The date was sometime in July, and the intended destination was Taree, NSW, with the idea of getting back into cross-country flying. There's only so much pottering around the Sydney basin one can do, as beautiful as it is, and the glimpse of the area I got while competing above Warnervale enticed me to come back.
At first it looked as if I had been very lucky with picking Saturday morning for flying, since this was the only day in the week with no rain and even a bit of sunshine. Even the aviation weather forecast on the day before looked hopeful.
I arrived at the club and checked the weather. The trip to Taree was not going to work. Most of the aerodromes along the way had forecasted or reported conditions with either low clouds, fog, showers of rain or a combination thereof. With full tanks I would be able to fly to Taree and fly back to Bankstown without refueling if I couldn't land. But rain was coming in from the south-west later in the afternoon, reaching Sydney around 4PM which would result in visibility of 4000m, below VFR minimums. I could visualise the holes in the Swiss cheese slowly lining up. A Plan B was needed.
I decided instead to fly an abbreviated version of the planned flight and go to Cessnock via Warnervale and Newcastle. This way I could still fly part of the planned flight, and would be back early enough to avoid the rain. Flight planning took a little while, the flight notification was eventually submitted and I was on my way to preflight the aircraft.
Yes, in the picture above there is actually water at the bottom of the fuel tester. Moisture in the air and cold temperatures overnight result in water condensing inside the half-empty fuel tanks. The phenomenon is more common in low-wing aircraft where the wings are closer to the ground and therefore exposed to lower temperatures at night. This is no big deal at all, just a reminder to always perform a thorough pre-flight. Which I did.
From the ground I could see rather low clouds in the GA lane, but I decided to go anyway since there was enough space between the low clouds to turn back to the airport or go to the training area should the lane northbound be obscured by clouds. Taking off in those conditions pushed me a little bit outside of my comfort zone, but not to the point where I felt unsafe.
I took off on 29R, maintained 1000ft until well outside the control zone and climbed to 2000ft. Contrary to what the area forecast had said, there were still plenty of low clouds still firmly seated in the valleys to the west, over the Berowra area. And it didn't look like they planned on dissipating anytime soon.
After Patonga I adjusted my heading slightly toward Warnervale at 3500ft, with still lots of clouds in the Kariong area. I found Warnervale aerodrome, which is not really a challenge given its prominent location between the Pacific Highway and Tuggerah Lake. One lonely Cessna 152 was doing circuits at Warnervale. I made a call on the CTAF frequency advising everyone I was overflying the aerodrome and kept tracking north.
I flew over Vales Point power station and then over Lake Macquarie. This is Eraring Power Station at the back of the picture above. I was maintaining 3500ft, so you can tell from the photo that there was one point where the weather forecast was spot on: cumulus and stratocumulus clouds with a base of 3000ft.
Swansea was easy to identify thanks to the breakwaters and the bridge. The Aeropelican aerodrome appeared immediately after. How much nicer is it to see it from the bumpy and noisy comfort of a small airplane rather than from the relative comfort of an airliner?
Nobbys Heads was also very easy to find, thanks to the very distinctive shape of the coastline and the lighthouse. If the Williamtown military control zone had been active I would have been in trouble by then, but the ATIS had told me that it was de-active, as is generally the case on week-ends, so all was good.
My aircraft on the day, the Piper Archer VH-SFA, was fitted with a carburettor temperature gauge, so I applied carby heat from time to time to keep the needle away from the yellow zone since there was plenty of moisture in the air. I think I would have done that anyway, but the gauge acted as a useful reminder that high humidity and winter temperatures increase the risk of carburettor icing.
At Nobbys Head I turned left and flew west toward Cessnock. I passed Mount Sugarloaf and its twin masts.
The town in front of me was Kurri Kurri, but where had Cessnock airport gone? Answer: it was hiding under the blankies! The cloud blanket that is. I was at 2500ft by then and the clouds looked much lower than that, so instead of going scud running to find an airport I had never been to before, I decided to head south to Warnervale, which I had planned to overfly anyway on my way back from Cessnock. This way, I would get back onto my planned flight.
I couldn't take a direct heading to Warnervale since this would have taken me over high terrain with little space left between the fluffy stuff in the air and the hard stuff on the ground, so I headed for a gap in the hills.
I flew past the Cooranbong aerodrome, which is no longer used as one can tell from the big white crosses at the threshold of each runway. It's sad because it looks like a very nice airport, with a long sealed runway. Apparently, Avondale College used to run an aviation degree out of here up until 2006.
I overflew Warnervale. The same Cessna with the same pilot was still doing circuits. I tuned the Calga NDB and tried my best to track to the aid. Not a big success, but then again I was keeping my eyes out and not flying on instruments. And I have a proof of that: I could spot Mardi Reservoir, and later Somersby aerodrome.
After Calga I tracked to Brookly Bridge, the entry point for the GA lane southbound. This is the highway bridge right above the cowling in the photo below, not the one more to the east which is only for trains, and also dangerously close to the GA lane northbound.
This was my first time flying the GA lane southbound and everything went absolutely according to plan. I had watched the CASA DVD on flying around Sydney a couple of times the day before, which really helped. I also had the GPS on, just to make double sure I would not infringe on Richmond Military CTR. I even slowed down a little to give me more time for thinking and finding the landmarks.
I found the Berowra strobe exactly where I was expecting it, then identified the power substation, the rifle range to my left and Dural Tanks with the strobe on top. I managed to maintain 2500ft all the way down the lane, with some minor zigzagging around clouds required. The picture above says it all.
I picked up the Bankstown ATIS and started a descent in order to be at 1500ft at Prospect Reservoir. I was about to make my inbound call to Bankstown Tower when a pilot came onto the frequency. One could tell immediately from his voice that he was very distressed. But that's a story I'll tell in the next post. I landed on 29R, taxied back to the club house, shut down, wrote down the numbers and tidied up the airplane.
All in all a nice flight even though it didn't go according to plan, and not even according to the revised plan. This was clearly a case of experience is what you get when you don't get what you want.
I was happy with my decision making throughout the flight though. At every point in the flight I had a Plan B and even a Plan C, so I like to think this was a safe flight. The thorough flight preparation definitely paid off. Flying in marginal weather was a good experience too. Now with the summer ahead of us, I'm looking forward to really making it to Taree sometime soon.