“Fly The Plate and You Won’t Get Hurt”

 - August 1, 2012, 4:25 AM
The approach plate had been drawn from a survey that contained a significant error.

The weather at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. on the night of July 13, 2008 was 1,100 overcast, one-and-a-half miles visibility with moderate rain, and wind calm. Albany approach control vectored us for a GPS approach to Runway 5. We intercepted the inbound course toward the airport. On our descent, all altitudes and altimeters coincided with the information on the approach plate. Before reaching minimums, my co-captain called, “Runway in sight, twelve o’clock.” I responded, “Going visual.” Looking up, I saw the runway was dead on at 12 o’clock. Before going visual, all indications on the flight director were centered and exactly where I wanted them. My co-captain called, “Ref plus thirteen,” then immediately called, “Trees! Pull up, pull up.” I simultaneously went to max power and rotated to a 15-degree deck angle. The aircraft hit a pine tree and, we learned later, cut eight feet off its top. I still had the runway in sight, and after making a quick scan of the panel I replied, “We have good gear indication, and pressure is up; I plan on landing.” My co-captain replied, “I concur.”

Visual inspection after landing revealed substantial damage to the left wing of the Learjet 45. We learned later we had made the right decision to land from the approach and not attempt a go-around. The left flap was damaged severely enough that flap retraction on the go-around would likely have resulted in a split-flap condition that could have been catastrophic so close to the ground.

I lay awake most of the night, flying the approach over in my mind. I knew the aircraft was exactly where it should have been on the entire approach. I thought back on how many approaches I had made in my career, approaches such as NDBs that required the most skill of all approaches, and never having any problems. What went wrong? Finally, at three o’clock in the morning, I told myself that I had flown the approach as published, and it was the approach that had to be flawed.

A few days after I had given the FAA all the pertinent information it needed, I received a letter from the Albany FSDO stating that while I would not be subject to any enforcement action, the incident gave the agency reason to believe that re-examination of my airman competency was necessary under Title 49 United States Code Section 44709, which would require me to take a check ride with an FAA examiner. I answered the letter and followed up with a phone call to the FAA inspector who issued the letter, explaining that I had just completed a check ride three months earlier, that I had flown the GPS approach to Runway 5 at Saratoga Springs precisely as published, and that I was convinced the approach was flawed and should be checked. I also stated that by agreeing to take the check ride I would be admitting pilot error. The inspector said, “You can work that out with your local FSDO, and whatever they decide will be fine with me. I just have to clear my plate.”

Five days later, with temporary repairs completed and a ferry permit in hand, we were ready to fly the aircraft back to Nashville. The weather on departure was severe clear, with not a cloud in the sky. We called Albany Approach on departure and made a request to fly the GPS Runway 5 approach. They gave us vectors almost exactly like those we had received on the night of the incident. We intercepted the inbound course outside the IAF and continued the approach. I started the descent with reference to our glideslope indication, just as I had on the night of the incident. I wanted to maintain the three degrees as published on the approach plate. When we were approximately two miles from the runway it was clear we should no longer proceed: three degrees, if maintained, was going to put us into the tops of the trees. I broke off the approach and initiated a climb. Albany Approach cleared us on course and we departed.

After talking to some of my pilot friends back in Nashville–some of them instructors, one a certified engineer–I became convinced the approach was flawed. One of my friends, the engineer, took all the data from the approach plate and the data I had given him and came to this conclusion: a stabilized approach in a Learjet 45 at the weight we were the night of the incident, maintaining Vref+10 on descent for an approach at a three-degree glideslope with calm wind would make for a descent rate of 650 fpm and a descent gradient of 325 feet per nautical mile. Continuing the approach from the VDP to the runway at this rate for 1.2 miles would put the aircraft at 43 feet above the threshold. This was the profile we had flown on the night of the incident.

