Rushed planning leads to a close encounter of the unwanted kind
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…