I had just started to change the altitude hold when I thought I hit a bus


We had just had three to four weeks of absolutely beautiful late summer/early fall weather. I got in as much flying during that time as I could, but unfortunately other commitments prevented me from getting in more than a few hours.

I was buoyed by the knowledge that my wife and I were about to embark on an extended trip that would take us to a resort in South Carolina for a four-day stay, then on to a week in Florida visiting relatives, followed by a stop in Atlanta to visit our daughters family.

There were things that needed to be done to get the plane ready for the trip. In the last few weeks I had received two mandatory service bulletins on my 1995 A-36 Bonanza. Id also had a few other squawks, including a leaky door seal, and it was time for an oil change before the trip, too.

I called the Raytheon FBO in Rockford and we set up a time to get the work done the following Monday. Of course, Murphy dictated that Monday was forecast to be the first stormy day wed had in well over a month. However, from my home base in Waukegan, Rockford was only a half-hour trip and I could figure out a way to pick through the severe weather on each leg of the trip.

I awoke Monday to the sound of heavy rain on the roof. The Weather Channel showed the entire area was blanketed with level one and two rain. I called a briefer and he confirmed this and also alerted us to severe turbulence forecast for altitudes below 8,000 feet. We filed for 6,000 feet and had a relatively smooth ride to Rockford, arriving there by 7:30 a.m.

The service bulletins called for replacing the fifth and sixth seat attachment brackets (estimated time 16 hours) and looking for seven rivets that may be missing under the entry door. Ours were missing.

Raytheon put one man on the bracket job and another on the rivets, while a third handled the oil change and the other minor squawks. As it turned out, the 16-hour job was finished in about six and the rivets took about eight. By 4:30 p.m. the logs were completed and I was ready for the trip home.

The briefer said that my route home was still mostly level one and level two rain, but that a storm cell was bearing down on Rockford and was only 12 miles away. He recommended I leave as soon as possible, which I did.

En route at 5,000 feet, the ride was smooth with only some occasional light turbulence. The ATIS at Waukegan confirmed the briefers report of a ceiling of 500 feet broken, 900 feet overcast and 10 miles visibility. It looked like it would be a breeze.

About 25 miles out, Approach put me on a heading of 090, which eventually took me just north of the airport and south of the outer marker at 4,000 feet. I had programmed the GPS to include the Wisil intersection and the Wauke LOM in anticipation of getting the ILS 23 approach, which the ATIS had said was active, with a circle to land on runway 5. The wind was out of the north at about 7 knots.

When I was about 10 miles out, I retuned the ATIS and discovered that the ceiling had dropped to 300 feet broken, 700 overcast, with the wind at 010 at 15 knots and visibility down to 3 miles. This meant Id be making a downwind landing, straight in on 23, since the ceiling was below circling minimums. The approach was no longer going to be a breeze, but it was still doable.

At about the time I was abreast of Wisil, I set up the ILS and changed the GPS range to 5 miles, anticipating a left turn and descent to 3,000 feet. Sure enough, the call came a minute later. Turn left to 250, descend to 3,000 feet. Maintain 3,000 until established on the ILS, cleared for the approach.

I flipped the heading bug to 250 and had just started to change the altitude hold when I thought I hit a bus. Everything on the right seat flew up to the ceiling and I hit my head hard enough to knock off my headset. I was tossed around like a toy. I took a few seconds to reattach the headset and get things organized a little, then I acknowledged the clearance and reported the severe turbulence.

When I got my scan back to the instruments, I saw that I was descending at about 500 fpm and was heading 190 degrees. The jolt had disconnected the autopilot and in just a few seconds I had turned 270 degrees. I got the wings level, turned back to 250 degrees and punched in the autopilot. When I got down to 3,000 feet I had already passed Wisil and the strong wind was pushing me parallel to the localizer.

It was clear that I was not going to get established and down to 1,900 feet by the time I got to the LOM.

