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Awareness

The United States of America's Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has nine headings under which it categorises occurrences, incidents and accidents. And those three headings are an indication of increasing severity.

I have appeared, as a pilot, in one incident report filed with the UK equivalent, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). I was flying from Edinburgh to Dornoch with three pals and their golfing equipment.

This Highland airstrip is both long and wide. Conveniently it crosses the southern edge of one of the two Royal Dornoch golf courses upon one of which my friends were due to play. That does mean a careful visual inspection before landing to ensure that golfers have obeyed the notice asking that they cross the runway rapidly and only after looking left and right to see if there are landing aircraft.

It's a lovely location, but not so frequently flown into as to require any advanced aviation facilities such as someone on the ground to speak to inbound pilots.

Even at many significant commercial airfields in the Highlands where there is a visible tower and fire-tender to greet scheduled services, there is strictly speaking no air traffic control. Yes, there is someone in the tower and, yes, they do talk to aircraft by radio. But they are not qualified to control what goes on at, say somewhere like Barra, quite my most favourite island airfield. They can only provide pilots with information. But cannot direct whether they can land or what they should do after their wheels are on the ground.

Indeed the handbook of airfields used by generations of light aircraft pilots, it's called "Pooley's", used to carry a note on the page for Barra which read something like, "Weather reports from the station manager should not be relied upon". For many years Maggie was the person being referred to. As she has long retired, the secret can now be told.

The Loganair pilots who fly into Barra have special training which allows them to fly in worse weather than would normally apply. Indeed I recall waiting there for my return flight to Glasgow many years ago and feeling rather gloomy about the prospects of travel. The cloud-base was very well below the top of the hill on the centre of the island and visibility was not good.

But the de Haviland Twin Otter was heard as it approached from Benbecula. This 15 minute part of its journey had been completed by flying at no more than about 100 feet under looming clouds.

You would think that would be enough leeway for anyone. But Barra's Maggie would never provide a weather report sufficiently alarming to prevent the pilot from at least attempting an approach to the runway. Hence the "Pooley's" warning.

But at Dornoch, there was no Maggie, or simulacrum of her. A phone call to the owners of the strip, Highland Council, and one was cleared to land. At pilot's discretion, of course. Except for one thing.

The last live bombing range in Europe which is open to NATO aircraft is based at the old World War 2 airfield at Tain. That's less than a mile away in a south-easterly direction. If you look at it using the satellite pictures available via google maps (https://www.google.com/maps/place/Tain/@57.8379031,-3.9769406,917m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x48854e2f7cd2ea7d:0xa0c681c77df9080!8m2!3d57.811501!4d-4.05523) you will quickly see that it has suffered from the impact of the many bombs dropped on it.

A quite big area around the bombing range is "owned" by a military air traffic controller at Lossiemouth. That puts Dornoch well inside their airspace. If one intrudes without permission into a military area, one may rapidly be joined by a couple of jets with a top speed many times greater than yours; one on each wing.

I actually had that happen to me when flying over the Wash adjacent to England's Lincolnshire coast years ago. I hasten to say that I was there with permission. They simply asked if two of their aircraft, United States B-10s, could rendevous with me for training purposes. In life, some questions provide their own answer. So I gave consent.

I was flying a Cessna 172 from France to Edinburgh at its maximum cruise speed of 95 knots (that's about 109 mph). The stall speed of a B-10, that's when they stop flying and drop out of the sky, is about 95 knots. Nonetheless, one appeared in very short order on each wing about 100 feet away. Full flaps down, nose high and lots of power on to keep them flying at what was a very marginal slow speed. I exchanged a wave with each pilot and, whoosh, they were gone.

At Tain range, such friendly gestures aren't seen. The pilots are flying fast at low-level and around hills to reach the range. They don't have time. The first occasion I flew into Dornoch, the range controller's instructions to me were to fly at 1,000 feet, not above, not below - we are usually allowed plus 100 and minus 50 - and follow the hill margins so as to remain a mile away from Tain airfield until on final approach into my destination.

I did. And as I made my stately progression to my landing point, Luftwaffe fighter-bombers whizzed 500 feet beneath me and at at least four times my speed. They dropped live bombs a mile off my starboard wing, the shock wave of the explosions slightly rocked my aircraft, and turned back to hide among Scotland's hills.

When I took my golfing chums to Dornoch, some things were similar. This time it was 500 feet, not above, not below. And it was United States Air Force F-111s, known in the trade as "widowmakers" due to their dubious safety record, that were bombing. But on this occasion, they were doing laser "bombing" so no explosions. They came in at 250 feet from the North Sea, pressed their camera button, climbed rapidly towards me and turned sharply to return seawards. Their aircraft flew about 300 feet from me. The noise and smell from their after-burners was impressive. During their turn, I would be totally invisible to them, hence the requirement for precision on my part.

This day, however, the plan unwound rapidly when I pulled back the power-lever to slow the engine preparatory to turning onto the landing pattern for Dornoch. Simply nothing happened. It subsequently emerged that the throttle cable had broken. To cut a long story short, I had to shut down the engine and glide down to a landing on the green grass sward that constituted the runway.

I had obviously briefed my chums adequately, they took photographs throughout the incident, and went off to play their golf after our successful landing. These three ladies were much more concerned about their tee-time than about the crisis in the flight.

But back to the FAA's nine headings under which they categorise what can go wrong when there are aircraft around. Obviously, the one that immediately applied to me that day was "Equipment Failure". That's a surprisingly infrequent occurrence. The particular reason why my throttle cable broke was novel. Despite there being about 20,000 Piper PA-28s, for that is what I was flying that day, and their having been around for several decades, this fault had never previously occurred. The design of the throttle cable was subsequently recommended for change across the whole world-wide fleet following my incident.

Most aviation problems these days have their origin in defective human behaviours. And most of the nine headings relate to these. One applied to me that day but fortunately did not contribute to any adverse outcome. That was the heading, "Loss of Situational Awareness".

In my fixating on the loss of an ability to control my aircraft's power, I ceased to be as careful as instructed about my height. I had climbed about 150 feet above my assigned maximum. One of the F-111s came close enough to allow us to see the rivets that held it together. The pilot would not have been aware of how close we were.

In today's Coronavirus pandemic, we could have ended up in that same situation and suffer "Loss of Situational Awareness".

With all eyes having been on the health crisis, we actually are turning some back to other matters. That's why I am particularly pleased that this week we shall, Parliament permitting, be completing the passage of two Bills. One is important to our children. The other for our farmers.

And for me, with two Committee meetings this week, a speech, a question for a Minister, and the continuing deluge of contacts from constituents, another very busy week beckons me into its arms.

I plan to keep my eyes on everything around me at all times as all of us should.

I look to remain situationally aware.

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