My first IFR approach to minimums happened in clear skies

It was a dark and stormy night… no it wasn’t. It was a beautiful, clear Sunday afternoon. My young friend Brad and I were flying from Lake in the Hills (3CK) to Platteville, Wisconsin (KPVB). The weather was CAVU and the normal 45-minute flight was completely uneventful.

Platteville airport
An easy trip to a nice runway, right?

I had been flying my (new to me) Piper Dakota (N8109Z). I had bought it about a year before and had gotten a great deal on it. What was interesting was this was the proverbial “not flown in a long time” problem. I sucked an oil-pan gasket taxiing back from the pre-purchase check out and had blown an oil cooler during the drop down from power and altitude in a long cross country. Luckily my mechanic, who had maintained this airplane since it was built, had really helped me pull it all together.

When we bought this great airplane, it had the original avionics in it so the first thing we did, after fixing the oil-pan gasket, was to replace much of the avionics with new gear. We installed a Garmin 430W and a Bendix King KX155A NAV/COM set, a new PS Engineering PMA7000 communications set, and, just because we had room when we pulled out the ADF gear, we installed a Garmin 696 with XM weather.

This really made sure I had some competent IFR gear. I got my IFR rating to make sure I could survive in case I got caught in some bad weather, not to fly into bad weather. On top of that, the Dakota cruises at 140+ knots all day long so the flight promised to be a nice trip over the palisades of northwestern Illinois.

As we approached Platteville, the winds were from the West at about 10 to 12 knots so it meant the right runway would be 25. The sun was getting really close to the horizon and of course in the fall in southern Wisconsin, the farmers were burning off their fields so the haze levels were becoming visible. As we lined up from about 15 miles out, it was obvious that we could not really see the airport. This was strange since it is in the middle of harvested cornfields and the black asphalt usually sticks out like a sore thumb.

Low visibility in haze
Smoke and a setting sun can make CAVU look pretty bad.

Well, no problem, KPVB has four RNAV approaches, including the RNAV (GPS) Runway 25. It seems that when the Chicago Bears used to have their off-season training in Platteville they agreed to sink a lot of money into the airport. The community at this little airport is really great. The city has hired a young couple to run the FBO. She is the CFI; he is the A&P. Together they also have 500+ acres of farmland they get to use to help keep them whole.

The closer we got to the airport the lower the sun was on the horizon and the longer the shadows became. The haze was really getting thick and hanging close to the ground. It seemed the more we strained, the less we could see. We knew the airport was right out there somewhere. I had set up the RNAV 25 approach more as practice than anything else but even with sunglasses it was clear we were up in the sunshine but the ground was already in shadow. At this point we were inside the final approach fix and on the downhill side of the approach and I turned to Brad and said, “We stay with this to MDA and then we are going somewhere else.”

At the very last minute we dropped into the shadows as well and lo and behold there was a runway right where it was supposed to be. The winds died as we got low and all was right with the world when we crossed the threshold. The landing was uneventful and my first full IFR approach to minimums and landing had occurred during a Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited flight to a beautiful sunset.

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