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: email@example.com
I had my Private License for a few years now and was working in the FBO where I had done my training. I had a good relationship with the instructors, and frequently took flights and simulator sessions with them to stay involved and current. I was not instrument rated, but would take any opportunity that came up to go flying, either VFR or IFR.
Mike, one of our instructors, and I made a plan to fly the club Archer II from Farmingdale, NY (KFRG), our home base, to Bradley International (KBDL) in Connecticut. It was a mild evening in January. A high overcast around 3000 feet, temperatures were in the mid 40s, freezing levels were high, and good visibility beneath the clouds–a perfect night for a basic IFR training flight.
The preflight was uneventful, and before long, we were ready to takeoff on runway 1. Lining up on the runway, I checked the compass to the DG and found it not in agreement. A quick adjustment to the DG, and a mental note to be more attentive, and we were on our way. The climb out was uneventful. Smooth air and great visibility made for a nice start. The approaching ceiling filled me with excitement and I prepared myself for flying on instruments. Mike had worked with me on prior occasions in the sim, but this time it was for real.
We entered the clouds and I transitioned to instrument flying. After a few minutes, I settled into a basic instrument scan and we flew along in the smooth, continuous overcast. Mike explained how to set up the radios and navigation aids for the upcoming ILS and we reviewed the charts. As we reviewed the charts, I noticed that I was drifting right of course and had to continually make left corrections to keep on the radial. As we continued on, and the corrections continued, we remarked that perhaps there was a significant crosswind. Seemed odd that there was no turbulence, and the strong winds were not forecast, but that was all that came to mind and on we flew.
We received radar vectors to intercept the final approach to runway 6, and established ourselves inbound. The correction continued, and we were surprised at the correction we had to hold to track the localizer. Before our curiosity could get us to explore other options, we broke out of the clouds, and flew the last three miles visually to the runway. The landing and taxi in were uneventful, and the weird winds quickly left our minds, or at least mine.
We departed about 45 minutes later, and within 10 minutes were on top of the undercast, enjoying a smooth moonlit evening flight home. It was difficult focusing on instrument flight when I could see perfectly, but soon it became evident that the clouds must not be uniform, as I was constantly entering a left turn. I gave myself a second scolding and reminded myself to focus on the gauges. As I did so, I immediately found myself disoriented. The clouds made it appear as if I was turning, yet the attitude indicator was straight and level, but wait…the turn and bank indicator was showing a left turn too. The compass was turning as well, but in the other direction. I immediately looked over to the vacuum gauge, and couldn’t see the needle, it was pegged on zero. Looking back to the instruments, I saw the VAC light shining brightly–a complete vacuum failure! I immediately called out to Mike, who had been reviewing the return charts, that we had lost the gyros, and that they were spinning down.
Between the fear and adrenaline, I found the time to be amazed and fascinated by the slow and smooth tumbling of the attitude indicator. I had always though that when they failed, their tumble would be obvious. I trembled at the thought that, had I been in the clouds, how far would I have banked before I figured it out. It was a very slow turn, Mike hadn’t even noticed.
While I was now established back in straight and level, one glance at the instruments gave me an immediate sense of the leans. Two pieces of index cards covered the errant instruments, and for the remainder of the flight I recited “Needle, Ball, Airspeed” in my head, to remind me what to look at and interpret, and to keep my anxiety level at a mild panic. We were still VFR on top (conditions, not the clearance), and we decided that I would continue to fly the aircraft (aviate) while Mike would navigate and communicate. Mike notified ATC of our predicament and together they planned for the descent to come. We decided to descend over land instead of Long Island Sound, and ATC vectored us over the Long Island, turned us west, and cleared us to descent to VFR, or 1000 feet, whichever came first. The descent was uneventful, “needle, ball, airspeed” the entire way down, and we finally broke out at 1800 feet and flew visually back to Farmingdale a few miles ahead.
Looking back on this flight, a number of flags go up in retrospect, and while I could make excuses, I choose to blame my complacency as one of the root causes. For years, I have always checked the vacuum gauge during preflight, and it has always been at 5.0. I know I looked that night, but was it at 5.0 or did I expect to see it at 5.0 and assumed that was where it was? Same goes for the DG. I didn’t forget to set it after start, and a flag should have gone off when we lined up on the runway 10 minutes later and it was off. Crosswinds? Visual illusions? I had reasons for everything, except the most obvious. I also had an instructor on board.
After this experience I quickly ordered some instrument covers so if it were to happen again, I could completely cover the errant instrument. Even with the index cards covering most of the gauge, I could still make out the indications around the edges, giving me a mild sense of the leans until I refocused.
I also recommend that anyone who flies watch their attitude indicator spin down when they shut down. It will give them an idea of just how slowly it actually occurs. Let ATC know immediately when you have a problem. They were instrumental in helping devise a plan, and the calm voice over the radio helped keep the atmosphere in the plane calm.
Lastly, complacency can kill. Listen to the warning signs, flags, dominos, or whatever you may call them. The DG being off on lineup at KFRG should have made me stop the takeoff run and re-check everything. The “winds” and “visual illusions” were just more confirmations that things were not well, and each indication was at a progressively worse point in the flight. Having another pilot aboard didn’t mitigate the risk either. We both flew with each other frequently and we both perhaps were too complacent with each other, assuming the other would catch anything that was amiss. Defining roles here would have been a good idea as well, instructor or not.
Like I said, complacency kills. I had read plenty of articles just like this one before that flight happened. Each time I would be saying “Hey buddy, check your vacuum gauge.” It always seems so obvious until you’re actually there, in the situation. Luckily, in my case, we got home safe, and after the disappointment passed, I learned just a little more to make me a better pilot–at least better enough to write about it and hope someone else learns from this article rather than during the actual experience.