Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"It's the Third Approach that Kills You"

One of the "Ancient Pelicans" hanging around KBDR shared the wisdom in this post's title with me soon after I got my Instrument Rating. His theory was that if you were shooting an instrument approach for the third time you were tired, and frustrated, and maybe getting a little thin on fuel...and thus perfectly set up to push things a bit too far. And your funeral would be held on a sunny day.

So, he advised, go ahead and take it around for a second try. But if the second approach is a miss...go somewhere else where conditions are better. I thought that was pretty good advice.

That advice came back to me this afternoon, after the folks at FlightAware.com sent me an e-mail notification about a friend's flight. I have the "N" numbers of several friends' airplanes set up for the service and one of them had departed Lancaster (KLNS) for a flight to Manassas (KHEF). I clicked on the link to see where he was.

He'd departed KLNS shortly before 2:00 PM, launching into some fairly significant weather. By the time I brought up the web site (just about 3:00 PM) I expected he'd be close to his destination. But I found him 20 miles north of Manassas, on the ILS approach to Runway 17 at Leesburg (KJYO). Given the weather depicted on the screen, this would likely be an interesting approach. I pulled up the METAR:

KJYO 221955Z AUTO 00000KT 4SM RA BKN002 OVC017 10/10 A3009
That was not at all a sure thing! Ceiling reported at 200 feet, and the Decision Height for the approach at 250 feet AGL. I refreshed the screen a couple more times, watching the airplane icon near the airport location, and the altitude readout roll down. Then, it started to roll up, the speed readout increased and the icon turned away. Missed approach.

My friend flies a Cirrus SR-22, and is a fine instrument pilot. But this was no-kidding-around weather – the Real Deal. I had to hang around to watch the story unfold.

The airplane icon moved off to the north, then turned back toward KJYO. Vectors for a second approach. Back to the final approach course, speed reduced, altitude decreasing...and then increasing. A second missed approach! And the advice of the Ancient Pelican, gone West years ago, arose in my mind. Get out of there, my friend. You don't have to be in Leesburg today.

At left, the track as shown on FlightAware.com to this point. (Click to enlarge.) You can see the first approach, the turn outbound and then back in for the second ILS. And finally, the airplane icon outbound again to the Northwest. "Say intentions."

I will admit to a sigh of relief when he turned to the northeast and left KJYO well behind. Having decided that two tries at that ILS were quite enough he was headed somewhere else. I watched to see where he'd go.

The track bent to the east and then around to the southwest. He was lining up for the Runway 23 ILS approach at Frederick (KFDK). As the icon representing my friend's airplane approached KFDK I pulled up the METAR that was on offer there:

KFDK 222051Z AUTO 36005KT 7SM +RA SCT004 BKN009 OVC023 08/08 A3009 RMK AO2 P0002
Despite the heavy rain (+RA) this looked better. Good visibility and a broken ceiling at 900 feet. I watched, refreshing the display periodically, as the tiny blue airplane moved over the airport symbol...and stopped. Safe on the ground. (Below, the rest of the track courtesy of FlightAware.com)

Of course, the outcome was never seriously in doubt. My friend is a capable aviator, well qualified to deal with these conditions. But I'm sure he had some adrenalin flowing and he probably sat in the airplane for a minute after shutting down, while some tension dissipated.

As for me, I applauded the good judgement he exercised in avoiding a third approach to KJYO. Perhaps somewhere my other friend, the Ancient Pelican, is smiling.


Karlene Petitt said...

I too applaud the good judgment. You've changed my theory. I always said, "good things come in threes." But then, bad things too. Three is a pattern of reality to be avoided.

I had chills reading this. I can imagine him sitting in his plane for a few minutes.

If we're lucky, we learn from experience.

Frank Van Haste said...

Thanks for stopping by, Karlene.

One of the things that makes us aviators a fortunate group is that our predecessors got a lot of experience, learned from it, and distilled it into lore that is passed on to each new generation of pilots.

I can still hear, vividly, the voice of that old pro congratulating me on my shiny new instrument ticket and then adding, "Y'know, it's the third approach that'll kill ya." And, if it were me sliding down final on that ILS a second time with nothing but gray schmoo ahead at the DH (or, worse, just a glimpse of lights), that voice would be strong, and I'd get the heck out of there.

I hold firmly that one of our most important obligations as pilots is to ensure that this racial memory gets passed along. You do this consistently on your blog, and I try, when I can, to add a bit in a small way here.

Take care,