Professional unprofessional

7530
Piper navajo
image: © Civil Aviation Safety Authority

Name withheld on request

Here I was on another typical North Queensland wet season day; a low-time pilot, in the middle of a pilot shortage, flying a VFR PA31 Navajo. With 500 hours under my belt, I was a blessed 22-year-old skydive pilot with a licence to thrill. I’d always been meticulous, beyond thorough and nothing could be ‘double checked’ too much. That’s until I fell into the pressures of skydiving in one of the wettest regions in Australia. With money to be made—irrespective of the weather—commercial pressures came often and a screaming match between pilot and drop master went unnoticed and was water under a bridge. Money, schedule, safety, I discovered, was the priority of any man with a parachute strapped to his back (if all else fails bail out and pull the cord!).

I was pretty new to the job, keen to get the twin time, which on this particular day involved a lot of exploitation of ‘special VFR’. I’d never go in cloud, even when pushed to and would always find a safe ‘hole’, clear of cloud with greater than 3000 m visibility, in sight of ground or water, to descend my 40-year-old high performance twin through. This aside, my other main priority was to slowly bring the power back to be gentle on the turbochargers.

My fifth load of the day was in progress and top-of-drop arrived. The usual yahooing was happening down the back when I flicked the green light ‘on’. Without turning around I could feel the centre of gravity changing as one by one my freight offloaded itself. Right then, it was ready for descent. Flaps up, squeeze an inch of manifold pressure off and down we go at 220 KIAS in a gentle one G descending turn. And then it dawned on me. I was on top of overcast as far as I could see and with fuel endurance of about an hour. With that the controller just kept stepping me down in altitude.

I realised it was time to start some story telling as I was visual on top and close to the highest lowest safe of the state. I had to stop the controller when she told me to descend to 3500 feet. I was unable. She seemed annoyed. I had to think fast, as not only was fuel, or lack of, eventually going to make me nervous (and illegal), but there was also the potential loss of face.

Then I had an idea. I had to focus and ignore my annoyance with my lowered standards. I’d dial in one if the nearby islands into my IFR GPS and get a clearance to head east in the hope I could find a sizeable hole. This wasn’t the norm and the controller was annoyed as said island was just below the inbound and outbound jet corridor to the south.

At last I was visual with the reef. It looked more beautiful today for all the wrong reasons. I was passed off to the tower with a friendly ‘you guys are pushing your luck today’. It was a diplomatic response to such unprofessional airmanship. After landing I had two phone calls to make. One to the drop master saying I was calling it a day. His response: ‘We’d been wondering all day when you were going to pull the pin. Thanks for pushing it.’

My eagerness and willingness to please was exploited—okay for someone who had a legal clearance to descend (parachute) through cloud I guess. I owed the controller an apology. Her supervisor wanted to meet. My sheepish visit to the approach room over at the tower was a humbling one.

The supervising controller said he understood my eagerness and just urged me to be safe within the realms of my job. He then proceeded to show me an old VTC of the terminal area with thumbtacks in every spot height that had a CFIT (controlled flight into terrain) wreck in it. There were at least half a dozen. His final words, ‘never EVER be afraid to own up that you made a mistake. We at ATC are there to help, keep you safe, even when you make mistakes—we are human and are NOT the police. We just want you to get home safely just as much as you do.’

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