ILAFFT - my first formation flight
- Credit: Archant
Lost on only his third solo cross-country navigation exercise, a student is aided by another pilot flying alongside
In February 2013 I was a student microlight pilot with about ten hours solo, when I prepared the Eurostar for my third solo cross-country navigation exercise — this time to Shobdon about 46nm away from my base at Kemble. I had never been there before, but I had previously flown to Wellesbourne solo without having been there first with an instructor. I checked the weather and NOTAM, prepared the aeroplane and was briefed by my instructor after a quick check flight including a simulated engine failure on takeoff.
The air was smooth and visibility was good. I flew past Gloucester and contacted them on my way for a basic service. I noted the mast off to my left at about the right time and identified Hereford, even though there was a lot of flooding around. I was confident I was remaining clear of Credenhill danger area. The very good visibility was slowly leading me into problems though. I was significantly further away from Hereford than I thought when I was abeam it. There was rising ground ahead, as I expected, and a valley to the right, also as expected, but unknown to me I was about twelve degrees off track, so I was flying over similar terrain, just not the right terrain.
Close to my ETA, I realised I had drifted to the right as, apparently, the town of Leominster was below me, so I applied a correction and started flying towards the base of the hills I expected to find Shobdon nestling under. I changed from Gloucester and contacted Shobdon and asked for a vector from Leominster racecourse which I was above at the time.
- 1 Ground tests for ZeroAvia's 19-seater’s eco-engine
- 2 Flight test: Piper PA-23-250 Aztec
- 3 100 years of Fournier: a history of aviation’s original ‘green’ promoter
“There is no racecourse at Leominster — I suggest that you contact Distress and Diversion on one two one decimal five” came the chilling response. I was lost in a non transponder-equipped aircraft, close to the Welsh hills. I considered my options while flying on the course I still thought would take me to Shobdon. I could still see Hereford with the sun glinting on the flooding around the town. I had plenty of fuel so that wasn’t a problem yet. I was convinced I was over Leominster so I started following the road that I believed should have led towards Shobdon.
“I strongly suggest you contact Distress and Diversion on 121.5” came an insistent FISO from Shobdon. My student status was causing concern to others. I stated I was changing frequency while I continued flying on course.
I’d like to say I made a perfect Mayday call, but I just treated the D & D staff as any other station; “Student Golf blah blah blah blah, in the vicinity of Shobdon, unsure of position, negative transponder” was all I managed. I was asked to broadcast so they could get a fix on me and then another aircraft appeared on a parallel reciprocal course to mine so I told them that there was “another aeroplane just passing me now — if that helps”.
The hills were now drawing close and with no sign of an airfield I had decided that my safe course of action was to reverse my own original track and head back to Kemble. I was sure I could find Kemble given the extent of the Cotswold water park and my familiarity with the region so I made a 180° turn. Then I heard a new voice on the radio “I may have just passed your distressed aircraft, I’ll turn back and take a look” and the Robin that had just whizzed by turned and came alongside me. The pilot confirmed to London D & D that I was indeed the aircraft in distress, we were close to Craven Arms, and between them they agreed to guide me to Shobdon. The pilot gave me a course to steer and then came into formation on me well to one side and slightly behind. Not the ideal conditions I imagined would be my first formation flight!
A few minutes later after some more corrections, I was over Shobdon and I asked and changed frequencies again, without formally cancelling the Mayday that I had never formally issued! Pilot overload, inexperience of dealing with D & D, relief and time pressure to land and get home again before sunset all contributed to my actions then. I made a safe landing, thanked the FISO and got the registration of the aircraft that helped me. I had a cup of tea and flew home uneventfully.
When I got back to Kemble I found out that my wife had phoned up, while I was lost, to tell the school to hurry me home — she had gone into labour early. They didn’t tell me that while I was airborne, and they didn’t tell her I was lost either! My daughter, Ruth, was born 48 hours later. Looking him up on G-INFO I sent the pilot of the assisting aircraft a thank you card: one of those motivational ones ‘leaders are like eagles — you find them one at a time’. it seemed appropriate. It turned out my compass was out by around seven degrees in the direction I’d been flying.
What did I learn? Stay calm and think about the problem. Had Ludlow racecourse not been on the fold of my map I might have been able to sort it out myself, but talking to the D&D cell was the right thing to do. Turning back to Kemble was a positive plan I had control of. Talk to the ground and listen to their advice; they are not under the same pressure you are. Plot your track achieved more carefully. Use several positive and negative identification points to work out where you are — even after being told I still ignored the lack of a racecourse at Leominster. And, finally: Check your compass periodically in a direction other than the runway alignment.
Aviators are grand people.
Be published in Pilot! Do you have your own ILAFFT tale? Tell us your story in around 1,100 words and you could see it in print