Aviation Safety Letter 2/2005

Going Home

by Garth Wallace

Melville Passmore was in love. The private pilot graduate had met a new girl at his church during the holiday season.

"She might be sweet on me," he announced at the flying school. "I want to take her flying. Maybe somewhere for dinner that's open in the winter."

"Dinner" to the young farmer was at noon. I opened a local chart. "On Saturday you can get dinner at the London airport."

"Isn't there a control tower at London?"

Our Homestead field in southern Ontario was controlled, but Melville didn't like talking on the radio.

"Is there somewhere on the other side of Toronto?" he asked. "I could fly along the lakeshore like we did for my high density checkout. Then we'd see the tall buildings. If I stay under the terminal area, I only have to talk to the City Centre airport and Oshawa."

"Sure, Peterborough has a restaurant," I said. I pointed to the uncontrolled field northeast of Toronto.

"Good. I'll book a Cherokee for Peterborough next weekend."

I had no qualms about Melville flying through Toronto. I had been his instructor and I knew that the low-time pilot flew well when left to figure things out for himself. His radio work was good too, even though he didn't like using it.

The appointed day came. I arranged to be on the ground when Melville arrived. His face was beaming when he introduced me to his girl.

He handed me his map and flight log. "I marked the route, checked the weather, the airport conditions and filed a flight plan, just like you taught me," he said.

I didn't tell Melville that I had also called flight service. The forecast called for a great day for winter flying. A high-pressure system was bringing sunny skies, light winds and cold temperatures.

"Everything looks good, Melville," I said.

"OK, thanks."

I gave flying lessons all that day in clear skies. I didn't know that a light onshore wind had developed off Lake Ontario, and was pushing extra moisture over Toronto. Snow showers developed across the big city about the time Melville and his date were leaving Peterborough.

I was flying with a student when the local controller called me.

"I thought you'd like to know that Melville declared an emergency over downtown Toronto," he said calmly. "Apparently it's snowing there. He's airborne but they don't know for how long." It was news that any flying instructor would dread.

Going Home

"What's his emergency?" I asked.

"I don't know. I guess it's the snow. Toronto is tracking him on radar and he's headed this way. I'll call you back as soon as I hear more."

"Thanks."

I was worried beyond belief, but I didn't know what to be worried about. I knew Melville could fly in reduced visibility. The situation would have to be serious for him to declare an emergency. I wanted to help, but I didn't know how.

The controller called me again. "Melville's OK. He's flown out of the snow and will be approaching our control zone in a little while."

"Wow. Thank you."

I was still flying when Melville called approaching the zone. He joined the circuit and landed. When I returned from the lesson, he and his date were waiting in the lounge.

The round little farmer hovered nervously while I finished with my student.

"So, Ace," I said calmly. "I heard you had a problem."

He took a big breath, licked his lips, and pulled in his tongue. "I'm glad you showed me instrument flying."

"Did the weather turn bad?" I asked.

"Well, it started snowing after we had cleared through the Oshawa control zone on the way here." Melville spoke with a worried edge to his voice. It warned of worse to come. "So I turned the airplane around and headed back to Oshawa."

"Good."

"No, not good. I called Oshawa tower and the guy said that their weather had dropped to 800 obscured and two miles in light snow. He asked my intentions. I said that I was going to land at Oshawa. He wanted to know if I was instrument rated and if the airplane was equipped for IFR flight. I said that the airplane had instruments and I was using them. Then he asked about my flight conditions. I said that it was smooth and snowy."

Melville had done well during the instrument flying lessons on the private pilot course. I could picture him flying along in light snow with his tongue hanging out while he concentrated on the map, the ground, the instruments, the GPS and the radio.

"What did he say to that?"

Melville licked his lips and hauled in his tongue. "He asked if I was declaring an emergency."

"So you did?"

