Like all good aviation stories this one begins with a beautiful day. Waking up to the sun shining through the bedroom window in the middle of winter is one of a pilot’s greatest joys. Making it through the tumultuously inconsistent weather from June until September with only a fly every now and then is like a drug addict popping aspirin rather than the stuff that will get them into trouble with CASA. But summer looks as though it’s finally here!
It wasn’t long before I’d booked my favourite Archer for a flight with my wife around Melbourne and Port Phillip Bay. I thought that it was about time that I had a good work-out in controlled airspace and so I purposely planned to fly around the CBD which would require an airways clearance from Essendon.
This brings up an interesting point. I’ve never really understood the reticence that many private pilots have about going into controlled airspace. I’ve chatted with a host of pilots who seem to do everything they can to avoid entering a “zone” so they don’t have to talk on the radio. Personally, I’ve always taken the view that my taxes have paid for the air traffic controllers so I want to get my money’s worth.
I’ve never spoken to an air traffic controller yet that wasn’t helpful, polite and willing to crawl across broken glass for a pilot in trouble (more on that later). They’re incredible human beings given that when you think about it they have one of the most boring and terrifying jobs in the world. Boring because it must be the same routine over and over again and terrifying when it’s not. I think that if it was me directing thousands of people around the sky then I’d end up as a person with a bipolar disorder. Thank goodness I’m not in charge!
Air traffic controllers are like the policeman standing at a motor vehicle intersection telling the traffic to stop with the power of their hand. It’s simply amazing. The policeman puts their hand up and a lumbering, eighteen wheeled monstrosity grinds to a halt. In reality despite all of their physical training the policeman can’t stop the truck but the force that they represent can. Likewise, an air traffic controller softly speaks into their microphone and an A380 carefully dodges around a Piper Warrior.
Which brings me to my point. If you’re a private pilot and avoid controlled airspace then you’re not only wasting a lot of fuel flying around Class-C airspace but you’re also avoiding the safest place to be. My experience has been that in controlled airspace you have someone holding their hands beneath you the whole way, making sure that you’re safe from all the big stuff and you’re not going to collide into a mountain. So why fly more dangerously around controlled airspace when you can have a nice chat with a very pleasant person while they look after you?
So back at home, I powered up my PC (actually I didn’t as I always leave it on) and began planning my flight for the day in my electronic flight planner. Some may ask why I don’t manually plan my flights any more? I have a really simple answer: working out distances with a ruler and course headings with a protractor is a lot of fun but when you want to get a job done quickly then flight planning software is the only way to go.
I submitted the plan via the software and called up to make sure that everything was done correctly. I know that I’m a bit of a geek but speaking to someone on the phone gives me that warm fuzzy feeling that everything is OK.
After tossing everything into the back of the car I noticed that my youngest decided to tag along. The weight and balance still checked out so we headed off to the airport, pre-flighted the aircraft and was quickly airborne.
For those that haven’t flown around Melbourne CBD the procedure is to change the transponder frequency to 0100 and then request an airways clearance from Essendon for an orbit (left or right) around the city. It was a bit of a surprise when we were denied our airways clearance and told to stay outside controlled airspace. So what was going on?
It just so happens that there were already three aircraft doing both left and right orbits of the CBD at varying altitudes combined with about five helicopters going in and out. Behind us there was another aircraft requesting their airways clearance plus another coming in from the south-west. I knew I wanted a controlled airspace work-out but this was getting ridiculous!
I pulled the Archer over the water to the south and began orbiting while I waited for the helpful guys at Essendon to give me the verbal thumbs up. It just so happened that where I was orbiting was relatively close to a VFR route south of the city so the passengers and I had our eyes well and truly outside the cockpit. Needless to say the chatter in the headset was almost continuous as the tower kept everyone safe and secure.
We finally received our clearance for a right hand orbit and were told to climb another five hundred feet. The tension in the cockpit immediately reduced as my passengers heard the helpful traffic controllers guide us to a spectacular view of the city while sticking a mattress of protection around us from all the other bits of metal hovering or flying around.
After peering down for the second time to watch a game of Aussie Rules taking place in the Melbourne Cricket Ground, ATC directed us along our designated flight plan to the south-west and eventually gave us permission to change frequencies.
