One thing that all pilots come to appreciate and respect is the weather. Weather can seriously mess up your plans and jeopardise your flight safety. As a non Instrument Rated Pilot (yet), the weather poses significant challenges to any form of VFR pilot.
For some time now I have been keen to fly across to Blackpool and have the experience of landing at another Airport with a Control Tower alike Dundee. This is something I haven’t experienced in some time. I flew across with my friend Velislav from University who too has a PPL. I flew the leg across from Sherburn, asking Leeds Radar to transit their zone. Unfortunately, they denied a zone transit and traffic service so we remained outside, diverting around and routing past Emily Moor Mass Transmitting Station. This beast looks just as impressive from the air as it does from the ground. Overhead Huddersfield, I began attempting to contact London Information and with it being a Sunday afternoon, London Information was very busy. After 5-10 minutes we were told to pass our details and squawk 1177. To my shock, we were then told to contact Manchester Radar whilst we were overhead Rochdale. This surprised me as I had heard that Manchester generally is not General Aviation friendly and Manchester Radar rarely provides any form of Air Traffic Service to GA. We began heading North where visibility started to deteriorate, there were also showers and Cumulonimbus clouds to the North East. At this point I considered turning back but deemed it more suitable to fly onwards to Blackpool which we were now closer to. We then made straight in to Runway 28 at Blackpool. It was beyond great to be able to say “Cleared to land runway 28, Golf-November Juliet”. I haven’t been able to affirm a clearance to land since my training In Dundee. After landing we taxied across to the GA parking and then went for a look around Blackpool whilst keeping a close eye on the weather.
Heavy rain showers were predicted to hit Manchester and our route later in the evening but we were happy that we would get to Huddersfield at least before this. Velislav was flying this leg and wanted to do Communications himself to develop his skill. Nevertheless, I suggested we should be well prepared to divert, diverting south of the route to Manchester Barton or further along the route to Huddersfield Crossland Moor or even Leeds Bradford Airport. We finished checking the aircraft and Vel was about to start the Cessna up we were informed that the aerodrome was closing temporarily for 30 minutes as the ATCO needed to take his half an hour break by law. The ATCO even rang us in the Pilot’s lounge to apologise which I thought was very professional. It did however make us begin to worry about the weather.
We departed at around 1910 local and flew out over Blackpool departing the circuit to the East then contacting London Information. The weather ahead deteriorated significantly, I suggested flying south, flying towards Manchester rather than the POL Hill VOR Beacon. Vel agreed and began flying towards Manchester. Clouds were continually lowering in all directions and eventually, thick cloud and poor visibility surrounded us. We were always in sight of the ground but couldn’t see more than 3 miles around us. I looked back to what I believed would be sunny Blackpool. Horrifyingly not, it just seemed alike a white wall. I could feel panic sinking in, this stomach churning sensation and chill down your spine. I must have gone drip white, Vel too was beginning to go quiet and started asking where we could go as I had the Chart. I asked could I take over radios so he could focus on solely flying and to share the workload in this increasingly stressful situation. It felt like we had seconds to decide. We were painfully aware of the chances a VFR pilot had in cloud. To the south west amongst this ‘white out’ I could faintly see the light of the sun shining through. I told Vel to head towards it. It was the only area of cloud and poor vis that was marginally better than the rest. It also lead us to a very viable diversion airfield; Manchester Barton. I pressed my Push To Talk button and began saying “London Information G-NJ diverting to Manchester Barton due to deteriorating bad weather” But the transmission didn’t seem right, I couldn’t hear myself and I couldn’t hear the response, neither could Vel. We could see on our 8.33 kHz radio that we were transmitting as a ‘Tx’ symbol appeared on the display. We could also see an ‘Rx’ when London Information was trying to talk to us but we couldn’t hear them. Time was of the essence and because of this, I changed our squawk to 7600 indicating radio failure and I began transmitting blind and making the station aware.
Despite the now ever-growing feeling of dread and fear, I remained calm on the radio, it was almost as though I was acting calm to remain clear and professional. Half a minute later we spotted the M62. We then followed it to the Trafford Centre and became visual with Manchester Barton. After trying various things to fix our radio, I managed to get it working when we were within 5 miles of Manchester Barton and so it was vital to contact them, but London Information was delaying our change of frequency whilst contacting them on the landline. Eventually, I called up and we were given instructions to land. Whilst turning base, I spotted a crashed aircraft in the field. At the time I was far too distracted to think further about it, on reflection it was quite harrowing. Velislav landed the aircraft beautifully and we taxied to the parking to be met by the manager on duty that day. He and his team looked after us extremely well and made every effort to get us back to Leeds with the aircraft. Unfortunately due to the weather and time, we couldn’t return to Leeds that night. Instead we were given a lift into Manchester by a member of staff named Luke. He was absolute saviour that day alike all the other Barton staff. Our first priority in Manchester was food, and what better than a cheeky Nando’s. The disbelief and shock provided us both with a great deal of humour that evening and we returned to Leeds arriving before midnight.
The next morning, we returned to Manchester Barton early to return the Cessna home, being given a lift again from Luke. We departed Barton where the weather was marginally VFR. Vel flew the short leg back to Sherburn of around 20 minutes, we hand-railed the M62 all the way back, flying below Leeds Class D airspace. The relief to get NJ back was insane. So many valuable lessons were learnt by us both, lessons we will no doubt carry with us as we continue to fly.