In more than 30 years of flying I have flown only a handful of ILS approaches with the weather right at minimums. The same is true for most pilots. I think the reason is that the weather seldom cooperates. Fog frequently drops the visibility well below the required minimums, but mist, drizzle and rain usually cut visibility close to a mile instead of the half-mile that is the standard minimum on an ILS.
Because the weather is so fickle, training in the most sophisticated simulators is the best IFR practice a pilot can get. The newest visual displays do a nearly perfect job of simulating what a real ILS approach in minimum visibility looks like. That wasn’t true even a few years ago, when even the best simulator visual displays tended to have you popping out of the obscuration into reasonable visibility. That kind of “breaking out” doesn’t happen in real airplanes when the weather is at minimums.
As luck would have it, a few days before I was headed to Wichita for recurrent training in FlightSafety International’s new Level D Citation CJ2 simulator, I got to fly an ILS to real minimums. As is usually the case, the forecast didn’t predict this rare opportunity.
Stancie and I were headed back home from a visit to Sun ‘n Fun in Florida. The debut of EAA’s Countdown to Kitty Hawk exhibit featuring the exact reproduction of the Wright’s original 1903 Flyer was even better than I had expected.
The most popular aspect of the Countdown to Kitty Hawk exhibit appeared to be Wright Flyer simulators that Microsoft has created. People stood in line to take their turn at flying the nearly unflyable original airplane, but the time passed quickly, thanks to the entertainment of watching the simulated flights on large screens. The Flyer barely climbs at all, and most pilots lose control in roll as they try to nurse the nose up without stalling. The simulators will humble you, and at the same time increase your admiration for Wilbur and Orville.
The forecast for my home airport, Westchester County, New York (HPN), was unremarkable for my IFR flight. The lowest ceiling predicted for the day was 500 feet with visibility no lower than a mile. Winds were expected to be light, temperatures were well above freezing, so ice wasn’t an issue, and there was no precipitation in the forecast. Get past the thunderstorms in the southeast and we were home free.
But the weather didn’t read the forecast. Before departure, the visibility at HPN was a quarter mile. That will burn off, I assumed, because fog wasn’t in the forecast.
As we flew along, I used the Garmin GDL 49 satellite downlink system to get the metar report from HPN every hour. The quarter-mile visibility didn’t change, but neither did the forecast.
I checked again during a fuel stop at Kinston, North Carolina, and the report was still a quarter-mile with a new forecast that parroted the first, predicting two miles visibility or more for the entire period. With hours worth of reserve fuel we set off to take a look. Sure enough, on the next hour the metar reported visibility up to one and a half miles. The forecast was coming true.
But when we flew into range of the ATIS broadcast that old quarter mile visibility was back. The ceiling was indefinite, as it always is when the visibility is a quarter mile, so cloud height wasn’t an issue. The controlling minimum on the ILS is visibility, and a quarter mile is below minimums.
When we were handed off to the final approach controller he said the runway visual range (RVR) was 2,200 feet. RVR is measured by transmissometers mounted alongside the runway. A calibrated beam of light shines from the transmitter to a receptor and any obscuration of visibility reduces the intensity of the light received, and that information can then be converted into visual range.
RVR readings are updated to the controllers frequently but are often different than the prevailing visibility reported in the metar or ATIS broadcast. Because the RVR light beam is parallel to the surface, there is no slant range error in its visibility measurement as there is when a controller looks out the window of the tower. And because the towers supporting the RVR transmissometers are only about 20 feet high, they measure visibility close to the runway surface.
Because runway centerline lighting, and touchdown zone lighting, was installed at HPN a couple of years ago, the minimums on the ILS approach to Runway 16 dropped from 2,400 feet RVR, or one-half mile prevailing visibility, to 1,800 RVR. When RVR is functioning at a runway, its value, not prevailing visibility, controls minimums. RVR values are calculated in 200-foot increments when visibility is low, so we were only two clicks of the RVR calculator away from absolute minimums for the approach, and the controller said visibility was dropping.