"No. I told him that I didn't have an emergency, I just wanted to land. He said without declaring an emergency, I couldn't fly VFR in the Oshawa control zone without a special VFR clearance. So I asked for a special VFR clearance to land at Oshawa. He said that I'd have to stay clear of the control zone for now because of inbound IFR traffic." The stubby farm boy shook his head from side to side. "Sometimes those guys can confuse a fella."

"So then you declared an emergency?"

"No, I slowed down and circled the shoreline at 1 500 ft. There wasn't much time for sightseeing in that kind of weather, but then there wasn't much to see."

"Then what happened."

"The tower guy said that I was near the path of the inbound IFR traffic and I should clear the area I was in. So I flew southwest along the lakeshore and kept going. I decided since I didn't have an emergency that I would fly home."

That meant that Melville had pointed the Cherokee toward the skyscrapers along the downtown Toronto shoreline.

Melville's voice grew quieter. "The Oshawa controller advised me to contact Toronto terminal. I didn't want to but I selected the frequency. There was a lot of talking going on. There was no room for me to call so I switched to the City Centre ATIS [automatic terminal information service]. It said that the weather was 900 obscured, two miles in light snow. It wasn't any worse so I continued southwest."

The little farmer looked at me sideways to see my reaction.

"And then what happened?"

"I called City Centre tower and requested special VFR clearance through their zone."

"What did the controller say to that?" I asked.

"He wanted to know lots of stuff: my aircraft type, registration and where I was going. He gave me a transponder code, asked if I was instrument rated and if the airplane was instrument equipped. I told him that I was in a Cherokee and I was going to Homestead. I said the airplane had instruments and I was using them. Then he asked if I was declaring an emergency."

"So you did?"

"No, I told him I didn't have an emergency. I said that I was going to Homestead." Melville took a breath. "It's hard doing all that talking and flying." Melville would have been hand flying the airplane; it did not have an autopilot.

"So what did he say?"

Melville licked his lips nervously and pulled his tongue back in. "He said that he was unable to approve special VFR in his control zone and if I didn't declare an emergency, that I would have stay clear of his zone."

With that, Melville stopped talking. I waited. He looked at the floor. He obviously didn't want to tell me what happened next. The only way around the City Centre airspace was to fly south, five miles off the shore of Lake Ontario.

"What did you do?" I asked quietly.

He spoke very softly. "That's when I declared an emergency."

"Then what?"

"At first he told me to stand by, but then he cleared me to land on any runway, gave me the wind, and advised me to stay south of the shoreline until I had the field in sight."

"Good advice," I said.

"No, not good. I told him I didn't want to land. I said that I was going to Homestead."

"How happy was he about that?"

Melville looked at me sideways. His tongue was at full hang.

"The controller said nothing for a while. Then he told me that VFR pilots declare emergencies in bad weather so they can land. I said that I'd rather fly in snow than try to land in it."

It was bold talk for the shy farmer. I couldn't help smiling.

"What was his reply?"

"He told me that the weather was VFR in Homestead. I kept flying, hoping he didn't have any other ideas. He asked me to call clear of his control zone. I did. Those guys can make it hard even when there isn't any other traffic."

"They were trying to help in their own way, Melville," I said.

"Am I in trouble?" the little farmer asked.

"I don't know," I replied honestly. "The important thing is that you applied your own judgement and skill to fly out of a bad situation. Next time, maybe you should turn around sooner. You could have flown back to Peterborough and waited for better weather."

Melville looked up. "Oh no," he said, shaking his head. "I'd be in worse trouble."

"How do you figure that?"

Melville scratched his head and gave his date a funny look. "Her dad said if I don't have her back home by five o'clock, he'd whup me good." He looked at his watch. "We gotta run."

Garth Wallace is an aviator, public speaker and freelance writer who lives near Ottawa, Ont. He has written eight aviation books published by Happy Landings (http://www.happylandings.com/). He can be contacted via e-mail: garth@happylandings.com.

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