Monthly Archives: November 2013

I'm flying - alone!

Lesson 13 – circuits and first solo!

We started off the lesson in much the same way as the previous circuit lessons. By now, I’m used to the routine of checking the aircraft, starting up, taxying and flying the circuits. I flew 5 unassisted circuits (there was a 6 knot crosswind) and things seemed to be going well. The sky was a beautiful blue colour, you could see for miles and there wasn’t much traffic in the circuit.

After the fifth touch and go, during the downwind leg my instructor said we should land after this one. I thought nothing of it, and carried on with the circuit and landing. We vacated the runway, ATC gave us taxy instructions back to the apron, and then my instructor replied with the immortal words “request crew change, for student first solo” and suddenly my heart started racing. After waiting for – and thinking about – this moment for so long, my head had a mixture of emotions ranging from excitement through to trepidation.

We taxyed up to holding point alpha 2, and my instructor gave me a few words of encouragement and advice. When I’m alone in the plane, my callsign would be Student Aeros 51 instead of the usual Aeros 51. I had to say it out loud a few times to myself, just to practice and to try and break the now-instinctive habit of saying just Aeros 51. Then, with a smile, my instructor said “enjoy it – have fun!” and he climbed out. Door closed and locked, there I was, at the edge of the runway, engine on and for the first time ever – alone in the cockpit!

I got myself settled in, completed the pre take-off checks and made my first solo radio call: “Student Aeros 51, ready for departure”. My heartbeat had calmed and it felt like any other circuit. After waiting for a while, I received clearance to take-off and I took off the brakes and started rolling on to the runway. It was only at that point that it truly sank in. I was about to take off, fly around the airfield and land again – on my own. Entirely alone. Nobody for advice, nobody to takeover in the event of me messing something up. It was all down to me.

Full throttle, final take off checks, and pull back. I am in the air – flying – alone. From this point onwards, my mind entered a kind of “auto pilot” mode and I was reliving – almost subconsciously – the steps we’d been rehearsing in all the circuit practice lessons I’d had. My memory is a blur of what actually happened during the flight, so I’m grateful for the GoPro, which captured the whole thing. Everything seemed to go smoothly and I made a safe landing. I touched down a little later than normal and took a second or two before applying the brakes, which meant that I was quite a bit faster than we’d normally be when turning to the left to exit via runway 18/16. I started to turn left (left rudder) and soon realised we were moving too fast to be able to safely take the exit, so straightened up and headed down towards the end of the runway. Runway vacated, I taxyed back to the Aeros apron via a holding point whilst a vintage plane took off from the grass 22 runway.

Back in the apron, power-down checks complete and the engine off. Headphones off. Deep breath. I was shaking. After a high-five from my instructor, we posed by the plane for the obligatory ‘congratulations’ photo, then headed back inside for a coffee and debrief.

Handshake with my instructor outside the plane after completing my first solo

I’m writing this post the day after my solo, yet I still have a huge grin on my face from yesterday. I keep telling myself that I have flown a plane – alone – but it hasn’t yet sunk in… The excitement – and sense of achievement – from that first solo is massive, and it re-enforced (not that it ever needed to!) my decision to finally learn to fly. It’s given me a taster of what’ll be possible when I get my licence. I realise I’m still at the very beginning of a very long (never ending) journey of learning, which will continue long after obtaining my PPL. Bring it on.

Here’s a video of my solo:

My GPS track isn’t geometrically perfect, but it’s not bad – and hey, it was my first ever solo after all!

The GPS track of my first solo circuit
The GPS track of my first solo circuit

The next five lessons will be ‘consolidation circuits’, wherein we have a mixture of dual and solo circuits. Hopefully this will build confidence a little more and make the whole experience seem a bit more normal and, hopefully, shake-free!

Lesson 12 – stalling part 2

The sun was out, the sky a vivid bright blue, and the wind calm. One of the best weather days since I’ve started training. Perfect conditions for stalling part 2, which requires altitude (at least 3,000ft above ground level to recover). In stalling part one, we practised stall recovery from a clean configuration – eg. flaps retracted, no power. So this lesson, we’d be exploring the different stall characteristics in various configurations, and learning to how to recover.

