Discuss the problems and solutions to all of the situations that Pilot X finds himself in.
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Foggy, foggy dew

Kim Taylor takes us into the world of weightshift microlights and – more importantly for all of us – conditions which can lead to every notable feature being obscured by a blanket of fog

Although it was a winter’s day, the flying would be great in their microlight. A large area of high pressure was giving very light winds and cloudless skies. The weak sunshine provided a little warmth during the days, but the nights were cold. Weightshift microlight flying in the winter can be a true delight. The ‘Michelin Man’ insulated suits keep the very worst of the cold out and are the uniform of the trike pilot. True, fingers and feet can get cold, and painful, along with the exposed face, but the joy of flight in cold, smooth air is more than worth it. There’s always the prospect of a cuppa somewhere and being cold is the justification (as if it were needed!) for that bacon butty…

Pilot X had been qualified for some time and enjoyed taking passengers. More recently, his girlfriend had decided that she wanted to move from being talking ballast to being a pilot herself. She was being taught the noble art at a flying school which was about half-an-hour’s flight from Pilot X’s home airstrip. Better still, her training costs could be reduced by being taught in Pilot X’s aircraft – only the instructor’s time to pay for then – bargain! They routinely flew to and from the school airfield for her lessons. Such was her progress that she was able to sit in front in the tandem seating. Special handles fitted to the control frame allowed Pilot X to control the aircraft, from his rear seat, in pitch and roll; if he needed to take over – extensions to the nosewheel steering bar meant he could control it on the ground. The hand throttle allowed him control of the power.

Once the early morning mists had burned off, Pilot X and companion set off. They both knew the route well. As a result, Pilot X decided that he would leave his GPS receiver in its case, in the car. Not a lot of point in fitting the removable handheld radio either – his home airstrip and the school strip operated non-radio. Just the quarter-mil then.

The lady was becoming a good pilot and the short flight to the school airfield set her up for her lessons. Pilot X enjoyed a lazy day on the ground while his girlfriend made a little more steady progress through the syllabus. As he sat in the watery sunshine he could just detect the smell and taste of a little moisture in the air. “Wow! Your hands are cold,” he said, as she came over and embraced – she was exhilarated by her progress. The steam from the welcome tea wafted lazily around in the open air as she warmed her hands, ready for the return flight home.

Twenty miles away, the crew of a commercial airliner was briefing for a flight. Apart from the TAF, the Captain noted that the Metars were giving light and variable winds and that there was almost no difference between the temperature and dew point.

Concerned that time was marching on, Pilot X ushered his partner to the aircraft. He climbed into the rear seat again and she lowered herself into the front, ready to show off her progress during the day. While she ran through her pre-take-off checks, Pilot X watched as the sun began to sink towards the horizon. As he watched, he noted the edges becoming very slightly blurred. As they were still stationary, they both had their helmet visors raised because the moisture from their breath was beginning to steam them up. Pilot X would be glad to be back on the ground at home – the temperature was definitely dropping.
Twenty miles away, the airline Captain was planning alternates in case he couldn’t get back into the airport later.

Missed features

Following a perfect take-off, Pilot X and his lady settled into the cruise. She was still on a high, having done well during the day. Pilot X, however, was now getting a little concerned. The shallow valleys below were beginning to disappear from view in a milky haze. No matter – only 20 more minutes to go and he’d be on the ground just before the sun actually set. Pilot X listened on the intercom as his girlfriend chatted about her progress – she, too, remarked on the misty view. As they continued on the heading, the chat became less and a little more tense. The terrain didn’t look at all familiar now.
Pilot X reached for the chart, which he had brought with him but didn’t think he’d need. No – nothing looked the same now – very few ground features were visible in the increasing mists. In fact, within a few short minutes the ground had completely disappeared beneath a blanket of fog.
“I have control,” muttered Pilot X. He turned the aircraft through a gentle 360°, but as far as the eye could see, there was just the surreal blanket. The chart was now completely useless. It was about now that Pilot X could vividly see, in his mind’s eye, the GPS unit and radio lying on the car seat back at his airstrip. With no choice, they continued in the hope of finding a hole in the fog. There was little or no conversation over the intercom now. Cold – it was now very cold.

