The visibility was never going to be great. “It’s not all the nines, but this is our one chance to get to visit Land’s End.” The weather was about to turn really nasty, with wind gusting 40 knots. This was the last good day. “It will be fine when you get here,” said the ATC at Land’s End as we did PPR for our trip.
Looking at the TAFs and METARs, it wasn’t great to the east, but it was going to get better towards the west as the day went on. There was some cloud around, but it was high, and the wind was still calm. A great day to explore the south-western tip of the country. Or so we thought.
We took off and it looked a little hazy. James was flying, I was doing the radio. There were two ATCs and a MATZ to contend with. I had the list of frequencies in order, and by now I was fairly chilled. Pass your message, give the QNH and don’t be surprised if the regional pressure is different to the local one you’re using. We had agreed we could turn back if it didn’t look good, but this was an opportunity to grab.
We were on the edge of the moors, and as we headed west, I looked at the cloud I would be flying back into. “If it doesn’t get better,…” I warned. “We just turn back,” James chimed in. “No harm done.” As we said that, the cloud seemed to lift over Portsmouth. Newquay couldn’t hear us yet, so it was pointless trying to talk to them. The sun started to break through in dappled light, and the cloud became more scattered. This was going to be a good day.
The countryside across Devon and Cornwall is incredibly beautiful. Last year we flew to Perranporth, through a letterbox sky, but today the sun was shining. The rivers glistened, the fields were green and some of them had patches of orange or yellow. Names that sound like fairytales themselves were passing by below. The Eden Project gleamed with its geodesic domes below.
Culdrose Matz was happy to give us a squawk but they asked a simple question that would have a massive impact later. “What height will you transit?” “Say two thousand feet,” said James, so I did. It was only later, when they were telling another plane about the ‘slow-moving traffic, a Skyranger, not above 2000 feet’ that it started to dawn. We were not allowed above that height now, and the cloud was beginning to thicken. James was now being forced down to flying at 1400 feet, and I was wondering whether this trip was worth it. “Shall we ask to change to Land’s End now,” he suggested, as the Skydemon showed another 15 miles to go. Just then a swirl of thick cloud rolled past us. “I think we should go back,” I said. “I’m not comfortable with this.” James agreed. I had been looking across to the west and seeing a rather solid rim of cloud that looked very black on the horizon. It wasn’t where we were going, but we had heard about how wild the Atlantic coast can get. It felt a pity turning around when the end was so close in sight, but sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.
Quickly I asked for permission to climb out of the cloud, so we could get clear and turn back on our heading, where the clouds were still just broken at that height. We had been asked to cancel our PPR if we didn’t arrive, but the controller at Culdrose was happy to do that for us. Then she asked a very strange question. “Are you travelling alone?” What? “Affirm.” She told us about traffic to our right and asked if we could see it. Eventually I saw a tiny plane that looked as if it was actually in the MATZ itself. We were only on the outskirts, in their AIAA. “Could you tell me the type, and the registration,” she asked. I could only tell her it was a small plane like ours, but that was obviously why she wondered if we were travelling in formation. They do like you to talk to them here!
The next hiccup was when she told us to switch to another frequency. It was only as I was writing it down we figured it was Newquay. She had probably said that, but if you don’t know what to expect, you really don’t hear it either. We had climbed out of the cloud, but Newquay demanded we come down lower. “At what height is the cloud,” they asked. “Two thousand feet,” I replied. “Then transit below that.” Point taken.
There was an Alpha India also flying in the area, and at one point even the controller didn’t know who to talk to and started saying goodbye to us when we were still within his zone!
I was feeling utterly miserable at having such cold feet, but the more I thought about it, the more impossible it seemed. It wasn’t just me being a wuss, that cloud cover we had climbed out of seemed to stretch in a solid band right down the western peninsula. Land’s End was still listed as VFR, but you would have to have flown in at low level by the sounds of it. Now if only we had just asked to land at Culdrose itself, as a precautionary diversion, we would have got to see the Lizard peninsula.
The rest of the return trip was fortunately uneventful. James was happy we had had a bash at the trip, I was happy we had turned around, and the afternoon sunshine in Dartmouth made us forget all our woes. “Perhaps we tried too early in the day,” James wondered out loud. But as we drove out onto the hills, that hazy cloud was still there.
We will have to leave seeing Land’s End for the next visit.