Archive for the Actual Lessons Category

FRTOL : Passed

Thursday, March 20th, 2014 | Permalink

The Flight Radiotelephony Operator’s Licence (FRTOL), authorises you to operate an Aircraft Radio Station in a UK registered aircraft [CAA].

While a Private Pilots License (PPL) lets you fly the plane, it does not make you legal to operate the radio.   If you plan to fly exclusively out of grass strips and outside controlled airspace, this might be ok – but realistically, you’re going to need to use that radio and over the course of the PPL training will have already clocked up significant usage anyway.

The FRTOL Exam is a practical/oral exam involving (typically) the applicant in one room and the examiner in another and simulating a flight and the associated radio calls.

Personally, due to the flight being simulated, I found the timings to be very “disorientating” in the sense that it’s hard to judge a reasonable time between calls (the map is covering > 50 miles, you’d have tens of minutes to plan a call – but that feels like cheating, so I tried to make each call with only a handful of seconds gap).   If I could give others any advice, I’d say take your time more, remember that in real life you really would have time to plan initial contact calls – so take that time, you’re paying for the examiners time so leave them waiting if you’re getting your head clear on your next way point initial call or request etc.

The debrief was pretty intensive, but I passed and that was my only objective of the day.   If you’re learning and wondering about costs, the exam cost me £90.

If you want to know more about the FRTOL, privileges/requirements/exam – read Section 6 of CAA: CAP 804

That’s it, we’re done…….all that is left is to put a massive pack of paperwork together to the CAA.

Flight Skills Test : Passed (The End…almost)

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014 | Permalink

Many hours (I still need to add it all up) and ground exams later, we finally reached the day of the Skills Test.   The only point where you’re actually examined in the air for your ability to conduct a safe flight with sufficient competency to be trusted with passengers who potentially have never been in a light aircraft before.  Obviously, completion of other training (Qualifying Cross Country), shows ability for getting from A to B to C and back to A again, but the skills test is where you demonstrate essentially everything you’ve learnt, in the air, to an examiner.

Arrival and Checkout

I’d agreed with the club to have G-HERC on the day, so it was fully fueled up the night before avoiding any fuel issues in the morning.   What could go wrong?

I got there early, agreed with the examiner I’d go and check the plane and come back in – it seemed like a good plan and I felt ahead of the curve so far.  Having lowered the flaps and in the process of walking round the plane giving it a good check out, I noticed the examiner coming out to see me – unusual at this point.   So I figured I’d save them a walk and meet half way, ducking under the flap I asked if all was ok?

We can’t take G-HERC, the Attitude Indicator isn’t working…

Ahhh great, the plane I’d done my First Solo and Qualifying Cross Country in, had gone and let me down 🙁    As I turned round, a little demoralized…


In the distraction I’d forgotten the flap was now about 5″ lower than normal and walked straight into it, cutting my head open!   A lovely cut, complete with bleeding, as you might expect walking into two sharp, hard pieces of metal would give you.

There’s a first time for everything, but I could have lived without bleeding before even starting the exam!

Time to get Another Plane



Without the Artificial Indicator (AI) we wouldn’t be able to do the part of the exam that tests basic instrument flying – well actually more your ability to get out of an instrument flying required condition (i.e. unintentional flight into cloud). To intentionally fly on instruments requires more exams.

So we’d take G-SHWK.

…..but of course it’s only got 20 gallons of fuel and we need a minimum of 30, so I get to do a spot of free taxing to the fuel bay, before going for a briefing on the exam itself.

Examination Briefing

Firstly a recap that this isn’t an exam to test if I’m the best pilot in the world (probably a good thing as my head had only just stopped bleeding).   It is about assessing if I can operate a piston single engined aircraft in such a way as being conductive of safe flight, from start to finish and sufficiently able to be trusted with passengers.   Or generally words to that affect.

The examiner then outlined broadly what would be on the exam and how it would be structured (not surprisingly very much inline with EASA guidance):

  • The examiner would act as ‘Someone who’s reasonably knowledgeable about aircraft, but cannot fly themselves’ – as such unless instructed:  Control of the aircraft, Navigation and the Radio would be my responsibility.
  • Navigation with a route consisting of 3 legs.
  • Somewhere on the second leg I’d be given a simulated problem/emergency and would need to determine a good course of action (i.e. diversion) – without significantly deviating from heading or altitude while planning the action to be taken.
  • On completion of the diversion there would be  aircraft General Handling section covering:
    • Instrument flight out of simulated cloud (i.e. Rate One turns / Heading & Altitude holding with reference only to the instruments).
    • Recovery from a Spiral Dive
    • Stall Recovery in the Clean Configuration, Turning onto Final and Final Approach Configurations.
    • Steep / Advanced Turns (360 degree turns, with Turn Angle > 45 Degrees)
    • Slow Flight
    • Practice Forced Landing
    • Precautionary Landing
  • Radio Aid Position Fixing (using any aid of my choice in the aircraft except the GPS)
  • Returning into the Circuit
    • Normal Circuit / Landing (Touch N Go)
    • Flapless Touch N Go
    • Precision Landing
  • Aborted/Rejected Take Off