The sun continued its relentless journey to the horizon and the fog blanket took on a strange texture as the angle of the light changed. Despite the increasing darkness, there were no reassuring glimpses of light from towns, let alone individual houses. Not even the distinctive bright lights of a golf driving range beckoned – nothing. The fog had started out white, became grey and was now losing its colour completely as the sun set. It was now almost night-time.

Pilot X had no choice now. Reducing the power and pulling the control bar toward him to maintain the airspeed, they began their descent towards the fog and whatever lay below it. As they did so, Pilot X could stand it no more – he turned the intercom off so that he could no longer hear the screams of his passenger...

Twenty miles away, the airline Captain told ‘Ops’ to post his flight as, “Delayed due to fog.”

1. What clues were there that fog was likely to form around sunset?
2. What could Pilot X have done to improve his chances when everything went wrong for him?
By mur007
The weather was almost textbook advection fog conditions; light winds, cloudless sky, relative humidity close to 100%. I suspect that Pilot X was lulled into a false of security by the cold temperature (one doesn't immediately associate cold with humidity) and also the bright winter sun - which from inside a cockpit might look like it could burn off more than it actually could. Having more than a map in the cockpit would have improved his chances - I haven't used a GPS myself so I can't really comment on how beneficial it would have been if he had brought his. One thing that does strike me is that this was a familiar route which he had flown frequently. I recall hearing that the majority of road accidents occur near our own homes or on roads that we use regularly - the familiarity bringing an element of complacency to our driving. I suspect that complacency played a part here too - with little or no planning prior to both legs. Even when he noticed the mist beginning to form, his familiarity with the route is how he justified proceeding and not putting it down in the nearest field.

One question I do have - is it legal to train for a ppl in a non-radio field? (sorry if that's a stupid question, I just assumed that you'd need a radio for your RT licence)
By AttorneyAtLaw
High pressure, cold clear nights and light winds is characteristic of risk of radiation fog, not advection fog. Although typically quite shallow a light wind can produce a thicker layer. Temperature and due point are likely to be close to each other and the presence of moisture in the air should have been an indication that the air was almost saturated.

The first signs were on the ground, with the setting sun becoming blurred and condensation forming from their breath, another indication that the air was close to saturation. The prudent thing to do would have been to abandon the flight before take off! X must have appreciated that the air temperature would drop rapidly with sunset.

Around 10 minutes into a half hour flight and fog is forming in the valleys. The obvious immediate thing to do was to return to the home base whilst he could still see it. As he was using a quarter mil chart this should have enabled him to a) orientate himself in relation to visible ground features and b) pick an alternate site to land, perhaps on higher ground above the shallow valleys where the fog was forming first in the colder air.

Clearly he should not have flown without his GPS and radio. Even if flying to and from a non radio airfield there will be many occasions when a radio may be needed and there is no good reason not to carry it.
By johnm
The METAR gives the classic conditions for fog formation, leaving the radio and the GPS were the real killers. The GPS could have taken him to somewhere familiar, ideally with lights, where he could have got down without too much pain, the radio might have got him to somewhere still open if anywhere was.

It's not clear whether he was carrying the maximum fuel load for maximum options.
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By Charles Hunt
As I read about the turn, I was surprised about 360 degrees.

I assumed it was going to be 180 degrees.

If you were somewhere good, and now you're somewhere bad, go back to somewhere good.

The problem with this is that there is no absolute guarantee that conditions haven't changed for the worse back where you started!

Again, had he been carrying the radio, I believe it's three Cs. Climb, Call, Confess. A LARS unit or D&D could have greatly increased the chances of a good outcome.
By mur007
AttorneyAtLaw wrote:High pressure, cold clear nights and light winds is characteristic of risk of radiation fog, not advection fog.

:oops: It's been a while since I studied for my Met exam ...
By AttorneyAtLaw
When I said "home" base I meant, of course, the field he had just left as opposed to the one he was heading for. The die was already cast when he took off so his options were very limited and yes, no guarantees that the field he had just left was clear.
By SteveKR
As already pointed out, classic radiation fog conditions with plenty of signs - high pressure, low temps, no wind, mist the previous night, next to no spread in temp and dew point - fog was predictable, especially as the sun was going down. Those commercial pilots had the TAF's and Metars and were only 20 miles away and one look at either should have been enough to ring alarm bells. X had time on his hands whilst waiting for his girlfriend to finish and so could easily have checked out the Met.

