What Not to do With a Dripping Wet IFR Ticket

by:  RAF_Drake

I received my instrument rating in the summer of 1993.  I had been a pilot for three years prior to this, getting my private rating in 1990.  In an effort to accelerate my IFR training I took three weeks off from my job as an Aircraft Technician from Thomason Aviation. (You remember Harry Thomason of the White House Travel-gate scandal?)

I began my training and worked hard to really learn the material.  Instrument flying is not something you want to get a passing grade in, you strive to master this as you know it will make all the difference in the world when you actually need to rely on your knowledge.  In three weeks I took my check ride and indeed I passed with flying colors.  Feeling like I knew the material, and having done well on the check flight, I think I really did have too much confidence in my instrument flying ability.

I then did something that every IFR pilot in the world will at one time or another will do.  I stopped living the IFR training, and thought nothing of it for weeks. That is until I took a flight with my wife and Uncle to Laughlin Nevada for a weekend of fun and gambling.  We stayed just two days, and when it was time to leave the weather was starting to look grim.  In fact the weather service was calling for scattered thundershowers in the area with ice reported at altitudes as low as 12,000 ft. 

My Uncle, who is a fine pilot himself, said that there was no way he was going to take the flight in the Cherokee 235 we had flown up in.  This plane belongs to a friend of mine and it is certified for IFR flight, however John would have nothing to do with thundershowers, scattered or not.  So after much discussion it was determined that we would leave the plane there and catch one of the commuter flights out of Laughlin and head back the next weekend to pick up the plane.  Only when we went to purchase the tickets there were only two seats available and I would have to wait four hours to catch the next flight.  I convinced my Uncle and wife to go ahead and I would call them when my flight was leaving so they could pick me up at the airport.

After their plane left I made my way back to the Cherokee to pick up some things.  I noticed as I sat in the plane that the weather was looking pretty good to the West.  I went back into the terminal and called for weather again. Not much change, but gee don't those clouds to the West look like their clearing out a bit.

I made the decision to take off and head down to Needles, where in route I could catch a pop up clearance and file for Van Nuys, California.  I did this and was given an altitude of 8000 feet.  Well below the 12k foot report of ice.  All was going well and just as I was passing 4k feet I went into the clouds.  I would be home in less than 2 hours.

I had never flown the Cherokee IFR before and the panel was laid out differently from the Cessna I had trained in.  In fact, it was tough to keep a good scan going, as I had to actually think long and hard to where everything was.  About 10 miles out of Needles I picked up rain. Not too much of course, just enough to make it all nice and cozy in the cockpit.  Ooh wasn't this a fun flight.  The turbulence hit just as I touched 8k feet was in a word bad!  It was all I could do to keep the aircraft flying straight and level.  I had actually at one moment thought of turning back, but hell this was only a little turbulence and I could make it through this.

The turbulence was constant, and now so was the rain.  Big drops that made the windscreen useless.  I checked weather reports in the area and now ice was being reported at 10k feet.  There went all hopes of asking for higher altitude to get out of the layer of bumps I was in. (Not that 2k feet would have done it, but worth a try.)  The sky had turned from a medium gray to a full on black. The Cherokee was really rocking now, and I could feel the shoulder belts getting a workout, as the plane would pitch up and down violently and often.  An hour seemed like it took two days.  I kept myself busy with the usual business of trying to make sure of my position and to keep going over what the approach would be like into Van Nuys. 

Then came the hand off from Joshua Approach to Burbank Center. Yes!!! I was almost home.  Once I reported in I started to prep for the ILS into Van Nuys.  I was looking around and making my final checks when I took probably the first glance of the flight at the fuel gauges.  Both of which were sitting there staring at me with the needles dancing on E!!!  OH MY GOD!!!  In my hurry to convince myself that the flight from Laughlin to Van Nuys would be no problem I failed to refuel out of Nevada.  I started doing some fast calculating and figured out that I had probably about 35 minutes left to go before I was going to be looking for the nearest freeway to set down on.  The flight over had taken me just about 1 hr 40 minutes.  I had now been in the air and in the clouds solid for almost 2 hours and 20 minutes straight.  I heard Burbank approach giving me the vectors for the ILS at Van Nuys and now that the panic was subsiding I realized that in only 20 minutes I would be down anyhow.   The fuel should be no factor, gulp!

I received my last vector for the ILS and was just shy of Katie when the ILS started to come alive on the instruments.  I put my head down in the cockpit one last time to make sure all was set, and when I looked back I thought that it was odd that I should be losing so much altitude.  I began a quick scan to discover that when I put my head down I had leaned on the Yolk enough to put me into a turn to the left.  Now as I caught the altimeter showing I was going down I realized that I was actually in a 80* bank to the left and heading for maintains in the Newhall Pass. NOT GOOD!  I pulled the wings level again and started back up for 4k which was the last altitude I was given to establish on the approach.  I called Van Nuys tower and was flying the ILS with relative ease.  After all I had just flown it about 50 times in training.  The tower cleared me for landing and as I heard the marker start to sound and I reached 250 feet AGL I did not see a runway where they said it should be.  Having never actually flown the missed approach out of Van Nuys I knew little about it and I started to frantically read the missed procedure as I held 160* heading and 250 feet.  Just then to the right I caught a glimpse of the tower.  With runway environment in sight I was cleared to descend to land, which I did.  Just as the needles on my fuel gauges stopped dancing, and just as the rains really started to let lose on the plane.  Taxing off the runway and heading for the parking space was tough. I could see nothing in front of me and I was down to opening the small DV window and looking through that.

I made it!  Once I shut the plane down and sat in relative silence listening to the patter of the rain on the fuselage, I realized just how STUPID I had been.  I had pulled just about every classic bonehead move that gets most people killed and yet I managed to make it back.  Had I not seen that tower and been able to land, I would have most definitely run out of fuel before making it back to the ILS for 16 at Van Nuys.  For that matter I doubt I would have been able to make Burbank, which is ten miles away. Yes I do believe in God!

The flying community has a saying that is very true.  There are only three things that will kill a pilot. Runway behind you, altitude above you, and the fuel you left on the ground.  Some get lucky and make it, and I have no problems with admitting to most that I am by no means a natural flyer.  I have struggled to attain what level of proficiency I have today through hard work. But you can bet me on this point; I will never ever try something that stupid again. Amen!!!

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