March 27, 2002

The weather is much more often good than it is bad, and when it is bad, it usually isn't terrible. When it is terrible, it usually doesn't last long or cover a large area. On the average, in other words, an experienced flight crew on a well- equipped airplane can go just about anyplace in the country at almost any time. This law of averages is the underpinning of scheduled air transportation.

On many days I watch as bad weather passes through our area during my off- duty time. Last Thursday was a great case in point, when a fairly pleasant spring afternoon was snuffed out by an abrupt northwest wind that sent temperatures tumbling and brought us waves of blinding snow squalls. I was at home, starting to think about getting ready for work.

I dialed up one of the aviation weather websites to get a feel for what exactly was going on, and read through the reports that pilots were making to Flight Service. There were a number of folks who had been caught up in weather that was downright terrible. The only saving grace was that the terrible part of the weather only covered a small area at a time as it raced eastward. Plots were reporting severe turbulence and airframe icing en route, and shearing winds during landing approaches.

I was glad to note that yet another winter weather event has passed me over. The forecast for my flight time in the early evening was for low ceilings and poor visibility in snow and blowing snow. At worst, the weather would be so bad that I might have to hold, or perhaps have to make a second try at the landing approach. The good news was that there would be no imperative to land because I would have plenty of fuel and there would be no ice accumulating on the airplane as it flew along. I anticipated having the pilots most precious asset, time.

I departed Elmira in snow, and climbed a rocky road through the winds that were bouncing through the valley. Clear of the ridge tops, the air was still lumpy, but no different than any fresh northwest flow. I flew through clouds, through snow squalls, and flew through many areas that had starry sky and crystal clear air. Really, it was an uneventful flight except for the uncertainty of the weather at arrival time.

Visibility at Syracuse had been as low as a quarter mile, but the transcribed weather broadcast was advising a 1000 foot ceiling and almost three miles visibility in snow. A few minutes later the report was revised to a 600 foot ceiling and a 1 mile visibility. Things were trending worse, and as I started my approach, I was told that the visibility had dropped further.

An instrument landing approach is a strange sort of event. The techniques and procedures are fairly basic and are well rehearsed, but time seems to drop into a black chasm and the entire world shrinks to the confines of the instrument panel. Everything outside of the airplane seems to disappear, and that is the crux of the conundrum. While the pilot is busy with a headfull of gauges and numbers, the airplane is drawing closer and closer to the hard reality of terra firma... plants, and birds, and rocks, and things.

Sitting alone in the dark, surrounded by a 150 MPH snowstorm that drove towards the airplane's landing lights, I intercepted the ILS course and started downhill. I talk during an instrument approach; calling a reassuring "on course.. On path.. 1200 feet for 600 feet" or verbalizing slight heading or pitch changes with " left bug, right bug, push, or pull" among others. I don't know if it helps me to think I am instructing someone else to do the approach, or whether I feel as though someone else is guiding me when I hear my voice.

It was lumpy and bumpy and no pitch or heading was any good for more than a moment. I was busy keeping up with the plane, but still I had the thought that this is whacky. Its not that it was dangerous or even unusual, but the dislocated sense of reality struck me. I was talking to myself as I watched a couple of galvanometer needles describe my position in a trackless ocean of air. A hundred thousand dollars worth of voodoo wonderdials were shaping a picture of reality that they had pulled from the thin air, oblivious to the much more substantial reality of the earth so close below.

Soon enough, my conversation with the instrument panel ended when I looked up to see the snow shrouded image of the runway lights in the windshield. Especially on a stormy night, the flight is not over until the airplane is parked, but at least there is no longer a bifurcated reality to ponder. I was satisfied; The luck of the draw had me at home when the weather was terrible, yet left me enough of a challenge that I shouldn't feel guilty.

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