Minimal Margin

Its the first time I have ever used all of a 7,000-foot runway, but then, most of it had gone by the time my wheels touched


Lake effect is a term Im going to get to know a lot about, now that I have a son at RIT.

I first visited Rochester some years ago when my oldest son was screening colleges. I wasnt an active pilot in those days, and we flew up commercially in mid-November. Arrival was delayed somewhat and the captain said something about lake effect snow. We picked up our rental car after dark, and no sooner had we entered the ramp to the interstate when my son asked, Why are there so many parked cars at strange angles?

Turned out there had been a minor ice storm, but more than enough to cause disruption. It had ended, but the highway surface was still glazed. We were able to proceed, but only at a gingerly pace.

It then began to snow and rapidly became a blizzard, at least by my standards. It was close to a whiteout which, as we werent sure where we were headed, was some challenge. We made it, my son chose Boston and I didnt expect to see Rochester again.

Seven years later Rochester was on my younger sons list and I visited again, flying him in my Commander 114. This time it was summer and the visual approach presented no problems. He chose RIT, and when we returned a year later for orientation, my re-education on lake effect began.

A Canadian high was dominant with a northwest air flow. The forecast had some small probabilities of low ceilings, including marginal VFR and ceiling indistinguishable from ground, a frequent prognostication as it turns out.

As we flew north from Binghampton, fair weather cumulus gave way to increasing layers of stratus, and the Rochester ATIS had ceilings of 1,000 feet. No particular obstacle to flying an instrument approach, but a bit of a surprise nonetheless.

Fast forward to early October and it seems the lake effect becomes more pervasive as the land cools. The airflow across the lake is warmed and moistened, rising to condense over the lee shore.

No real problem for an airport that has three ILS approaches with 200-foot minima, but add some construction, subtract one ILS and take the glideslope from the other two and what do you have? A recipe for chaos, it seems. The precision approach to 200 feet now becomes a non-precision approach with an MDA of 400 feet and a missed approach point at the runway threshold.

On a recent trip up to collect my son, I first picked up one of his friends in Binghampton. As we became airborne on an IFR flight plan, departure informed me that Rochester was reporting a 400-foot ceiling – at minimums – and arrivals had been going missed. Say intentions – that dreaded imperative!

I elected to try the approach and, if we failed, head to my alternate of Syracuse. We had plenty of fuel and decent weather north of Ithaca, but there were clouds looming ahead. As we listened to Rochester Approach, it was clear that few aircraft were getting in. The commercial airplanes were heading to Buffalo or stacked in holds.

As we were vectored for the LOC Runway 22 approach, my autopilot suddenly decided that it didnt feel like reading the No. 1 VOR, which meant using the No. 2 for the approach and flying manually. So, I was going to have to hand fly accurately and strain to pick up the runway environment before the MAP.

I decided that the localizer course was mimicked by the GPS approach, with the MAP as the active waypoint. I punched that into the GPS and the autopilot seemed happy to fly that. I cross-checked our course against the #2 VOR, which was indicating the real approach. We leveled off at MDA with about 30 seconds to go. The ground was visible below but forward visibility was patchy.

Fortunately I had a sharp-eyed passenger and he picked up the lead-in strobes with about 10 seconds to spare. I was high and fast, with the runway rushing up quickly. Full flaps, lots of slip and a rather inelegant dive at the runway. Its the first time I have ever used all of a 7,000-foot runway, but then, most of it had gone by the time my wheels touched. No wonder the jets were going elsewhere.

My son was waiting. He scolded us for being late. It was 4:05 and I had said wed be there at 4. I guess he just didnt understand about minimums, but he does now.

Turns out that its likely to be a while before the glideslope is restored. Meanwhile, winter is closing in and days with 400-foot ceilings may not be so rare. Genesee County will become our fallback. It has a real ILS and is only 30 miles or so away.

When we returned a few days later, I had a vivid illustration of how quickly the weather can change.

Again there was a dominant high, but with the usual 30 percent probability of MVFR/CIG at Rochester. There was a cloud deck at about 8,000 feet flying northwards out of White Plains, and at -11C there was plenty of light rime too. The clouds lowered as we approached Binghampton, and we flew through some snow showers – quite pretty in the evening sunlight.

North from Ithaca the bases gradually dropped but remained scattered. The Rochester ATIS was promising 2,400 and 10, but there was some very black looking weather approaching from across the lake. We were cleared for the visual to 25 and enjoyed the dramatic spectacle of the airport in the soft autumn sunlight while the city off to the right was in darkness under the approaching clouds.

We were able to stay visual and make it in safely, but 10 minutes later it was raining hard. I dropped off my son and departed in heavy rain. I was back in the clouds at 1,000 feet, icing nicely by 2,000, watching snow in the strobe reflection at 3,000 and finally on top at 8,500. Thats an awful lot of clouds in a short space of time.

I can see that this is going to be a challenging winter. I hope they get the glideslope fixed soon.


Buzzard Blitz
I had spent a nice Sunday morning flying a 172 cross country across the west Texas plains. The skies were beautiful and winds were as calm as they get in west Texas.

I entered a right downwind to runway 16 at Skywest Airport. I completed my pre-landing checklist, slowed the airplane to 80 mph and brought in 20 degrees of flaps. Everything was normal, there was no traffic, and I turned base.

Turning final, my airspeed was still at 80 but I had a little too much altitude, so I brought in full flaps and pitched for 75. Then I noticed a shadow on the ground of a large bird to my left. There are big buzzards in the area and I knew that it had to be close.

I was still on final, but now I was looking for a bird instead of flying the airplane. Before I realized it, I had allowed the plane to slow to 50 mph and I was about 300 feet agl. The threshold was a few hundred feet away, so I gave full power and pitched down slightly to gain airspeed.

The landing was fine, right on the numbers, but it woke me up to the fact that it only takes a second of inattention to get yourself in trouble when youre this close to the ground.

Even though running into a buzzard would have been a dangerous thing, running into the ground would have been worse. The learning experience here is to keep up with the airplane and airspeed while looking outside. If for any reason you feel things arent right, go around.

If I would have done that, the bird probably would have been gone by the next approach and I would have a few less gray hairs.


Stalls were Real Yaw-ners
During my preflight inspection of the Cessna 152, I noticed the rudder was deflected all the way to the left. I assumed the last person who parked it did not center the nose wheel after maneuvering the aircraft into the parking spot, and naturally I forgot to check the nose wheel orientation when I inspected it.

Once in the air, I trimmed the aircraft for hands-off flying and proceeded to remove my hands and feet from the controls to verify the trim condition. The Cessna immediately yawed to the left. I put my feet back on the rudder pedals and straightened everything out, thinking that maybe the instructor had touched a pedal either by accident or to determine my reaction. I did not ask him about it, though.

Once in the practice area and after clearing turns, I slowed the aircraft for some stall practice. On the first stall, the aircraft rolled immediately to the left and the instructor had to take the controls. On the second stall, the same thing happened. By that time, I was pretty shaken up and didnt want to perform a third one. Fear of screwing up had taken over me.

We returned to the airport, where I made a perfectly acceptable landing. I later learned that the spring applying tension on the right rudder pedal was broken. During flight, with both feet on the pedals, the spring on the left pedal did not pull the rudder with enough force to be a factor. But during a stall, when the aerodynamic push on the rudder is minimal and your feet become light on the pedals, the spring would do its thing and the aircraft would yaw to the left.

Even after learning the problem, it took me three flights to regain my confidence and perform satisfactory stall recoveries.


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