Be prepared to expect the unexpected, especially regarding our capricious winter weather. I came unstuck recently and I am happy to report certain short-comings on that occasion.
It had been a standard sort of day with the usual scrabble to put aircraft to bed and get notes written at the end of a full day’s flying. Although it was after sunset, it was still legal daytime with decent light as I took off from runway 24 for return flight to Lee. I hadn’t checked the met, though I had looked at it a couple of hours before. To my surprise I encountered a small puff of cloud on the way to Aldebury VRP and reckoning Boscombe was closed “just popped above it”. It quickly became clear that this was not an isolated cloud but part of a rapidly advancing layer. By now the airfield was covered so there was no question of a turn back, so I climbed above the layer into the gathering gloom which by now was illuminated by a crescent moon. I had little option but to press on hoping this was the patch one so often sees over the Avon valley. As the cloud-tops at this stage were less than 1500 feet, I pressed on towards Stoney Cross remaining outside the Solent CTA. My heart sank when I tuned in to the SAM VOR ATIS and heard the cloud base was 500 feet with 4km visibility so it was clear I wasn’t going to get back to my car that evening. In the vain hope that the poor weather was a local phenomenon I kept going until the GPS told me I was over the coast at which time an “All Stations” broadcast from Southampton indicated the cloud base was down to 400ft. I could have murdered the controller for sounding so pleased about it. However, he did accept me for a radar vectored ILS and asked me to self-position over SAM while the inbound traffic subsided. It was at this stage that I found the pitch control on the autopilot had become U/S. By then it was a glorious night for flying with bright moonlight reflecting from an endless sheet of alto-cumulus – if only it hadn’t been for the prospect of returning to terra-firma!
As I was eventually being positioned towards the localiser at 4000ft initially, there was good news and bad news! The good news was that my favourite controller who is also a flight instructor started his shift. The bad news was that the cloud base had fallen to 300 feet with 3000 metres vis. so that the Coast Guard helicopter which was carrying amotorway casualty could not make it to Southampton General and he too needed the ILS. You can guess who had priority. More stooging around. As it was a bona fide weather diversion there was no landing fee, but of course there is a substantial handling andovernight parking charge. I’ve never been so pleased to part with money including the taxi back to Lee! So what did I learn from that unpleasant experience?Avoid complacency – just because I’d made that journey hundreds of times didn’t mean the next one was going to be routine. Always use current weather reports before setting out. Routine METARS can be up to 30 minutes out of currency, but in the circumstances of rapid deterioration a Speci will be broadcast. Consider an early turn back if unsure of weather or aircraft. The good things were that I had 5 hours fuel so that a diversion inland would have been feasible. I had current Instrument Charts to hand and an aircraft well equipped for the situation (the faulty autopilot servo has been replaced at vast expense). I was also in current practice. If you are unable to profit from my unsatisfactory experience, then tune in once again to http://flash.aopa.org/asf/acs_crosscountry and listen to the scary last R/T of a pilot who flew over-weight, out of balance and short of fuel.