Here is Homer on final approach after intercepting the back course from the DME arc. The high terrain to the right is the reason for the arc; the VOR sits on top of the big hill.
This month I thought I would share a couple of experiences, one from my short stint of airline flying and one from a personal trip, which continue to drive home the importance of understanding your aircraft’s systems and decision making. It was a dark and stormy night (just kidding!). It was a typical muggy day in the Southeast with the usual pop-up thunderstorms. These storms can wreak havoc for a while, but soon dissipate. It’s always best to wait them out or go around them. I really hate being put in the position of racing them to a destination, but that’s exactly the scenario that we would find ourselves in on this trip.
Back Course at Albany
It was a short leg from Atlanta, Georgia, to Albany, Georgia, a distance of about 130 nautical miles. In a jet, it is very short, less than 20 minutes. As a crew you are really busy from takeoff until touchdown, and I enjoy these legs more than others, as I’m not really fond of long hours in cruise. (I’ve never been one much for sitting around watching things. I admire the guys who fly the long hauls, but I know I probably wouldn’t be happy doing them.) This was my leg, and just as soon as we leveled off after a quick climb to 19,000 feet, it was time to brief the approach. The ATIS said to expect the ILS to Runway 4, so that was the approach we briefed, and I was happy to see they were using Runway 4. Why? For the entire trip, we were watching a very nasty thunderstorm on the radar that was east-northeast of the Albany airport and moving toward it. Certainly a missed approach to Runway 4 would not be any fun, if even possible.
Look closely at the approach plate and you will see the transition from 3900 feet to sea level while executing the arc and final approach. It’s almost a cross-country flight by itself. Be patient. And don’t forget to cancel IFR. One pilot forgot and other pilots were left holding for almost an hour.
Just as soon as we finished briefing the ILS 4 approach, we were given a descent and the usual hand-off to Albany Approach. Remember I said this was a busy trip? It was about to get even busier. We were just about to turn right on the high downwind to the ILS 4 when the controller said, “We just had a big wind shift with a level 5 thunderstorm northeast of the airport. Expect the back course 22 approach.” Yikes. I immediately turned left, continued the descent and aircraft approach configuration, and briefed for a back course approach. We are all proficient in a back course, right? And to top it off, the view out the window showed a really black wall in the direction we were headed. The race was on to get to the FAF (final approach fix) before the thunderstorm. It was going to be close, but it did look promising.
Good to be on the ground in Homer. You can clearly see here why flight up a pass can be deadly. Lucky for us, icing conditions were high that day, allowing IFR flight out of danger at 10,000 feet.
As I briefed the approach, I set up my instruments for the new back course, and I dialed in the inbound course on my HSI. We were descending on the downwind now and just about to turn base toward the FAF. The captain tells me it is a back course, and I need to turn my HSI around 180 degrees. I politely tell him, “No, that is what the REV switch on the autopilot panel is for.” We are now beginning the turn to base leg, and he is adamant that I turn my HSI around. We go back and forth a bit, and in my head, I’m hearing a little voice telling me the accident record will say the crew was confused. But I am not confused and am getting upset. Not good. I tell the captain we will go right through the localizer this way. I yield to command authority and now have my hands solidly on the control yoke.
Then it happens. We did fly right through the localizer and at the same time, we hit a wall of water, turbulence, and it became dark as night. I’ve seen the inside of a thunderstorm once a long, long time ago and don’t care to see one again. I immediately disconnected the autopilot and told the captain I had the controls and was manually flying the approach. I proceeded with an aggressive turn back to the final approach course, just as the tower inquired if we went through the localizer. We quickly answered we were correcting. So here I was, hand flying a back course in some of the worst turbulence I have ever experienced in a jet. We broke out a little above minimums and landed in a wall of water with a crosswind that was within 1 knot of our allowed maximum.
Flight low over the water can be done safely, but be prepared to turn around and know what the forecasts are calling. This is the Cook Inlet on the way to Anchorage.
The captain was really cool. As we were taxiing into the gate, he looked at me and said, “You have really great situational awareness.” I was thankful for the compliment, but mentioned we should go to lunch and discuss it, since it was our last leg for the day. He agreed, and then we sat at the gate for almost 20 minutes before we could deplane the passengers, due to the ferocity of the storm.