That was the general outline, it was made quite clear that if the examiner was happy with how an item was carried out we’d move straight onto the next item and if he wasn’t we might need to do it again or a variant of what was asked – again not looking for total perfection across the board, but I assume there’s scope for a little bit of “Ok that wasn’t brilliant, but I can do……..really, see…..”.

The Navigation

The route I’d been given to plan was Cambridge -> Bourne (Linconshire) -> Downham Market -> Cambridge.

Skills Test Nav Route

Skills Test Nav Route

Plotted on my navigation chart, it looked like this:

Some obvious catches to this route:

  • Puts the plane very close to Wyton Air Traffic Zone (ATZ)
  • Requires flying through Wittering Military Aerodrome Traffic Zone (MATZ)

I thought a lot about the Wyton part, all going well my intent was to call them up and let them know we’d be close to their ATZ – but as a backup safety measure so the flight definatly didn’t break any rules and couldn’t be argued unsafe.  I elected to fly the first leg at 3,000ft.

The reason for this being that Wytons’ ATZ goes from surface (135ft about sea level), to 2,000ft above the surface.

By flying 3,000ft above sea level, I’d be at least 800ft above their ATZ.   Well clear even allowing for minor pressure setting and other such errors etc.

On turning over Bourne, my plan would be to descend to 2,500ft.  The intent here being that I’m more familiar with flying this area at this altitude so my perspective of distances on the ground would be better and that might help my Nav.  there’s not a whole lot in the way of visual references on the second leg for the first 15 or so miles.

The obvious diversion point on the second leg would be Wisbeach, but the question was where would we divert to.

Booking Out & Taxi

It might sound bizzare, but one of my biggest fears was getting the paperwork on the ground right.   Almost every lesson this is filled in by an instructor and so I was just waiting for this lot to go wrong.  In the end it was all a non-event.  A lot like the worry about debating the weather:  On this day, the weather was unquestionably fit for flying.

Having filled out my booking out form and loaded it into the fax machine, it was time to see if G-SHWK had been topped up with fuel.

 Clear Prop!!!!

It’s not typically taught at this club, I’ve always assumed because it’s such a large aerodrome, but in the last few lessons instructors had suggested I shout it anyway on starting the engine.  For the sake of sounding a bit daft with absolutely nobody around, I shouted it out of the window regardless.

It started first time, things were going well and G-SHWK, easily my favorite plane to fly, was feeling right at home.

That was of course until I called up the Tower for permission to taxi.   Then it all took a turn for the worst, as Air Traffic came back and said they hadn’t got our booking details…….I don’t know how, but I guess the fax didn’t go through (thankfully the examiner had seen me do this so there could be no doubt I’d done all I could).   Had they got it, I’d made it very clear that this was a Skills Test (a hint to them in hope they’d be nice to me on returning to Cambridge where I’d want to do all sorts of strange circuits) – I guess fate had intervened on that plan.   I’d have to book out over the radio, something I’ve done very rarely.

I’d expected I might have to demonstrate a short field take off, but on this day in history, it wasn’t required so flaps up for take-off and I took care to talk the checklist out loud just to be sure there could be no questions.

Navigation : The First Leg to Bourne

On lining up with the runway, my last question has always been “Are you happy with everything?”   Today was no exception and perhaps while less valid then when with instructors, I find it’s still a relevant thing to ask…..last chance, in 2 minutes we’re going to be 1,000ft above the ground.

Full Throttle and the 172 began its charge down the mile of runway.

A little bit of crosswind as it lifted off, really nothing eventful, but I could hear my brain begin the chatter of “Now be good to me, I don’t need this….”  the nerves had been at zero but with every bump of turbulence were building.   A good time to run through the after take-off checklist then, get away from this mind game and back to my training:   Engine Temp & Pressure in the Green, Mixture Rich, Landing Light OFF.

Climbing out at a nice 80 knots, at 1,000ft I purposely lowered the nose in the climb – don’t want to get chalked up for a bad look-out in the climb.

If anything I flew further south then normal, I  wanted to be really sure that when I started the turn, it was at a reasonable height over Cambridge (as you’re not allowed to overfly it below 2,000ft).   Having been drilled on a practice skills test to lift the wings before turning, I made sure to correct that as well.