With this data in hand, I talked to the FAA Flight Standards Office in Oklahoma City, filed a user report on Saratoga Springs Airport and requested a Terps analysis and a flight check of the GPS Runway 5 approach. I called the FAA Hotline in Washington, reported the incident and told them I thought the approach was flawed and should be checked. I then took the data to the Nashville FSDO and met with two of their inspectors. After checking that data, one of the inspectors said, “Jim, if this data is correct, have you thought about a takeoff on Runway 23 having a problem?” (The Runway 23 departure was listed as a standard departure.) “No,” I replied. “I have enough to do with the incident on Runway 5, let alone Runway 23.”

Later, I had my engineering friend run the data for departing on Runway 23 in the Learjet 45. Using the FAA criteria for obstacle clearance, power failure on one engine after V1 and continuing the takeoff, accelerating to rotation speed, rotating, climbing at V2, crossing the end of the runway at 35 feet and maintaining a climb rate of 250 feet per nautical mile, the aircraft would hit the same tree, but at a much thicker part of its trunk, 84 feet lower than the height at which we had topped it. (The FAA will base a hazard decision on any departure requiring a climb gradient of more than 200 feet per nautical mile.) The data showed that a climb gradient of 350 feet per nautical mile would be required for the Learjet 45 to clear the tree 1,166 feet from the end of Runway 23, and even then it would clear the timber by a mere two feet. Under the same conditions, if the aircraft yawed by five degrees to the right it would hit much taller trees even at a climb gradient of 350 feet per nautical mile.

The FAA swung into action, and things began to happen. On August 6, Notams were issued prohibiting any and all approaches at Saratoga Springs Airport at night until further notice. On August 15, Notams were issued prohibiting the GPS approaches to Runways 5 and 23 and the VOR DME A approach at night until further notice. On September 4, a Notam was issued prohibiting the GPS approaches to Runways 5 and 23 at any time. On September 9 I received information from the FAA that it intended to prohibit GPS approaches to Runways 5 and 23 until the procedure was changed. This Notam remained in effect for eight months. The agency also marked 15 trees that had to be removed before it could reinstate authorization for the approach procedures to be flown. On September 10 an FAA inspector told me that the procedure for the GPS Runway 5 approach had been drawn using a 1990 survey that contained a 500-foot error. The 47-foot threshold crossing height should have been 500 feet farther down the runway, and several trees on that approach penetrated the obstacle clear line, some by as much as 80 feet. Three were more than 100 feet tall.

The insurance company carrying the policy for our aircraft conducted its own investigation, and its findings were startling. The factual summary stated: “Mr. Huddleston, the captain of the flight in question, was guaranteed by certification criteria a 20:1 obstacle clearance slope until the VDP (visual descent point) and a 34:1 obstacle clearance slope from the VDP to the runway threshold. A pilot flying a GPS approach with a VDP on the published approach plate is assured this margin of obstacle clearance. The subsequent tree survey showed the tree [that the aircraft struck] extended well into the 20:1 glideslope far in excess of the 34:1 required by this type of approach. The VDP feature of this type of approach assures the pilot that a 34:1 slope from the VDP to the runway threshold is free of obstructions.”

The insurance company’s consulting firm wrote a seven-page summary of its findings. The condensed version stated, “The pilots met all requisite FARs for a legal and safe flight and executed a proper GPS approach that contained a VDP terrain clearance component, and the airport authority did not maintain the requisite obstacle clearance required by FARs and New York’s DOT, causing penetration of trees into the protected zone around the airport property, which directly led to the incident.”

Documents provided by Saratoga County showed that every runway and every approach had trees penetrating the Obstacle Clear Line, and documents proved that these discrepancies were known about as far back as 1999. One document dated September 1999 stated, “Obstruction analysis study of Runway 5 identified ‘numerous penetrations’ to the approach surfaces, both on and off airport, and determined that ‘to maintain a clear 20:1 approach surface, the Runway 5 threshold would have to be displaced 946.5 feet’ [almost twice the 500 feet calculated initially].” Numerous documents and emails from the Saratoga County Department of Public Works and New York’s DOT were written between September 1999 and (more than two months after our incident) October 2008 addressing the issues, but no action was taken.

