The winds were nearly calm as I stepped out onto the ramp on a late February morning. Looking to the west I could tell it was going to get windy – really windy – soon. My crew chief, a 20-year veteran on the T-38A, practically laughed as I climbed the ladder and started to preflight the cockpit.
“When you see the White Sands get airborne, you know you’re in for a wild ride,” he said, referring to the dust cloud gathering mass less than 20 miles to the west.
The base weather shop knew the winds would pick up bringing blowing dust, but the visibility wasn’t forecast to decrease to IFR minimums. Additionally, the winds were expected to be right down the pipe and within limits of the parachute I was wearing. Based on that, we elected to press with our 4-ship Red Air ACM (Air Combat Maneuvers) mission.
Half an hour later I found myself in the thick of the fight, not thinking about the brewing sandstorm below about to hit my “base of intended landing”. None of us were really thinking about it until the SOF (Supervisor of Flying) contacted us on our fight frequency.
“The visibility is deteriorating rapidly at the field. We are now IFR and are declaring Albuquerque International as the alternate. Adjust your recovery fuel appropriately.”
There were several seconds of silence as we each dug out our In-Flight Guides to calculate the amount of fuel we would need to return to Holloman, shoot an approach, execute a missed approach and proceed to KABQ. Our next ops check indicated it was time for us to work the flight split up and start back for our separate ILS approaches.
As I’ve indicated in a previous post, flying an ILS in the T-38A is no easy task. It requires you to be on your game, especially when it comes to contingencies as the old instruments can sometimes freeze up or just plain stop working. A sweep of ATIS indicated the visibility at the field was three miles and the ILS to runway 22 was in use.
I went through my standard checks and started working my way back to the field. I called up the localizer by selecting ILS nav mode and entering the inbound course of 218. I selected “ILS” for my Comm 2 and listened to the Morse Code correctly identifying the navaid and giving me a little piece of mind that my instruments were working.
RAPCON vectored me in first with the other T-38s and Raptors in trail.
“Spooky 1, turn right heading 190, maintain 7,000 until established on the localizer, cleared ILS Runway 22 approach,” was my clearance. I read it back and eventually turned to intercept the final approach course. Once established on a 10-mile final I noticed the CDI, which had just centered itself, starting to drift rapidly from side to side. Eventually it settled down in full-scale deflection to the left. I tapped the glass covering the needle – that works nine times out of ten in the old T-38A. Nothing.
So, what are you supposed to do when you lose course guidance on an instrument approach? If you’re thinking, “execute the missed approach,” here’s the guidance on executing missed approaches prior to the missed approach point:
“… when an early missed approach is executed, pilots should, unless otherwise cleared by ATC, fly the IAP as specified on the approach plate to the missed approach point at or above the MDA or DH before executing a turning maneuver.” (AIM 5-4-21.b).
Ok, you don’t have course guidance. How can you fly the IAP as specified? You can’t.
Your best options are to stop your descent and: 1) Talk to ATC as soon as possible to obtain an amended clearance, or 2) If unable to contact ATC, remain VFR if able and reattempt the landing (both of these actions are specified in AIM 5-4-21.h).
I could throw a third contingency in there, but it’s down the priority list of preferred actions here: If you are entirely unsure of your position, climb immediately to your MSA and squawk 7700 if you are completely lost in IMC and unable to contact ATC.
It is important to note that certain situations will have unique circumstances under which this decision should be made. This is where your airmanship comes into play weighing factors such as terrain clearance, fuel onboard, familiarity with local visual references, aircraft emergencies, other traffic in the radar pattern, weather…you get the point. You are the pilot and you need to make the best decision that will get you (and your passengers) safely on the ground.
In my case, I did a little of both options 1 and 2. As I looked outside I realized I had sufficient visual references to navigate to the airfield even though I couldn’t see the field at my current DME. I had VFR visibility minimums barely met. I called up approach:
“Approach, Spooky 1, I just lost the localizer signal. Spooky 1 will be continuing VFR for the visual straight-in to runway 22.”
Approaching five miles I had the field in sight and was able to continue my visual descent to the runway.
Going into this situation, I knew ahead of time what I was going to do in the event of any problems on the approach. My planning had been done at altitude as I reviewed the approach plate and I felt comfortable when the situation changed. If I didn’t have VFR conditions sufficient to continue I would have broken off the approach and coordinated an alternate clearance with RAPCON. Planning ahead is critical when dealing with flight in IMC (or potential IMC). We read too many NTSB reports about pilots becoming distracted by indecision when abnormal circumstances arrive in flight. Don’t be one of them – know your options and plan ahead!