Now to begin a climbing turn up to my declared 3,000ft altitude for this leg and find Point Alpha (where the M11 meets the A14).

Skills Test Plog

Skills Test : PLOG

Notice even my Pilot Log for the trip had been marked up for G-HERC, that’s how last minute the change was…….the arrows are visual cues to remind me of radio calls, the rest is scribble from the flight 🙂

The Heading Indicator Problem: Again

I’d had a major issue with the heading indicator on my practice skills test, the knob hadn’t fully released so the gyro had a limping effect (the heading indicator still turned, just not accurately).   This had lead to being off course by ball park 30 degrees – a huge error in heading.   My plan to avoid a recurrence of this issue was three fold and thus fool proof – or so I thought:

  1. I’d take G-HERC, it’s heading indicator is automatically aligned.
  2. I’d make absolutely sure none of the knobs were stuck on pre-check.
  3. En-Route to Point Alpha I’d check it was aligned with the compass, so any issue wouldn’t come unstuck post setting heading.

Item 1 was blown out of the water when HERC decided to develop a fault, so we couldn’t fly it.   I’d set and re-set the heading indicator in SHWK on the ground and had been more than happy nothing was stuck or mis-aligned.   As for point three, well I just forgot, in the climb I hadn’t calmed down until the after take-off checks and in the climbing turn I found myself worrying “What if I don’t see Point Alpha today???”

The moment I’d turned onto heading for Bourne, I began a FREDA check (and thank god I did!).

  • Fuel  –  we’d took off with 53 US Gallons……the gauges said we still had the vast majority of it.
  • Radio – we’d switched to Cambridge Approach, we had a basic service from them.
  • Engine – Temps & Pressures in the Green.
  • Direction – We’ve turned on to the correct heading and the heading indicator is aligned with the compass……wait a minute, no it isn’t, it’s off by like 10 degrees!!

All of this was said out loud, including a spoken realisation that my heading indicator wasn’t aligned.   We’d flown maybe all of 0.5 a mile from Point Alpha, I’d caught it soon enough that all I needed to do was was reset it against the compass, correct my heading and then any minor course error I’d correct at my first reference check point.  Pheew!   That could have become a real mess.

  •  Altitude – I’d elected to fly this leg at 3,000ft, we were at 3,000ft on the dot and the QNH was set from the pressure provided by Cambridge Approach.

A nice heading and altitude hold for the next 20 or so minutes would see us arrive overhead Bourne.   All that lay in the way was to decide if I was going to radio Wyton, any drift corrections and of course talking to Wittering to get permission to penetrate their MATZ.

It’s pretty easy to see Wyton, it’s a big runway and so on this basis I was happy I wasn’t going to fly straight through their ATZ but at worst skirt the edge, I decided to not overload myself with radio calls and not call them.   Pilots and the books might argue this is bad airmanship, on any other day I’d agree, on this day I fell back on the golden rules of “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.”   Talking to Cambridge, then to Wyton (who maybe they were there, maybe they weren’t), only to have to switch to Wittering 5 minutes later at the time felt like it was tempting fate to cause things to go wrong, so I elected not to.

A slight course correction (0.5 mile) over Ramsey was required, I talked my actions through out loud so it was clear I wasn’t just wandering about the sky but intentionally repositioning over Ramsey.   One of the nice things about this place is that there’s a mast/single wind turbine on its northern edge, this makes it a very distinctive place – identifying the mast and familarising myself visually with Ramsey now, would pay dividends later in the trip.

Calling Wittering

Ahead of Peterborough it was time to call up Wittering and see about permission to fly through their MATZ.   As the stars would have it though, this wouldn’t be without its difficulty.

Firstly Wittering didn’t reply, then the reply that came wasn’t a military controller.   The best theory decided later was it was probably the glider site.

Wittering weren’t there, so we wouldn’t be getting a basic service off them.   Legally you’re allowed to fly though a MATZ so we could carry on.   The examiner asked what sort of service I could now expect to have?   I replied and alerting service…..would you really get this from a glider site?  Who knows, what I know is the books say if you’re in radio contact with any sort of ATSU, even ground/radio service, then you should expect to have an alerting service (basically if you disappear or report an emergency, they should alert the rescue services for you).

Coming up over Market Deeping, I called out the land marks I was using to visually identify it (the shape, the river, the road to its west and the time overhead – all those things agreeing meant it was highly unlikely to be anything else).   Time for another FREDA check…..we’d soon be over Bourne.

Overhead Bourne

Bourne Overhead

Bourne Overhead

Before setting off I’d done a bit of flight prep:   What does bourne look like from overhead?  (Google Earth is your friend).   This had told me it had an industrial area to the south, a very handy visual feature.

