Sunday, June 05, 2005

It's IFR, do you know if your transponder is working?

Well I didn't go down to the AOPA fly-in on Saturday after all. We got into the air and proceeded as far as Zanesville before having to turn back due to mechanical issues. Here's the story.

My flying partner for the trip was a CFI (certified flight instructor) based at the NFA in Bolton. Let's call him X. Having a CFI along as a safety pilot is an excellent idea, they can fly in instrument conditions and they can give you decent advice during the flight. We met twice last week and went over the flight and despite some communication problems early on I made sure we were on the same page as far as the trip and the special procedures of the fly-in (in VFR conditions). We agreed that if there were any IFR conditions along the route then X could take over the flight.

Saturday morning I checked the weather with the briefer, and it was IFR conditions east of Zanesville, marginal VFR over Columbus. I gathered the information and met X at OSU at our designated time of departure. I met my partner at OSU and we pre-flighted the plane (the club’s Cherokee 180), planning on stopping at Marysville for fuel then heading on our trip, possibly filing IFR in mid-air. We taxied to the active runway at OSU and completed the run-up when suddenly the tower refused to allow us to takeoff. The conditions at the field changed from MVFR to IFR, and we had not filed an IFR flight plan. With some initial confusion between us and the tower we taxied back to the ramp to get fuel from OSU's FBO.

After getting the fuel, X wanted me to call the tower for some pretty strange requests (I was handling the radio communications, talking on behalf of X):

A) Call OSU tower for weather in Frederick Maryland
B) File an IFR flight plan (on the ground)

Okay, here's what's wrong with those two things. Both of those functions are usually performed by Flight Service Stations (FSS) not control towers. Control towers are just there to provide traffic separation, and weather at the airport under their control. A control tower can and will open an IFR flight plan, but they won't file one for you unless you're in the air.

I'm not IFR certified, but even I could tell that these were off the wall requests, or at least something the tower was unlikely to give us (especially the weather in Maryland). But I went along with X's request; I mean maybe there's a loophole I don't know about. Well there isn't and I received a pretty icy response from the tower:

"52 Tango call Dayton FSS for those requests"

Written down it doesn't sound bad, but with ATC its all about HOW they say things. Factoring the tone of voice you get something closer to this:

"Are you some kind of idiot 52 Tango? Call Dayton FSS like you're supposed to and stop wasting my time!"

So we walked back to the NFA office and I called Dayton FSS to file the IFR flight plan. Right now I'm still handling the communications, and I figure X's just preparing me a little bit for the IFR world (which I understand). After the call to the tower though I can't help thinking this guy doesn't exactly know what he's doing, I had a hard time imagining my two previous CFI's (Bob and Matt) asking for the same thing.

So I talked to the briefer, scribbled down any weather information I could catch, and filed the IFR flight plan. It’s not too different from filing VFR, although the cruising altitudes for IFR don't have the extra 500 ft (in VFR, cruising altitudes going East are odd thousands, plus 500 ft. ex. 5500).

After filing we got back into the plane, I called OSU tower again (making sure to tell them I filed IFR) and copied down their instructions. I had to ask them to repeat a few things, multiple times and finally I got the clearance. As I was taxing they asked me if I was IFR certified (gee how'd they guess I wasn't ? :P). I replied I had a CFI with me (self conscious of the fact I never really verified X's word by looking at his license).

So we took off, X took care of the controls and started navigating the route and talking to ATC. I relaxed because it seemed like once in the air he did know his stuff; he controlled the airplane well and got us on course in short order. I helped by jotting down ATC instructions and helping keep an eye on the instruments (engine, fuel, oil pressure). We climbed and leveled off at 5000 on a direct route to FDK.

A half hour into the flight, about at Zanesville, ATC called informing us that they were having problems picking up our transponder. At their request we recycled the device (switching it off and then on). This repeated a few more times; ATC would pick us up for a few minutes then loose us again. Finally ATC asked us if we could safely continue. I gestured to X that I agreed (with some disappointment) we should scrub the flight and turn back.

We turned around back to OSU, and it was at this point our number one radio, Comm1 started to fail. Whenever X tried to transmit, ATC and I could not hear him. We switched to the second radio, which seemed to work better. At this time though ATC was concerned and suggesting our alternator might be failing. ATC told us to stay on course while they worked out a closer airport with better conditions we could land, and came back with Port Columbus (KCMH).

ATC gave us the ILS approach for 28R, I flipped through the approach plates for X while he was busy controlling the aircraft. We descended to 3000, and at this time we noticed the door was ajar in the plane.

Now a loose door in a small airplane is not really a big deal. Most light GA are not pressurized so when a door opens you don't get explosive decompression with gas masks and stuff flying around like in the movies. A door open in a light plane is like driving really fast in your car with all the windows rolled down. It’s distracting and very loud, but not dangerous. Plus the door doesn't get to open all the way, because the outside air is keeping it firmly shut.

