Gear Up: A Close Call

Experience doesn't eliminate close calls.

The weather for the first two-thirds of the flight from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, to Lebanon, New Hampshire, was good, right up to the part where a stalled cold front kicked up thunderstorms and at the same time produced low ceilings, fog and reduced visibility over most of the Northeast. Lebanon is in a nonradar environment, and I knew I'd be making an ILS to minimums or close to them. The alternates were Montpelier, Vermont, and Manchester, New Hampshire. They looked OK, not great, in the forecasts; the nearest really solid alternates were as far away as Virginia. I didn't know it, but I was about to scare myself.

Takeoff was delayed by 30 minutes as we all waited in line for an ancient Cessna 182 to establish communication with the FLD tower. Finally, an AirVenture helper walked out to the bright red airplane and shook the high wing to get the pilot's attention. All the while, I was watching rapidly changing sequence reports on the Avidyne EX500 that bore witness to the deteriorating weather almost 700 miles to the east. This was the first red flag, but I was only dimly aware of it. With the Cessna pulled off to the side of the runway in the grass, I took off alone, watching carefully for all the traffic I could hear on the radio and see on the Avidyne. It was busy, but by the time I got across Lake Michigan I was happily ensconced at FL 250, enjoying a tailwind of 40 knots or so.

Sailing along at 280 knots of ground speed, I watched as the TAFs changed to match the metars; it was definitely going to be interesting. I calculated and recalculated the airplane's ability to descend into Lebanon, go missed, and retreat to New Jersey or even Virginia if necessary. I hadn't much thought about a hold at Lebanon before the approach. I should have known better. I fly to KLEB a lot, and I've been held at the VOR a few times waiting for another airplane to land or for a departing NetJet to call out of 6,000 feet so that Boston Center can identify it. But, given my overriding concern about the weather, I just didn't think much about a hold, obvious as the possibility was. This should have been the second red flag.

As I approached the weather, it was clear that it was going to be bumpy. HIWAS stations were reporting embedded thunderstorms and low ceilings and visibilities almost everywhere. I watched helplessly as Montpelier's weather slowly went from 1,000 overcast to 200 — not a great alternate. Now anxiously switching the Avidyne EX500 between the map/Nexrad display, the on-board radar, the metar and TAFs and the stored approach charts for KLEB, I was completely concentrated, but not well concentrated, as we shall see. There was little icing, though.

As the distance to the field slid below 100 nm, I was anticipating an instruction to descend, but it didn't come. The controllers were busy with reroutes, delays, course deviations and weather/fuel concerns, so I kept quiet until the backup GPS said that I'd be over the field in 14 minutes, a very short time to lose 25,000 feet with a tailwind. I asked Boston for a descent and they replied, "I thought you were going to Lewiston [Maine]."

I replied no. What I didn't do was recognize the third red flag. This is how things pile on and a bad outcome gains a foothold. So far, bad weather, failing to account for holding time and a mix-up about the destination had all taken their seats at the show, waiting to see what I'd do next. They were not disappointed.

I was vectored to the north in order to get down, and I was happy with this. From Montpelier to KLEB you can join the ILS 18 without the procedure turn. I was hoping to get down to 4,000 feet as indicated on the chart, fly towards the airport and join the ILS without having to get straightened out on the procedure turn in mountainous terrain with all this weather. This course looked better than most on the Nexrad. I was by now deep in the cloud.

This fortuitous arrangement was not to be, however. Just as KLEB issued a special metar declaring minimums (400 and a mile and a quarter), I was issued hold instructions and an expected further clearance time. I pored over the approach chart, wrote down the crossing altitudes for the procedure turn, checked and rechecked the ILS frequency, and put the LEB tower frequency in the standby box. The hold was inbound on the localizer to the outer marker, right-hand turns, 10-mile legs, maintain 6,000 feet. I listened intently to learn if Cape Air's Cessna 402 made it. If he went missed, I was going to move on to Manchester. Even though the pilots for this regional airline are highly experienced at flying these approaches in these mountains, I'd rather be in a Cheyenne than a high-time 402. I joined the localizer and made a right 180 when I got to BURGR, the outer marker. So far, so good.

