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My Worst Flight

Posted by mikehowells on April 8, 2011

It was Thanksgiving in 1991 and my family and I agreed that for our family reunion in Florida that I would fly everyone down in a small single-engine four-seater Piper Turbo Arrow.

Piper Turbo Arrow (PA28RT201T)

I had been flying for several years and I had around 200 hours of flight time and I had just obtained my instrument rating.  My instrument rating gave me the ability to fly in inclement weather and it gave me just enough confidence to fly my family from St. Louis, Missouri all the way down to the southern tip of Florida. After making a phone call to FSS (Flight Service) to check on the weather I was assured that the weather was beautiful en route and that I shouldn’t have any problems.

The flight plan originated from The Spirit of Saint Louis airport (SUS) in Chesterfield, MO and included three fuel stops with each leg roughly two hours in length:

Stop #1) Huntsville, Alabama (HSV)
Stop #2) Tallahassee, Florida (TLH)
Stop #3) Regional Southwest airport (RSW) in Ft. Myers, Florida
Stop #4) Marco Island airport (MKY) in Marco Island, Florida.

My brother and his girlfriend were flying in from Los Angeles, which is why we made a short stop-over in Ft. Myers airport to pick them up. This was going to be a red-eye flight so that we could get to Marco Island early and meet-up with everyone in a timely fashion.

Below is a map of our route of flight:

SUS-HSV-TLH-RSW-KMKY

We departed the Spirit of Saint Louis airport just after 10:00 pm on Thursday, November 28, 1991. Shortly after takeoff, we entered IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) at my assigned altitude of 7,000 ft. When we were overflying Paducah the weather conditions cleared. It was an awesome view seeing the full moon through the ragged cloud deck. The remainder of the flight was uneventful and we landed 10 hours later at Regional Southwest airport (RSW) in Ft. Myers, Florida just after 8:00 am the next morning. The most beautiful part of this trip was the flight over the Gulf of Mexico. A sight I will never forget was the sunrise over the Gulf from 7,000 ft on a clear morning with air as smooth as glass. I regret not having a picture of the view.

After spending a few days with our relatives and enjoying what southern Florida had to offer it was time to return home and get everyone back in time for work on Monday. Our return trip from Marco Island, Florida to the Spirit of St. Louis airport was almost identical to our route coming down.

The flight back included three stops:

Stop #1) Tallahassee, Florida (TLH)
Stop #2) Huntsville, Alabama (HSV)
Stop #3) Chesterfield, MO (SUS)

Below is a map of the planned flight:

KMKY-TLH-HSV-SUS

Before departing from Florida I had been making daily phone calls to FSS to keep an eye on the weather. This flight was over 1,000 miles in length so we were crossing a lot of real estate so my attention needed to be on the weather. On Sunday, December 1, I called FSS and they mentioned that a line of weather was making its way down and that I should plan accordingly. FSS would never make any recommendations but they would merely give you the information you needed and then allow you to make your own personal decision on what to do. I could see on radar that precipitation was developing to the northwest of Huntsville but it was several hours away. The weather in St. Louis also looked marginal but more importantly there were no reports of icing.

At this point, I informed my family early that Sunday that we should leave as soon as possible to try to beat the weather.

The one funny thing about departing an airport in southern Florida is that they have to clear the runway of any alligators before you takeoff.

We lifted off from Marco Island at around sunset on Sunday, December 1.

The flight from Marco Island to Tallahassee was uneventful. After refueling I walked over to the Tallahassee FSS, which happened to be located at the airport. I spoke to the FSS person on duty and he showed me the live weather radar. I could see that the weather was approaching Huntsville faster than anticipated. In fact, it was a two hour flight from Tallahassee to Huntsville and the weather was two hours away from Huntsville. I thought to myself that if I put the throttle to the firewall I could beat the weather. I had a real case of “get-there-itis.” In retrospect, if I were more experienced at the time, I would have recognized this human factor in aeronautical decision making but the pressure to get my family home override any apprehension that I was feeling at the time.

So, I took off from Tallahassee and set the Piper Turbo Arrow’s engine power to the maximum 75% allowable instead of the planned 65% power setting. I also had a tailwind so my ground speed was a mind boggling 174 knots (200 mph). At this speed, I am pretty confident I can land before the thunderstorms start rolling into Huntsville. However, during the flight at cruise altitude, I start seeing continuous lightning in front of me on the horizon about 100 miles away. This was not a good sign. The thunderstorms were moving towards the airport faster than predicted, which meant that they were possibly intensifying. Since the airplane was on autopilot I had a lot of time to ponder what I was going to do. I reached into my flight bag and grabbed my sectional and started to look for another airport in case we had to divert.

