Still in the sunshine as the gear and first flaps went out, it looked as if the arrival was proceeding normally. The airport’s landmarks were coming out of the haze, obscured somewhat by the early sun angle. Wisps of morning mist filled the valleys under us, but they should be dissipating with solar warmth.
Sliding down final, the runway first came into view, then became less distinct as we grew lower, then disappeared as we started to flare for the touchdown. Whiteness wrapped around the aircraft as I struggled to maintain orientation. Somewhere, there’s a bottom to this, was my initial thought. Then, I began to worry about picking up the centerline so I could track the runway on rollout. Cripes, one runway light at a time is all I can see flashing below me.
Power up, positive rate, gear up and we popped back up into the sunlight. The non-homogeneous ground fog hadn’t appeared threatening, but at touchdown height it obscured forward vision enough to remove needed references. The solution was to orbit the field to approach from the opposite direction, where the sun’s lessened glare, and perhaps thinner fog, left the runway in sight during the flare.
My good friend and mentor Dennis Shattuck once told me a similar tale, about an after-midnight arrival in his Mooney. He could see the runway lights from directly above, but found they disappeared in a 50-foot layer of ground fog when he tried to land. After two attempts, he gave up and went elsewhere–a very wise choice.
Do not rely on glowing prognostications you obtained prior to departure. As we are forced, more and more, to rely on our own weather research in the absence of a friendly human briefer, it’s even more important to keep multiple alternates in mind. Because the FAA is discontinuing area forecasts (the old FA), they are no longer describing regional outlooks. We’ll have to check prog charts against hourly METARs and determine if the TAF is likely to be working out. All the more so when the destination is both non-towered and has no weather reporting. Legalities aside, you ALWAYS need an alternate.
Clear sunny or starry skies notwithstanding, a dab of moisture when the temperature drops to the dew point is all it takes to turn routine into irritating. At that point, you need to revisit what it means to be Pilot In Command.
The lesson is that no flight’s conclusion is assured until the tires stop rolling. The bottom of a descent can get foggy at the last second. As pilots, we need alternates, and the resolution to exercise them, even when we think we’re practically home. Life is like that; just when you are sure nothing can go wrong, the road develops a curve.
When you encounter a foggy bottom at the end of your descent, be prepared to execute survival actions. Know your options, switch to Plan B, and communicate your intentions to all concerned. That’s just being a pilot, staying thoroughly flexible to the end.