Two years earlier, in April 2006, one email stated: “FAA flyover inspection shutdown VASI on Runway 05. Flight Inspection Report states, ‘Obstacle clearance unsatisfactory due to trees near threshold.’” While no one took any action, these trees were growing at a rate of three to five feet per year. From September 1999, when obstacle issues were first identified, until the night of our incident on July 13, 2008, not a single tree on the approach to Runway 5 was topped or removed. An August 2008 email from NY DOT about the results of its inspection stated: “RWY 05-Trees +89’, 1035’ from RWY end, 9:1 slope.”

My main objective in writing this article is that it will prevent anyone from flying under the false impression that as long as you “fly the plate” you are protected. That might have been the case back in the good old days before we became so automated. Back then, all instrument approaches were flight checked. I have instructed and typed numerous pilots in Learjets, and for more years than I would like to admit I have preached to them, “Fly the plate and you won’t get hurt.” I quit preaching that on the night of July 13, 2008.

I wanted to write this article immediately after the FAA had verified the approach was flawed and prohibited the approaches because of tree penetrations, but ongoing litigation did not allow me to. I can only hope that similar incidents have not occurred in the interim.


Some years ago I upgraded my Baron 58 with WAAS (CNX 80 ... later called the Garmin 480). I was one of the first to have WAAS. I'll never forget flying the GPS 26 approach into DXR. I coupled the autopilot, locked on to the "localizer", then the "glideslope", and tracked on in. I wanted to watch my new toy at work.

Can't remember exactly, but the ceiling was around 1500 or so. I broke out of the clouds, saw the runway, and continued. Now there is a well known, and visible, obstacle (antenna tower as I recall) within about half a mile or so of the threshold. As I got closer I could see that if I allowed the autopilot to fly the glidepath we'd hit the obstacle. I was stunned.

Another day I flew the approach again with the same result. I contacted FAA (can't remember exactly who it was) and also mentioned it to some pilots flying and FAA flight check King Air.

After some discussion the bottom line was "fly the approach as charted" and not by using the GPS data coupled with the autopilot. A while later the GPS 26 at DXR (Danbury, CT) disappeared, never to be seen again. I was damn lucky I didn't bend anything.

I hope they didn't make you do the 709 ride after all that.

If you can't trust the plate, what can you trust? I believe you said you were visual after the VDP, and get the impression the trees were very hard to see. Is there a procedure that can help?

Jim was my former Chief Pilot from 2000-2003 and I can unequivocally state that you can take what Jim Huddleston says to the bank. He has been flying Learjets for more years than I've been alive and his knowledge of the plane is amazing. He is a true gentleman and I'm proud to say I worked for him and learned from him. Great story, Jim. I'm glad it worked out.

Amazing to me with all the emphasis on flight safety that the first course of action was to request the pilot take a "check" ride rather than investigating the report from the pilot. I only hope that the FSDO's in the northwest are more intelligent and safety conscious. I trust the insurance company will prosecute a successful law suit.

Now there's a statement. Intelligent and safety in the same sentence as FSDO. Maybe if they had people with experience that wanted to actually promote safety instead of trying to play bad cop all the time there might actually be something good accomplished within the FAA. Thank goodness nobody was hurt on these approaches.

It seems from two anecdotal incidents in the article & reply that the IAP Charts are no longer to be trusted. Perhaps someone needs to fly these IAP's in VMC to verify that they are safe before using them IMC.

That's what the FAA's "Flight Check" aircraft do. They flight check the instrument approach procedures in visual conditions to ensure they're ok.

Tom, is that what you're saying? That we should never plan to go to a new airport and use the instrument approach in actual conditions? That's ridiculous. The instrument approach exists as a safe way to approach the airport without visual reference. What about the required alternates with an instrument flight plan? We should now fly to not only the desired destination but all possible alternates and all using all possible approaches in VMC prior to embarking on a flight in instrument conditions? That's not only ridiculous, it's virtually impossible. Get realistic. The FAA is responsible for keeping instrument approaches within their own obstacle clearance parameters. Period.

Brian, he is saying they should be flight checked in VMC, not that every pilot should do so for every destination.

