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Tuesday
Jan222013

Safe Landings - January 2013

It’s a Blast But It’s Not Fun

During takeoff and some taxi maneuvers, the high thrust levels of modern jet engines can produce exhaust wakes that present a significant hazard to other aircraft operating on or near the airport surface. The jet blast incidents presented in this CALLBACK highlight the need for both Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers to be aware of the circumstances where this hazard can occur and take measures to avoid jet blast or prevent it.

The three events below deal with aircraft versus aircraft scenarios that occurred in the runway environment. Jet blast (or prop wash) can also occur in the ramp area where it poses a risk to vehicles and ground personnel as well.

While most general aviation pilots think of wake turbulence and jet blast as being issues that primarily concern pilots of small planes, it should be noted that even “big on big” can have problems.  A little Cessna 150 can receive the same surprise some of these pilots did when caught by the surprise of a Barron in the middle of a high power run up.  Don’t count on the tower to prevent prop and jet blast from being a problem.  As the PIC, this is your job.

Taxi Versus Landing

Fortunately, the Pilot at the controls of this C172 was experienced enough to handle an unexpected blast from a widebody jet powering through a turn.

■ During landing roll-out, a taxiing widebody turning left onto a taxiway, jet-blasted the C172 in which I was the CFI. Our aircraft became airborne momentarily and the tail of the aircraft was pushed strongly to the left. I did manage to keep control and prevented any damage to the runway or the aircraft. I believe that if an inexperienced pilot had control of the aircraft, the outcome could have been much worse. I can only imagine what the outcome could have been if we were still airborne. ATC did not advise of, nor seem to notice the hazard of this jet blast. The widebody transport was taxing slowly around the turn and it is possible he was using one engine to taxi with a lot of power in the turn. I think that the airport should not allow these aircraft to taxi with one engine. ATC should not allow anyone to land near widebody aircraft when this type of hazard is possible. Or they should not let this size of aircraft use those taxiways when the adjacent runway is in use and traffic has clearance to land or takeoff.

Takeoff Versus Landing

As the Captain of an A320 noted, the jet blast of a corporate jet is sufficient to upset a larger aircraft if they are in close proximity.

■ During landing flare on Runway 23, the aircraft suddenly rolled right and shifted right of centerline. The winds were light and there had been no turbulence on the approach so this was totally unexpected. I briefly considered a rejected landing/go-around but was able to roll the airplane level and get back to centerline. After clearing the runway, I queried Ground Control about the situation and learned that a corporate jet had been cleared for takeoff on Runway 18L at Intersection A at the same time we were landing on Runway 23. Due to the very close proximity of Runway 18L intersection A to the touchdown zone of Runway 23, Tower should not be clearing aircraft for takeoff from this point while aircraft are landing on Runway 23…. Encountering jet blast while landing can place the aircraft in an unsafe position very quickly.

Taxi Versus Takeoff

There is no good time to encounter the jet blast of a heavy jet, but as this A319 Captain related, takeoff rotation is a particularly bad time to be “jolted.”

■ At takeoff rotation from Runway 28, we were jolted by the jet blast from a B767 that had crossed Runway 28 and was stopped facing south on Taxiway F, just clear of the runway. We believe the B767 might have been powering up to continue taxi, but his engine thrust was pointed directly at our rotation point for takeoff. As we rolled by with our nose wheel off the ground, we got a severe jolt from his jet blast. Fortunately we had flying speed and became airborne immediately; nevertheless this was a close call. This is potentially unsafe and Tower Controllers should hold takeoffs until jet blast can no longer be a factor.

Monday
Nov262012

Safe Landings - December 2012

Adverse Weather Planning and Tactics

Two Perspectives

According to the FAA General Aviation Pilot’s Guide to Preflight Planning, Weather Self-Briefings, and Weather Decision Making, many pilots who hear about a weather-related accident think, “I would never have tried to fly in those conditions.” But interviews with pilots who survived weather-related accidents indicate that they thought the same thing — until they found themselves in weather conditions they did not expect and could not safely handle. This CALLBACK presents weather-related ASRS incident reports along with corresponding National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident reports involving the same type of aircraft in similar weather conditions. The ASRS reports offer a first-hand account of what were often narrow escapes from adverse weather conditions. The NTSB reports are second-hand accounts about pilots who were not as fortunate in their weather encounters. The ASRS incidents are often seen as precursors to the accidents reported by the NTSB.

