July 17, 2015

West coast flight – Day 6 (Final)

The long way home – triumph turns to disappointment

No proper video today, just photographs, mainly because I’d had no way of charging up my little sports cam for the two days previously. I wasn’t too fussed, though, because I knew that the terrain we’d be flying over would be little different from that which we were used to on a daily basis and that there would be little of note to video or, indeed, photograph along the way. Here’s a shot of the route itself.

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The night before I’d agreed, rather against my better judgement, to make a change to the route that I’d originally planned. The reason was that during my planning, not only had I found bona-fide name and contact details for all of the airfields at which we’d intended to land but I’d also checked each and every one on Google Earth to verify not only that it existed but also that it was exactly as described by the owner or operator. Then I’d carefully adjusted the route loaded into my GPS to ensure that it terminated at each landing waypoint either exactly on each airfield’s runway or, at the very least, really close to it. Then I’d printed off our charts so we had a detailed one for each leg of our tour and for those reasons it had been so easy to spot each airfield and approach safely and easily to land on its active runway.

But I unwisely allowed all of that to go out of the window the previous evening, a decision that I later came greatly to regret. After leaving Mouchamps, I’d originally planned for us to land at Courcon, an established ULM club with good facilities. The flying time from Mouchamps to Courcon would be only about 40 minutes, leaving a further leg from Courcon to Plazac of almost dead on 2 hours. But the point was that Courcon was only intended to be a stop to top up our fuel to make sure that we’d have enough on board to arrive at Plazac with safe quantities in our tanks.

One of the factors influencing the decision to make a change was that M. Guerton had kindly allowed us to purchase quite a large quantity of fuel, 54 litres actually, from the stocks he held in his hangar, so we knew that we’d be departing Mouchamps with brimming tanks. Therefore, it seemed like a good idea at the time to extend the first leg of our flight to Plazac beyond Courcon to make it more of a comfort stop than a fuel stop, and that’s when we made a crucially bad decision.

M. Guerton had had a tablet with an internet connection with him the night before and we had used it as best we could to find an alternative airfield for our first landing. We had found one that seemed suitable just south of an airfield named St Jean d’Angely and I’ve marked it on the route, above, with a red circle and arrow. M. Guerton had then tried to ring the contact number provided but could not get through and that’s when our warning bells should have started ringing. And despite all of the detailed work that I’d put into selecting all of the other airfields that we’d stopped at during our tour, I had let things continue on.

We did our best to modify our GPS routes the night before and when he arrived to see us off in the morning, M. Guerton again tried to get through to the alternative airfield. But still he couldn’t make a connection and still we ignored the warning signs. You can see him trying repeatedly to make the call in the next two shots.

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So then we took off, Wim first and me following a few minutes later as usual, and turned to continue our flight south and I have to say that by this time I was feeling a little bit uneasy. However, the weather was not too bad and conditions were pretty good so as I overtook Wim at around the same distance as our landing at Courcon would have been, I continued on in the flight quite happily. Here are some shots that I took as I did so.

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But waiting just around the corner for both of us was a major shock. My revised route took me past the airfield that I mentioned previously and is shown on the route pic above, called St Jean d’Angely. I didn’t try too hard, but even though I should have been pretty close to it, I couldn’t spot it, but I didn’t worry too much. By now I was more concerned about finding the alternative airfield that we’d decided to land at for a comfort break that should have been just to the south of it. But when I arrived exactly overhead it according to my GPS, which up to then had always been spot-on, there was no airfield to be seen. What there was, though, was what looked like a large rubbish dump or landfill site. I decided to do just one circuit so as not to waste fuel, to verify that what I’d seen was in fact true and sure enough, if there ever had been an ULM field at the location, it certainly wasn’t there now, and this presented me with something of a dilemma. What should I do?

I reckoned that there were three alternatives – to return to St Jean d’Angely, which I hadn’t spotted but which almost certainly existed and land there, to locate another airfield ahead, on or close to my track and land there, much as I’d done at Mimizan, and finally to carry on and complete the whole flight in one hop from Mouchamps to Plazac.

I decided on the latter, which in hindsight, I think was almost certainly an error of judgement. The flying time up to that point had been about an hour, leaving a further 2 hours, or just a bit less as we had been flying south-east with a north-westerly tailwind, before I’d arrive at Plazac. As any pilot knows, 3 hours non-stop stick and rudder flying can be tiring at the best of times and at about that time, a few thermals and bumps were beginning to pick up under a low cumulus base, indicating that it wouldn’t be all sweetness and light for the rest of the flight. But the key fact that persuaded me was that I knew that I’d left Mouchamps with brimming tanks and that so long as I flew sensibly, I’d have enough fuel on board to complete the flight safely.

Here’s a shot that I took at about the time that I left the Vendée and entered the Deux Sèvres.

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The next major town that I flew past after flying below the Class D controlled airspace to the north-east of Cognac airport was Angoulême. I took a few shots in its general direction but by now conditions were become a bit more cloudy and dull and it was hard to see much detail.

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Angoulême is in the south-eastern corner of the Charente and soon after I’d passed it, I entered the Dordogne with its by now familiar terrain.

