What could happen if you flew an ILS approach without a visual backup?
Last week, I had an eye-opening experience while flying from Arkansas to the Dekalb-Peachtree Airport in Georgia. The weather was VFR, but it was late at night and I was unfamiliar with the area. No worries, I would enter the ILS approach as a backup, just in case I had a hard time picking up the runway with all the lights of Atlanta. In this case, though, there were a lot of factors that made for a challenging and potentially dangerous landing.
First: There was no ILS approach to the runway they were using, nor was there a GPS, VOR, or NDB approach. This is PDK, one of the major relievers of Hartsfield; what if the weather was lousy and the wind favored this runway? Very strange, but still manageable. It wasn’t busy on the frequency, but it was also painfully apparent that the controller wasn’t in the mood to be overly helpful. We asked for lower. Unable, due to traffic. Still no runway in sight, but we’re looking.
Second: The controller also left us on a heading that was going to be a very close-in left base, and the longer it took to find the runway, the tighter it was going to be. But I had confidence that I could find the runway and crank it over to join the final without the slightest concern. We were already appropriately slow and in landing configuration, with just full flaps to go.
Third: I found it. Runway in sight as it passed under the left wing. We were cleared for the visual, told to call the tower, etc…. I was already turning and descending, but it wasn’t enough. As I increased the bank angle, my thoughts suddenly went to the recent Learjet accident that seemed eerily familiar at that precise moment.
I kept thinking this was precisely the scenario that happened to them. The headlines said it all: The Learjet tried a difficult approach at a low altitude before the crash. They were flying a circling approach and appeared to be in too tight, and even though the official cause is not yet known, I wondered if it could have been an accelerated stall as the bank angle increased to try to line up with the runway.
That’s exactly what I was doing on my flight. I mean, exactly. As I wound it up even tighter, something in me snapped, I called out “go-around” and gave up the approach. I hadn’t done that in years; it wasn’t pleasant. I had the boss in the back and someone on the ground keeping the shop open for our late arrival – the LAST thing I wanted to do was miss the approach and add another 10 minutes to the flight. I made the go-around decision and accepted that I’d have some explaining to do when we got on the ground.
We practice missed approaches in the simulator ad nauseum, but it’s rarely because of something we, the pilots, have done wrong. Yes, the instructor dials down the visibility until the runway is impossible to see, or he plants a truck on the runway to check our lightning-fast reflexes, but honestly, don’t we expect these tricks in the sim?
I had to decide right then and there on my real-life flight, knowing it had been a long day and the boss wanted to get on the ground. Yes, we may have prevented our problem if we had asked for a 360 to lose altitude when I didn’t see the runway, or we could have asked for vectors for a longer final, but for whatever reason, I thought I could make it work. I’d bet the Learjet pilot thought the same thing.
I have flown with pilots who would have pushed the envelope and continued an unsafe and unstable approach, but I’m not going to let that happen anymore. Not when it’s so easy to go around and line up again, regardless of what the boss thinks. Of course, an ILS approach or RNAV in the box will always be my first option, but I will keep that missed approach in my back pocket for those unique airports without electronic guidance.