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Leg 11

Alta Floresta in Brazil to Rio De Janeiro. 23rd April 2003

I've recently experienced some problems with my joystick and today, it finally decided to work again so I got ready to head to Antonio C. Jobim International Airport in Rio De Janeiro. After my experience with the last two airports I'd landed at, I wanted a big airport with runway lights, Air Traffic Control and all the facilities that an airport could offer! This seemed like the best bet.

I packed my bermuda shorts because having seen all the photos of Rio, I wanted to be prepared for a heavy duty tan and all those bikini clad ladies on the beach!!

I dialled in the destination to the GPS navigation system and at 14.57 local time, I took off. Small point for FS2002 users here: Although Alta Floresta has a control tower (but no runway lights - see the last leg!), there was no taxi-line offered when I requested to taxi to the runway. The sky was pretty much clear and having checked my fuel range, I decided that I could afford to cruise at 5,000 feet for the usual screenshot availability that altitude affords.

To be honest, I subsequently found out that my route was to take me over the Brazilian rain forests, leaving me little but trees and two of Brazil's major rivers to look at. I consoled myself with the fact that I'd recently installed some add-on scenery for Rio and, not having looked at it when I did so, I was looking forward to seeing the results. In the absence of much else to do, I settled back and watched the activity of the other aircraft in my vicinity.

As many FS2002 users will know, A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) aircraft lose their Instrument Flight Rules flightplans with astonishing regularity after failing to achieve the requested altitude. I randomly locked my TCAS radar onto a Delta jet flying at roughly 23,000 feet. At this point, I heard Air Traffic Control talking to this aircraft assigning it to an altitude of FL300 (30,000 feet). I then watched in astonishment as it climbed at a ridiculous rate, at one point achieving a climb rate of over 12,000 feet per minute!! Apart from this being impossible, (it was a `heavy` jet), it also resulted in an over climb to nearly 35,000 feet before the aircraft lost the vertical speed and once again descended like a rock to try and achieve 30,000 feet, overshooting yet again. Needless to say, the result of this roller coaster ride was loss of the flight plan, not to mention a hefty bill for Delta to replace sick bags I'd imagine!!

As the Sun set, I was aware that I was still hours from Rio. I wasn't unduly concerned as I decided that this would give me the opportunity for some night shots of Rio and I could collect the day shots when I departed for my next leg. You'd have thought that I'd have learnt by now not to assume anything..

The flight progressed uneventfully. Some 500nm for Rio, the air traffic started increasing as I entered the more inhabited area of the country. I was nicely relaxed contemplating my impending shots of Rio when the fog closed in. I mean really closed in. Blanket zero visibility stuff. Hey ho, I thought. Perhaps it will clear before I arrive and even if it doesn't, I'll have the autopilot to guide me in this time. 

Some time later, I crossed the time line heading West. With adjustments for British Summer Time, this put me only 3 hours behind my local time. The temperature by now was -2 degrees C, leaving me thinking that the previously packed beachware wasn't going to be needed!

With about a 100nm to go, I was preparing to set the aircraft up for arrival when the fog cleared Magnificent! Screenshots after all! A further 20nm on, it returned. Not quite as bad as before, but still VERY bad. As the flight progressed it once again deteriorated to zero visibility. With 70nm to go, I began my descent. This was a short lived experience!! As I approached 3,500 feet, my Radar altimeter (R.A.) activated. For those that don't know, this gauge shows your actual height above the ground as opposed to your height above sea level registered in the normal altimeter. I watched the needle on the R.A. swing round at an alarming rate to record the ever narrowing gap between myself and the ground. I was forced to climb. I went back to 4,000 feet. The needle still turned. I eventually ended up back at 5,000 feet with little more that 350 feet clearance.

I was starting to worry. Seriously worry. The airport is at an elevation of only 28 feet above sea level. I was less than 50nm from it, couldn't see a thing apart from the nose of the Baron, and my low fuel warning light was blinking red at me. Some quick calculations told me that I couldn't safely negotiate more than one attempt at this landing without risking the possibility of empty tanks. By now I should have been much lower than I was in order to set up a decent autopilot approach.

I was left with no choice but to hold my altitude and watch the radar altimeter, nervously praying for that darn needle to start climbing so that I could descend. With only 35nm to play with, the needle abruptly span around telling me I had adequate ground clearance to descend. I plunge the Baron down chasing my desired altitude of 2,500 feet whilst trying to follow A.T.C.'s vectors for the approach. In the course of doing this, I banked left instead of right. FS2002 then decided to tease me by dissipating the fog to give me a great view of Rio and a deep sigh of relief. This is the last screenshot you'll see before I landed as I was WAY too busy to take any and frankly, I was too concerned about getting the Baron down to be worried about them. This was followed 2 minutes later by a sinking feeling in my stomach as it returned. Zero again. Nothing but grey - absolutely nothing.

