I called up Flight Watch crossing the Colorado River at Lake Havasu and learned that most of the Los Angeles Basin was rapidly deteriorating toward IFR minimums. An early winter cold front was storming through Southern California from the northwest as I approached from the east.
I was flying a late-model Cessna 340 from Pennsylvania to California in early December, and the atmospherics had been excellent for the first 2,000 miles. Now, not so much. For a 1979, the airplane was in reasonable condition. Almost everything worked, even the questionable Cessna autopilot (sort of), and my job on the ferry flight had consisted of little more than watching the high desert roll by beneath and monitoring the airplane as it followed the HSI bug across the U.S.
The wind was fairly consistent on the nose at 20 knots, so nothing was happening very fast, but my last fuel stop had been Sedona, Ariz., less than 300 nm from Long Beach. Even at my racing snail's pace, I was still gaining on my destination at 160 knots.
Center began stepping me down into the scud at 80 miles out, and the low- level moderate turbulence Flight Watch had been advertising began to shake my little twin Cessna. Passing Ontario at 6,000 in IMC, the jolts became even more insistent, and that's when both the autopilot and pilot's HSI decided to fail.
The HSI was unslaved, and I had noticed a tendency to precess more than normal coming across country. Now, no matter how many times I tried to reset it, the heading began to precess within 30 seconds to a minute.
The STAR I was flying required an entry to the ILS from the northeast, a radial off Pomona VOR, and it soon became obvious the whiskey compass that might have worked fine in soft conditions wasn't going to cut it in a hard sky.
Apparently, many pilots before me had experienced difficulty holding altitude in the heavy chop, and the controller was unusually understanding. Combine that with no reliable heading information to deal with, and I had my hands full. SoCal Approach noted my wild altitude deviations as I fought to maintain some semblance of the proper heading while bouncing through the leading edges of the storm.
One slight advantage was that I had learned IFR at Long Beach a few decades ago, and the approaches were fairly straightforward. At least, I knew there would be no surprises.
My altitude was sometimes off by as much as plus or minus 400 feet, and I was afraid I'd have a phone number to call when I got on the ground. No matter. The immediate problem was to get the airplane on the ground in the first place without breaking anything.
Fortunately, my ADI seemed unaffected. The controller was understanding, but I was having extreme difficulty maintaining any semblance of the proper altitude while guessing at the proper heading, watching the whiskey compass take wild swings through 60 degrees.
Somehow, I managed to maintain a vector toward the Long Beach runway 30 final approach course. The controller advised that weather was down to 300 and one in rain and fog before she cut me loose.
I was handed off to the final controller, only to have him take me through the ILS and vector me out over the ocean for another try, this time from the less congested south side.
Finally, in desperation, after two aborts that never even reached the localizer, the controller offered me a no-gyro approach, and I accepted gratefully. I had flown a similar procedure in practice with the RCAF controllers at Goose Bay, Labrador, but I had never done an approach for real.
The controller established me on an intercept heading by commanding "start turn" and "stop turn." I had only to maintain altitude and standard rate turns on his command. He apparently handed off most of his traffic to other controllers and concentrated solely on helping me through the rough spots.
With only the pilot's artificial horizon and the altimeter to monitor, I was able to fly under a semblance of control, and within a few minutes, the controller had me approaching the ILS from the southeast, with the needles beginning to swing in the proper direction.
The good-guy controller eventually handed me off to the tower, and I began tracking inbound, correcting for altitude and heading by simply second-guessing the localizer needle with no reference to heading as my course swung slowly back and forth. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to see my radar track for that approach.
Fortunately, Long Beach weather was holding at 300 and one, and it actually looked better than that when I broke out and spotted the rabbit on short final. I touched down on runway 30 just as if I knew what I was doing, pulled off the runway, called ground and waited for the advice to copy a phone number. Instead, ground cleared me to my destination, so I knew someone at the FBO had probably already been contacted.
I taxied in, shut down and walked into the office, only to be greeted by two friends who asked, "Hey, Bill, how'd the trip go?" Pretty obviously, no one had been advised of my difficulties with the HSI and executing the approach.
Oh well, I thought, I'll probably have a message on my answering machine at home, as I had listed my phone number on the IFR flight plan. As I threw my two bags in my car, I reminded myself to look up AOPA's legal services number and advise them of the problem. I also mentally rehearsed what I'd say when I responded to that call.
The turbulence had been forecast, and there was nothing intentional about the altitude deviations. I later learned that several pilots before me had experienced similar problems, and they had all instruments working.
There would be no difficulty proving the pilot's HSI was precessing excessively, as a mechanic had gone to work pulling the box to be overhauled shortly after I shut down. My logbook was up to date, and I was current for IFR.
The call never came. There was no message waiting at home. A week later, I was still waiting for the phone to ring with the administrator calling to suggest I turn in my license. It never happened. I tried to locate the controller who helped me find the ground that day, but he had already gone off shift when I called.
In other words, as most of us should know already, the FAA can be good guys, if you give them a chance. Their mantra may not be, "We're from the government, and we're here to help," but in my case, they did provide exactly that—lifesaving help.