It was a cool spring morning with low overcast and the cloud base was about 1500ft AGL. There was occasional light rain as I drove to the regional airport west of the Blue Mountains, where I was doing my PPL flying training.
I had just completed my GPFT theory and flight test (it was called the Restricted Licence back then) and I was about to start the meteorology and navigation subjects. I had a grand total of 22 flying hours to my name, most of which were in the circuit or training area.
As I arrived at the flying school the low cloud base and unsettled weather was making me feel a little apprehensive. I fully expected the lesson to be cancelled as up until now the only experience I had with showery weather was flying circuits in the rain with the security of my instructor by my side. I had not yet started meteorology or navigation so I had never flown cross country or to another airport.
My instructor was a rather gruff bush pilot – very capable, but in hindsight he probably cut a few corners. When I asked him about the weather he brushed aside my concerns. He said it would be good experience to practice flying on less than perfect days. Unfortunately I did not have the knowledge or experience yet, so I foolishly put blind faith in my instructor when he suggested that I fly solo to the training area and do some practice.
The cloud base at the airport was about 1500ft AGL, the wind was about 360/5kts and apart from the occasional light shower it was reasonably fine when I took off in the school’s Cessna 172. I happily flew to the training area. An hour slipped by and it was time to return to the airport, but to my alarm I could not actually see the airport. The cloud base had dropped and it was raining heavily where the airport should have been.
After the initial panic subsided I began to go through my limited options. I still had a sufficient amount of fuel in the tanks so I set up a rough holding pattern in a desperate attempt to work out what to do. Meanwhile, the lowering cloud base and rain were slowly heading towards the training area and me and my tiny Cessna.
Following an erratic ADF, I flew towards the airport and began a slow descent until I could see under the cloud base. By now it was about 400ft AGL. Through the rain I got occasional glimpses of the airport area and runway. I slowly lined up for what should have been an into the wind straight-in approach for Runway 35. I had never done a straight-in approach before, but there was no way I could attempt a circuit now.
To make matters worse, the closer I got to the airport the worse the turbulence became. The little plane was being battered by the rain and tossed all over the place.
Finally, I had the end of the runway in sight. It was an incredible feeling of fear coupled with relief as I set up for a straight-in landing. The Cessna flared and lurched onto the 1315-metre bitumen runway. But the plane was aquaplaning along the very wet runway every time I applied the brakes, and the only control I had was via the rudder.
Desperately, I gently kept applying the brakes, trying not to lock up the wheels on the rain-soaked tarmac. It seemed an eternity before the aircraft began to slow and when it finally stopped I’d used the full length of the runway.
Once safely on the ground I realised that the wind had changed 180 degrees and I had landed with a strong and gusting tailwind. To make matters worse, I had unknowingly flown into the outer edge of a thunderstorm. My legs were still shaking as I taxied back and put the aircraft in the hangar. It was lucky I returned the aircraft to the hangar, as sizeable hailstones started to fall shortly afterwards.
Upon reflection, I must have made just about every mistake a novice pilot could make. I learned several valuable lessons that day. Firstly, I should have never left the ground, even though the instructor encouraged me to do so. I should have watched the weather more closely so as not to get trapped with the classic lowering cloud base.
I am still uncertain as to whether I should have returned to the airport or made an emergency landing in one of the many paddocks while the weather in the training area was still okay.
When I think of how lucky I was to get back on the ground and survive this flight, I thank my lucky stars. For a few years I blamed the instructor for what happened that day. But now, 25 years later and with an IFR rating and a few thousand hours under my belt, I realise that the fault was mostly mine. I should have listened and acted on my concerns about the weather. When in doubt the best decision is always to stay on the ground.
Do you have a ‘My Story’ to get off your chest that could help others to learn from your experience? All authors published in this section receive a Command Flight Planner valued at $375. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or post to Australian Flying, GPO Box 606, Sydney NSW 2001.
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