Three of the many lessons that can be learned from the ASRS reports are: 1) review and know the procedures for dealing with adverse weather in your aircraft, 2) avoid adverse weather if possible and, 3) have an escape plan in the event of an unexpected encounter with dangerous weather. Failure to learn the lessons presented here can lead to an ASRS incident report if you are lucky or an NTSB accident report if you are not. But, smart pilots remember the old axiom: You start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.

Event #1

Aircraft: PA-32 with weather data link capability 
Situation: Entry into an area of rapidly building thunderstorms

ASRS Report #1

“I Came Close to Being a Statistic”

Even with good preflight planning and onboard weather data link capability, it took the help of ATC to successfully extricate this PA-32 Pilot from an area of fast-building thunderstorms. The all-too-close encounter highlights a critical factor about the timeliness of NEXRAD (Next-Generation Radar) weather data.

• While in cruise flight, it became necessary to deviate due to existing and building thunderstorms. ATC had advised me of the largest storm which I had visually…. I was also using XM downloaded NEXRAD weather information. When the NEXRAD data indicated it was safe to turn more northerly, I advised ATC that I was starting my turn…. I went IMC momentarily and when I broke out there was a large buildup at my twelve o’clock position. The main storm was still off to my right. I could see several breaks around the buildup and requested a climb to 10,000 feet in an attempt to remain visual on the buildup. I was unable to do so and encountered IMC. While IMC, I flew into a fast building area of weather that was joining up with the known cell to my right. I advised ATC of my dilemma and was very surprised to see how quickly the cell was developing. ATC vectored me through the safest part of it. I was using every method from my training — turning the autopilot off, slowing, and keeping the wings level. At one time, with climb power, I was descending at 1,500 feet per minute. I eventually exited the weather and looked out my right rear window to see the huge storm that was developing behind me. ATC advised that it had completely closed up. Only then did the NEXRAD downloaded weather update to reflect the actual conditions that existed. A meteorologist friend assisted me in downloading archived radar images that showed how fast these air mass cells/thunderstorms were developing and how I came close to being a statistic. I knew not to use the NEXRAD for storm penetration prevention, but did so in error. I am very lucky that the outcome was good…. The delay of the [NEXRAD] update with the speed of the buildup of these air mass thunderstorms resulted in an inaccurate pictorial that I was using to determine my route of flight.

NTSB Report #1

This NTSB report details how another PA-32 Pilot apparently relied on outdated NEXRAD weather information in an attempt to escape an area of rapidly developing thunderstorms.

The airplane was on a cross-country flight in level cruise at about 8,000 feet MSL when the pilot flew into an area of heavy rain showers. The pilot informed an Air Traffic Controller that he was diverting around an area of thunderstorms. The pilot last reported that he was in “bad” weather and was going to try to get out of it. Following that transmission, radio and radar contact was lost. A witness on the ground heard a sound resembling an explosion…. 

The main wreckage consisted of the entire airplane except for the left wing, vertical stabilizer, rudder, and the right wing tip fuel tank. Those components were located about 200 feet north-northeast of the main wreckage. An examination of the left wing spar showed that the wing failed in positive overload. A weather study of conditions in the area at the time of the accident indicated the potential for heavy rain showers, thunderstorms, wind in excess of 45 knots, clear air turbulence, and low-level wind shear…. The pilot had a global positioning system (GPS) unit with a current subscription for Next-Generation Radar (NEXRAD).

The GPS unit owner’s manual states that NEXRAD weather data should be used for “long-range planning purposes only,” and should not be used to “penetrate hazardous weather” as the NEXRAD data is not real-time. 