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Eventually the City of Périgueux hove into view and I knew that my somewhat long and tiring flight would soon be approaching its end.

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Some minutes later, Rouffignac came up on 56NE’s nose and I knew that Wim’s field would not be much further on. Having spotted it, I began to descend and set myself up for a left hand circuit and approach.

The runway at Wim’s field is very short at only 160/170 metres and experience has shown that you have to approach it low and as slowly as possible to have time to stop in time. I succeeded in the former but as I was at the end of final and only a few metres above the threshold, it was apparent that my groundspeed was too high, so I opened up the throttle to go around as I’d done several times the day before we’d left on our west coast flight. But this time 56NE handled completely differently and its nose failed to come up quickly enough, with the result that I landed heavily just past the runway threshold whether I wanted to or not.

But this one was different to any previous hard landing and, I hope to any that will inevitably come in the future. As soon as the main wheels made contact with the runway there was a loud ‘crunch’ noise and the undercarriage collapsed. From then on I was a passenger as 56NE slid along the runway and eventually came to a halt in the long grass bordering it on the right. I was perfectly OK, though, and the engine was still running, so I switched it off and climbed out. What met my view was the sight of 56NE nestling in the long grass like a wounded bird.

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So what went wrong? The first thing that I noticed was that although I had flown back from Mouchamps with a tailwind that should have provided a headwind component for a landing at Wim’s airfield, in fact there was a tailwind down the runway, probably as a result of the local cloud and weather system that is shown in the above two pics. Unfortunately I had no way of knowing this as Wim hadn’t left his windsock out when we departed on our trip, but I’d surmised that it was the case and it was partly why I’d decided to go around when I did.

But that’s far from the whole story. I’d noticed that during the latter stages of the flight, I’d had 56NE on full nose-up trim and still had to pull back gently on the stick to maintain level flight. Foolishly I hadn’t paid too much attention to it but in hindsight it was an indicator of a key factor. When I checked later on, I found that there were only about 7 litres of fuel left in the tanks. Considering that they’d started with about 54 litres, the amount consumed had resulted in quite a significant forward shift in 56NE’s centre of gravity. But that wasn’t all. Not only did I still have quite a large quantity (and weight) of baggage stowed in the cabin in front of the passenger seat, to crown it all, the heaviest items, such as the spare oil, the gas burner and cylinder and spares of both, the small toolkit that I’d put together and my metal-framed camping chair were all even further forward under 56NE’s instrument panel, so the net result of all that was a centre of gravity at its foremost limit, or possibly even a bit beyond. No wonder that I’d been flying with full nose-up trim, and no wonder when I’d opened up the engine to go around (which itself causes a nose-down moment of force), that 56NE had failed to respond quickly enough.

Like all such events, it’s easy to understand them when you think about them afterwards but very difficult to see them coming in advance. Now that I’ve experienced such an event, I’ll make sure that it never happens again and if by my writing about it, another pilot is helped to avoid a similar mishap, then it’ll have been worth it.

There’s no doubt that a contributory factor was also that I’d flown for the best part of three hours in occasionally trying conditions without a break. Wim thought so too and because he knows the area better than me, he’d been able to go off track and stop over at Riberac for a break before continuing. Who knows whether if I’d been able to do something similar, the mishap would have been avoided.

There were a few good things, though, that came out of it. Firstly, the damage to 56NE although it looked quite bad initially was fairly trivial, and after ordering the parts (more new shocks and a pair of axles) and waiting a few days for them to be delivered, it only took a couple more days to complete the repair and fly 56NE back to Galinat. Imagine if it had happened in England! I made up new undercarriage legs using MYRO’s old, bent wing struts which were of exactly the right aerofoil section. Secondly, I found that the legs that were originally on 56NE were of the WRONG section and were weaker as a result than they should have been. Maybe a similar mishap had happened in the past and someone had just used whatever they could lay their hands on for a repair.

Finally, I’d noticed since first acquiring 56NE that its main wheels were always canted in a bit at their tops, as I’ve mentioned several times here on My Trike. After fitting the new axles and undercarriage legs, the wheels are now vertical or, if anything canted slightly out at their tops, which tells me something very important. The old axles were already bent. However, the material from which they are made is not supposed to bend, so if they were bent, which I believe they were, they were already in a pre-failure mode. That meant that they could probably have snapped at any time on our six-day trip if ever I’d had a bit of a hard landing, and think of the problems that would have caused if it had happened. So I won’t say that it was lucky that it happened on my last landing at Wim’s home strip, but things could have been considerably worse!

And so our west coast flight came to an end. It would have been nice for it to have ended in triumph instead of the disappointing (for me) way in which it actually did. But I’m glad that as a result of the mishap I now know that 56NE’s undercarriage is better and stronger than it was – and I just wish that I’d fitted new axles a few weeks ago when I installed the first pair of new shocks, which might have prevented the whole problem 😉

My planned flight time from Mouchamps to Plazac, 2 hours 40 minutes, actual 2 hours 50. You can see a short video that I made from the photographs that I shot on the day by clicking on the image below. It’s just to complete the set for the tour as a whole, but not in the way that I originally intended 🙁

West Coast Flight Day 6