Tuesday, following G-RMPS’s annual condition inspection and air test the previous week, the weather throughout Scotland looked exceptional. Time to get back in the saddle. At the airport I reckoned a flight to the top left corner of Scotland, then west over the sea to the top of the Hebrides islands, then southward along the island chain, following by eastbound leg over the sea, and a cross-country back to base (Perth) would do the trick.
Five hours at a leisurely 100 knots. I planned to land on Sollas Beach, in North Uist around the half-way mark, to chuck another 20 litres (5 gallons) of fuel in to get us home.
I found a willing passenger at the flying club so we were all set. In this context “willing” means a camera, but no en-route food, no drink, and no rest rooms. After fuelling to the top and then some all over the paintwork, a thorough pre-flight inspection, and donning of lifejackets (to help locate the hypothermic bodies) we were good to go. Calum was the appointed volunteer, and proved to be a worthy subject - autopilot, photographer, and digger-outer (see below).
The trip to Sollas was fantastic. I had landed on this beach previously (indeed it is marked as an “airfield” on the local charts) so had no difficulty identifying the correct strip of sand, amongst many others. There was plenty of beach visible so the tide was out.
I have to admit the landing was not the best. With the lack of depth perception we “hit” the deck while I believed we were still a couple of feet in the air. Lesson 1 learned. However, no problem, we slowed down, taxied back some 30 feet past the touchdown spot and turned around ready for our subsequent departure.
After shutting down for a shop-bought sandwich, a pee, and a refuel I jumped out of the plane, and immediately saw the wheels slowly sinking into the sand. After an instant decision to abandon the refuelling we jumped back in, fired up, firewalled the throttle and...nothing. The vibration just pushed the wheels further into the sand.
With visions of the aircraft slowly disappearing, or at least getting overtaken by the incoming tide, I spotted the only other two humans on the beach and summoned help. Three of us were unable to pull the aircraft free, and by this time the spats were sinking into the sand.
We had no phone numbers, the island is very sparsely populated (1200 people in 120 square miles), and there was no flotsam/jetsom on the beach let alone planks of wood. A call to the police was in order. Twenty minutes later they had established my date of birth and address, that no one had died, no one was injured, and there was no damage to property – just a sinking plane. Bless ‘em.
And so to the wing-tip handholds. By lifting one wing, and rotating the aircraft I managed to deposit one mainwheel on fresh sand. Running around to the other side I did the same trick, harder here as this wheel, and consequently the wingtip, had sunk lower still. Now we had the plane on fresh sand but still sinking. Back into the plane for another attempted departure – still no joy. We tried this three times. We were still stuck on the beach but the manoeuvre was buying us time. So refuel as per plan, eat that sandwich (now covered in sand) and consider plan B.
I noticed that the landing spot seemed a little firmer than the current location of the plane, so at the next jiggle of the wingtips three of us managed to push the plane 30 feet up the beach. Back into the plane and another hasty fire-up. This time the plane just managed to drag itself onto the surface of the sand and we were off and running. Safely airborne I climbed to 500 feet and established a stable climb. Time to find and put on seatbelts, headsets, and get organised. The baggage compartment was a jumble of stuff, and the interior of the plane was full of sand but we were flying.
The remainder of the flight was uneventful, and even fun, once we had regained our composure. We used the radio to call off the cops – unsuccessfully as it happened, so I was subjected to another round of telephone interviews once I had got back to base.
What went wrong? In spite of appearances, the tide was not far out but was receding. Over time the water drains away and leaves the sand rock hard. We had landed perhaps an hour too early, and aggravated the error by electing to park on a damp spot. So lesson 2 learned.
Thanks, Vans, for those wingtip handholds which I know some folk hate. I love ‘em.