Pilot Geeking: Day One

As Brenda mentioned, she and I are off on a cross country to see our families in Texas and North Carolina. It’s always interesting to take on the elements in a Piper Archer.

Fighting the elements is usually best done in advance. Earlier in the week, I didn’t like the way the weather was shaping up and moved our route south. Originally the plan was to fly through northern Arizona and wind up in Santa Fe for the night. Watching the weather this week, it looked like those areas would be having some weather (and they are), so I’m typing this in El Paso, TX. I like to be out of the weather’s way. We’ll see if I’m still out of its way tomorrow. :-)

I also got to see a black hole today. If you’re a pilot, you know that landing on an isolated runway at night without surrounding lights for reference can lead to the black hole illusion. The effect is that one can come in much lower than one intends with the result of hitting terrain or stalling. Flying into El Paso tonight (IFR) I was vectored to 26R for landing. As I’m on approach, I realize that I’m looking at the very definition of a black hole: no lights but runway markings, no VASI, no PAPI, no ILS. And the wind’s behind me. So I look at my altimeter and it reads lower than I’d guessed I was – not terrifyingly low or anything – but lower than I thought.
Now, I think it’s within my abilities to land on such a runway. But I’ve already hand flown more than 6 hours today, I’m at an unfamiliar airport, and it’s a sizable international airport. I can hear Southwest jets landing and taking off over on runway 4 oriented appropriately with the wind and I know it’s got an ILS and a PAPI. I think lots of people just land where they’re told, but I (cancelled IFR and) went around on 26R and requested runway 4. The result was a nice uneventful landing and a longer taxi.

I’m pretty sure a fair number of people just take the original landing clearance – and that the landing is usually without incident – but I’m pretty happy with myself for taking the better runway.

One Response to “Pilot Geeking: Day One”

  1. green » Blog Archive » Que paso, El Paso? Says:

    […] When I woke up it was dark and we were on our initial approach into El Paso (go to T’s blog for a more pilot-geeky account of that). I trust T’s piloting skills, so when I see something that’s unsettling to me I typically wait until he’s not busy and ask questions later. The “black hole” effect he mentions is pretty unsettling: a short runway bordered by a single row of lights in the middle of an inky black landscape. The biggest question going through my head was, how much does T rely on the altimeter to land at unfamiliar airports? Or is it mostly visual? (Answer: it’s largely visual, which is precisely why having an odd optical illusion at this time is not a Good Thing). I kept checking our altitude and looking at this lonely little strip and thinking it looked weird but being unable to articulate why it looked different. […]