Winter of my fright

Cessna 172
© CASA | Andrew Scargill

By Phillip Long

By the winter of 2005 I had held a PPL for 30 years, with about 700 hours in the log book. I was always conscious of my lower annual hours compared to full-time pilots but I felt I could complement my skill level by good planning and always being ready to cancel a flight if I was not happy with the weather or any other details. Such were my thoughts as my wife and I planned our annual winter flying trip into Central Australia.

For this trip our planned route was to depart Toowoomba, visit the Burke and Wills dig tree out near Innamincka, then fly north to Rockhampton and return to Toowoomba.

As we firmed up our route down to Innamincka it was becoming obvious that getting avgas at Innamincka for the Cessna 172 could be an expensive business. If I needed fuel at Innamincka, a 200-litre drum was the minimum order, plus cartage, and any fuel left in the drum would stay at the strip for someone else to maybe use. It could easily work out to be a $400 drum of fuel.

After spending considerable time researching and planning various winds over various tracks I felt we could fly south to Thargominda where we would fuel up, have a stopover at the dig tree, overnight at Innamincka and then continue to Windorah, where avgas in a bowser was available. I had never flown in this area before but was aware of the difficulties of visual navigation in the flat western areas, so always factored in a 60-minute fuel reserve.

If on arrival at Innamincka, and after dipping the tanks, I needed fuel, I would have to wait two days or more for avgas to be ordered and delivered. The possibility of being held up at Innamincka waiting for an expensive drum of fuel started to get into my mind.

The trip from Charleville to Thargominda was uneventful and we departed Thargominda with full tanks. After a stop at the dig tree we had a short 20-minute flight to Innamincka, with me still focusing on a delay and a $400 drum of fuel. Coming into Innamincka I tuned in the CTAF and with no other aircraft in the circuit elected for my first ever straight-in approach. It would get us on the ground quickly, and save fuel.

The straight in approach was not pretty as I tried to line up in the center of the gravel runway. It took heaps of rudder to keep in the centre and at the final flare I dropped the into-wind wing and kicked the 172 straight with the rudder, but it just didn’t want to land and floated forever.

When a white cone marker flashed past just under the aircraft between the left main wheel and the propeller my palms went sweaty and I finally realised the landing was dangerous and initiated a go-around.

My training kicked in, apply full power, hold nose down, wait till positive climb rate then climb away and unload flap a little at a time. This time I did a full circuit, found the windsock, worked out wind direction, got back to a familiar routine and the second landing was fine.

That evening I sat around the campfire reliving the biggest fright of my flying life. The flash of the white cone just underneath me as the aircraft drifted rapidly leftwards off the runway was imprinted in my mind.

What I had done was allow my mind to become fixated on the probability we would have been delayed for two days or longer waiting for an expensive drum of avgas. I wanted to get on the ground quickly to save fuel, so I left a full circuit out of the equation and cut corners. A high-time pilot would have handled it better I am sure.

To summarise my mistakes: I cut corners and took a risk and chose a gravel strip in Central Australia to fly my first-ever straight-in landing with a tail wind from the right-hand quarter. All my crosswind training had been from the front of the aircraft, so when I tried my first landing with wind from a rear quarter, I lost control after the flare and put my wife and myself in danger.

The good news was that, after dipping the tanks, there was enough fuel to get to Windorah with reserves intact.


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