Down to the wire

aircraft in a paddock with a cloudy stormy sky
Image - Jessica Voruda

Flying alone, a recreational pilot falls prey to confirmation bias, and ends up lucky to tell the tale

Back in mid-2017, some friends and I had decided to attend the Old Station Fly-in and Heritage Show in Queensland, which turned out to be the last time the event was held. 

I had flown to Wollongong to meet up with them and together we flew to Cowra. We were 2 aircraft – my Rans S19 Venterra and their J230 Jabiru. We made Moree the first night, then next morning, flying via Gayndah and Bundaberg, we arrived in the late afternoon at the Old Station at Raglan, which is inland just west of Gladstone.

The 2-day show was fantastic and, as it eventuated to be the last one, we were glad we had made the effort to attend. We split up for the return journey and my mates flew coastal while I elected to go inland, as I had flown most of the coastal route previously. After overnighting at Narromine, I left early with the expectation of making it through to home base at Holbrook that day. In hindsight, this was my first mistake as I had it in my head that I would be home that day.

About half an hour south of Narromine, I could see a dull grey horizon to the south west and, as I passed Forbes, it was beginning to get more of my attention. My second mistake was I should have stopped at Forbes as my step son lives just out of the town.

But I pressed on and, 15 nm from Temora, I was in light rain which had become heavier by the time I landed. Glad to be on the ground, I spent the next few hours with friends waiting for the weather to clear. It did appear to clear despite the weather radar saying otherwise. 

I decided to press on in spite of the offer to stay overnight. After all, what could go wrong as I had flown from Temora to Holbrook many times and knew the terrain? My third mistake – I should have stayed, but now get‑there-itis had set in.

Not far from Junee, the light rain again set in and I found myself skirting around low hills and following the magenta line on the iPad for Wagga Wagga. The city appeared out of the murk and surprisingly was in bright sunshine. This lulled me into a false sense of security so I pressed on. My fourth – and worst – mistake. 

I flew over the hills to the south-east and almost immediately into near complete cloud coverage. At this point I remember my face being flush and I was scared. There are many high tension transmission lines running across that country, especially near Cookardinia. I was resisting the temptation to lose height and, for a while, I was in and out of cloud and skirting just above the trees.

In hindsight, and the more I think about it, I was just lucky I didn’t hit anything.

When I thought all was lost, I flew into a clear hole and could see the ground. Even more fortunate for me, it was a clear, slightly uphill sloped paddock and all the cattle were up in one corner. 

The only thing I am proud of in this saga is that I made an instant decision to land in that paddock. Naturally I was too high and too fast, but slipped it onto the grass which fortunately was uphill. I killed the engine as soon as I knew the 3 wheels were on the deck as brakes don’t work well on wet grass. Somehow, I missed a concrete water trough but ran into a wire fence which acted like an arrester wire.

In hindsight, and the more I think about it, I was just lucky I didn’t hit anything.

I sat there for quite a while gathering my thoughts. I was okay but the thought of what could have been sent my face flush again. I do remember my legs were like jelly for a while.

Luck played a hand again and, after I wound the prop backwards out of the wire, I had scratches on one blade (of 3) and the spinner. I had run into the fence at about running pace.

There was no-one around so I took a few things out of the luggage, tied it down and used the extra rope to form a barrier to keep the animals away.

I clambered over fences of a few paddocks to reach the Wagga/Holbrook road and hitched a ride to the Holbrook airfield. I had landed just 5 nm short.

Next morning I took all I could out of the aeroplane, including the passenger seat and tools, to lighten it, then checked it over and flew that last 5 miles to the airport. It had dawned a clear sunny day and the longest part of the paddock was directly into wind.

Lessons learnt: I had been let off and have been cured of get-there-itis.