We did something to the altitude

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

I had received my pilot’s certificate back in the late ‘80s and of late had not been able to fly to keep myself current. Being a husband and father of two, the days of flying anything that had wings and an engine had passed, and I found myself looking to fly aircraft that were newer and better equipped, to satisfy my safety concerns and try to stack the deck in my favor as much as possible.

When my friend Paul had mentioned a club at Republic Airport where I fly that was renting 2007 C172s with the G1000 panel, I jumped at the idea. I was previously flying a 2003 Piper Archer with 2 Garmin 430s and while I love the Archer, the club where I rented was very expensive, and I was excited to “step up” to the newer system and all the bells and whistles it offered, and do so at a lower cost.

G1000 cockpit
It’s an amazing system, but it’s not the PIC.

The first one or two flights were spent acclimating myself back into a 172. It had been awhile since I had flown one, and I was a little rusty with its handling (I find the Archer “crisper” and more responsive, but that is strictly my opinion, and both are excellent aircraft). Other than changing frequencies and doing basic “Direct To” navigation, we didn’t do too much experimenting with the G1000 system.

At the end of the lesson, I suggested to Paul we schedule some time in the Redbird TD2 the club offered, to do some G1000 training before we came back to the plane. I also purchased a G1000 course from Sporty’s as well as some manuals from Pilot Workshops to help me along. As much as I studied, and as hard as I tried to take in the information in the simulator, something just wasn’t clicking. I am my own worst critic, and unless I feel comfortable, I am not ready to fly solo. Paul agreed, but felt I was much farther along, and he suggested we fly once again. I agreed.

We scheduled the plane one fall afternoon around 4 pm. I was running late from work, so by the time I got to the plane, I was a little tense and hungry, since I hadn’t eaten lunch. To top it off, I didn’t even bring a bottle of water, which I normally do for every flight. I settled down, did the preflight, and was ready to taxi as the last bit of sunlight disappeared into the dark. I was hoping for a little period of daylight so I could see everything clearly before we went dark, but that was not to be. We stayed on plan, and departed to the practice area.

We asked for traffic advisories while in the practice area, which NY Tracon provided. I find NY Tracon especially accommodating, as long as you sound and act like you know what’s going on, and tonight was no exception. Frequently, they called out traffic, which we were able to see on the G1000 as well as visually. As the flight continued, we entered some “Direct To” airports, waypoints, and VOR’s to practice navigating, and spent some time studying the display and what it was showing.

Paul still had me hand flying as he wanted to be sure I could multi task while programming. While he did not discourage autopilot use, he wanted me to hand fly while we were together. I was fine with that, but it did take some concentration, and I felt like a lot of the explanations and displays were not sinking in because I was focusing on flying. The other idea that popped into my mind for a minute was that I was spending a lot of time “heads down” between checking my altitude and heading as well as looking at the map displays and trying to take in what Paul was showing me.

After about an hour, we decided to head back to Republic Airport and do some touch and goes. We cancelled Flight Following, picked up the ATIS, and headed towards the Northport Stacks, which is the reporting point on the north shore of Long Island when you’re inbound to Republic. We called the tower, reported at the stacks, and they cleared us for a straight in to runway 19, and asked us to report the mall (a big shopping center that is about a five mile final to runway 19).

I didn’t have visual on the airport, and couldn’t make out the mall with all the lights ahead, so I asked Paul if he could “extend the centerline” as we would do on the Garmin 430’s, programming a specific heading to fly to the airport, in this case 190 degrees, which would more or less align us with the runway. Neither of us had done it on the G1000 yet, so Paul started selecting different screens and I continued flying inbound, glancing down at what Paul was doing as the screen changed and caught my peripheral vision. As we continued in, we finally got the magenta line, but it wasn’t aligned with the runway.

I still didn’t have a visual on the runway, but did see the mall, so I adjusted my heading, and feeling better oriented with where we were, spent more time “glancing” down at what Paul was doing. Paul was adjusting the display and getting the line to come around, and I was watching what he was doing so I could do it myself next time. After what only seemed like a second or so, I looked back outside and got a very different picture than what I was expecting. There seemed to be a lot of lights in the windscreen. Something wasn’t right with what I was seeing; I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Where was the mall?

I looked out to where I thought it should be and all of a sudden, the picture became clear. I could see the faint lights of the runway about 3/4 of the way up the windscreen, and four very red PAPI lights to the left of the runway. I looked down at the PFD. Attitude was ok, speed was ok, altitude was……700 FEET!!! We were still 5 miles out.

I applied full power, held the nose at a constant pitch so I didn’t wind up nose high, confirmed positive rate, stable airspeed well above stall, and started climbing. As I applied full power, Paul looked up and very calmly, with no misunderstanding of what needed to be done, stated “get us back up, there are towers out here”. I continued the climb until the PAPI’s indicated a normal glidepath, and then adjusted accordingly (maybe just a little higher after that). We were just over the mall, so I called the tower and reported over the mall, and they cleared us for touch and goes as if nothing had happened. The rest of the approach was normal, maybe some light chop from my hand shaking, the touch and goes were “distracted” at best, and the landing–well let’s say, it was more of an arrival…or two.

Going home that night I was discouraged and disappointed in myself. I thought back to the Eastern 401 crash where the entire cockpit crew worked on a faulty landing gear bulb while the L1011 descended into the Everglades at night. The last words were that of the co-pilot saying “We did something to the altitude” right before they hit. Those words echoed in my mind.

