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.
“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.
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