Aviate, navigate, communicate.

Flying, like any “unnatural” human activity, is inherently dangerous. But ever-stricter safety measures, principles, and regulations, which are in place almost from the dawn of aviation, have to large extent prevented many accidents or catastrophes from happening. Time after time single most frequent reason for them happening nevertheless, proved to be the so-called human factor, a politically correct synonym for breaking the rules. Be it due to stupidity, lack of knowledge, gambling, or simple arrogance and overestimating of piloting skills.

There were incidents and even catastrophes where the underlying cause was of technical nature, but the battle with them can be won only with skill, knowledge, and a bit of luck.

Battles against nature though can be won only with sheer luck. Nature and its forces are overwhelmingly superior to whatever we as humankind can come against. Unfavorable weather conditions, especially when combined with one of the above-mentioned conditions almost in every case result in fatalities. 

In my both careers and activities, as a pilot and air traffic controller, I came across everything. Later even with catastrophes ending in the loss of human lives.

In fact, my very first day as a young tower controller started with a search and rescue operation. A typical Sunday pilot, having spent a nice weekend on the coast, had to come home on Sunday, because work starts Monday. Regardless of the weather, which, of course, was bad. By bad, I mean no VFR conditions. To make things worse, all mountains and passes in the north were covered with overcast clouds. To cut long story short: Austrian and Slovenian rescue teams were scrambled, as the pilot reported being lost and there were no further communications from him for an hour. As he reported already entering Austria, the majority of SAR (Search and Rescue) activities were concentrated on their side. My instructor, who was also the SAR coordinator, asked one of the helicopters to search on our side, as the missing pilot reported following the road before contact was lost. Reluctantly they agreed (as they thought it was a waste of precious time), and after 20 odd minutes, they found the wreckage. The pilot of the missing plane was following the road alright but was so fixated on it (as he was lost), that he failed to aviate (i.e., to fly the plane safely) and didn’t see, that the road ends in the tunnel. The crash site was just above the entrance of the tunnel. With 4 dead.

AN-2, a slow and reliable biplane was to be shipped to Hungary for maintenance. It was Friday, and the weather was relatively bad, with low clouds and fog everywhere. The experienced crew of two, nevertheless opted for departure, because everything has been agreed and they HAD to be there on Friday. So, they went. Immediately after departure from the small uncontrolled airfield, they started looking for holes in the clouds and had to fly low and through the valleys, as again, an overcast layer of low clouds prevented them from climbing higher. The rugged terrain with many hills and valleys didn’t help. After some time, they stopped replying to calls from the controller, and SAR was initiated. Their crash site was located a few hours later. I was on the shift the next day as well. The weather was CAVOK (no clouds, unrestricted visibility). One fatality, one badly injured.

Many years later I was working in Approach sector. It was one of those angry summer afternoons. A cold front was just passing the alps, creating huge thunderstorms everywhere. Rain was literary pouring from the sky, visibility was poor due to huge quantities of water falling from the sky. The whole crescendo was accompanied by gale winds, flashes, and hail. And there they were. Sunday pilots, departing Vrsar in the afternoon, and yes, they had to be home Sunday evening at the latest, because, you have already guessed, work starts on Monday morning. The fact, that there is impenetrable weather between them and their home airport, apparently had no influence on the decision to “try to get home”. 

Although IFR flight, they were flying at a very low level, barely over the IFR minima on the route they chose, but it was irrelevant anyway. I could hear on all other sectors that everybody was avoiding storm cells all over the country, total chaos. 

As soon as I got them on my frequency, I told them about the weather and that all paths to Austria were blocked, and that even high-flying aircraft with destination Vienna were avoiding weather deeply via Hungary. They were unimpressed and opted to continue as planned. I let them fly but was not having any of it. When they came closer to the storms, I was hoping that the sight of black sky, heavy rain, and thunderstorms would persuade them to turn around, but no. They were eager to get home.  I was determined that “home-get-itis” was not going to have another 4 people for lunch. 

The rain was so intense by now, that I could see it on my radar screen, as radar was detecting the huge quantities of water droplets that were reflecting the radar signal back.

