June 2003 Issue

Extra Special VFR

The nuances of special VFR are extreme, and sometimes the controllers are baffled, too

I found your article on special VFR [Airmanship, March] quite comprehensive and valid, but there were a couple of points that I would like to add.

The variables of SVFR are broad, leading to a wide range of variables when it comes to the options and decisions that need to be considered. After one particularly noteworthy SVFR approach into CCR about 10 years ago, I have good reason to believe that CCR tower controllers were unaware of the arrival/departure restrictions of the 700-foot Class E airspace around their Class D if VFR conditions do not exist outside their airport footprint.

In fact, they have no responsibility to know. The poorly taught, unaware and unfamiliar could be easily trapped into an airspace violation by not recognizing that the clearance altitude only applies to Class D airspace.

Here are some tricks:

The SVFR arrival can be initiated from overhead the airport and the departure can be flown climbing in the pattern to VFR conditions if reached before the 1,500-foot altitude clearance limit. Get a “tops” report before departing.

The overhead arrival consists of two parts. First, report over the airport in VFR conditions at or above the assigned altitude. You will need to report any traffic advisories from the tower as being in sight.

Your clearance will sound something like, “Cessna 345 is cleared into the Concord Class Delta airspace with visual reference keeping the reported traffic in sight, report entering the Class Delta airspace, report downwind (runway).”

The overhead departure will sound something like, “Cessna 345 is cleared out of the Concord Class Delta airspace climbing in the pattern. Report reaching 1,500 feet or VFR, whichever occurs first.”

The most likely airspace deviation depends on the transition altitude surrounding the controlled airspace. The arrival to and departure from the airport airspace footprint might require an altitude considerably below that in the SVFR clearance.

For example, Concord is bounded by a 700-foot Class E. This means that any arrival not in VFR conditions to the boundary line needs to be within 700 feet agl with one-mile visibility and clear of clouds. Any departure from the clearance boundary that is not VFR would also have to be within 700 feet agl until VFR.

It should be noted that the clearance altitude varies according to letters of agreement between the radar facility and the airport as determined by a minimum vectoring altitude. In less than VFR conditions the controlling authority shifts at that altitude.

-Gene Whitt
Via e-mail


Commander Stats
In “Belly to Concrete” [Systems Check, April], you publish some interesting statistics about the rate of gear up landings in a number of retractable aircraft. However, Commander 114s were not included. Is this because this aircraft has such an exemplary record? Or because the statistical sample is too small?

-Bob Kuehn
Via e-mail

Tom Turner replies: The charts with the article only included models with at least 25 reported mishaps. Limited-production marques such as the Commander 114 simply don’t have enough accidents to make meaningful comparisons.

But you asked for it, so here it is. In 2002, the Commander 112/114/115 series was involved in nine reported mishaps. Two were gear-up landings and three were gear collapses.

Overall, retracts have similar records regardless of model, so take steps to minimize your risk.


A Slip by Any Other Name
In “Cross Your Fingers” [Stick & Rudder, April], there is a paragraph relating to slips in which you refer to a slip to a crosswind landing as “a classic forward slip.” Correct me if I am wrong, but this is called a side slip.

I have even had this discussion with my CFI and called it a side slip when correcting for crosswind on landing. He gave me a puzzled look and said, “a sideslip is when you want to descend quickly without gaining speed.” I promptly took out my book and showed him he was wrong, but he said, “I just call it like it looks.”

I really need this clarified, because when it comes time for my checkride with the examiner and he wants me to do one or the other, I need to know which one is correct.

-Christine Goeke
Hartland, Wisc.

You are right that a side slip is when the nose of the airplane is facing the direction of travel, such as in a crosswind landing, and a forward slip is the kind used to bleed altitude without increasing airspeed.

Aerodynamically, they are the same except by matter of degree. Your instructor’s attitude and our mistake should illustrate that what it’s called is less important than what it does. Well, except maybe on a checkride.


In the Corner Pocket
I would like to add another technique to your tricks outlined in “Cross Your Fingers” that was covered extensively by Richard Taylor in his book, Fair-Weather Flying. Taylor proposes landing on the downwind corner of the runway with the nose of the aircraft not aligned with the runway centerline, but rather pointed diagonally across the runway so that the crosswind component is effectively reduced.

