Cleared for the visual—really?

A few months back, I was flying a couple from Odessa, Texas (ODO), to Dallas Executive (RBD)—a 1:45 flight in our company’s Cessna 310. Their visit would be a short one, so we would return that afternoon. I’d occupy my time visiting my brother, who lives sort-of close to the airport.

On the day of the flight I left our home field, Southwest Lubbock Airport (96TS), just after sunrise for the short 0:30 reposition flight down to Odessa. The weather was cold but we were just east of a tight band of foggy weather that was approaching from the west. This weather was supposed to move through West Texas and into the Dallas-Ft. Worth area about the time we would be leaving on the way back. Good thing we were leaving, because once the sort-of-benign weather arrived in the Metroplex it was expected to go sideways and develop into thunderstorms, ice, fog, doom, and destruction. No problem—it would be clear and a million on the backside of the weather. Did I mention the husband was not an enthusiastic flyer?

All went more or less as planned except their meeting went a little long (big surprise) and the passengers were around an hour late returning to the airport. The weather and the passengers arrived at just about the same time but the weather was just starting to get cranked up. We departed IFR and were in and out of the clouds for about half of the return flight. Surprisingly enough, there was minimal turbulence.

As we penetrated the back side of the weather, we were witness to some of those magical moments: clipping through the tops, graphically sensing our airspeed, flying into the sunset. It was breathtaking.

Of course, flying into the sunset meant it was getting dark. No problem; it was VMC on the back side of the weather and would be a piece of cake.

Some time back I had been going into Manassas at night and for the life of me I could not find the airport. There were lights on top of lights! The controller was losing patience when I just happened to look down and there was the airport, directly under us. Remembering that fiasco, I had the not-so-original idea of programing an instrument approach to ODO even though a visual landing was coming up.

When we were handed off to approach control, the instruction was, “Descend to 5,000 and expect the visual at Odessa-Schlemeyer.” It was full dark now and the lights of the towns were coming on.

Night over city
The warm glow of lights—but is that fog creeping in?

A few seconds later: look at that! That town down there is glowing! Wait, is that fog starting to form? Not every town, just one or two!

If I’d had a minute or two more, I would have checked the dew point spread but just then the controller came up: “Descend to 4,500, call the airport in sight, cleared visual approach Odessa-Schlemeyer. The airport is five miles at one o’clock. Cancel IFR this frequency or on the ground. Cleared local frequency.”

OK, so where is that airport?

Black. That was all I saw. Just black. A whole lot of black.

“Approach, I think I’ll go ahead and fly the RNAV 20 at Schlemeyer, entering at MERGE.”

The disdain almost dripped out of the radio: “OK. Cleared RNAV20. Report established.” He had the decency not to discuss his opinion of my piloting skills over the radio. A few button-pushes later and the Garmin 530W was leading us to the airport. I’m glad somebody knows where we’re going.

Just then: “Moron! You haven’t turned the runway lights on!” my limited bandwidth screamed. What is that frequency? I tried CTAF, nothing. ARGR! I pulled up the approach plate and double checked the frequency. Yup, CTAF. Black! AARRGGRR! I then tried keying the mic one or a dozen more times. Black! This was getting boring.

About that time STEC brought us faithfully to the final approach course then the FAF. I didn’t have anything better to do so I hung the gear and started down the glide slope. Just for grins I’ll turn on the landing lights. As we’re descending, I’m pouting that the lights aren’t working and wondering if we could get the guys at the FBO to bring the lights up.

Just then the landing lights picked up the clouds. Clouds!?! This can’t be right! This a visual approach! Didn’t they hear the controller? AAARRRGGGRRR! This is against the rules!

Then a very dim light went off in my head: “Ooh, cloud in way, can’t see runway.” My Neanderthal ancestry manifested itself mightily.

A few years ago, I departed a local airport, IFR/IMC, at night, confident I would climb above the scud quickly, which I did. Still, the sensory jumble that came from the acceleration, into the clouds, climb-out, etc. was uncomfortable. My flying almost never required I fly IMC at night, so I just decided to not to that again. Well, here I was, about to go IFR/IMC at night, with passengers! I was NOT entertained.

