In May of 1983 I was a professional pilot wannabe. Specifically, I was still in the dream stage of such a career. I graduated from college the previous year with a degree in business and was in the uncomfortable period every young adult is too familiar with, that period where we are supposed to be earning a living without much in the way of practical experience or training. As for flying, I was making slow progress. At that time I held a Commercial Pilot Certificate with Instrument Rating and Multi-engine rating. While that sounds impressive it was the product of training efforts only and precious little of the actual experience that aviation companies insisted upon. Sufficient experience, reflected in log book hours, is required by the insurance carriers, thus is a hard requirement aviation businesses are forced to maintain, even if they would desire to give a young pilot a chance. Insurance carriers don’t do “chances”. So, I was working an office job with a very small oil company in College Station, Texas, brooding over my lack of progress on the dream. Baby steps were taken. I would rent a single-engine Cessna-172 on the odd weekend for an hour or two. The main road block was multi-engine time, flying airplanes with two engines. Thus we have the great Catch-22 of aviation. Without around five hundred hours of multi-engine experience, a pilot could not get insurance, but he could not get the flight time without that insurance.
Working in the office with me was Mark B, also a young college graduate. One day Mark excitedly told me that his father, a medical doctor in San Antonio, had purchased a Cessna-414 as an investment. I was impressed; the 414 is a nice twin engine airplane with good cross country capabilities. Mark set up a phone call with the insurance agent covering his father’s airplane with the idea that I could fly him around in it as he tried to impress girls. As I expected, that phone conversation ended abruptly as I quoted my multi-engine time at thirty-five hours. Not to be frustrated in his girl impressing tour Mark located a pilot in San Antonio who apparently was sterling enough for the insurance policy. Mark immediately planned a trip from College Station to Ames, Iowa where there was a particular young lady, named Leia B. whom he hoped to dazzle, and he asked if I would like to ride along. Still naïve to certain realities of aviation such as multiple risk factors and actual pilot skill versus documented experience, I quickly agreed. Hey, riding in a light multi-engine airplane like a 414 would be educational. That it was!
The plan was for Ace Pilot (as he shall be called, since I quickly forgot his name) to fly from San Antonio to College Station in the morning, pick up Mark and me and launch for Ames. With that plan we would arrive in Ames with plenty of daylight. There was, however, a hitch in this plan, namely springtime thunderstorms, lots of them, the big tornado-spewing kind. Accident chains always begin with a hitch in the plan.
The thunder, lightning and torrential rains began the day of our planned departure and ran across Texas in waves, lasting until mid-afternoon of the following day. Finally, the cool front which created the storms passed through, leaving the route clear of severe storms. This meant that we were getting a very late start. It was around three in the afternoon when Ace landed in College Station. He brought a couple of surprises with him, his wife and their child of about twelve years old. This dampened Mark’s spirit somewhat due to the lowering of the girl impressing factor that embarking from a private plane with an apparent family in tow would induce. Ace explained that after dropping us in Ames, he and his wife were going to continue to her family’s old hometown, also in the Midwest. I thought at the time that four long flights in one day seemed ambitious, but we all piled in, me sitting happily at the right flight controls, and headed north, a day late and a dollar short.
With five people onboard the 414 did not have the fuel range to make the flight to Ames and that other Midwestern town on one fueling. So Ace planned a stop in Topeka, Kansas. One thing to understand is that not all airports are like Chicago O’Hare. In fact some are little more than a narrow asphalt strip with a parking space. The one Ace picked for refueling was basically that, with a fuel pump adjacent to the parking space. After almost three hours we all had one idea, to use the restroom. However, this airport was so basic there was only a one hole facility in which I was surprised to find running water. It took a while for my turn as we all waited behind two jackrabbits and a rattlesnake that were in line ahead of us. So at dusk, we took off once more. Ames or bust!
Shortly after leaving Topeka it became dark. I was still having a great time acting like a pilot. Ace agreed to let me check the weather at Ames using the second radio. The FAA weather briefer told me that the weather at Ames would have low clouds and low visibility at our estimated arrival time as the air would continue to cool causing an ever thickening fog. In fact the briefer estimated the visibility would be about one mile with a cloud ceiling of around 600 feet. Every pilot knows that flying in low visibility, using only flight instruments, is an affair requiring training, practice and currency. Currency is recent practice logged as required by the FAA regulations. When I told Ace about the bad weather at Ames he said, “Really?!” At my affirmation, he started fumbling around in a tote bag behind his seat, reaching for something. That something turned out to be a vision limiting device, like blinders, that pilots use to simulate instrument conditions for training and practice. As he slapped the hood on his head he exclaimed, “I gotta get current.” My first thought was, “This is bad.” Ames didn’t have an airport much more sophisticated than the one we just left in Topeka. The only instrument approach to the only suitable runway was one that would safely get us down to around five hundred feet above the ground and realistically would allow a safe landing at one mile and a half of visibility, minimum. After my initial shock of seeing Ace put that hood on and doing some mental calculations on our very narrow margins of successfully landing at Ames, I suggested that we go to Des Moines, Iowa instead. Des Moines has a first class airport with the high dollar approaches, multiple runways with fancy flashing approach lights and lights built into the center lines as well as on the edges. The weather was better in De Moines as well, being around one thousand feet and three miles of visibility.
