By a Flight Safety Australia reader
After having recently achieved my private pilot’s licence, I decided to take up an offer from a friend to fly to the north-west Victorian town of St Arnaud. My mate has a property there and he was to pick me up from the airport.
I contacted him and organised to stay for a couple of days before flying back home again. That part of the planning was done. I booked an aircraft, a Cessna 172R, with my flying school at Moorabbin Airport. Then I began flight planning for the trip which I was hoping to undertake the following week, weather permitting. Being my first overnight exercise, I wanted everything to go to plan. My instructor had always told me that the better prepared I was for the flight, the less chance there was of things going wrong (eliminate human error).
The day of the flight finally arrived and I got to Moorabbin at about 0700 for a 0930 departure. I obtained the weather report and completed my flight planning and pre-flight – all ready to go. Everything looked good and I departed on time with an estimated flight time of 1.5 hours. This trip would take me via Ballarat and Ararat, then on to St Arnaud. The flight proceeded without a problem and I thought to myself, ‘How good is this?’ and that I should have got my licence years ago instead of finally doing it after reaching my so-called mid-life crisis.
On the day I planned to return to Moorabbin from St Arnaud, I had to go into town as I did not have access to the internet. I went to an internet café, did my flight planning and submitted the plan. The weather looked CAVOK with a moderate southerly at St Arnaud, but that was my observation only as there was no TAF.
I planned to return to Moorabbin via Bendigo, Kyneton, Kilmore and Sugarloaf Reservoir. The weather for the route looked OK. There was some low cloud and reduced visibility in the late afternoon, but still above VMC, on both the area and Moorabbin forecasts. The flight home was about 1.5 hours and I planned to be back at Moorabbin at approximately 1530. After doing my pre-flight and departing on time, I was feeling pretty good about how well things had gone.
On reaching Bendigo and taking up my next heading to Kyneton, I could see in the distance to the south some of the forecast low cloud. I estimated it was far enough away not to be a problem. I reached Kyneton, then turned towards Kilmore, descending from 4,500 ft to 3,500, still in VMC. The cloud now looking closer but I thought it was still OK to proceed.
At Kilmore I began my descent to 2,500 ft, due to the CTA steps and the lowering cloud base. Visibility was now beginning to reduce considerably but I was confident I could still maintain VMC. Approaching Yan Yean Reservoir, I estimated the visibility to be about 6,000 metres and I thought to myself that this was happening much earlier than expected and seemed to be worse than the forecast. Being relatively inexperienced, I pressed on thinking I could still make it back to Moorabbin – after all, it wasn’t that far.
At Sugarloaf Reservoir I thought, ‘I now have to make a decision whether to continue or divert’ as I could not even see the Dandenong Ranges. I decided to divert to Lilydale aerodrome, gave the CTAF call and turned towards the airfield. I had never been to Lilydale before or even seen it, but I had the information on hand, along with Coldstream aerodrome – pre-flight planning was paying off.
In front of me I saw an airfield. ‘All good,’ I thought. ‘I will overfly, check the windsock, then land.’ As I was overflying, I saw the writing on the roof of the building – Coldstream! I did not know how I had missed Lilydale but never mind, I decided to land. I flew the circuit and landed on runway 17 without a problem. I remember thinking that I was happy to be on the ground once again as the conditions had deteriorated substantially and that perhaps I had left my decision to divert too late.
After shutting down and tying the aircraft down, I contacted the flying school at Moorabbin to tell them I would not be back as I had put down at Coldstream. They said they had been trying to ring me to let me know the weather had been updated and that I would be better to delay my return until the next day because I would not be able to get into Moorabbin. I left the plane at Coldstream overnight and came back to the aerodrome early the next morning, but I was still unable to get out until about 1300. The conditions then improved enough to depart and return to Moorabbin successfully.
Reflecting on my flight, I was happy I had followed my instructor’s advice about thorough planning, but I was disappointed with my decision to press on when I should have made the choice to divert much earlier. That saying you always hear about – Get-there-it is – was true. It can happen so easily, especially for the inexperienced. Lesson learnt!
- This close call was first published in 2015.