The slow landing speed of most light planes combined with the groundspeed reduction provided by the headwind component means that the pilot can drift to the downwind side of the runway, land on a diagonal facing as much as possible into the wind. With the landing gear firmly on the runway, the pilot has steering control and the landing roll is an arc that ends with the airplane pointed down the runway and traveling along the upwind side.

Now, obviously there are a lot of caveats and ifs and maybes. The pilot has to be proficient in the aircraft, and like all things, they are best practiced under mild conditions and with an experienced instructor along to smooth the way.

This is not a panacea, but if a pilot can give up the idea that he must be aligned with the runway centerline, the reduced crosswind component can make a safer, more controlled landing.

-Russell Smith
El Paso, Texas

The “caveats and ifs and maybes” to which you allude are great in number. While this technique is used by many, we’re not big fans. The curving path puts side loads on the landing gear, a mistaken angle puts you off the runway, other traffic won’t know where to find you. The list goes on. While we agree this is an acceptable last-ditch technique in some circumstances, we’d be far more comfortable just suggesting a trip to another airport with a more favorable runway alignment or even a big empty field.


Zig-Zag Avoidance
Just read Robert Patlovany’s letter of recommendation for an “ACCAR” altitude separation system and really like it. As one who frequently flies a course of 180 or 360, give or take two degrees, I always have to think about that head on traffic at my altitude. My solution (at least until the FAA gets it together) is to fly 185 or 005 to allow a little elbow room for the other guy.

I continue this course, watching my GPS set for my destination or way point, until I have a good 10 degrees off the north/south heading and then turn to the direct course. This five degree off direct heading is always just a bit right of course, which in all the civilized world, save a few of our friends, is the direction for all sailing and motorized traffic to break in the event of an imminent head-on.

This procedure only adds a few miles to the overall trip but gives me many miles of comfort.

-Jack Gibbert
Texarkana, Texas


Making Simple More Complex
I enjoyed “Simple Stack IFR” [Instrument Check, February]. I don’t have the bare minimum, but something closer to what you describe as an expanded IFR panel. The plane has a Loran, but not GPS, no autopilot and an inoperative ADF. Like many of your readers I don’t have the means or inclination to install dual Garmin 530s and a Stormscope in my 32-year-old airframe. I do, however, feel that some systems redundancy is worth the investment, such as the handheld transceiver (with external antenna) that I carry in my flight bag.

Thus, I am wondering what you would recommend as having the best bang for the buck in safety and utility for a “casual instrument pilot.” The tradeoffs between safety, legality and costs are very unclear. For example, as you point out, many ILS procedures require an ADF.

Should I spend $2,000 to replace the ADF or buy a handheld GPS for $1000 that could also serve as a backup for vacuum or electrical failure? Or is one of the electronic gyros a more effective backup than a handheld GPS? Can GPS legally serve as a substitute for an ADF, or does the GPS need to be IFR-certified? Is a backup vacuum pump or a stand-alone electrical AI a better investment than a GPS? How important is a single-axis autopilot when most IFR trips are less than an hour and in light IFR conditions?

-Chris Steward
Via e-mail

So many good questions, so little space. Seriously, we have some biases, but just how to apply them will depend on your typical missions, your budget and your own preferences.

For routine IFR flight, an IFR GPS can’t be beat – unless you do all of your flying in the Northeast where you can’t get direct routings. You don’t need a Garmin with a moving map, either. There are some great deals on used first and second generation IFR GPS units as owners upgrade to the latest and greatest. Be forewarned that installation and annunciators can be expensive and that there is a learning curve to shooting GPS approaches.

Don’t bother fixing the ADF. It is placarded and logged inop, right? For the GPS to substitute, however, it needs to be an IFR installation, so a handheld won’t do for approaches. There are some other restrictions as well.

There are several electronic gyros available now. In addition to the Icarus, units by Anywhere Map and PC Flight Systems promise good backups, and we’ll report on them in a future issue. Note that none can be installed in the panel.

We’d defer on the backup vac system until the performance of the electronic gyros becomes clear. We’ll be flight testing the latest generation by the time you read this.

Electric attitude indicators are expensive, and some brands are notoriously unreliable. Our avionics shop won’t even install them.

Autopilot is your call. We have flown eight-hour days without an autopilot and not missed it. We’ve flown two-hour legs and used it almost continuously. If your budget is tight and the airplane is well-rigged, you can skip this.