One of the things I really liked about ASA was that they gave us a simulator for our PCs that did a fantastic job of reproducing the cockpit of the RJ. All you had to do was point and click with your mouse and you could actually fly an entire trip including the approach. I made great use of it whenever I had an assigned route that I hadn’t flown before. So off we went to lunch (the sun was now shining) and had a great time with the simulator as I brought my PC with me. First, I set it up the way the captain had asked me to do on the inbound flight, using a reverse inbound course on the HSI. We both watched as it faithfully duplicated the transition through the localizer. I then reset the approach to the inbound course on the HSI and armed the REV switch on the autopilot panel. The autopilot correctly captured the localizer and flew the approach. The captain was very gracious, thanked me, and said he just learned something new. We both agreed that there always seemed to be something to learn when it comes to flying, and with the right attitude, we can all gain valuable lessons while we continue to build our experience.
When the view is so pretty, it can be tempting to continue. It is best to hug the right side of the valley and turn around. No telling what is around the next bend.
Back Course at Homer
It was a few years later before I saw another back course, and it was even more complicated. It was the localizer DME back course with an arc to the FAF at Homer, Alaska. I was in my RV-10 this time, and even though I hand flew it, I felt like we were cheating as the synthetic vision coupled with the moving map was more like a video game. And it would have been fun, if it hadn’t been for the tragedy that had occurred just a few hours earlier with one of our group’s airplanes, resulting in three fatalities. The NTSB report has been published (NTSB ID ANC13FA058), and you can read about it online. For me, it was truly watching the luck finally run out for someone.
Alaska is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness or recklessness, and it is definitely home to the proverbial “billy goat in the clouds.” I know, because in our three trips to that beautiful part of the world, we have gone by the billy goat (really Dall sheep) at eyeball level as we flew down the canyons on clear days. On this particular day, we were part of a 14-airplane caravan traveling in two separate 7-airplane groups, and I was leading the first group, known as the fast group. The owner of the business was flying in a Beech Baron ahead of both parties as an advance “weather” plane. That doesn’t really work out as you are flying so low in valleys between the mountains that the VHF radios don’t have much range. But it was a nice thought.
When the view looks like this up the valleys, with obscuration due to clouds, it is best to stay along the river routes in the valleys. The mountainous terrain rises very steeply, and there is not always room to turn around.
We were about six days into our venture, and this leg was from Fairbanks to Homer, which required going through the Summit Pass in the Alaska Range, home to Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. It’s not only very beautiful, but it is large enough to create its own weather. On this day the ceilings were at 1500 feet on the south side of the pass going into Anchorage. The key here is that the elevation through the pass is over 2400 feet. I voiced my concerns about heading into that pass and was told by the leader to not worry—just stay low and follow the river. That’s how it always worked! Yikes. The alarm bells started big time.
Sometimes following the river or valley can work and is most often done. I don’t do it without understanding the forecasts, checking for pilot reports, and looking at the Alaskan webcams.
To make a long story short, I was predisposed to not going through that pass when we took off, and sure enough, when we got to the pass, I didn’t like what I saw (and neither did Carol!). I put my flight on the ground at the Healy River Airport. From there we all filed IFR for the rest of the way to Homer. Unfortunately, I found out before I departed that the Baron had crashed within 5 minutes of our landing at Healy River. To this day I don’t understand why some pilots want to push the weather just because they got away with it earlier.
As we approached Homer, it was painful for me to listen as ATC communicated with some of the pilots as they struggled with the localizer DME back course approach into Homer. We even heard ATC issue a couple of low altitude alerts, which just added to the stress from the earlier incident. One newly minted Instrument pilot from Florida thoughtfully requested and was granted the GPS approach. Well done! It behooves all of us to really take a detailed look at our trips ahead of time and at least play it out in our heads, especially when going into unfamiliar territory.
Flying in sport aviation is supposed to be fun and full of wonderful memories that we create as we build experience. Don’t forget that!
Vic Syracuse is a Commercial Pilot and CFII with ASMEL/ASES ratings, an A&P, DAR, and EAA Technical Advisor and Flight Counselor. Passionately involved in aviation for over 36 years, he has built nine award-winning aircraft and has logged over 7500 hours in 69 different kinds of aircraft. Vic had a career in technology as a senior-level executive and volunteers as a Young Eagle pilot and Angel Flight pilot. He also has his own sport aviation business called Base Leg Aviation.