Against all regulations, which do not allow us to change the course of the plane if other than traffic or other non-weather limiting conditions prevail (like closed airspace or something like that) I, in some kind of air piracy, ordered them to turn around and to land in Ljubljana. They were not happy and demanded to continue toward their original destination. I just couldn’t let them. So, I started issuing vectors (headings) in order to bring them to the ILS in Ljubljana. They were audibly angry and repeated all my commands and wrote down the frequencies for the ILS and VOR. As soon as they were on the finals, the tower controller called and informed us, that the thunderstorm has reached the north-western part of the airport and moving eastwards. The angry crew reported established on ILS, I switched them to the tower and wished them good luck and good day. As they landed, the tower called again, informing us, that runway is temporarily closed, as the rain was pouring so hard, that they had difficulty seeing the apron and the winds just went wild.  The crew of that small plane remained inside; they didn’t dare come out. Half an hour passed, and everything calmed out, even the sun was slowly coming through the clouds. I was just about to leave for my break when the phone rang on the Senior controller’s position. Tower called and said, they received a phone call from the crew of the plane I forced to land. They wanted to say thank you to the guy, who forced us to land, they said, they realized what kind of ordeal I speared them from.

No fatalities.

As you probably already guessed, I have no problem breaking the rules when the situation in the air is such, that non-standard intervention is required in order to prevent an accident or something worse. 

The last two stories are similar, yet very different because of the crew. The one involving the military made me very angry as well, as it was clear, that crew was outranked and was not allowed or didn’t dare to refuse the flight due to meteorological conditions.

Military pilots in Slovenia are IFR CPL pilots, meaning, they are fully capable and trained to fly IFR. In this particular case, the helicopter took off in Ljubljana with the destination military base in Cerklje. Again, low clouds were everywhere, and the terrain between Ljubljana and Cerklje is very tricky, with lots of hills and steep valleys. I was monitoring their departure on the radar, as they were flying just below the ILS. In one moment they started circling and their speed dropped. Flight Information Sector (FIS) is situated just in front of the Approach Sector so I asked them what was going on (as they were on his frequency). It turned out, they were lost in the mixture of layers of fog and low clouds. Immediately I instructed him to turn them over to me. As soon as they called in I told them to hover at the present position and slowly turn towards the given heading. When they were stabilized, I ordered them to continue hovering and to climb to 4000 feet. Note, that they were below radar minima at that point and I was not able to legally vector them (give them headings), at least not with progressive speed. As this was the only solution I could come up with, I probably broke some rules, so I was making sure, everything was accompanied with maximum caution and safety (remember the beginning of this story?). Namely, the mixture or jumping from VFR to IFR and vice versa is one of the most dangerous things pilots can encounter, with marginal weather conditions only multiplying the probability of catastrophe. One either flies VFR of IFR, not some kind of mixed breed, or even switching between one and another in bad weather. When we switched to a full IFR flight, they felt comfortable and were totally committed to it. I gave them headings for the final ILS approach in Ljubljana, where they landed without any complications. The aviation world in Slovenia is small, everybody knows somebody who knows somebody. The next day I got thanks from the crew via another military pilot I know, explaining that they were ordered by a higher-ranking officer to take him to Cerklje. I could only hope, that next time pilots would just tell people like that to take a bus….

Zero fatalities, maybe one angry (and hopefully more respectful officer).

The last story is some kind of combination of all the above cases. Again, Sunday, cold front, waterfall from the sky. Light aircraft (crew of two) from the seaside to the Czech Republic. Monday work, yadda, yadda, yadda, who cares about the weather….

Female pilot, I overheard everything on the FIS sector: “…we are trying….to find a hole in the clouds… would like to continue…”


Not again.

FIS controller tried his best in assisting them but couldn’t do much. The thunderstorm was closing from all sides. At one moment, I heard the pilot ask to land in Zagorje. They probably saw it on GPS as when the controller asked them if they are familiar with the field, she replied “no!”.

“Shit!” I thought to myself, Zagorje airfield is well hidden for untrained eyes and notoriously hard to land. I again told the FIS controller to transfer control of this plane over to me. Immediately I told her, that Zagorje is out of the question as it is not easy to find and the weather is increasingly becoming worse. I told her, we are landing in Ljubljana. She agreed, so we end up guiding her away from high terrain towards Ljubljana. She was able to follow the Sava river and near Litija I was able to turn her towards the airport. The weather was getting worse and worse and she couldn’t see the runway. I guess the stress of the last hour, trying to find a way in the clouds and storms took its toll. I asked the tower controllers to switch on approach lights to the maximum. She was able to spot them on a short final and successfully landed. 

Half an hour later the heavens went into angry mode. Black skies, thunderstorms, heavy rain, wind…

It was enough for them, they spent a night in a local hotel. 

They woke to a beautiful sunny day. Alive.

photo: Ivan Drnašin, Trade Air

Categories: Sky Stories

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