Sometimes Two Heads are Not Better Than One

Soon after I got my PPL(A), back in the dark ages, flying friends suggested that I pair up with another recently qualified pilot.

That way, they said, we could share the cost, and also benefit from each other’s experience. One could fly, while the other did the navigation and radio; then we would swap for the next flight. Half the cost, half the work, twice the fun, they told me. A well tried and tested way of gaining experience. What could possibly go wrong? Well, during this flight, we definitely found out…

It was about nine months after I got my licence. I had teamed up with Ed a little earlier, and we often flew together. We had around 100 flying hours apiece, we got on well, and we arranged a flight together most weekends, checking out all the local airfields; then those a little further afield. This time we decided to go to Blackpool. Neither of us had ever been there, but it didn’t look too difficult, and it would be a good day out.

We checked the weather carefully before we went. At our base at Welshpool there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and all looked good for later on too. So I flew us there, routing through the low level corridor between Manchester’s and Liverpool’s airspace, which was something I hadn’t done before. But I managed it with no issues or undue stress. It was an uneventful flight in lovely weather. We landed safely at Blackpool and walked into town for lunch.

One of the firemen at the airport mentioned having just heard about thunderstorms “somewhere close by”

About mid-afternoon, with the weather still looking good, we decided it was time to head back to Welshpool. But as we were about to walk out to our aircraft, one of the firemen at the airport mentioned having just heard about thunderstorms “somewhere close by”.

However, we shrugged and laughed it off. There still wasn’t a cloud to be seen; storms weren’t likely to affect us. Besides, we could always divert to Hawarden, which was more or less on our route home, if we really needed to, and Mike lived near there, if we really got stuck. Mind you, that didn’t seem likely to happen. So we climbed aboard, with Mike now acting as PIC, and prepared to depart.

The first signs of trouble came very soon after we left Blackpool. We heard another aircraft calling on the radio, saying that he was returning “due to thunderstorms”. But he was further East, near Manchester, and we were following the west coast. So we still weren’t too worried.

However, soon afterwards, someone near Hawarden said he was returning to Blackpool too. It didn’t sound good and I think we both began to realise something was up.

Yet still we continued on! Why, you might wonder. Well, I didn’t want to question Ed, since he was PIC, and also more experienced that I was – only by a mere ten flying hours or so, but that seemed like a whole lot to me at the time And Ed? I suspect he thought that I’d say something if I was worried, and I hadn’t – so it must be OK, mustn’t it? And so began a dangerous scenario which I now know to be frighteningly common when two pilots fly together – they will both continue, thinking the other one would comment if they were concerned, though neither would do so if they were flying alone.

I started to wonder if I should say anything to Ed. But he seemed quite happy

Just moments later, I noticed that the haze around the coast was getting thicker, though the weather was still perfectly flyable. At last I started to wonder if I should say anything to Ed. But he seemed quite happy, and I thought maybe I was worrying unnecessarily, so I kept quiet. He was PIC, wasn’t he? So it was his decision, something which had been drilled into me throughout my PPL course.

Soon things began to get worse, much worse. All my instincts were now screaming at me to turn back, that we wouldn’t even make Hawarden, never mind Welshpool. Ed wasn’t completely stupid either and was clearly thinking similarly, for when a few seconds later Blackpool Approach tried to pass us on to another frequency, he asked if we could stay with them “for a minute or two, as we may well be turning back”. Yet still he said nothing to me, and we continued to fly on into the ever-increasing cloud.

In front of us now was a huge black wall of cloud ]

Barely a minute later, we felt the beginnings of definite turbulence. In front of us now was a huge black wall of cloud. No-one but a complete fool would have attempted to fly into that, and Ed said, or rather croaked hoarsely:

“What do you want to do, Helen?”
“Turn back NOW”.
“Right!”

Why he even asked me I’ll never know. As PIC it was indeed his decision, and by now an obvious one. Was it so that if it turned out to be wrong he could claim he’d aborted the flight because I was scared? Or was he simply a great deal less confident than he appeared? Anyway, it was quite obviously the right decision…even if we made it a little late. We reached Blackpool just before the two other returning aircraft which we’d heard on the radio, which had had further to fly. Blackpool Tower was by now warning of “severe wind shear on final, with a pilot reporting a loss of 10 knots of airspeed”.

The storm hit … a dramatic affair with high winds and bright pink forked lightning

Ed executed a perfect landing on the numbers, which really wasn’t a great idea in the circumstances, as the Tower wanted us off the runway as soon as possible, so that the other returnees could land. But I think he was flying on automatic at that point. The storm hit five minutes after we were all safely on the ground, a dramatic affair with high winds and bright pink forked lightning.

By now there were several other people who’d returned or diverted, and we swapped stories: “We were 9000 feet up in the airways and dropping at 2000 feet a minute…” You know the kind of thing. But as the storm showed no signs of abating, and reports told of a wall of thunderstorms from Liverpool to Leeds, things quietened down, at least on the ground.

We all began to realise that we were probably stranded overnight, and people began to call family or work, and generally try to reorganise their lives. We contacted Welshpool, who sensibly said not to come back unless it was absolutely safe. Then we started looking for a B & B.

Actually Blackpool is a reasonably good place to get stranded. With an estimated 34,000 beds in the town, we found somewhere to stay even though it was the height of the holiday season. The following morning the weather was good, and Ed flew us back, encountering nothing worse than some patchy early morning mist.

We landed at Welshpool soon after the airfield opened, so we weren’t even scolded for losing them any flying time in our hired aircraft.

So what did I learn from all this? A lot actually. The main mistake which we both made was to assume that if the other person said nothing, it was safe to continue. And neither of us had dared say anything, though for different reasons due to our different personalities. And we continued acting in this way, even after it looked as though our very lives might depend on making a sensible decision! Put that way, it sounds crazy, but it happened – and I gather something similar happens far too frequently.

But people don’t talk about it, as I haven’t….until now.
For a private pilot, flying with another PPL has many advantages. But you need to remember that two heads is not always better than one – and can sometimes be far worse.

Author: Rob Hall

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