This past fall, I made several trips in the Duke that needed the WAAS GPS discussed in the September T&T article “Old-School”: a Garmin 430W coupled to a Century IV autopilot and flight director. In fact, one leg would turn out to be critical – more on this in a bit. The trips were right around the time when a weather system coming off the Atlantic produced strong winds along the Eastern U.S. As explained by the weather channel, some of us learned an additional application for the word “fetch” – other than the ones involving a tossed stick or a spousal request. Apparently, fetch can also be used to describe the effect of strong, sustained winds traveling a long distance over a large body of water. The phenomenon created hefty surf, flooding and plenty of low IMC.
Unless we’re taking someone to a major airport to use the airlines, our final destination can normally be reached more efficiently by landing at one of the thousands of GA airports around the country. During the weather systems’ influence, WAAS GPS allowed me to fly the Duke into airports in the Carolinas previously served only by traditional non-precision approach procedures. Looking back at those approaches, we can shake our heads and reflect as we compare not only the inaccuracy of their lateral and vertical guidance, but the stability of the procedure, the navaid and the avionics displaying the information. GPS, modern avionics and NextGen procedures have turned another page in aviation history. GPS approaches with LPV minimums, to thousands of airports that were previously accessible only through VOR, NDB or circling approaches, offer a substantial increase in utility and safety.
And since we celebrate a pivotal and culturally-momentous event in December, I can seasonally and politically correctly add that the increases in safety and utility are of Biblical proportions. With cooperative terrain, we can descend as much as three or four hundred feet lower than before– usually to a DH of 200-250 feet AGL. And, with proper approach or runway lighting, to visibilities in the ¾ mile range. These minimums are pretty much what you get on the average ILS. This significantly increases our options. And when your back is up against The Red Sea, options are a good thing – biblically speaking. Another momentous feature provided by modern electronic gadgetry is current weather and fuel prices at airports along our route. That’s immensely more efficient than asking center to dig up the weather or locating the frequency of an in-range FBO for fuel information. With the touch of a finger, we can see current METARS and fuel prices. Although normally involving self-serve stations, the fuel cost icons on electronic charts help us locate less-expensive fuel at out-of-the-way fields.
Wet Head and Wet Pants
Have you noticed, though, that the self-serve fuel pumps are typically nowhere near the public restrooms? Or any shelter for that matter. Picture progressive taxi instructions to a remote, wind-swept ramp out near the landfill. And sometimes the pumps require a checkride, sign-off and training-completion code before they‘ll work. While WAAS may help us to get into more airports with bad weather and cheap fuel, the fact that you needed LPV minimums in the first place indicates that the METAR likely includes OBSCD, FG, BR, RA, TSRA or SN – sometimes with a plus sign in front of them. These visibility restrictions dampen my bald head on that unsheltered, wind-swept ramp out by the landfill. We must now consider not only the approach available, the distance/cost of going off-course for the cheaper fuel, but the wet-head component. We must also consider how urgently we and our pax need the public restroom. After remote fueling, we sometimes need to restart the motors and taxi back to civilization and the indoor potty. New considerations go into flight planning these days – all because of those darned LPV minimums and fuel price displays.
Two Different Animals
I’ve read articles discussing the question of increased risk associated with GPS/LPV approaches. Although we may not be up to low-IMC approaches as a regular diet, are we flying into or over lower IMC than before, simply because our electronic magic makes us more comfortable? There are several sides to this dilemma. Number one, we can plan and fly trips in which the weather will be 400/1, knowing that the approaches we need are available most everywhere. Two, we can fly the trip with weather that is better (say 600/2), knowing that, if the forecast was wrong or the weather deteriorates, we can still find those magical LPV minimums nearby. And three, we can more comfortably fly over an extended area of low IMC, feeling secure that, if we need to land immediately, many airports with LPV minimums are under our wings. All valid points, but I can tell you from experience, perhaps the point of this article, that having LPV minimums available along your route of flight, and actually flying a single-engine, single-pilot approach to those minimums, are two different animals. Add night time or icing to the picture and things could get very uncomfortable. And I’m not talking about a wet head or pants. We must decide before we launch: are we the pilot to fly that approach on one motor to LPV mins? Which brings us back to my comment in the opening paragraph and the newly installed Garmin 430W providing a critical capability.
There I was, on a dark and scary night, a dot low and inverted on the glideslope, two inches of ice on the wings, both motors coughing. Sorry, that’s an old joke about trying to make our stories sound bad to highlight that they got our attention. Most engines will cough if you fly inverted and what’s one dot among friends anyway? This event did get my attention though; all of it. Due to the “fetch” phenomenon, the weather within an hour in any direction was 400/2. It was daytime, the ice was trace-rime at cruise and “only” one motor had an issue. I consider my instrument crosscheck to be very thorough because that’s what others tell me. My flight instrument and navigation crosscheck is professional, but my engine crosscheck is constant and concentrated. I can’t afford to hurt the engines in the Duke and, after three engine failures at work, I watch the parameters closely. It paid off. As you know, analog gauges make it easy to notice when the left and right needles are not parallel. The right engine oil pressure gauge was about one-quarter scale lower than the left. Unstrapping from my seat, I slid over to the right seat and looked at the motor – no visible clues. After moving back to the hot-seat, I looked at the gauge again: even lower and slowly decreasing. Damn, this isn’t happening.
How Slow? Don’t Ask
Pulling the throttle back didn’t help, as the pressure continued to drop. The last thing I wanted was for it to seize and throw a prop blade or break an engine mount. So I did it: prop to feather, mixture to cutoff. I declared the emergency, ran the rest of the checklist and selected an airport: Lancaster, Ohio, an uncontrolled airport, paved runway with HIRL, VASI, and a GPS approach with LPV minimums of 200 and ½ mile. This would be only the fifth or sixth approach to LPV mins with the new 430W and the first in weather all the way down. And my first real-life, IMC, single-engine approach in a GA airplane. Like most piston twins, a go-around from low altitude is a 50/50 proposition and likely not possible after gear extension–this would have to be done right the first time. I porked the final approach course intercept because I forgot to execute the approach mode. By the time I noticed, it was too late to salvage the approach. During the 360 to re-intercept final, I got slow. How slow? Don’t ask, but I can tell you with one throttle at idle, the gear warning and stall warning use the same horn. The landing was fine, but to say the approach was sloppy would be generous. It turned out to be a loose oil line. Four quarts (out of ten) remained after landing. Mechanics Darrell and Jim found the leak in minutes, fixed it, added oil, cleaned it up and that was that; less than $200. After a night in the local hotel to contemplate life, death and clean out my shorts, the next day found the Duke back in the soup, headed home.
The Feds (who happened to be there the next day doing a bird-strike investigation), pilot friends and family all said, “well, you landed out of it, with crappy weather on one motor, and didn’t bend any metal – good enough.” I suppose so. But I pray to never fly so poorly again. I’m grateful to have had WAAS GPS to help guide my sleigh. It’s even better than a glowing red-nosed reindeer. Now that winter is upon us, with the associated low visibilities and runway contamination, remember to evaluate and manage the risks – including an honest look at your fitness and proficiency. I know I will.•T&T