Deterioration (noun, uncountable): the fact or process of becoming worse.

Hello dear readers,

I hope this article finds you well and healthy.

By now I am guessing that you grew accustomed to all my stories starting with a beautiful summer evening in a mid-sized international airport, and I thought it would be refreshing to change the parameters quite a bit, just to let you for once sit in the aircraft.

So, without further ado, let me explain the situation.

It is late Spring in western Europe, a season most uncertain in its weather, which can range to a bright hot summer day-lookalike to nasty, frigid and rainy downpours. And it is on one of those ugly days that a group of friends is bound to travel from mid-Germany into Southern England for a fly-in. The pilots possess a relatively fresh license and both have about 200 hours of total flying time. At the last briefing before departure, in the aerodrome club house, nobody is very happy about the weather, but even with a quite conservative view of the situation, one could easily deduct that although the weather is not good, it is still “flyable” all across Germany, Belgium and England. After careful consideration of the forecasts of all aerodromes on their way, they finally head out to the apron, under a light drizzle that, in spite of being encouraging, actually confirms all the weather charts and messages they have been sifting through.

So, they gather their friends, split into two groups of 4, and head out to the aircraft with their luggage. Freshly-licensed pilots are generally of the safest kind, sometimes overcautious, and our two friends are no exceptions. Everybody has been weighed, much to the dismay of some, as well as the bags and camping gear, and duly noted and computed into their mass and balance reports. All is well, within limits, so fuel is loaded and in no time, everybody is in the air, turning on a north-westerly heading in the middle of the grey skies. The mood is light. Cautious, but the “group effect” brings comfort to everybody and the pilots, although on the lookout for anything wrong that could happen, stay optimistic.

Upon crossing the FIR boundary into Belgium, a country known for its changing weather, however, both pilots, being able to talk to each other on that famous “intercom” frequency 123.45, started expressing doubts as to the possibility of reaching their destination. The pub evening in England that they had been imagining seemed to be getting further by the minute.

Unfortunately, even though they had just crossed the control zone of an international airport, neither pilot wanted to be the one who “backs down” and initiates a diversion, and so they continue to venture into very questionable weather, as the ceiling keeps getting lower and lower.

So low that, at some point, both pilots are forced to finally admit that continuing has become impossible, and as the first one was about to look up the frequency of the local Flight Information Service to ask for navigational help, he makes out a long paved runway dead ahead, so he gets back to talking to the second pilot and tells him the good news. In a few minutes, they will be safely back on the ground.

Indeed, a few minutes later, and without asking anything to anybody, as this providential runway in the middle of the Belgian forests seems uncontrolled and no frequency is shown anywhere, both aircraft touch down in a very gloomy weather, and start searching for the aerodrome buildings.

To their surprise and dismay, no building is to be seen, and the whole place is surrounded by a 3-meter high fence. The state of the taxiways also leads them to realise that this place must have been abandoned, and quite some time ago. Without any cell phone service in the middle of the forest, on a closed, cold and abandoned aerodrome, with no option to take off again as the fog is starting to cover up the area, the group of friends elects to stop for the night, camp and see in the morning how to get out of that sticky situation.

Fortunately, at their destination aerodrome, in England, the air traffic controller is watching over their flight plans, and as the aircraft fail to show up at the expected time, initiates a search and rescue operation. All the local aerodromes are contacted, and when none report having seen or heard of these two flights, the search is extended on their expected flight path, backwards towards their origin. Even though the pilots were not in contact with anybody after Luxembourg, the controller manning the flight information sector in Brussels does have a clear recollection of the two aircraft who seemed to have landed in a small grass aerodrome in southern Belgium, which seems to be closed, but nonetheless. Without anybody there to pick up the phone, the search and rescue team resorts to calling the local law enforcement, asking them to go look for the two aircraft on the aerodrome, but once again that effort yields no results, and the search continues.

But wait a minute, what about the abandoned air force reserve strip 3 miles southwest of that little aerodrome? Again, the police officers are despatched there, and this time, through the closed fence, make contact with the two stranded aircraft. By using their sirens, they alert the providential campers to their presence, and can finally reassure everybody on their whereabouts.

Well, dear friends, as you can see, search and rescue operations can sometimes take plenty of twists and require lots of time and effort to find a missing plane. But what can we learn from it?

First, I would recommend to always be prepared for diversions, as weather forecasting is anything but an exact science, and severe degradations are not uncommon. Look at what happened here. Instead of landing on an abandoned piece of concrete, which may have been dangerous as it wasn’t maintained properly, our group of friends could have made it to a public aerodrome. Closed, yes, but still, a place from which they could have found public transport to the nearby town and alerted the authorities, found a hotel and spend a comfortable night safely.

Then, if the two pilots had been in contact with Flight Information, a quick call would also have solved the problem. And finally, my advice for all of you: if you see at some point that something is not going as planned, please do not push your luck. Good and safe pilots are the ones who do not hesitate to change their plans, divert and stay on the safe side. Oh, yes, and don’t forget to close your flight plan, when you land on an aerodrome 😉

Have nice week, and see you next Sunday!