“No. We gotta get to Ames.” Ace insisted as he wobbled the airplane through the sky while getting “current”. Oh Lord, how many airplane accidents have been caused by the “We gotta…” complex? As the air traffic controller issued clearances to ever lower altitudes and closer to the initial approach fix Ace’s handling of the controls became more jerky and erratic, a sure sign of nervousness and unpracticed skill sets.
The approach at Ames is officially called a Non-precision Approach. That means that the navigation facility sending the radio signals which form the final approach path are limited in the ability to define a precise path. That means that a pilot must fly with great precision in order to compensate, as much as is possible, for the shortcomings of the facility. To fly with imprecision on a Non-precision Approach makes success unlikely. On the panel just below the Attitude Indicator is the instrument with the course needle. It has a center portion which splits away as the aircraft diverts from the set course. The controller vectored us onto the runway course at a forty-five degree angle, which is standard, in this case from the left side. A pilot knows he is nearing the course when the needle “comes alive” from its’ full deflection and moves towards the middle of the dial. After correcting the heading the pilot then simply needs to make small adjustments as necessary to keep the needle in the center, while slowing down, while noting the proper place to begin the final descent, while lowering the landing gear, while setting the flaps, while adjusting the throttles for the proper airspeed, while adjusting the flight controls for the new aircraft configurations, while running the landing checklist, while remembering to level off at the specific minimum altitude, while noting the place where the airport must be sighted or start climb again, all the while ignoring his lying physical clues and only responding to what his eyes and the cognitive part of his brain is telling him, while looking outside in micro-moments for the runway in a dark foggy night…nothing to it.
Poor Ace was so keyed up as the needle started to move that he grossly over corrected the course which made the needle get scared enough to immediately run back to where it came from, which was full deflection to the right. Instantly realizing his mistake, he sharply banked right and over adjusted, so much so, that the poor frightened needle ran all the way across the dial in a vain attempt to hide out of sight on the left. At this point Ace’s hands were flying all over the place grabbing the landing gear handle, the flap handle and mangling the controls so sharply that our poor passengers were holding on for dear life. On a quick glance back all I saw were three very wide sets of eyes staring at the two of us up front and I am sure their owners were wondering what in the hell we were doing.
“Chasing the needle” is what this event is cryptically called in aviation jargon and boy did we chase it as it ran left and right trying to escape the center like a trapped rat. At our lowest point and somewhere to the right of course I saw one of those radio antennas, with the flashing red lights, emerge from the fog in front of us and hollered for Ace to climb hard left, which thankfully, he did. After popping back onto the controller’s radar and announcing to him our missed approach, he wanted to know how we “got over there”. By this time I was loudly insisting that we divert to Des Moines. Ace said “No. We gotta get to Ames!” He also said “I know what I did wrong.” My overly excited retort was “We all know what you did wrong!” On our second attempt, Ace’s control inputs were just as jerky but with less magnitude thus we did stay more or less near the course, that is, the hyper active needle wasn’t actually hitting the stops. On this pass, as we reached the point of decision Ace, again, couldn’t find the runway. Just as he was about to go-around we flew right over the airport and he saw the runway, straight below us. This is because there is less fog to search through straight down than there is at the slant angle required for a normal landing. In his excitement at visually acquiring the runway Ace initiated a left hand circling approach so as to complete the landing.
Circling approaches are legal maneuvers however they must be done at a higher altitude, usually around one thousand feet above the ground, and a higher visibility value due to the wider land area passed over with the corresponding increase in obstacles lurking in the foggy darkness waiting to snare wayward airplanes. Fortunately, we were still alive and flying when Ace punched through a small rain shower and lined up on the runway and I remember relaxing as I noted our now proper line-up and the fact that the landing gear was down. The last piece of drama occurred just as we touched down onto the runway as the left engine quit running. It stopped turning as we were rolling and slowing to taxi speed. Ace quickly explained that the engine stopped because he had inadvertently set the fuel boost pumps on the “High” setting rather than the proper “Low” setting. I was thinking gratefully instead, that if that engine had stopped on the first approach we would have been toast on the go-around.
Needless to say, the girl wowing was a little flat as everyone was describing to her our near death experience. Me, I was quietly wondering “How in the world am I going to get back to College Station?” My other thought had to do with naïve insurance brokers and what really goes on in aviation.