Monthly Archives: September 2014

PPL Radio Exam / RT Test

The PPL Radio Exam / Practice Test is something I knew very little about before going in for it. Before you can be issued your PPL licence, you must have completed all 9 written exams, the skills test and the radio exam. Googling didn’t really find much, and the instructors and everyone I asked didn’t give much away either, just saying “you’ll be fine”!

Here’s what happened…

On arrival, I had a briefing with the examiner. He explained that we’d each have a laptop, with headphones and mic, and would be sat in different rooms. The laptop would show an aircraft flying along a predefined route. He gave me a couple of sheets of paper: a (made up) map showing a planned route, with airfields, danger areas, airways, CTRs, CTAs, and MATZs; a list of all the radio frequencies available that could be used along the route (airfields, LARS, MATZ penetration, FIR Information, etc); a PLOG for the ficticous route, complete with headings and estimated times; an instruction sheet, listing the sequence of events that would happen (eg, depart from airfield X, request MATZ penetration, obtain a traffic service, etc).

I then had half an hour to prepare on my own. I visualised the route and made notes of the things I’d want to do at key points along the route. As you’re allowed to make notes, I wrote a brain dump of the Urgency call order incase I became tongue-tied during the main event.

After the prep time, the examiner came back and asked if I had any questions. I didn’t, so he brought the laptop in to the room and gave me a quick demo of how it all works. On the screen is a moving map, with an aircraft. There are controls for heading and buttons to turn left and turn right. At each turning point of the route, I’d need to select the correct heading and click the turn button. This is the only control input for the flying that was necessary. He was keen to emphasise it’s not a flying test, nor is it a test of being able to accurately turn at the right places – it’s all about the radio, with the map being used as a visual aid to think about what calls are needed, and when.

The laptop used in the RT test
The laptop used in the RT test

In addition to the moving map and aircraft controls, icons for transponder and radio are at the bottom of the screen. You click the knobs and the frequency/ident changes. Just like the real thing. The red/orange lights represent possible problems such as engine failure, oil pressure etc. If these light during the test then I am to report a Mayday or Pan Pan urgency situation.

I then had 10 minutes to play around with the controls and get used to it, before we started the real test. Everything seemed to work correctly and was easy enough to use, so I said I was happy to start. The examiner left the room and went next door. We did a quick test to make sure we could hear each other ok (through the headphones) and then the exam started.

  1. I started on the ground in an ATC airfield. I had been given the ATIS information. I requested radio check, then called for taxy. I then called ready for departure, but had to hold position for a landing aircraft. I was then given a “line up and wait behind” clearance, followed by a clearance to take-off.
  2. The airfield had a combined tower/approach, so no frequency change was necessary. I was given a basic service. This part of the route goes directly through a MATZ, so I had to call the MATZ Penetration service to request MATZ penetration and traffic service. I was given clearance through it, given a squawk and told to report on leaving the zone.
  3. Upon leaving, I had various traffic reports given to me, which I had to acknowledge.
  4. After turning at the first waypoint, I again had some more traffic reports. You have to be careful to listen out, as some messages are for you but some aren’t. There are lots of pre-recorded audio clips of other pilots, and the examiner (the radio controller) responds to them too, so just because you hear his voice doesn’t mean he’s talking to you!
  5. I heard a MAYDAY call that wasn’t answered, so it was up to me to relay it. I relayed it, it was acknowledged, and then shortly later the originating aircraft cancelled their mayday, which again I had to relay. Emergency over.
  6. The LARS service told me they were closing for the day, and to reset my squawk.
  7. After resetting to 7000, I called the FIR Information service for a basic service.
  8. The script at this point said that I must request a true bearing from a VDF service along the route, so I requested frequency change to them, obtained a True Bearing, then changed back to the FIR Service for a basic service.
  9. At the end of this leg, I was approaching a Class A CTA, which meant I needed to obtain a Special VFR zone transit. I requested frequency change, and passed my message, asking for a Special VFR Zone transit. Again, another squawk and shortly afterwards they had identified me and cleared me to transit their zone.
  10. Whilst in the zone, flying towards the destination airfield, I received a radio call informing me that my destination airfield had closed and would likely be closed for several hours. I acknowledged and requested to divert to their airfield, which was acknowledged. They handed me over to tower, who told me to join left base.
  11. I made the various calls during landing, and was given clearance to land.

