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By Rob P
I'd trecked across France from Troyes at FL85 above a few scattered cumulus and coasted out at Calais heading DCT for Harwich.

Mid-Channel I saw some cloud below, which looked fairly solid. Even though I do not hold any instrument qualification, the sensible thing would have been only to drop down to 5,000 (to duck under the airways) and fly VFR on top until I was over Norfolk where nothing had previously suggested it would be anything other than VMC. But I worried about the legalities of being VFR on top and 'elected' to duck under the cloud and cross the water low level. After all it would be 7 minutes from the FIR boundary to abeam Deal, 14 minutes from there to coasting-in at Harwich. This was where it all went wrong. Worrying about the legal niceties of the situation.

The thing was I truly believed that I could actually make out the White Cliffs under and beyond the cloud. I was totally and completely mistaken. I have talked it over with others since and it is not an uncommon illusion.

In the descent I fixated on where I expected the cliffs to appear, and it was only when a pretty big ship popped into my peripheral vision and I glanced at it that I realised the 'pretty big' ship was a small fishing trawler and I was very low indeed.

I then flew, at around 160 knots, into something like 500m forward visibility sea fog.

I heard from someone working Manston that the tops were about 2,500 and then I climbed into the cloud to break out into the sunshine a very short time later. Manston were brilliant :thumleft: They then checked the Norwich met for me, and the actual gave me no reason to be concerned about a descent near Tibenham. Scattered at 2,000 was as bad as it got.

What I take from this

1) Keep on practicing instrument flying as I have always done on my two-yearly instructor hour - Harder now with the RV

2) Sod the legalities. Safe is better then dead. As soon as I entered the sea fog I was flying outside the privileges of my licence anyway so being VFR on top would have been equally illegal, but a whole lot safer.

Rob P
Older and a little bit wiser
Last edited by Rob P on Fri Jul 26, 2013 12:42 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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By Neil MacG
Thanks for posting this Rob. I've still to do a flight across the channel and with all the discussion on the recent incident this situation you describe does concern me.

Having just "upgraded" my UK NPPL to an EASA LAPL licence I have seen mention of the removal of the VFR on top restriction but still not clear on what this means in practice.

I found this discussion: viewtopic.php?f=1&t=67907 which considers what VFR on Top means in EASA land, but I'm not convinced it clarifies the position - in particular - it indicates that you only remain VFR if above cloud AND above 3000ft. It would be good to get some certainty on this for EASA LAPL and PPL licence holders.

And of course this is only of any use if there is a guranteed cloud break within the endurance of the aircraft.

It's quite a sobering post and while I don't think it will put me off my first trip across the sea, it does add another dimension to my personal go/no go decision making.

Many thanks.

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By Rob P
The thing is not so much the go / no go decision. It was VMC both sides of the Channel. There was nothing in the forecasts to suggest that there would be any issues at all.

So really my post is mostly intended just to inform that over the water you can encounter some very localised weather, and some very odd optical illusions.

It must be my 50 or 60th Channel crossing stretching back over 25 years and I can't say I had ever met this one before.

Rob P :D
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By Keef
I've had the same experience a few times when crossing the channel at 1500 feet or so - the "goldfish bowl effect", where the horizon disappears and the view ahead becomes a blur. Your eyes may not know where to focus.

You're not actually in IMC, but you're certainly lacking important visual clues. That's where a bit of "instrument appreciation" training becomes very useful - as you found. It's something well worth practising in the "instructor hour".

Up at 5000 feet or so, you may be on top of the inversion layer and have a clear horizon - the top of the smoggy layer!