The aircraft had already been A-checked and fueled, so we taxyed and headed straight out. We climbed to 5,000 ft (QNH) and found a nice, clear area of countryside outside Worcester which was perfect for our needs and complies with the ABCD requirements of the Location part of the HASELL checks – clear of Airspace; clear of Built-up areas; clear of Crowds; clear of Danger areas. The view today really was glorious – we could see for at least 100miles all around, including the towerblocks of Birmingham, the Severn Bridges and beyond. Beautiful and a nice change from the now familiar view within the circuit.

First off, we revisited the stalling characteristics in clean configuration. The stall warner starts to sound at around 55kts, followed by buffeting at 50kts, followed by the nose dropping and the actual stall taking place shortly thereafter.

With two stages of flap (25 degrees), the stall warner sounds with a lower nose attitude and at the slower airspeed of around 45kts. There’s less buffeting (because of the slipstream effect) and the nose doesn’t drop until around 40kts – quite a bit lower than the plain config.

With two stages of flap and a low-ish RPM setting, the stall warner sounds at around 50kts but with a much higher nose attitude and the buffeting is all but masked by the slipstream. 

As usual, the standard stall recovery is to lower the nose. Apply power as a secondary measure to minimise height loss during the stall.

Next, we practiced stall recovery whilst in the approach configuration – 1500rpm, 25degrees of flap, turn and extend full flap. Then we stalled in a simulated turn to final approach. When the drag flap is down, the standard stall recovery still applies – lower nose, power, carb heat, followed by drag flap away. Then once a positive rate of climb has been established, retract the remaining flaps in stages.

All done and dusted – fairly straightforward so we headed back to the airfield. I used the opportunity to practice the standard overhead join, where you fly over the active runway at 2,000ft above airfield elevation (QFE) and descend on the dead-side in a turn, so that you cross the other end of the active runway at the normal circuit height of 1000ft. From then on, you’re in the standard circuit pattern.



Lesson 11 – more circuits, practice forced landings

The weather was lovely today – clear blue sky and the wind was calm. We’d be practicing more circuits and practicing forced landings in the event of engine failure after take-off (EFATO for short).

If the engine fails after take-off, if at all possible you should aim to land on the runway you have just taken off from. Do not try to turn around to as you probably wouldn’t make it! If there’s not enough runway left for you to land, you need to change attitude for best glide (73 knots in the Warrior) and then select a landing site somewhere between 30degrees to the left and 30 degrees to the right. Landing site selected and sure that you’ll make it, maintaing best glide attitude, extend flaps, then start engine shutdown – throttle closed, mixture to idle cut-off, mags off, unlatch and open the door in preparation for landing.

My first EFATO practice wasn’t quick enough – thank goodness it wasn’t real! – but the next one was much better. Circuits went well this lesson – I’m starting to use the rudder more on final to keep the runway aligned, which seems to be working out well.

During one circuit, as we were on base about to turn final, my instructor spotted a plane above us (he was behind us!) and quickly radioed tower to ask their intentions. Tower immediately asked the aircraft to go around, leaving us to land. Scary few moments – and goes to show the importance of good lookout. Here’s a clip:

If I’m consistent again in the next lesson (and weather conditions are favourable) then with any luck I should be doing a solo circuit. Gulp!

Medical, another exam and lesson 10 – all in one day!

Today’s been busy. First thing this morning I had my Class 2 Medical at Gloster Aviation Medicals Ltd – a really great chap called Dr Ian Ramsay. Friends had been winding me up all week about what would be involved so I was a little nervous. Suffice to say that it was all relatively straightforward and my pants did not need to come off!

The medical covered eyesight, hearing, height/weight, family medical history (didn’t take long!), my medical history (didn’t take long!), chest/breathing checks and a urine analysis. It was all over within 30 minutes and I walked out the proud owner of a Class 2 Medical Certificate, and £84 lighter.

I had 2 hours before my lesson, so I did some last minute revision for the Human Factors & Performance Exam before sitting the real thing. Biology was my worst subject at GCSE and whilst most people seem to find this exam the easiest of the nine, throughout my revision I had found it rather hard going. Basic GCSE Biology stuff like the parts of the ear, understanding how the eye functions (rods, cones, etc.) was something that never particularly sunk in for me.

As well as the biology stuff, it also covers areas like cockpit usability/design (ideally, the undercarriage lever should look like a wheel and the flap lever should look like a flap so that you can easily distinguish between them) and other more psychology-related and managerial style topics such as understanding how decision making can be influenced by groups etc. This kind of stuff was much more my comfy, familiar territory thanks to the day job so I sailed through those parts of the syllabus.

