My last flight was almost my last flight!

After weeks of Melbourne’s coldest start to winter in 40+ years, the coming weekend finally looked good for a trip away with only morning fog being an issue.

We made it to Hopetoun in northwest Victoria, and had a good look around town and the nearby lake. We then spent the night at the local pub being entertained by the friendly locals. I can highly recommend Hopetoun as a weekend fly in getaway.

Sunday morning arrived with a good layer of low cloud/fog as forecast. This was due to clear by 11:00, but by then the cloud was still 500 feet AGL max. Our plan was to track direct to Bendigo to refuel, and then home to Lilydale via the Kilmore Gap. We sat around the strip waiting for the layer of cloud to lift, and by 13:15 we were airborne at 1,000 feet AGL.

By Birchip we were down to 600 feet AGL and it was it was looking worse ahead. We decided to land on runway 04 and checked weather with friends in Melbourne. We decided to walk into town and get some fuel whilst we waited for the weather.

By 15:30 we were airborne again at 1,800 feet with a broken layer at about 2,500 feet. I was extremely cautious of changing conditions, and so I was constantly calculating the nearest airstrip for the just-in-case scenarios.

We were about 30 miles from Bendigo when there was a solid bank of cloud from the surface to about 2,000 feet, the overhead layer had gone and there was a higher layer of cloud at about 8,000 feet. I wasn’t comfortable with going over the top as we couldn’t see past it, so we tracked north looking for a way around. We could hear on the radio that it was clear at Bendigo and reports from a flying friend in Melbourne said it was clear there too, we just had to get past this bank and we were home.

The further north we went, the worse it got, so a quick 180° turn had us back tracking as I climbed to 2,500 feet. From here we could see through the two layers of cloud, so I climbed higher and we could actually see the end of the lower bank in the distance. We headed back on track and went in between the two layers at 3,500 feet. Less than 5 mins later, the lower bank just stopped and it was clear to 8,000 feet and we could make out Bendigo in the distance.

I was now relieved that we had enough fuel and clear weather to get home, so we flew on and passed Bendigo at 3,500 feet.

But I had forgotten one thing; Time. The actual time. I had been counting minutes between airfields and concentrating on alternates, but hadn’t been watching the clock. Half way between Bendigo and Kilmore I realised it was 16:50 and we were 30 minutes from home. Sunset was 17:08 and last light 17:35. My wife texted our flying friend to confirm last light as it was looking dim outside. Romsey was looking as a viable alternate at this stage. After confirming we could make it before last light, we pressed on.

Along the VFR route I could actually see the reflection of the strobe on the wings, it was very dim outside! We made it to Sugarloaf reservoir and by recognising the road layout, I found the airstrip, joined base at 1,250 feet and 100 knots, pulled power to idle, got to VFE and put the flaps out. I turned final and greased on probably my best landing of the year.

At this point my wife asked “did you see the roos?!”

There were three kangaroos between the road and the threshold, but none on the strip! We taxied back, shut down and I think I just sat there for a good two minutes, realising that we just got lucky. My wife took a photo of us at touchdown at 17:24 – 11 minutes before last light. The photo doesn’t look as dark as it was, but let me tell you it was dark! The strobe was clearly visible without looking around and the landing light was casting a bright beam in front of us. Believe me, 15 minutes before last light is dark when you are trying to find an airstrip.

Had I realised the actual time when we were at Bendigo, I would have landed. Get-there-itis is real, and it nearly cost me everything.

Never again will I be that close to last light. Ever!