On June 19, 2012, the NTSB issued a Safety Alert to warn pilots using in-cockpit flight information services broadcasts (FIS-B) and satellite weather display systems that the NEXRAD “age indicator” can be misleading. The actual NEXRAD data can be as much as 20 minutes older than the age indication on the display in the cockpit. If misinterpreted, this difference in time can present potentially serious safety hazards to aircraft operating in the vicinity of fast-moving and quickly developing weather systems. The NTSB determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The pilot’s inadvertent encounter with severe weather, which resulted in the airplane’s left wing failing in positive overload. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s reliance on outdated weather information that he received on his in-cockpit Next-Generation Radar (NEXRAD).

Event #2

Aircraft: C182 
Situation: Carburetor icing

ASRS Report #2

“The Engine Stopped Running”

A C182 Pilot learned that severe carburetor ice can form even though no airframe icing is seen. The Pilot was lucky to break out of the clouds and restart the engine.

• We were at 12,000 feet on an instrument flight plan in communication with Approach. The Controller directed us to descend and maintain 9,000 feet. Flight conditions were IMC, -4 degrees C, and no airframe icing was being encountered. We reduced throttle in order to descend and within a few seconds of reducing throttle, the engine stopped running. After completing the Engine Failure Checklist, with no success, we declared an emergency with Approach…. We continued on our present heading with the intent of making an emergency landing at a nearby CTAF airport…. Upon further discussion with the Controller, however, we elected to head for a nearby Class D airport…. As we descended (still in IMC) we were able to restart the engine…. We continued to descend towards the airport and broke out of the clouds into VMC at approximately 4,800 feet…. 

It is clear that this engine failure incident was caused by severe carburetor ice — just below the freezing level, in clouds, with visible ice crystals. Although the ice crystals were not of the type that created airframe ice (no airframe ice was reported in our area), it was ideal for causing carburetor ice, which built up more rapidly than we were able to clear using carburetor heat.

NTSB Report #2

An NTSB report recounts how another C182 Pilot experienced carburetor icing, but was unable to restart the engine and wound up losing his airplane in a tree.

The pilot received a weather briefing from FSS the evening before departure and a friend at the destination told him that the area had been free of fog for the last several days. Upon descent to 1,500 feet at the destination, he could not spot the airport due to a fog layer. He decided to divert to his alternate. After turning toward the alternate airport, the engine began to run roughly. The pilot was unable to remedy the power loss by applying carburetor heat, switching fuel tanks, leaning the mixture, and checking the magnetos in the both position. As he turned back toward his original destination airport, the engine continued to run rough and he was unable to arrest the airplane’s descent. He was just above the fog layer, saw the runway through the fog, and turned back to the runway. During the turn, he went into the fog and the airplane collided with treetops and lodged in branches. The occupants noticed fire in the floorboard area, exited through the pilot’s door, and jumped to the ground. The fuselage was consumed by fire…. 

The NTSB determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: A loss of engine power due to carburetor icing and the pilot’s failure to use carburetor heat in conditions conducive to icing.

 

 

Thursday
Nov082012

Safe Landings - November 2012

When Autopilots Go Bad

The three “loss of aircraft control” events in this Callback share a common factor – an autopilot malfunction. Thankfully, they also share a common result in that the pilots involved were able to recover from the resulting loss of control.

According to the FAA, loss of control (LOC) has accounted for more than 1,100 GA accidents in the last decade. That statistic alone should be incentive to heed the “lessons learned” in the following reports.

“A Serious Attitude Issue”

Having experienced a similar autopilot failure in another aircraft, this Mooney M20 pilot quickly recognized the problem, but still had a “struggle” to regain control.

