When I was a young boy, I hated flying. I mean, really hated it. I think it was due to a traumatic flying experience on a transatlantic flight to Florida in a 747, back in the seventies. We were unable to avoid a huge storm cell over the Atlantic and the entire plane was bucking like a feral cat held in a stranger’s cuddle and I could see the forks of lightning from outside the window. People were screaming and crying, the fuselage was twisting, luggage fell indiscriminately from the overhead lockers and I remember looking at my mother, her normal, calm angelic face now glistening in sweat and fear as she spoke in strained words to me that everything would be OK. I smelt the very essence of rancid anxiety and knew this wasn’t quite true. I was gripping the armrests as though I myself were keeping the plane in the air, hoping it would assuage the violent effects of the roller coaster ride of what professional aircrew understate as “mild turbulence”.
A few years later I remember sitting in the car with my sisters as my parents were driving down the M23, only for my mother to turn around and say “Surprise! We’re going to Spain for holiday!”. I went deathly white, the tsunami of terror drowning me in the horrors that would await in that cylindrical, aluminium tube of torment, plastic cutlery, dehydrated chicken chasseur and inevitable turbulence.
Fast forward many years and I found myself working on a refinery in the Shetlands. Indulging in single malt whiskeys, sheep baiting and boredom, I found solace in playing Microsoft Flight Simulator on the PC. I’ve always loved researching aircraft, both commercial and military, and their avionics and radar systems and found playing the flight simulator such fun, and all the complexities of the instrumentation and I learned how to “fly” a Learjet 45 in between the Twin Towers and sometimes inverted under the Golden Gate Bridge.
A colleague suggested that as I was so enthusiastic about it all, that I go to the local flying club and have a trial flight in a light aircraft with an instructor. With a lack of anything sensible to do, I said, why not.
So there I was, on a sunny but usually strong windy day, I met with the instructor, who said, “jump in the plane, I’ll pop out and do the paperwork and come back in a jiffy”. I sat in the left-hand seat of this fatigued Cessna 152, strapped myself in and peered at the panel in front of me. Good grief, it was just like the Flight Simulator, I thought, and recognised most of the instruments and controls and what they did. However, I noticed in the strong wind this tiny plane was rocking to and fro and suddenly I came to my senses: what the hell was I doing here?!?!? Before I could unbuckle my seatbelt and apologise saying I had made a dreadful mistake, the instructor jumped in, scantily glanced at the checklist and we were taxying to runway 02, a brief burst of power and we were airborne.
After about a minute in, the instructor looked at me and thought, “we’ve got a puker” and started to open all the air vents. I had sweat pouring down my face, I had gone white and I was rigid with fear. He asked if I was OK, and I replied more out of embarrassment than fear, that yes, everything was fine and what a wonderful view it was from up here. I wasn’t enjoying this one bit, but then suddenly my world changed. He said, “you have control” and I grasped the yoke and the next minute I was flying the aircraft. Something happened. Something quite spiritual. I was flying this tiny two-seater tin can, and it was amazing. The fear had subsided and was replaced with elation, I was in control, and therein exposed the root of my fears. It was so good, the lovely instructor let me fly the plane back to the airfield and took over just as we were over the threshold. It felt like I had conquered a demon that had held me back for so long and this experience had given me so much needed confidence.
I was hooked with general aviation. I was back in Kent and I went to Biggin Hill and after 50 hours or so had qualified for my Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL). I had also moved on from Cessna 152’s to a more complex, low wing Grumman AA-5 four-seater.
I was a low hour pilot, but the recent achievement gave me a feeling of unstoppable bravado and I even had thoughts of becoming a commercial pilot. One day, despite a cloudy start to the morning, the weather broke and I thought I would fly to the south coast, take a few pictures of the iconic white cliffs of Dover. I went to Biggin Hill aerodrome in the mid-morning, booked the AA-5 and grabbed the latest TAF (Terminal Aerodrome [weather] Forecast). CAVOK: visibility greater than 10km and no clouds below 5000ft. Perfect.
So I carried out the pre-flight checks, got the ATIS, power checks completed and queued on the holding point for runway 03, along with everyone else that had had the same idea. Soon, after clearance, I was airborne and heading towards the white cliffs. I was just under the TMA at 3,500 ft just south west of Lashenden when I saw a thick wall of cloud ahead of me. I was not instrument rated (yet) so thought it was prudent to turn back and head towards Biggin. I wasn’t going to take any chances.
I turned the aircraft around and headed back towards Biggin, only to be faced with a thick similar wall of cloud. What the actual f***?!?!? Where the hell did that come from? My hands started to sweat as I grasped the yoke ever tighter. Before I could fathom out what was going on, I hit the cloud.
