Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Down through the clouds - without an instrument approach

My trip from Craig Airport (KCRG) to the Tampa North Aeropark (X39) on Christmas Eve, started with a hitch and got more complicated as the flight neared completion. The aircraft was far from ready when I arrived at the airport. It had been flown two days earlier for 3.5 hours and was left without refueling. When I arrived at the airport, only a skeleton crew was available and they were focused on repairing both of the air charter jets that were down for unscheduled maintenance.

The engine gave me fits trying to start, which is surprising for a fuel injected aircraft. Finally, I got it started and taxied over to the fuel depot for refueling. The end result was a departure that was about 40 minutes behind schedule.

The weather at Craig was clear with few clouds. But prior to departure, I checked the METARs for Brooksville, Vandenburg and Tampa International to get some idea what the weather was like at Tampa North. Nothing looked promising. Brooksville was reporting 900 feet and overcast, Tampa was 1400 and Vandenburg was about the same. The past few hours of METARs showed increases in the ceiling and that was promising and the TAFs suggested there would be some clearing later in the day, so I expected that we'd eventually be able to land.

I picked up my IFR clearance and ran through the runup. The winds favored runway 32 for departure and I picked up my clearance and a departure heading of 280. The tower handed me off to JAX approach who cleared me to 5000 feet and cleared me direct to OCF once I had passed 2000 feet.

Headwinds slowed our progress somewhat, but it wasn't too bad. About 20 minutes into the flight, I came upon a solid white layer of clouds below me that reached up to envelope the aircraft from time to time. Using the NEXRAD capabilities of the G1000, I kept tabs on the nearby airports as I flew along. The situation had not improved much.

Closer to the destination, the clouds near our altitude thinned out only to reveal a solid layer further below. South of Ocala, ATC dropped me down to 2000 feet and that put me in and out of clouds. Tampa Approach asked me for my flight conditions and I had to tell him that I was in and out of IMC.

ATC then said, "November one-victor-alpha, cleared direct Xray-three-niner, if you aren't already direct". A few minutes later, I received clearance to descend to 1600, then minimum altitude that the controller could give me. Unfortunately, I was still in the clouds and there was no instrument approach into this airport.

The controller asked me for the conditions, and this time I told him that I was getting glimpses of the ground, but I had zero forward visibility. He asked me what I would like to do if I can't see the airport when I arrive and I replied, "I'll divert to Crystal River, Charlie-Golf-Charlie". There is a single, non-precision approach to Crystal River, but more importantly, that's just a few miles from my Dad's house and if he handn't already left for my sister's house, I could catch a ride with him.

A few minutes later, the controller asked me if he could make a suggestion. I told him that I would love to hear any suggestion that he might have. His idea he had really surprised me - it was a great idea and definitely not something that was ever taught in flight training.

The controller suggested that I fly the ILS to Vandenburg, but once I was safely below the cloud layer, I could go missed, cancel IFR and fly VFR back to Tampa North. He could not legally give me an altitude below 1600 feet on and IFR plan, and I couldn't cancel IFR when I was still in the clouds, so the key was to find a legal way to get below the clouds. With the ceiling at 1600 feet and 1600 feet being the minimum altitude, we had a challenge that the controller found a very creative way of overcoming.

I could legally decend below the clouds on the Vandenburg approach and since the ceiling was at 1600 feet, I could legally fly at 1100 feet - still 500 feet below the clouds and over 1000 feet above obstacles on the ground.

As I flew along, I reduced speed to 85 knots to give myself lots of time to spot the airport. ATC called me to say that they were showing me at 1700 feet - but my altimeter showed 1640. I dropped down to 1560 to take advantage of the apparent fudge factor. But, the greatest advantage I had was the GPS.

The GPS took me directly over the airport and just as I passed the airport, ATC told me that I was passing it and asked me what I wanted to do. I had just spotted the airport's new hangers as I flew over, so I immediately told ATC that I had the airport in sight, was dropping lower and canceled IFR.

I dropped the 500 feet to pattern altitude very quickly made a quick pass to see if I could spot a wind sock, then lined up for the downwind for 32. I never spotted the sock, but the winds at Brooksville would have favored runway 32, so I assumed that this was the case. Crossing the fence, my engine was pulled to idle, but there was about an 8 to 10 knot tailwind, so I sailed along wasting runway as I finally greased the landing.

This was a unique flight in that I learned a new trick from the air traffic controller. The flight took about 1.6 hours with .6 of that in solid and challenging IMC...all cross country.

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