An excellent February day and such a simple flight. What could possibly go wrong? Words: David Brown
Many pilots will recognise my situation. About 230 hours in my logbook plus a bit of time learning to glide, but I had started learning in 1977, 38 years before.
Then I bought an old ? but lovely ? Jaguar, needed to rebuild the 4.2 litre engine, had no transport and no spare cash, so lessons ground to a ‘temporary’ halt ? for fifteen years. My wife encouraged me to resume. I signed up for lessons at an airfield nearby: lovely people but the club folded.
The instructors took me under their wing, so to speak ? a self-employed commercial pilot and an eighty-something former Mosquito pilot. Talk about falling on your feet! Solo in four weeks.
My ‘new’ club folded. Another took me on and I was licensed after another ten months. But a mortgage, teenage children and a demanding career paid on commission meant money or time, not both together.
Fast forward 22 years: renewing my medical for the nth time, renewing my IMC (sorry ? IR(R)), renewing my confidence. Trying really hard to get everything right and avoid the annoying lapses that keep me questioning my competence. After regaining currency I planned a series of local navex flights to reinforce pre-flight planning, practice DR navigation, VOR tracking, and lookout.
This February day it’s looking pretty good. Calculated the max drift, planned the flight initially on the chart, then with SkyDemon Light, booked a trusted PA-28 with full IFR fit so I could do the VOR bit. At the airfield I was given a different PA-28 with a more Spartan panel ? slightly unsettling, but I don’t think it affected the subsequent flight.
My intention was to track to the nearby VOR, then fly to an unmissable landmark twenty minutes further on, using the opportunity to practise attitude flying at various configurations of throttle, flap and speed, and then back to the airfield. All radios and instruments carefully set up, I departed at 12:45, about thirty minutes later than I hoped.
A normal departure, leaving the circuit to the north-east at 800-1,000 feet, squawking 7000 until clear of the local MATZ. Got a Basic service, set squawk and QNH, climbed to 2,500/2,800. Cloud was lower and more than expected, with base not sharply defined, so approaching the cloudbase visibility declined.
I decided to stay below the cloud and completed the VOR tracking but not the attitude flying ? insufficient horizon and not enough slot time left after my late departure. I tracked back to the VOR and then towards the customary reporting point for rejoin. The southward visibility at 2,500ft was very poor.
I put on my polarised glasses and descended to 2,000ft which improved things a little. At the RP, Basic service terminated: free call the airfield. I had the QFE, R25 in use, right-hand circuit and no dead side because helicopters operate there.
I set course westward for the ten-mile home leg and notified that I planned to join overhead 25, which means flying along R25 at 500 feet above circuit height. ATC affirmed “Join 1,300 feet, call overhead”. Circuit is empty, runway in sight, nearly home, and on time too.
Approximately two miles from the threshold, in line with the runway, something made me glance to my right where I fleetingly saw the underneath of a white autogyro less than fifty metres away, in line with my starboard wing, flying in a southerly direction at precisely my altitude.
The autogyro had banked sharply to its left and passed behind me. After a couple of seconds’ thought I called the Tower: “I have just had a very close view of, I think, an autogyro”. Tower replied that they had not received a call from an autogyro, but could now see it. I continued with the overhead join and heard the autogyro call to request an overhead join. He was nominated number two. I reported overhead and turned right to descend to circuit height. I reported late downwind and turned base.
After landing, taxying, parking, shutting down, I went to the Tower. The autogyro pilot and passenger were already there. We had an amicable conversation.
Tower seemed clear that the autogyro reporting at the edge of the airfield zone was not in line with required practise and suggested I had declared a near-miss, although I hadn’t used those words. I think he wanted me to file a Mandatory Occurrence Report.
Perhaps I should have, but I hadn’t personally ‘made an emergency avoidance manoeuvre to avoid a collision’ although I would have if I had actually spotted the autogyro in time. The autogyro pilot said he was new to our airfield and was listening to the MATZ controller advising of fast jets inbound (their ILS is over the top of our airfield’s northern approach).
Tower ran through the published airfield inbound procedures, calmly and professionally, but obviously very concerned about this event in his ATZ.
I had clearly lapsed into complacency, although I had planned thoroughly. I’d made good decisions when the cloud was not as forecast, carried out my plan, kept a good check on timing and ? in consideration of the next booking ? cut part of that plan.
I’d made all the necessary calls at the appropriate times, carried out a perfect rejoin, and had come within a second or so of killing myself and two others. I had assumed that every aircraft entering the ATZ would announce its presence. The autogyro was probably clearly visible a long way off, if I had been looking.
I had relaxed and stopped looking out. Again. The autogyro pilot was joining at the correct height for an overhead join, and must have had the QFE.
But as he was joining about two miles before the R25 threshold and travelling due south, he would have needed a pretty tight turn to avoid the ‘no dead side’. Maybe that’s what autogyros do?
My personal lessons learned:
– I was one or two seconds away from a fatal!
– Keep a much better lookout, especially approaching the circuit. Actively search for unannounced aircraft joining from popular directions – defensive flying
– Report arrival at any ATZ ten miles before entry (as I did). If you can’t, for whatever reason, mosey around a bit until you can; don’t just barge in
– Listen out very carefully for other aircraft announcing themselves in, or approaching the circuit (as I did)
Thank you to the autogyro pilot, who spotted me just in time.