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Student pilot having to divert to another airfield during circuit training

Despite my – as of yet – very short flying career – something happened to me during solo training for PPL(A) that might be of interest to all of you who are either student pilots or instructors.

In december last year, my FI and I had planned to have my first flight to an international airport, from our home base Leer-Papenburg (EDWF) to Bremen (EDDW). I had properly prepared the flight in advance, but the weather had blocked us again on the third attempt (at the first attempt we had to turn back after one third of the way due to poor visibility, at the second attempt we resorted to circuit training instead due to bad weather all around us). By that point I had flown a total of 22 hours, about 3 and a half of that solo circuits with a total of 32 solo landings. Due to me performing well in the previous lesson, my FI sent my up solo from the get go, unlike before when he’d first fly a couple of circuits with me before climbing out of the aircraft and sending me up again.

I was flying our club’s newly bought Aquila A211, built in 2016, which is a VLA 2-seater certified for VFR only, MTOW 750 kg. It was a bit hazy and quite cold (-5°C) on the day but visibility was still around 10 km or more and clouds were SCT at about 1500 feet. Wind was a few kts from a southerly direction. EDWF has a 26/08 runway with 1200 m asphalt, ELEV 3ft, PAPI but no instrument approach. Runway 08 was active, with little traffic (another student and his FI were doing some “circuit scrubbing” as well)

The lesson started in the afternoon, around 13.30 UTC, with sunset at 15.20 UTC. My “mission” was to fly a few traffic circuits, perform touch-and-goes and then leave the circuit and climb to about 2000ft north of the airfield and perform a few circles at varying bank rates, then come back for a few more circuits. Everything went smoothly, although I couldn’t climb higher than 1400 ft due to clouds. After coming back to the fields for the final few circuits I noticed a very low cloud layer coming in at around 200-300ft from the south during climbing from another touch-and-go. I reported this to the “Flugleiter” (FISO) immediately and was told via radio to make a full-stop-landing after completing the current circuit. In front of me was the other student. When I was turning base, he was on final, and I noticed the low clouds rapidly sweeping in from the south and blocking the view. When I turned final I could not see the runway any longer, nor the other plane in front of me. I reported this on radio immediately and was told to go around. By now the clouds had completely obscured the airfield. I flew over the clouds at a mere 500 ft, still well clear of them (they were very low), and unsure what to do. I talked to my FI on the radio and asked for help. He said they were going to phone FIS (Bremen Information) and check if I could divert to another field, and advised me to switch to the FIS frequency as well.
Note that I had by that time not even completed the radiotelephone test (BZF) which in Germany is required to leave the vicinity of the home field during circuit training. Accordingly, my radio call for help to FIS was a bit lacking in proper phraseology and professionalism, but I had a very understanding lady on the radio who gave me a heading to the neighbouring aerodrome of Emden (EDWE) 10 nm to the north and advised me to stay VMC at all time if possible.
As you can imagine I was a bit shellshocked, never having performed a solo flight to another field (and formally not even allowed to do so), and with darkness closing in (it was 14.30 UTC by then) and the clouds under me moving ever further to the north, I was feeling somewhat lost. But I could read a compass so I followed the heading given to me by FIS. By then another pilot who had to divert first from EDWX to our field and then to EDWE as well was in my vicinity and heard about my situation, so he tried to lead me to Emden as best as he could. Visibility was poor by then and FIS advised us of traffic coming our way on an unknown altitude (due to transponder setting I guess). I never saw the traffic but the experienced pilot with me did, it was way below us. We made our way to EDWE and despite never having landed there and not knowing the traffic circuit, I managed to land my plane. The FISO at EDWE was also very helpful, making the other traffic (heavy by now because of several diversions to the field) wait for me so the nervous student pilot could land first.
On the ground I was almost shaking when parking the plane, but was also very relieved. The other pilots who had diverted to the same field were congratulating me, one even claiming that “if that had been your PPL checkride, you’d have passed with flying colours”. By that time I was smiling. My FI picked me up with his car about 15 minutes later, and some other pilot from our club had to fly the aircraft back to base two days later when the weather improved. My FI said that he had, in 40 years of flying, never seen something like this, with clouds blocking the view within minutes despite only weak wind.

