This was to be our second attempt on Quiberon (You may remember that the last one ended in Galway), but the day before it again became clear that it wasn’t going to be an option. Thursday, our planned outwards trip looked, “not brilliant but do-able” but Friday looked wet and windy and likely to leave us stuck there.
Plan B was cooked up on the day and a trip to the Isle of Wight was planned, coming back that afternoon to avoid the weather. Now the last time I went to the Isle of Wight was on a family camping trip during Michael Fish’s Hurricane and we spent the night with the tent tied to the car and tumble-drying sleeping bags at 3am. Nevertheless I gamely mentioned that I’d never flown there and it sounded good. Little did I know…
As it was the Christmas-New Year break the cafe was shut so we had a coffee in the flying club while poring over charts. There’s a (to me) intimidating amount of controlled airspace down that end of the country and I’d borrowed a GPS to take some of the worry away. (Again — little did I know…)
First idea was Sandown, but when that turned out to be closed Plan B (or C?) was Bembridge.
Malcolm was flying the first leg while I navigated, and we took off in the slightly blustery wind and struck out across Swansea Bay, planning to route north of Cardiff, over the docks and across the Bristol Channel to Weston.
I haven’t flown directly over Cardiff itself before and the view was magnificent gazing down at the stadium and all the new developments on the docks. Or Cardiff Bay as I think it prefers to be known as!
Things started to go less smoothly once we were a distance inland on the other side, and we had to dodge a fair few clouds to remain VMC. It’s a bit of a sorry tale from there on but eventually the upshot was that we managed to infringe Southhampton’s airspace while talking to Bournemouth and looking in vain for Stoney Cross. I discussed it at some length on the Flyer forums afterwards so won’t reiterate it here except to say that the controllers were very helpful once they had us spotted and sorted out. Although they requested a phonecall once we were on the ground it was very much advice on how not to do it again, rather than a bollocking.
Solent then looked after us until we had Bembridge firmly in view. It was decidedly crosswind but we were down without mishap and soon tucking into toasted paninis.
The weather was still brooding though and we decided not to hang about too long.
HotelUniform with Derek and Eraldo aboard got off before us while we did battle once again with TOMS’ stubborn door latch and headed for home.
A few minutes later, with me in the pilot’s seat, we attempted to do likewise only to find that the cloud had really lowered. I peered out ahead at a nearby headland which, rather alarmingly looked to be already lost in cloud at the highest point.
Neither inland nor out to sea proved any better and I struggled to fly as smoothly as possible apologising for the now pronounced turbulence while reminding myself of the high points on the island.
It quickly became clear that we were heading rapidly towards the wrong side of the old saw about “better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air…” and when we skimmed the cloudbase, at still only a thousand feet I made a final decision. “I’m turning back” I announced to Malcolm’s willing agreement.
Even that proved more difficult that expected and I skirted the coast at 800, eyes glued to the water and strip of shoreline. I’ve never been so grateful to see a runway, and I made a bad weather circuit, hopefully not upsetting the nearby villagers too much with my reluctance to lose contact with the airfield by flying further out.
It was still crosswindy and I opted for just the one stage of flap to land, firmly but at least down intact.
“Welcome back,” came a voice from the tower and full of nervous relief I laughed aloud. “You can park back where you were and if you come up to the tower, we’ll give you as much help as we can.”
It turned out he’d already phoned Swansea for us to tell them we’d turned back, and not to expect us. A look at the weather confirmed our decision, and in any case it was now pushing the limits of daylight to get back.
He did find us a great B&B (Great East Standen Manor) and fortunately we both still had overnight stuff in our bags, from the planned Quiberon trip.
Now I was safely on terra firma I was frustrated at myself and couldn’t help wondering about whether things would have improved if I’d pressed don a little bit further. This despite the fact I’d only recently read the AAIB report about a fatal accident to an aeroplane caused by a similar situation of pressing onto into bad weather. That same report (Blackpool) was sitting on the desk in the tower, and almost everyone we explained our situation to at the airfield mentioned it.
It might have improved. Or it might not. “Might” is not enough to base your safety on, regardless of on-the-ground hindsight. So in spite of the annoyance factor and the depressing knowledge that tomorrow was forecast even worst, I curled up that night under the B&B’s feather eiderdown and let go of the frustration and thanked whatever providence it is that watches out for rash pilots, that I was safe and sound.
Putting aside the fact we didn’t entirely plan to be there, the Isle of Wight was lovely. The B&B we stayed in the first night was run by a student pilot whose wife used to work at the airfield. Copies of Flyer on the bedside table and willing to take the Euros that Malcolm had bought in expectation of being somewhere rather further off by now!