Shortly after, the test was over and the examiner came in to tell me I had passed 🙂

He was pleased with my performance. The only thing he took issue with was me getting a basic service from the FIR for only a couple of miles, before then switching for VDF, only to switch back again.  Whilst not technically wrong, in real life the FIR service is so busy that it can be difficult to get your message in, so probably wouldn’t have been able to get the initial basic service.

Exam passed, paperwork signed, now all I need to do is the final skills test…


Lesson 40: Stall & circuit practice

After my mock test, I decided to practice the different types of stalls and circuits that feature in the test, so that I could be freshly prepared on the big day.

We practiced:

  • recovery from a fully developed ‘clean’ stall (no flaps – nose down, full power, climb attitude)
  • recovery from the first signs of a stall with 2 stages of flap – (nose down, full power, climb attitude, wait for positive rate of climb then flaps away in stages)
  • recovery from the first signs of a stall with 3 stages of flap – (nose down, full power, drag flap away, climb attitude, wait for positive rate of climb then flaps away in stages)
  • recovery from the first signs of a stall whilst turning with 2 stages of flap (nose down, full power, wings level, climb attitude, wait for positive rate of climb then flaps away in stages)

After practicing these a couple of times, we headed back to the airfield for circuit practice. The radio was fairly busy with a couple of aircraft joining. 27 was active, but I wanted to practice on 36 (I hadn’t used 36 before the mock-test and I wanted to get a better feel of the visual aspects of the circuit, plus it would be good crosswind practice (wind was 270/10)). We were asked to join for 27RH and they would try to let us extend RH base for 27 to join downwind for 36.

As we approached the overhead, there were a couple of aircraft joining and in the circuit. It was pretty busy up there! Whilst descending on the dead side, one of the other aircraft joining the circuit was accidently going the wrong way around – doing a left hand circuit when the active was 27 RH. Tower spotted this and asked him to reposition, so he left the ATZ and came back to the overhead. Another aircraft joined direct on downwind, which we then had to follow. Here’s a clip of it all, to give you a sense of what was going on.

After that touch and go on 27, we were approved to turn left to join  downwind for 36. My initial approach was too high, so I had to go around. Subsequent circuits (normal, flapless, glide and precision) were good – better than in the mock, so we called it a day and went inside for tea and biscuits.

Now I am ready to book my skills test. I also need to do the Radio Practical examination. It’s all coming together…


All written exams passed!

Completing my mock test was the final kick-up-the-backside that I needed to take my final two exams – Meteorology and Radio Communications.

Of all the nine exams, Met was the one I was dreading the most – I was never particularly great at science, and the sheer size of the PPL Met book was putting me off!

After a couple of weeks reading and re-reading it, things just weren’t sinking in. I understood the words but it just didn’t make sense. I decided I needed some extra help, and settled on the interactive course from CAE Oxford Academy. They have a range of DVDs – for each of the PPL subjects – and they are also available online. I signed up to the online version of Met, for 30 days, costing around £25. I watched the whole course (about 6 hours) over two evenings and, for the first time ever, Met finally started to make sense. The animations and diagrams brought the whole thing to life, in a way that the book never did.

I then spent a whole day watching the whole thing again, making notes, which I then revised from. Using the AFE sample question books, I took the sample tests and was getting an average of 85%. I learnt from my mistakes and was consistently getting 95-100%. I was ready for the test.

VFR Comms was a much easier one to prepare for. 2 hours reading and I was getting a consistent 100% in the sample tests. Fingers crossed.

Before my next lesson, I headed to the airfield and took Met, starting my fourth sitting. I passed with 95% – hoorah – so decided to take Comms. Another 95%. I have now passed all 9 written exams, with an average of 88%. I’m happy.

Lesson 39: Mock Skills Test

In preparation for the final skills test, my instructor suggested I take a mock skills test with a different instructor. It’d be useful to experience the same stuff that I’ll have to go through on the actual test, plus doing it with a different instructor will help make it feel more realistic. I can get feedback on what I need to practice, and find out if/when I will be ready to go for the actual test. Good idea, I thought, so my mock test was booked.