Still with nothing better to do, I decided I’d just fly the glideslope a little while longer to see what might happen. Oh, yeah, let’s also key that radio a few hundred more times to try and bring up the runway lights.

Black, nothing but black, except for the landing lights reflecting off the offending clouds. AAAARRRRGGGGRRRR!

Getting closer to the DA, reality was yelling in my ear: “You’re about to go missed, bonehead! Do something!” Rats!

Just then, we popped out the bottom of the clouds and there were those beautiful runway lights. Hallelujah!

In my best airline captain voice, I announced: “There’s the runway.”

I’m confident my passengers were really impressed.

So… what are the lessons here?

  1. Just because the weather guy, approach control, and my mama all think it’s VMC doesn’t mean it’s so.
  2. I am really, really glad I programmed that approach.
  3. Don’t be so entertained by the momentary beauty of a flight that you forget to plan the remainder.
  4. A little night IFR training might be handy.
  5. Schlemeyer is a really nice field! New terminal building, brand new crew cars, world’s greatest “we’re coming to get you” WWII mural. Dang—I’m coming back here next time I’m in the Petroplex.

8 Comments

  • Good story. Reminds me of two of my own experiences and their attendant lessons learned. After waiting out a line of storms between me and my destination for hours, I launched into the night, IFR, for a half-hour flight. Once across the line of former storms, it was clear and a million. I ran the approach for the heck of it, and ATC gave their usual reminder to cancel. I didn’t have the beacon, and something told me to keep the clearance. I switched to CTAF and couldn’t get the lights on, or so I thought. I figured I’d take it to minimums, go missed, and head to an alternate. Then, everything went white. I was in the only cloud within 50 miles. Coming out of the bottom, 50′ above mins, the lights were blinding. Lesson? Keep the clearance unless you’re 100% positive you won’t need it.

    The second, going in to Orlando Executive for the first (only) time, at night, I was given the visual. 12 o’clock, 10 miles. Nada. Lights, lots of lights, but nothing that looked like an airport. 12 o’clock 5 miles. Nope. “Approach, this isn’t working. Request vectors to the GPS XX.” They were more than happy to vector me, no impatience nor attitude. Lesson: Take an approach into an unfamiliar field in an urban environment or at night.

  • Joe, good story here. And good lessons. What is the number one takeaway from it? Never pass up the opportunity to fly your airplane as professionally as the airline pilots do theirs. Rule number one: Even if you are flying a visual approach, fly the instrument procedure.

  • “Descend to 4,500, call the airport in sight, cleared visual approach Odessa-Schlemeyer. The airport is five miles at one o’clock. Cancel IFR this frequency or on the ground. Cleared local frequency.”

    This makes absolutely no sense. No controller would say that, in that order, ever…. Sorry, you lost me after that paragraph.

  • Guilty! Surely I combined two (or three?) radio calls in that one paragraph. My best excuse is that this was such a traumatic event I was still flustered a month later when I wrote it up!

    • I think you can be allowed some artistic license. Somehow I managed to read and enjoy and learn from your story without getting tripped up over the timing and sequence of ATC instructions. I suspect most others will be able to do the same. Good job, and thanks!

  • “Descend to 4,500, call the airport in sight, cleared visual approach Odessa-Schlemeyer. The airport is five miles at one o’clock. Cancel IFR this frequency or on the ground. Cleared local frequency.” ……

    Yikes!!! That’s crazy talk. I don’t even think you can legally be cleared for the visual unless you have reported the airport or the proceeding aircraft in sight. (AIM 5-4-23a)

    I would have provided a PIREP to FSS after I landed and was safely in the FBO having coffee. They need to know they do not have the weather (1000/3) required for a visual. (AIM 5-4-23b).

    Anyway, thank you for sharing the experience. It makes a good learning & teaching tool.

  • Totally agree about the lights at Manassas (HEF) found the approach lights before I ever saw the beacon arriving in VMC one evening. Asked the tower if the beacon was on and was assured it was.

  • Thinking about the pirep, that was my first reaction too but we were so close in I just finished the approach and cancelled on the ground. Changing frequencies (from CTAF) and going back to approach was just too involved at that time. I think we broke out at 200-300 ft above MDA. For me, the big lesson was “being prepared“, especially when you don’t think it is necessary.

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