Monday, January 15, 2007


"November 363 Bravo Lima! Altitude Alert! St. Augustine altimeter 30.23. Watch your altitude!", called the tower controller at St. Augustine municipal airport.

I was on final approach to runway 13 using the VOR 13 instrument approach. The ceiling over the airport was around 1800 feet, but to the West, the ceiling was around 1000'. I had been in IMC almost from my departure from Craig Municipal in Jacksonville. So what did I do to generate an altitude alert from ATC?

The weather was forecast to have scattered ceilings around 4000 to 5000 feet, but a quick glance at the sky before I jumped in the shower suggested that the forecasters had made a mistake. The sky was overcast at my house 8 miles south of the airport. I couldn't reliably estimate the height of the ceiling, but it sure looked to me to be much lower than 4000. I had originally planned to make this a VFR flight since there wouldn't be much actual instrument time to be accumulated, but when I saw the sky, I filed an IFR plan for CRG-SGJ-CRG with PLA in the notes. (PLA is "practice low approaches").

The ATIS report for CRG did not match the conditions that I saw. I also overheard the controller telling another pilot that they didn't have weather info in the tower that weekend.

When I departed runway 5, I encountered clouds around 900 feet as I was turning towards my assigned heading of 100. The controller didn't hand me off as early as he usually did and I was through 1500 feet before I was given to JAX departure. On my initial contact, Departure asked me for my intentions and I requested vectors for the VOR 13 approach at St. Augustine, since the forecast called for winds that would favor this runway. ATC turned me to 180 and asked me to advise when I had the ATIS at St. Augustine. Meanwhile, I was encountering rain and clouds and when I was out of the clouds, I could see lots of low clouds and rain to the south and west of me. Meanwhile, I heard a Piper pilot (PA32) call JAX and requested an instrument clearance so he could fly VFR on top. His request was improperly made and it confused the controller. He had stated that he would be entering IMC shortly and asked for clearance. The controller took his info and advised him to remain VFR and he would have his clearance shortly. The pilot had departed SGJ and was Westbound. There was no way he could have remained VFR and flown a safe distance above the ground...not with the clouds that I saw. Nevertheless, he called back and canceled his request saying that it was just a rain squall and he would be able to fly VFR all the way to Pensacola. A few minutes later, he requested a touch-and-go at Cecil (VQQ).

Some pilots really irritate me...especially those who do not do a proper job of planning and don't make use of the tools available to them. This pilot in particular was bad news. With the weather that was apparent, why would anyone try to fly VFR? Why not file IFR and get in the system? It's safer, better organized and it only requires a little bit of planning (and an instrument rating). Clearly this pilot did not plan his flight and had no flight plan on file for a cross-country flight that would take a couple of hours. Frankly, I think he is an accident waiting to happen.

Anyway, I was in solid IMC at 2000' and I had briefed the approach which was clipped to my yoke. ATC had asked me for my intentions and gave me a missed procedure of 360, 2000' and their current frequency. I was now cleared for the approach and told to fly a heading of 160 until established on the approach. The approach vector for final was 128 degrees, so this was about a 30 degree intercept, the problem was I was already fairly close to the fix. A glance at the GPS told me that I would be well past the FAF before I intercepted the radial. I was advised to remain at 2000' until established. Now that I was within 10 miles and the needle was coming alive, I descended to 1600'. My next descent would be to the MDA - 460'. I was now about 3.4 miles out and had been handed off to the tower who had requested that I report 2 miles. I was still at 1600 and had just intercepted the radial, so now I could descend to 460, but I didn't have much time to do it. So much for a stabilized approach. I reduced power and dropped the flaps. As the speed bled off, I executed a forward slip that resulted in a rate of descent between 1500 and 2000 feet per minute. I broke out of the clouds somewhere around 1000 feet. At 2 miles out I advised the tower of my position. At about 700 feet, I pointed the nose where it belonged and gave the throttle a push until I had 1700 rpm. I leveled off at 500' and a few seconds later, the tower controller contacted me with the ALTITUDE ALERT.

I responded, "I'm level at 500 feet and have the runway in sight...what generated the alert?" The controller responded by explaining that my descent path according to their computers was going to put me below the proper descent path and alarms go off in the JAX center and in the tower. They have to alert me and to alert the center.

I replied, "Thanks for the alert, I had to drop down pretty quickly, so I didn't make a nice smooth descent. Sorry to wake everybody up!"

The controller chuckled and said it was not a problem.

So that's how you generate an altitude alert!

I lined the plane up with the runway and made a very nice smooth landing...not technically a low approach, but since I was cleared for the option, I opted for a touch and go.

The return to Craig was interesting and in IMC the entire time. I'll write more about that later.

David West