By the next morning, we’d managed to get in touch with Derek, who had made it home — and reported that the cloudbase once they got away from the island was 2500′, the jammy so-and-sos! Derek did though say that the flight took two and a half hours with the wind against them.
With that in mind we wandered over the airfield and refuelled, as much to feel we were doing something useful as anything, as it was obvious quickly that the weather was unlikely to break that day. We depleted the stock of magazines in the cafe, drank coffee, and made use of the aeroclub’s Internet PC.
If it was still dreadful come the weekend Derek offered to come and collect us in the club four-seater, and we considered whether we could get a bit further, maybe to Exeter or Dunkeswell, at least somewhere more accessible to escaping by public transport. Neither of us we weren’t wild about leaving the aeroplane stranded though and in any case the wind was now positively howling straight across the runway.
So fuel and tiedown-checking it was, and at lunchtime the “daylight limit” put an end to any faint hope and we struck out to explore the island.
There was a very attractive windmill visible from the airfield and we easily found the footpath up to that and had a look around before backtracking to follow another footpath to the coast where we walked the cliffpath. We watched some very adventurous surfers making the most of the same gusting wind that was keeping us grounded and scrabbled down the clay-like cliff on a precarious trace of a path before nearly getting soaked to the knees trying to cross the narrow strip of beach. Good for the adrenaline anyway!
The path eventually wound back into the town of Bembridge. (or overgrown village depending on your sympathy for the place) We found a greasy spoon on the waterfront, the Tollgate Cafe, for lunch and one of the staff there was as helpful as everyone else we’d met and phoned around several B&B’s for us and pointed out several more on our map.
The first place was lovely, but a bit far out and we knew that if there was a gap in the weather tomorrow it was going to first thing and we wanted an early getaway.
We ended up in the Windmill Hotel which also took pity on two stranded flyers and let us have the off-season rate even though normally bump it up over Christmas/New Year. It had the huge dual advantages of being walking distance from the airfield and having a Co-op down the road for a cheap evening feed, since this was getting quickly getting to be the priciest “day trip” in aviation history! To our amusement they also posted “tomorrow’s weather” notes under guests bedroom doors in the evening although the little circled cloud-with-showers wasn’t much comfort!
I woke to patches of blue, although the trees rattled against the window, and after a quick breakfast we headed out to the airfield to find forecast winds generally 15knots but gusting up to 25 and isolated CBs. A phone call to Swansea (they managed not to laugh at my plaintive opening to the conversation — “We’re still trying to get back from the Isle of Wight”) confirmed the conditions was similar there, and we decided to make a go of it.
We’d planned a different route back, avoid both airspace and high ground as much as possible, so after a relatively tidy crosswind takeoff we headed west, talking to Solent and reporting at The Needles, and Swannage before going to our enroute frequency. Yeovilton were closed for the holidays so I went initially for London Info, hoping to get a weather update for closer to home.
Unusually, I couldn’t raise them for some reason, but got what I needed from a VOLMET giving Cardiff’s info which was pretty much unchanged.
Our “keep to the flat bit” route proved to work well, as our only dodging of showers this time was as we were coming up on Minehead, by which time we could already see the opposite shore. The diversion was compensated for by a wonderful rainbow wrapping right around us.
I turned out over the channel and headed out over the water, climbing as high as the airspace above would let us. Around the midway point a certain amount of relief set in. I could see Cardiff and even if everything else went to pot we could make it there from here and be close enough to home as makes little odds.
The curve of the coast towards Swansea, the speck in the distance which I new for Mumbles lighthouse, even the smoke roiling into the sky from Port Talbot, everything in view was familiar and homey and comforting and I was delighted by it. I started grinning about silly irrelevant little details again — wakes of ships crawling along below us, an odd cloud formation, a call on the radio from a Lockheed Electra who mysteriously only gave his intended destination as a set of coordinates somewhere over the channel.
In spite of everything I realised I loved being up in the air. The weekend started to look in hindsight like an adventure, a learning experience, something to tell tales of woe about in the pub at the end of a day’s flying. I had money to juggle to pay for the extra day, and hard thoughts to think about why we’d ended up where we shouldn’t, and doubtless a certain amount of (deserved!) leg pulling about it from the group. But that’d pass too, and soon there’d be something new on the horizon.
There’ll be a clear crisp day with a sky sweeping though every shade of blue, or a gusting challenging crosswind to sharpen up the circuits, or a cloud littered day of weird shadows and strange and beautiful light effects and I’ll rush to the airfield and to whatever the next adventure might be.
And there’s still Quiberon to try and get to!
(Photos by Malolm Boorer)