Announcing that I knew bourne had an industrial site to the south and could see the town we were about to be overhead had this feature, there was a road going south/north and the times were correct.   Thus this was bourne.

The examiner seemed happy and agreed on our location.   So I was instructed I could make my turn for the second leg as/when I was ready to do so.



Navigation : Second Leg to Downham Market (Maybe)

The EASA guidance paperwork says there’s going to be a diversion in the test, the examiner had said this was likely to come in the second leg.   So I had a good idea what was coming, I just didn’t know when.

My only concern on this leg was that I’m not the biggest fan of flying in this area, it’s a lot of nothing, fields as far as the eye can see.   So it’s easy to go off course and have little opportunity to correct it early, but it was in my Qualifying Cross Country flight, so I’ve been here before and it does come good, you just need to keep things calm and work with what you can see, not what you want to see.

I’d gone round in orbits on a practice finding Crowland airfield, so I knew where that was at least.

Approaching Wisbeach the diversion came.

The clouds are lowering to the east, you won’t be able to continue on this leg and you can’t go north as the clouds are lowering there too.   So I want you to plan what you’re going to do next, without significant heading or altitude deviation…..

The diversion I heard was “Oakington”, I drew this up on the map, planned by heading and off we went.   Announcing a heading of 185, turning over Wisbeach

We flew this for maybe 4-5 mintues, because another query from the examiner:

Can I see your map?

I thought I must have done something significant wrong, but what could it be, south was the way to go if you wanted to get to Oakington from here.   It would soon become clear.

“I’d actually said Alconbury….”

My map was my saving grace here I think, because I’d marked it up as a diversion to Oakington, my heading was correct to get me there and my ETA was right for there.  It was obvious I’d mishead the destination, I guess the “Alcon” sounded like “Oakin” in the noise.

Turning round and heading back to Wisbeach, we’d do that again only this time routing for “Alconbury”.

Navigation : Diversion

Many lessons ago, diversions were my curse, I’d find myself losing my location and then forcing the map to fit all sorts of desires on location.   Today had to be better.

We’d clip the end of the river Nene, a good land mark, so I marked the time overhead.   Should it all go wrong I knew when I was here and so how far away I could possibly be.

I was trying to talk through my thought processes so that the examiner could hear why I was doing everything I was doing.

Approaching Ramsey, the plan said I should be clipping its western edge, but its tell tale mast made it very apparent it was on my right hand side.   We were left of course, approx. 4-5 miles.

A runway came into view ahead of us, as Alconbury is disused and this wasn’t, it couldn’t be Alconbury, so it had to be Wyton.   Time to correct, at 2,500ft  we be borderline to fly over Wytons ATZ and if we did that we’d be overshooting the destination anyway.

Alconbury in sight

……..much thanks to the instructors who’ve taken me there in the past, I’ve never been so thankful to see rows of containers on the end of a runway.

Alconbury Airfield (Disused)

Alconbury Airfield (Disused)

Navigation Complete :   Time for the General Handling

An announcement declared the the navigation part of the exam over.

All in all at this stage I was feeling pretty good about how it was going:   We’d got to where we wanted to be, I wasn’t feeling utterly lost and we’d got here without me ever feeling a sense of panic or uncertainty about where am I?    You can’t ask for much more than that.

Of the tasks that remained, only the Practice Force Landing was a real worry.

Instrument Flight

Kicking it off, time to put on the Froggles to demonstrate I could fly a heading & altitude with sole reference to the instruments and perform a ‘Rate One’ turn.

Now I could fly all day with these things on – I’m not saying it’d be legal or wise to do so – just that I’m very at home with discarding all natural sensations about which way is up and flying on the instruments.  Always been quite happy with this idea and trusting that they’re not likely to lie (unlike the fluid in your ears).

All good and I don’t think there was any scope for dispute on this part, so we moved on.

Spiral Dive

I can be honest now, when I got told this would be on the list my immediate mental reaction was “Can I remember how to recover from one???”    Of course, you can, but there’s likely to be something that you just begin to doubt and ponder.

To tackle this problem, I decided waaaaay back during pre-flight, that when we got to this I’d I was going to talk out loud the recover procedure.   At least if it didn’t look brilliant, I’d be demonstrating I knew what to do 🙂

  • Throttle Closed
  • Opposite Rudder to the direction of the Spiral Dive
  • Unstall the Wings
  • Roll Wings Level

It seemed to do the trick, the plane recovered, not much height loss……we moved on.   Phew!

Steep Gliding Descent

Pardon me?   A  what?    2,500ft up was not the time to be hearing about maneuvers that for the life of me I didn’t recall being on the training course.

You can’t just turn around and go “What the heck is one of those then?”

So we’d have to generally make up a maneuver that was:  Safe, Gliding and Steep.