With the Point Cook airfield looming close I was doing a two-step on the radio to ensure that they knew what was going on and to let any aircraft know our intentions. If you plan on doing a similar flight plan make sure you have all of your radios and frequencies lined up well beforehand as you’ll be doing a lot of swapping in this area.
With Point Cook past us we flew on down to Avalon. Yes, I know that we could have avoided Avalon by heading across the bay earlier but that would have required wearing life jackets and for some reason I still have an aversion to potentially having to land on a large expanse of water.
Avalon is categorised as Class-D so we had a chat with the tower and let them know what we planned on doing. Personally, I just wanted to see an A320 land beneath us as we did an overfly. I did this in my training and wanted to show my wife and daughter what it was all about. Sadly, the A320 didn’t turn up so we headed on down to the Port Phillip Heads without that little buzz.
The heads are a narrow gap between two headlands which form the mouth of the bay and the ocean currents can be seen ripping through the area. They are so strong that ships often have to time the tide before traversing this stretch of water. From the air it’s an absolutely stunning view with the ocean side and bay side of the coastline of the Mornington Peninsula painted out before us with incredible colours.
While we enjoyed the view I began to pay closer attention to a conversation between ATC and the pilot of a Cessna out north of Melbourne where a localised weather system had sent him instantly into IFR conditions.
This is one of the times when the life of an air traffic controller becomes anything but routine as they try and guide the pilot to safety. When asked if the aircraft was IFR capable the pilot responded in the affirmative but that he wasn’t current. I think that this was code for “I don’t feel confident that I can climb through the cloud without rolling the aircraft”.
By now the Cessna was at 1600 feet in an area that has mountains up to 2,500 feet, it also meant that he was about 400 feet off the ground, not good. The pilot broadcast that he was considering a forced landing (which wasn’t such a bad option) and it was at this time that the ATC asked for his fuel status.
You could have heard me gulp. The incredible view as we travelled around the bay was forgotten and both my wife and daughter had gone completely silent. It was at this time that I became very proud to be part of the pilot community.
We never did get an answer on the fuel situation so I assumed the worst but just then another pilot jumped on the radio who was in the same local area as the distressed Cessna. The weather system was very local so together with the air traffic controller they began guiding the Cessna pilot to safety. While this was happening the helpful pilot orbited to make sure that everything was OK. The relief in the voice of the highly stressed aviator as he was guided to safety was felt all the way across Melbourne to our plane and we all ended up cheering!
By this time I had to swap frequencies to Moorabbin to make my inbound calls and focus on landing procedures. This is when our next adventure started. We ended up with three planes stacked up behind us, another plane coming in from the north-west and a twin that was doing circuits being asked by the tower to chop their downwind leg short and cut in front of us. After all, they were a twin!
During my training one of my instructors had drilled into me that if you ever get under pressure slow the plane up. So I immediately throttled back the engine and popped out a couple of stages of flaps while I took note of the twin’s registration number so after we had landed I could tell him that he had a spot of dirt on his tail that needed cleaning.
All was going well until about ten feet off the runway a blast of air hit the Archer that had obviously come from the twin as they did their touch-n-go. Just when you’d thought the landing was as per the book there’s just nothing like getting thrown off the centre line to get the adrenalin firing.
A touch of throttle and a boot-full of rudder brought everything right and we greased on in. Everything happened so fast and my reaction was so quick that thinking seemed to become an optional extra. I like mentally reviewing every flight so what did I learn from the wake turbulence experience?
For a start, I should have gone around as soon as I deemed that the twin was too close. The air traffic controllers are invaluable and do a tremendous job but when you as a pilot aren’t happy, make an early decision, not a late one. ATC don’t get your view from the cockpit and they definitely don’t know our level of expertise.
Secondly, although everything went well with the landing I noticed that my reaction was to still land the aircraft. What I should have done was do a go around, even at that late stage. This meant that my natural instinct and habit was to stick the wheels on the ground. It was clear that it was time that I did a few circuits and practice the habit of going around so that I could get it ingrained into my natural reaction.
Although the flight presented a number of challenges it also reinforced with me that the often unsung voices on the other end of the radio are a pilot’s best friend. Air traffic controllers do a brilliant job and this combined with the selfless actions of many pilots make me proud to be part of Australian aviation.