It took me over 5 minutes of flying time before I realised I was flying in completely the wrong direction. I swiftly banked the Baron around and headed back on my vectored course. The fuel gauge was approaching critical levels now and I knew for certain that there was only going to be one chance at this landing.

As I turned on to final  engaged the APR button on the autopilot and let it bank me steeply to align with the runway., I'd completely messed up the turn and was way off course. I decreased the range of the GPS to watch how the autopilot coped with attaining the glideslope. In simple terms - it didn't. I was evidently too far off course for the autopilot to cope with the adjustment. At this point, I panicked. I couldn't see a thing, and all I now had to go on was the VOR and the GPS. I confess I completely lost it here. Between trying to line the aircraft up correctly, get the glideslope right, deal with A.T.C. and worry about another aircraft that was apparently in front of me number 1 for landing, I simply failed to cope.

I swung too far too and passed the runway threshold (as reported by the GPS) too far to the left. More to the point, I was now at a radar altitude of about 20 feet and I still couldn't see the ground or any runway lights (even though they were pretty much right next to me).

I got the Baron above the runway as far as the GPS was concerned and cut the throttles. I descended. 15 feet....10 feet...5 feet....I still couldn't see ANYTHING which convinced me that despite what the GPS was telling me, there was no way I could above the runway. I slammed the throttles open just as, at about 3 feet, the runway lights finally came into view. Too late however. I bounced nicely off the tarmac and started to climb back into grey nothingness. At this point, I was now heading off to the right of the runway as my original course correction hadn't been accurate.

I banked hard left, shut down the throttles again and peered through the windshield at the grey. I have no idea how much I'd climbed before this course correction and I'd pretty much abandoned the instruments apart from the GPS. My next visual of the runway was simultaneous with the large thud as my undercarriage hit it. I bounced again, but not too far this time and the Baron finally coasted down between the now visible border lights of the runway. I applied the brakes and sat at my P.C. staring at the screen breathing heavily. 

The thoughts that this landing could easily have resulted in a terminal crash ending my RTW flight, coupled with the fact that I'd got so immersed in it, that it had seemed almost real, left me quite shaken!

Air Traffic Control blithely requested that I leave the runway at the first opportunity as if nothing had happened. Fortunately, Antonio C. Jobim had a taxiway that split off in front of me at an angle of only about 5 degrees from the runway. I entered it and requested the progressive taxi pink line to guide me. It's the first time I can recall that I've been grateful that Microsoft made it so gaudy. I could barely se the taxiway lights and I'd have been all over the place without it. 

I set my taxi speed at only 10 knots. I could hear other aircraft taxiing close to me but I didn't even get a glimpse of them. This did nothing to reduce the sweat factor on my brow. The prospect that I might terminate this flight with a taxi crash prodded me like a tormenting imp.

To cut this short, I eventually made it, but it took me 15 minutes of taxiing before I arrived at my parking spot!

I have never been so pleased to save a flight before.

On a slightly off topic comment, it taught me something though. In the real world as a passenger in a real aircraft, I'd have been sat in the passenger cabin oblivious to all the activity I experienced as a virtual pilot. Two things would have happened in real life:

1) We'd have landed safely.

2) The pilot would have been in complete control.

Pilots undergo massive amounts of training to fly passenger aircraft and it's in circumstances like the above that we reap the benefits. Obviously a real world pilot would have had charts to warn him of the surrounding altitude. He'd have been flying IFR and been vectored in by ATC. He'd have been better warned about the weather. But nevertheless, my admiration for the ladies and gentleman who perform these landings as a day to day routine task  have my unending admiration. It's so easy to forget how difficult their task can be and how easy they make it appear. 

My hat goes off to all real world pilots to whom this leg is now dedicated.

Screenshots

1) Ready to Go!

2) And we're away.

3) Climbing over the Brazilian landscape.

4) About to cross the Rio Xingu.

5) The Brazilian rain forests.

6) It's going to be well dark by the time I get to Rio.

7) The Sun setting.

8) More sunset.

9) Night falls over the Rio Araguaia.

10) Last sight of the Sun.

11) Starry night and all looks great..for_now.....

12) 500nm from Rio and the TCAS is starting to get busy.

13) Errr......

14) The fog disappears at last.

15) Spoke to soon.

16) 31nm from the airport and it isn't looking good - note the low fuel warning light...

17) It clears again on base leg.

18) Expletives deleted!!

19) Taxiing through the sounds (but not sights) of other aircraft.

20) The GPS tells the story of the disastrous final approach.

21) 15 minutes after landing - the parking spot. Lemme out of here!!!

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Source code and graphics J.Consterdine 2003