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The last game ran late. We didn’t get out of the event center till 2130. The ride to the airport took about 20 minutes, so it was pitch dark when we walked out to the plane at LHM in Lincoln, California. My stepdaughter was very tired and was soon asleep as I taxied out to the runway. I love flying at night so I was comfortable. It was clear and calm—great night flying weather. I checked on the weather at Santa Rosa (STS) and it was calling for low clouds in the Bay Area. We tend to get the marine layer settling in this time of year, so I was prepared to ask for a pop-up IFR clearance if needed.
I lined up on runway 33 and self-announced our departure. Checking on Alex, all I could see was her head buried in her blanket. She was sawing logs.
The climb out was beautiful. Seeing the Sacramento city lights at night is such a special treat. It was very calm at our cruise altitude of 6500 ft., and I checked in with ATC to request VFR flight following to Santa Rosa. As we passed Sacramento airspace I dialed in the ATIS for STS on my COM 2 and listened for current conditions. I could tell there were some clouds as we approached the Coast Range, and not wanting to drop any lower than my current altitude, I was pretty sure we would be IMC way before we got to our destination.
I asked ATC for a pop-up IFR clearance to our destination. There was very little air traffic this time of night, so we were immediately given clearance direct to STS at 6000. As we got closer to the airport, the ATIS started giving reports on current conditions in Santa Rosa. The ceiling was at 650 ft. and there was no indication of it clearing anytime soon. At this point we were in solid IMC and I needed to make a decision: shoot the approach or divert to another airport with better conditions.
In our area of the North Bay, the marine layer is typically a few hundred feet off the ground and extends up a couple thousand feet. It fills up the valleys and leaves the hilltops exposed. All the airports within driving distance of our house were also socked in, so I pulled up the RNAV 14 approach for STS. The MDA for the approach is 600—I would be shooting the approach to minimums. I decided to proceed and if I had to go missed I would head back to the Sacramento Valley, where conditions were VFR.
I had plenty of fuel so there was never an issue with options if I had to go missed. I did a mental checklist of my state of mind: not tired, comfortable doing an approach at night to minimums, and no reason not to proceed. The fact that I had my stepdaughter with me heightened my sense of responsibility and need to get us on the ground safely. I can say I was little apprehensive, as flying at night from VFR to IMC and then to minimums is a real challenge for single pilot IFR.
I made the decision to proceed with the approach and asked ATC for vectors to intercept final. I set up the plane for the approach, did my five As, and waited for the next direction from Center.
I glanced over at Alex, still asleep, and smiled at her trust in my ability to bring her home. Center transmitted the first instructions for my vector. I was still at 6000 ft. and as the IAF for the approach was 5000, I was expecting to get a descend-to instruction. I was told to fly direct to FIPUM but I had assumed I would get direct to LOZWU. I asked if I could get LOZWU instead and was told proceed direct LOZWU.
Still at 6000 as I approached the IAF, I was about to ask Center for an OK to descend to 5000 when they came over with my clearance for the RNAV approach. However, I was told to maintain 6000 until established—now I would have to make a rapid descent after I was established.
It is amazing what the autopilot in the Cirrus is capable of and I immediately dialed in the next fix, which was the final approach fix (FAF) for this approach, at an altitude of 3300. Crossing LOZWU, I started my descent as soon as the needle came alive. The sensation of descending in IMC can be unnerving; it is so important to stay focused on your instruments. My CFI’s voice kept repeating the mantra in my head, “ just trust the instruments and ignore the outside world.”
I hit the FAF a couple of hundred feet above the numbers, so I dialed in the next step down of 1700 and continued to descend. I started looking for any markers at this point. I knew I was still pretty high but sometimes there is a break in the layer and you can get a frame of reference for your position. Nothing but sold gray, with my strobes flashing in rhythm. I started to do a mental checklist for going missed. I was chanting the five Cs my instructor taught me for go around. I never forget how important those simple rhythms become in real-world situations.
I hit the next step, UCEVE, right at the correct altitude and prepared for landing or go around. Looking intently out the window as I dropped below 1000 ft., I clicked the transmit button five times. I did not see any lights but assumed they would be on as I popped through the clouds. Down to 900 and I was starting to see some lights in the mist. bit still no runway. I tightened my grip on the stick and my other hand on the throttle, ready to hit the go around if needed. At around 800 ft. I caught glimpses of ground and houses, and broke out of the clouds at 700.
I immediately started looking for the field: nothing but black where the airport should have been. I hit the transmit button again and the field lit up like a welcome mat rolled out just for me. I was right on target for my landing.
After I touched down I called Oakland Center and cancelled my clearance. Rolling along the taxiway to the hangar, I marveled at the fact that I was able to fly in such challenging conditions and be taxiing to the hangar like any other routine flight. I thought back to my training with my CFI, and was so thankful for all the hard work and discipline he instilled in me as a student pilot. What a gift from this person who gave me the tools to be comfortable and competent at the controls of my wings in the air.
Alex finally woke up as we got to the hangar and asked, “are we home?” I looked at her and smiled. I said, “Yep just a quick hop and here we are.”