• There was no ground reference because the layer below was around 4,000 feet and no sky reference because of a high layer… I was looking out the pilot window inspecting for ice when I noticed a slight change in the engine speed. The engine instruments read normal, then I noticed a precession on the [horizon indicator]. Just as I noticed this, the autopilot kicked off and the plane shot up hard and fast… I instantly knew what had happened because I’ve owned another Mooney that had an autopilot failure and runaway trim. The plane was in a climbing, unusual attitude. Center called me inquiring about my altitude…and asked if I needed help… I decided that I needed to ignore Center for now and concentrate on recovering the plane, which was now in a dive. I neutralized the trim, then referenced the directional gyro and stopped the turn and finally pulled gently out of the dive. When the plane was recovered, I could see a few house lights straight down… so I descended to VMC to organize myself. Just at that time someone called my tail number and asked my position and altitude. I responded that I was at 1,500 feet, but said nothing about my position because I hadn’t reset my GPS or looked at my position. The relay pilot called again and said that Center was concerned about my low altitude and wanted me to climb up to 2,400 feet. When I climbed I went IMC and I could tell I had a serious case of vertigo, which felt unsafe so I descended again to VMC. Several more calls were made from Center through relay pilots and then Center made it to my frequency asking that I climb again. I felt frustrated that I was repeatedly asked to do this, but I made a decision that I was going to stay visual because I had decent forward visibility, ground reference, and I was safe. Having ground reference also made my vertigo subside… [Ed note: The reporter was able to continue on to the original destination (but then had to contend with an emergency gear extension procedure) and concluded the report with the following remarks about unusual attitude recovery.] Something that probably helped with the runaway trim and unusual attitude was recent training for a tailwheel endorsement that included slow flight and unusual attitude recovery training. After this event I’m quite sure I’m going to keep a routine of going out under the hood with an instructor and practicing recovery techniques. That’s very inexpensive insurance.

Experimental Excitement

This loss of control event, presented from an Air Traffic Controller’s perspective, highlights the team effort that helped to ensure a successful outcome for the pilot of an Experimental/Homebuilt.

• I accepted a hand-off from South Departure, a VFR Experimental at 10,500 feet. Since the aircraft was close to my boundary and about 18 miles from the next sector’s boundary, I initiated a hand-off to the next sector. After a few minutes, I heard the South Departure Controller trying to contact the Experimental. I looked at the tag and noticed that it was no longer displaying an altitude read out… The tag was still being tracked because I had it in hand-off status. I took the hand-off back to see if it was a radar tracking issue… The South Departure Controller tried to get a nearby Air Carrier to reach the pilot with no luck. I used Guard frequency to try to raise him. A few seconds later we saw the 7700 code pop up and the emergency sound from the STARS (Standard Terminal Automated Replacement System) display alert. I attempted again to reach the pilot on Guard and had him “ident.” After seeing the “ident,” I had him switch to my frequency. I tried to reach him with no luck and also asked a near by VFR aircraft if he was able to hear him respond. The pilot could not hear him. I tried again and this time got a response from the pilot. He, with very heavy breathing, said that he had an emergency and, “Everything is okay now.” I asked his altitude and he replied 4,200 feet. After a few more routine questions I gave him a squawk and asked if he was squawking altitude. He replied that there may have been some damage to other equipment. I asked what kind of damage he had experienced and what caused the damage (bird strike or something else). He replied that it was an autopilot issue with a slipped trim wheel. I asked his intentions. He replied that he wanted to go to ZZZ… As he was about to leave my airspace, I noticed that he was almost twenty degrees off course. I corrected his heading and gave a briefing to the Class B Tower Controller regarding his situation… I was informed that the pilot landed safely and that the autopilot was giving him trouble so he disabled it only to find that the trim wheel had slipped and pushed the aircraft into a nose dive. He was experiencing negative and positive G’s that were making it difficult for the pilot and his passenger to regain control. He finally did at around 4,000 feet. He had hit his head on the canopy and broke his headset and some other equipment. He also noticed that one of the latches to the canopy was bent so he was holding it shut during the flight… Team work was the key here. The use of Guard, other pilots, and situational awareness helped in determining the location of the aircraft and the correct method of getting the pilot calm and under control.

“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”


The pilot of an unidentified Experimental aircraft had his hands full when a new, integrated autopilot malfunctioned. As Dave learned with the Hal 90002, it is best to cut off all power to a system that starts to develop “a mind of its own.”

