On 11 June 1978 I was pilot in command of a light aircraft for a routine cross-country flight in South Australia, which turned into an unforgettable flight.
I penned an account of this flight many years later, and it was published in an Australian flying magazine. The text of that article is reproduced below under the heading, ‘A Memorable Flying Lesson’.
In providing a little background to the flight in question, I confess readily to indulging in rambling reminiscences of the years I flew around South Australia, of which I have very fond memories. If you’re not a pilot or you don’t have any interest in aviation, you might prefer to jump straight to my account of the 11 June 1978 flight.
Prior to commencing this public blog, for some years I published a private blog accessible only to a family and a few friends. This post appeared in that blog in 2017. I thought it a story worth re-telling to the growing number of people who view the content of ‘South’. In this post I have included the comments made by readers on the original post, as in some ways their content adds to the story in the post. To the few who have already read this post on my previous blog, I apologise for its reappearance here.
Please forgive the poor quality of the photos in this post. They are mostly copies of prints created from 35mm slides which weren’t much in the first place, and which are now over 40 years old.
A few memories from my early days of bush flying in southern Australia
Just over 40 years ago, the young bloke in this picture (concentrating hard on the task at hand by the look of things) was doing a fair bit of flying around the Eyre Peninsula and the west coast of South Australia in a Cherokee 180 registered VH-WIL.
The 11 June 1978 Flight
A MEMORABLE FLYING LESSON
“In 1978 I had flown 180 hours since first solo. A couple of lengthy cross-country trips had enhanced my view of myself as an accomplished navigator. Soon, the glory of being a ‘200 hour pilot’ would be mine. I liked to think that at 180 hours I was already flying like a 200 hour pilot.
A weekend trip was planned in the flying club’s trusty Cherokee 180, across the Gulfs from Port Lincoln to a small airfield east of the Adelaide hills and back. I was the aero club’s newest member, and a newcomer to South Australia. The trusting passengers were my girlfriend and a married couple with babe in arms. Meticulous planning and preparation were undertaken, including the fully prepared log on the back of the old flight plan form which was enough to keep a team of navigators writing constantly for the duration of the flight. All maps were pre-folded, all frequency plans were drawn, both mains and confidence were fully topped up, and off we went.
The trip over via a scenic route went exactly according to plan. An enjoyable weekend was had by all, and I extracted the passengers from the party mid Sunday afternoon. I had plenty of time to check the aircraft and make it home before last light. I had doubled the ’10 minutes before last light’ planning requirement for my ETA. The weather forecast was unexceptional.
I planned to top up the tanks to full fuel at the airstrip where the aircraft had been parked. A knowledgeable looking instructor there reluctantly agreed to sell me some drum stock. He wheeled the drum over, and wound the pump handle for a while then put the fuel caps back on. I checked the contents myself, and noted that the fuel level in both tanks was beneath the tabs. I told him I’d prefer it filled up, but as he explained, he was short on fuel and had given me “enough to get back to Port Lincoln”. That was re-assuring. After all, he was presumably well past the 200 hour pinnacle, and he wore epaulettes.
The takeoff and climb-out were uneventful. Blue skies were the backdrop to sharply defined cumuliform clouds, some of spectacular vertical extent. A photographer’s delight. As soon as we levelled out in cruise, operational matters were all well under control and I took the opportunity to make a brief captain’s address to the passengers, and to fire off a few frames on the Nikon. Smiles and ease prevailed in the cosy cockpit as we left the coast behind and headed out over the sea.
About half way back, the blue skies ahead were progressively overtaken by cloud. Visibility was still fine. The sky ahead was all cloud, and the sky behind was all blue. I did a groundspeed check and noted that we had an unexpected head wind of about 30 knots. So I descended to try for a better groundspeed. Just as well too, because some of that cloud was a bit lower than it looked at first. The sea was as I had never seen it. We were now down to about 1000 feet. Rolling and breaking surf with huge trails of streaking foam covered the sea from horizon to horizon.
There was now some blackness beneath the clouds ahead, with dark purple-green pendulous formations in the lowering base, the likes of which I had not seen before. Failing to understand the significance of what I was observing, I merely registered idle curiosity at the spectacle. Our greatly reduced groundspeed was now visible to even the untrained eye. A check revealed a headwind component of 45 knots. As I lifted my head from this groundspeed calculation, my poise was disturbed by the odd wisp of cloud rushing past the cockpit. I responded by descending to 500 feet above the sea.
By now there were a few heavy and very noisy drops of rain hitting the windscreen, and the black and grey columns of rain ahead did not augur well. I reached for the microphone and tried to radio Adelaide for a weather update on Port Lincoln. I was too low for the VHF to work, and the old HF proved, as usual, to be about as reliable as mental telepathy. There was a lot of static and interference on the radio.