Now I’m Not Alone
I simply needed to write and thank Ron Levy for a great chuckle in “Special Delivery” [Weather Tactics, April], in which he says “you will be able to obtain all the information on your own with no frantic copying down followed by interpretation of your scribbling.” I’m still smiling as I type this. How true is that? Very. Thanks for letting me know that I’m not alone.

-Rob Emert
Lock Haven, Pa.


In Over His Head
I just read “VFR the Sane Way [Airmanship, April]. As I was reading the story, a sickening feeling was growing in my stomach, which peaked when I got to the phrase “north of DeQueen, Ark.” That pilot was a friend of mine.

I saw him a couple of days before this trip was planned. The article doesn’t say that the three passengers were George’s wife and teenage son (an Eagle scout nominee, which was awarded posthumously) and daughter. As the article states he was not instrument rated. But he was a man of extraordinary caution. Eldorado, Ark., was the first planned stop on a much longer family trip they had been planning for some time.

George was reckless neither as a person nor a pilot. He also had some trepidation about such a long flight.

He had excellent navigation equipment on board, including a portable GPS, which he was conscientious about learning. As an instrument-rated pilot I initially had trouble comprehending how he could have gotten so behind the curve in what was marginal VFR at worst.

After reading the full NTSB report, it was clear that ARTCC was using terms George did not understand and he was overloaded by multiple tasks and problems. The conditions in which he found himself were not inherently life-threatening nor even particularly dangerous, for that matter.

Regardless, he found himself in a situation that was beyond his abilities, compounded by the worry of having a family he loved on board. As suggested in the article George had the ability and good sense to personalize the risk to the extent that he understood it.

He thought he had a plan, part of which was the flight following. He did not have the experience nor skills to handle the actual risk encountered.

That part of the country is not the Rockies, but there are some mountains and they created turbulence and waves sufficient to cause problems in CAVU. Add some marginal weather below you, mix in the emotions of trying to control what seems to be getting further out of control and concern for your family, and you have a disaster – like DeQueen that summer day.

George thought he had planned a safe route. The only thing left to say is for everyone to re-read the article and think about those flights we should have not made, but walked away from physically unharmed.

-Bill Campbell
Oklahoma City, OK


A Higher Standard?
I just can’t understand the attitude in “Just Say No” [Medical Matters, March]. The article was informative, but he says, “Fortunately for my friends, they were flying a federal government aircraft on a public-use mission. Usually the FAA pays little attention to accidents of public-use aircraft and these pilots returned to their flying duties shortly thereafter.”

Why should we be happy that these pilots returned to service with less severe penalties than a Part 91 pilot would have suffered? Shouldn’t we expect these professionals would be held to a higher standard?

-Alvin Younger
Via e-mail

You might think so, but the government has a long history of saying, “Do as we say, not as we do.”


The Feel-Good Solution
Thanks for a good and informative article, “Holey Safety Net” from your January 2002 issue, as was reprinted recently on the AvWeb web site. I find your conclusion regarding the ELT very interesting.

Back in the early 1970s when the ELTs became mandatory, many people in aviation came to the same conclusions. At the time I worked as an engineer for a defense contractor involved with radar and systems capable of determining the source of radio signals.

The majority of engineers were convinced that ELTs were just a political feel-good non-solution – just another thing to up the ante of flying. Now, 30 or so years later, the data tends to proove this.

Since you wrote your article, a Piper Cherokee 6 with a family of seven on board that went down in a remote and heavily wooded area on the Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut border area was found by Civil Air Patrol teams using direction finding equipment.

Four were alive and brought out after spending a night in subzero temperatures. A Massachusetts CAP aircraft found the general area and a NY State police helicopter located the wreckage.

A ground team of local rescuers was led to the scene by a Connecticut CAP Cadet using his DF gear. Three children survived the crash, so this is a “save” to add to the list. Even though the system worked well this time, the data still shows the contrary.

I personally feel that I would be better served if the owners spent the $2,500 a new design ELT might cost on a good GPS or a better transmitter/antenna system for the tired old rentals I usually fly. As a former owner of a rental aircraft, I know how any additional expense is a tremendous burden.

-Leo H. LeBoeuf
Via e-mail

In our view, ELT requirements are in some ways analagous to temporary flight restrictions – a political solution that gives the impression of doing good, but only to people who don’t know any better.