Rushed plan­ning leads to a close en­counter of the un­wanted kind

Pilot - - CONTENTS - By ‘Anon’

Fly­ing a route that is fa­mil­iar can lead to com­pacency and has con­se­quences

In fly­ing, fa­mil­iar­ity breeds not con­tempt, as the proverb has it, but po­ten­tially it can breed com­pla­cency. Be­cause some­thing has al­ways worked suc­cess­fully, we tend to be­lieve it will again — de­spite our ab­so­lute knowl­edge to the con­trary, if we re­ally think about it. One only need con­sider our old friend and en­emy the weather, which can make all the dif­fer­ence be­tween suc­cess and fail­ure: un­der its in­flu­ence the self­same jour­ney can, even in the space of an hour or less, go from en­tranc­ing to night­mar­ish.

Yet even with all such vari­ables taken into con­sid­er­a­tion, there are still traps to fall into, even for the su­per-cau­tious, in which cat­e­gory I would nor­mally place my­self. For me, flight plan­ning was para­mount; not only hav­ing a good ba­sic plan, but equally vi­able al­ter­na­tives to cover the what-ifs, when things didn’t turn out as ex­pected.

I was also al­ways some­what ob­ses­sive about look­ing out of the win­dows — af­ter all, you can look at a screen at home at much less cost — and screens don’t (or didn’t) tell you ev­ery­thing you might hit if you ne­glect that much-needed good look­out. The trend to­wards ‘head down, look­ing in’ al­ways wor­ried me. Equally, if there was no good rea­son to speak on the ra­dio, I didn’t. Of course I did so if it was re­motely likely to make my jour­ney or any­one else’s the small­est frac­tion safer, but if, as so of­ten, there might be not the slight­est gain but rather the re­verse: why clog up the chan­nels and con­trollers’ desks un­nec­es­sar­ily? My maxim was to lis­ten con­stantly and an­a­lyt­i­cally — even be­ing pre­pared to ask my passengers to be quiet, if it was nec­es­sary to keep my­self in the pic­ture, but trans­mit as lit­tle as pos­si­ble.

My opin­ion was, I ad­mit, coloured by one or two se­rial com­pul­sive ra­dio-hog­gers at my first home base. To hear them over the air, bang­ing on and on, would leave me em­bar­rassed, an­gry and more than ever de­ter­mined to re­main silent if I could. “Would you kindly as­sist me, sir, with a check on the fre­quency of Ran­dom-in-the-Weeds as they ap­pear not to be an­swer­ing my po­si­tion re­ports,” one would wit­ter. “Could you oblige me with the lat­est Grims­ditch weather ma’am,” from an­other. “Look it up be­fore you take off, you twerp,” I and no doubt the con­trollers would want to scream. In France they are gen­er­ally much hap­pier not to hear an English voice, per­haps with some good rea­son, given th­ese ex­am­ples, so once again if you can plan to avoid con­trolled airspace, then ‘lis­ten out — say nowt’ has nor­mally worked well for me. The im­por­tant part of that sen­tence of course is ‘if you can plan to avoid con­trolled airspace’. My story shows that even a fas­tid­i­ous flight plan­ner can get caught out in the most sur­pris­ing fash­ion by fa­mil­iar­ity.

Some years ago now, I found my­self fly­ing quite of­ten, al­ways VFR, to an air­field just in the French Alps. Apart from the last few miles, which were un­be­liev­ably spec­tac­u­lar and ex­hil­a­rat­ing, the route was es­sen­tially a straight­for­ward tra­ver­sal of re­mark­ably empty coun­try­side, us­ing a chart with ra­dio aids as a back-up. The track cho­sen from Le Tou­quet ticked all my pref­er­ence boxes, keep­ing clear of ev­ery­where and ev­ery­thing, and pro­vided an un­event­ful and quiet flight, time af­ter time. One con­ve­nient VOR was sit­u­ated on a large and prom­i­nent dis­used air­field.

Fast for­ward a few sum­mers and I had cause to fly to south-west France. Plan­ning the track and the as­so­ci­ated es­cape routes, there was that friendly VOR on the dis­used again, just nicely placed for a small course change on our way south. Now you would think that an ul­tra-care­ful flight plan­ner might have taken on board that, while the old fa­mil­iar track passed to the east of Paris, this one tra­versed de­cid­edly west — but he didn’t. Nor did he, with all the con­fi­dence of fa­mil­iar­ity, ex­am­ine the chart more closely to be cer­tain of other sim­i­lar­i­ties he had taken for granted.

To re­main up to date and le­gal, it might have been that I only bought the chart I was us­ing for that trip at Lydd or even Le Tou­quet, so that my line draw­ing might have been a rapid ex­er­cise. How­ever, this would of­fer only the very slimmest of ex­cuses for what fol­lowed… and any­way the pre­vi­ous edi­tion used for my ‘metic­u­lous’ pre-plan­ning would have had the same cru­cial in­for­ma­tion on it, so it’s no real de­fence. I would like to think that it was the case although in truth I can’t re­mem­ber. If it was a brand new chart, it only adds an ad­di­tional les­son to be learned — never be hur­ried in any as­pect of your flight plan­ning.

As it hap­pened, I wasn’t fly­ing the leg ap­proach­ing the VOR in ques­tion. In fact, be­cause of a pos­si­ble later de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in the weather fur­ther south, and with plenty of fuel on board, we had elected to press on and save the time which would be con­sumed by mak­ing a com­fort stop. My wife there­fore flew the whole 4hr 20min leg, which would be a record for us, and so she was the one who would get the ad­mon­i­tory let­ter from the CAA, an­other (un­wanted) mile­stone. I was merely the nav­i­ga­tor who caused the prob­lem.

As we neared the VOR we had sev­eral sight­ings of traf­fic. This was some­what un­usual in that lo­ca­tion but nor­mal enough in the grand scheme of things. Then as the dis­used re­solved it­self in the wind­screen, to my hor­ror, it had ev­ery ap­pear­ance of be­ing highly ac­tive. The ex­pected ex­panses of cracked run­way and aprons grow­ing fine crops of weeds were well-sur­faced and marked. Worse, there were neat rows of parked and ag­gres­sive look­ing air­craft. It was in­deed a full-on work­ing Air Force base and we were now ir­re­vo­ca­bly pot­ter­ing through its over­head.

Shortly af­ter, hav­ing — as we vainly hoped — passed by with­out in­ci­dent and with­out any­one hav­ing no­ticed, the sky to my right sud­denly be­came dark, as if we were a small car slowly be­ing over­taken by a jug­ger­naut. This jug­ger­naut was one of the ‘dis­used’ air­field’s mas­sive jet fighter bombers, hov­ing along­side to check our reg­is­tra­tion and put on the fright­en­ers — very ef­fec­tively! We tried not to look; cer­tainly not wave. He went away. So did we. If an air­craft could slink, ours did.

The let­ter came. I at­tempted to take the blame. We both apol­o­gised and the mat­ter was closed, and we were very for­tu­nate. Af­ter this story, I don’t ex­pect any­one to be­lieve my open­ing claims that my flight plan­ning re­ally was nor­mally metic­u­lous, but I re­main thor­oughly con­vinced that if such an in­ci­dent could hap­pen to me, some­thing sim­i­lar could be­fall pretty much any­one. I cer­tainly learned about fly­ing from that…

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