The trip was to fly a friend and some of his family, in his aircraft, to an airport where they were spending a weekend at their vacation home. I would fly the aircraft back so he could ride back a few days later with his wife who had driven up a day earlier. The Cessna 340 is IFR and known icing equipped, and the weather was VFR, but there was a definite ceiling. That ceiling was at 2700 ft AGL along the route. So, instead of flying low to the ground, we departed the airport of origin and climbed through the clouds, quickly passing through to on-top conditions and our cruising altitude of 9000 ft MSL.
Closing in our destination, the ceiling did not break up. It became obvious we were going to need to descend IFR until we cleared the cloud deck and were VFR below. Two challenges existed initially.
The first was the NOTAM on the GPS approach indicating that the approach is “NA” (not authorized) at night. We were flying at night.
Second, ATC did not have a “minimum vectoring altitude” (MVA) in the area that would put us below the ceiling.
We knew we needed to start an approach to become established and allow us to descend further, but were not authorized to conduct the approach at night. We also knew that well before reaching a final approach fix we would be in VFR conditions. Is it conducting the approach if you are VFR before establishing on any final segment of the approach?
It was a game time decision, and a gray area, but we decided to do it.
The descent took us through about 2000 ft of clouds, and while in them, light icing. Something no pilot really wants to hang out in. We were out of the clouds by about 3800 ft MSL and continued a descent down to 3000 ft MSL, the intercept altitude for the next approach. We were now tracking the approach path VFR. We cancelled our IFR flight plan at this time with ATC.
Continuing to track the instrument approach procedure in VFR conditions, we executed descents along the published approach path toward the airport. But we weren’t able to see the airport with less than 5 miles to go.
Fortunately, we were operating as a two pilot crew, so my friend physically flew the aircraft, now down at about 2000 ft MSL, slightly above the published MDA, and still tracking the approach course. I worked to try to get the lights on at the airport.
This particular airport has pilot-controlled lighting that is not on the CTAF frequency, but on a different frequency. The different frequency requires the crew to transmit their traffic intentions on one frequency, and operate lighting controls on a different frequency.
We were pretty certain that we had the correct frequency, but the lights weren’t coming on. It just wasn’t working.
Closing in quickly on the airport, we tried a couple of other common frequencies, 122.8, 122.9, 122.85, none of them working. The 122.85 frequency is the one that is supposed to work, but we still weren’t seeing the airport lights.
The GPS counted down and showed that we were over the airport.
Some time receivers for lighting controls can be finicky and not work at greater distances, but even directly over the airport our last ditch attempt failed to light up the runway.
Time for plan B.
Below a cloud deck, no longer with IFR ATC services, we couldn’t go back into the clouds, and obviously didn’t want to with icing, so we continued forward VFR.
Fortunately, a mere four miles away, another airport had runway lights that were shining brightly. The lights had been triggered as we were trying different frequencies at the original destination airport.
A quick left base and a turn onto final, we established a visual approach and landed there instead.
I regrouped there, dropped the passengers off, and headed back home for an uneventful flight back. The event left me thinking though.
What if instead of 2700 ft overcast, it had been 800 ft overcast and we had conducted an approach to minimums before we found the lights didn’t work? What if our option when we didn’t see the airport was going to require a climb back into clouds with icing? How prepared are we really as pilots for going missed in challenging situations where the result of an approach doesn’t turn out to be what we expected? What would have happened if the terrain around the airport had been mountainous and hadn’t allowed us to continue forward as we tried to resolve the problem and determine a good alternate? What if instead of two crew members this flight had been with a single pilot?
I know. That’s lots of questions, but it’s all of those and more that went through my mind on the way home as I contemplated the result of trying to fly to an airport where the lights didn’t work at night when we expected they would.
It left me with a question of whether I had started a bad chain of events by even starting down to an airport along an approach path, even though it was technically VFR below the clouds, when the approach was not authorized at night. If the approach isn’t authorized at night, should that mean that a pilot shouldn’t fly there when they plan to arrive in VFR conditions? Or should we apply higher personal standards of minimums for a flight at night?
I don’t know the answer to those or the other questions, but I do know that this flight reminded me that we always need to be ready for something to not go as planned, or not work and require a change of plans. I guess one of the risks we always need to be aware of is our own complacency as pilots. Just when you think everything is going to go as planned, sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, the ability to have a good safe out plan can be critical to avoiding making the situation worse. Go to where the lights shine on the safest option and reset your game plan if necessary.