Time came for the exam, and luckily I found it fairly easy. I passed, had a coffee and then met my instructor for today’s lesson. My previous weekday instructor is off sick with back problems, so today was my first session with my new weekday instructor. We reviewed my progress and talked through the plan for today. More circuits and practicing go-arounds.

After A-checking the plane (probably the most detailed one I’ve done yet – learnt quite a lot of gotchas to watch out for that aren’t on the checklist) we got ready for departure. I’d be responsible for all the radio and checks today, so the workload has been shifted up a notch.

After taxying to the pumps and filling her up with fuel, we were soon lining up on the runway and taking-off. We were on runway 27 again today – right hand circuits – and wind was 320 at 8 knots. I’m not entirely sure why runway 36 wasn’t active, as it meant we had a crosswind on 27. Still, a first for me and a good opportunity to learn how to deal with it.

When landing with a cross wind, on final you need to aim in to the wind, to compensate for the wind drift. This means that when you come to the level-off and flare, the nose of the plane will be pointed to one side (rather than the usual straight ahead). To compensate for this, use rudder and opposite aileron to bring everything back in to line.  Today, this meant using left rudder and right aileron.

The first circuit was a little messy whilst I got in to the swing of things, then I started to settle down and improve. Last lesson I wasn’t flaring enough, so today – conscious of this – I was trying to get the flare right, but ended up pulling back too much. Too little last lesson, too much this lesson. Hopefully I’ll be somewhere in the middle next time!

The wind died down about by the fourth circuit but I was still executing a crosswind landing even though there was nothing to correct, which made for a slightly wonky landing, but nothing too disastrous.

We did two go-arounds (we planned to – they weren’t necessary), which basically involve applying full power, moving over to the dead side of the airfield (the left, in our case today as it was right hand circuits) and climbing at the usual climb rate, then join the circuit at normal circuit height on the crosswind leg.

I forgot to run my iPhone GPS so no tracks this time. Next lesson is tomorrow morning – either more circuits or practicing Engine Failure After Take-Off and forced landings.

Lesson 9 – exams and circuits

I had two lessons booked this week, but the first lesson was cancelled due to poor visibility. I took the opportunity to take my AirLaw and Operational Procedures exams, which I’d been revising for throughout the week. The content of the exams were different to what I was expecting. I’d been using the pplquiz and airquiz practice exams but the content didn’t really seem to align. I’d been practicing all sorts of marshalling signals, light signals and altimeter pressure calculations and none of that came up! There were 4 questions about wake turbulence in a 16 question exam! Luckily I passed both so I was very happy, even though I didn’t get to go flying.

The next day the weather was much brighter and my lesson was going ahead. This one would be more circuits. There was virtually no wind today, which made a pleasant change from the last two gusty circuit lessons. No wind drift corrections needed!

After getting in the airplane and completing the internal checks, my instructor asked how much fuel we had. I had forgotten to check – oops! This was the first time flying in a plane that had already had it’s daily A-Check, and I hadn’t done a ‘regular’ external check before. In fact, there’s nothing in the checklist that says what should be checked. So, after a brief chat with my instructor, we got out the plane and did a basic walk around checking the external surfaces, checked fuel in both tanks (between 10-15 gallons in each tank), and checked the engine oil. All good, so back in the plane and off we go…

All in all, we did 8 take-offs and landings in 1 hour and 5 minutes. During one of the circuits, ATC asked us to orbit left on downwind before turning final, to make way for a fast jet on final approach. Nice bit of variety to spice things up. This lesson I was doing the radio for the first time, which also added to the work load.

For the final circuit, my instructor asked ATC if we could land on a different runway, and they gave permission. Runway 18 has no visual approach indicators (unlike 27 – with PAPI lights – which we had been using for the other circuits), which means judging the rate of descent and glidescope would be all down to me. It required a lot more concentration.

One of the landings was a bit bumpy (approach speed was too fast) but apart from that they felt pretty smooth. Here’s a short vid of probably my best landing of the day:

Here’s the obligatory GPS track of the circuits. You can see the left orbit for runway 18, and the left orbit for runway 27 followed by an extended base to make way for the jet.

I’m now busy revising for Human Factors, which I’m hoping to take on Tuesday. I have my Class 2 Medical booked for Tuesday morning, followed by a double lesson – so it’s busy, busy, busy!