Safe:  an airspeed greater than something that’s going to stall, but slower than 100 knots sounds about right.  Gliding, easy enough, close the throttle and your gliding.  Steep, an angle of bank greater than 30 degrees usually ticks this box.

It would draw a comment back on the ground, but only because I did it at 80 knots and perhaps 70 was better, but the examiner said it ticked the box and the airspeed was safe etc.   Fair enough, as far as this part of the exam was concerned :  Job done.

Advanced (Steep) Turns

Back into my happy place, I can do these, lets just crack on…….once round to the left, keeping my eyes as outside as possible, occasional glances to make sure the altitude wasn’t going beyond +/-50ft and completing back on the altitude we started at.    Once round to right.

All good, we’ll move on then.


The examiner said he wanted to see a couple of different stalls, from memory:

  1. A fully developed stall, recovering on his instruction.
  2. A stall in the base configuration, recovering at the first sign of the stall.
  3. A stall in the landing configuration turning onto final.

I had a mental moment of “right you are, off we go then….” before the voices in my head kicked in:

HASELL : Checks!!!

DON’T STALL without doing this first, it’s very likely to be a fail and I’ve done that “do as your told and try and do it as soon as possible” thing before.   Not today.

No problems on any of these, I’ll never be sure if I was premature on the first sign of the stall turning on to final, but to rule out any doubt I said “buffeting” and recovered.   It might have been in my head, but the second I felt something non-smooth flying like, that was good enough time to recover for me.

No drama at all and it was on to the next task.

Practice Forced Landing

I’m sure most people worry about this one, many an article in magazines or on websites from examiners will say this is a pass/fail moment – with not much scope for anything in-between.   Convince them you’d land in the field =  Pass.   Else probably a fail  🙁

  • Will there be a good field?
  • Yeah but how good…..there are fields and then there are fields…..
  • Will I actually see it?
  • Which way is the wind coming from again?

All the usual worries going through my head, but you don’t know when they’re going to cut the engine.

When it happened I set the airspeed, 70 Knots, then it was a searching game…….find a field, try and fly with a tail wind (it’ll maximize the number of fields you can actually reach).   In the end I settled on what didn’t look ideal, but was the best I could find.

An ok entry into a circuit formation of the field, an ok field, still would have liked something longer and I wasn’t going to be able to fly it fully into wind.   Still, we’d make it, time to get in a few restart checks.  No joy, so throw in a practice mayday.

Hmmm, that field is looking a bit further away then I’d like.   Holding off taking the flaps, altitude 700ft and higher then I’d like, but if we take the flaps we’d not reach the field.   This could be better, but it could be a lot worse.   650ft, we’re still high but I’d give it 70% we’d make that field.    550ft, I’d give it 60% we’d make the field, it’d take the flaps now and might require a side slip but it’s not beyond reasonable doubt we could make it.

……not beyond reasonable doubt indeed, but we can’t go below 500ft, so the jury was out on this one.   Time to climb out of it.

Normally I don’t think you’d get another go at this, but on this day in history, there was sufficient doubt that it was arguable we’d have made it.   Maybe it was that reasonable doubt, maybe that plus perhaps the rest had been good enough to let me have a “convince me” chance……one last go to convince the examiner that the first was ok, and any other go would be better.

Cutting the engine, I was going to get it as near perfect this time round.

Sure enough, coming through to 500ft, it was now unquestionable :  We’d make that field, it would be a good landing.

Time to move on…….thank god for that, I couldn’t be sure we’d passed this, my only comfort was we were moving on and not returning to the airport – that had to mean something, right?

Precautionary Landing

Not quite what I’d have wished to move on to though.

Let’s just cut to the chase and say this could have been a bit better, instead of doing a 3rd approach at 50ft above the ‘virtual’ ground.   I decided I was burning a lot of the examiners time and declared it would be to land on the 2nd approach.

Ok and the field was ok, but I’d get comments about it on landing.

Radio Aid Position Fix

I’d been dreading this, so much so that I’d had trips up prior to the exam just to practice I could remember how to do this.

Maybe thirty minutes had passed, but it wasn’t rocket science to know we were in the ball park area of south of Alconbury, so this would help with a gross error.

Using the Barkway VOR/DME, I dialed in the frequencies on Nav #1 and the DME, then Identified both stations.   All good, now just to find what radial of the VOR I was flying on/from and read off the DME distance and we should have a fix.

330 degrees from Barkway, 15 nautical miles.

That would put us just a little south west of Bourn then, I could believe that.

So could the examiner, jobs a good one.

Intercepting the 115 radial proved to be a little more tricky, but we got there…….by the time we did, we were bizarrely south of Cambridge Airport.