When you are in the clear between cloud layers at the outer marker, you can bet the ceiling and visibility are really low, and we were, and it was. I would not have attempted the approach flying raw data-that is simply flying the ILS signal without the aid of a flight director or autopilot. The odds of a successful approach in such low visibility conditions on raw data are so low that I don’t think it’s worth the risk of trying.
I decided to let the Bendix/King KFC 200 autopilot fly the approach while I monitored the instruments. I told Stancie that the important part of the approach would be over in a second or two when we would either see the approach and runway lights at decision height or we wouldn’t. I asked her to concentrate on the view out the windshield and call out the first thing that she saw.
Just as the altimeter wound down to decision height, the touchdown zone lights and runway end identifier lights glowed very dimly through the fog. Stancie saw them first, and by the time I could look up more of the touchdown zone lights were visible. The runway edge lights were of no help because it was daylight, and they were more than 75 feet to the side of where I was looking. But the centerline and touchdown lights were the key to making the landing.
If you have never flown an ILS to real minimums it’s impossible to describe exactly what it looks like, and how little time you have to decide to continue to the landing. But whoever designed the visual systems on the new simulators got it right. Being able to fly an ILS to a simulated RVR of 2,000 feet in FlightSafety’s CJ2 simulator so soon after the real thing was amazing. I wish every instrument pilot could have the chance to fly the simulated minimum visibility before ever encountering the real thing because it won’t look like other ILS approaches, and it won’t look like you expect. And your chance to fly to real minimums will almost certainly come when it isn’t forecast. The adage around good flight schools is to train the way you fly, and fly the way you train. I’m glad I had that chance.
Circle Ups and Downs One of the required maneuvers in recurrent training for jets is to fly a circling approach. The procedure used to be quite artificial because the view to the side in simulators was so limited that you had to kind of fake it flying the heading bug and flight director around to get the landing runway in view. But the new visuals give you nearly 180 degrees of view, so the circling approach is realistic, and as difficult as in the real airplane.
A circling approach in minimums weather, or at night, is a risky maneuver in my book. Many flight departments won’t fly them. But they are a legal maneuver, so they remain part of the training syllabus.
I was cleared to fly the VOR 14 approach to Wichita to circle and land on Runway 1R in the CJ2 simulator. I had been flying engine-out since an engine failure on takeoff, and Dave Brown, the instructor, offered me the engine back. I was feeling cocky and declined the offer, and worse yet, decided to hand fly the approach instead of using the autopilot, even though using the autopilot is the standard procedure that FlightSafety teaches.
The minimum descent altitude for the circling approach was 1,800 feet, and, of course, the ceiling was at 1,900 feet, a phenomenon almost never seen in nature but always present in simulators. On a circling approach you cannot go even one foot below minimums or you bust the required performance standard. With the Collins Pro Line 21 altimeter tape showing 20-foot increments in big numbers everybody knows when you drop even a little below minimums.
I was doing okay for a while, but I soon proved to myself that I can’t look out the windshield to keep the runway in sight and look inside enough to stay within 100 feet of altitude and on airspeed while turning to downwind and then base. Of course any altitude deviation on the up side put me back in the clouds, which is supposed to be an automatic missed approach during a circle. I landed successfully, but not up to standards.
I should have let the autopilot fly the approach because it holds altitude perfectly while I look outside. Or I could have had my copilot hand fly the approach on the gauges while I looked outside to keep the runway in view. Or I could have flown and had my copilot “bug” me around with the heading bug while he kept the runway in sight. The only wrong way was the one I tried.
The next day I let the autopilot fly the circling approach at Memphis and everything worked out fine. The simulator is a good place to prove what you can do and what you can’t.
Long View of Nexrad Two recent flights have demonstrated to me what I think will be the primary value of the Nexrad radar composite pictures now available in our cockpits-long-range planning.
