Okay, IFR fans, here’s one for you (but, non-aviators and VFR-only pilots, you’ll still find content typical of my other Grand Tour leg posts). Two simple words: contact approach. I don’t mean the request to make a radio call, either. Read on.
The winds aloft forecast was favorable for an easy non-stop to KTRK, where I would meet my wife (who’s there for the weekend), spend the night, and then continue home. The en route weather was reasonably benign: an inactive convective SIGMET promised the possibility of isolated to widely scattered thunderstorms over central and western Colorado starting mid-morning. There were only two issues to address, really, during flight planning: departure weather and an airshow at KTRK.
What? An airshow? How does this affect things? The Truckee Airshow includes both static displays and flight displays: aerobatic flight displays. There were two TFRs (temporary flight restrictions) that would be active around my arrival window, one to 12,000′ and the other to 16,000′, closing the airspace for my arrival until 4pm. Normally, this would be no problem: with a four hour flight time, a post-lunch departure would handle things nicely.
Mother Nature had other ideas, though. The Boulder weather and the Colorado en route weather for later in the day wasn’t looking nearly as inviting as that for the middle of the morning. The new plan: launch mid-morning after breakfast and divert to KTVL, South Lake Tahoe airport, if the TFRs were, in fact, active (sometimes, parts of an airshow are cancelled and the TFR rendered inactive), waiting at KTVL until KTRK reopened.
The weather at KBDU was marginal VFR: good visibility, but about a 1500 overcast ceiling (see the picture, above, from the ramp looking west). As I climbed out to the east immediately after takeoff on runway 8, I saw that the ceiling was rising. A WACO biplane called on the KBDU common frequency (no tower there) advising he was transition the area east of the field, south-to-north; I easily spotted him, and let him know (along with the glider-on-tow slight north of the field heading west), and he confirmed that he saw me. As I climbed and turned north per ATC’s instructions, I had a nice view of the WACO to my left, only a couple hundred yards away. I saw that the overcast layer ended only a few miles east of KBDU. ATC turned me back to the south for the climb to clear the Rockies, then west and on course (to Kremmling [RLG] VOR). The climb was uneventful over the ridge.
In fact, there was really only one notably eventful thing on the flight, besides the beauty of the Rockies and the contact approach. About a dozen miles west of Kremmling, in cruise at FL200, I entered the top of a benign cumulus cloud—at least, it looked benign. My windshield quickly picked up a spattering of ice, and I saw a little rime ice on the inboard part of the wing. I watched for fifteen seconds or so, and saw that the ice accretion continued. The rate was not alarming, but I didn’t just want to keep flying along. With an outside air temperature of -6ºC, I figured that a 2,000 foot climb should take care of the ice, dropping the ambient temperature enough that more ice would be unlikely. Indeed, that climb took care of things, and I soon left the cloud behind. After a scant several minutes, the ice had sublimated.
I made a couple of en route PIREPs (pilot reports) to Salt Lake Flight Watch, so other pilots would know about the flight conditions out in the middle of nowhere. Around Eureka, Nevada I checked with Reno Flight Service Station about the status of that KTRK TFR: yes, it was active as scheduled, and would remain so until 4pm. (The other jog to the south in the route that Flight Aware shows was to skirt some military restricted airspace. The 388th Fighter Wing, based at Hill AFB near Ogden, Utah trains out there, and their airspace runs from 100′ AGL to FL580!)
ATC immediately approved the diversion from KTRK to KTVL, clearing me direct KTVL.
The weather at KTVL was gorgeous: clear, miles and miles of visibility, and pleasant temperatures with light winds from the north-northwest. I asked ATC for the visual approach, and was told to expect that.
For those unfamiliar with it, a visual approach is used in IFR flying (flying by instrument flight rules, regardless of the actual weather) to simplify and expedite arrivals when the weather is good. Once a pilot reports the airport in sight and ATC issues a clearance for the visual approach, the pilot can fly almost as if on visual flight rules: he or she can just fly to the airport, providing his her own navigation, and responsible for his or her own terrain clearance. While on an instrument approach, the pilot must keep the airport (or the preceding aircraft, when told to follow someone) in sight at all times until landing.
I descended from FL200 to 16,000′, then to 13,000′, and could easily see Lake Tahoe (hard to miss on a clear day when I could see forever!). The ridge on which Heavenly Valley ski resort sits was between KTVL and me, so I could not actually see the airport, and ATC could not clear me for the visual approach, and I couldn’t go any lower (because of the terrain in the area, while flying IFR I had to stay fairly high: the ridges top 10,000′ around there). At this rate, I wasn’t going to be cleared for the visual until I was almost on top of KTVL, since that ridge is only about 5 miles from the airport—and I didn’t relish losing 6,000′ in 5 miles (though, indeed, I would have just flown around for a little longer, probably heading up toward Lake Tahoe to lose altitude). I was starting to think about canceling IFR so I could start down (and head around the ridge). Then, I remembered what might be the least used tool in an IFR pilot’s kit: the contact approach.
A contact approach is similar to a visual approach in that the pilot is responsible for navigation, terrain clearance, and weather avoidance. Two important differences between visual and contact approaches:
- A contact approach only requires that the pilot has and can maintain visual contact with the ground (not necessarily with the airport).
- While ATC can provide a visual approach clearance of its own volition (in addition to after a pilot requests it), a pilot has to request a contact approach: ATC may not issue a contact approach clearance without the pilot having requested it.
(There are a few other subtleties to the contact approach that I’ll skip.)
I couldn’t see the airport. I could see the ground. I knew I could stay clear of clouds and terrain. So, for the first time in my decades-long instrument flying career, I said, “2FR request contact approach.” And, for the first time in my 30-ish year IFR career, I heard, “Mooney 2FR, cleared contact approach.”
I started down, flew north around the ridge, and came in for an easy, smooth landing. After relaxing for a couple of hours, I treated myself to a low-level tour of the west shore of Lake Tahoe.