When the weather turned quickly, this pilot was scud running
I restarted private flying for fun in the mid-2010s, after having flown for a while in the 90s, but given it up because of the cost. Now, a little older and without a young family and mortgage, I could afford to get back into it. By this time I had about 300 hours total time, including about 80 hours on the club Cessna 172s. I knew I wasn’t experienced by any means, but my confidence had been growing. I was about to take a hit to that confidence.
My wife and I were going to a music festival a few hours’ drive south of my home airport and I wanted to use this opportunity to go on a longer flight. I would fly a roundabout route over some places of interest and meet her at the local airport. She was driving as she is not keen on flying.
The flight down was glorious. I cruised at 8500 feet, enjoying the views, descended when the clouds got a little more frequent, flew over some landmarks and landed after almost 3 hours of flying. The weekend was equally as enjoyable and, with the clear weather, I even took some friends on short flights along the coast. The 172 had long range tanks, so fuel wasn’t an issue and I would be flying back home via a different route on the Monday and refuelling along the way.
On the final day, there was one last event so I didn’t have a view of the weather for most of the morning. It finished and I walked outside, into low cloud and light rain. I had checked the ARFORs and nearby TAFs (the nearest being about 20 nautical miles north) earlier in the day. There had been some cloud and isolated showers on the forecasts, but this looked worse than forecast.
I convinced myself that this low cloud was just a local thing and I would fly out of it very quickly.
While we drove to the airport, I checked the forecasts again and the closest METARs. The airport to the north, along my planned route, showed good VFR weather on the forecast, although the current cloud base wasn’t available on the METAR. About another 25 nautical miles north of that, the weather was also good, with the cloud base above 4000 feet. I convinced myself that this low cloud was just a local thing and I would fly out of it very quickly.
I have video from inside the aircraft of the take-off and short flight. On one of the stills I have saved from that, I have annotated, ‘You’d think that the water on the windscreen would have been a big hint.’
But I took off anyway, expecting to fly into the clear weather I had seen on the METARs. That didn’t happen. Very soon I was skimming the bottom of the cloud, flying through wisps of lower cloud, avoiding rain showers and wondering if I should declare an emergency. I never lost sight of the ground, but that was just luck.
After just 4 minutes, I decided to turn back. However, I couldn’t turn back immediately because of the showers and did a long slow sweeping turn back towards the airport. One thing that did save me was that I had an iPad on my knee with EFB software and I could find my departure airport again. I approached the airport on a right downwind at probably 300 feet and flew a very low right circuit. I remember ending up high on the short final approach. I pointed the nose down more to be sure I made the runway but didn’t reduce power and ended up high and fast over the threshold. It was fortunate the runway was more than 1000 metres, because I didn’t touch down until about 400 metres in. The whole flight was less than 15 minutes.
From the video I noted the time from take-off to top of climb, took a stab at the rate of climb and calculated that I never got above 400 feet AGL for the whole flight. I can’t be sure because I didn’t look at the altimeter at all and forgot to put the EFB into fly mode.
On the other side of the airport, the side I would have been on if I’d flown a left circuit, there is a tower that is not on the charts or the aerodrome diagram. It’s well below the circuit height. I don’t know its height but it’s possible I would have not remembered it and collided with it if I had come back that way.
After landing I called my wife. She hadn’t gotten too far in the car and came back. We spent the night in a hotel, which should have been the plan as soon as it started raining.
The flight back home the next day was far less stressful. I went over the forecasts and limited weather observations a while later.
A cold front had arrived over that part of the coast a little earlier than expected and there was more low cloud than expected. I bear no grudge towards the forecasters. There are very limited observations available around that area and it was my decision to take-off into that weather.
Lessons learnt. Since that day I have become very cautious of weather. I have cancelled flights that could have gone ahead and turned back at the first sign of bad weather. Even if the forecast says the weather might be okay, I need to look and make my judgement about the weather.
After years of taking VFR flight plans from people who said, “I’ll go and have a look” when advised that the weather was not suitable for VFR flight, and noting that some found out the hard way, I resolved that when it came my turn I’d not push on. The first time it happened I’m glad I can say that my resolution stuck: I did a 180 and landed at WOL, caught the northbound XPT and eventually got back to the car at BK. The VFR only Cessna spent two weeks on the ground at WOL, much to the frustration of the owner.
There’s no shame in making a supplementary decision when your first decision goes pear-shaped. Good call, and the proof is you are alive, and not another victim of Get-There-itis. Thanks for telling your story.