Wan­der­ing ‘off piste’ leaves one pi­lot rather ‘piste-off’!

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words by: James Tay­lor

Fa­mil­iar­ity breeds con­fu­sion

The chart rested next to me but I didn't feel the urge to study it

Ididn’t have any as­pi­ra­tions to fly that par­tic­u­lar week­end but an un­sea­sonal change to good weather, and our shared group PA-28, based at our lovely Devon air­field, be­ing booked in for a month-long paint job the fol­low­ing week, changed my mind.

Ar­riv­ing at the air­field, I walked into the re­as­sur­ingly warm and pur­pose­ful at­mos­phere of the train­ing school club­house, ac­knowl­edged by nods from a few fa­mil­iar friendly faces. Pre­flight cuppa in hand, I checked the NOTAM and METAR (not TAFS) for the lo­cal area and found all was well to fly the plane in VFR, with good vis­i­bil­ity at 3,000ft and a steady but fair south-west­erly wind.

It was a short stroll to the PA-28, parked next to the taxi­way, with head­set and flight bag in hand. Post A checks com­plete, with fuel tanks at ‘tabs’, I de­cided to get go­ing, look­ing to depart within fif­teen min­utes. In my head I had planned to fly north-west over the beau­ti­ful Ex­moor hills, along the north Devon coast and back home on a, by now, well-worn and fa­mil­iar route that would take about an hour to com­plete. I was so com­fort­able with this route in fact that, al­though I had drawn it on an up-to-date chart some months be­fore, and de­spite said chart rest­ing on the empty seat next to me, I didn’t feel the urge to study it. I wasn’t us­ing any form of GPS on this trip due to the afore­men­tioned route fa­mil­iar­ity and, hav­ing both heard and read about the num­ber of in­ci­dents re­gard­ing the per­ils of us­ing GPS, I deemed it an un­nec­es­sary dis­trac­tion. (What a good boy I am then.)

I took off from the air­field vir­tu­ally on the time slot I’d planned, the air­craft be­hav­ing pre­dictably and re­as­sur­ingly fa­mil­iar as al­ways. Lis­ten­ing to cir­cuit, in­bound and out­bound trans­mis­sions, I picked my chance to tell the ra­dio op­er­a­tor that I was leav­ing the cir­cuit, head­ing north-west but re­main­ing on fre­quency for the time be­ing, squawk­ing 7000 on the transpon­der. This was du­ti­fully ac­knowl­edged and I con­tin­ued on my merry jour­ney with 2,000ft on the QNH and climb­ing. I had planned to switch fre­quen­cies to Cardiff Radar af­ter about ten min­utes, as at some point I would be close to the south­ern end of their con­trol zone, and for the ser­vice they can pro­vide that air/ground ra­dio can­not, es­pe­cially on who’s around (good think­ing so far).

It was at this point, with a mere five min­utes’ air­time hav­ing elapsed, that I could lit­er­ally see trou­ble ahead. A vast, thick, and seem­ingly im­pen­e­tra­ble wall of dark claggy cloud reached from around 2,500ft to the sur­face over Ex­moor, di­rectly in front of me, seven or eight miles away, and over the route I had planned to take. I could have veered off acutely west at nearly 270 de­grees, but that just wasn’t what I’d planned for my one-hour flight, and was on a road to nowheresvi­lle any­way.

I took the time to slow the air­craft down, com­plete a FREDA check, and then put the PA-28 into a slow or­bit to the right at around 3,000ft in good vis­i­bil­ity. Over the bor­der in Som­er­set was much bet­ter – al­most CAVOK bar­ring a few stray fluffy clouds at a sim­i­lar flight level. Per­fect, I’ve got a new plan in my head! Let’s go across to Som­er­set and en­joy the view that I might not get to see for a while. I was now ef­fec­tively fly­ing off piste from my planned route on the chart but not in un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory. I looked at the chart and re­alised I could go all the way up to nearly 6,500ft so as not to bust the flight cor­ri­dor of traf­fic to Bris­tol Air­port far off to the north. I took the plane up to just over 6,000ft on the QNH set from my home air­field, now some fif­teen min­utes fly­ing time away, still on their fre­quency.

The view from this height was spec­tac­u­lar and the re­ward seemed jus­ti­fied; I con­grat­u­lated my­self on a su­perb piece of on the spot ini­tia­tive.

Af­ter some ten min­utes or so, look­ing out from the cock­pit I could see two huge lakes in the dis­tance to the north-west and thought to in­ves­ti­gate. I be­gan the long slow spi­ral down­wards, se­lect­ing the carb heat on. While at­tempt­ing to iden­tify the lakes, I be­came aware of a reser­voir di­rectly ahead, hid­den ini­tially from view by the en­gine cowl­ing, three or four miles away and an es­ti­mated two min­utes fly­ing time. I de­cided to check on the chart which reser­voir it was.

It was then that the sud­den, ter­ri­ble, gut-wrench­ing feel­ing fell upon me, like that of speed­ing past a line of cars in the slow lane of the dual car­riage­way, only to re­alise that a speed cam­era van is parked in the lay-by just ahead.

The reser­voir had two lakes to the north-east, clearly iden­ti­fied on the map, and both well within the Bris­tol con­trol zone! I im­me­di­ately turned the air­craft due south and ap­plied full power to climb, re­mem­ber­ing only then to switch the carb heat se­lec­tor to ‘off’. How the hell did that hap­pen? How bloody far north am I?

Hav­ing set­tled the air­craft at around 3,000ft, and now pos­i­tively pan­ic­stricken, I be­gan to won­der if I’d al­ready in­ad­ver­tently en­tered Bris­tol con­trol zone with­out per­mis­sion by mis­take, or was I just out­side it? I was way, way off from where I thought I should be. I made the de­ci­sion, rightly or wrongly, to make haste back to my home air­field whilst still re­main­ing on their fre­quency the whole time and squawk­ing 7000. The short trip back was un­event­ful and, hav­ing landed and se­cured the air­craft back in its usual spot, I was to­tally peeved with my­self about how on earth I had made such a school­boy er­ror with such ob­vi­ous and po­ten­tially huge im­pli­ca­tions.

I had un­der­es­ti­mated the wind speed and di­rec­tion at alti­tude push­ing me to the north, and had be­come com­pla­cent go­ing off piste in airspace I thought I knew so well. Have a plan and stick to it, and if it doesn’t work out, have a back-up.

It’s worth men­tion­ing that I had been – upon later ex­am­i­na­tion of the map – within an es­ti­mated 1.5 miles of tip­ping into Bris­tol con­trolled airspace, be­low re­stricted height but not on fre­quency. The con­se­quences of this are the writ­ing of this ar­ti­cle.

I learned about fly­ing from that.

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