The previous post reviewed my planning for the flight, and included an off-hand comment that it's the time of year when one needs to think "less about, 'Will there be convection issues?' and more about 'Will there be ice?'" Famous last words.
I was aware that there was significant weather in that area, but I had felt I could depart and work with ATC to find a route through the line or at worst, turn around and return to KBDR. But that scheme didn't work for ATC! In the busy New York Approach airspace, I guess that there isn't time to work individual aircraft through a line of convection. They just shut the routes down until the weather improves.
So, N631S and I sat on the ramp, checking in with the tower every 15 minutes for an update. After an hour and a half, the answer came back as, "Things are improved over by Sparta...you'd better get taxiing." Which we did!
In looking at the weather forecast for this flight, it was clear that there might be some flirtation with ice. And near Allentown at 8,000 feet N631S and I found ourselves in the cloud layer with the outside air temperature (OAT) coming down. I wanted to stay at 8,000 as long as possible because the winds were more favorable there than at 6,000. Despite a true airspeed of about 140 knots, speed over the ground was only about 110 knots. Lower, the wind would be more directly "on the nose" and the headwind component stronger. I watched the declining OAT until it reached 34°F, and then asked Allentown Approach for a descent to 6,000. And as expected, about 7 knots of ground speed went away. But that altitude was below the clouds and significantly warmer.
Except for needing to be vectored around an isolated patch of convective weather just north of Lancaster, the balance of the en route portion of the flight was uneventful.
As had been forecast, the surface winds in the DC area were strong and gusty. And, as expected, the winds at KVKX were moderated by the field's location in a valley. Still, there was enough wind (reported as 7 knots from 260°) to make Runway 24 the clear choice. My final controller from Potomac Approach asked if I had the weather at KVKX and I replied, "Yes, I've picked that up; looks like it'll be Runway 24 tonight."
That elicited an offer that I couldn't refuse. Andrews AFB, which lies about 5 miles northeast of KVKX, was more or less between my position and the approach end of runway 24. I could get a turn toward the airport passing just south of Andrews, provided that I agreed to timely cancellation of IFR (since I'd wind up below Approach's Minimum Vectoring Altitude). Visibility was good, so I said, "Sure, we can do that." To which the controller said, "Proceed direct to VKX while I talk to Andrews."
A few minutes later I was at 1,500 feet, essentially crossing east to west over the approach lights of Andrews' Runways 1R and 1L. I was set up on a left base for 24 at VKX. Having cancelled IFR when I had the beacon in sight, I reported the runway in view and was released by the controller. N631S rolled out on about a 3 mile final.
It was a bit after 8 PM local time, and completely dark. Approaching KVKX from the northeast something I'd never before done at night offers only the most sparse ground lighting. The runway lights are clearly visible and welcoming, but the intervening terrain is something of a "black hole". The area is basically flat and featureless and I was down at about 1,300 feet to stay well below the floor of the Class B Airspace.
We've all read the training materials on visual illusions. We've been told about the dangers of the "black hole approach." (Avoiding Black Holes by Dale Wilson gives a good overview.) But now I was about to have the experience.
The visual approach aid for Runway 24 is a two-light VASI (Visual Approach Slope Indicator). Red beside red means you're low. White beside white, you're high. Red with white is just right. As I looked out into the dark night, the VASI was stubbornly red with red. Yet everything else about the sight picture had my ground-dwelling brain screaming at me, "Too high! You're too high! Get down!" I had to consciously remind myself, "It's an illusion. Do not descend. Trust the VASI." I was applying that first rule of IFR flight trust your instruments! And soon, one of the red lights turned white and I started a descent toward the runway.
The landing itself was uneventful, and I was left reflecting on how a VFR-only pilot, trained to trust his eyes, could so easily be trapped by what I'd just experienced. It's a sobering thought.
Two nights later. Sunday, about 8 PM, N438CP a Cirris SR-22 was on a visual approach to Runway 26 at Danbury (CT) Municipal Airport (KDXR). The weather was good. I've flown into Danbury on occasion and can state that the terrain surrounding the airport is interesting at the best times.