Doing It The Easy Way

Doing It The Easy Way

Doing It The Easy Way

It’s a cold, clear mid-winter morning as we descend out of FL430 in the Lear 40, crossing the Mississippi River in the vicinity of Dubuque, Iowa, on our way down to Hamilton/Butler County Regional (HAO), just north of Cincinnati, Ohio. Earlier that morning, we had filed from Tacoma, Washington (TIW) direct to HAO, a plan that seemed the easiest at the time, but it was about to become, quite obviously, not the best idea. Because onboard GPS navigation and ATC computer systems make ‘direct to the airport’ routing very easy, you readily get into the habit of filing direct. And it generally works out, until …it suddenly does not.
Before departing, we learned there was a cold front just to the west of HAO, extending from northern Ohio down to southern Kentucky. However, it was moving rapidly to the east, leaving us to expect a cold and blustery, but clear VFR, arrival. Our thinking was we would make (traffic and winds permitting) a straight-in visual approach to runway 11 at HAO, from a very long final that started at FL 430, engines at idle all the way down. But, as we our started our descent, it was obvious the frontal system’s eastward movement had slowed. We could see the front’s towering clouds in front of us, and mid-Ohio airports were reporting a mixture of rain, snow, and low-IFR ceilings and visibility, plus ice and snow on the runways.
HAO is a non-controlled airport, but it does have an ASOS, so from 100 miles out we dial up that frequency, only to find it silent. We then call Minneapolis Center and ask them if they know the weather or approach in use at HAO. They reply “unable on Butler information… approach might have it…two controllers away.” They clear us down to FL200, direct to HAO. A couple of frequencies later, we are down to 13,000 and talking to Cincinnati Approach, who is expecting us to proceed direct to the airport, as cleared by Center. We are in clouds and turbulence, still unable to get the ASOS, and strongly suspecting conditions at HAO are not at all VFR. We ask the approach controller if he can obtain the Butler weather for us. He replies ‘negative’, and promptly asks our intentions.
This is where filing ‘direct to the airport’ in a busy area gets you in trouble. Our “intentions” were to make a straight-in visual approach from the west, but that plan is clearly no longer viable. The truth is, we are now in solid IMC doing 250 knots, 10 minutes from the airport and neither we nor our new controller know what we are going to do or, given the absent ASOS, what we “should” do.
We tell the approach controller our intentions are to make an instrument approach into HAO, but we first need to know the runway in use. He is busy as all get out, and sounds a bit ticked off that we got dumped on him without this already being worked out, or at least being assigned one of the published standard arrival routes (STARS).
Not knowing what approach to vector us to, he temporizes by giving us a long, multi-waypoint clearance, with many altitude changes, the end point being the Cincinnati VOR (CVG) at 8,000 feet. We quickly scribble it down, enter it into the Universal FMS, and go about doing exactly as we were told, but with a nagging sense of discomfort about what we are going to do when reaching CVG. We then get the brilliantly-simple idea of just calling the Butler FBO on Unicom and requesting an airport advisory…we mutter to each other disgustedly, “now why didn’t we think of that before.”
TIW-HAOOur calls to the FBO go unanswered, but after our third try a Cessna 172 comes back, stating he is making a touch-and-go on runway 29, and the weather is “about” 1000-foot overcast with three miles visibility. Since he used the Alaska-pilot’s code word “about” for the weather, we suspect it‘s much worse than that. How often do the actual conditions just happen to match the exact FAR requirements for VFR? But, at least we know what runway the local traffic is using, and that the weather is probably not below IFR minimums, so we set up the FMS and avionics for the ILS 29 approach.
TIW-JOTWe return to approach, but cannot get in a word edgewise about our belatedly-arrived-at plan to fly the ILS 29. We are at 8,000 feet, have all the de-ice equipment working in a mixture of rain and heavy wet snow, heading into the back side of a nasty cold front and are rapidly closing in on our clearance limit at CVG. To make things worse, we can see on the multiple moving maps that BRNIE, the IF/IAF for the ILS 29, is disappearing to the left and behind us. It is not a good feeling to be blasting along at 200 knots, heading away from where you want to go, into deteriorating weather, not exactly sure what you are supposed to do next, and unable to talk to the controller.
