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