Hot and distracted

4993

It was a summer day in the north west of NSW and quite hot. I departed the airfield mid-morning and climbed out for some forced landing practice on my restricted private pilot licence (PPL). I began my approaches from an altitude of around 5000 ft AGL. The airfield height was 600 ft and the surrounding land was very flat. The first two approaches went quite well and on each approach I descended to the 250 ft altitude, which was our CFI’s limit.

The third practice forced landing did not go as planned at all! As I descended toward 250 ft, I prepared to climb away again and had not really noticed that I was over a very large paddock with virtually no ground cover of any kind on it. At 250 ft I opened the throttle all the way and expected the aircraft to begin to climb. Nothing happened except that it continued to descend at the same rate as before. I re-checked all the engine instruments, airspeed and altimeter but found nothing amiss. The engine sounded just fine and was clearly outputting all the power it was capable of.

Of course I was becoming quite concerned by this time, and, having found no obvious explanation as to why the aeroplane was not climbing, I decided to prepare for a forced landing—for real. I secured everything in the cabin, which was not much, as this was only intended to be a local flight, checked the fuel and fuel cock for position, and put my hand on the throttle, ready to close it before the main wheels touched the ground.

This was very worrying to me because the ground was not at all smooth and had been ploughed many times in the past, leaving old furrows and clods of earth. Additionally, the paddock had been stocked in good seasons and there were hoof marks, some of which were quite deep.

By this time, I was quite low, and when I happened to look out the right-side cabin window I was shocked to see I was flying parallel to an old telephone line, which appeared to be slightly above my eye-level. If so, the nose-wheel would have been no more than about four to five metres above the ground (the nose-wheel descended quite a bit below the main-wheels in the aircraft type I was flying.)

I was about to close the throttle when I noticed that I had just flown over the boundary fence of the paddock and the aeroplane had begun to climb, although ever so slowly, or so it seemed to me. The aircraft was no ‘homesick angel’ at the best of times, but after a time I had climbed to 2000 ft and turned back toward the airfield. I landed without further incident.

In thinking about this incident, as I have done very often over the years, I realised we always have to be very aware of the effect temperature, density altitude and ground cover can have on light aircraft, particularly those with somewhat marginal power available. The realisation that I was flying next to and at the same height as a telephone line was a sobering thought and I was very glad that I had not been flying toward that telephone line because had I been the outcome may have been very different—and much less favourable to me.

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