First of all, this is NOT a precision approach, so when the OP mentions a glide slope, it's only advisory, and had NOT been flight checked, nor is it's accuracy known.

And the BIG thing, is that the advisory GS is worth NOTHING below the minimums, so it's up to the pilot to maneuver the plane to avoid obstacles VISUALLY, when below mins and approaching the runway.

So, I suspect the tree that was his was on the glide path that was not only NOT AUTHORIZE, but never flight checked!

So, I'd argue strongly to eliminate these "advisory glide slopes" and fly the approach as a dive a drive, like it was designed. So, if the tree was hit below the 860 mins or 426 foot above the airport, the pilot did NOT fly the procedure correctly.

Food for thought.

The thing is Larry - using an SCDA approach on a step down (drive and dive) approach is often authorized and permitted. My airline even allows us to do it two ways: VS mode and VNAV mode.

For an SCDA approach to be used, it must of course never violate any of the minimums at any point. I am sure that the OP flew in a manner that never violated any of the step-down minimums - so technically, he still shot the same approach.

Now, he did hit the tree below minimums, but only because he had the airport in sight and declared he was continuing. Certainly he should not be expected to fly at the minimums until runway threshold, then attempt a landing. And, with a night time approach using the SCDA method, I would argue that the safest course would to be to continue on the angle prescribed (hence why SCDA approaches have flight-path angle limitations.) This would prevent any visio-spatial illusions.

I would be curious, though, to see the flight-path angle that this setup caused the aircraft to fly.

Did you still have to fly the check flight?
Were the trees ever removed or was the approach ever changed?
And please... Please explain the litigation that is apparently now concluded. Please don't leave us hanging... This is obviously a serious problem. What were the real outcomes?

What Cook said... ^^^

Very interesting read. However, may I ask: if the approach flown was according to the plate, why did this issue not affect other aircraft arriving at this airport. I am unfamiliar with the aerodrome, so is it that not many jets use this runway? Was there something different you did on the approach? Or are other arriving pilots just familiar with the area and purposely fly above the GS?

Now glad that GPS approaches are not authorised in Europe.


There were no jets based there at the time. We were told the locals come in

intentionally high and “chop it and drop it.” Some pilots who knew about the problem

used RW 23 when possible, because we were told after the incident, the trees were not

as tall on RW 23. The other possibility is no one had these three ingredients at the

same time: night time, one and a half mile visibility, and moderate rain.

Posted from Jim Huddleston ...

I can assure you the approach was flown precisely as depicted on the approach plate.The PIC was aware that this was not a precision approach, however the advisory glide-slope should be used in your scan. The aircraft was on a stabilized approach. All crossing altitudes and minimums were adhered to. After going visual, no changes were made to the stabilized approach. This PIC has never flown the "Dive and Drive" profile.

He has flown stabilized approaches his entire career; that is how he flew 56 years and 30,000 plus hours without ever putting a dent on an aircraft. It's hard to maneuver a plane through trees that penetrate the "Clear Fly Zone" by more than eighty feet, especially at night with moderate rain and one and a half mile visibility. The approach plate on the night of the incident clearly showed the shaded arrow between the VDP and TCH indicating the pilot was guaranteed a 34:1 obstacle clearance slope. The survey during the investigation showed a 9:1 would be required.

To give you a better perspective, the error of 946.5 feet from the eighteen year old survey would have equated to a TCH of 96.5 feet at the published TCH instead of 46 feet. Big difference.

If your theory was correct, the FAA would have taken action against the pilot, ruled the incident pilot error, not conducted a TERP's analysis, not de-commissioned the approach for eight months, and left the fifteen trees standing until someone was fatally injured.


Cooke and Jared,

No, the pilot did not take a 709 check. The approach was de-commissioned for eight months and all fifteen trees were cut to the ground. A settlement was reached after four years and it never went to trial.

“Numerous documents and emails from the Saratoga County Department of Public Works and New York’s DOT were written between September 1999 and (more than two months after our incident) October 2008 addressing the issues, but no action was taken.” In New York, you can bet your bottom dollar, as well as your FAA license and life insurance policy, that some clueless, environmentalist, Leftist whack-job was responsible for refusing to cut down or top those trees. Liberals and Progressives are dangerous to your health and should be treated accordingly.

