I recently flew down to Annapolis, from northern New Jersey, for a couple days of board meetings. It was raining and I was in the clouds at 4,000' with a 30+ knot headwind slowing me down for more than 90 minutes. About 20 minutes outside of Lee Airport in Annapolis, my glass cockpit panel ("digital dashboard") had a partial failure, at night, in IMC (the clouds). Since the panel is digital with diagnostics, as the attitude and heading indicator tumbled, it recognized the failure and displayed a warning message followed by two big red "X"s.
As much as I love high tech, avionics failures like this aren't completely unexpected so I have traditional backup instruments. It took me a few minutes to confirm that the digital airspeed and altitude indicators were working fine since they displayed the same readings as my analog dials. As unnerving as this failure was, it didn't represent an inflight emergency.
Rather than rely on my autopilot, I "hand flew" the plane as air traffic control vectored me for the approach into Annapolis. The clouds were lower than I'd liked, but when I broke through them and saw the airport, I set myself up for landing. It took me longer than usual to get down to the runway, in the dark, so I decided to "go-around" since it's a shorter runway than I'm used to using. On my second attempt, I landed, albeit, I used up almost the entire runway since stopping in the rain took longer than normal. Unfortunately, during most of my time in Annapolis, it was pouring.
When I departed Annapolis, two days later, I was hoping that, somehow, the panel problem would have resolved itself. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. But, since all of the backup equipment was working fine, I could fly home under instrument flight rules. Even better was that there wasn't a cloud in the sky as air traffic control vectored me over downtown Annapolis.
I called the glass cockpit manufacture who pointed me to several authorized resellers in northern New Jersey and I chose a reseller based at Sussex Airport. Yesterday's flight from Morristown to Sussex only took about 20 minutes.
Since Sussex Airport doesn't have a manned control town, pilots have to announce where they are. When I was about 12 miles away, I could hear steady chatter as pilots were announcing their positions. But, one voice stood out since it sounded like a young girl. She was obviously taking off and landing, repeatedly. Just as I was about to enter the traffic pattern, she announced her position and I saw her about a mile in front of me. This was helpful – I had never flow into this airport so I didn't know where the landmarks were to make my turns.
A typical landing pattern is entered at 45° to the runway and flown parallel to the runway, but in the opposite direction of landing, followed by a left turn perpendicular to the runway, and then, finally, another left turn, to line up with the runway. Trailing another plane, into an unfamiliar airport, makes things easier – just like following another car's taillights, in the dark, on an unfamiliar road.
As I followed the young pilot in front of me, I heard someone from the ground give her some words of encouragement. It turned out that she was a student pilot on her first solo flight. No matter how old your are, your first solo flight is both exciting and stressful since it's the first time you're flying an airplane without anyone else aboard. It's just you and your new skills, all alone in the plane. Actually, your "first solo" isn't just one take off and landing, but rather it's three in a row and it's something you'll never forget.
Ironically, I had to go to an "old school" airport for my high tech repairs. Even though Sussex Airport is only about 90 minutes from Manhattan, I definitely felt like I was at an airport deep in the country.
Of course, high tech, being what it is, meant that we couldn't reproduce the problem with the glass cockpit panel at the avionics shop. Now I'll have to wait until the problem happens again. But, I did have an opportunity to have the repair tech troubleshoot an intermittent VOR. Turns out that repairing the VOR was a simple fix which involved simply re-soldering a ground wire.
While the repair tech worked on my avionics, I had a lengthy conversation with an older pilot who turned out to be the grandfather of the 17 year old high school girl who I had followed into the airport. Her family had come to the airport to watch her solo. She initially planned to attend the Air Force Academy, but when she found out that she had to wait another year to qualify for a Congressional nomination she visited Embry-Riddle, in Florida. Embry-Riddle, also know as "The Harvard of the Sky" specializes in aviation and aerospace engineering. Her grandfather told me it was a no-brainer for her. It looks like her future holds a career in aviation.