The night before the mock, my instructor gave me the route, so that I could do my planning before arriving at the airport. This was helpful as it meant I could do the PLOG, fuel planning,  weight & balance and take-off/landing performance calculations in advance of the day, helping to lower my workload and calm my nerves! It also gave me a chance to really think through the route and consider the various issues along the way that might come up.

The route would be: Gloucester -> Knighton -> Alcester -> Gloucester. I could reasonably expect that on the Knighton to Alcester leg I will be asked to divert elsewhere, never actually ending up in Alcester, as this is what happens on the test.

The Gloucester -> Knighton leg takes us overhead Shobdon’s ATZ, so it’d be sensible to make radio contact with them in advance. On the Knighton to Alcester leg, there’s a HIRTA (High Intensity Radio Transmission Area) up to 2500ft. So long as we’re above then that shouldn’t be a problem. If the weather prevents us from reaching that altitude, I could easily dog leg around it.

My PLOG worked out at 1 hour 8 minutes for the entire trip.

On the morning of the mock test, I arrived at the airfield nice and early. I had the aircraft booked out all day, so I could get fuel and familiarise myself with it before the mock exam at 1pm. I filled up with fuel, then headed back inside so check NOTAMs and the Royal Flights/Red Arrows line. The only relevant NOTAM was a gliding competition around Alcester, which hopefully won’t be an issue as we don’t expect to actually get there as we will divert first.

At 1pm, I had the briefing with my (mock) examiner. I talked him through the planned route, PLOG, w&b calculations, performance calculations and he talked me through the order of the day. He’d act as a silent passenger, and would speak to me when he wanted me to do something or had a question.

I had already A-checked the aircraft before getting fuel. I explained this and to avoid needing to do it all again, I re-checked the oil and fuel and got in to the aircraft. Unbelievably, I couldn’t get the engine to start. On the way down to the fuel pumps, it had been pretty lifeless and took a few times to get it to start, but now it had finally decided to give up the ghost. We had a flat battery, and needed to get external power to get us started up. The examiner jumped out and got everything sorted. This had never happened before – bloody typical! Luckily once we finally got going, I didn’t feel too flustered and was able to carry on as normal.

Runway 27 was active, the perfect choice for my initial planned heading of 311. We were cleared for take-off pretty quickly and I was soon climbing out, turning to 280 for noise abatement before turning on to 311. Stopwatch started, I wrote the estimates in to the ETA column of each waypoint.

After doing the usual climbing lookouts, 300ft FEL and 1000ft RAF checks, I levelled off at 3000ft and performed the top of climb FREDA check. The weather to the west was worse than at the airfield, with cloud bases at around 3200ft. There were showers ahead but they appeared to be moving fairly quickly, so whilst discussing this on the ground we figured it was unlikely to be a problem.

After a couple of minutes, I could tell we were to the left of track, as we should have flown overhead Ledbury but were actually a couple of miles  south of it. I told my instructor this and flew directly towards Ledbury to get on track. Whilst over Ledbury, I turned to the planned heading of 311. The halfway point is abeam Hereford, and again I could observe we were to the left of track. I corrected my heading and continued towards Shobdon. I changed frequency to Shobdon Radio and told them I would be flying overhead. No problem. As we got nearer to Shobdon, I again could see that we were too far to the left, so I changed heading so that we flew straight towards it. From there, I flew the original heading of 311 to get us to Knighton.

The weather at this point was pretty lousy. There were showers and the cloud was lowering in the west. I said to the examiner that if I was alone I wouldn’t feel comfortable continuing the final few miles to Knighton and that I would divert from here directly to Alcester. He said that for the purposes of this he would be happy for me to continue the final few miles to Knighton, so that’s what I did. I positively identified Knighton (phew!) and this time when I said that the cloud was too bad to fly on the planned route, he agreed so I diverted (dog-legged) around the weather. I flew 60 degrees north of the planned track for 4 minutes, then 60 degrees south of the planned track for another 4 minutes – this should have got me back on the original track. I confirmed this by looking at the chart, and was happy that it had worked and we were on back on track, about to fly over the HIRTA.

