I finally managed to get airborne after six weeks stuck on the ground due to the weather. There was a lot of low cloud around, but as the air temperature had warmed, it was suitable to fly IMC.
This was a flight from Biggin Hill to Leicester, a new aerodrome for me to visit. Cloud bases at Biggin Hill were around 900ft, which is my minimum for an IFR departure in case of an engine failure after take off. Having studied the Skew-T diagrams, and observed some blue spots in the sky on my drive the airport, I was reasonably confident I’d break through on top of the cloud after departure, but the cloud tops were stubbornly present up to 2500ft. This was just 100ft higher than I was able to climb to around London because of the Class A LTMA. The IR(r) holder cannot fly in class A airspace sadly.
So for more than 30 minutes this was my view.
For a moment after departure, I considered returning back to base, but I could occasionally see the blue sky above me, and knew that once clear of London I could climb above it. The forecast for Leicester was much better. Why did I consider returning? Well, hand-flying in solid IMC, weaving through the tight airspace around London is hard work. It involves making use of the on board GPS, and a series of VOR beacons to keep clear of London City.
For example, I was tracking a radial of the BNN VOR west north west, to guide me north of London City, but south of Stapleford’s ATZ. I then picked up a radial of the BPK VOR near Banbury reservoir to guide me towards Luton.
Since January, NATS has been using a website to encourage GA pilots to pre-notify certain ATSUs about intentions to transit their control zones. For this flight, I was curious to see how it worked, so pre notified Luton of my flight in advance.
I logged into the airspace User Portal and submitted my flight details. You have to do so 1 hour before your ETA at the boundary. The website worked well on a mobile phone, which is key, and it didn’t take long to submit my request. When i then called up Luton, they already had my details, and I didn’t have to pass my abbreviated flight plan over the air. Within a minute or two, I was cleared to transit the Class D control zone at 2400 IFR. They put me on headings for a few miles, to separate me from their departing aircraft, before asking me to resume my own navigation.
I’m not a fan of making things more complicated for the GA pilot. We already have enough to do, and giving us more things to think about like this, potentially distracts us from the key task of planning and preparing for the flight. I would prefer it if NATS and other ATSUs make better use of VFR flight plans, so that pilots can just complete one step, rather than having to log into a completely separate system to file requests for each control zone they wish to transit. NATS told me recently that they are looking into this.
Once clear of Luton, I climbed to 3200ft, and broke through the cloud layer. I spoke to Cranfield, to let them and their IFR traffic know I was passing through, then trundled on towards Leicester.
It was as if Leicester was located in its own little weather system. All around was cloud, but Leicester was lovely! I landed in the sunshine, and was glad for a sit down.
Some have challenged me on Facebook about my decision to conduct this flight. They are concerned that a restricted instrument rating holder isn’t experienced enough to hand-fly in IMC for extended periods. They also worry that the aircraft isn’t suitably equipped. Now I wouldn’t question another pilot’s ability to exercise the full extent of his or her ratings. Telling me I can’t fly in cloud, is a bit like telling an aerobatic pilot he/she shouldn’t do a barrel roll. Additionally, if you never fly in IMC, how do you think you’ll cope when you have to? In my view, the rating is worthless if you don’t practise the skill.
Of course, I don’t enjoy long periods of time in cloud, and it was unfortunate that I wasn’t able to climb the extra 100ft or so to break clear for the first 40 minutes of this flight. But it was perfectly legal and safe. The flight had been well planned, the aircraft was suitably equipped, and I was getting a good service from radar units. Different people will have different attitudes to risk. Some won’t fly at night in a single engine aeroplane, others won’t fly in a single engine aircraft over the English Channel. That’s their choice. It’s my choice to fly in IMC, subject to my own personal limitations, as often as I can, to keep my skills sharp.
Leicester is an A/G aerodrome, and so pilots integrate themselves into the circuit. I did so via an overhead join, and others were doing the same.
I had a chocolate bar and a can of fizzy drink in the cafe, before returning to the aircraft to change batteries and memory cards for the return journey home.
I really enjoyed the flight, and it was nice to visit a new GA aerodrome. I shall certainly return.
Video: Difficult IFR flight from Biggin Hill to Leicester.