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Fly High and Fast – Vol. II Chapter 13: Flying Weather Part II

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JJ Meehan
The Meehan Family


I’ve done a lot of flying with low ceilings and visibility below 1/2 mile.  One of my scariest flights was a short flight from Burlington, Iowa USA to Ottumwa, Iowa USA.  Flight time was only 25 minutes.  Ottumwa had an ILS approach to 31 and the only thing missing was a tower and local approach.  Chicago Center was in charge of the approach and normally you would fly the approach on your own.  This means you had to fly the opposite direction for 2 minutes then make a 180 degree turn and line up for the final using the ILS.  This operation is called a procedure turn as shown below in the ILS RWY 31 Approach Plate.  I was flying N5WW a V-35 Bonanza.  The trip was smooth and Chicago offered to vector me for the approach since they had airline traffic and the were hoping to help me and the airliner by getting me on the ground fast.  I accept their offer but after this experience I never did again.  Chicago Center turned me inside the marker so that I never hear the final fix and since the glide slope was out I assume the middle mark (missed approach point) was the final fix and started my descent into Ottumwa.

Please realize that I was not in radar contact with Chicago.  They were doing everything by estimates and I was reacting to their commands based only on the radio information and navigation aids available to me.  I should have identified the final fix Morse code but because I was busy and trying to comply with Chicago Center I did not identify the final fix.  The blame was mine.  Chicago Center was just trying to help.  On all future flights when I was not in good radar environment, I established the policy of always shooting the full procedural turn.  This gave me the power to be in charge of the flight and my life.


The middle marker is located about 500 ft from the end of the runway.  On this approach I was 1800 ft above the marker when I started my descent and only 500 feet from the end of the runway.  By the time I reached minimum descent altitude, I was at least 1.5 miles to the northwest of the runway Flying somewhere over Iowa at 200 ft looking for the airport with visibility of maybe 3/4 of a mile.   God does take care of those people who do stupid things and I’m living proof.  I flow at 200 feet over Iowa farm lands for about 2 minutes before I called a missed approach and climbed back into the clouds not knowing where I was or what might be in the clouds above me.  Chicago Center had cleared the airspace around Ottumwa with the hope that I would reappear since I never called via the phone from the ground.

I finally made contact with Chicago Center as I passed though 2,200 feet Mean Sea Level (MSL)  If you look at the chart at the right you will see that the ground elevation at Ottumwa is 845 feet.  You will also notice two large towers to the northwest of Ottumwa just to the left of my course.  One at 1285 ft and one at 1325 ft.  Remember that I was flying in less than 3/4 mile visibility at 200 ft or 1045 ft.  If I had gotten just slightly off course to my left I could have hit either the guide wires or the towers.

After I finally made contact and cleaned my pants, Chicago sequenced me behind the airliner and I flow the full approach including the procedure turn.  You will also note that they now require either DME or Radar to complete the ILS 31 at Ottumwa.  This is partly do to my problem.

The moral of the story is that you as pilot are in control not the Control at Chicago Center not the guy on the ground.  You are in control and need to make sure you keep control at all times.  Never accept vectors or give your rights as Pilot in Command to anyone.  Never try to rush an approach.  Remember that you are traveling at 120 kts or to put it another way you are covering over 500 ft every second.  When you only have 3,500 ft of visibility you are basically blind.  I would not have had time to react if I had seen the towers or another aircraft.

Many years later I had an experience at Cedar Rapids with a student that was somewhat similar.  We were flying a holding procedure at the Cedar Rapids VOR in the clouds.  Cedar Rapids Approach working our flight and told me that they would have two flights arriving below us as we held at the VOR.  A holding pattern is basically a race track pattern over the ground.  It is used to hold traffic because of bad weather or low ceilings and to give separation to traffic.  We could see a little below us and  as I would find out lights though the clouds.


Bill and I had been holding for about 15 minutes when the Cedar Rapids Approach Controller told us that another aircraft would be making the approach below us.  A few minutes later, I show navigational lights though the clouds just in front of us.  I quickly grabbed the controls and put the plane in a steep spiraling turn to the left.  After we were sure that we were safe, I called Cedar Rapids Approach and reported the problem.  We also requested permission to land.  After we got on the ground we found out that the other pilot had been shooting Touch and Goes (Practice Landings) but because of the two airliners the Cedar Rapids Tower had to cancel his clearance and he asked for a vector for a practice approach.  Neither of us had encoding altimeter which would have given the Cedar Rapids Approach our altitude.  Several years later this became a required piece of equipment.  Anyway, the elevation at Cedar Rapids is 860 feet.  The other pilot has set his altimeter to read zero during his Touch and Goes.  During approaches all altitudes are given based on Sea Level not Field Elevation.  We were at 3,500 ft in our holding pattern which would normally be 1,000 feet above any aircraft on the approach.  Since the other pilot was suppose to be at 2,500 ft but because of pilot error was at 3,360 ft or higher based on errors in his equipment.  We were now at the same basic altitude.   Again God was watching over me.

These were two more of my Cat Lives that were lost when flying.  I believe this makes five so far.  How many lives do a Cat have – Nine?

Please visit my WEB Site on Flying for more blogs at “FLY HIGH AND FAST”.


Written by jjmeehan13

January 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Posted in Flying

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