Acknowledgements: AIR FACTS (Richard Collins)

(Ed. Note: Richard offers the benefit of long experience, edited for brevity)

Some things that had to be learned the hard way

You can’t say “been there, done that” until you have actually been there and done that. Then you should be able to add “and learned that”.

In the beginning, there are many unknowns up ahead. We might have theoretical knowledge, or have had a crack at it in a simulator, but when the chips are down only the real thing matters. How well was the challenge met and what lessons were learned? 

Most lessons to be learned relate to WEATHER. There are other challenges, but fortunately relatively rare. Engines may quit, systems fail and avionics sizzle or fade, but weather challenges a pilot on far more flights than those other misadventures.

Unfortunately, some pilots rate themselves on weather by thinking, “I made it, so I must have done okay.” Then they give it no further thought. Those who wish to keep on “making it” delve more deeply into it. So, let’s look at some logbook lessons that helped greatly in subsequent encounters with the elements.

My first real encounter with fog was while flying a Piper Apache at night in the late 1950s. Fog was not forecast until later, but the controller mentioned when I was an hour away that my destination was fogged in.

There were two of us, each flying an Apache with three passengers, bringing a group home from a meeting. I was trailing the other airplane which was flown by a far more experienced pilot. I thought my work would be simple. Just follow him and do what he did. The problem with fog is you don’t realize how bad it is until you’re on the runway.

Even though the weather was virtually zero-zero, he landed. Like an obedient servant, I followed. The Apache did not have a glideslope and I flew the localizer.
·       At the middle marker, I was just at the tops of the fog
·       I set up a gentle descent and was determined to be steady and let the airplane continue tracking the localizer until I saw something
·       I had enough sense not to turn on the landing lights, and when I picked up a couple of runway lights to my left I landed the Apache
·       Taxiing in was difficult in the low visibility
·       It wasn’t until later that I thought about the fact that the runway lights I saw to my left could have easily been ones on the right side of the runway in which case I would have landed in the weeds.
It didn’t take long or much sense to realize what a dumb thing I had done. The other pilot was an old aviator who often told us young pups that he had more time sitting in crack-ups waiting for help than we had total time. Instead of admiring his bravado, I should have questioned why he had so many crack-ups. In retrospect, I thought I knew, and later he had his last one.

I never messed with real fog again. If the weather was reported as below minimums, I might take a look and I might not. But I had learned never to go below a published minimum altitude until I had the proper things in sight.

Tony BirthComment