At this point a supervisor came on the frequency and told me that they were going to vector me around for another approach. I could see from the GPS where I was relative to the localizer and I had no fond feeling about going back out over the lake. I told him to get me down to 1,900 feet, that I wanted to complete the approach. He said OK, told me to fly 270 degrees and call the tower passing Wauke.

At this point, I had about five miles to lose 2,000 feet. I was heading 270 to intercept a 229 localizer. Down went the gear and approach flaps and the elevator started going down.

As I passed abeam Wauke, still heading 270 degrees, I called the tower and was cleared to land. At this point the localizer needle was just starting to come alive and I began to see houses through the breaks in the clouds. At 1,000 feet, 300 agl, I broke out to find myself on a left base to runway 23. I made a feather light touchdown in a light rain and taxied to the hangar.

As I sat there with the engine still ticking over, I asked myself whether I should have done what I did. On the plus side, it was my home field and I knew there were no obstructions anywhere in my path. The approach-approved GPS had kept me informed of my position. I had 300 feet and 3 miles to make what amounted to a visual approach.

On the minus side, I was never established on the localizer or the glideslope. At that point, the minus outweighed the pluses and I vowed I would never do it again.

I should have accepted the missed approach and asked for a right downwind rather than the left downwind Id gotten. That might have kept me away from the cell Id been vectored into. I also should have asked for 3,000 feet sooner, since I could see that the controller was bringing me in too tight for the wind conditions. The missed would also have given me more time to collect myself after the jolt I received and the momentary distraction from deviating from the approach Id so carefully and confidently fixed in my mind.


Open the Door, Im Outta Here
I recently took off with an IFR clearance from runway 29 at Westchester County Airport. Upon reaching 800 ft. the tower handed me off to New York Departure. At that moment I noticed a change in the sound of the engine of my Piper Arrow. I explained the situation to the tower and asked to return for landing.

Conditions were VFR, and I was cleared to land on runway 34. Shortly after turning downwind for 34, smoke began to fill the cockpit. I closed the heating vent and opened the outside vents, but visibility in the cockpit was becoming worse and breathing was getting a bit difficult. I began to worry that I might not be able to see well enough to land.

My wife was sitting in the right seat and suggested opening the cockpit door. The operating handbook of the Arrow does not mention opening the door in case of smoke, nor had any instructor Id had over the years mentioned it.

Like many pilots, Id had the door open unintentionally in flight before, and I knew the airplane was controllable with the door trailing, so we popped the door.

Instantly the smoke disappeared from the cockpit and we made the landing uneventfully. The only difficulty we encountered was that the noise caused by the open door made it impossible to hear the controllers in the headset until we turned the volume knobs all the way up. In the meantime, I had been squawking 7700.

Opening the door in this situation may be obvious, but I had not considered it in advance, based largely on the fact that no one had ever suggested it before.


And the First Shall Be Last
Im falling! The intense green earth below is rushing up at me with incredible speed. Im spinning around, totally out of control and I know that Im going to die. It feels worse than my recurrent nightmare; then the rotations gradually begin to slow and the green earth below fades to blue horizon while my stomach sinks to my knees. I feel like Ive been spit out of a blender, but Im going to survive.

This was the first spin demonstrated to me by a CFII in a Citabria. When Ive recovered enough to speak, he does another spin, this time to the right. Nose up into a full stall and kick in full right rudder. The wing immediately comes over, points to the ground and the spinning nightmare begins again. This time the spin seems slightly less terrifying and I can feel the recovery being induced. Ive survived again.

Then its my turn. I think seriously about this for several long seconds. Ive always wanted to do a spin. Its training that every pilot should have. Ill never have a better opportunity with a perfect plane and instructor. But do I really want to place myself back into the blender and can I really recover?

Sure, lets do it! The false bravado just blurts out.

The nose comes up slowly, steadily and then the imminent stall begins. I put in left rudder and plane immediately flips over. Quickly, I press full right rudder, push the stick froward and reduce throttle. The whipping rotation slows, then the stick comes back slowly and the horizon reappears.