Rejoins & Circuits

We were so south, that for the first time I can ever remember, it made sense to ask ATC if we could join downwind.    This is where I was wishing they’d have got my fax, if they had they’d have known I was on my skills test and might be favorable……now I’d just have to hope the tides of traffic were calm.

Thankfully all was well, we could head straight in and join on the downwind leg.

Three circuits and we’d be done:

  • Normal Circuit / Landing (Touch N Go)
  • Flapless Touch N Go
  • Precision Landing

The first the examiner said was aimed/intended to calm down on, sounds like the voice of experience.  After 2 hours in the air, it was a voice I was very much in tune with.   I was starting to feel somewhere between mentally fried and over-charged, with a touch of nerves now very much at the back of my mind.   Calming down was what I needed to do.

I can’t remember the exact winds, but it felt like a 10 knot crosswind component.   It would have been nice to have a calm, straight down the runway wind, but not today.

Feet clear of the brakes, Feet Clear of the brakes…….

The first landing wasn’t my best (it was far from my worst), it felt like a lot of mental effort to get it to come down aligned with the runway and I flared it a little to early, but it came down on the back wheels and didn’t bounce.   Flaps up and away we go….

Flapless Landing

I’ve always loved doing flapless landings, they’ve historically been my best.  Maybe it’s the extra speed and the change that brings to the attitude /  perspective, but whatever – very rarely do I get these wrong.

Sure enough it was pretty smooth and on the back wheels, I doubt I could have done it much better.

Flaps up……just one more to do now, this time it had to be down on the numbers.

Precision Landing

The goal is to touch down on the numbers and have it stopped by the Charlie exit from the runway.

On final approach I was doing everything to make sure we would land on the numbers, so much so that it needed a bit of throttle as we came over the displaced area of the runway.  Not as great as I’d have liked, but as we crossed the big “23” the wheels touched down.

I now had 1,500ft available to get it stopped in order to meet the criteria of a ‘precision landing’ :  Having it stopped by Charlie.   Unless I did something stupid with the brakes now, we were golden.

Aborted Take Off

The examiner called up the Tower and asked for permission to backtrack on the runway for an aborted take off.

I opened the throttle and had it fully open for a handful of seconds before I just about heard

T’s and P’s are in the Red

It took about half a second for my brain to click that he was declaring a simulated emergency…….close the throttle, get it stopped and as the speed comes down start applying the brakes.

The End Result:   PASSED.

Saving me a tense walk back, the examiner told me after shutting the plane down that I’d passed.

We could go through the details inside, but this was more than enough for me.

I’m going to be honest, with the examiner gone, I found myself sat in the plane having a bit of a ‘end of Memphis Belle moment’.   Nothing like the same, but I found myself looking at the controls of G-SHWK and being beyond thankful for the great flight it’d just given me.

G-SHWK : End of Skills Test

G-SHWK : End of Skills Test


A few points, surprisingly and pleasingly few actually.

  •  The PFL as I’d expected wasn’t brilliant, but it had been enough to be questionable and so I’d got another go.   Otherwise it could have been a fail, I was encouraged to keep doing them every flight, for if I ever need to pull this trick out of the bag, it will have to be perfect.
  • The Precautionary Landing should have had a 3rd circuit, 50ft above the virtual ground.
  • The Steep Gliding Descent, was safe, but the examiner would have preferred to have seen this done at 70 knots instead of 80.

If there was more I can’t remember them, I doubt anyone does it perfectly without comment and I’d take those comments happily and accept them all without question.

A lot of signature signing and large chunk of cash was all that remained.   For anyone who reads this thinking about learning or in the middle of learning to fly, the skills test is an expensive day in flying.  This day in history cost me a touch over £600……….but consider it this way, you’ll have put in about £10,000 to get here.

Smile, you’re almost legal to go flying on your own 🙂


Lesson 55: Solo Nav #2 (Framlingham / Snetterton)

Sunday, September 1st, 2013 | Permalink

Fly when the sun shines and it couldn’t have been a much nicer day to do Solo Nav #2.

The only complication really being that the wind was the “wrong way round”, in that this route required a departure from Six Mile Bottom (South East of the air field), but with a surface wind of 090 degrees, 7 knots:   Runway 05 was in use – thus a departure to the North – not exactly ideal!

Solo Nav #2: General Route

Solo Nav #2: General Route

The dilemma, take off to the north and then what?

  1. Turn right and fly south?  (Effectively flying in the circuit).
  2. Turn left, climb and then fly south (In theory departing via the overhead)

I was concerned about doing the former, if I did this at what altitude should it be flown?

  • Climb into the circuit height and depart from the end of the downwind leg?
  • Turn and climb above the “Normal” (GA) circuit height and then fly downwind?
  • Perhaps turn and fly out of the circuit rectangle and then fly south?

