…so why was I now battling headwinds, and hoping the fuel would last until I’d landed?
It pays to make sure you’re using the very latest weather report
The 1980s and ‘90s were the heyday of social air rallies in the UK, and in 1987 Aberdeen held the first Granite City Air Rally. Armed with the IMC rating I had earned just six months previously, Edmund Comber and I had been able to climb and take advantage of the tailwind to arrive in Aberdeen only two hours and fifty minutes after leaving Peterborough. We did have to fly some one and a half hours of this in solid IMC but in those days there was plenty of radar coverage as we travelled up the East Coast.
The newness of the rally and the prevailing weather kept many potential entrants away but enough arrived to make a competition, and we were pleasantly surprised with some of the results, including being given the longest distance award. For this first year of the rally, it was only over one night so on the Sunday morning, following the Saturday night revelries, Aberdeen ATC (who were the instigators and organisers of the whole show) provided comprehensive weather briefings at first light for those returning home, whilst late arrivals due to Saturday’s weather rushed around the navex course.
It was irresistible to wait to see who eventually won, even though more competitors kept turning up, and it was worth the wait when a certain Mr Bob Pooley presented us with the BA Trophy. He must have had confidence in us as he then proceeded to cadge a lift southwards. He needed to get to Cranfield, but if we took him as far as Conington he would be happy to take a taxi from there. At this stage the euphoria of winning took over our senses as we prepared to leave.
We had planned with early morning Met and it was 1230 before we left. Our planned time to Peterborough gave us ample fuel reserves and the early weather had promised fine conditions and light winds. We cruised along on top, well-leaned at FL75, hardly noticing our reducing groundspeed the further south we flew.
Getting closer to home, we thought about descent but, lo and behold, no holes! It was Sunday afternoon and RAF radar around us began to close down. Fortunately, we found that RAF Wittering was working and the controllers helped us attempt a cloud break, but when we were unable to do that safely, they suggested Cranfield would be the approach of choice. They alerted Cranfield on the landline and ensured ILS was available.
We turned for the Charlie Fox Delta, while Wittering continued radar coverage. I used my one VOR, flip-flopping between frequencies to make crosscuts of my position on the map (using ‘Vortrack’ — it was long before we had GPS and the like). We stayed on track but it was taking forever to reach the beacon. Not surprising, as we now had a thirty-five knot headwind, not mentioned in the morning weather — but it was now well after four o’clock.
I had done my IMC ground school at Oxford, and the flying had been at Faro. The cross-country had ended at Gibraltar with a PAR, but the main approaches were at Faro where we used VOR/DME. Although I knew ILS theory, I had never flown one.
We finally started our crawl down the glideslope. The change in aircraft attitude did not move the fuel gauges off zero, where they seemed to have been for some time. At minima, we managed to break out and put the aeroplane down on a windswept, sodden Cranfield.
We parked and walked away after a flight lasting four hours twenty minutes. I didn’t have the heart or inclination to refuel at that moment, but next day Rogers Aviation managed to squeeze just over 29 gallons into our 31 gallon tanks (and the manual says one gallon is unusable)!
Since that day I have become a planning freak and regard only an hour’s reserve as almost borderline. My shyness of asking for weather en route has disappeared completely. And I can guarantee that, after the date, the first parts of the Met briefing I read are the times and issue of validity.
But there were so many other lessons. Don’t get caught up in the moment, concentrate on what you must do, and plan for every eventuality. Make sure your timings agree with your PLOG and, if not, change the plan. Turn back (or sideways, if necessary) if it gets you to a safe let-down faster. Practice every approach available. No doubt the reader can think of more.
And throughout this episode, Bob Pooley sat happily in the back seat with a large bag of sweets that he regularly offered to us. I’m not a sweet-lover, and I doubt that my dry mouth would have been able to cope with one, but I was grateful for his remaining calm — and extremely happy he got to his preferred destination.