Many years ago, I did a lot of my flying in and around North Queensland and Cairns was a regular destination for me. I was quite familiar with the area and the weather conditions that can be experienced in the region.
My first flight instructor had been flying in New Guinea as a commercial pilot at the time and he had finished his role in New Guinea and he was returning to Australia via Cairns. I used to fly into Cairns quite regularly so I arranged with him to meet him in Cairns and return to Townsville to have a brief stay there with me. I had done quite a lot of flying hours since the early days under his instruction, so I was keen to drop into Cairns and pick him up and ‘fly my instructor back with me’. It’s amazing how puffed out a man’s chest can become.
I obtained a weather briefing, lodged a flight plan and set off confidently for Cairns mid-morning, tracking up the coast via Dunk Island as I had done many times before. There was an active Defence Force no-go zone just off the coast of Innisfail, so I had flight planned to fly up along the coast and into Cairns.
Overhead Dunk Island at 3000 ft AMSL I could see low cloud up ahead along the coast. I called up Cairns and got a weather briefing for the airport and it was VFR no problems, so the low cloud up ahead was somewhat local. I thought I could slip down under it and proceed into Cairns OK. At about halfway into Cairns I had descended to 500 ft above sea level and the cloud and light rain was blending in with the sea. In effect I had lost a visual horizon, so it was DECISION TIME and I had to throw away the desire to ‘get to Cairns to pick up my mate’ so to speak.
Along the coast at that point I knew there was a small range of hills rising to about 1000 ft right down to the water, so I knew it was best not to turn inland when I was at 500 ft, so I elected to ‘get onto the instruments’ and execute a steady right-hand 180-degree turn out to sea and head back the way I had come. A steady rate of turn brought me around onto a reciprocal track and I steadied both the aircraft and myself and set a heading and climbed back towards Dunk Island. By the time that I was overhead Dunk I was comfortably back to 4000 ft in VFR and called in a flight plan amendment and returned to home base uneventfully.
Once back at home base I parked the aircraft and then proceeded to drive to Cairns where I met up with my mate and we stayed overnight and returned home safely the next day.
I have read (before that day and since) how pilots/people can be driven with a desire to ‘accomplish the mission’ and end up paying the ultimate price and this has even happened in the Cairns region due to being caught out in non-VFR conditions which can occur quite quickly at times in that region.
I had never ventured into such conditions before that day and I know that my desire to ‘get to Cairns’ initially overrode my training lessons regarding remaining VFR at all times.
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