Please understand, Im not going to go out and try a spin in my Cherokee, or any other plane for that matter. But if some night Im distracted by traffic in the pattern, while Im turning base to final with a little too much rudder to compensate for the strong crosswind, I may recognize the signs of an imminent spin and I may survive to fly again.

I think that spin recovery should be reintroduced into private pilot training. Pilots, like me, who missed out on this basic training should seek out a qualified instructor and do it for themselves. I learned that the spin develops suddenly and has a freezing effect on the unwary. Now that Ive experienced it for myself, Im hoping that my first spin will be my last.


Baffling Breakdown
I was IFR at 11,000 feet in my Cherokee Six-300, two hours into a three-hour flight when I noticed the autopilot was doing a poor job holding altitude. After disconnecting the autopilot, I noticed the same problem while hand-flying. I requested a descent to 9,000 feet and still could not maintain altitude reliably.

All engine instruments were normal, except a slightly high EGT on all cylinders. The alternator and voltage were normal.

I declared an emergency and landed at a nearby airport in spite of a 30-knot quartering tailwind.

Examination of the airplane revealed broken baffles partially blocking all three mufflers. The probability of this must be very small indeed.

Just wiggling the tailpipe to check for looseness during the preflight isnt enough. Get down on your knees and look up in them.


Nordo on the ILS
In 27 years of flying I had never had bona fide emergency in the air. That changed on a blustery early spring day when I decided to do some practice ILS approaches at my home base, Central Wisconsin Airport.

I was to fly my employers Cessna 337 Skymaster. The ceiling that day was 800 feet overcast with perhaps 3-5 miles visibility. I filed a flight plan, got my clearance and took off on runway 8. Climbing in the clouds on a 360 heading, I contacted Minneapolis Center asking for the ILS 8 approach back at CWA.

Immediately after this conversation, things started to go wrong in the cockpit. I recall hearing a sound like the landing gear warning horn (to this day, Im not sure where this sound came from). Troubleshooting the electrical system, I found that both alternators were off line.

At this point I made two mistakes. First, I failed to inform the controller of my situation, and, second, I failed to review the appropriate checklist. I reasoned that the battery would carry me through the one ILS approach I needed to get back on the ground. Everything held together until just outside the outer marker. Center had cleared me for the approach and told me to change to tower. As I tried to contact the tower, the radios flickered a couple of times and then died. I didnt even get to declare an emergency.

Now on basic panel, still in the clouds, I had a simple decision to make. Should I try to climb up out of the overcast layer, search for a safe VFR airfield and land there? I decided not to because there was too much uncertainty. I slowly descended below the overcast. My plan was to fly east until crossing the Interstate and then turn toward the airport.

Terrain with which you are somewhat familiar at 3,000 or 4,000 feet can be totally unfamiliar at 700 feet. Meanwhile I began pumping the landing gear down by hand. Finally after minutes that seemed like hours, I picked up a familiar hill and a power plant just off the nose – Mosinee Hill and the Weston Power Plant.

I now knew I was just north of the airport, so I turned right and followed the highway to the airport. I headed straight for the tower, noticing two airliners lined up waiting to depart on runway 8. I began to circle the tower waiting for a light signal. After less than one full revolution, the tower gave me the green light and I landed without further incident.

Yes, the tower wanted a word with me after I landed. No, I was not required to submit a report to the FAA.

The probable cause was an overvoltage relay trip caused by a battery weakened by sitting in a cold hangar for a month and a heavy electrical load. The airplane had several electrical problems brought to light by this event which were subsequently corrected.

I learned three major lessons from this experience. First Lesson: that I could handle a true emergency by maintaining control of the airplane, never giving up, developing a plan, and executing the plan with revisions as necessary.

I also realized that I should know my aircraft and its emergency procedures intimately and that I should better condition myself to use checklists. Third, I should have had better judgment than to have even attempted a flight that day considering the conditions of the weather, the pilot and the aircraft.


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