Points worth discussing in my eyes:

  • Should an FI practice landing at neighbouring airfields with their students first before their first solo, to prepare them for possible diversions?
  • Should I as a student have noticed the worsening weather sooner, was I too fixated on the circuit? Note that the other plane in the circuit, with an FI on board, didn’t notice it any earlier either. They barely made it back in one piece, breaking through the clouds only 30ft above the runway.
  • Is the German system under which you are not allowed to go cross-country solo before passing the radiotelephone test maybe not such a bad idea at all? After all you will be at least somewhat proficient with radio by that time due to preparing for the test. Then again, maybe radio training should start even earlier, too avoid situations like mine?
  • During downwind at EDWE I noticed that I had flown there with full flaps deployed all the time. Ouch…that was why I was so slow to get there
Last Edited by MedEwok at 10 Feb 22:50
Novice pilot
EDVM Hildesheim, Germany

MedEwok wrote:

breaking through the clouds only 30ft above the runway.

I kind of doubt it was as dramatic as that sounds

They must have had the RWY in sight at all times during the approach, otherwise they would not have been able to land. They probably went through a layer of poor visibility before they got into better visibility closer to the ground.

That was quite some learning experience! You learned that in an emergency you just need to do whatever needs to be done to make it safely, and that the controller is your friend. But also that the brain may shut down quite quickly when you get stressed (flaps).

Last Edited by Aviathor at 10 Feb 23:17

As the saying goes…

1. Avigate: Fly the plane and do not lose control, as a first priority. Sounds like you did fine.

2. Navigate: I think using a moving map GPS is good from day one, backed up by conventional visual navigation (and randomly turned off occasionally by your instructor) This would make getting to another airport a more certain process, then and now, and reliance on others is not a certain strategy when flying regardless of your ability to talk to them. I agree that a student should be flying to other airports before first solo – my first solo was not from my normal base and I’d flown to all the airports in the area by that point.

When landing in an emergency and regardless of local VFR procedures, I think its important to realize that all runways are similar, and the same approach will work for most of them. I was taught that in an emergency, make everything possible look the same so that you can focus on the things that cannot be made the same.

3. Communicate: If you know no other way, and you feel its important, say it in normal langauge. Radio lingo is only to make the process more efficient, but in this case plain language German would likely have been the most efficient for you.

All the above is just my opinion. Glad you got through that situation regardless, not easy especially since sunset was coming. A friend had an engine failure on his first solo and landed in a field, that’s worse I suppose but not that much.

P.S. When I was training, I did a simulated forced landing with full flaps in a C152 at maybe 5000 ft density altitiude, with instructor on board. The plane wouldn’t climb at all and I was sweating bullets, following a road to avoid terrain, by the time I figured out I’d forgotten to raise the flaps. I honestly don’t know if the instructor had noticed or not…

Last Edited by Silvaire at 10 Feb 23:44

The answers to your questions will probably be personal opinions, but with the current system in place, you did a splendid job! I can imagine how nervous you were and as I had a similar cloud encounter with about 70-80 hours under my belt, I understand how you felt. Also forgetting the flaps in this situation is something we as humans do – we err, especially under stress. It’s good you didn’t damage them and you will most probably remember them next time. Learn from the experience and happy flying!

By the way, great writing.

LSZH, LSZF, Switzerland

Great flying! Thanks for sharing.
I do find it strange that you had not practiced landing (even dual) at any other than home field after 22h. There are quite a few good choices around. My first 2 full stops away were in 2 different countries and after about 10-12h.
In Sweden you need the radio exam before any solo for just such situations.

ESMK, Sweden

Firstly, well done on great decision making and airmanship!

- The possibility of a diversion should be discussed, but I don’t think need to be practiced before first solo. Building up to first solo there is already so much for a student to absorb it would just be another barrier to progress, the supervising FI should be assessing weather and other factors and shouldn’t send if there is any doubt over the ability to fly a circuit (which should only take minimal time anyway!). It is probably best introduced during the solo circuit consolidation post first solo.