• A stand-alone autopilot had been removed and replaced with the new fully integrated unit. Everything had been bench tested and checked out… I was returning to [home base]. Weather was VMC, however I filed IFR to expedite leaving the [busy metropolitan] area. The autopilot functioned okay upon leveling at 10,000 feet, however it was “hunting for heading.” As I started my descent, the autopilot developed a mind of its own, [and] was searching for the altitude that I had pre-set in the EFIS (Electronic Flight Information System), which was driving the new autopilot. The servos were “pulsating” the control stick and I could not stop it. I slowed my descent and airspeed to try to diagnose the problem. I decided to divert to [a nearby airport] as I knew there were facilities there in the event I developed further problems. I contacted Approach and they cleared me to 7,000 feet on a heading to the airport. The autopilot would not level at 7,000 and deviated about 500 feet low as I fought the stick to stop the oscillations. Then it zoomed up to about 7,300 feet. The stick was fighting me and during the button pushing while trying to control the autopilot, I somehow lost contact with Approach Control…. I finally managed to get the autopilot off, called Approach again and they cleared me for the visual. Once the EFIS shut the autopilot off, everything returned pretty much to normal. The remaining approach and landing were uneventful except that my body was shaking…In retrospect, when the first issues developed, I should have canceled IFR and continued VFR. I tried the master “Off” switch as well as the “Off” switch on the stick, to no avail. As a result, I wasted valuable time as I was caught off guard by the events. ATC was very professional…. Inasmuch as it was VMC, I probably should have pulled the circuit breaker on the EFIS (which drives the autopilot), but I was hesitant to as I would have lost all navigation functions. I have developed a habit of always flying the plane by myself for at least an hour after it comes out of maintenance before ever letting anyone else fly with me. This event strengthened my reasoning for doing that.

Thursday
Oct112012

Safe Landings - October 2012

Texting While Taxiing

The pilot who submitted the first report in this issue of CALLBACK has the honor of being the inspiration for this month’s theme. The reporter’s concept of equating electronic tablet usage during taxi to phone texting while driving, led to a search for similar events in the ASRS Database. A surprising number of such incidents, often resulting in taxiway or runway incursions, were found. Granted, taxiways are not as crowded as roads and highways, but “texting” on a laptop, tablet, FMC, or ACARS while taxiing can still lead to embarrassing and potentially dangerous consequences.

An Embarrassing Lesson

Taxiing and flying an airplane will always involve some degree of multi-tasking, but this C172 pilot learned an embarrassing lesson when the “heads-down” usage of an electronic tablet conflicted with the “heads-up” requirements of safe taxiing.

We were cleared by Ground to taxi on the outer ramp area to Taxiway Bravo to Runway 22 and hold short. It’s a “no-brainer” taxi route and there were no other aircraft taxiing out. I was with another pilot and was showing him the information I had available on my iPad with ForeFlight. I was showing how I had the enroute charts for our trip and then went to the checklists, also on the iPad. I was definitely multi-tasking as I taxied and demonstrated the software. I was aware of the runway area approaching but missed the hold short line until Ground said, “[Callsign], stop. Stop!” 

I would never dream of texting on my phone while driving, but wasn’t this sort of the same thing? There was no traffic for the runway, but it was still an embarrassing lesson learned.

Texting in the Tower

Distraction due to “texting” is not a problem that only affects pilots. This Tower Controller reported that the requirement to be “heads-down” entering flight plan and route information into a Flight Data system can detract from the job of keeping an eye on aircraft and other factors affecting air traffic.

I instructed Air Carrier X to taxi from the terminal ramp to Runway 08 via Taxiways Foxtrot and Mike, and to hold short of Taxiway Juliet (for an aircraft that I knew would be exiting the runway). The pilot of Air Carrier X read back the instructions at the same time that Air Carrier Y was on final reporting birds. While I was typing in the Flight Data Input/Output (FDIO) system, attempting to amend a flight plan, I looked up and observed Aircraft X on Taxiway Foxtrot, on the West side of Runway 17R, facing West. The aircraft had obviously just crossed Runway 17R at Taxiway Foxtrot. I advised the aircraft that he had gone the wrong way; instructed the aircraft to turn around (holding short of the runway), then proceeded with traffic as normal. The pilot made no indication that he knew he had even made a mistake. There was another landing aircraft on about a six mile final. 

Maybe there should be more awareness and less complacency on the part of pilots. Just because it’s a low activity time doesn’t mean that the same hazards of collision do not exist…. The same goes for Controllers. Also, amending just one flight plan requires “heads-down” time as does amending routes. This takes away (since we work Local/Ground/Flight Data combined a majority of the time, no matter what the traffic situation is) from the Controller’s ability to spot those pesky “little things” like flocks of geese on final, jets crossing the runway, etc…. Combined positions are a very poor practice, requiring the Local Controller to take his eyes out of the air and away from the runways and aircraft, to perform required duties of two other positions at the same time.