The latter sounds in theory the better choice,  turn and climb above the ATZ, point plane for Six Mile Bottom, what could go wrong?  You’re above the ATZ so limited risk of traffic problems & banging into something in the circuit.  This all sounds great, but I’d urge you to remember that at this point I had 50 hours total in the log book, departures on 05 I could probably count on one hand, with the other hand I could count the total times I’d headed to six mile bottom and combining those two things (or an “overhead departure” for anywhere for that matter):  Zero.
You might feel an urge to point me at PPL Book 3, Nav 76 (Departure Procedure), you’ll find limited words of wisdom there and actually vagueness and “it varies”.

So I formulated a plan in my head to go with the former and turn right on the climb out and then fly south in the circuit.   I was conscious this might upset ATC, I was hopeful that they knew this was a Student Solo Nav and would be forgiving if it was wrong and my rationale for doing it went like this:

  • If I fly the circuit, at worst I’m going with the flow of the traffic – I should be able to see them, they should see me.   Sounds like a good safe option.
  • Climbing above the circuit would be stupid, it might be a 1,000ft circuit for General Aviation – but Jets fly a 1,500ft circuit and helicopters a 600ft circuit.   I want to be well clear of both of them……if it turns out to be stupid, to any other GA fixed wing aircraft it should look fairly normal, at least to begin with.
  • Worst case it’d be hard for ATC Tower to not be visual with me so if it was stupid, at least I’d be doing it wrong in front of them, instead of behind and above them.
  • Stick with what you know – there’d be enough new things today without needing to complicate the event further by trying to find somewhere you’ve rarely found before in whole new interesting ways (getting lost 50 miles out is one thing, but it’d be simply embarrassing to get lost 5 miles from the airfield).

Clear for Take Off

Lined up Runway 05

Lined up Runway 05

Not a cloud in the sky, it never gets old to line up on a mile long runway with nothing but a blue sky calling out ahead of you.

The wind being 090, 7 knots.  We can do a very quick check of the crosswind by using the clock system.

Take the difference between the Runway direction and the wind direction (e.g. 90 – 50 = 40).  Now imagine a clock face, if the difference is 30, then your crosswind component is approx. half the wind speed, 45 it’s three quarters and anything approaching or exceeding 60 assume 100% of the wind, you’re essentially are at 90+ degrees to it and you’ve got the wrong runway today 🙂

So for example, today:

  • Wind from 90 Degrees – Runway direction of 50 Degrees = 40.
  • 40/60 =  0.666 or two thirds.
  • 7 knot wind speed =>  Two Thirds of that =  Approx 4.5 knots.

Do the math completely and it quickly tells us that our quick and crude method is pretty much on the money, coming out at 4.4 knots crosswind.  Our crude method is a little pessimistic, but that’s no bad thing and the error is very acceptable.

In a very quick calculation we know crosswind is well within student limits of 10 knots crosswind and the take off shouldn’t be too much of an issue – but at the same time it ain’t all straight down the runway.

Finding Six Mile Bottom :  Altimeters & Human Factors

Nobody started shouting down the radio so I think we got away with the departure, a quick call to state intent of departure to ATC seemed to keep everyone happy.

It shouldn’t have been a relief to find the railway that leads to six mile bottom, but it was.

Just beginning to settle down, I knew where I was, I was bugged up for the first heading and now talking to Cambridge Approach I’d just stopped the climb and beginning to level out when they called with an interesting query

What Altitude are you climbing to?

Without a second thought I started my reply “…remaining at………”   a glance again at the altimeter showed a classic human factors error.   The dial actually said 1,500 ft, not 2,500ft.   Ever wanted to know the benefits of the “Student” prefix, here’s proof.   ATC lending a little helping hand of verbal assistance perhaps 🙂

Nice easy flight to Framlingham

I find that a few minutes in the nerves fade away and you start to fly better and perhaps more as trained.

Stowmarket was nice and easy to find and Wattisham Approach were friendly enough and gave us MATZ penetration without any issues.

Framlingham being as far east as I’d ever have flown on my own, I’d done my homework before taking off.   A little bit of Google Earth goes a long way once you’re up in the air.   Ironically I totally missed the fact that Framlingham has a massive Castle to its north east, I never ever saw this at all.   What I knew it had, was a big ‘lake’ / pool of water to its north and I used this as the key reference to identify it as being Framlingham.

Diss and Snetterton

Wattisham were ahead of me and called up to ask where I was routing next, before handing me off to free call Lakenheath, another Military ATC.  Usually there and usually sounding very much like you’d imagine military air traffic controllers to sound.

