A Hop-Skip-Jump Turns Into a Serious Flight

What happens when all of your stressors go into one short flight? A lot, it turns out.

Barry Ross Illustration
As I walk to the FBO, the words of my first instructor go through my mind: “Any landing that you can walk away from is a good landing.” This brings a smile to my face.Illustration by Barry Ross (barryrossart.com)

I planned to make a flight on a Wednesday from my small community airport in the Detroit area to KLUK near Cincinnati, Ohio. Late on Tuesday afternoon, I found out the runway would be closed at my strip on Wednesday as part of an FAA-mandated taxiway destruction. If I wanted access to the airplane on Wednesday, I’d better get myself over there and move the airplane to another airport.

Wednesday turns out to be a cold, cloudy, rainy day. It is fall, light is failing, and the ceilings are low—somewhere between IFR and low IFR. Wait, did I mention I have none of my equipment with me, such as my iPad or earphones? Wait, wait. Did I tell you I’ve had a long day full of pediatric patients and their parents complaining to me? I am tired and stressed, and I know it.

I call my flying buddy and ask him if he can do it, but he’s not checked out in this airplane. I have 800-plus hours and a fair amount of it under IFR in the usual Michigan clouds and ice. I weigh my options, and I choose a slightly larger airport nearby as a destination to move the airplane. It’s only 13 nautical miles away—a veritable “hop, skip and jump.”

I’ve flown this route many times. There are no TV towers or mountains between me and my new destination. This nearby airport has a Localizer Back Course 27 approach I have flown many, many times, because there are hardly any localizer back courses around, and it’s fun to run—and, as a plus, the airport has a control tower. Wait, did I tell you the west end of the main runway ends in a lake? No problem.

I arrange for a headset to be left in the hangar from the airport manager. I prep the airplane and lay out the printed charts of the nearby airport on the passenger seat, start up, and go to the end of the runway. Setting the radios and pair of Garmins beforehand, I think I am ready for this. I don’t bother with the autopilot. After all, it is only a hop, skip and a jump. Detroit gives me clearance, and I launch. Almost instantly, I’m thrust into a complete white-out. The ATC asks me if I want the RNAV. No, the BC ILS 27 is already programmed in. Then ATC asks me to go to a fix that is way northeast of my position. It takes me a while to input this into the Garmin. The whole time, I note the artificial horizon dipping right and left. The localizer needle is starting to move, and ATC finally just gives me a heading and altitude instead of this fix.



I look to the right and notice I did not lock the right-hand door. With an oath, I do this quickly and realize I probably did not go over the checklist with my usual care if I did not lock the door. Suddenly, a 10-minute flight is seeming a lot longer. A shiver runs down my back; what else did I miss? I look at the two omnidirectional instruments and try to figure out why one needle shows me left of course and the other shows me right of course. I wonder, does this Garmin give you correct sensing or reverse sensing if you put in the actual direction of the runway? Great, in a complete white-out, having a conundrum like this. I realize—from the times before, running the BC ILS 27—if I could not remember if it was reverse sensing, I could peek out the window and answer my question.

I look at the dual Garmin screens and see one is on VLOC and the other is on GPS. My IFR instructor called this button the “kill switch”—because if you did not have it on the correct one, you could be killed. This is easily fixed, and then the needles concur. I follow the crossed needles and the line on the ILS screen back and forth with what must have been wide swings. I really wish I had set up the autopilot. Shades of Mr. Kennedy. I pop out of the overcast very close to minimums, and fortunately, the runway is ahead, and I land without further issues. Whew. As I walk to the FBO, the words of my first instructor go through my mind: “Any landing that you can walk away from is a good landing.” This brings a smile to my face.

I sit in the FBO and go over all the screw-ups that could have cost me my life: flying at the end of a long day when I was exhausted; flying in a total white-out with light fading and low ceilings; not going over the checklist thoroughly; thinking that because I had completed this trip many times, doing it again in a different set of circumstances would be the same. In the calm of the FBO, I look at the other charts. Turns out the RNAV had lower minimums than the BC ILS 27. I should have checked that out. And used the autopilot—it saves a lot of your brain bandwidth that might be needed on other issues. Such as when you’re asking yourself if the needle is supposed to be normal sensing or reverse. I learned about flying from that.