Driver Goes Through a “Stop Sign”

The First Officer of an MD-80 series aircraft was “texting” to accommodate a runway change when the Captain “drove” past the hold short line and onto an active runway.

We were told to taxi to Runway 12…. We had planned on a Runway 8L departure. After clearance was received from ground, we re-briefed a Runway 12 via Papa taxi. When we were both clear on the instructions, we started our taxi on Taxiway Papa. The Captain stated he had the taxi under control down Papa to Runway 12. I then diverted my attention inside the cockpit to change the box to match Runway 12 not 8L. I was “heads-down” when the Captain drove the aircraft onto Runway 12 at Intersection Sierra. Before I realized the situation, it was too late. We crossed the hold line and onto an active runway. 

The Captain stated that a lack of proper signs in that area led to the mistake. I have been to that area of the airport and no one has ever made the mistake to veer off Taxiway Papa. That is why I was changing the box early to be more heads-up later in the taxi. Never losing track of your position is the best solution to this event.

Tuesday
Aug142012

Safe Landings - August 2012

What Would You Have Done?

This “interactive” issue of CALLBACK, deals with two situations that involve General Aviation Pilots’ encounters with weather. In “The First Half of the Story” you will find report excerpts describing the situation up to the decision point. It is up to the reader to determine the possible courses of action and make a decision (preferably within the same time frame that was available to the reporter). 

The selected ASRS reports may not give all the information you want and you may not be experienced in the type of aircraft involved, but each incident should give you a chance to exercise your aviation decision-making skills. In “The Rest of the Story…” you will find the actions actually taken by reporters in response to each situation. Bear in mind that their decisions may not necessarily represent the best course of action. Our intent is to stimulate thought, discussion, and training related to the type of incidents that were reported.

 The First Half of the Story

Situation # 1: (PA-28 Pilot’s Report)

I had planned to make a VFR flight with plenty of time to get to [my destination] before dark. I was told by the weather briefer that the entire route of flight was showing unrestricted visibility. I departed…with full fuel…and about 20 miles of visibility. [After I was airborne] I heard a transmission from the Tower to another aircraft cut out in mid-sentence. My radio (receiver) had just failed. 

About 15 miles out, I attempted to contact Approach to see if I could get cleared through the Class C airspace instead of going around. I did not hear a response. I set my DME equipment to the VOR and kept an arc distance of 12 DME, which would keep me out of their airspace and bring me right to [my destination]. 

Approximately two miles out, the visibility dropped to about six miles. I…set myself up for a right base to Runway 24. At 600 feet AGL, the lights of the city became hazy and then the airplane entered a dense bank of fog sweeping in from the ocean. I entered the fog because my line of sight and visibility on the approach looking down from 600 feet was steeper than my actual line of descent, and I could not see the fog against the background of the ocean. 

Going right to the instruments and calling upon my recent instrument experience, I stopped my descent and climbed to 800 feet before starting a left 180-degree, standard-rate turn. I returned to visual conditions about 15 seconds after reversing course…. The visibility was deteriorating rapidly…. As I climbed above 1,000 feet, I set a course back to [departure airport]. I noticed that dense fog was obscuring the ground below me at an unimaginable rate. Within 10 minutes I was going to be trapped on top. Then, right on cue, my GPS quit. 

I attempted to contact Approach again to see if they could provide me with the weather information at [departure airport], and at [alternate airport] because if conditions were deteriorating as rapidly as they were here, it would be socked in IFR before I could get home. I did not hear the transmissions coming from Approach, so with a marginal safety window getting smaller and smaller, I told myself that…a diversion to [alternate airport] was the best option. It was the closest airport, had the longest runway around, and had a VOR with DME. Other than the occasional hole just large enough to glimpse a baseball field or parking lot through the intensifying clouds below me, I had no ground reference to navigate by. The conditions above 1,500 feet were VMC with about 10 miles of visibility.

