Not long after reading our ‘Unfamiliar airfield - don’t be unprepared’ feature (May/June 2009), this issue’s My Story pilot entered an unfamiliar airfield, unprepared, while on a navigation training flight. Oh the irony! There’s a lesson here for all of us.
I was all planned up to do my dual navex, across to Colac airfield, up to Ballarat then back to Melbourne. It was a rainy day with lower cloud over the west of Victoria. We flew over Avalon, then to the west and nearing Colac we positioned ourselves for a precautionary search. As we came closer we could see that a small shower was passing over the field.
We set up for our approach and did the three passes, including the 50ft pass so we could determine the suitability of the surface for our aircraft, and in this case my surface inspecting wasn’t up to scratch. We did this with a couple of other planes from our outfit that were there at the time and then came in for a short field landing on runway 18, a grass strip.
There were two runways we could choose from, an east-west strip that was gravel and a shorter north-south strip that was grass. We chose to use the grass strip as it was the most into wind - logical, I thought. The short field landing was absolutely fine, although I had never been on a grass strip before. Our plan was then to backtrack along the runway and take-off once more.
My instructor took over for this and as we were bumping along we got slower and slower and, naturally, my instructor asked me, “Are you doing anything?”. All I could muster was a puzzled look in return. He applied more power, tried to steer our C172 with the pedals and then checked the handbrake. The handbrake was off, but then we came to a sluggish stop.
He gave it the beans but the poor plane went nowhere. We scratched our heads for about half a minute before realising that we were bogged. Bogged in a plane - how exciting I thought! My instructor said to me, “Stay on the radio and look out for traffic” as he quickly jumped out and started to push. I duly monitored the radio and scanned for traffic, oblivious to the fact that this was the beginning of a long, dirty struggle.
There was no one around in the air so I jumped out as well and we both pushed and rocked the plane to no avail. Every time the plane moved we sank further and by this time we were about 15cm in the mud. At only about 10m from the centreline of the strip, there was obviously a big difference in the surface quality of the centre and the edges of the strip. We later discovered the strip had been built up with scoria to improve drainage, but obviously not on the sides.
Luckily, there were a couple of guys at the aero club watching this unfold. All tuckered out from pushing the 172 and pleading with her to move, we swallowed our pride and sheepishly started walking over to the blokes. As we drew near one of them jumped into his ute and drove away - thanks mate! The other kindly stuck around - he only had a sedan though - and gave us a phone number to call. We gave the airfield guy a call, not knowing whether or not he’d be able to help us or at least point our pleas in the right direction.
Before anyone came to pull us out we had a look around the hangars and found a couple of planks of wood. Summoning our inner MacGyvers, we tried levering the plane out, then just sticking the planks under the wheels and applying full throttle. After about an hour of unsuccessfully fiddling with the planks, full throttle and even more pushing, the angry airfield guy made an appearance. “You should always ring up before you come here,” he admonished. “See, here you have to pay the landing fees, it’s not much but it keeps this place.”
As soon as those words left his mouth, I immediately remembered the ‘Unprepared airfield, don’t be unprepared’ article I read in Australian Flying a couple of weeks before. It was trying not to laugh. The airfield guy (who turned out to be a good bloke in the end) rang up his mate with a bigger ute and he came down to the aerodrome and was able to tow us out. He wrapped a strap around the nose wheel, slung it over his tow bar and as he towed all three of us pushed to the aircraft to unstick the wheels. We tied the strap to the nose wheel oleo because we didn’t think the aerodynamic fairing on the main wheel struts were load bearing, but for this sort of thing we probably should have checked the flight manual.
Anyway, after many a slab promised by my instructor, and a message from the airfield guy to pass on to the CFI, we rushed through the checks and hastily headed off again, on the gravel runway this time. On climb out I could see three brown streaks on the side of the grass runway, which meant the strip had to be closed.
It was now nearing the end of the day and as I lived closer to Point Cook aerodrome my instructor said he could drop me off there on the way. Most of the way back, rather than flying the plane I was more intent on getting phone reception to ask someone to pick me up from Point Cook, so my instructor basically took over the flying. He seemed concerned that the mud on our wheels would give away our misadventures to those back at the flying school and was hoping a shower would come by to wash away the evidence. Thankfully, a shower did pass our way and we could breathe a little easier.
By this time it had gotten dark enough to need the runway lights turned on at Point Cook. The day VFR nav had turned into a night VFR nav, but luckily my instructor was suitably qualified. I found it quite a novelty, turning on the PAL having not experienced any of this before. I did the calls, inbound, mid-crosswind join, downwind, base, and final. And there was no other traffic, which finally bought a smile to my face.
But fate hadn’t had its last laugh at us just yet and our misadventures were about to progress to a second act. When we finally taxied to the apron we realised we had just transmitted all of our circuit calls on the PAL frequency, not on the correct CTAF(R) - clearly a very dangerous mistake. I jumped out of the 172 and by then my instructor came across as quietly embarrassed, or humbled, should I say. After a quick discussion about our next flight my instructor jumped back in and flew off into the dying day.
As I sat at Point Cook aerodrome contemplating the ordeals of the day in the quiet of the night while waiting for my ride, I realised just how many mistakes we had made and all the ‘holes’ in the Swiss Cheese that were created (I was learning about the Swiss-Cheese error model at the time). Luckily, very luckily, none of those holes lined up to become deadly or damaging.
I learnt a few good lessons that day. Lesson number one - always do your checklists properly, slowly and thoroughly. I know this is something that is always nailed into us as commercial students, but it’s surprising how many times you actually get them wrong. We took off from Colac with no lights on, and even though it was still daylight this was a collision hazard.
Lesson number two - never dwell on what has just happened to you. You have a plane to fly. Our thoughts (well, my thoughts at least) were still dwelling on the mud mishap at Colac when we were setting up for a landing at Point Cook. We went into a CTAF(R) with the wrong frequency tuned, there was actually no traffic, but the chances of a near miss any other day would not have been that slim.
Lastly, and most importantly, always, I mean always, ring up before you fly into somewhere to make sure you’re not going to get mud on the wheels.
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