Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Stamp Out CFIT

Truth is, not everybody learns from their mistakes

Trouble was, I knew the white ice cap would be indistinguishable from the clouds if I descended too far. I was only 39 miles from my destination when I finally accepted the inevitable, turned around and headed back toward the ocean on the east side of the island continent. This time, I had three of Garmin’s best GPS devices on board, and as soon as I knew I was over the water, I descended out of the clouds and drove south to the bottom of Greenland in hopes of flying back north and executing the dreaded up-the-fjord approach.

Narsarsuaq is at the end of the 42-mile-long Tunugviarfik Fjord on the west side of the ice cap, and I hoped that fjord would be my salvation. After I passed the tip of Greenland and turned back to the north, the clouds kept driving me down until I was only about 500 feet above the water. I found the entrance to the fjord, turned back toward the east and began to follow the winding waterway toward the airport, descending even farther to stay beneath the clouds.

By this time, Narsarsuaq was reporting an indefinite 100-foot ceiling and 1/8th-mile visibility in fog, far below any legal approach minimums. I had no choice. There was plenty of fuel aboard to reach my alternate of Nuuk, 220 miles up the coast, but conditions there were just as bad, and the runway was shorter.

I extended gear and flaps, slowed the little Arrow to 90 knots and adjusted all three GPS units to the minimum scale. I plodded up the fjord at 100 feet off the water, trying to keep the little airplane roughly in the center of the narrow waterway. As I tracked inland, I’d get occasional glimpses of hills on either side or the water below.

After 25 minutes of steering the airplane icon up the center of the fjord, I made the hard left at the end, followed the water, turned back to the right as I passed the extended centerline of runway 7 and lined up on the unseen asphalt from a mile out. I descended to 50 feet and strained to see the threshold at the water’s edge.

With the Garmin 530 and 430 all the way down to the finest possible scale, I aimed for where I hoped the runway was waiting and saw the rocky coastline flash by below me. I flared across the beach and touched down in the first few hundred feet of runway, amazed that I had been lucky enough to survive one more time.

I’m not sure there’s any message here other than the obvious one: Don’t get caught in a situation where your only option leaves you sandwiched between clouds and ground. In this day of GPS that can pinpoint your position to a few feet, you just might manage to make it to an airport. Then again, you probably won’t.

Oh yeah, the aftermath of this story was that I went up to the tower after a few minutes of searching for the ramp in the fog and parking in the wrong spot. When I climbed down from the airplane on wobbly legs, I was certain I was in deep trouble with the local authorities. When I walked into the tower office, the operator’s only question was, “Are you planning to go on to Goose Bay tonight?”

Bill Cox is in his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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