A Stroke of Bad Luck
Flying|December 2020
The attitude indicator chose the worst moment to fail.
PETER GARRISON

In December 2019, a Canadian-registry Piper Aerostar 602P with three aboard left Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico, to return home to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The group stopped overnight at Chino, California, east of Los Angeles—perhaps to visit the aviation museum there—and continued the next day to Nanaimo with a stop at Bishop, California. They left Bishop at 2:25 in the afternoon (1425 PST) on an IFR flight plan.

The trip took a little more than three hours. By the time they were nearing Nanaimo, it was dark, and the airport was reporting a 400-foot ceiling and 2.5 miles visibility in light drizzle and mist. The pilot told the controller that he would be making the Runway 16 ILS approach.

A few minutes later, the pilot asked the controller for weather at Vancouver International Airport, opposite Nanaimo on the mainland side of the Georgia Strait. Vancouver was better: 5 miles in mist, 600 broken, 1,200 overcasts. The controller also passed on a pilot report from an airplane that had landed at Nanaimo 15 minutes earlier; the pilot had seen the approach lights at minimums, 373 feet above the runway elevation.

At 1803 PST, the controller vectoring the Aerostar observed that it had flown through the localizer and was continuing past it on a southwesterly heading. It was then at 2,100 feet and 140 knots. Aware of high terrain to the southwest, the controller asked the pilot whether he still intended to intercept the localizer; the pilot replied that he did and momentarily lined up before again drifting off to the right.

At 1804:03, the pilot told the controller that he “just had a fail” and requested vectors. The controller initially instructed the pilot to make a “tight” left turn to 090 and then, when the pilot asked the controller to repeat the instruction, changed it to a right turn to 360. The pilot acknowledged the heading but continued past it. The airplane climbed to 2,500 feet and slowed to a groundspeed of 80 knots before descending to 1,800 feet and accelerating to 160 knots.

At 1804:40, the pilot reported that he had lost his attitude indicator. The Aerostar was now climbing again and turning to the right. The pilot requested a heading from the controller, who again gave 360.

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