That said the distraction was pretty unwelcome with all the current drama happening around us, I reached over and held the door shut just to keep X from getting too distracted while he was flying (he was right next to the door and I could tell it was having some kind of effect on him). The drama with the door caused us to overshoot the ILS approach (X didn't have the right frequency dialed in on the Nav equipment). He got it straighten out a bit and ATC informed us we were right on course again.

This next part is a little confusing, I'm not sure how it happened but we went from maintaining 2500 feet to descending below to 2000/1800. I think X misheard the instructions, I believe ATC told us to start descending when we had the airport in-sight. Instead we started descending way too soon, still in the soup. ATC immediately called us up urgently with a ground proximity alert (did you know they also sound an audible alarm through the radio when they give you the warning?).

It was at this point, in the soup, door ajar, ATC with the proximity alert, X having some problems with controlling the aircraft (I think he was just trying to do too much) that I thought to myself:

"I could die today, right now, in this airplane"

I've been in some tight situations before, like when I got disoriented coming up from the Louisville trip at night. I never had the clear thought "I could die" before, mainly because those times I had some options in front of me and I was in control of the plane. This time I could really only watch it unfold and do my best to help X as much as possible.

I focused on the fact that while I wasn't in control of the plane, there were things I could still do. I alerted X when we deviated off course and when the altitude dropped, I put myself behind the stick even though I was not the one actually flying. I paid closer attention to ATC and above all I prepared myself to spot the airport when we broke out of the clouds.

Breaking out of the clouds and seeing the airport in front of us was a relief. X had done well and put us on final for 28R, 10 miles out. As soon as I saw it, I called "I have the field," snapped my fingers and pointed it out.

Things got a lot better once we had the airport; I had the landing checklist out and pointed out our target approach airspeed. We landed and got progressive taxi instructions to Lane Aviation (the FBO for the general aviation traffic), since Port Columbus is a large international airport and neither of us had been there before.

At Lane we parked, went inside and chilled out for an hour and a half relaxing, talking about the flight, and waiting for the weather to get better so we can make the short hop back to OSU in VFR conditions.

We made it back to OSU at 11am without incident, after leaving at 7 and only putting on 1.9 hours on the aircraft. I wrote up the mechanical issues of the flight and placed it in the aircraft's book and photocopied it to place in the NFA's drop box.
The president of the club called me the next day today we talked about the mechanical issues with the plane we had during the flight. Unfortunately he wasn't able to reproduce the transponder problem, but did admit that the Com1 problem was an intermittent problem they've had before but have not been able to solve.

X had suggested we shouldn't have to pay for the flight time because of the mechanical problems and we never actually completed our trip. I agreed with him at the time (mainly because I was tired and just wanted to get home), to bring it up with the president. After talking it over with him though I realized that wasn't going to happen, mainly because the planes are privately owned aircraft so the club doesn't have a say when it comes for comped time. Plus since the transponder issue couldn't be duplicated its a hard case to argue to the owner. I can see where the flying club is coming from, and I'm not going to press the issue, if X still wants to get his money back then he is welcome to try.

The president and I also talked about X, he confirmed my suspicion that X didn't have a lot of experience as a CFI. Also he's based at different, smaller airport and pretty unfamiliar with the operations at OSU and CMH.

Here is what I've learned from the misadventure Saturday:

A) Check out the experience of my flying partner beforehand
B) If I'm uncomfortable before the flight, express my concerns ahead of time, or cancel and not "hope things work out in the air"

This experience has convinced me to also checkout Capital City Aviation, the other club on the field. I know the owner of the Warrior and the Arrow in that club, and my first CFI here (Matt) also works there on the weekends. They have better quality aircraft (abet at a greater price) but I really think I would have had photos and stories of the AOPA fly-in for this post instead of a scary life and death experience if we had used one of those airplanes instead.

Short term I'm not renting the Cherokee 180 again, and I'm not flying with X again either. I’m grateful because at the end of the day he saved both our asses, and he’s a nice person and everything, but I don’t trust him enough to put my life in his hands like that again.

So I learned some things, got some unintentional first hand experience in an actual emergency situation that I was able to walk away from. At the end of the day this doesn’t change my love for flying, because like anything else the failures are just as important as the successes.

Until next time, Clear Skies!


  1. wow...that was a freaky experience. IFR is all about altitudes and headings and luckily nothing happened when you broke the minimums.

    i had a good laugh when i saw that a cfi wanted to get a weather brief and file a flight plan with the tower:-)

    anyways fly safe..and hey cherokee 180 is a nice airplane ;-)

  2. Hello,

    I'm also "Flying In Ohio" just up in Cleveland. I've started a weekly general aviation podcast at Check it out! I enjoy reading your blog postings through my RSS reader.

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