Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Forgiving FAA

Don’t always assume you’ll be busted

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.

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