Sunday, September 12, 2010

Montgomery Field - Los Angeles / Beechcraft Baron 58 (N701TL) / VFR

This flight promised to be fairly routine, and I got lazy and complacent. It got “exciting” (if that's the word for it) when the weather deteriorated.

First, I couldn't get a clearance into the San Diego Class B out of Montgomery. Not a problem, though, as I had plenty of time and fuel. I just turned east after departing from 28L and stayed below the Class B until I reached its eastern edge, then slipped up north. My original flight plan was direct to ROBNN and then V186 up to Los Angeles. My slight detour took me around the eastern boundary of the Class B and then to ROBNN, where I resumed my original route at 6500 feet and requested flight following.

Things went well for most of the flight. The weather was clear, great visibility, a lot of traffic in the area but nothing worrisome. After crossing the Paradise VOR I turned west and requested a clearance into the LAX Class B so I could land at Los Angeles. I was cleared into the Bravo and told to stay left of a heading of 250, altitude my discretion. I left 6500 for 4500.

ATC told me to take the Mini Route northbound for midfield at LAX. I did so and was handed off to LAX Tower. That's when the trouble began.

I had seen low clouds hovering around LAX as I turned west, but I could see the ground clearly, and in fact I could see the airport. The conditions given to me by ATC had been a bit ominous, but I carelessly assumed that if I could see the airport from where I was, surely it would stay clear during my approach and landing. That was a stupid move, since the weather report clearly mentioned fog and very poor runway visibility.

ATC asked what I wanted to do. Like an idiot, I said that I could see the field so I could continue. They cleared me to follow an MD-80 (!) in my little Baron. The MD-80 was landing on 25L. I was told to side-step to 25R (!), which I did. That's when all hell broke loose.

First, I ran right into wake turbulence from the MD-80. I knew that would happen, but for some reason I dismissed it. As if that weren't bad enough, with me struggling to hold the aircraft upright, the visibility suddenly dwindled to nothing as I descended lower and fog was in front of me instead of below. That, too, I should have known better about, since I know that fog can suddenly creep up like that, and I had the weather at LAX to prove it.

The runway looked misty as I descended. As I watched, descending through about 200 feet, it faded out of sight, and I could see nothing at all. I told the tower I was going around. The aircraft was bouncing around so badly that I wondered if I was going to make it, and on top of that I had to rely on instruments to stay level. Nevertheless, I did manage to get level and climb again on a heading of 250 given to me by the controller, up to 2000.

Once I had the aircraft under control, I told the tower I wanted to go IFR and try again. This in itself was reasonable, except that the visibility was still too poor at LAX for any instrument approach that I could do in my Baron (no autoland on this aircraft). As ATC turned me east to try again, I figured I had been stupid enough already, so I asked for the weather at Van Nuys. Fortunately, Van Nuys was clear, so I asked to divert IFR to VNY. I was given a heading of 360.

As I crossed from one valley to the other, the sky cleared again. I saw the airport and told ATC so, and I was cleared for a visual approach. Only in my confusion I didn't realize I was looking at Whiteman, not Van Nuys—the latter airport being hidden by a few clouds. I soon discovered my error and quietly made my way around the clouds, and then I could see Van Nuys clearly. As I descend and prepared to make a left base onto 16R, I was cleared to land. The landing went uneventfully under clear skies.

I taxied very nervously to the ramp and shut down, reflecting on the many mistakes I had made. Several factors caused this: (1) I had prepared for a VFR flight, not an IFR flight, both technically and psychologically; (2) I hadn't checked the weather at LAX adequately; and (3) I had forgotten that my Baron cannot land in zero-zero conditions or anything approaching those, even though it's equipped for IFR … and the visibility was really bad at LAX. There were other oversights, too, such as accepting an approach and landing behind an MD-80 on a parallel runway.

I'm sure I would have been more careful in real life, but would I have been careful enough? I don't know. I fly so often in good weather (mostly in SoCal and Arizona) that I have little experience in hard IMC, and hardly any experience with truly poor visibility at airports that rules out the kinds of instrument approaches that I can safely carry out in a small aircraft like the Baron. I need more IMC practice, and more discipline, as I am getting dangerously sloppy.

Thank goodness I had the fancy avionics that I did. My mistakes would probably have been fatal in one of my other, smaller aircraft with simpler instruments. The EFIS and TAWS displays on the Baron told me where I was even in zero visibility. They also told me, unfortunately, that I was drifting all over the place as I gave up my landing attempt, in part because of the wake turbulence I was struggling to deal with.

I might try to fly the Baron back to my original destination (LAX) when the weather improves.

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