Absolutely. Or maybe it could be any of the right-leaning rich conservative types that make up the other half of the region and get all bent out of shape about sharing the area with an airport that was there before they were. Lighten up, Francis.

There is nothing partisan about this conversation. There are of conservative folks in the rural countryside who object to their trees being trimmed on utility right-of-ways.

I know, because my former employer was sued for damages, for a contracted job. It's not worth it for small business owners either.

We have now got an almost complete film story, better and more exciting than the last few movies I have seen. The inadequate response of the FAA is the sort of thing that has filled at least two books written by a lawyer named Philip Lawrence (I think) about Common Sense which our government ,both parties needs badly.

As a CFI-I who has been active since 1967, I read Jim's story with particular interest. In all my years of flying, I have never heard of an incident quite like this one. Jim is obviously a very experienced and competent pilot, and to have an unblemished record potentially soiled by this trap is eye opening. I can't think of one reasonable action that Jim could have taken that would have prevented this occurrence.

However, one of the previous contributors stated that some of the local pilots knew about the problems the trees created. Certainly, anyone who conducted a practice GPS approach making reference to the VDP in VFR daylight conditions should have noticed the hazard. A heads up to the FAA probably would have fixed the problem before anyone bent metal. The FAA will always miss something, and some local government agencies will continue to short change aviation, but if we pilots look out for each other, it could make a big difference.

I encourage Jim to publish his story in the AOPA Pilot to spread the word.

One of the things that my Dad (he flew from 1935 to 1988), said to me 44 years ago, the day I got my ticket was: "NEVER EVER TRUST ANYONE OR ANYTHING TO DO WHAT YOU SHOULD DO" I can remember MANY times that if I would have been "just following procedure" I would not have made it to retirement age! Aircraft do not care HOW they get to the ground....BUT they WILL get to the ground. You have to make sure it is when and when you want it to!

The approach plate image associated with this article is of amdt 1B issued 05April12... Why? Certainly the approach has been modified as a result of Mr. Huddleston's misfortune and diligence. We could learn more if given an image of the approach as it had been at the time of the incident; more still if given the chance to compare the before and after images.

I like to add , it is know or should be when shooting a VIS approch you dont fellow the VIS glide slope in the aircraft for if you do most of the time you end up to low I asked flight safety and the answer was the VIS approch will not give you protection of hitting something so use the vasi or lights do not trust the basic VIS with a glide slope the aircraft uses I have heard more the a few time guys flying the VIS and see wow we are to low but my glide slope is right on and they see the lights all red but their aircraft glade slop says they are to high . This is why the FAA says a VIS is you flying VIS and not using the made up glide slope the aircraft puts out . Just passing the word to other pilots . I know this is differnt than what happened to the guys on the GPS approch that's was just not good what happen to them they did everything correct . I just thought this was a good one to bring up for us pilots to think about when shooting a VIS approch thinking the box is setup for a VIS I will just fly the box to the runway just please remember that glade slope on that VIS from the box is no protection from obstacles like a ILS and from some reason a lot of pilots I talk to think differnt but I have seen for myself and talk to others that this is bad thinking .

Were you not using TAW while on the approach?


Posting for Jim …

Yes, the aircraft was equipped with GPWS. Ground Prox. Is designed to warn crews of terrain and man made obstacles. It will not measure the height of a tree.

If you went to visual flying and had the runway "in sight", how were you that far off that you were putting it in the trees? Maybe you did need a check ride. Or a new eye perscription.

It was night with poor visibility and unfamiliar surroundings. But I'm sure with your "Billy the Batman x-ray vision glasses" you would have seen those trees no problem huh? Pilots that think they are perfect and have the attitude nothing will happen to them, due to the over confidence of their less than "adequate"flying skills are pushing up daisies in the graveyard. Sound like you may join them if you don't change your ways. "Karma" can be a B@&$ch!

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