by Lea Vesic
It was a cool, calm and cloudy winter’s day in Adelaide, but (in hindsight) not the kind of day you wake up to and decide that VFR flying is on the table. Nevertheless, the conditions were docile, there was a horizon and above all, the requirements were legal. The cloud base hung relatively low at 4000 feet but not too low to impede some basic training area solo flying only a stone’s throw from the airfield. I was scheduled to top up my remaining command hours to meet the minimum requirement for my private pilot’s licence. It was the day that had been in the making for almost a decade.
I was anxious but eager. The 1.2 hours left to log would be conducted in my single engine trainer—the one that I had accumulated all my hours in, and the one that I was very familiar and comfortable with flying.
As I impatiently greeted my instructor to confirm my interpretations of weather, airspace, TEM and NOTAM information, I could sense my urgency build as this was the last box-ticking exercise to complete before I received my wings, literally and metaphorically. My instructor looked out to the west and dutifully assessed the conditions outside with that written on the TAF and ARFOR. It was pretty much as expected. A chance of increasing showers of rain and a thunderstorm in the afternoon. It was only mid-morning, so I had plenty of time.
With some reservations, my instructor signed me out with the following stipulations: ‘the weather is safe, but it can become marginal very quickly in this environment. I want you to decide early on if you don’t have adequate visibility once you get to the outbound VFR waypoint. If you can’t see to the end of the training area, I expect you back in the circuit immediately.’
At this point my enthusiasm to get in the aircraft clouded any looming concerns of a change in the weather. I had a determination to complete the flight—rain, hail or shine as they say.
With my charts and headset in hand, I dashed to the aircraft and confidently completed the pre-flight I had perfected throughout my sub 100-hour’s experience. And with that manner of youthful exuberance, I closed and latched the door, started the engine and taxied to the holding point for my departure.
As I crossed the VFR waypoint, I changed to area frequency and noticed the mist descending off the clouds in the distance. I could see past the training area—the dials were in the green—as I began conducting airwork and tracked towards the far end of the training field.
I was surprised to see aircraft heading inbound to my left. It’s only mid-morning with most aircraft out on navigation exercises. ‘Surely, they’re not heading back already,’ I thought.
I returned to the sortie at hand and continued to track further west. I calculated that a 1.2-hour flight would require a little more time out in the training area than usual, so I continued towards the mist in the distance.
Again, another aircraft passed by my left. Then a third. Only this time, I noticed the wall of dark clouds over the coastline which to my surprise was heading inland towards the training area. I spent a moment reproducing the TAF lines in my head to confirm who had hoodwinked who—those ominous clouds were certainly not forecast this early in the day.
My instructor’s voice echoed in my ears and I dutifully turned back towards the east, to the inbound VFR waypoint. I wondered if the slight rise in my blood pressure was due to the front approaching or my angst that the air switch had barely registered 0.7 of an hour.
As I turned, I looked for traffic and beyond to the horizon, however there wasn’t one as the cloud base had lowered further. I felt adrenaline take over and panic set in. How did the weather turn so quickly? This was not the time to philosophise and as I returned to ingrained procedures, it dawned on me. The aircraft en route back to the airfield were indeed navexes that had aborted their sorties and were returning due to the weather.
While tracking back with nerves tempered, I knew the focus was on getting to the inbound point, making my call to tower and joining a downwind circuit. The only problem now was to slot in to the conga line of inbound aircraft that seemed to appear out of thin air. I made a few hasty calls to allow for separation and slotted in, with hesitation knowing that I was now surrounded by aircraft.
I knew I couldn’t be certain that we were still using the same runway as departure so the ATIS was my first port of call. I turned down the volume on my comms 1 system to a negligible sound to get maximum clarity of the weather report through the ATIS on comms 2.
As I looked down to jot details on my kneeboard, I became distracted by the sudden loud and alerting beep from the TCAS—a seemingly innocuous device when one is in full visibility. Regrettably, I was not. My panic rose to a higher octave, but I kept my cool and focussed on approaching the control zone and making my inbound call. I knew that as soon as I was identified by the tower that separation would be a joint burden to bare. The TCAS continued to shriek and with little visibility, it became apparent that I was beginning to lose visual reference down to a kilometre or two.
I made my call. No response. ‘It’s okay,’ I thought. ‘I know there’s a lot of traffic around.’ I made my call again. No response. As I approached the boundary zone, I made yet another call. Once again there was no response. I convinced myself the radio had failed.
I began to troubleshoot, unplugging and plugging in my headset. The TCAS continued to remind me of my proximity to what felt like the potential of a mid-air collision with virtually no horizon or reference to the airfield.
‘ALPHA BRAVO CHARLIE DO YOU COPY?’ The loud and resolute voice bellowed over comms 1 as I frantically fidgeted with the volume dial. I had been transmitting but had not heard the response. My overwhelming sense of joy was only dampened slightly by the beating of my heart.
ATC cleared the local airspace to allow for me to join downwind, and as I rapidly descended through the thick mist to the safety of circuit height, I could finally take in some well-deserved oxygen.
It didn’t take long for my instructor to be alerted to the event. After all, I was clearly bellowing my radio calls on the inbound frequency which played through the school’s operations room. I managed to keep it together until I was on terra firma.
I tried to piece together what had happened and it became obvious that two things had fed the swiss-cheese model of events. I lost my situational awareness and my judgement was (literally) clouded by the impatience of ‘get-there-itis’ syndrome. I did not take in the warning signs of returning aircraft and didn’t observe the changing environment. I remained steadfast on achieving the goal rather than continually assessing the situation.
As aviators, we speak about the skill of decision making and know why it is important, but I failed to recognise that mistakes can happen to the best of us. Situations like mine are a grim reminder (noting the survival rates of a non IFR-rated pilot when entering zero visibility) how quickly a situation and an environment can become volatile. Flying is my life and my love. But it is not worth dying for.
When planning any flight, no matter the frequency or routine nature of it, it is imperative to apply situational awareness well before you’re in the air. Ask yourself, what can happen if the environment changes? Do you know when your decision point is going to be? What are your personal minimums? What are your emergency procedures if your radio fails?
These are all questions that should derive from self-interrogation of understanding and appreciating your skills of judgement and decision making and honing the multi-faceted procedures before an emergency occurs.