- In an emergency situation such as an unplanned diversion to a low hours student, RT phraseology is irrelevant. Just use plain English and say what’s up, what you need and want. If you can get it right then great, but don’t waste capacity stressing about it.

- At my club we have a specific pre solo training sign off for a go around and orbit / hold at circuit height. This is because of the danger of trying to hold or orbit with flaps left down at low speed – a UK student had a nasty accident in a Cessna at Southend in similar circumstances

Al the best for your further training!

Now retired from forums best wishes

It sounds to me like you’re well suited for the kind of long distance VFR flying you want to do! :)

Tököl LHTL

Strangely enough I had the same experience once coming into Leer whilst on my way to Norderney – Leer is really a great airfield for cheap fuel – and turning onto base I saw exactly the same – ruddy great cloud ‘appeared’ on final….. I did as you did, went around, saw it wasn’t really moving so I continued on to Norderney and refuelled in Leer on my return leg….

edited to add: One thing I will say is credit to the Flugleiter in Emden for ensuring you got priority to land, the incident in Southend I think Balliol is referring to was with a student who was made to fly unusual routings to make way for others coming in to land….

Last Edited by Steve6443 at 11 Feb 09:33
EDL*, Germany

MedEwok wrote:

Points worth discussing in my eyes:

Should an FI practice landing at neighbouring airfields with their students first before their first solo, to prepare them for possible diversions?

In my opinion yes. But that’s easy for me to say, because we are based at an international airport where circuit training is not possible. Every student starts with cross-country flying to a training airfield. By the time he is ready for solo patterns he has usually visited three or four airfields already. An additional benefit is that after the first solos he can immediately go for solo cross country flying.

Should I as a student have noticed the worsening weather sooner, was I too fixated on the circuit?

No. If anyone, then either the radio operator or your instructor. Or even that other instructor flying in front of you. Nobody can expect a student to evaluate unusually difficult weather conditions.

Is the German system under which you are not allowed to go cross-country solo before passing the radiotelephone test maybe not such a bad idea at all?

I think it is a very good idea. We (by which I mean the FTO at which I am instructing) go one step further and have our students get the RT license before they start their flying training. As we are based at an international airport, there is a lot of RT going on before even getting airborne and the student can benefit from that if he does the radio right from day one.

During downwind at EDWE I noticed that I had flown there with full flaps deployed all the time. Ouch…that was why I was so slow to get there

There are two types of pilots… those who have flown a whole sector with the flaps (or even flaps and gear) extended and those who have yet to do it… Checklist discipline usually cares those issues.

EDDS - Stuttgart

Thanks everyone for your posts! A few things:

@Aviathor: That’s just what I was told later by someone who saw it all from the tower. I didn’t talk to the pilot himself.

@Silvaire: Our plane has a GPS moving map but, as is often the case when something goes awry, it was removed for maintenance on my flight. I just had the good old ICAO chart on my kneeboard and my knowledge of the area.

@Vladimir: Thank you. Yeah I’m fairly sure that if I get in a similar situation again I’ll check the configuration of my aircraft and raise the flaps. It was definitely a situation to learn a lot from, not just that.

@Balliol: well said. The weather for circuit flying was not in doubt because nobody could see the low cloud layer creeping in at only 100-200ft from the ground.

@Arne: I had actually performed a touch and go at two other airfields by then and had overflown the field were I landed in the process. We just usually don’t land there, as there are many more interesting destinatios around (e.g. the East Frisian islands)

@WhiskeyPapa: Thank you

@Steve: Weird that it happened to you too. Usually the weather here is so that you either can fly for days or can’t fly for days due to fog. It is rarely changing fast.

@what_next: I guess when learning to fly at a controlled airport having the RT first makes sense. In East Frisia where radio communication is often quite informal and short (“Moin”, “Jo” ) this may be different. Good point about the checklist, though in that exact situation I didn’t have an appropriate one.

Last Edited by MedEwok at 11 Feb 13:07
Novice pilot
EDVM Hildesheim, Germany
42 Posts
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