Video: Dodging showers in the PA28

Ladybird on boardJon and Alastair fly from Biggin Hill to Gloucestershire in India Zulu for brunch, and end up diverting around showers and discovering an unexpected guest on board.

The weather has been so awful since before Christmas, that I haven’t really ventured further than the local flying area, and it was time to stretch my legs again.  The heart started pumping when I left the familiar airspace around Kent and Sussex, and crossed through north west Surrey.  My blood pressure no doubt increased yet further, when showers unhelpfully blocked our path, just as we entered a narrow area littered with restricted zones, military zones, and class A controlled airspace.

Flying over the clouds

Scattered cloud south of Brize Norton

The forecast had shown a 30% probability of a few hours of scattered clouds at between 1200-1800ft.  It’s perfectly fine to fly into such weather, because it suggests that the chances of being able to dodge it are high.  After landing, all the forecasts had changed, to indicate the presence of showers too.  I wasn’t overly surprised to find the weather worse than originally forecast, as the Met Office trend charts suggested weather associated with pressure troughs.  The added complication for me to contend with was the icing level.  The altitude at which moisture freezes.  On the day in question, this was as low as 1500ft.

Jon plotting a diversion

Plotting my diversion

Safe in the knowledge that I could likely dodge low cloud or even showers, given the charted forecast, in reality when you’re backed into a corner by such restricted airspace, it gets very tricky.  The shower we encountered was just north west of Blackbushe.  I had to stay high enough to avoid two restricted areas, west enough to stay clear of London Heathrow’s airspace and built up areas, and I had a military air traffic zone that I ought to seek permission to penetrate.  Then, having thought about all that, I had to regain my bearings, re-evaluate my course, and get back on track.

I found myself relying quite heavily on my Skydemon GPS app.  I find it exceptionally helpful and reliable – but by law, it can’t be relied upon as a sole means of navigation.  If I had got lost, I was in contact with a radar controller who would have assisted – but even that was NOTAM’d as having the potential for service outages!  (For those familiar with the area, the CPT VOR was U/S too!)  As it happened, using a combination of map reading, the GPS and dead reckoning we didn’t get lost, or infringe any areas we didn’t have clearance for.

  Once back on track, a brief layer of scattered cloud at about 2200ft loomed ahead, so we climbed above it.  It cleared, and then thickened again to be broken cloud, above which I couldn’t maintain Visual Flight Rules.  I couldn’t go into instrument flight rules, as the aircraft wasn’t suitably equipped for this route, and there was always the risk of getting stuck up there, unable to descend for landing through freezing cloud.

Brize Norton Aerodrome

Brize Norton Aerodrome

Descending below 3500ft, meant I needed clearance to cross through Brize Norton’s Class D airspace, which was remarkably easy.  I’d read up on the crossing, and had plotted the zone’s preferred routing.  Reaching Cheltenham, we were in touch with Gloucester Approach, then Tower to land after a standard overhead join.

Landing at Gloucestershire

Landing at Gloucestershire

I’d pre-briefed on the aerodrome’s noise abatement notices, and joined considerately.  I cut in onto base leg a bit tight to avoid Cheltenham and GCHQ, but hadn’t started my descent early enough.  This led to a rather steep and fast approach.  With too much energy at the threshold, we floated a bit, ballooned ever so slightly and made a firm touchdown.  There was always the option to go-around of course, but I had enough runway to correct a rather sloppy approach.  It was a shame, because one of my aims for this flight had been to get my speed right on landing.

The staff at Gloucestershire airport were excellent, and the brunch was a welcome treat after a slightly hectic journey.  The unexpected visitor was a ladybird, who’d come along for the ride!

Watch this Space

I’ll be editing the video from the return journey soon!  Subscribe to my YouTube Channel or my blog to be notified of the next update.

Video: Dodging Showers in the PA28 on a trip from Biggin Hill to Gloucestershire