Charles Day ponders the effect of age on pilot decision-making.
Last season I performed my first wheel-up landing (with no damage fortunately), so perhaps it’s a sign that my razor-sharp concentration is starting to fade?
This gliding season there were perhaps further indications of geriatric deterioration. I was caught out twice in similar circumstances when gambling with the weather. The first time, there was a trough line running north–south to the west of Benalla, slowly advancing eastwards, heavy cirrus and a strong north wind ahead of it, a westerly behind, but some good cumulus to the north. The only chance of a cross-country flight was to chase the cumulus north to Lake Urana, then return just before the trough killed all convection near Benalla. I left my arrival too late and my finals turn onto runway 35 coincided with an instantaneous, gusty wind shift to the west. Somehow the 90-degree crosswind landing was achieved without damage.
The second episode, late in February, was even more dramatic. The forecast was again for a north–south trough line well to the west of Benalla, slowly advancing east, but this time with embedded cumulonimbus, rain squalls and lightning. The wind was a strong northerly ahead of the trough. There seemed to be plenty of time to have a similar flight north to about Oaklands, then get back on the ground at Benalla before the fireworks. By the time I got back to Yarrawonga, about 60 km out, the trough was looking fairly evil, with curtains of rain and sporadic lightning not too far west of Benalla. The GPS drift while circling revealed that the northerly wind had increased considerably. Fortunately, I had plenty of height above glide slope and continuous weak lift ahead of the trough gave even more.
Approaching Benalla, I estimated that I would be able to land about 10 minutes ahead of the rain and squalls, which at that time were about 10 km to the west, so I entered a close-in circuit for runway 35 with excess height. The water ballast was kept on board to provide extra gust-penetrating momentum. On downwind leg, which was extremely turbulent, I glanced west over Benalla and noticed that the whole town was suddenly covered in dense dust, which was being whipped up by a ferocious northerly.
Clearly, extreme measures were called for in landing in such conditions. I turned finals very high, just outside the airfield boundary fence, left both landing and cruise flap settings at zero and approached steeply to make headway against the gale. The airspeed fluctuated uncontrollably between about 55 and 90 knots and the ground run was very short, finishing only about 300m inside the boundary fence. It was necessary to keep the canopy locked and stay strapped in. Dive brakes were kept out, stick forward, wheel brake applied and full negative flap selected to reduce the chance of the aircraft being blown over. Rain started after a few minutes, accompanied by a violent wind shift to the west that swung the aircraft ninety degrees (despite the non-castoring tail wheel).
Ten minutes later, the rain passed and the wind dropped. Bob and Nick had judged things a lot better, landing about ten minutes ahead of me and missing much of the drama. Later, people on the ground estimated the squall at having been at least fifty knots! Substantial branches were stripped from trees.
Only a week later, and still twitching from this episode, I resolved to increase my margins and not push my luck with the weather again. The forecast was for a light southerly, with large cumulus and extensive showers developing later in the day near Benalla and the adjacent hills—but no lightning. The best option was for a triangular flight to the west and to gamble on getting high enough on the final leg for a long final glide into Benalla, dodging the showers. I accordingly declared a conservative triangle of about 535 km to Boort, Maryborough and back to Benalla. If all went to plan, I would be home before things got dramatic.
The flight was initially slow, with a low cloud base, then much better under fairly good cumulus. I arrived at Maryborough at about 4 pm, full of confidence. Heading homewards, the direct track to Benalla passed about 20 km south of Bendigo, then over Lake Eppalock, but that soon proved impossible, with a huge storm blocking the way and solid murk further south of track. Running northeast along the western edge of the rain gave off-the-clock lift to 6500 ft at 100 kt for a fair distance, but after that there was only a small patch of sunlight visible towards Benalla. With 160 km to go and solid blackness ahead my confidence slumped. Benalla CTAF frequency was ominously silent. My options were closing in.
The best bet seemed to be to keep on track while I was still high, to see if any convection developed under the overcast, but it soon became clear that a stream of cold air was flowing north up the Goulburn Valley from the Kilmore Gap towards Shepparton and cutting off all potential thermals at the socks. A bold diversion further north was called for, where there was still sunshine and the remnants of the earlier good conditions. I ended up just west of Kyabram, 50 km north of the direct track to Benalla. At least Shepparton airfield was clear and within range if the next storm, which was north of the town, produced no lift. With the memory of the traumatic landings at Benalla near storms fresh in my mind, I was a bit paranoid, and determined to land at an airfield with a windsock, come what may. An outlanding in a paddock could easily end up tangling with a strong wind from any direction, due to low-level outflows from storms.
Fortunately, the Shepparton storm elevated me back to near cloud base. I then had marginal final glide height to get to Benalla, barring no extensive sink under the complete overcast and widespread showers—not a good bet! Plan A was to hope for something brewing up on the way to give a decent glide margin. Plan B was to lob into the Dookie Agricultural College airstrip almost half way to Benalla if things went bad. Plan C was to turn back to Shepparton airfield. In the event, I got a weak climb to a safe height near Dookie and a light aircraft over Benalla assured me that there was a clear path between the heavy showers to get through. I landed without incident at almost 7 pm much later than planned. There had been no gliding at Benalla since about 4 pm, on account of continuous overcast and periodic rain.
Who knows if this season’s lessons will linger in the remaining grey matter until next summer?