Fortunately, just as we pass over CVG there is a two-second break on the frequency, and we jump in with “N44LG request direct BRNIE, then ILS 29 Butler”. The immediate reply is a clearance to do just that, plus “descend to 3,100 feet…cancel IFR on the ground… change to advisory…now.” All delivered so fast you could almost get the impression he was glad to get rid of us. Four minutes later, we are established on the ILS, inside of BRNIE. Another two minutes go by and, less than a mile out, at 700 feet AGL, we finally see the runway…not a clue as to how that C172 found it to be 1000 and three. We land in blowing snow and taxi across an icy ramp to park next to a snow-bank in front of the FBO.
SHB3PlanAt an Italian restaurant that evening, we review the rather-hectic final twenty minutes of our otherwise routine three-hour flight from TIW. We are experienced, mature, professional pilots, after all, and should not be having such disquieting, adrenalin-arousing airborne experiences. In the end, we decide we got a bit complacent. We filed direct to the airport (HAO), figuring the weather would be VFR; if not, we would do our arrival planning after we received the ASOS. If that didn’t work, the controllers would just figure it out for us. As it turned out, the weather was bad, the ASOS was inoperative, and the controllers all down the line kept deferring the arrival plan to the poor final-approach guy, who, with the unexpectedly bad conditions, was almost overwhelmed.
Most of our last-minute urgency would have been avoided if, instead of filing ‘direct to the airport’, we had filed ‘direct’ to the closest entry point on one of the STARS designed for arrivals from the west, with subsequent waypoints leading to the best approach the airport had (in this case the ILS 29). Alternatively, we could have simply requested that routing change with Center somewhere over Montana, when we first realized the destination weather was perhaps not going to be as forecast. The other matter we should have considered earlier is the approach we would have automatically chosen if unable to obtain winds at HAO. The answer is pretty simple; if the airport has only one ILS, in the absence of other information, you rarely go wrong by planning for that approach. Those ILS installations cost the FAA a lot of money, and are almost always designed for the longest runway, with the most-favorable prevailing winds.
ILS29HAOAs it happens, the Shelbyville Three Arrival (SHB3), with the Joliet VOR (JOT) as the initial entry point, would have worked nicely for our inbound course from TIW to HAO. Although this arrival was not designed specifically for HAO, and would slightly interfere with the Lear’s maximal operational efficiency, it is published as an HAO arrival and does have a charted route from CEGRM intersection, just before CVG, which goes to Richmond VOR (RID). RID, in turn, is an entry point for a short leg to HOLGR, the IAF for the only ILS 29 at HAO. If we had filed “TIW direct JOT, SHB3 CEGRM, direct RID, direct HOLGR” (then, in comments, “plan ILS 29”), instead of direct to the airport itself, we and the controllers would have known what we were intending to do if the conditions weren’t as forecast, well before our airplane got there.
If you always file with specific routing requests like this (as you probably should), you will find that the controllers will quite often change your carefully-considered plan. After a while, the tendency is to say, “ah, heck with it, I’ll just file direct to the airport and let them figure it out…they’re going to change it anyway.” But, this should be avoided. You can always request “direct to the airport” when conditions look favorable. But, when conditions are unexpectedly bad and the frequency is jammed, the overworked controllers are often happy to have you fly the route you planned with professional foresight, along published arrival corridors to the best approach available at your destination.
Then, when you hear everyone else on the frequency struggling with urgent last-minute requests, you can yawn, push your headset mike aside, and sip the last of the stale, tepid coffee as the FMS and autopilot allow you to drift peacefully through a maelstrom of airborne activity, on a route you programmed while the coffee was still hot and fresh.
Doing it the “easy” way does not always turn out to be the “easiest.”

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