Lesson 8 – circuits

The weather was better than last lesson – a mixture of sun and clouds, but still with lots of wind. The clouds were fairly low at around 2000ft so not enough room for exercise 10B (stalling part two), which needs at least 3000ft AGL. So, this lesson would be more circuits, following on from last lesson. Despite the talk about wind drift last lesson, we didn’t pay much attention to it during the actual lesson, so this lesson we would focus more on wind correction, aiming to have much more circuit-like (90,90,90,90) GPS tracks. As you can see from last lesson’s tracks, the cross-wind and base legs were at more like 45 degrees rather than 90, due to the wind.

After a check of the aircraft, we were taxying to the runway. Runway 22 was active today, with a right-hand circuit. ATIS reported wind from 190 degrees at 15 knots. We can calculate the approximate headings using the max drift calculation…

Without any wind, we’d fly:

  • Takeoff: 220 degrees (runway heading)
  • Crosswind: 310 degrees (+90)
  • Downwind: 040 degrees (+90)
  • Base: 130 degrees (+90)
  • Final: 220 degrees (+90, back on the runway heading)

To make calculations easier, lets assume we’re travelling with an air speed of 90 knots.

Max drift  = (60 / 90) * 15 = 10 degrees

Whilst flying crosswind, wind will be hitting us from (310 – 190) /2 = 60 degrees to our left, blowing us right. Using the clock code, this tells us to apply max drift.

Whilst downwind, wind will be hitting us from 30 degrees to our right , blowing us left. Using the clock code, this tells us to apply half the maximum drift.

Whilst flying base, will will be hitting us from 60 degrees to out right, blowing us left. As with crosswind, apply max drift.

Headings corrected for wind drift:

  • Crosswind: 300 degrees
  • Downwind: 045 degrees
  • Base: 140 degrees

After a couple of circuits, the wind was blowing faster, and the weather was closing in. At one point – on finals – our indicated air speed was 80knots, and our ground speed was 20 knots. The instruments were probably a bit lagged (we didn’t have a 60 knot head wind), but it was pretty strong!

I had memorised my pre-landing checks and ran through them whilst downwind, although I need to add an L on the the end for Landing Lights to On. So now I’m using BUM-FFF-ICHHL.

Here’s a little clip of me on base through to landing (this is the second circuit of the day):

With such a strong head wind, I tended to flare too early when landing, instead of flying level above the runway for a short while. Something to work on next time.

After the sixth takeoff, it started to rain, and visibility to the west was pretty poor. We decided to make this our last circuit, so we could head back to the hangar without getting too wet! See how the weather has changed:

A pretty wet finish to the lesson
A pretty wet finish to the lesson

As you can see, the GPS track of my circuits this lesson are an improvement on last lesson. That extended downwind leg you can see was a result of ATC asking us to extend due to an incoming aircraft on long finals.

BUM-FFF-ICHH or pre-landing checklist

Aviation is full of acronyms and mnemonics. This one is particularly odd sounding and not particularly memorable, but it’s also one of the most important checklists to memorise.

When preparing to land, whilst downwind you should carry out the pre-landing checklist. Here’s what we need to check:

  • Brakes – parking brakes should be off, and toes clear of the toe brakes
  • Undercarriage – should be down (we’d have a big problem if it wasn’t in our fixed-gear Piper Warrior!)
  • Mixture – should be rich
  • Flaps – as required. Normally up in downwind.
  • Fuel pump – on
  • Fuel – on fullest tank, is the contents sufficient for a go-around?
  • Instruments – is suction within limits, are engine t’s and p’s green? Is QFE/QNH set? Are the compass and DI aligned?
  • Carb heat – turn on for at least 10 secs, turn off, check rpm drop within limits
  • Hatches – closed and secured?
  • Harnesses – on and tight?

Flying in the circuit and preparing to land is such a busy stage of flight that it is definitely not the time to be reading these from a written checklist. My instructor gave me a good tip for learning these. Write them on a post-it note, and stick it on the back of the sun visor in the car. When you’re nearly home, recall the checklist. When you get home, check against the list to make sure you didn’t miss any. This has been helpful for two reasons – helping to remember the content, but also the act of remembering to do the checks before getting home is similar to doing them before landing.

I feel pretty confident that I’ve memorised them now, but lets see how I get on in tomorrow’s lesson with the added pressure of flying at the same time!