No more than 5 minutes went by when I looked up from the map to make sure we were still on course when, to my shock, I saw that the VAC annunciator warning light was illuminated on the instrument panel. The vacuum system had failed! At first, I went into this strange state of denial where I thought perhaps that the VAC light wasn’t really on and that it was some sort of optical illusion and that this could not possibly be happening with my family onboard. Maybe the light came on by mistake? Then, my worst fears were confirmed. All of my vacuum instruments including my artificial horizon and heading indicator started to rotate wildly. Now I’m in deep shit…

So, here I find myself in solid instrument conditions in the clouds at night with no instruments to safely navigate except for my lonely magnetic compass and my electronic turn coordinator. Immediately, I called center (air traffic control) and advised them that my vacuum pump had just failed and that I lost all of my main instruments. The controller acknowledged this and asked me to keep him advised. At this point, I did not immediately tell my family what had happened even though they later told me they noticed the warning light was on for a long time and they were wondering what was going on. The last thing I needed was a panicking family distracting me from doing my job (aviate, navigate, communicate).

I briefly considered continuing the flight into Huntsville on partial instruments. But watching the continuous lightning on the horizon made me think twice about that. I knew it was definitely not a good idea to land in instrument conditions with thunderstorms in the vicinity especially in an airplane with partial instruments. I knew I was going to have to do a no-gyro approach and I wanted an airport with good weather conditions.

Because my vacuum pump failed my autopilot was inoperative. I enlisted the help of my sister who was sitting to my right to take the controls in an attempt to keep the wings level for me. But, since we were in instrument conditions this was an extremely dangerous idea. I called the controller and notified him that I no longer wanted to continue to my planned destination to Huntsville, Alabama. I now delegated the task of finding a suitable destination airport to the air traffic controller. The controller then started reading off weather conditions at airports around the region and they all had low cloud ceilings (not good with a partial instrument panel). At this point in the flight I had assumed control of the airplane keeping my focus on keeping the wings level.

I knew I would have to shoot a partial panel ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach which is something I had never done before in actual instrument conditions. All of my training would now be put to use. The controller read the weather conditions at Montgomery, Alabama and it seemed to be the best weather around. At this point I was located around the Columbus, Georgia area so I took up westerly heading to Montgomery (MGM) about 60 miles away. My original flight plan has now been scrapped and I need to get this plane on the ground as safely as possible.

My new route of flight now looks roughly like this:

TLH-roughly near CSG-MGM

Fortunately, there was no turbulence to bounce around my magnetic compass and the Montgomery airport is radar equipped and manned by an air traffic control tower. I was then given no-gyro vectors to the ILS approach at Montgomery. Below is the approach plate for the ILS 28 approach into MGM:

ILS 28@MGM

The flight to Montgomery went well until I was given no-gyro vectors to intercept the inbound course (i.e. “start turn, stop turn, stop!”). Since no-gyro vectors can be extremely inaccurate I was vectored to intercept the outer marker at the outer marker and the controller asked me if that was ok. Controllers are normally supposed to vector you at least 2 miles outside the outer marker. I agreed that it was ok because I didn’t want to spend any more time than necessary up in the air. Since I did not have any primary navigational instruments I had to fly solely by the ILS needle in the cockpit. I chased the needle quite a bit but I broke out of the clouds at about 1,000 ft AGL (Above Ground Level). The runway approach lights were so bright I thought I was going to go blind. The landing was uneventful and we were very fortunate in the fact that the airport had a Piper authorized service center.

The plane was repaired the next day but the weather in St. Louis had deteriorated with freezing rain and low cloud ceilings. We were stranded in Montgomery, Alabama for two days until the weather cleared in St. Louis.

We finally departed on Tuesday, December 3 with one stop-over in Padacuh, Kentucky and finally home to Spirit:

MGM-PAH-SUS

I still wonder to this day what would have happened if my vacuum pump did not fail.

Even though the title of this blog is my worst flight in some ways it was one of my best flights. All of the hard work I put into training for this emergency paid off.

For any student pilots or even experienced pilots you should always keep “get-there-itis” in check. Since becoming a flight instructor I use the following definition and guidelines to help recognize and avoid this syndrome:

Get-there-itis is a tendency that clouds the vision and impairs judgment by causing a fixation on the original goal or destination combined with a total disregard for any alternative course of action.

  1. Duck-under-syndrome, not get-there-itis, is a tendency to “sneak a peek” by descending below minimums during an approach.
  2. Get-there-itis occurs when the pilot has an extremely strong motivation to arrive at the planned destination.
    1. When the motivation to “get there” is strong enough, it overshadows all perceived obstacles to completing the flight as planned.
      1. The pilot does not want to hear about things that would be grounds for delaying or canceling the flight.
      2. The pilot has the ability to recognize a potentially dangerous situation, but chooses not to since the perceived rewards of completing the flight are so great.
      3. This phenomenon is common in general aviation when a pilot is returning to his home base after a weekend cross-country.
        1. The pilot absolutely “must” be back home in time for an important commitment, and en route weather that might have caused him/her to cancel the flight earlier may be ignored on the return leg.
      4. This phenomenon is also common in military pilots who have been separated from their families while on an extended operational deployment.
        1. Aircraft that would have been rejected for any mission during the deployment because of mechanical problems suddenly become perfectly acceptable, since they are the pilot’s only means of early transportation home.
  3. As an instructor, one way for you to help your students avoid get-there-itis is to train them to consider that the flight might not be completed, and plan accordingly in advance. For instance, tell them to schedule an extra day off from work when returning from a cross-country flight, even though they probably will not need it.
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