Caught out by cloud de­vel­op­ing dur­ing his qual­i­fy­ing solo cross-coun­try, a stu­dent pi­lot dis­cov­ers the value of back-up plans

Pilot - - ILAFFT -

pops into mind “If we have to make a forced land­ing in log­ging coun­try, those tree stumps will tear us apart”. Maori su­per­sti­tion means this re­gion is un­in­hab­ited, span­ning the fault lines be­tween ri­val vol­ca­noes. Does it get less invit­ing...?

Ten­drils of dark cloud keep grab­bing for me and I sense the grim reaper will be fly­ing in for­ma­tion if I per­se­vere. Quick; plan an al­ter­na­tive! A longer leg over lesser ter­rain — Plan B, fum­bling the map for what seems an eter­nity, and my heart is pump­ing. What’s that sober­ing in­dus­try statis­tic? Pri­vate pi­lots av­er­age min­utes to live once en­veloped by cloud, se­duced by the in­evitable dis­ori­en­ta­tion. I set off on the new head­ing, mo­ti­vated but ir­ri­tated at hav­ing been de­railed again.

The de­te­ri­o­ra­tion con­tin­ues but I hear a wel­come crackle on the ra­dio from an­other air­craft track­ing the coast­line ahead: it must be clear. I aban­don for­mal nav­i­ga­tion and point to­wards a vis­i­ble gap on the coast — Plan C. Af­ter a short while, it oc­curs that for the first time I’m not en­tirely sure where I am. I ex­tend a couple of ra­di­als from the two near­est bea­cons to con­firm.

The coast ap­pears as ex­pected and I make a wel­come turn to par­al­lel it, pleased to be able to drop fur­ther from the per­sis­tent cloud. The weather is look­ing really fore­bod­ing at this point, rain­drops in­stantly turn­ing to thou­sands of glassy rivulets that arc back­wards over the canopy in the slip­stream of the pro­pel­ler. To some­one who wouldn’t nor­mally depart in Spe­cial-vfr con­di­tions, this is en­forced learn­ing.

I call up New Plymouth and they squeeze me in front of a tur­bo­prop some­where above. ATCO and tur­bo­prop pi­lot sound calm, and I hope the same can be said for me. I have a quick chat in pass­ing to the very guy I heard on the ra­dio ear­lier. Isn’t it nice when you’re not the only one in a fix? He’s work­ing his way around a sim­i­lar route but in re­verse. Rather him than me; head­ing south­bound now, I’ve done my tan­gling with the high­est ter­rain. It’s still murky in­land, so I par­al­lel the coast again, pick­ing off amended fixes and feel­ing re­lieved to know ex­actly where I am. It isn’t what I’d hoped to achieve but it is making the best of it — Plan D. I even spy a few other souls trapped down here; it’s ini­tially com­fort­ing that I’m again not the only one, but then dis­con­cert­ing, know­ing we’re all com­pressed be­neath the cloud­base. I turn all the lights on and make a men­tal note to turn back if things de­cline fur­ther. A brief change in the en­gine tone scares me back to re­al­ity; I’m pick­ing up car­bu­ret­tor ice. An­other thing to keep an eye on... Fi­nally, fi­nally, I pop out of the gloom and into blue skies on the home stretch.

How I had the ca­pac­ity to think such things I’ll never know, but I’m re­minded of a scene in the film The Mummy. Our he­roes are making their es­cape by bi­plane over the desert, pur­sued by the spirit of a malev­o­lent pharoah, his face etched into the edge of a pur­su­ing sand­storm, mouth agape, ready to swal­low his prey. I felt a bit like that, only es­cap­ing rather than be­ing con­sumed. The re­lief was pal­pa­ble but some­how, speak­ing to my in­struc­tor af­ter re­turn­ing the keys, it seemed like no big deal.

What did I learn? Don’t panic. To avoid an in­struc­tor’s wrath, don’t bail out at the first sign of cloud ei­ther. Have a backup plan and be pre­pared to use it. Have a backup plan for that too. When wan­der­ing off- piste, which does hap­pen, ap­ply the tech­niques they taught; plan­ning a di­ver­sion­ary route or a bea­con fix. Fi­nally, some­thing that I picked up from an un­likely source — Red Bull Air Race in­ter­view footage: you never learn quite as fast as when you’re on your own.

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