Hi all- I'm after thoughts from you IFR charter guys on a (purely hypothetical) scenario. Lets say we have a fairly low-hour PPL along as a passenger on a charter flight in a typical piston twin. To make things easier, lets call him Ralph. He doesn't know the pilot and has never flown with this operator before.
Ralph is working on his Commercial and is also concurrently halfway through his CIR training, and is therefore keenly interested in how more experienced pilots operate IFR in the real world. He is therefore keeping his eyes open during the trip, but is sitting up the back well out of the pilot's way. So the flight departs into solid IMC, which gives way to VMC during the cruise, albeit with a bit of weather still hanging about. Also, it is just passing last light. Approaching the destination, now in darkness, the town lights and runway lights are clearly visible from TOD. The aircraft descends, and looks to be tracking straight to the field, as if to do a normal overfly and join downwind, as you would if VFR. As far as he can tell with his limited experience and restricted view from up the back, the aircraft is not on a published approach or arrival procedure. There are a few ridges near the strip with radio towers on them, on the dead side of the circuit.
As the aircraft gets closer to the field, Ralph sees that there is some scattered to broken low cloud on the far side of the field, which was not visible during the let-down. Ralph starts to feel uneasy as the aircraft proceeds to overfly the runway, enter the cloud, turn downwind and base while in and out of it, before getting clear during the turn to finals and then landing normally. Ralph thinks that during all this, the aircraft was below the MDA for all the approaches he knows of into this strip, but would love to be reassured that he is wrong, or that this is normal and OK.
Now, up until this last bit, Ralph has not had the slightest cause for alarm during the trip. The guy up front seems to know what he is doing, and didn't strike Ralph as a cowboy. Ralph also doesn't want to ask the him about it in front of the other passengers, or come across as a back-seat driver without getting his facts straight. Also, he knows that the airfield appeared to be VFR until quite close, so the initial cloud entry was probably not deliberate.
In this scenario, which is of course purely make believe, would our friend Ralph be correct to be a bit worried, or is he just being a sook? Is there perhaps something he might have missed? And for those of you doing this sort of thing day in day out, how often would you fly a visual circuit in preference to an approach procedure, only to find yourself in and out of crud you didn't see coming? Any thoughts?
Could Ralph see the DME/GPS and altimeter clearly from the back? How sure was he that they weren't on an arrival and how can he be 100% without having clear sight of the instruments? Was the aircraft obviously in IMC during the circling approach or was the pilot able to maintain constant visual contact with the approach threshold throughout circling manoeuvre? How does Ralph know that the pilot did not choose to make a visual approach and let down into the circling area? How much experience has Ralph got flying at night?
The DGA is a quick and easy approach, unless you need to do a runway aligned to get low enough or if it was a murky black hole circling approach, why would a flighttime limited charter pilot bother going 10nm off track when a circle to land is far quicker?
Ralph could have had a chat and asked what sort of approach the pilot did to learn a bit without being too nosy. At the end of the day a PPL with no IFR experience and little night is not going to be up to speed let alone know where they are on an approach sitting in the back of a dark plane at night.
A circling approach is a legiment IMC procedure. It does require "visial reference" as specified in AIP (VMC is not required). The pilot may then descend below the MDA whilst in the circling area provided that the meteorological conditions are not CONTINUOUSLY below the prescribed minima.
Personally, I would prefer a straight in landing from an instrument approach over visual circling in marginal conditioins (especially at an unfamiliar aerodrome). But it is Legal.
Cant say from this arm chair whether or not the pilot was acting appropriatley and I would say that Ralph probably cant say either from his armchair.
But good observation Ralph and its great that he is on his toes!
Last edited by Calldepartures; 2nd Mar 2012 at 21:17.
Happened to me years ago! Was in the right seat with the "chief pilot" taking the aircraft from Tennant Creek to Alice Springs. At night, commenced descent and cleared a visual approach. Weather was perfect.
Old mate just starts trucking down, tracking straight for the airport.
Only trouble........ there is a nice mountain range between us and the airport!
We had the DME arrival plates out, I questioned his profile. His response was "It is ok, we are visual".
My response: "We might be visual, but if you continue that profile you are going to kill us both, what about the mountain range?"
Suffice to say we leveled off and resumed the DME arrival on steps.
Whether it is by day or night, you still have to descend below the MDA at some point. Only difference is by day you can descend down to minimum obstacle clearance ALT whenever you like, by night you must wait until a continuous descent to the landing threshold using normal rates of descent and flight manoeuvres for the aircraft type can be made.
Either way, the required visual reference remains the same. And in single pilot IFR charter, it is the pilot in command that makes the determination as to whether the required visual reference is available. (Subjective??)
It's called commercial flying buddy, something you have not done yet.
You are paid to give it a go, while doing it in a safe and commercially viable manner.
It sounds to me like your pilot did a gps DME arrival and circled in the circling area.
If you're in and out of small patches of cloud that you can see below and see the extent of, well provided you can keep orientated with the runway and you can keep visual reference (or expect to) then this it what IFR flying is all about.
There is a reason you were up the back, it's exactly where I would have put you.
You'll be doing much worse in much more arduous conditions VFR in our first charter job I can assure you.
One thing for Ralph to consider whilst it sounds like a dga to a circling approach while circling the required vis is along the intended flight path from down the back maybe he couldn't see what the bloke at the front could apon his "intended fligh path" although a normal cct entry and join is prefered it is not a rquirement whilst counducting a circling approach prob very different than what your use to don't have to fly a 1000' square base cct to get an aircraft on the ground at the right configuration and speed.
Ralph has to be the first guy with a PPL not to ask to sit up the front and ask if they can help out/log any of it/fly it in the cruise!
As soon as they mentioned to me they were a PPL, for weight and balance purposes they sat up the back
There was nothing more annoying than having a half baked PPL looking over your shoulder judging your actions with limited knowledge of commercial VFR or IFR flying.
I was always very happy to have the commercial guys up front (you could always learn something if they threw a bone), and over the years had guys from BA, Qantas, Cathay, Air France, Virgin, united, all share my space. I even let - Qantas 744 Captain fly the Airvan on the scenic while I gave my usual half arsed commentary. He thoroughly enjoyed himself and was surprisingly very very accurate (on heading, on alt, the needles didnt move) for someone who never hand flew.
The PPL who ruined it for me was the usual expert that chewed my ear off for the first half an hour, then got silent after about 45 mins, then started to look visibly panicked.
I asked him, everything okay mate? And he said "where is your WAAC and why haven't you position fixed??" (IFR Flight, PA31).
I replied, "I don't even have a WAAC chart with me, haven't carried one for years" (I did)
I then received a lesson on 1 in 60s and how best to navigate for the remainder of the flight, anyway it kept him busy with his wiz wheel and his Waac chartS (cluttering up my space) for the remainder of the flight
Gday GG- Forgot to mention- Ralph has been known to develop violent tendencies towards backseat drivers in his own profession, and knows exactly how annoying it can be! Hence he avoided making his PPL background known to the charter pilot, since he doesn't know him personally, and doesn't want the guy to feel like he's being watched like a hawk. Ralph is keenly aware of watching another colleague with a PPL do exactly what you are talking about on another charter with another operator some time ago-and Ralph was really embarrassed to be thought guilty by association
Generally mid base I'm not at circling height. I left circling height some time ago.
From the circling MDA if I have my xxx km vis along my intended flight path and I can see the landing area or items associated with it, and am happy to accept responsibility for my own terrain separation, down we go. .