By Mike Magnell
It is a law of nature on this planet that the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. There is also the law of Murphy, which states with certainty that in aviation, if something can go wrong it probably will. Recently, I had the misfortune of being at the intersection of these two laws.
In the pre-dawn darkness of five in the morning, I departed straight-out from Santa Barbara airport’s runway 25 in a Panther Navajo. This was a ferry flight bound for Hilo, Hawaii, so the Navajo was loaded with a lot of fuel. After 45 minutes of flying, I was unable to contact San Francisco ARINC on my portable HF radio. This meant the trip was off, so I turned back to Santa Barbara.
The weather was clear and a million, and by now the sun was just coming up in the east. I had the Santa Barbara airport in sight, and Los Angeles Center had cleared me for a visual to any runway I wanted. I knew if I chose the convenient straight-in approach to runway 7, the glare from the sun could be a battle for me. However, I decided on the straight-in anyway, and rationalized it by telling myself that I would use the ILS to that runway if things got a little dicey.
As I approached the airport, I could not make out the runway because of the now intense glare from the sun. It was as if the runway was totally blocked from my view, so I programmed the autopilot to intercept the ILS approach. It captured the localizer in short order, and tracked inbound. At that point I looked outside for the runway and saw, with absolute certainty, the runway a little to the right of course. I assumed that the autopilot was not functioning correctly (I had very little time in this particular plane and never used this autopilot for any approach before), so I disconnected it and continued on, hand flying, towards what I was firmly convinced was the runway.
Believe me, as I sit here now writing this, it is hard for me to swallow that I was completely sold on the idea that what I was looking at was my landing runway. In reality, it was parallel taxiway A, on the south side of runway 7. However, I must say that from what I was seeing through the glare-filled windshield, it was an easy sell! The blinding sun had totally skewed my picture of the airport, but it was insidious, because I didn't realize how bad the situation was. I was thoroughly convinced I had the runway in sight after the autopilot put me on final, which is why I never checked the raw data ILS information again. By now, my mindset had convinced me that taxiway A was my landing runway -- and once my mind is set, it takes a good, jolting outside stimulus to change that thought process.
While on approach, I could see a very bright shiny spot on the runway, like maybe the sun glaring off an aircraft, so I asked tower if there was an aircraft on runway. Their reply was no, but one was taxiing. I wasn't sure exactly what the controller meant by that comment, but figured I would find out what that shiny spot was when I got closer. Probably just a puddle of water or something, I reasoned. Closing in on what I thought was the threshold at about 300 feet, I could finally tell that the shiny spot was one of those small RJ commuter jets, because it was now at the end of the taxiway and turning broadside to me. I was still so convinced that I was lined up for the runway that I thought the RJ was incurring on my runway.
Just then, the RJ pilot transmitted something colorful, and I think the controller may have too. That urgent radio call was the jolting outside stimulus that finally pulled me back to reality, and I hastily went around.
Once safely on climb out, tower calmly cleared me for another approach to runway 7. Briefly reflecting on the nearly disastrous trouble I just had with that approach, I declined, asking instead for runway 25 -- and adding to the request a lament that I could not see runway 7.
When I turned final for 25, I could hardly believe the difference. I could see everything perfectly, as if I was looking through young 20-year-old eyes again, instead of my 58-year-old eyeballs (which still put out 20/20, with a little help from glasses). I now realized how much the sun had affected my first approach. The glare had not only taken away my ability to pick out the runway, it had also taken away all color -- my picture was pretty much in black and white -- so I could not see any runway or taxiway markings while on that approach.
I would like to offer another related occurrence as anecdotal evidence that I am not just the most screwed-up pilot around, and to show this sort of thing does happen to other experienced pilots. Some years ago when I was flying for a major airline, one of our B727 captains, who was also the ALPA union safety representative, was making a late afternoon approach to one of the west runways at Atlanta in hazy conditions. He mistook a taxiway for the landing runway just like I did, only there were about 15 or 20 airliners lined up on that taxiway waiting for their turn to takeoff. When he finally saw them and realized what he had done, he commenced a go around from two hundred feet above and right over the top of the elephant line of nose-to-tail airliners. This was pretty much a carbon copy of what happened to me, and keep in mind that there are always three pilots in the cockpit of a B727 -- yet this still happened!
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the awful consequences as we hypothetically tweak these two scenarios to say the plane on the taxiway was just out of sight at midfield. If this sort of near miss can happen to me, an experienced pilot with many safe years and hours of flying, I believe it can happen to most anyone under the right set of circumstances.
From now on I will take the approach without the sun, if there is a choice -- even if it is not the most convenient. What I hope you will take away from my humbling and embarrassing experience is that when the center of our solar system is just above the horizon, Beware of East-West Runways!
Michael Magnell is former Delta Airlines Captain with over 12,000 hours. He is also typed for single pilot operation of the Cessna Citation 500 Jet. As chief pilot for TransOceanic Aircraft Ferry Services (transoceanicferry.com), Mike has completed several trips across both ponds in high performance single engine GA aircraft. Mike has also brokered/consulted on many airplane deals worldwide, with both foreign and domestic representatives.