The newbie and the old and bold

4612

Name withheld by request

It was the early 1980s and I was about to do my second solo from a small airport on the NSW north coast; no great facilities, just a seldom-used terminal and a few hangars. I could see low, dark clouds off to the east and when I asked my instructor about weather conditions he assured me (with his 30-plus years of local experience) that it would be fine. The aircraft was a well-used Piper Tomahawk. It came complete with a rag to wipe up the small puddle of fluid on the floor under the controls every time we used it. When I quizzed my instructor, he used the old gag about only worrying when there was nothing there because that meant the reservoir was empty. I asked again about the weather. It was my call of course, but again he told me not to worry.

I took off to the west and put the Tomahawk into a left-hand turn as I climbed to 1200 feet, intending to head for the training area. As soon as the turn was completed, I found myself in thickening cloud with the strip disappearing under my left wing. I had done no IFR training at all and tried to steady my thoughts as the wind began bouncing me around and the cloud locked me in completely. I had no idea how I would find the strip safely, so I decided to head for the training area and hope conditions cleared. They didn’t. It began to rain. I knew 22 was the eastern end of the runaway, so if I flew on that heading I imagined I would have a vague idea of direction. I knew there was a hill ahead and to be safe I climbed to 5000 feet hoping to break through, but to no avail and the turbulence was increasing.

At this point I had very few choices, but I decided to take an educated guess at the time I’d need to clear the hill near the coast and then descend over the sea in the hope of finding a gap in the weather. I kept telling myself to watch the instruments and stay calm. After 10 minutes I began the descent. Four, three, two, one thousand feet, all the while sweating like a marathon runner with the effort of keeping the aircraft under control. There was nowhere to go but down, and I was feeling a little fatalistic at this stage because I didn’t know how to swim anyway. Cloud was still thick at 500 feet but at around 200 it thinned and I found I was over the sea under a dense overcast with some fog.

I turned back toward the coast and saw the bulk of Trial Bay Gaol on the headland at South West Rocks, so at least I knew where I was. I had no choice but to drop lower and find the mouth of the Macleay River. We had done an exercise just a few weeks ago of following the river home, which was handy because I knew where the powerline crossings were and could clear them without surprises. It was still a struggle to hold it in the wind, but eventually I saw the poplar plantation that would point me to the water reservoir and a final approach.

I’d come this far and I wasn’t going to let a crosswind put me off at this stage.

I wobbled it down onto the strip and taxied back to the hangar. I was soaked to the skin when I stepped out of the aeroplane. ‘You got back alright then,’ my instructor said, and that was it. He was very old school and it was the bush. But I now had to consider several things; all of which were no doubt coloured by wanting to do that second solo.

I could have called it off, but I deferred to the experience of my instructor who, as it turned out, wasn’t a great judge of weather. He could have erred on the side of safety, but wanted me to get my hours up. I hadn’t been trained for the situation I found myself in, and if I panicked it would have been over quickly. On the plus side he had taken me through the exercise of flying up the river that saved the day. A few weeks later, with me in the right-hand seat, we were coming in to land in his Rockwell 114. As we crossed the fence, I rapidly reminded him that he hadn’t lowered the undercarriage. He pulled back on the controls and we went around. ‘Bugger me,’ he said, ‘with you sitting next to me I was thinking we were in the Tomahawk.’ So maybe it wasn’t all my fault.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Reading this I am shocked to this this “instructor” was actually teaching people how to fly. I am sure he was good at some things, but judgement wasn’t one of them. Respectfully, it has nothing to do with ‘the bush’, manliness or ‘old school.’ You were lucky to return alive. You were lucky to survive an ‘instructor’ like that. Period. Usually that kind of judgement catches up with you. I wonder if he is around today.

  2. Reading this I am shocked that this this “instructor” was actually teaching people how to fly. I am sure he was good at some things, but judgement wasn’t one of them. Respectfully, it has nothing to do with ‘the bush’, manliness or ‘old school.’ You were lucky to return alive. You were lucky to survive an ‘instructor’ like that. Period. Usually that kind of judgement catches up with you. I wonder if he is around today.

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