharacteristically muddled transmission; his communications and clearance read-backs had been, to this point, generally precise and well worded.
The controller, who by now was well aware that he had a pilot who was, at least potentially, in trouble, offered a GPS approach, but the pilot replied that he would prefer another ILS. Again, there was a problem: The pilot reported himself to be on the localizer when he was in fact well to the right of it. The controller instructed him to climb immediately to 3,000. On both ILS approaches, the logged GPS altitude trace drops to near 1,000 feet, just a couple of hundred feet above the sparsely populated terrain south of the airport.