Thunderstorms and Embedded CBs forecast
Our two week break was up and we were scheduled to return home today. We’d enjoyed some great weather, sunshine pretty much every day and very little rain. Overnight however, there was an intense thunderstorm with very loud thunder. Worse thunderstorms and torrential rain were to be found at home, with a SIGMET warning of embedded CBs and hail. Not an ideal day to be flying a little private aeroplane by any means. I had discussed this with my family and they opted to get going but clearly understood that we may be delayed, possibly overnight, and we wouldn’t proceed until it was safe.
Immigration rules require us to depart France from a port of entry, of which Quiberon isn’t one. They also require me to file a GAR form for the UK Border Force specifying the arrival airport. It’s a little unclear to me what the procedure is or consequences are if you have to divert, but informing the authorities would be high on my list – they can view active flight plans and link those to the GAR forms.
A direct flight would have taken less than 2 hours, but I planned to stop at Cherbourg which would make it two separate flights of about 1 hour each. Diversions en-route would be Dinard and Bournemouth, each about half way, so I’d never be more than 30 minutes from a safe landing. Lannion was also a possibility, but I believe there’s very few facilities at that airport and prior notice for immigration may be required. (In case you ever need it, the French AIP lists admin details and both VFR and IFR approach plates for all French airports.)
Sunshine on departure
We checked out of our apartment at 10am as planned and headed for the airport. Despite the sunny weather there, we were all quite keen to get going, even though we knew there would be delays. The rain radar showed a huge blob of horribleness over central England, including our destination Gloucester, which was slowly moving north. There was also a strip of heavy activity to the south of Cherbourg, which I hoped to skirt around. I intended to remain VFR to ensure I could see any potential CBs (Cumulonimbus).
After departure, we transitted L’Orient VFR and flew at about 4000 feet above the broken cloudbase. The autopilot again wasn’t working and I needed to handfly everything today. In the far distance we could see a wall of cloud which matched where I thought the main front would be (south of Cherbourg). We continued this way to Dinard, and I requested the latest weather at Cherbourg – the phrase “no significant cloud” sounded very promising.
Vectored ILS into Dinard
As we approached Dinard, the cloud became thicker and in a remarkably short space of time I found I had become enveloped IMC. I turned around, initially intending simply to fly north and skirt it, but after turning back we were still in the soup, about 10 miles or so south of Dinard. French ATC were great. I requested and was granted an IFR join into Dinard – a vectored ILS for 35 with cloudbase reported at 1200 feet. I wasn’t entirely prepared for this and had to rush to pull up the plate, dial in the frequency and ident, check the altimeter, select the runway orientation and program the DME. All while flying manually in what was becoming slightly convective cloud (ie. we were bouncing up and down a bit).
My one schoolboy error was not to switch the HSI mode from GPS to VLOC (i.e. drive the instrument indicating the ILS beam and glideslope from the external ILS signal rather than from the GPS). I put this down to my normally setting this up via the GTN menus rather than using the frequency knob, but there’s really no excuse for a blunder like this. At least I wasn’t descending, remaining well above MSA (Minimum Safety Altitude) until I was confident the instruments were telling me what I’d expect. The mantra about Aviate, Navigate, Communicate (in that order) was in the forefront of my mind.
The controller spotted that I’d not intercepted the localiser and revectored me back for another attempt. By then, I’d twigged what the issue was and the beam bar and glideslope came alive, allowing me to make a good intercept and follow the approach down. Dinard tower informed me the new cloudbase was now 900 feet. (Decision Height is 200 feet).
We popped out of cloud to see the runway lights ahead and I was able to make quite a decent soft landing from it. We parked up, paid our landing fee and spent the next few hours in the bar/diner area upstairs waiting for the weather to improve.
My wife had been in cloud with commercial aircraft before, but never in a small plane. She said she now understood why I had found the IR course so difficult and why it had taken so long. Although she had been disoriented when in the cloud, she was still prepared to fly again so perhaps the experience wasn’t that bad despite my stupid mistake. My daughter noted that the Artificial Horizon didn’t match her senses about which way was up (i.e. she got “The Leans“).
We watched an executive jet deposit their passengers, back from a holiday somewhere. Activity peaked during a Ryanair arrival. A Jodel or similar made a few circuits. Gloucester ATC telephoned to ask what our plans were (I had filed a flight plan from Cherbourg which wasn’t being used) and confirmed the torrential rain and thunderstorms in their area that we could see on the RainAlarm app on my smartphone.
About 4 hours after landing, I decided it was good to go, and we made a couple of phone calls, filed a new VFR flight plan (using SkyDemon on the phone) and made our way back to the plane. There is a separate security door for GA with a doorbell (shown in the middle of the picture below). You need to show your pilot licence to gain access and we presented our passports to the border inspectors.
The flight back from Dinard to Gloucester was fairly smooth. I don’t think I heard any other GA aircraft on frequency north of Jersey. There was an inversion layer at about 4000 feet over the Jersey Zone and I climbed above it to ensure I could see any potential bad weather well ahead – there was one towering cumulus well off to our right (north of Southampton) but a direct path posed no problem. VFR arrival back in to Gloucester which wasn’t busy, with a left base join for 27 that required a steeper descent that I’d planned for an overhead join. The controller confirmed that the rain had stopped about an hour earlier, when we would have already been en-route, pretty much as expected.
I think the flexibility of passengers is critically important on trips like this. There was no real rush to get home and we could have stayed in Quiberon for another day (or returned a day early) if we’d needed to. We chose to progress within the limits of the weather and have an escape route/alternate (which could have included flying all the way back to Quiberon) if need be. I would have been more cautious without the IR (and a fully IFR capable aircraft) and am also aware that passengers could easily be put off by the disorientation of flying in cloud.
Bad news to follow
A few days later, the oil was changed and filter cut open which identified metal circulating inside the engine. Engineers confirmed this was likely to be the beginning of the end. It wasn’t about to suddenly fail but further use could cause more serious wear and tear affecting other components. This wasn’t entirely unexpected – the engine has flown about 2450 hours and has a normal TBO (Time Before Overhaul) of 2000. We had built up a healthy Engine Fund in anticipation. It’s perfectly legal, common and safe to fly “On Condition” for private use and we had hoped to reach as much as 3000 hours. The group quickly decided to proceed with the full overhaul which will take the aircraft out of service for a month or more.
Autopilot problems were identified with the servos – both roll and trim were sticking and not properly engaging. These will be removed and repaired at the same time.
Bad timing for the rest of the summer season, so I was very fortunate that it didn’t affect our holiday. After having enjoyed the aircraft for 2 weeks (something you can’t normally do with a club rental), I think my co-owners would rightly expect their fair share of flying time once it’s back in the air. I don’t expect to be flying it for quite a few weeks and will be looking out for other options.
Total time today: 2:30
Total PIC time: 247:10
Total time: 376:20