Anomaly: (noun, C.) something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected.
Hello dear readers,
There sometimes are weird days. Just when you thought that things were strange enough and something even more bizarre happens, you know what I mean?
The tower was already crowded that morning, and just because we had to welcome a bunch of military personnel on top of the usual staff. It was very unusual for a civilian airport tower, but somehow, we were slowly getting into the habit as this was the latest official procedure when the presence of a foreign dignitary required enhanced security, but it was still quite a special day. On top of the presence of armed men in our little tower, the flight procedures were also significantly altered: all flights were required to have a flight plan (yes, even touch-and-go training flights), the uncontrolled aerodromes were closed, and flying outside controlled airspace was only allowed if the pilot maintained radio contact at all times with the military Flight Information Service.
But then, it really was a special day. The VVIP visitor was no less than the President of the United States. And even though Air Force One did not land at our airport, it was understandable that all the national security services were in a tizzy.
Nevertheless, flight training was continuing, and local schools were trying to make the best of the reduces capacity to carry on with their activities. So, at some point in the afternoon, a young student pilot headed out to the aircraft for a solo navigation flight and started preparing for a short cross-country trip of about 45 minutes.
As it usually is the case with student pilots, the flight has been prepared very thoroughly. Once at home, then again with the instructor, and all details are clear, nothing is left to chance. Things are not going to unfold quite as expected, however.
Once airborne, the student heads to the southern visual reporting point to exit the control zone and changes frequency, as required to the military FIC. It is unusual, yes, but nothing difficult or incomprehensible in this somewhat special day. Little by little, the flight progresses rather well, miles are passing by at a steady pace, and the first turning point is approaching.
Besides the unusual radio conversation “partner”, nothing stands out from the usual navigation that the student practiced repeatedly with his trainer, and when the second turning point approached, the solo student called FIC to inform them of the change of track, but after repeated attempts, had to come to the conclusion that the radio had ceased functioning. No transmissions came through from the ground anymore, the frequency that was busy with flights all across the FIR only minutes earlier was suddenly all too silent. Very calmly, the young pilot applied what he had been told: use the transponder, and figure out where to land.
Of course, with all the uncontrolled airfields closed, the choice of a landing place was very limited, but the student decided to turn back to his departure aerodrome and to try and use his mobile phone when approaching the control zone in a while.
Back at the tower, of course, we were keeping an eye on all our traffic, but all the eyes focused on a sudden change in uncontrolled airspace. The Cessna 150 that had departed a while back had changed his transponder code to… 7500. Unlawful Interference.
From that moment on, the relatively placid military controllers that were sharing our workspace went into another form of frenzy. The worst possible situation was happening: they were supposed to ensure the safety of a world leader, and it was just looking as though somebody in a light aircraft was being hi-jacked, not 80 miles away.
Of course, the chain of command was prompt to react, and all the possible scenarios were considered. Only problem: in all the fleet of fighter aircraft that was ready to intervene, which one would be able to intercept another aircraft flying at 75 knots? An F-16 was clearly unable to fly that slow, with a stalling speed of around 105 knots.
Meanwhile, in the Cessna, the pilot, unaware of his mistake and of all the distress it was causing on the ground, was inching closer and closer to controlled airspace, and before resorting to using the telephone, the student tried a last time to change frequency and call the ground.
Oh, the relief when an air traffic controller replied! In no time, the transponder was reset to 7000 and the flight was completed quite as uneventfully as it had started. Of course, after landing, a few impromptu visitors wanted to talk to the pilot, but, all in all, after a good scare, all went back to normal.
Honest mistakes happen, my friends. It is a normal part of life. And yes, sometimes, they happen at the most unfortunate moment, they are a perfect definition of a “bad coincidence”. But if we do look at the course of events, that is all it was. A honest mistake.
This is why we have safety nets, systems and procedures in place. And on that day, yes, it was a very close call that someone could have been intercepted by fighters, but again, through a time coincidence, that did not happen, and everybody went back to sleep peacefully on that night.
Even the official state delegation, I imagine. I wonder if they even ever got wind of the turmoil that had shaken a whole army…