Wedge Island slowly appeared ahead and the 45 knot headwind was confirmed by another groundspeed calculation. I did not know there was a strip there. Eventually Thistle Island loomed out of the murk, but took an uncomfortably long time to get any closer. By the time we flew abeam its eastern tip, the rain was constant and heavy and made conversation below a shout impossible. I didn’t know there was a strip on Thistle Island. I didn’t think to look.
But I did realise that the black curtain ahead dragging its hem in the seething sea was no place for a VFR (visual flight rules) Cherokee 180, even with a ‘nearly 200 hour’ pilot at the controls. I descended further to remain clear of cloud, and at about 300 feet above sea level, finally realised that the dark maelstrom ahead was not for me. I then recalled having flown a few weeks earlier to Spilsby Island, north of my present position. So a quick free-hand pencil line on the WAC chart and off we headed, laying off 30 degrees of drift on the diversion track. The forces from the northwest reached Spilsby Island before I did. Retreat back to Thistle Island was required.
By this time daylight was all but gone. I did a 180 and applied 30 degrees of drift into wind again, and headed back to Thistle Island. At this point it occurred to me that Adelaide should be in the clear, and that with the 45 knot tail wind the trip would be quick. But then the penny dropped. The amount of fuel I had on board was precisely ah, well approximately……ummm……let’s see those gauges …… E to F and fluctuating all over the place.…..ah ……took off at ……but that ATD didn’t really help, because I had no idea how much fuel I had on board at departure, except that it was ‘enough to get back to Port Lincoln’. The fuel calculation ignoring the recently added fuel was a bit tight for comfort. So I concluded that even with a tail wind of 45 knots, running the risk of fuel exhaustion over the sea in the dark was not the best option. I was not aware of any strips on the Yorke Peninsula, much less any strips with runway lighting.
So once again, from the northwest tip of Thistle Island I set heading for Port Lincoln only to fly into a dark wall of rain. The rain which had been merely very loud now became deafening. It combined with the turbulence and the just visible chaos of the sea 200-300 feet below to lead me very belatedly to the conclusion that an immediate tactical retreat was called for. I turned up the cabin lights, and went onto the instruments. I held the wings level for a moment, noted the heading and then started a tentative shallow banked 180 degree turn. No instrument observed in the course of my somewhat random scan revealed anything constant. After a minute or so of turning with entirely unsatisfactory deviations in all axes, I levelled the wings on a very approximate reciprocal track and looked hopefully out the windscreen. I was rewarded by the sight of the dark outline of Thistle Island looming up at a frightening rate. As I later learned, I must have flown over the quite adequate grass landing strip there three or four times that evening.
I then circled for a while in the closest thing to VMC (visual meteorological conditions) on offer in a small area of rapidly fading gloom. I could just see the white highlights on the sea by looking straight down. On each orbit as the nose passed through a north-westerly heading, I peered hopefully in the direction of Port Lincoln township, until eventually I vaguely discerned or possibly just imagined a dull glow through the curtains of rain and darkness in that general direction. So I set heading for home again only to fly into the horizonless rain and turbulence once more, forced to retreat with yet another lucky 180 on the instruments. Three times this occurred, as thunder and lightning now added further drama to the situation. Caught between the seemingly impenetrable weather and the prospect of an over-water flight to Adelaide with fuel exhaustion a possibility, I responded by circling in the orb of gloomy visibility near Thistle Island simply because it was better than the other two options.
During the fourth or fifth orbit I spotted a red marine light in the general direction of Port Lincoln township and headed for it. We were about 200 feet above sea level by this stage. The driving rain intensified as if to force us back, but that red light remained visible. I flew towards it and eventually over it and was gratified to then see the faint glow of the township lights through the rain. It was by now pitch black. I had no night VFR training, and had never even been airborne at night.
As the solid rain and turbulence, the disorienting darkness and the thunderstorm threatened to end the flight short of our destination, the reliable little Cherokee plugged on until it was over the wharves of Port Lincoln. I then tracked coastal to the north at low altitude on the lee side of the hills where the thunderstorm and wind from the north west were violently spilling over. I searched for the rotating airport beacon and the lights of the airstrip and could not see either. I grabbed the microphone and dialled up the HF and made several unanswered calls to Adelaide for the lights. I tried to replace the mike on its clip but could not do so in the turbulence. I let the mike drop to the floor, abandoned radio communications and kept one hand on the control column, the other on the throttle. We were in the lee turbulence of the coastal hills being battered and bashed by a once-a-decade thunderstorm, like nothing I had ever seen. Last light had arrived about an hour before normal last light. I had to lean away from the perspex to my left after my head was banged into it a couple of times. The baby was crying. Her parents were silent. So was my girlfriend.