Can I explain to anyone that is not a pilot, what it is like to hit cloud in a small, light aircraft? Imagine you are driving up the M1 at 70mph and someone paints your windscreen with white paint. And you are still doing 70 mph. My first reaction was one of immense fear and shock. Then I thought: so, this is how I am going to die. In a plane, in cloud, losing control and crashing into the ground, with my poor mother realising her words of condemnation to the dangerous occupation of flying will be the death of me, coming to fruition.
But as soon as the fear hit me square in the chest, it just as quickly subsided. The training had kicked in. In undertaking the PPL, most students are required to carry out 4 hours of instrument training: the ability to fly an aircraft in bad weather on instruments alone. It’s pretty hard to do and requires a lot of training to get right, and a great deal of spatial coordination and awareness. One of the things about using your eyes and senses when you are flying in cloud is that you instinctively feel the plane is flying up and at an angle, so you immediately push down on the stick. There was an apocryphal tale in the aviation circles that said the average life expectancy of a student pilot in bad weather was 15 seconds. I can believe that.
Fortunately for me, I spent many hours playing Flight Sim in simulated bad weather over the Kent area, practising my instrument skills with all the navaids and using the T-scan method. A calm came over me and I repeated to myself the old aviator’s adage of “Aviate, Navigate and Communicate”. I got the plane steady, dialled in the Biggin VOR (a radio beacon that shows where the airfield is and distance to relative to your aircraft) and calmly stated to Biggin Approach I was returning to base and in IMC (bad weather conditions).
It was surreal. Here I was sitting in my whitewashed windowed tin can, wishing I told my wife I love her very much, would she know? And Biggin Approach said contact Tower on 134.8 on sight of the airfield. Not much chance of that, I thought, but as long as I could get back then I could start the next stage under slightly better odds.
Well, as I eventually approached the airfield after 15 minutes feverishly T-scanning the instruments, I could see the runway in all its glory, calmly reported to Tower that I was visual and on the downwind section. Although I said I was visual with the runway, the sickening reality was there were clouds everywhere. I carried out the downwind checks: altimeter set, brakes off, mixture fully rich, instruments OK, fuel pumps on, fuel selector all, carb heat check, flaps set. There was an aircraft in front of me on the downwind, piloted by an instructor. I requested to be number one for the approach and the instructor, who instinctively knew what was going on, said he would kindly extend on the downwind and let me land first.
As I turned onto base and started to descend, I was once again right in the clag, couldn’t see anything. I got the next stage of flap out and mentally timed the distance travelled before turning left onto finals. I was descending on the QFE: 900ft… 800ft… 700ft… nothing, just white cloud. I started to stress a little because at 600ft was the decision height for IMC rated pilots (which, as I stated, I wasn’t). In other words, if you cannot see the threshold at 600ft, you must put on full power, climb and go around. I’m not sure I could have coped with the confusion of a go-around at all. I admit, for the second time in this flight, I was shitting myself.
650ft… 600ft…!! Fuck!! My hand was on the power levers when suddenly, oh thank you sweet Jesus, I saw the threshold lights to the right of me. I dumped the power, full flap and headed for those oh so sweet green and red lights of salvation. Fortunately, Biggin has quite a nice long runway so I touched down mid-way and like a shaking, constipated dog taking a crap, taxied back to the club.
When I finally shutdown the aircraft and stood on the apron, a nice John Player & Sons cig came out of its pack as I fumbled clumsily with the zippo and lit it. I went back to the club for a debrief.
So, what had I learned from that?
First of all, I got the TAF (weather forecast) which was old. Had I waited another 10 minutes, the latest forecast would have shown cloud coming in which as a visual rules pilot, I never would have flown in the first place. Beginners mistake.
Second, according to Biggin Tower and the club, I was too calm on the radio. Yes, they said I sounded calm and they thought that there was no problem. I should have issued a PAN-PAN (mild distress communication) to show approach and tower that I was in difficulty. I would have had priority help to get back to Biggin.
Thirdly, it is tantamount to the high standard of training on the UK PPL course and that they give you 4 hours of instrument training, the support of the flying clubs and the great work and dedication the aviation staff generously give for this very scenario. Also, I recommend using Flight Sim software as part of your training, especially familiarising yourself with the navaids and IFR techniques.
To underline the seriousness of the weather conditions that day, an instructor with a student in a non-instrument equipped plane, circled high over Biggin hoping the weather would clear. It didn’t and they diverted to another airfield further north, with minimum fuel to spare.
Needless to say, I eventually got myself an Instrument Rating after that and then went on to fly larger, more complex twin aircraft, but that’s a story for another time.