A second chance

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Name withheld by request

It has taken me six years to actually write this. On many occasions I have thought about it and not done so in the belief that so many pilots have written on this subject that my experience would not really add much value. ‘Just another near-death experience where a pilot pressed on when they should have known better’.

I guess in all my reading on accidents and near misses, the thing that strikes me is that no pilot ever sets out to kill themselves or their loved ones. We all know what to do, but for many and varied reasons we can all sometimes make serious errors of judgement, which when combined with the limits of our flying capability, can and do lead to disaster.

This is my story and one I am glad to be alive to tell. I had held a private pilot’s licence for over 30 years and at that stage had around 200 hours experience, with about 20 at night. I had not flown for 15 years and had decided to start again. Having done my medicals and biannual review the year before, I did some cross country work in a Cessna 150 and a 172, both of which had these new devices called GPS in them.

I had mastered the nearest (NRST) function reasonably well, but my flying was all VFR using time, distance and maps. The GPS was something I still held in awe and had not really studied the books or its capabilities.

So, this was my first chance to go on an extended cross-country trip with my wife. We took a Cessna 150 and planned to go from Eastern Victoria through the Kilmore gap, on through the Riverland of SA and into Adelaide (Parafield). By the time I had arrived in Adelaide, I was starting to enjoy the challenge and achievement.

I then planned the next stage of the flight from Parafield to Portland in Victoria via the Coorong. I had decided that fuel would be an issue. I felt we could make it but would have to manage fuel carefully; and if it looked marginal I planned to divert to Mt Gambier. As we approached abeam Mt Gambier fuel was about what I had expected, and I could see (or so I thought) that there was some low cloud ahead, but at around 1500 feet AGL so I would be OK.

As we approached Portland from the northwest there is one small hill, with the airport just on the other side, so I had situational awareness and was happy to proceed. I checked and set the Trimble 2000 TSO129 GPS to Portland using NRST. This has no track lines like the newer Garmin systems.

As we got closer the cloud had lowered (only marginally I thought) but I believed I could get over the high ground and into the airport no worries.

So here I am with very little fuel and no real option to return to Mt Gambier, but sufficient to fly legal with reserves into Portland. This is when it turns pear-shaped.

As I attempted to fly under the cloud but over the high ground, I had to maintain separation, and in the blink of an eye I was in thick and uncompromising cloud. At this point my limited instrument training came in very handy, and I said to my wife: ‘Keep an eye out underneath for a break in the cloud, we should be near the airport’. We flew for another minute (seemed like an hour) in the cloud. When I looked at the GPS it was 15 degrees right of where we should be. Panic started to set in, and by sheer luck, as I corrected and flew back on to the GPS track to the airport, my wife said, ‘there it is’.

A 400-foot AGL circuit and landing was followed by a fuel check that showed I had eight litres of fuel remaining. After this ‘near death experience’ I did a serious analysis of my behaviour and skills that day and decided there were two main issues that could have led to disaster:

  1. When you plan your fuel, do what you plan—never compromise
  2. As a VFR pilot I decided that no matter what, I would never fly into cloud again

I needed to develop far better overall airmanship and get some more training. I came back and commenced a commercial pilot licence training course with the express desire to lift my skills and knowledge, so that I would never again place my wife (or myself) in that situation again by poor decision-making.

I now hold a CPL and multi-engine command instrument rating and have near a thousand hours. I am now a much better and safer pilot, but guess what—the more I fly the less I know. There are so many occasions where even with proper planning, the elements or the aeroplane can sneak up on you.

My message is simple. If you love flying (as most of us do) the more you learn the more you will enjoy it and the less stress you will have. Fly to the conditions, your capability and your plan and don’t be afraid to turn back if you need to.

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