I knew by a rough estimate of elapsed time since overflying the township that the airport must be nearby. But even though I could follow the coast by the crawling headlights of cars on the highway and those parked on the side of the highway with headlights on, there was no airport beacon and there were no runway lights. I flew on because I had absolutely no other option. I learned later that a priest had looked out of the Port Lincoln hospital window and seen us, and offered up a prayer for our survival.
Then through the rain I intermittently saw the faintest outline of the runway lights on runway 01 dead ahead. There was no airport beacon to be seen but it was definitely Port Lincoln airport. My joy however was short-lived, because even though I could see about one third of the runway lights, we were tracking towards them laying off more drift than seemed consistent with the aircraft being re-useable after landing. I did not fancy doing a cross wind landing in conditions such as this, but overshooting into the black void beyond the runway was something I fancied even less. I was not going to do that. So I continued the approach, reduced the power and lowered some flap. With large and repeated control inputs I managed to occasionally achieve an approximation of the desired attitude and approach path. The successful outcome of the imminent landing or arrival was not assured, but whatever that outcome I had no doubt it was the lesser of two evils. The only certainty was that we were going to be on the ground shortly.
Perhaps the priest did me a favour with his prayer after all – and me not even a Catholic. Because just as I was approaching 50 feet or so over the runway, the undercarriage mere seconds away from some unauthorised modification, a flash of lightning accompanied by a simultaneous crack of thunder illuminated the terrible stage for a fleeting fraction of a second. It cast its white reflection off the water lying on the otherwise unilluminated cross runway, which was grass and puddles and directly into wind. The aircraft was virtually pointing straight up it. I cut the throttle, banked a little and straightened up, flared and touched down gently.
As the aircraft stopped in what felt like little more than its own length, I peered through the near horizontal rain at the illuminated windsock some 100 metres away. It was alternating between being rigidly horizontal and flapping wildly as the storm whipped it. Then as I watched it, the rain came down in a solid mass. Conversation was impossible. The windsock was now totally obscured from view, and the limited visibility which had permitted us to land moments before had gone.
I taxied off the strip in the general direction of the hangar, the control column rolled fully into wind. Water was driven into the cockpit between the door seal and the fuselage. I felt a hand alight on my shoulder, and give a brief comforting squeeze. I still don’t know which passenger did that. I taxied gingerly across the grass at a snail’s pace until the flying club hangar came into view.
Silhouetted against the club room lights were the still forms of a few club members standing in the open doorway of the hangar. They had waited for the last hour or more for either the start of the search, or against the odds as they saw it, the return of their beloved club aircraft. I learned that a SAR (search and rescue) phase had been declared.
I broke the club rule, and taxied out of the elements and the dark onto the smooth dry concrete floor of the hangar. The disc of the rotating prop was now visible in the fluorescent light. I eased the mixture back to idle cut-off and the engine and the noise ceased. I turned the master switch off. I opened the door and climbed out after my passengers. I turned and looked back at dear old WIL, water dripping off her white and red paint and forming small pools on the dry hangar floor. The odd hiss escaped as a drop found its way through the cowling onto something hot.
The club members helped us unload the aircraft, with hardly a word spoken. The downpour intensified forcing deferral of even a run to a parked car. The hangar doors were then closed and locked. I cancelled my SARWATCH (search and rescue watch) by telephone, filled out the maintenance release and the club docket, farewelled my passengers and went home with my girlfriend. The passengers seemed uncertain whether to respond to the situation from which I had delivered them, or the situation into which I had taken them.
My log book entry for that flight records the name of the airfield of departure, the route to Port Lincoln via Wedge Island and Thistle Island, and the flight time of 2 hours and 45 minutes.
So many lessons concealed in so few words.
The lessons include:
- Have a known quantity of fuel in the aircraft before start up.
- Know what a cumulo-nimbus cloud can do. Also know what one looks like from a distance, as well as from up close. The latter experience is to be reserved for those who are not airborne.
- Confidence needs to be actively monitored and managed.
- Official predictions of weather conditions and the time of last light are merely a starting point in making decisions dependent upon those events.
- Timely retreats can save your life.
- There is no correlation between the wearing of epaulettes and the quality of advice which comes from between them.
- A bit of luck doesn’t do you any harm.”
In the Jan/Feb 2002 edition of the Australian Flying magazine, my account of this flight appeared. I submitted it and consented to its publication on the basis that there be no editorial change whatsoever. The editors initially baulked then agreed. But this didn’t stop them changing the title without reference to me. The title I chose appears was ‘A Memorable Flying Lesson’. The editors of the magazine went for a title with the more tabloid-press ring, of ‘Flight to Hell & Back’, which misrepresented the whole experience. Whatever. Even though more than 40 years have passed since this flight, I continue to remember it very clearly. So does Liz. For what it’s worth, I thought I’d share it with you.
The thunderstorms, torrential rain and gale force winds we flew through that night were declared in the local newspaper to be a once in a decade weather event. Apparently it was also a memorable storm for those on the ground in houses or cars.