Right Seat Betrayal

I will never break my personal minimums again, regardless of who is in the right seat


I am a Part 141 commercial student in Southern California. The one person in the world I never would have suspected of unnecessarily risking my life was my flight instructor. I was wrong.

Early in my Commercial training, the syllabus called for a 250 nm solo night flight. (We later found out it was a misprint in the syllabus.) Having very limited night flying experience, I was uncomfortable with a long night solo cross-country. My instructor agreed to accompany me on the flight, as much for moral support as instruction.

Since it was mid-summer and the daylight hours were long, I had to wait until 9 p.m. to take off, after a full days work. My instructor had been on duty since early that morning, too.

We discussed the fatigue factor, but we both felt we could easily complete the flight. From Camarillo, we went to Apple Valley, Calif., Overton-Perkins, Nev., and Jean, N.V. Taking off out of Jean at 2 a.m., I was starting to feel the long hours. I concentrated harder on flying the plane, glad that the flight was nearly over.

Flight Service had warned of a fog bank moving in from the coast, and I was hopeful that wed reach our home airport before it was socked in. No such luck. Coming over the Conejo grade at 3:15, we saw the entire valley below us blanketed by solid cloud.

Camarillos ATIS informed us of a solid overcast at 500′ and visibility of 2 miles. The VOR approach for Camarillo has an MDA of 720′. My instructor and I discussed our options. We could land at Van Nuys and sleep in the plane, or take the ILS into nearby Oxnard. We both felt comfortable shooting the ILS, but we knew it would mean returning to the airport in a few hours to ferry the plane back to Camarillo. Since we were already cleared for the Camarillo VOR approach, I let my instructor talk me in to giving it a try.

With the ink still drying on my instrument ticket, I was about to shoot an approach to minimums (or below) after being awake for almost 20 hours! We went into the clag at 1,200′ msl. I was concentrating on altitude and began to wander off my heading. At 720′ msl, we could just make out some features on the ground, but no runway was in sight.

I hit the throttle to make a missed approach, but my instructor encouraged me to bring it down just a little more. We popped out of the clag at about 600′ msl (less than 500′ agl) over a residential neighborhood. I concentrated on not becoming a crater in one of the nearby mountains while my instructor looked for the airport.

The large shopping mall he spotted confirmed that I was a half-mile off course to the north. Full of adrenaline, we ran through the scud for an uneventful landing.

In the aftermath, I determined that I will never break my personal minimums again, regardless of who is in the right seat. Pilot fatigue isnt just something that happens to other people. Having an instrument ticket doesnt make you invulnerable to weather, and get home-itis can affect anyone – even your flight instructor.


Say What?
After a wonderful weekend visiting relatives in Clear Lake, Calif., it was time for my father and I to depart Lakeport on what FSS said would be a beautiful day. I was primed for a relaxing and enjoyable flight home. My father and I boarded my Cessna 182, Lima Tango, for Auburn.

At Auburn, my father and I went out to lunch and then he brought me back to the airport, where I would make the last leg solo to my home base at Truckee. The flight from Lampson Field to Auburn had been uneventful, and with no wind the landing had been one for the books. By the time I was ready to depart, the afternoon traffic had made the airport a very busy place.

I preflighted the plane, started the engine, turned on the avionics and noticed that the radio traffic was extremely heavy, especially for an uncontrolled airport.

As I taxied to the runway, I was behind six other planes in line for takeoff from runway 25. A glance behind showed three other ones in line after me. We all waited for three planes to land, then the line in front got shorter. I finally nudged Lima Tango into the run up area for the usual preflight checks, but I skipped the radio check because the radio traffic proved they were working fine. Soon I was No. 1 for takeoff, but I had to wait for two more planes to land.

I announced my intentions and took off. I planned to make a left crosswind departure, but had to delay a bit because of traffic. I held the runway heading a little longer than usual, and then turned on course.

I decided to contact Sacramento Approach, even though Id be heading away from the airport. Because the weather was so nice, they were very busy too. I called, but other traffic jumped in before they answered. Then I tried Oakland Center. They were very busy as well and I didnt get an answer. Since I was flying VFR and wasnt planning to go anywhere where I needed a clearance, I decided to just monitor the Center frequency and be on my way.

Once I passed Blue Canyon, I picked up Truckees AWOS and found that the winds favored runway 19. When I came over Donner summit I changed to the Truckee Unicom. There was a lot of glider activity, as there usually is in August. I announced that I was on a 45 to for a right downwind and then announced downwind, base and final.

I even said hello to one of my instructors, who was flying the tow plane at the glider port. I guess he was busy, too, because he never said hello back. I landed, taxied to the hangar, shut everything off and started packing up my gear. Wait, whats this? Suddenly chills ran up and down my spine! The microphone plug from my headset was halfway out of the jack.

Suddenly it was very clear why everyone had been too busy to answer me. I took off from a very busy airport in silence. I landed at a busy airport without ever being heard.

Since then, Ive become more critical of myself as a pilot and dont wag my finger at all those stupid pilots. Anything can happen up there, even to great and safety conscious pilots. Now I always make a radio check. And I always consider myself in the crowd of Stupid Pilot striving to learn more.


Missed It by That Much
I was returning from a short trip to the practice area with my flying partner. The FSS had predicted a build up of thunderstorms some 40 miles to the west of the uncontrolled field from which we fly. We had only been gone about 30 minutes and thought we would have plenty of time to return before the storms hit.

As I was returning to the field, I called my position on Unicom. A television helicopter called in for landing and asked me if I was landing. I informed him that I was. He replied that there was some weather behind him to the east and indicated that landing soon was a good idea.

I entered the pattern and landed normally into a 5 to 10 knot headwind with just about a 5 to 10 degree crosswind component from the left. I exited the taxiway and pulled onto the ramp to park. At that moment 50-knot winds from the gust front of the leading edge of the storm hit.

The wind was so strong that the line crew couldnt get over to my position on the ramp. Thankfully I had already full control input away from the wind, which was coming from over my left shoulder. I had the right pedal fully depressed to make the turn from the taxiway to the ramp, but every time I added power and released the brake the plane would weathervane a foot or two to the left.

I help this precarious position for over 5 minutes. We began to smell something burning. We later determined that it was either the right brake or the tire, which had left skid marks on the ramp. The wind was so strong that planes that were chained down parallel to my position shifted a foot or two in their parking positions.

I still shudder when I think what would have happened if that gust front had hit a few seconds earlier.


Pump Left a Vacuum to Fill
On a summer day we left Dallas, bound for Somerville, Tenn. About half way there, building cumulus clouds led me to descend, and I began weaving through them to maintain VFR. Although I had a stand-by vacuum system with a warning light, I noticed that the gyros had stopped responding to the turns. I glanced at the low vacuum light and it was off. Then I looked at the vacuum gauge and it read 0.

It became very hazy, and soon a thunderstorm was blocking the way. I made a 180-degree turn and landed. We spent the night there, planning to leave the next morning, but fog pushed our departure to the afternoon.

After that, I dont trust vacuum pumps. I dont trust the low vacuum light either, because it was knocked out by a broken wire. I know the value of stopping to review your options.

When I had the vacuum pump replaced, the new one failed at 2 hours. Fortunately by then Id had the warning light fixed.


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