In a Lear 40, it‘s a very short 28 minute, 177 nm-mile trip from Skagit Regional (BVS), just north of Seattle, to Hillsboro Airport (HIO), west of Portland. As we pass over the volcano-flattened mountaintop of Saint Helens and start our descent, Jeff H (the pilot flying) and I find ourselves wishing we could delay arrival by another hour or so.
Although VFR conditions were predicted for our arrival when we planned the flight, we are now just six minutes from the Initial Approach Point (IAP) and HIO is reporting fog, ceiling variable 100–200 feet and visibility varying between ¼ and ½ mile. But, the weather otherwise is pretty decent, with tops at 1,500 feet and calm winds. In addition, HIO has a good (200 and ½) ILS approach to runway 13, with the surrounding terrain relatively flat. The missed approach procedure is also quite simple, a climbing right turn back to the VOR for a hold, where we could reconsider our options. Unfortunately, no other aircraft have tried the approach this morning, so we are going to be the brave guinea pigs.
After a long respite of fairly good weather, this is my second approach to minimums in two days, including one yesterday into Juneau, Alaska with a Lear 35. The experience makes me again appreciate the effect local topography can have on flying weather, sometimes good, sometimes bad. A basic understanding of how this can affect the region you are operating in, plus knowledge of the services available at nearby airports, can make the approach procedure itself much more relaxed, and the missed approach options much easier to decide upon. It can also influence the passengers’ experience, either frightful or comfortable and reassuring.
HIO is located in a valley on the western side of the Cascade Mountains, at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers. In the fall, as surface temperatures drop, the temperature/dew point spread closes, and fog can blanket the entire area for days at a time. A key to understanding what the HIO missed-approach options might be is that the fog-producing conditions rarely move eastward up the Columbia River gorge more than 30–40 miles. The reason for this is the pressure is usually higher on the eastern side of the Cascades, the mountains themselves act as a barrier, and the gorge itself is so narrow that moisture-bearing weather has trouble squeezing through. For all these reasons, The Dalles (DLS), just 75 nm east of HIO, almost always has sunny and bright conditions when the entire Portland area is fogged in.
In addition to topography, another item to consider during a low-minimums approach is what the passengers are going to think about the experience, and your abilities as a pilot, after it is all over. For most passengers, a missed approach is a just plain frightful event. At one moment, they are calmly expecting to land, then the airplane abruptly pitches up, engines strain and roar, acceleration pushes them back in their seats, half-finished coffee cups spill their dregs, the ground or trees flash by their side window at what they will later describe as “inches away”, loud clunking sounds and worrisome whines occur as the gear and flaps come up, and they may see the pilots moving their hands over the levers and dials in (what they imagine to be) a desperate fashion. Many assume that when pilots say “we missed”, they really mean that everyone narrowly “missed” a gruesome death.
A Better Place To Be
Given these emotions in the back of the airplane, it is very useful to know that DLS (just 12 minutes away) is out in the sun and has a nice airport restaurant with picnic tables on the lawn, right in front of which you can park your airplane…serving really good pie made from local apples. Given the choice, nearly all passengers will opt for hobnobbing with the pilots while they eat apple pie in a sunny location, waiting for conditions to improve, rather than sit through another death-defying “missed”. Pilots who promptly go back for another try at the approach (particularly if there is a second miss) will probably be considered overly-zealous lunatics who are not to be trusted. Pilots who instead fly to the sunny airport with great apple pie are considered aviation geniuses, mature, wise and safe.
Similar to HIO, Juneau, Alaska (JNU) has a unique set of weather problems caused by its location. In the fall and winter, as the sun moves back closer to the equator, a low pressure system forms over the Gulf of Alaska, rotating in a counter-clockwise fashion. This tends to push moist, cold air from the Gulf eastward, and the first eastbound break it gets along the coastal Brabazon Range is the entrance at Cape Spencer to Cross Sound. Unlike the narrow Columbia Gorge, this wide break in the mountainous shoreline allows moisture-laden clouds to pour eastbound past Glacier Bay through to Icy Strait, where they get held up again by the Coastal Range and the Taku Glacier. Juneau happens to be located right at the terminus where all this occurs, and, as a result, frequently has very unpredictable weather.
To make matters worse, even though Juneau is the state capital, it does not have an ILS approach, for a variety of technical reasons. In addition, the airport lies at the entrance to a fjord with high mountains to the east, and runway 8 is ten degrees offset from the final 071 heading on the RNAV approach. This results in a Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA) for the LDA ‘X’ RWY 8 approach of 3,200 feet. With special training and a waiver, the LDA ‘Z’ approach can be used, which has a 1,200 foot MDA at the Missed Approach Point (MAP), the Cochlan Island beacon, located 3.2 miles from the runway. Effectively, the lowest IFR approach possible at JNU requires VFR conditions. The missed approach procedure is an immediate climbing, steep 180+ degree turn to the right, then back over the water to the Sisters Island (SSR) VORTAC via the 027 radial. From SSR you can hold, try it again, or be more sensible and just go to Sitka (SIT).
Similar to the situation at DLS, the weather at SIT, just 95 nm to the south, is usually much better than anywhere else in the vicinity. This is because Sitka lies right on the Gulf of Alaska, and the weather systems that get all bottled up in the Juneau area usually just blow on by. In addition, from a passenger perspective, SIT has a nice airport restaurant, with windows that face the runway and a picturesque harbor where fishing boats and cruise ships can be seen moving about. It serves fresh, locally-caught halibut and chips, plus (for the pax) Alaska Amber Ale. Now, it’s only pilots of extraordinary dedication to their art who carry the latter kind of detailed missed-approach information around in their head.
Back in the Lear 40, with Saint Helens behind us, Jeff and I are quickly closing in on HIO. Two minutes from the IAF, the tower controller announces the bittersweet news that he can’t see the ground from his cab, but the equipment is reporting 200 and ½. We continue on and intercept the ILS to 13. Just inside the IAF, our helpful, ‘lost in the fog’ tower controller says the visibility is now varying between ¼ and ½ with ceiling 100 – 200. But, since we’ve already begun the approach we elect to continue, and, as the pilot monitoring, I start the usual crew callouts. The airplane is on autopilot and Jeff is ‘head down’ watching its progress. Just to be sure, he again asks “you watching outside, Kevin?”… you betcha. We go through 1,000 feet and lose sight of the sun above us. At 500 to go, we are surrounded by a curtain of light gray. At 400, 300, 200 and 100 feet to go, the gray just gets darker and even the nose of the airplane just four feet away gets hard to see. I think, this is not looking too good…it is probably going to be an ‘apple pie’ type of morning.
Leaving 100 feet, I start calling out altitude-to-go in 20-foot increments, “80, 60, 40, 20”… At ‘20’ I can see Jeff’s thumb on the left throttle move over the go-around button…I was looking for that and it clearly confirms we are thinking the same thing. Then, just as I get ready to say ‘minimums, no contact’, a strobe light pops into view at 12:30. I change my words to ‘strobes in sight’, and then see the first 300 feet or so of the runway come into view with a big 13 written on it. Jeff looks up, clicks off the autopilot and five seconds later we land at a very wet, cold and foggy airport.
No apple pie and warm sunny picnic benches today. We almost missed.