Catalyst [Noun, -]: a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change, OR a person or thing that facilitates an event.

Hello dear friends,

As promised last week, we are going to talk about a service that is there for you, although many do not use it: Flight Information Service.

On a beautiful day, a group of friends decided to go for a big trip across Europe. The pilot rented an airplane, made all the necessary preparations, and the friends gathered for departure from an uncontrolled aerodrome in Belgium, for a first leg that would lead them to Nurnberg, in Southeastern Germany.

I hope you have already had the occasion to fly a longer cross-country flight, and if not, that you will at some point. Flying to new destinations is a very efficient, pleasant and interesting way to learn new things about flying, be it new procedures, ways to communicate, or even about flying in unfamiliar areas.

On this particular occasion, the pilot, as every careful pilot should do, took a thorough meteorological briefing by calling a weather office, and having all assurances that the weather en-route would be flyable.

And so, the flight goes along at the (very) moderate pace of a Piper Archer. With 313 NM to go, a good 3 hours will be necessary to reach Bavaria.

The first doubts arose after crossing Koln CTR, about an hour into the flight. The promised good weather was turning a little too cloudy to our pilot’s taste. But ok, it was still VMC, so no decision to divert was made. Yet.

The real problems appeared about an hour later, after passing east of Frankfurt, when the terrain started rising. And yes, the clouds were getting closer and closer to the surface.

Until the tipping point. Albeit being a very careful pilot, our captain inadvertently went into a cloud. VMC did not exist anymore, and in a second, the workload in the cockpit went from a very comfortable level to a sheer panic. Everything had to be done at once, keep the aircraft level, get out of the cloud, stay clear of terrain, find a diversion field that was open, had the runway, the fuel, and the weather minima.

The pilot initiated a 180-degree turn, and about 45 degrees into it, the radio came to life.

EDDG FIC: “OOABC, I see you are turning around. Do you have a problem?”

Well, yes, we do have a problem. And we all understand that the call from FIC comes from a good intention, but right now, it only creates one more problem. The pilot is so busy flying that there is literally no time to answer.

Fortunately, the right seat passenger has a radio license and when the pilot turns to him and asks: “Can you pick up that call? I don’t have time.”, it of course is not a problem.

The rest of the conversation follows, and EDDG turns out to be extremely efficient and resourceful. They suggest a very appropriate diversion aerodrome, and even go as far as calling the aerodrome to make sure they are open.

After a few minutes, our friends are back on the ground after a small scare and a valuable lesson. All is well that ends well.

Now, what I would like to underline from this story is two-fold.

First, and obviously, FIC was (despite the initial looks), extremely helpful. In one call, they were able to defuse a situation that looked very grim. In a matter of minutes, all the problems were sorted.

Second, and more importantly, what we could learn from this story is that although many general aviation and even some bigger airplanes are rated as “single-pilot operations”, sometimes flying is a two-man or two-women job. It can be difficult and very demanding. Regardless of experience. Having someone in the right seat who can read a chart or handle the radio can prove to be very, very useful.

If I only had one piece of advice should you one day find yourself in a predicament like this one, and without the providential help of a right-seat partner, it would go like this: say “Stand by” to the controller, get out of trouble, and as soon as you can, get back on the radio and find out how the ground can help you. Trust my experience. You don’t even suspect how much a flight information center can do for you when you need it.

Happy flying and see you soon!

The sky may not always want you 🙂