For the last few weeks I’ve had the frustration of being involuntarily grounded by both the weather and work. When it’s a great day to fly the in-tray is stuffed full and when I finally manage to clear that out lo and behold the weather has cascading thumping thunderstorms and buckets or rain. The last of which is not a good combination for a VFR pilot trying to get his hours up in an Arrow.
So the other day I checked both the weather and my desk and discovered that there was what looked like blue skies in both. Hooray! I planned on flying from Moorabbin to Tocumwal just over the Victorian border into NSW and grab a car to visit a business colleague in Cobram who was competing in a radio controlled model aircraft competition. Yes, it was tempting to consider buzzing the smaller model planes but I reconsidered that idea after imagining the impact a model aeroplane would have on the Arrow’s windshield at about 130 knots.
I started my planning the night before and decided on flying from Moorabbin via Sugarloaf reservoir, through the Kilmore Gap and almost a direct flight to Tocumwal. I’ve done this flight a few times before, the last one with my son Timothy when we headed north for gliding lessons so I was pretty comfortable with the flight plan.
Nevertheless, I’m pretty paranoid about flying safely and I still checked out all of my charts, changes in the ERSA and finally on Downwind.com.au to see if any helpful pilots had left any hints in the airport comments area. There’s nothing quite like actual pilots to keep you up-to-date with the state of an airfield.
One of the last things I like to do before a flight is to check the weather charts on the BOM and then look at the aviation weather on the morning of a flight. Other than a bit of wind everything was looking in the green but it always does look fine until it isn’t.
The next morning I again checked the weather and noted that the wind had picked up to about 25 knots from the west and there was a possibility of some rain with worse weather coming in towards the end of the day. It looked like leaving early was a good idea so bright and early the next morning I picked up a good friend who had stuck his hand up to come along and we headed down to the airport to pre-flight LFP.
Other than topping up a bit of oil everything was in order so we climbed aboard and fired up the engine. I always like getting my passengers involved in the flight so I had my friend read out the checks as we let the engine warm up. It’s also quite comforting to have someone else ensure that nothing is forgotten due to a slip of the memory.
Like all GAAP zones Moorabbin has just instituted a requirement to request taxi clearances for crossing all runways (active or inactive). Not surprisingly, shortly after we pulled into the run-up bay we heard the urgent voice of a traffic controller yelling at a pilot to stop his aircraft just before causing a runway incursion.
There’s nothing quite like, “Stop, Stop, Stop!” being yelled in your headset to get your attention. Needless to say the offending aircraft pulled up just short of a mountain of paperwork.
We learnt the lesson of the other pilot and made sure that we were cleared down taxiway bravo to the holding point for runway 31R. Although LFP is about 30 years old it had recently undergone an overhaul after a gear up landing incident at Essendon airport. The result was a tri-blade prop that just whipped the Arrow off the runway and into the air and provided a TAS of 135 knots! Got to love that!
We headed almost due north towards Sugarloaf Reservoir and I played with the CSU as I watched the RPM gauge bounce around plus or minus 150 RPM. Despite the fluctuations all the instruments seemed to be in order so I made our calls for entering the VFR route to Melbourne Radar and we headed northwest to Kilmore.
The weather ahead wasn’t looking the best and we had to drop down from 2,500 feet to 1,800 feet but what really grabbed my attention was the “Gear in Transit” light coming on. That wasn’t good.
I checked the air speed indicator and we were hurtling along at around 130 knots so I surmised that it was unlikely that any gear had inadvertently partially dropped down. There were no green lights being displayed either so my supposition was likely to be correct but despite this the fact that the plane had recently experienced a gears-up landing played through my head.
I made the decision to press onto YTOC and if the “Gear in Transit” light remained on then have Eddie at the airfield get his binoculars out on the underside of the plane as we flew past. In the meantime, I slowed the plane down and played with the rudder to see if the “Gear in Transit” light was just a faulty switch or gear door not quite closing. While doing this a helpful air pocket jolted the Arrow and the light immediately turned off. Happiness returned to the cock-pit.
