When tiredness after a long hot day coincides with the evening’s setting sun and disappearing landmarks, who do you call?
At the end of a long day, nothing was quite how it should have been
After receiving my pristine PPL(A) licence from the CAA, I went on lots of jaunts around the country and added a significant number of hours to the logbook. And then there were more badges to collect: IMC, night rating, tail-wheel. So then what? Helicopters, of course!
So, with a mint PPL(H), I did all the standard stuff — landing in friends’ gardens, arriving on an H where it meant hotel as well as helicopter, and so on. Then I realised that a great opportunity for a grade one trip was before my eyes.
One of my good friends was approaching his fiftieth birthday. He was a car enthusiast. An engineer by training, he built cars and was active in amateur events but was so busy with his own cars that he had never been to a Grand Prix. So I organised his special birthday present — a ticket to the British Grand Prix in July and delivery there and back, from his home in Hampshire to Silverstone by helicopter. A diminutive Robinson R22 was booked out to me from my training school at Denham, Bucks, on the northern edge of Heathrow’s TMA.
The Sunday morning was blue skies with occasional fluffy white clouds, very light winds and temperatures forecast to be in the mid-twenties. Couldn’t have been better.
The plan was to fly to Hampshire, collect the birthday boy from his garden, then fly to Turweston Aerodrome, less than three miles from Silverstone. To fly into Silverstone you need a CPL(H) so hundreds of PPL(H)S and PPL(A)S follow the well established practice of ‘landing down the road’, enjoying a high quality hot breakfast and then being transported cross-country by a fleet of vehicles to Silverstone.
The first part of the plan went like a dream; the flight down to Hampshire arrived exactly on time. Passenger collected, Flight 002 lifted on schedule and arrived at the Silverstone proxy at the prescribed time. We were then driven across the fields and down a few lanes to enter the circuit at Stowe Corner. We enjoyed a lovely sunny day, a small picnic and entertaining racing but, boy, was it hot.
After a few hours in the July sun, we picked up our transport shuttle at Stowe and returned to the airfield. Then it was a prompt start and lift and an hour’s flight back to Hampshire. After landing in the garden I was invited to stay for a cup of tea but said, “Thanks but no thanks”. It was early evening by then and I needed to start the fourth leg of the detail and return the helicopter to its base. Although the mission had not been difficult, it had been a long and hot day and I was looking forward to completing four hours of flying and putting my feet up.
Everything was working to plan as I progressed towards home and I noted some of the familiar landmarks as I tracked north-east. FREDA checks normal, empty skies, no radio chatter — everything fine.
I was about five or six miles from home when I realised I couldn’t see my base or any of the familiar surrounding features. Not always easy to see under perfect conditions, I turned my attention to spotting some of the area landmarks. They weren’t where I thought they should be.
I continued on the heading. I was on track so something familiar must show itself soon. Visibility was OK although the sun was getting lower as evening asked to take over from day. Still nothing. Slow down — give yourself a chance. I reduced power and took fifteen knots off my speed. I called the airfield frequency but, as expected, everybody had gone home a couple of hours before.
This had been going on for too long. I must have overshot; that’s why there’s nothing familiar down there. I made a 180 degree turn and flew the reciprocal. After a couple of minutes heading south-west I realised that if I did not spot the airfield (and I was flying into a setting sun) I could shortly be in the Heathrow TMA and that would be a very expensive incursion.
So I turned north, figuring I should be able to find some other landmarks. Relieved to be flying away from Heathrow, I reasoned that the worst that could happen on this track would be an unplanned view of southern Birmingham. No, that’s wrong, the worst that could happen would be running out of fuel. This was a light helicopter with a relatively small fuel tank and it was now low on juice.
I wasn’t panicked but I was worried. I could fly the helicopter safely but my brain wasn’t working well and I was losing confidence in my decision making. Then my very tired, fried brain managed one (final) good idea: call 121.5. Distress and Diversion answered immediately. “London Centre, pass your message.”
“G-XXXX is an R22 from a private site near YYYY to Denham, 1,500 feet on 1027, temporarily uncertain of my position and unable to navigate accurately because of the setting sun.“
They asked me to continue flying north and a minute or so later asked me if I could see a motorway directly below me. I certainly could, I’d been using that as a vital reference point. The problem was that I didn’t know whether it was the northerly heading section of the M25 or the M1. “Affirm, G-XX.”
“G-XX, take up a heading of 165 degrees and your airfield is seven miles from your current position. Call the field on 130.725.”
“165 degrees and seven miles. Their frequency is closed, I’ve tried them.” “OK, stay with us on this frequency until you’re ready to let down.”
Seven miles and five minutes later, field in sight and ready to let down, I signed off from D& D and thanked them profusely. At the airfield I hover-taxied to the hangars, held over the H and performed a clumsy let-down. As I sat there waiting for the engine to come down to temperature to disengage the rotor clutch, I felt so tired I wanted to go to sleep there and then. A long and boiling hot day plus four hours of flying was definitely a formula for tiredness.
So, what did I learn from the experience? First, to be more aware of what will contribute to tiredness and to allow for it. Second, confirming what I already knew, D& D are always available to help. Third — and most important — call early and ask D& D for help in good time. Do it before an incipient problem becomes a nightmare. Make your call before the ball of wool starts to unravel.