by Sarah Rovner (Commercial Pilot and FAASTeam Representative)
It was supposed to be a routine solo flight – from Hooks to Pearland and back to drop off my aerobatic parachutes to be re-packed. I was in a Cessna 172 that was equipped with a Garmin 430 with WAAS and no autopilot or onboard weather. The weather was forecast to have low ceilings and fog roll in later in the evening, but when I left work and headed to the airport the weather in Houston was still VFR. I had gotten my instrument rating about a month before and figured that filing IFR was my solution to the forecast of deteriorating weather. By the time I got to the airport and pulled the plane out of the hangar, it seemed like the front was settling in. On my way down to Pearland, the ceiling kept getting lower and lower and was forcing me down until I finally called approach for a pop-up IFR flight plan and shot the RNAV 32 approach into Pearland. On final, I broke out of the clouds at about 800ft, although it wasn’t forecasted to get down to that until 5 hours later.
After getting to the airport, I gave my parachutes to a friend and stayed for a few minutes to talk. I kept an eye on the ceilings, and before I knew it, the METARs were reporting 400 overcast. My overconfidence took over as I said to myself “the airplane has WAAS, I can get down to 250ft almost anywhere in Houston with an LPV approach”. It might be legal, but definitely not smart. By the time I got back in the plane and was ready to go, it was nighttime out and the evening winter weather was bringing large masses of fog. I filed IFR from Pearland back to Hooks, which is a 42 mile flight. I didn’t expect it to take more than 45 minutes (including the approach), which I filed on my flight plan. At this point in time, I had 4 hours of fuel.
After getting my clearance, I got released to enter controlled airspace on an easterly heading. I thought this was a bit odd since the more direct route was to the west over Sugarland. As a new instrument pilot, I wasn’t pushy to ATC and just followed what they gave me. I took off and entered the clouds around 300ft and climbed up to 3000ft, which was my final altitude. I was by myself, in a single engine airplane, no autopilot or onboard weather, at night, and probably about my 5th time in IMC as pilot in command. I was invincible.
ATC vectored me all the way out toward Beaumont, and then started bringing me north. They asked me if I wanted the VFR corridor, and I said yes. However, they didn’t give me a turn and kept me heading north. They gave me a western turn far north of the Conroe airport and started to give me vectors for the Localizer 17R in Hooks, which the winds were favoring. By the time I started that approach, I had been hand flying in solid IMC for almost 2 ½ hours. I had now flown over 120 miles for a 42 mile flight. I was so far from Hooks at any given time that I couldn’t get the ATIS and find out just how much the weather was deteriorating. When I started the localizer approach, the clouds were reporting as 500ft overcast. By the time I passed the final approach fix, it was 400ft overcast. I never broke out of the soup, and performed my very first real life missed approach. The worst part is I could see the fog lighting up with the REILs flashing, but couldn’t see anything. I knew I was right over the runway, but couldn’t even see it.
After the first approach, I asked the controllers to try the RNAV 35L, because having WAAS allowed me to shoot the LPV approach which could get me about 200ft lower than the localizer 17R. They gave me vectors for the approach, and by this point I was sweating. I really wanted to see the runway and get on the ground. Unfortunately, the ceiling had gone down another 100ft as I started the RNAV 35L. I half broke out of the clouds, but could only see directly below me. I couldn’t tell the street lights from the runway, and couldn’t see any visible part of the airport by my missed approach point. So I went missed again. This is when ATC started taking me seriously. They asked me if I wanted to try the ILS 14 at Lone Star Executive Airport, which was my filed alternate. They also told me the weather was reporting 400ft overcast at CXO, and 800ft broken at College Station. I had to make the decision on whether to head directly to CLL or try CXO. I did a quick fuel calculation and realized I didn’t have enough fuel to do the ILS at CXO, go missed and still make it to College Station. I also didn’t have enough fuel for multiple approaches in CLL. By this point I had been flying for about 3 hours in the soup.
As anxious as I was, I made the decision to try the ILS in Conroe. I could make a few approaches into Conroe instead of just one in College Station. I also could have gone to Bush Intercontinental Airport if needed, which has runway centerline lights and leading lights so far from the runway that the lights would be much easier to see. So I decided to stay in the Houston area and try getting into Conroe.
As I was being vectored onto the final approach course, I was told to contact the Conroe tower. I told the Conroe tower where I was, and asked them to assist me in activating the lights. It was the same controller who worked my night emergency landing, and he could hear the stress in my voice. As I reached the final approach fix, the tower advised me that the rabbit was out of service. This just added to my anxiety as I focused on being right on to make sure I had the best chance possible to see the runway. As I was descending, the tower reported overcast at 300ft. This was it. I had to make it. A few feet above minimums, I saw the first half of the runway. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and I told the tower in excitement “I see it!”. I landed and taxied over to Galaxy FBO, who had stayed open a little bit later to see me in. I literally got out of the airplane and my legs were jello. I was tempted to kiss the ground but wasn’t quite sure what airplane had leaked on the pavement before me. I was so glad to be on the ground, and was very relieved that I made it in one piece.
As I was driven back to my home on I-45, I noticed that the fog had set in to the point that you couldn’t even see the streetlights on the side of the highway. IAH was now saying it was 100ft vertical visibility. I made it just in time before it would have been impossible to land a general aviation airplane in Houston.
As much as I would like to blame the whole ordeal on ATC, it was a combination of several things that got me into that situation. I wasn’t assertive enough to request a better route, I was overconfident in the equipment and had no personal minimums. These 3 things combined made for a disastrous cocktail, and I’m fortunate that it turned out as well as it did. So I continue with my saying that just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s smart!
Sarah Rovner is a commercial airplane pilot based in Houston, TX who enjoys flying her G1000-equipped Cessna 182 for personal and business travel. She is also active as a mission pilot in the Civil Air Patrol, a humanitarian pilot with Angel Flight, a tow pilot for a local glider field, FAASTeam Representative and EAA Young Eagles pilot. She enjoys flying to and exploring new places, and is currently working toward her CFI rating.
How it Started
One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.
It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.
The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.
First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).
At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.
Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.
Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.
In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.
More about Randy here: https://www.flyhpa.com/team/randy-delong/
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