The facts I am about to tell didn’t happen to me. They happened to a very close friend of mine whose determination, clear thinking and excellent airmanship contributed to save the lives of four people on board a Cessna 172 and probably some other lives on the ground.
It was June 2001, winter time in the Southern Hemisphere, more precisely in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Air Club of Balcarce, right in the center of the province, a neglected, abandoned airfield for years, was celebrating, for a change, its 50th anniversary and inaugurating a new grass runway.
My friend Ricardo Iglesias had taken over as president of the Air Club just a few months before, to make profound changes in the place, changes that exceeded its own expectations.
On the afternoon of the previous day, Virginio, a friend and private pilot, decided to attend the festivities and invited three other persons to join him for the flight from Buenos Aires city to Balcarce in his C172.
Methods and tools for weather prediction, at those times in our country, were primitive and unreliable.
There wasn’t internet service for that, and the only way to get a briefing was by ringing the military office in charge of the area. The quality of the information provided was dependent on who was in charge at the moment.
When those factors combined with rather inexperienced, non-instrument rated pilots, the outcomes were often sad.
As it was, it seems that Viginio got that substandard briefing and took off from Buenos Aires for the 190 nautical mile, southbound, one and a half hour trip to Balcarce.
Knowing his limitations, (he used to introduce himself as a cautious pilot, who had fulfilled his dream of becoming a pilot and owning an aircraft in his early 50s) he initiated the flight – taking for granted that he would be able to maintain VFR throughout the entire flight and at his destination.
But things turned out to be different.
For some reason, he continued flying at FL 065 even though a layer of scattered benign clouds were taking shape right below him. Those scattered clouds became solid as the flight progressed. It is that time when he probably had to listen to different voices, one that said “turn back” and the other one saying, “Press on; do not disappoint your passengers.”
The fact is that one and a half hours after departing he found himself practically over his destination and flying over a solid overcast. It was time to do something. Sunset would happen in less than one hour and returning to the clear skies left at the beginning of the flight was an uncertain option. “Maybe I could duck under,” he thought. “Maybe the cloud layer is not that thick and I can manage to fly through it.” That said, he briefed his passengers and entered the layer. For a reason difficult to understand, the autopilot disconnected and Virginio took over flying by hand. It was a terrible moment: the airplane entered a downward spiral and he was clever enough to initiate a immediate recovery and climb back to visual conditions an instant before losing total control of the airplane.
On the ground, people were getting ready for the festivities to take place that evening with a traditional barbecue, followed the next morning by an air show to include aerobatics, flights for people of the surrounding towns and so on.
Ricardo was precisely flying over the town of Balcarce, monitoring in 123.2 (frequency used in uncontrolled airfields), reporting and receiving positions from other aircraft in the vicinity, when he received a weird call: “Ricardo, it’s Virginio, am trapped on top. Come fetch me.”
The tone in his voice said it all, he was desperate.
Nearby Tandil Air Force Base has a long runway served by ILS. However, these good things were totally useless to a non-instrument rated, panicked pilot. Ricardo had to figure out a plan. He called Tandil tower and explained the emergency. He requested tower to assign two transponder codes, one for him and another one for the Cessna.
Next he called Virginio to say that he was on the way, that he should remain calm. But Virginio sounded in total panic and reluctant to accept instructions – Ricardo had to shout to make him react.
Then he instructed Virginio to “organize” his instruments: set altimeter, align directional gyro with compass and crucially enter and squawk the assigned transponder code for his aircraft.
“Please stay calm and fly a heading I will tell you.”
With mountains below, Ricardo knew that flying a straight path 120 degrees from Tandil VOR they would be safe.
Then came the delicate maneuver. “Tandil tower this is Archer LV MLB, do you have me and Cessna LV ODV under radar contact?”
It was quite relieving to hear, “Affirmative sir, say intentions.”
“Could you please vector me to the proximity of ODV?”
Tower response was excellent: “I was anticipating your request, sir; turn heading 360, he is about 40 miles from you now.” The controller also indicated a heading for the Cessna in order to speed up the encounter and provided continuous reports of the separation they had.
Next came the plan: “Virginio, you there? Listen carefully, you will see me any moment from now as I emerge from the clouds.” A few moments later, both pilots made visual contact with each other and Virginio responded with relief. Ricardo instructed him to follow his Archer into the clouds, maintain radial 20 from Tandil VOR and by all means maintain wings level, reassuring him that they would be in a safe, mountain-free path.
Ricardo entered the clouds followed by the Cessna. It was winter time and the cloud deck extended from 6500 ft down to 1000 ft, and there was also a consideration for ice. Both airplanes went in clouds until Ricardo made visual contact with the ground at 700 ft over the terrain, 300 ft lower than expected.
It was at that moment that Virginio lost control of himself again to inform that he was flying too low, that he feared he was going to hit a mountain and that he was going to climb back up!
Ricardo realized that was not an option. It was getting dark already, and he literally insulted Virginio on the frequency. He reacted, and seconds later, the Cessna went clear of clouds although not exactly in the assigned heading.
Moments later he made visual contact with the Archer and both airplanes proceeded to the airfield for a safe landing.
It was completely dark when they arrived, cars with lights on had to be aligned parallel to the runway and Virginio managed to execute safely the first night landing of his life.
It was the happy ending of a nightmare. They were alive and safe.
Many years later, on recalling the events of that day, Ricardo said, “I knew it was risky, we could crash into each other or fly into the ground, but I couldn’t leave them up there.“