What Would You Have Done?

 Situation #2: (C172 Pilot’s Report)

I departed VFR…. The Cessna 172 contained full fuel (40 gallons usable) and one passenger. One fuel stop was planned. The calculated time enroute was 2 hours 45 minutes. During climb out, a hand-off to Center was made and the initial climb was to 11,500 feet. The climb was continued to 13,500 feet to fly over the scattered clouds and maintain VFR. Approximately one hour into the flight, I realized that continuing on to my destination VFR was not possible as the cloud tops were building faster than expected and the clouds were broken to overcast. Initially a 180-degree turn to the west was considered, but the cloud tops looked to be building above my current altitude. The clouds below and to the north were now broken and a VFR descent might be possible. High clouds appeared to block the route to my alternate. I made the decision to descend below the clouds and possibly land at [another airport] to the west since visual contact was made there earlier during the flight out. Upon descending below the cloud layer, continuing VFR was not possible. I requested landing at [the alternate airport] with an instrument approach and was advised that the ILS approach had greater than 25 knots of tail wind and sky conditions were 200 overcast.

What Would You Have Done?

The Rest of the Story: 
The Reporter’s Actions

Situation #1: (PA-28 Pilot’s Report)

The Reporter’s Action:

At 10 miles I started to give advisory position reports in case they had other operations going on at the time. My next position report was at 7.2 miles and again I did not hear a response. At this time, I thought that the error might be on my end and, in such close proximity to a large airport, I decided the best course of action was to try them on 121.50. I stated my position and heading again and that my intentions were to overfly the field and see if I could locate the runway through one of the last remaining holes in the solidifying layer while I circled. I also could not hear the controller’s attempts to communicate with me on that frequency. In a final attempt to communicate with the approach controllers and advise them of the urgency of the situation, I selected 7700 on my transponder. At about one mile DME, I asked them to turn the lights up as high as they would go so I would have a better chance of seeing them through the cloud deck. As I watched the DME come within .2 miles and my VOR indicator switch from TO to FROM, I knew I was right over the field. I told my passenger to look out the window for runway lights…. She spotted the runway…and I made a turn to the left. 

I entered a left base and…my once clear view of the runway lights began to disappear right in front of me. At 400 feet AGL there was nothing more than a dim glow surrounding each light. Finally, passing through 300 feet, I broke out…and had about 3,000 feet of runway remaining. We had an uneventful landing. When we got out of the plane, all the holes in the sky were gone. 

Since I could not communicate, I erred on the side of caution and decided the best thing to do was to get the airplane on the ground considering the rapidly deteriorating conditions. The only thing going through my mind was I’ve been to quite a few aviation safety FAAST (FAA Safety Team) seminars and have heard of so many fatal accidents in which pilots had multiple opportunities to get the airplane on the ground and chose to continue on or try the same approach that didn’t work the last three times because they didn’t want to cause a commotion or get in trouble. 

Had the handheld radio in my flight bag been charged, Approach could have warned me as to the strong possibility of [destination airport] being IFR by the time I got there. A GPS can do many things, but a controller will always be there to provide vectors, frequencies, weather information, ceilings, and terrain clearance altitudes. Your radio can be your only lifeline in some situations.

Situation #2: (C172 Pilot’s Report)

The Reporter’s Action:

I declared an emergency upon climbing to the IFR MSA of 9,000 feet since I expected severe icing, and requested vectors for the ILS approach into [the alternate airport]. At 8,000 feet MSL and entering IMC, the ice accumulation was rapid. The Localizer Approach was flown and a missed approach was made. Upon climb out, the missed approach procedure could not be flown due to degraded aircraft performance. I saw the ground visually and turned back to the airport while staying clear of clouds. The airport was sighted and I landed without further incident. Looking back, I should have never made the decision to descend since I was in VMC, maintaining VFR. Instead I should have consulted with ATC/FSS and made a more informed decision with updated weather. Once I realized that continuing on VFR was not possible due to weather building faster than I had expected, I could have also opened an IFR flight plan to continue onto my destination or diverted south where weather was predicted to be better. I did not want to fly into IMC since I suspected icing in the clouds.

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