After the next turn inbound, I could hear the 402 check in on the approach. At the marker, just as I started my right-hand turn to go outbound again, came the following instruction: "Cleared for the ILS 18 approach; contact the tower at BURGR inbound." This is when it all fell apart. I was over the marker just turning away from the localizer and I was 3,000 feet above the inbound altitude. The procedure turn is to the left of the localizer and I am turning right. Was it safe to fly outbound, descend to 4,000 feet and join the ILS? Or did I need to do the procedure turn, and, if so, how did I get there?

"The lowest I can give you is 5,400 feet," said Boston Center.

I switched to the approach plate page of the Avidyne, pulled the power back and set 5,400 in the altitude preselect. I would be using the autopilot and monitoring it closely.

I scrolled through the ILS 18 approach pages, looking for safe altitudes. After what seemed like just seconds, I turned my eyes back to the primary instruments and couldn't believe what I saw. I was level at 5,400 feet and the airspeed was bleeding off rapidly. I was already below the blue line and heading for a stall. I pushed the power way up, disconnected the autopilot and stared balefully at the airspeed indicator. Was that a stall horn I heard? Or was it just a primal scream from the base of my brain? I don't know, but I did know that I had come close. The airplane had trimmed itself nose up — a situation about which I thought I would never find myself left unawares, as the trim wheel caresses my right knee and I have become accustomed during the last 1,500 hours to its every slight rotation.

But nose up it was, and I was astonished to feel the airplane leap upward with all that power. Still, the airspeed was too low — maybe just less than a hundred knots. I pushed mightily forward on the yoke. It was all over quickly. Seconds later I was level at 5,400 feet traveling outbound parallel to the localizer at 140 knots. In retrospect, I think I felt sensations that must have been similar to those in the cockpit of Colgan Air Flight 3407, which crashed near Buffalo. The airplane had slowed. In response to a stick pusher, the captain apparently sought to avoid nosing over into the ground and pulled back, stalling the airplane. Fifty were killed.

Chastened, I still had to find my way onto the localizer, safely lose another 2,500 feet and shoot the approach to minimums. I decided to go way out to an initial approach fix, get turned around on the localizer and, when safe, get down quickly to catch up with the glide slope. I knew descent would be rapid, but now I was a pilot who feared pulling the power back too far.

Somehow, it worked. At 400 feet above the ground I saw a wisp of runway behind a wisp of fog. This was going to be OK.

It was in a sense, but after landing I could do no more than taxi in and shut down. I sat back in a passenger seat and poured myself a cup of coffee. The rain made a dull sound on the fuselage. The windows clouded over with moisture. With the heat shut off, the chilled glass made a convenient place for moisture to congregate.

How could an experienced pilot come up so short on situational awareness? How could I come so unglued as to experience that dry mouth sensation that I hadn't felt in an airplane in 20 years? I'm not sure I know, but I do have a sense as to what happened one winter's night near Buffalo.

Over the next few days I unburdened my sins on several pilots. Those familiar with the airport, who have flown into KLEB on many a stormy night, simply said I should have asked to hold to the left, which would have allowed me to catch up with the procedure turn. A friend of mine knowingly consoled me by saying of his own close calls, "It happens so fast!" My airline pals were all sympathetic, and each had a story or two of how such things had happened to them — in two-pilot cockpits. In the end, I decided that their sense of charity had won over their commitment to honesty. I had done an incredibly stupid thing and, as such, learned another lesson in the air.

Why would I admit this event in writing? Why would a venerable aviation magazine publish this obvious and egregious violation of basic airmanship? I am reminded of a quote by Martin Amis, who said, "It is those terrible gaffes, those terrible flops, that make our hands fly to our faces." I write this to admit that an experienced pilot, comfortable in his own airplane, can make just such a mistake and that, if it weren't for all those practiced stalls over the years in real airplanes and in Cheyenne simulators at Flight Safety, I might not have written another word.

That day, when I finally walked down the air stairs into the rain, I shivered. I slowly put on the engine inlet and Pitot tube covers. Soaking, I walked to my car, and looked up. By then it was zero-zero.