I Learned a Lot Today
It had been a pleasant day.
My first trip across the channel with my family, who had been looking forward to it immensely and who were amazed how easy it was to do so. It had taken us 55 minutes on the way out with the help of a healthy tailwind component and I found I had grown more comfortable with understanding the French accent on the radio, even more or less comprehending the ATIS!!
As we lined up in the hired Warrior I took note of the crosswind – all within limits, opened the throttle and before we knew it we were airborne.
The cloud base was reported as broken at 2800’ and this appeared to be correct. I knew we were flying toward a warm front and was a little uneasy about exactly what to expect but took the decision to climb through the broken clouds to 4500’.
I could see the French Coast off to my right and the kids were counting the boats underneath us. I tuned into the LYD VOR and set course for the English coast, swapping to London Info as the French controller said au revoir as soon as we were out of his ATZ.
It was almost immediately that I noticed the strength of the wind aloft. Every time I got the needle centred the wind was weather-cocking the plane off to the right. I switched on the GPS as a back up to make sure I was tracking the shortest route over the water. I never have been keen on flying over the Channel (hence my decision to go VFR above the clouds to gain as much height advantage as possible!) and I didn’t intend to be above water any longer than I had to be. I see the point of many who insist on flying twins over water.
I was being kept busy in the cockpit. The horizon that had existed was becoming rather indistinct, the cloud tops moulding with the general greyness that prevailed. Looking down there were still large gaps in the cloud layer that lay 1500’ below and the sea was readily visible. Still OK then. Glancing back the view was depressingly grey. I’ll be glad to be back over the land I thought to myself.
Crossing the FIR boundary, London upgraded us to a FIS.
Oh bother, the heading has drifted off again. Back on track.
Aargh my height has drifted off, back down 100’.
Estimate to Lydd…. Standby London… 15 minutes to run with this wind I reckon… that heading has drifted 30 degrees off again.
I suddenly realised that I had been spending far too long with my head in the cockpit, relying on my front seat passenger to do the lookout, something she is good at, but ultimately not her responsibility.
At the same time a little voice piped up in the back querying why they couldn’t see the sea or the boats anymore.
The unease crept back in.
A glance at the GPS told me we were halfway across that cold dark water. Decision time. I looked around and was greeted by greyness.
Total, eclipsing, numbing greyness.
I concentrated on keeping the plane straight and level whilst my mind raced through the options.
The front was heading toward France, I knew that. If I did a 180 would I be able to get down through the cloud legally or had those gaps gone?
The greyness outside the cockpit intensified as if it were pushing me for a decision.
For a moment I felt lost.
The statistics on PPL’s flying into IMC and their survival time rate away at my mind.
Whatever decision I made I had the feeling that it would involve a descent through cloud. I thought about climbing and trying to get above to get into VMC again but knew this was just as dangerous and the cloud tops could be a long way above by now.
Also eating away at me was the fact I had my family with me. The decision I made would affect them all.
With the recording I had listened to of a pilot who had lost control in IMC fresh in my mind, I decided that as I was managing to keep straight and level in IMC and I knew we were still over the sea I would attempt a very slow, very steady descent down through this greyness until we broke into VMC.
I let London Info know (oh how I wish I had used a radar service now!!) that I was descending initially to 3500’.
From the tone in his voice I think he knew I was in trouble. I gingerly edged the power back a little and started a slow descent. My passenger nudged me. I was 40 degrees off track again.
A gentle turn which seemed to take an age and everything in my body at a heightened state of alertness.
Then it happened.
I was convinced we were in a turn that was denied by the instruments. I spent the rest of the journey downwards just repeating to myself, ignore the brain, just look at the instruments. I can assure those who have never experienced this that ignoring what your brain is telling you takes one hell of a lot of effort and willpower. You end up playing mind games with your own brain !!!
We arrived at 3500’ and were still surrounded by that pervading greyness and informed London that the journey downwards was continuing. A calm reassuring voice just prompted me to let him know every 500’ or so. He warned me of multiple traffic below at between 1000’ and 1700’ all heading for Lydd but I think he knew I’d take my chances on not landing on one of them.
My heading was all over the place but I admit I was more concerned with staying in control and to cut a long story short we broke cloud base at 920’. I know it was that because my passengers were as happy to see the ocean as I was to hear we were VMC again.
As I informed London I spied Lydd a couple of miles to my left, thanked London Info with as much warmth as I could muster and switched to Lydd.
Several things amazed me about this experience. The first thing is we’re alive!! Against the odds, not proud of myself for getting us into the situation, but glad it turned out OK.
The thoughts may have been running through my head but inside I remained incredibly calm and collected. Guess I had so much to think about that I didn’t have time to be scared. It was much later in the evening when a chill passed over me with the realisation of what could have been. No need to expand on that thought really, but they are very chilling thoughts.
Should I have handled things differently? Once up there I’m not sure a 180 would have bought a dissimilar result. And I would have had to cope with a strange accent on the radio. No big deal apart from when you are already at full capacity.
Quite possibly (an understatement) I should have elected to stay beneath the cloud base and applied another well known phrase – the engine doesn’t know it’s over water. Many other aircraft manage to get across at around the 1000’ level. My nervousness of flying over water may be a little better now. Better than clowning around in solid IMC anyway.
I learned a lot about flying that day. And how the weather can catch you out so quickly.