Just one of those days

I signed up for an early January Angel Flight mission in my Cessna P210 turboprop conversion. Angel Flight arranges air transport by volunteer pilots for indigent patients who require treatment at distant facilities.

The patient and her supportive husband needed to fly 400 nm from Venice, FL to Charleston, SC. She underwent a complicated experimental procedure several months earlier at the nearby University of South Carolina’s medical center. Unexpected complications necessitated her return.

Forecasts the night before indicated marginal VFR in the morning with improvement as the day progressed.

Garmin 696

A day to watch the XM weather – and for plan B.

I filed IFR for the three legs from my central Florida residential airpark, Leeward Air Ranch, southwest to Venice, northeast to Charleston and back home due to expected intermediate altitude clouds. I would leave here at 0800, Venice at 1000 and Charleston at 1230 to be home for a late lunch.

The morning of the flight, I stepped out at 0530 for my usual run and found mist and drizzle. Uh oh. This is not a good sign. Visibility was good enough to see a few lighted antennas nearby, but a low ceiling obscured their tops. I would need to phone for a clearance and time void while on the ground.

I headed for the hangar at 0800, arrived the end of the runway at 0815 and tried to call Jacksonville Clearance Delivery. Oops, my Christmas present iPhone had not been set up to Bluetooth to my headset. Five minutes of fiddling and I had dial-tone.

The rings went on and on until a recording said that I had reached Jacksonville ATC and to call back during normal business hours. Huh? 0820 on a Thursday morning is not a normal business hour?

On to Plan B. A call to Flight Service, which gave me a briefer after five minutes on hold. Getting my clearance took another five minutes. All this occurred while the airplane was idling at 12 gph. Finally I took off and entered the clouds at 300 AGL.

Jacksonville Approach got me going south and advised that I could have 5,000 or 7,000 as a final altitude. Hey, I had filed for 12,000! Turbines gulp fuel at low altitudes. I would have preferred 14,000 for the length of the leg to Venice, but from experience I know it will not be assigned.

Airliners from the north follow an arrival route down the center of the Florida peninsula to an intersection at about 12,000. Depending on traffic I sometimes get that altitude.

After my protests, the Jacksonville controller phoned Tampa Approach and got me 10,000 and implied that I should happy with that. I said no more.

Then I checked Venice’s weather using XM. Whoa! Instead of lifting to 1500 broken as forecast, Venice had fallen to 300 and two miles in mist. Nearby Sarasota was better at 700 and 7.

As I neared Venice, the ceiling went to 200 and the visibility to 1 mile. I asked for the RNAV 31 approach even though it was crosswind as the minimum descent altitude is lower, but only to 320 feet.

As the controller vectored me between layers at 2000, I noticed the wind arrow on my EFIS indicated 41 KT from the southeast! I think that flow kept the lower layer from lifting.

I advised the controller that I would divert to Sarasota if I missed the Venice approach. At 320 I saw nothing but cloud and went around.

The controller vectored me for the ILS 32 at Sarasota. The two airports are only 20 nm apart, leaving little time for quick deleting of the flight plan and Venice’s approach, loading the new one and getting set up.

As I intercepted the localizer, the glideslope did not appear. A few moments passed before I realized that my Garmin navigator had not automatically switched from GPS to ILS mode.

Why not? I wasted time trying to understand before I saw that the navigator had entered the ILS frequency in the standby window, but I had not switched it to the active window. When I did, the glideslope was well below me as the strong tailwind was speeding me toward the airport. I started down hoping to salvage the approach, but resisting the urge to dive for the glideslope, knowing a high sink rate close in can be deadly.

The EFIS’s synthetic vision showed I would land on the last third of the runway if I continued. Plan B became a midfield breakout and a circle to land on runway 5. Except I was still in cloud at the circling minimum. Enough of this unstable approach!

Final approach on the ILS

So much for marginal VFR…

After more vectors, a proper setup and using a slower approach speed, I slid down the ILS and broke out at 400. My crosswind landing left some rubber on the runway.

I reported to the tower wind shear of 32 knots from 100 degrees at 1000 AGL inbound on the ILS 32. Ten minutes later, I noticed an airliner landing on runway 14. Somebody listened.

The diversion offered a benefit. One of the three FBOs at Sarasota, Rectrix, had a beautiful newer facility and sold Jet A to me at low prices during several earlier visits. I based there for volunteer survey flights with nearby Mote Marine Laboratories researchers.

When I requested taxi to Rectrix, the ground controller asked if I wanted the north or south facility. Uh oh. Apparently one FBO had been bought out. The Rectrix I wanted was on the east side, which puzzled the controller. Eventually we settled on south.

