Basic IFR: Getting Home

The Skyhawk’s directional gyro died during vectors for the Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach — while I was 250 miles from home. It was Friday night, and the forecast was for clouds and rain through the weekend. Now what?

Last week I described falling back onto my early instrument training and flying a ‘No Gyro‘ ILS approach when the rented Cessna’s gyroscopic heading indicator froze up in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). I wasn’t scheduled to fly home until late Sunday morning, but I had to get back in time to make it to the office on Monday. When I arrived it was Friday evening; there were no mechanics on duty, and none would be in before Monday. I devised an action-plan to cover all the major points:

  • Be ready to drive home. This was always part of my plan, even before the instrument failure. Anytime you have to be someplace at a specific time, you need to plan for a non-plane alternative for getting there — usually, by commercial airline or by car. Having this in your mind from the beginning dramatically reduces your chance of flying with a raging case of ‘get-home-itis‘ (accepting unacceptable risk while pressing homeward because of time stress) and having an accident. But the instrument failure suddenly made having to drive home, and come back after the airplane later, much more likely.
  • Communicate with the airplane’s owner. I called the renting FBO to leave a message. I wanted it to be clear that (a) I wasn’t mad at them, because such failures are a natural part of flying; but that (b) since we couldn’t get the instrument fixed during the weekend, I might have to leave it for at least a week before I could come back after it. Surprisingly, the rental manager was still in the office when I called… and was pleasantly apologetic. He assured me we’d work something out to get the airplane back, either earlier (using one of his pilots), or later by me, if I had to drive.
  • Determine my options. Both the rental manager and I hoped the weather would clear enough for me to safely fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) for the trip home. I told the manager I’d call if I was abandoning the airplane and driving home Sunday. On the other hand, if he heard nothing that would mean I was flying it back.

Planning the VFR Return
As the weekend progressed it began to look like I’d get a chance to fly home VFR on Sunday — if I was careful. The forecast was for overcast at 1500 feet for the first half of my trip, but with unlimited visibility beneath the clouds. I began to methodically plan a magnetic compass-guided, low-altitude trip. I needed to:

  1. Pick a route of flight. Looking at the charts, the course I’d flown up (at altitude and in the clouds) also seemed to be the best way to fly home at low altitude and VFR. Not too surprising since I’d picked my original IFR route to avoid the highest terrain. I decided to follow the Victor airways west from Charleston, West Virginia, into central Kentucky, turning south toward Tennessee and home after I’d cleared most of the hilly ground. I highlighted the route on the Sectional charts I’d brought along to supplement my instrument enroute charts.
  2. I needed to determine a minimum safe altitude for each segment of the route. I followed the highlighted lines of the charted airways and circled any tower that was within about five miles to either side of the airway’s centerline. I made the taller towers very obvious on the charts by designating them with arrows. I then compared the Sectional to the Low Altitude Enroute chart, looking for the instrument Minimum Enroute Altitudes (MEAs) for each segment. Since MDAs usually provide 1000-foot clearance above the highest nearby object (2000 feet in serious mountains), this warned me of towers and terrain I might have missed.Insider’s Tip: MEAs also assure VOR reception for the entire length of the airway. This sometimes creates more that 1000-ft clearance on an airway, if the VORs are far enough apart you have to fly higher to pick them up the entire way. In those cases, there’ll be a Minimum Obstacle Clearance Altitude (MOCA) on the route segment, which gives the obstacle clearance but not necessarily the VOR reception. This told me where I could fly lower than MEA and still have obstacle clearance — but at the cost of not being able to use the VORs reliably for navigation.

    Tip #2: It’d have been real nice to have a handheld GPS for this trip, but remember that many GPS databases do not have obstacle information — you still need to spend time with the Sectional chart plotting a route and looking for towers and hills.

  3. Make a detailed trip log using prominent visual landmarks. I might not be able to receive VORs or talk to anyone on the radio at 1000 feet above ground level — I would be entirely on my own and I needed be able to see where I was at all times.
  4. A self-discipline check. I would not ever accept an altitude less than my preplanned safe heights. If clouds forced me lower I would immediately turn back and land at the nearest suitable airport — the same goes if anything happened to lower the visibility below about five miles. I could always abandon the airplane at some intermediate point and rent a car from there.
  5. I’d file a VFR flight plan and activate it in the air — provided Sunday’s weather met my minimums for the VFR flight. This way, someone would be looking for us if anything went wrong.
  6. Organize the flight deck prior to departure. I wouldn’t need any last minute distractions or stress, so I laid out all my charts and logs — pre-folded and in order — before Sunday morning.

Luckily, Sunday came and the weather (barely) met my preplanned minimums. We loaded up, took off, and started west, following magnetic compass headings very carefully confirmed (the mag compass had behaved strangely on the trip up) by landmarks from the Sectional chart. I literally kept a finger on the chart, moving it along as the flight progressed, and penciled the time I crossed each landmark on the flight log and the chart itself. My finger on the chart made it easy to remain oriented, to warn of upcoming obstacles, and to keep the nearest airport in mind at all times.

I flew that way for an hour and a half. Finally, I was able to sneak up to 1500 feet above ground level and still maintain legal cloud separation (500 feet below the bases); soon after that the overcast turned to a scattered layer and we climbed to 5500 feet to escape the low-level turbulence that accompanied the clearing. From there, it was easy VOR navigation (albeit without a gyroscopic heading indicator) for the rest of the trip — and a satisfying review of basic navigation skills.

BOTTOM LINE: Be ready for a change of plans on any flight. Have alternate plans in mind ahead of time, communicate your needs and intentions to others that are affected by the change, and evaluate your options. Once you’re decided to go, ‘plan your flight and fly your plan‘ — aside from go/no go, always remember a good plan includes clear guidelines for continue/don’t continue… and a way out.