The first trip was up the East Coast from Florida to New York. A typical springtime north-south line of thunderstorms had developed over the Mid-Atlantic states stretching from the Georgia-South Carolina border up into southern New Jersey.
I have the Garmin GDL 49 satellite receiver in my airplane that puts Nexrad radar composite images on the moving map of the Garmin 530 navigation system. The flight plan line and waypoints are displayed on the map along with the radar image and other navigation fixes and airports, making it instantly obvious where the weather is compared to your planned route of flight.
I had planned to stop at Grand Strand Airport in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but the radar picture clearly showed that if I did, the line of storms would move over the airport while I was being refueled.
The next plan was to keep going and stay east of the line of storms to Norfolk, or some airport in Maryland. That plan looked good for a while, but the northern part of the line was moving faster, and it became apparent that the weather would beat me to Virginia.
The best spot to go looked like Kinston, North Carolina. The weather was just to the west of that airport. The Nexrad picture was showing some Level Three red areas near the airport, but I couldn’t find any heavy precip on my airborne radar, so the heavy rain was either very small in area, or it was at high altitude. I landed at Kinston in very turbulent air with the big up- and downdrafts that tell you thunderstorms are nearby, or will be forming soon.
By the time my Baron was refueled, and I looked at the radar composite on the computer in the FBO, the line of storms had passed. A little jog to the northwest and then back toward the coast would keep me clear. The Nexrad pictures that came in on the Garmin system confirmed what I had seen on the ground. I had not used the information to avoid a cell, or to penetrate the line, but to make avoidance decisions that ranged over several states. And, best of all, we never got up close and personal with any thunderstorm.
The other trip when Nexrad was invaluable was from Wichita to New York. A very intense closed low-pressure system was circling over Illinois and Indiana, generating 600 miles worth of rain, embedded thunderstorms and low ceilings. The forecasts were of little use because thunderstorms were possible over a huge area.
But the Nexrad picture showed a large area of green Level One light precipitation over my route with concentrations of Level Two yellow and Level Three red to the south. With my own airborne weather radar I would have been on the edge of the seat for a long time because the airborne radar doesn’t see anything except the biggest thunderstorms for more than 50 or 60 miles, and even less once you enter an area of light rain. With the Nexrad image updated in the cockpit I knew nothing heavy was on my route, but I did keep an eye on my own radar just to be sure.
The Nexrad images are turning out to be very valuable for IFR flying, but I’m not certain how best to use them for VFR only. Light precip shown as green is often very light, so light that you can’t find raindrops when you fly through it. And sometimes I have seen the green returns in areas of pretty good VFR conditions. But on the trip home from Wichita, the areas of green Nexrad had very low conditions with ceilings of a few hundred feet and visibilities under a mile. When an IFR pilot sees Nexrad green, he can press on with confidence, but the VFR pilot will need to be cautious and try to find out what’s going on under the green returns before flying into that area.
Airports on the Lake In our September, 1953, issue, we had a story praising Cleveland, Milwaukee and Chicago for their convenient downtown airports built on the lakefront. We credited Cleveland with being the first, opening in August of 1947.
It’s ironic that Maitland Field in Milwaukee is closed, Meigs Field is under attack and Burke Lakefront in Cleveland never lived up to the high expectations many had for it. Burke Lakefront continues to offer convenient access to downtown, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the new Browns Stadium, and Jacobs Field, where the Indians play, but Cuyahoga County Airport, more than 10 miles east of downtown, is much busier.
Meigs in Chicago is the ultimate in convenience to major attractions and the Loop, but Palwaukee Airport, wedged in among the streets and buildings north of the city, has much more action than Meigs. And Maitland in Milwaukee has been gone for years.
I don’t know why the downtown airports in these three cities didn’t live up to our expectations of 50 years ago, but the circumstances are more complicated than conniving mayors. Burke Lakefront at least grew to have parallel runways, the longest at 6,200 feet, and a localizer approach. Maybe it’s grow or die. Burke has, but Meigs and Maitland couldn’t.