Close Call Over Mansfield – Almost a statistic

Piper Arrow 111

As a financial markets professional who has been involved in the foreign exchange market for over a quarter of a century I must say one of the most enduring lessons I learnt from an early time in my career is an old adage that has served me well – ‘plan the trade and trade the plan’.

Banking, and later financial markets was not always my career goal and as a young school boy growing up in Townsville, North Queensland, I frequently looked out the school window to watch a Mirage or Neptune heading into land at Garbutt airbase. My heart was set on a career in the air force flying aeroplanes. Of course, in reality, very few people get to achieve that dream, but mine was cut short when I discovered at the air force medical that I shared an impairment that many males do, colour deficiency. Over the years it has been graded as moderate to severe, seemingly dependent on what test was being given, and who was interpreting the result.

Naturally it was hard to accept that something totally outside of my control had cut short a potential military flying career.

My early days in the banking industry were spent within the branch network of a major bank, and then into a specialised department dealing in international trade. It was around this time that the Australian dollar was freely floated by the Labor Government of the day and by luck or design, perhaps a bit of both, I found myself involved in the fast-paced and stimulating world of foreign exchange trading.

I have often been asked why I didn’t pursue a career in commercial aviation, but at the time, colour deficiency was a major barrier to advancement in the industry. But as the years passed, I decided that it was time to revisit my goal of flying aircraft and headed to Bankstown to undertake my Private Pilot’s licence course. I achieved this in 1994, and purchased a Piper Arrow 111, a retractable, constant speed aircraft, that myself and my partner, Janet, could tour the country in.

Being a methodical planner and risk manager, I relished the task of planning trips, many didn’t come to pass because of the conservative approach I took to considerations such as weather. In fact many people both within the flying fraternity, and outside of it, congratulated me on my approach, but of course hidden within this seemingly good trait was a dangerous flaw that had the potential for deadly consequences.

In 1996 I planned a flight from Bankstown to Essendon to visit family members who had just given birth to their first child.  The planning had been done and the VFR route I was taking was west from Bankstown over the Blue Mountains via Katoomba, Wagga, Albury, Eildon Weir, and on into Essendon. I had reviewed it numerous times and had programmed the route into a newly purchased GPS.

The Saturday morning arrived and I was looking forward to the three-and-a-half hour flight. The weather was to be fine to Wagga, with some showers developing along the ranges to the south of Albury.

I settled into the flight over the Blue Mountains and was on track according to my maps, and confirmed by the GPS, and the weather was as forecast and expected for this stage of the flight. After passing Wagga and setting course for Albury I made the required radio calls for clearance through the Albury control area which  I received with a word of caution from the controller that there were showers on the western side of the ranges and I would most likely encounter these along my route. Would I like to consider diverting via Wangaratta?

I took the time to process this suggestion, the weather ahead still looked okay, despite what I was being told, and I would always have the option to backtrack, or divert should conditions become unacceptable for VFR flight. Of course, what really was happening was a reversion to the ‘plan the trade, and trade the plan’ lesson learned all those years ago. I had planned this flight immaculately, it was in my GPS, it would be a hassle to change, and besides sticking with a well thought out plan had always served me well.

And perhaps that might have been a reasonable decision to make if experience was on my side, and if I had the capacity to not only realise when the flight along the planned route was no longer acceptable, and only if I was capable of acting immediately once realised.

I informed the controller I would be continuing as planned, to which he put the question one more time – would I like to divert via Wangaratta where the weather was fine.

The flight proceeded towards Eildon Weir, but the cloud base was lowering, and so was I, and I did look behind me frequently to ensure I had an out should it be required. But of course that option closed about the time the weather ahead of me deteriorated, and not surprisingly in the hilly region nearer to Mansfield. My concern elevated quickly, realising I was now confronted with the possibility of needing to do a precautionary search and landing, which was not without its risks, and I was looking fervently out the window for a place to do this. But even at this point, I don’t believe I was fully committed to this action. The second flaw was now kicking in, failure to act. Seemingly I was delaying any action in the hope luck would be on my side.

I contacted Melbourne arrivals, whom were possibly monitoring developments and was given clearance to track towards Essendon, the weather had improved slightly and as I tracked west it cleared into a fine day, highlighting that had I tracked via Wangaratta the flight would have been much safer.

I have frequently looked back at this flight as a defining moment on many levels. It encouraged me to go on and obtain an instrument rating so I could better recognise marginal VFR conditions, and have a safety release valve for dealing with it when encountered.

But importantly, it demonstrated to me that I was very inflexible once I had planned something, it may have saved me and my employer a lot of money over the years, a product of ‘planning the trade, and trading the plan’, but this inflexibility has no place in the cockpit, and of course it almost cost me my life on this particular day.

And over the years I have read many accident reports, loss of control in cloud, VFR flight into marginal conditions, failure to act despite recognising that action is required – it is all there, and yet I never thought it would be referring to me.

An invaluable lesson was learned that day, one that has been at forefront of mind each and every day since…and of course it takes on a new level of importance these days as mountaineering requires a high level of flexibility!

Footnote: At the time of this flight I had logged around 200 hours of flying time and went on to log around 1,000 hours, including IFR time.  I sold the aircraft in 2000, and have flown very little since.

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4 thoughts on “Close Call Over Mansfield – Almost a statistic

  1. Richard Tessier August 7, 2012 / 12:43 am

    I also owned a Piper Arrow. Pretty slick plane For VFR Like Your site We have a lot In common. Richard T Your C2 Teammate Aka drivetofast

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    • thelandy August 7, 2012 / 1:09 pm

      Thanks Richard, you were in C2C this year? Great event!! Yes, we owned VH-FTH and painted it in its current scheme back in 1999. We onwed it from 1994 to 2000. It was a great touring plane for the two of us, and used it extensively during that time. Take care,Baz, The Landy

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  2. austerpilot July 25, 2012 / 9:48 pm

    A very honest and interesting post, which many pilots (or anyone working / operating in a dynamic environment ) can learn from – it has some classic ‘CRM’ points – we are all susceptible to the same desire to ‘stick with the plan’ and we always look for evidence which supports our chosen course of action, rather than contradicts it.

    Great blog in general btw! I have a soft spot for ‘Landys’ myself – I drive a Freelander, but want to buy a LWB Defender – it’s funny, because I think the venerable old Auster that i fly, is a bit like the Landy of the air – a bit ugly, but built like a tank and you can fill em’ up full of gear and head off into almost anywhere with em’. You should come back to flying – get yourself an Auster! 🙂

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    • thelandy July 25, 2012 / 11:00 pm

      Geez, don’t tempt me too much. The odd thing is that I would probably end up with something like an Auster or a Piper Cub… And you’ve got to love the old ‘Fender, timeless. Cheers, Baz, The Landy

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