Sorry that I haven't been updating the blog much. Things have been rather busy but I'll try and get back to updating after every flight!
This weekend I had planned to visit my sister in Southampton. It would be a long (though direct) train journey or an even longer drive and even then subject to the vagaries of traffic delays. Either way the journey would be in excess of 4 hours, possibly well in excess. The flight in a straight line from Liverpool is just over an hour. No contest!
I called Southampton airport, 5 minutes away from my sister, only to be told that though they can accept light aircraft, for overnight parking we would need to be handled by Signature. Other pilots will recognise this as a sign that things are about to get very expensive. Indeed, I didn't bother to call Signature for a quote - landing, handling and a couple of night's parking would have added up to several hundred pounds. Their target market is corporate jets, not the lighter end of GA that I inhabit. Nearby alternatives include Popham and Lee-on-Solent. Neither of these are set up to handle IFR traffic, which given the weather was going to be an issue, and neither are available after dark when I planned to arrive. Further, Lee is currently unavailable at weekends while an airfield management issue is resolved.
The upshot of all this is that I elected to use Bournemouth Airport. At 40 minutes drive from Southampton, it isn't too far to be collected, the airport opens after dark (until 2130) and has full IAPs, including an ILS with a useful low decision altitude. So it was that early on Friday, with rain and low cloud forecast for the south coast that I filed a flightplan to fly airways from Liverpool to Bournemouth on the route NANTI L10 HON DCT NEDEX at FL90, with a departure time of 1615.
Our Commander is kept with Ravenair at Liverpool, and whenever we want to use it, we call them in advance to pull it out of the hangar and if needed fuel it for us. I had called on Friday morning to have the aircraft ready to go with full tanks. Sure enough, when we got to Liverpool there she was, waiting on the apron and seemingly ready to go. I got on with my pre flight checks, which include checking the fuel level. Though the aircraft had been taken out of the hangar, the tanks had not been filled so I called ops to ask why this was. Apparently another aircraft had arrived which took all their attention and I would now need to taxi to the school's incredibly slow fuel pump, wait for them to take the daily sample and then hang around while the slowest flow rate pump I have ever seen at an airport dispensed 110 litres of avgas. I should point out that this is perhaps the second time in over two years of operating through Ravenair that a mistake has been made and that the service is usually wonderful. But it would happen when I'm up against a deadline at the other end and I have a flightplan filed, requiring that I get moving at a particular time...
The Ravenair ops people helpfully did submit a delay message to the tower for me, informing them that I would still like to fly my flight plan, but that the start time would be subject to a delay. Fuelled up and finally ready, we departed runway 09 on a NANTI2V departure. On calling Scottish Control in the climb at 2,000', we were cleared to FL90 and direct HON, some way down the route. The only change to this was my request to go up to FL100 to clear the cloud tops. Once above the freezing level at about FL60, we picked up a small amount of ice - perhaps 5mm in total. This was not enough to materially impact the performance of the aircraft, but did stop us being able to see through the layer of ice on the windscreen! This was slowly cleared once above the clouds with the defrost control set to full. We would have needed this in any case to keep warm as the temperature outside was a chilly -5C.
London Control started our descent towards the Solent area before handing us over to them. The descent continued down through the broken clouds inland, before being handed over to Bournemouth radar to line us up for the ILS. We were number 3 to the procedure so had to take some vectors for spacing before being lined up as usual. Still IMC with a DA of 220' we followed the ILS down and finally went visual at 350', exactly the cloud base reported by the airliner a few minutes ahead of us. This is the lowest I've gone 'in anger' in an ILS. Any other time I've been that low it's been with screens up, in VMC, with an instructor alongside me. Finally doing one for real brought a real sense of achievement. The flight could not have been conducted without an IR - even IMC holders are advised by the CAA to limit themselves to descent to 500'.
My sister was waiting for us at Bournemouth Handling, who provided a swift and courteous service. Sadly the earlier fuelling delay had pushed us past the 1800 cutoff time that had been agreed and meant they charged extra for staying open out of hours.
We spent a great weekend in Southampton, walking on the beach and going out for a couple of meals before heading back to Liverpool on Sunday evening. With cloud all the way from 1,000' up to well above the Commander's service ceiling, the flight back was to be done in the open FIR to the west of Birmingham, IFR and in IMC at FL45. This was booked in with Bournemouth, who got us on our way and passed us over to Lyneham for further radar service and a transit of their zone. We continued northward overhead Gloucester, Malvern and onwards towards Shawbury. Once over the SWB VOR, we began descending to 2,500', coming out of the base of the clouds at around 3,500' on track to the WHI NDB. Liverpool cleared us into the zone on this track and vectored us round for an ILS to runway 27. The rain had finally stopped and visibility under the clouds was fantastic, resulting in some wonderful views. With a healthy tailwind, the flight back was just over an hour and saw us on our way from Liverpool not long after landing at quarter past 7.
The return flight, just like the outbound, would not have been possible without instrument qualifications. The weekend serves as a great example of an instrument rating turning GA into a useful means of transport, with reasonable despatch reliability. Both flights would have to have been delayed until at least the morning after without the night/IFR option.