The day I felt for 1'000ft

This is an unusual post for my blog. But I decided to share this after the incident at Singapore Airlines and my recent car accident.

In June 2020, after the first big wave of the pandemic, I wanted to fly again, so I booked a check ride at my Lugano Agno base (ICAO: LSZA) in Ticino, Switzerland. As a pilot, I was allowed to leave my house for professional training and even cross borders as long as I respected COVID-19’s measures.

I’ve flown the DA40 NG for over 10 years, and it was lovely to be on a plane I was confident in. I also had my favourite aircraft, whose registration marks were HB-SDK. SDK… how geeky is that?

The check ride is a flight with an instructor, where you practice standard manoeuvres (like turns, climbs and descents), stalls and emergencies. We departed from Lugano and went to Lake Maggiore, Italy. It was like I’d flown the day before. Everything was smooth, and I received compliments from my instructor. As we were flying, I said, “why don’t we stop at Locarno for a coffee?”. Locarno (ICAO: LSZL) is a city in Switzerland at the top of Lago Maggiore. So we did. I remember him saying, “If you land in this wind (in Locarno), then I’m very confident you’re okay to go.” The airport staff is always friendly, and we enjoyed coffee and a chat over the Airbus 320, as I discovered my instructor was an Airbus test pilot.

We were informed that the twin aircraft, HB-SDV, was ready at the Locarno maintenance centre after regular maintenance. The instructor told me he would probably return after my flight to collect the plane and bring it to the Lugano base. Nonsense, I thought. So I told him: “Ehi, this doesn’t make any sense. Why don’t you get SDV and I get SDK, and we go back together to Lugano? So you don’t need to come back later”. He was surprised, but he happily accepted.

Before going on with the story, let me get tangential for a short while. In the south of the Alps, a strong wind from the north is coming, called Foehn. It can be nasty in Ticino, as it is channelled from the Gotthard through the valley until it reaches Locarno. And it can build quickly. But there is even a smaller valley between Locarno and Lugano called Monteceneri, where the wind increases its speed in a Venturi effect. So, if you get turbulence in Locarno, that will likely be more in Monteceneri. But you only know it once you’re into it. I made a quick map of the area and wind dynamics here:

Locarno Monteceneri Lugano Map

Back to our story. We started the engines, and my instructor took off before me. Then, it was my turn to take off. On my initial climb, my instructor contacted me on the active frequency: “There’s turbulence here. Keep 4'000ft instead of 3'000ft.” 3'000ft is the minimum altitude between Monteceneri and Mezzo, the initial reporting point for landing in Lugano. So I extended the downwind leg to reach 4'000ft and cross Monteceneri. I was already feeling Foen’s turbulence, but I could keep the plane under control.

In between Monteceneri and Mezzo, in the blink of an eye, I hit my head on the canopy, and I felt the seat belt on my body before realising what happened. I was caught in a nasty turbulence. I looked at the altimeter, and it was barely displaying 3'000ft. I lost 1'000ft (~300m). My head was exploding, but there was no time to think about it. I was fighting to keep the plane levelled.

I contacted Lugano Tower for landing, and they gave me runway 01 (usually 19) and instructed me to maintain 2'600ft on downwind (standard altitude). But I couldn’t. With my heart in my throat, I answered, “Unable”. I was barely keeping the plane under control. They knew it was bad. They told me to do whatever I could and asked if I was willing to try to land or divert to another airport. I decided to give it a try. I managed to come to the base leg of runway 01, where the wind apparently calmed down, so I was more confident. I jolted when, on final, the ATC told me, “HB-SDK, wind 010 36kt, cleared to land 01”. It was “calm”, and there were 36kt of wind? (36kt = 66km/h)

I managed to safely land the plane and bring HB-SDK to park beside HB-SDV. My legs were shaking, and my head and chest hurt, but I landed. I heard after that the wind could have reached 60kt (110km/h) up where I had the accident.

I didn’t realise how bad it was until I went back home and I undressed. The marks left by the seatbelt were all over my chest.

My instructor saved my life by telling me to keep 4'000ft instead of the required standard 3'000ft.

Long story short. When you fly as a passenger, please ALWAYS keep your seatbelt fastened, even if the seatbelt sign is not turned on. You’ll never know when you can hit bad turbulence. It could save your life. And that is also true when you’re in a car.

A photo of HB-SDK I took while parked in Locarno. A pity is no longer in service. HB-SDK plane parked in Locarno