Days of preparation would lead to the longest nav to date; Archerfield, Toowoomba, Gayndah, Gympie, Sunshine Coast and then back to Archerfield. What would actually ensue however, one could never be prepared for.
Other than entering the controlled airspace of the Sunshine Coast, the biggest hurdle along the way would be the restricted military areas surrounding Amberley and Oakey. Amberley I had faced before, but Oakey would be a new experience for me. When logging the planned track on my World Aeronautical Chart (WAC) and in OzRunways, the black/pink line extended straight through Oakey on the way from Toowoomba to Gayndah. Due to the distance and lack of sufficient fuel, one can only assume there would be a diversion at some stage before Gayndah, though the nature of a diversion is unexpected and can’t be planned for.
Flicking through the pages of the ‘En Route Supplement Australia’ (ERSA), a cold sweat dripped from my forehead as I realised a now obvious knowledge deficit had prevented me from locating the correct method for dealing with Oakey’s airspace. I had reached a brick wall which clearly stated there are only two paths that would be approved when tracking through Oakey, neither of which would assist me. I knew I was missing something, as the brief from the flying school clearly stated Toowoomba to Gayndah and Robert, my fearless instructor, mentioned Oakey when we last spoke about this nav. Robert wouldn’t set me up on a mission impossible, so clearly I was missing something. I repeated this to myself as I banged my head against the desk.
After exhausting all possible avenues, I swallowed my pride and called Robert. “Not to worry”, he says, “it’s not you; Oakey have recently changed their process which now does not allow for transiting through their airspace when it is active”. Thank God! As we were flying on a Thursday and the airspace was active, Robert suggested I plan a path around the airspace, not through it. Another day or two of planning and I was ready.
I arrived at Gil Layt’s Flying School about three hours prior to our scheduled departure to ensure I had everything prepared correctly and to give myself time to re-plan, should anything change. My flight plan and calls were good, fuel plan was done and everything was looking good. Closer to time, I conducted the daily inspection of the aircraft (VH-HWC) and submitted my flight plan to Airservices Australia with a SARTIME nominated. Once Robert was ready we headed out to the plane.
Robert indicated, as mentioned in the maintenance log, that ‘Com 1’ was unserviceable (U/S), so we would only have one radio for the flight. It isn’t until you are down to one radio that you really appreciate the value of having two. Other than that, everything was normal. I made my call to ‘Archer Ground’ and ‘Archer Tower’ and received clearance to taxi and take off respectively. On take-off, I was told to maintain the runway heading at 1000 feet, before being cleared to make a left turn and regain my track for Toowoomba. When I passed over the Western Freeway, I made a call to Amberley advising I was 3nm west of Archerfield and tracking toward Toowoomba. I was advised to stay clear of restricted airspace and continue my track at 1000 feet. As we edged closer to their boundary, we became nervous waiting for clearance. If we didn’t get it by the boundary, we would have to turn off track to avoid it. Just as I started to move the control column to the right, a voice muttered, “Hotel Whiskey Charlie, turn right and track for Lake Manchester remaining clear of restricted airspace”, words I didn’t really want to hear. I obeyed their instruction and pointed the nose toward Lake Manchester. A few moments later, the words I wanted to hear pierced through my headset, “Hotel Whiskey Charlie, Clear to track direct to Toowoomba at 1000 feet, expect clearance to climb in two minutes”. Sure enough, two minutes later, we were cleared to climb to 4500 feet.
At this stage everything was going great. We were finally cleared for our original flight plan, had regained our track and were on climb to 4500 feet. Passing overhead Plainland, a strange smell entered the cockpit (no, it wasn’t due to Indian food the night before), this was more of a manufacturing / plastic-type smell. Identifying that it was from within the cockpit, Robert began searching for its origin and, a few seconds later, we were confronted with smoke and a terrible burning plastic smell. Straight away Robert identified that the radio stack had burned out and we were now left with no radio, some smoke and a foul smell.
As we were still within the confines of Amberley’s restricted airspace, we set the transponder to 7600, the worldwide code assignment for Radio Failure. Ditching the paper maps, we opted for the ever-so-accurate iPad loaded with OzRunways to help get us out of the restricted area and on track to a VFR route back to Archerfield in the quickest and most efficient way. Whilst I continued to fly the whole way, Robert continued to tell me exactly what we needed to do and why we needed to do it. Getting out the ERSA, Robert went through with me the correct procedures for a comms failure at Archerfield. Even though we were in the middle of an emergent situation, Robert remained completely calm and used it as an opportunity to teach me the correct techniques and procedures.
To be honest, when I first saw the smoke, I didn’t think it was a comms failure. My mind instantly went to the surroundings and potential spots to land, should we need to get her down quickly. Luckily, Robert recognised the smell and identified the radio failure pretty quickly. Realising there was no fire, Robert advised that we didn’t need to do anything other than get back to Archerfield in an efficient and safe manner.
Using the iPad, we tracked via the Goodna VFR reporting point and in to Archerfield. Robert explained along the way that hopefully Amberley would have seen our 7600 code, noted that we had turned back and would have notified Archer Tower. As per the ERSA, once Archerfield was in sight, we kept an eye out fora light signal from the tower. This was all quite exciting as I had read about this procedure, but never actually seen it in action. Sure enough, as per the textbook, there was a big green light coming from the tower. It was a relief to know that they knew where we were and that we were needing assistance. The tower kept the light on us as we made a standard approach, joined the circuit for the most suitable runway and landed without incident.
Whilst I didn’t get to complete the nav that I set out to, it was still a great experience. Having now gone through that with my instructor, I would now feel a lot more confident, should it happen when I’m on my own or with passengers.