Regardless, X also appears to have been aware that there was a potential problem "Pilot X would be glad to be back on the ground at home – the temperature was definitely dropping". Get-home-itis seems to have taken over.

As for improving their chances, once they were airborne as fog was forming in the valleys it should have been obvious that it was only going to get worse so a precautionary landing was the only real option and (I would imagine) relatively easy to carry out successfully in a weight-shift microlight if you can see fields to land in. With no wind, landing to the east (sun behind) would improve visibility through haze or light mist significantly, and even if from above they couldn't see anything, once in the murk there may have still been enough vis to see something before sunset. Given the conditions, X should have planned an alternate (10 minutes flying to the commercial airfield?) but I guess without radio that was no longer an option. Radio and GPS would both have obviously have helped - getting help before commiting to a forced landing (either with a diversion or help on the ground), finding a place with the best chance of survival, finding their way home, or better still diverting to the commercial airfield with runway lights, radio, presumably radar and emergency services on hand. Had he taken his radio, he could have got help to get to that airfield where the chances of a successful talk down would be improved (if still low in fog) and help would be on hand. Whether they could have made it once it was dark is a different matter, so an early decision would be important. Perhaps for a challenging flight, sitting in the front seat would have helped too.

Summary - get met info, be prepared for the worst, if in doubt don't fly, if it goes pear shaped don't push on, make an early decision to divert or make a precautionary landing.
By b.a. Baracus
It appears that this accident can simply be put down to poor planning. Every flight no matter how 'trivial' in X's eyes needs to properly planned and considered. A review of the weather information would of most probably changed X's decision on flying that particular evening. The situation was further aggravated by X's decision to leave the radio and GPS on the ground. The GPS would have improved X's situational awareness, while the radio would of allowed X to talk to D&D or a LARS which would, I am sure, have a calming effect on X, allowing X to think straight and develop a coherent plan which may have avoided the outcome.
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By Keef
To me, that met information says "stay on the ground". No ifs, no buts.
The radio and GPS might have got X back on the ground safely in the fog, but that's not the way to bet. The mistake was taking off at all.

I once found myself homeward bound over the English Channel when unforecasted fog formed rapidly over Northern France and Southern England. London Info told me, soon after, that there was nowhere within range that was VMC. I did the only thing I could - continued to Southend, wondering if I could do an OHJ and a very tight circuit. The brilliant ATC folks told me that wasn't going to work and brought me in on an SRA to half a mile (that tells you how long ago it was). I just spotted the lights at DH (less a tiny bit, if I'm honest).

I treat dewpoint and temperature plus clear skies with extreme respect after that.
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By KNT754G
The clue was in the first two lines of the narative.

Although it was a winter’s day, the flying would be great in their microlight. A large area of high pressure was giving very light winds and cloudless skies. The weak sunshine provided a little warmth during the days, but the nights were cold.

Classic conditions for radiation fog.

As one who worked at Glasgow airport for 22 years I can testify to the fact that the fog was predictable without any forecaster by lunchtime that day.
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By TST Tom
Carrying the radio would have been the real life saver. A call to that nearby airfield and they could have given him radar vectors to get in.

As it was, without the radio, his only chance was an early precautionary landing before the fog formed a complete blanket. And he left it too late for that.

A timely reminder as we enter the autumn! I had a similar experience on Sunday evening when I truned back towards base and saw that low cloud had formed a solid wall down to 500 ft behind me. If it had been down to the ground I would have had to have landed out.

BMAA 3118
By kilo whisky
He should have checked the Tafs and Metars but even so he should have noted her hands were cold and the steam from the tea indicating the temperature and dewpoint were close. Also, from the prevailing conditions he should have been watchful for impending fog.

There is no doubt that his survival chances would have increased greatly by carrying the GPS and radio so it is a reminder that we should carry any equipment useful to us even if we don't think we need it. As they say in the forces 'If you've got it you can use it. If you haven't *******'

The bluring of the edges of the horizon and having to keep their visors up due to condensation should have warned him there wasn't much time before the fog formed so he should not have taken off at all that late in the day and once airborne and the fog started to cover the ground he should have made a precautionary landing easily achieved in a microlight on the tightest of fields.