The linemen were as efficient and courteous as ever. The front desk gave me a fuel price as high as any airline served airport and, no, they did not give an Angel Flight discount.

I phoned the passengers at Venice who said they would drive to Sarasota. I filed a new flight plan and an hour later we were in the air heading to Charleston.

Well, not exactly. Apparently the late morning rush on that central Florida arrival kept Jacksonville Center from honoring my clearance. We climbed to 16,000 while headed north over the Gulf of Mexico toward Tallahassee.

Meanwhile unforecast cells with tops above me were moving east off the Gulf. Dodging the big ones became part of the workload while the few I penetrated had ice. After some pleading, I got 19,000 and finally a turn east.

From that point the leg went smoothly with a 20 kt tailwind component, until reaching the Charleston airport. The weather was 7000 broken and 10, but one of the two runways was closed. Landing on runway 33 I had a quartering 15 kt tailwind that produced some strange sensations while flaring, leaving more rubber on the pavement.

Atlantic Aviation at Charleston treated me very well. Although their Jet A price equaled Rectrix, Atlantic gave an Angel Flight discount of more than $1 per gallon! I filed a new flight plan, hit the vending machine for a small package of stale peanut butter crackers and headed south.

Leveling at 16,000, I found the winds aloft had shifted and strengthened, resulting in a headwind component of 39 kts. Yet worse lay ahead. Checking XM weather revealed that Ocala, the nearest reporting airport to my home field, was not VFR as predicted. Instead it was down to 700 and 10.

That’s too low for me to fly the Ocala ILS and continue visually 12 nm to Leeward. Leesburg, 18 nm south, was about the same. For the next 75 minutes I kept checking both airports on XM and later ATIS/ASOS. Ocala did not change significantly while Leesburg fluctuated.

About ten minutes from home, I requested a diversion to Leesburg. The ceiling had risen to 1700 overcast with 7 miles visibility and offered the better prospect of a duck-under run back to Leeward.

I also asked for the runway 13 RNAV approach, despite a crosswind, as it would bring me near Leeward. Nope, nothing but solid clouds as I passed overhead at 2000.

On the approach I saw nothing at 1700, nothing at 1500, some ground contact with many clouds below at 1300, the runway at 1200 and only low clouds looking back towards Leeward. The 1700 ceiling at Leesburg was only directly overhead.

I continued inbound and made my third crosswind landing of the day. It went better thanks to the earlier practice.

After parking at the Sunair FBO, I called my wife,

Suzanne. She was monitoring my flight on FlightAware and after seeing the diversion, expected a call for a ride home. Late on a January Friday afternoon with drizzle, the drive down crowded highway 441 would probably take an hour.

That gave me time to walk a quarter-mile down the ramp to the Angel Flight office at Leesburg. I had never visited before. Kathy and Steve, who manage the operation, and I had a pleasant chat.

It was after 1700 when I exited the office to find light rain and many gates to the ramp area now locked. After some jogging around, I was able to get back inside the perimeter and made it back to Sunair only damp, not sopping wet.

Suzanne arrived and we started north. Traffic was heavy and frequently became stop-and-go due to several multi-car rear-end accidents. We didn’t get home until around 1900.

I was truly tired out from a day of frustrations and partly from lack of lunch. I had a quiet dinner, worked through e-mails and went to bed early.

Looking back, I am happy that the Angel Flight mission was accomplished safely with minimum inconvenience and maximum possible comfort for the patient.

The rest of it–5.7 flight hours, four approaches with two to low ceilings, three crosswind landings and many unexpected situations–made for quite a challenging day. My hat is off to those freight and corporate fliers who do this regularly in single-pilot operations!

For me, it was Just One Of Those Days.

3 Comments

  1. SaferAviator says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Planning ahead for problems and using all your resources when you encountered roadblocks were key lessons here. Particularly useful, I think, was telling us about your self induced problems as well.

    Fly safe and thanks for supporting the great Angel Flight program

  2. Ray Landes says:

    Excellent article. I have found the 10 or so Angel Flights I’ve done some of the most challenging of all in 2000 hours. This description rings so true when you think things are stacked against you: because that day they are! An with an Angel Flight you’ve added complexity of a
    third party and associated pressure. Flying “little” airplanes single pilot in “real” weather on a schedule: that’s a mouthful.

    • Bruce McGregor says:

      I too have to fight the pressure to get the patient to a medical appointment on time. When the WX is marginal, I remind myself that endangering a passenger does not help their need, which makes it easier to say not today.