The happiness was short-lived when my focus returned to outside the cockpit and the fact that the weather had closed in ahead of us. I could just make out Mount Piper to the north as we headed towards Kilmore and due to increasing cloud cover our altitude was down to around 1,500 feet.
It’s times like this that you’re really glad that you have a PPL. It just didn’t look like fun trying to race around clouds while dodging mountains and putting up with being tossed around like a cork on the ocean. I just turned the plane around, made a call to Melbourne Radar that I was re-entering the VFR route travelling now to the south-east due to weather.
Rather than pushing on and enduring stress and wondering if we would survive my friend and I chatted about the fact that it was mildly annoying since the rest of Melbourne was in sunshine. Such is the life of a pilot that travels the Kilmore Gap.
I remember being posed a question in my PPL theory course about having to fly in inclement weather. I answered the instructor by telling him that as a PPL I don’t HAVE to fly at all, I choose to fly, so in the scenario he posed I’d go to the pub. After a pause he answered, “Well, I suppose you don’t have to fly.” As PPL pilots we fly for the sheer pleasure of it so whenever it’s no longer enjoyable my advice is put the wheels on the ground and leave them there.
So after a bit of discussion my friend and I made the decision that, “Phillip Island looks nice.” We cancelled our YTOC SAR and flight plan then headed south past Moorabbin, over French Island and down towards YPID.
A helpful Melbourne Radar operator suggested that we swap frequencies to Phillip Island rather than broadcasting our CTAF calls on the area frequency. I mentally kicked myself and thanked the controller as I’d forgotten that LFP has a very different way of selecting the broadcast frequency compared to what I’m used to. That’s the problem with hiring planes, every configuration is a little different.
After our experiences with the “gear in transit” light it was a relief to see three green gear lights for the landing gear. The final approach onto runway 22 at Phillip Island is quite interesting at the best of times. The whole way along the left hand side of the runway is a row of houses and on the right side it’s wide open. That sounds good until you have a strong westerly blowing across the strip into the houses.
As we crabbed down I found myself half keeping an eye on the runway and half on the bacon and eggs that were burning on the stove in the third house on the left. A last minute kick of the rudder to straighten up and the Arrow settled to the ground and to be fair I made sure that it stuck there.
A short taxi, power-down checks and we headed into San Remo courtesy of a friendly cab driver. The bridge linking Phillip Island to the mainland and San Remo didn’t look quite as impressive as when I tried to sail a yacht underneath it, decided I was going to lose my mast and so I made a hasty retreat.
The San Remo highlight was the great burger at the pub. Delivered fast, huge and tasted magnificent! What more could a tired pilot ask for? Or should I say, what more could a tired pilot ask for that had to fly back to Moorabbin in about an hour’s time?
The last time I’d been to Phillip Island the Archer I had been flying had contracted a bad case of flat battery. The helpful chopper pilots came and gave me a jump start so on this trip I picked up a few beers to repay the debt. When I dropped them off at the counter the pilots were pretty happy but more for the fact that the guys off duty had actually helped me out and yet they’d ended up with the beer!
After pre-flight checks we taxied out to 22, keeping moving all the time to avoid stones “pinging” off the propeller and smashing house windows. The westerly was still blowing so ailerons into the wind, full power and left the wheels on the runway a little longer than normal so that the Arrow could build up speed without being pushed into the houses. When I rotated it leapt into the air and was well above the houses and out of harm’s way in no time.
The flight back to Moorabbin was sunny and uneventful. In fact, we never saw the “gear in transit” light again. Unlike YPID it was a nice landing on 31L without the full crosswind we’d experienced at Phillip Island. We rolled right to the end of the runway so that we could duck off without having to make any runway clearance calls, which was a bit of a bonus.
So did I get to Tocumwal? No I didn’t. Was I disappointed? Not at all. I was participating in the miracle of flight and enjoying it immensely as a PPL pilot that doesn’t have to go anywhere but wants to go everywhere. I’m sure that come the gliding season Tocumwal will be back on the agenda for my son and I, Kilmore Gap willing of course!