A couple of minutes later and the examiner said he was happy the diversion was working out well (perfectly, in fact!) so we could move on to the next part of the test. He asked me to use radio aids to identify our current position. The aircraft had VOR, NDB and DME and I elected to use the ADF and DME (tuned to Gloucester) to do it. No problems there – I remembered my TITS! (tune, ident, test, sensible). So next I was asked to track towards the HONITON VOR on the 220 radial.  So, this meant I needed to fly TO the 040 radial. Again, for the VOR I used TITS and set 040 with the TO flag. We were more than 10 degrees off track, so I turned 60 degrees to intercept the VOR. After a couple of minutes of making little progress, the examiner asked me what radial we were currently on. So I twisted the OBS until we had FROM and the needle was aligned centre. It was 250. He then asked me to track along that radial instead (he originally thought  we were closer to 220). I did that for a while without problems, so we moved on to the next part of the test…

He said to imagine we had entered cloud and had inadvertently entered IMC. I performed a rate 1 turn for 1 minute, turning 180 degrees back out. Then he asked me to climb above 3000ft so we could practice stall recovery.

I was asked to perform a series of stall recoveries – clean, with two stages of flap, and with all three stages. I did the HASEL checks before each one, and everything seemed to go ok.

Next it was the spiral dive recovery. He set up the dive and asked me to recover. Standard recovery technique is throttle to idle, wings level, then climb attitude. So far so good.

Finally, I had to use the ADB to track back to Gloucester, where we could do circuits. First, I did a normal circuit, then flapless, then a glide approach, followed by a bad weather circuit.

Runway 36 was active, which amazingly enough I had never used before so I was caught a bit off guard. The normal circuit went ok, but on the flapless circuit I was way too high and elected to go around. The second time it worked out better, and I was able to successfully touch and go, although I was still a bit high and it was a bit close.

The glide circuit was ok, as did the bad weather circuit, which was a ‘to land’.

After performing the after-landing checks, I taxyed back to Aeros and shutdown. My examiner said if it would have been the real test I would have passed. I couldn’t quite believe it!

We went inside and had a coffee, and I calmed myself down a bit. The adrenaline was pumping and I felt pretty exhausted from the 2.5 hour flight.

We then had a proper debrief together, in which he talked me through notes he had made for me to learn and improve on:

  1. Passenger safety brief – make sure you offer to give the safety brief. This is something I’d never actually thought of before, even though it’s an item in the checklist because I’d been flying with an instructor we had never needed to do it. Obviously I will need to do it with normal passengers, so I was glad to have been picked up on this.
  2. Brake test – make sure I test the brakes as soon as possible after first moving, and whilst still at low speed.
  3. Taxy checks – whilst he was confident I had done them, it would be better to speak out clearly each check as I was doing it, to make it more obvious.
  4. DME – initially the DME was in Frequency mode, it would have been more helpful to have it in Groundspeed mode.
  5. Climbout – he asked me what speed I was climbing at, to which I replied I was initially climbing at vy – 79kts, and then elected to do a cruise climb. This was fine, but I should announce that is what I’m doing, so the examiner knows. Initially he thought I just didn’t know what speed to climb at!
  6. Diversion – make sure you consider the MSA and announce it.
  7. Simulated IMC – whilst the turn was fine, I should announce the other elements to consider: Pitot heat, Climb to MSA, Ask for Radar coverage. I explained that I thought he was going to ask me about these things, so there was some confusion. I think I will discuss this in the pre-flight briefing of the actual exam. (We had some discussions afterwards with my instructor about whether or not to actually climb to MSA, and concluded it was best to ask the examiner before hand)
  8. VOR – consider wind corrections
  9. Steep turn – careful not to climb on rollout, the first time I did one I climbed slightly, but the next turn was fine
  10. HASEL – remember to turn the fuel pump on
  11. Stall recovery – apparently I had “throttle aggression!”. Make sure you use the throttle smoothly. I blame the nerves.
  12. Turning stall – make sure you recover by moving the nose down, then power, then level the wings.
  13. ATIS – get the ATIS before making the rejoin call
  14. Bad weather circuit – make one continuous turn from upwind to downwind, instead of the usual upwind, crosswind, downwind 90 degree turns. This helps keep you closer to the airfield. Same with the turn from downwind to final.

Whilst it looks like a long list (and it is!) he was keen to emphasise these were all just pointers for how to improve and perform even better on the big day, and he was generally really pleased with how I did.

I felt pretty pleased with myself, and headed back home for a celebratory drink…

Here you can see the planned route, and the actual track:

Planned route for QXC
Planned route for QXC
Actual track of QXC
Actual track of QXC