The next day, while feeling rested, I still had that disappointed feeling. I loved flying, it was always my dream, and could never picture doing anything else, yet there was last night. I started thinking that perhaps the G1000 is just too much. I felt overwhelmed by the system, and didn’t feel I was making progress developing a comfort level with it. While that may seem an extreme thought, it was the first rational thought I had since transitioning to the 172.

I went to the internet, and did a search of the other flight schools at Republic and found another Piper Archer with Garmin 430’s, and at a really reasonable rate. I had let  myself get caught up in the technology and wanting to fly with my friend rather than thinking of a way to work up to the G1000 without taking such a big leap.

So, what did I learn?

  1. The first mistake was jumping to a G1000 for the bells and whistles, in a plane I was not as comfortable with when, with a little research, I could have found another club with a plane and equipment I was both familiar and comfortable with. I just had to look.
  2. All the technology is great, but doesn’t negate the need to fly the plane and keep your head outside (obvious during VFR flight).
  3. If you feel off, or you’re running late, take a step back and evaluate whether you should take this flight. Perhaps it should be postponed, perhaps the plan should be changed (still fly but do something else), perhaps delay an hour and get something to eat. As they say, takeoffs are optional, landings are not.
  4. Fly the plane. If you find yourself being distracted, go back to the basics to figure it out. Did we really need the “magenta line” – no.  Listen to that little voice inside when it says something’s not right.
  5. Altitude is your friend. When I realized something was wrong, the response was immediate. For this situation, full power, pitch control, confirm positive rate, and get more space quickly between the ground and myself.

15 Comments

  • With the destination entered as the direct-to waypoint, press the OBS softkey on the PFD and dial 190 with the CRS knob. It’s a similar process on 430 and 1000 models. Sounds like your instructor learned a few things that night as well!

  • for $24 you can purchase a G1000, desktop simulator from garmin’s web site. I used the 430 desktop simulator when I was learning to fly – it was a big help.

    • I used the 430 sim from Garmin and it helped a lot. I tried the G1000, but couldn’t get it to run on XP (my issue). I’m not sure if its just so big, or does so much, I just don;t seem to pick it up this time around. Perhaps I just have’nt spent enough time at it. I figure I’d get current again, get back up to speed with the 430, and then transition to the G1000 again. Right now, I was trying to get current, get my flight review done, and transition to a G1000 (did I mention my medical is coming due???). What this all meant was plenty of dual time (more expensive) and I would run out of cash before I would get close to a check-out. Stop flying for a few months, and start up again….just like a washing machine – rinse, wash, repeat….I’ll get there, though – I love flying and appreciate all your comments.

    • Yes, I also used the Garmin G1000 PC Simulator… MUCH (!!) better experimenting with the simulator than trying to learn in-flight. Since, true-to-form, Garmin is terrible in writing usable user manuals, here’s a “primer” on how to get started with the G1000 Simulator: http://tinyurl.com/g1000-primer

    • Yes, he is……but names have been changed to protect the innocent 🙂 We’ve flown together for a couple of years, I dropped the ball (altitude) this time as I am usually on point…..again, all the links in the chain got me to that point (late, no food/water, dark, etc…)

  • Jim – best wishes on your re-entry to flying. I got my private certificate back in 1976, but only flew less than a year or so afterwards before other obligations forced me to stop flying (marriage, college, kids, mortgage, etc.). After a 30 year hiatus, I was finally in a situation where I not only could fly again, financially speaking, but it was in furtherance of my business operations. After more than 30 years away from flying, I was able to pass a BFR after just under 6 hours of dual instruction in C172s.

    It surprised me that I was able to pick up my old flight skills again so quickly. If you keep it simple, you will pick it up quickly too … i.e., stick to the aircraft you know (PA28 with analog gages) and stick to daytime flying.

    Night flying is naturally more challenging, and, statistically, much more risky than daytime VFR. So save your refamiliarization night flights (under dual instruction) for well after you have developed a comfort level with daytime VFR.

    And welcome back to the club!

    • Thanks for the kind words and sharing your return. You might leave flying, but flying never leaves you. I’m glad your back in the air, and it sounds like we both take a well thought out and conservative approach to flying, even if I do have these stories to write about.

  • Autopilot is your friend in a G1000 aircraft. It decreases the workload tremendously. If I’m doing anything more complex than simply changing com frequencies I find it helpful to flip on autopilot until the task is complete.

    • Especially flying solo, leaving KFRG I prefer to use it. The Class Bravo is above and to the west, and the Class Charlie is to the east. It is like trying to exit a funnel and at least with the autopilot on, I can focus on searching for traffic, as well as staying clear of the B and C.

  • Hi, As a long time commercial pilot, I can say only one thing. Get back on the horse. You lived to fight another day. Yes, you made a huge mistake, but you survived and learned a valuable lesson. We are all human. We have all done things we regret, but pulled out of it a lot wiser. You’ll never do that again! Glas is the future, and if you can afford to rent or buy it, you should do so. Once you learn it it WILL make flying a lot more enjoyable.

    Have fun, Bob

    • Thanks! I stepped back from the G1000 for now, but had a less than stellar flight in an Archer III with a 430 inside. The Electric Trim was inop (I haven’t used the trim wheel since before I got my Private Pilot ticket), winds were up, turbulence was significant below 2500′, and it was a disappointing ride (I have been told my expectations are too high, bit I feel that keeps me on my toes and sharp). Perhaps next time will go better, but your words “get back on the horse” came at just the right time….thanks! The G1000 is still on the goal list, i’ll just do it step by step….

  • A lot of us can relate to your story. ANY pilot switching from analog to G1000 finds it like “drinking from a fire hose”. Thanks for a great story and welcome back!

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