I’ve learned the hard way that weather forecasts sometimes bear about as much resemblance to reality as political promises before an election. (Conversely, forecast are sometimes true—you can be the judge on the political winds of fortune.) But pilots, like voters, want to believe what we’re told even when indicators are clearly pointed toward a less favorable outcome. Then it’s time for some of that decision-making stuff.
Earlier this fall, I had planned to visit a friend in Hilton Head (KHXD) for lunch. The non-stop flight normally takes about 25 minutes. A lingering stationary front had sort of, kind of, moved off the coast and the forecast was for decreasing clouds and improving visibility. At the departure point (KLRO) near Charleston, South Carolina, the ceiling was 800 broken with unlimited visibility and plenty of sunshine above a thin cloud deck. Good VFR was expected by noon, essentially the same for KHXD.
I launched IFR and had a delightful trip down the coast toward Hilton Head at 4,000 feet. Broken to overcast tops were running about 1,500 feet. The automated weather at KHXD was also reporting 800 broken and 8 miles visibility. That all-important temperature-dew point spread was within two degrees, but this looked like an easy RNAV approach. With Sol doing the heavy lifting, the deck might even burn off to the point that the approach wouldn’t be loggable for currency purposes.
Switched over to KHXD tower where the controller updated the weather to 1,200 scattered and better than 10 miles. EZ day! Yet the clouds seemed rather solid over the final approach fix, but I fully expected to break out. Just any time now— even though it appeared to be a bit lower than what was just advertised. You can see where this is headed. Somewhere, between the final fix and MDA, the controller mentioned that the clouds looked somewhat thicker over the approach end of the runway, but the airport was wide open. Hmmm…no time to think about what might have, should have been, etc. as the aircraft was now well below 800 feet and only a few hundred feet above minimums.
In daylight conditions one of the precursors to an impending breakout is that it gets darker beneath the aircraft since ground doesn’t reflect sunlight nearly as well as cloud. None of that was happening today. Solid. Minimums. Drat—time to miss, and no cheating. Written about that too many times. Power, pitch, flaps, gear, and start climbing. Advise ATC that we’re going missed.
Just as the controller gave the missed instructions, the aircraft flew into brilliant sunshine with a perfect view of the airport. Still in alignment with the runway, but a little high. Decide quickly.
Put the gear down again—kind of important—full flaps, and reduced power to settle back into the slot. Advised the tower of my intention to land but apparently he didn’t hear and asked if I’d heard the miss instructions just as we touched down. “We’re rolling out now.” He chuckled, “Welcome to Hilton Head— guess that fog bank up to the north end is pretty low.”
A few take-aways:
- In retrospect, it’s logical: The ASOS was located midfield on the sunny part of the airport; and because it reports only what is happening right there, weather in the landing zone—a mile or two away—could be much different. Caveat Emptor!
- Had the minimums on the approach been lower (462 feet, agl) there might not have been time to reconfigure.
- In a faster and less maneuverable aircraft than a Bonanza, this would have been ill-considered.
- There was more than adequate runway, and it’s really good form to touch down in the first third of the runway—on short fields it’s essential! This was an easy first third touchdown.
- It’s so easy to rationalize our behavior when the outcome is what we hoped for.
I am constantly reminded—as one who sits on high writing about this wonderful activity of ours and having lots of time to second-guess many who made headlines—that sometimes we’re good, sometimes we’re lucky, and sometimes it’s both. This was a perfect judgment-training scenario, and the “book” answer would have been to complete the miss. This is a plausible scenario for a gear-up or possible overshoot in a fast aircraft. The book recommendation would have been to go to the alternate unless it was a transient condition or you didn’t get to minimums. (In the latter case, that’s a mandate for more training and practice.) The approach end fog burned off about 10 to 20 minutes later.
Reality, however, is that judgment training and evaluation is much more complex than we, in the sanctity of hindsight bias, will often admit. Regulators, instructors, attorneys, accident investigators, and safety writers just might fall into that mindset occasionally, and the hypothetical arguments are endless. Would love to hear some of your real-world judgment moments where it wasn’t quite as cut and dried as some of our political candidates would have us believe.