Legal Doesn’t Mean Safe

The imposing peaks of Telluride, Colorado Courtesy Ben Younger

Laypeople are both astonished at a pilot’s abilities and wholly unimpressed during the act of flight itself. They sleep like children during instrument approaches to minimums but lose their minds when they get even a taste of light turbulence in the flight levels. It seems most people don’t know what to be afraid of and when.

I do. I used to think landings were the only place you could hurt yourself. I never understood how a takeoff could bite so many pilots. But then I lost my plane to a wind-shear incident departing Telluride, Colorado. I am now fully versed. I currently have a healthy amount of respect for all envelopes of operating an airplane. Hell, even washing one.

The day I departed Telluride was windy but within my airplane’s ability according to the POH. The density altitude was high but not so high as to make a sufficient climb gradient impossible. What I learned that day is that being “legal” may be enough to satisfy the National Transportation Safety Board in their accident report, but it isn’t always enough to guarantee your safety. The spirit of the law and the letter of the law do not always agree.

It took an entire year to outfit the Bonanza I bought to replace my totaled airplane. I went out to Greeley, Colorado, a couple of times to check on the progress of the build. After one such visit, I drove my rental car to Denver and met a friend who had chartered a private flight to Telluride. He invited me to join him. I gladly gave up my commercial seat on a regional jet that had me traveling to Montrose, then taking a shuttle up to Telluride—avoiding an hourslong trek. Flying as a passenger in the twin turboprop reduced it all to 45 minutes. Plus, no TSA or security, for which I would do anything to avoid.

It was my first time flying into Telluride since the accident. I was excited to watch two pros do their business. While my friend and his colleagues sat in the back and chatted, I sat right behind the cockpit and observed.

While my Garmin suite of avionics has made my 8-year-old Stratus ADS-B receiver an unnecessary piece of equipment, I still like to pull it out on commercial flights. Once the person seated next to me calms down from the shock of seeing me attach a brick-shaped electronic device with blinking lights to the window, the Stratus elicits genuine curiosity and a conversation.

Sitting on the ramp at KDEN with my iPad in my lap running ForeFlight, I could see we were racing against a storm quickly approaching from the west. We were 190 miles east of Telluride. It was going to be close. The two pilots preflighted efficiently, and there was little chatter between them. I recognized that particular kind of silence from my own flying as focused seriousness.

We were awarded a short taxi and climbed briskly to 27,000 feet. It was VFR as we approached the Rockies, but I could see the storm front directly ahead of us. There was none of that 45-degree business I was taught to do when crossing peaks at 16,000 in my normally aspirated single. No, we were booking it straight for the initial approach fix on the instrument approach procedure to Runway 9.

Once settled in cruise, the captain turned toward me, and we had a nice conversation about the airplane and his long history of flying into Telluride. I told him about my accident and the loss of my Bo. He shook his head solemnly when I mentioned the southerly winds that inundate the field in the spring. He told me he never takes off during those months when the wind is blowing over a seemingly benign 10 knots.

After a few minutes, we entered solid IMC, and he excused himself back to his duties. We started picking up ice shortly after that, but it was light rime, and his second-nature use of the pneumatic boots kept the leading edges clean. I went back to my iPad, monitoring the flight in real time.

We lost the race with the storm. It was snowing steadily when we reached Telluride. I noticed the boots were being inflated more frequently, and I heard the pilots discussing the weather: Montrose was still well above alternate minimums, and they would divert there if we went missed at Telluride. Their calm was what fascinated me most. I was anxious about the flight. It was now getting dark. It was snowing. But they acted as if we were VFR into Key West, Florida, with a wind sock that looked like it had keeled over from one too many margaritas the night before.

I did a jumpseat approach briefing on my iPad as we flew toward the IAF. A 13,000-foot FAF is not something you see every day. Telluride is surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks—one of which fills the windscreen as you approach Runway 9. Then I noticed something I had never seen before on an IAP: the minimums were 1,600-feet agl. This, only if your airplane can manage a 380 fpm climb per nautical mile. Otherwise, the minimums go up to 3,102 feet agl. For noninstrument pilots reading this, 200 feet agl is the standard minimum altitude on many of the precision approaches in the US.

Read More from Ben Younger: Leading Edge

We were on the final approach course at 13,000 feet msl as we hit the FAF—gear down and descending at 1,300 fpm to stay on the steep glidepath required to descend 4,000 feet in 10 miles.

I stared in disbelief at my iPad as we continued, and I struggled to see any part of the runway environment. I thought about saying something but did not want to disturb them in this high-workload situation. I held my breath and stared out the blank windscreen filled with snow. After the longest minute of my life, we broke out into better visibility at around 400 feet agl and sailed in for a perfect landing. I let out a breath I had no idea I was holding.

Before you start writing to the editor, understand that I am in no way condoning the pilots’ choices on this flight. All that being said, there is no denying their level of comfort on that approach. They knew the field, airplane and conditions. They were testing fate—a possible moose on the runway or a failed engine on the missed—but not their ability. Yet.

The takeaway for me is that personal minimums mean just as much as regulated ones. Do not break the rules just because you feel good about your piloting abilities. In fact, I am suggesting the opposite: As pilots, there are times we should retreat even further inside the safety bubble the rules create. For the pilots going into Telluride that day, it was a routine flight, and they knew the runway environment in a way I didn’t. That kind of presumption, however, can turn around and bite a pilot quickly. For the vast majority of pilots, this would be an incredibly dangerous approach, fully outside the purview of their aviation skills.

Familiarity means a whole lot when you are flying an airplane. There is a reason you hear of airline pilots with 30,000 hours stalling and spinning a piston single into the ground. Total hours mean little; total hours in type mean a lot. Importantly, I would expand “in type” to include not only aircraft but the type of conditions—weather and location being two crucial factors.

I have yet to return to Telluride sitting left seat. I can tell you that the day it happens will be well within the range of my own comfort level, not just the parameters the regulations set. My airplane has shown the ability to fly in a 17-knot direct crosswind, and as a VFR pilot, I am afforded the privilege to fly at night. When I next touch down on Runway 9, it will be clear and a million, sunny, and calm. I can work my way up from there.

Ben Younger is a TV and film writer/director, avid motorcyclist, and surfer—but it’s being a pilot that he treats as a second profession. Follow Ben Younger on Instagram: @thisisbenyounger.

This story appeared in the June/July 2021 issue of Flying Magazine

Ben Younger is a TV and film writer/director, avid motorcyclist and surfer—but it’s being a pilot that he treats as a second profession. Find him on Instagram @thisisbenyounger.

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