Student Golf Hotel Echo Romeo Charlie Squark Zero Four Five Six, MATZ Penetration approved

Diss is easy to find, it has a great big railway and an even bigger industrial site around that railway so from the sky it stands out – it’s as if someone thought about this route and good places to send students on their first attempts at seriously spreading their wings 🙂

Sadly there was no racing on at Snetterton, so I didn’t get treated to any overhead views beyond that of the race track itself – maybe next time.

Snetterton Race Track

Snetterton Race Track

The final leg of the trip, Snetterton –> Cambridge emphasizes the need for precision heading holding relative to previous legs.

Snetterton -> Cambridge Airspace

Snetterton -> Cambridge Airspace

As you can see from the airspace chart, the plane has to be flown between Honnington ATZ and Lakenheath/Mildenhall CMATZ, with real vigilance required for avoiding flying into Mildenhalls ATZ

However the ATZ stops right on the A11, so as long as you keep that road on your right – you know you’re safely out of their air space.

Other than that, it was just a run in the sun.

Nav 2 Cockpit with Map

Nav 2 Cockpit with Map

Amazing visibility, not a plane in the sky and the navigation was all going beyond my best expectations.   For seemingly so few trips out with instructors (4 duel nav’s), it’s amazing to think how quick you pick all this up and begin to find your own way around.

All that was left to do was get the ATIS for Cambridge, hand over from Lakenheath to Cambridge Approach and rejoin the circuit.

Slightly easier said then done, on return to Cambridge there was a real chatter of people talking and replying on the frequency.   Few things are more frustrating then being 6 miles out with a pilot in the ATZ waffling on instead of keeping to the specifics of what they want/need.   It was no good, I elected to orbit to avoid entering the ATZ while waiting for the call back and forth and the “say again…”  to stop.

Runway 05:   To Land.

The runway in sight, we were home from our joy ride out over East Anglia.

As I was lining up on the runway another plane flown by a woman who’s radio calls put the other guys waffle to shame, was joining up behind me.

Landing Runway 05

Landing Runway 05

Lined up for the runway nicely, the wind being a fairly calm 30 degrees, 8 knots (So a mere 3 knot crosswind component, well within student limits, it doesn’t get much better).

A positive touch down, no bounce but I’d have liked to have done it with a touch less of a thud on the back wheels.

To get me out of the way of the plane behind me I was told to exit at “Mike”  (at an airport this big you never cease to be asked to do new things – but it’s good practice for the future).

Solo Navigation #2 :  DONE!

Had an awesome time, once out of the ATZ not a thing went wrong and I truly enjoyed this flight out.   The sun was shining, the views were great and ATC friendly as always.   It’s starting to come together and with a 90+ Mile solo flight out of the way, perhaps I’m beginning to get the hang of this flying 🙂

No turning back now, Qualifying Cross Country (QXC) on the horizon!!!!

Lesson 54: Crosswind Revision

Monday, August 5th, 2013 | Permalink

Penciled in for being Solo Nav #2, we had a go at it, but the wind was just giving me such a hard time I wasn’t convincing anyone to be allowed to go on my second solo nav.

Instead 4 circuits, none of them I was massively happy with.

So a short trip up in the plane, all of 35 minutes – relatively cheap, but not objective achieving.

On days like this you’re spending money, but you’re not actually moving forward as such in the course – a counter argument though is that you are adding to your experience levels.


Lesson 53: Solo Nav #1 (Spalding / Downham Market)

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013 | Permalink

Summer is here!  (Well it was when this was done)….. Time to go flying, I couldn’t have wished to hit the run of Solo Navigation at a better time than slap bang in the middle of July.

Mixed emotions ahead of the lesson, 90% of me was really looking forward to flying far away from the airfield on my own for the first time – the remaining 10% was nervous worry about the real possibility of getting lost.

That’s the thing I take away most from learning to fly, when you’re let free and go solo it forces you to make decisions.   So for example, once you’re up on your own, how are you going to get back into the circuit?  Well you’re going to have to talk to someone, you might not like it, you might worry about getting it wrong, but you’re going to have to……..and the more you do, the more confident/experienced you become and the happier you are about doing it.

Check Flight

The expensive part of learning to fly, you can’t go solo, ever, without a check flight with an instructor.   This is for all very good reasons – lets be realistic at this stage your average landing will be typically considered safe, a few times it might even be good 🙂   Yet on a day where the crosswind is approaching your limits, maybe you’re on it, maybe you’re not….

However, from a pure money perspective, it’s going to take you ~10 minutes to taxi/power checks etc., 10-15 minutes to get cleared to take off, climb into the circuit and do a lap of the airfield and 5 minutes to taxi back and drop off the instructor.   So for no ticks in any boxes it’s going to cost £80-100.

On this day in history though, it was going to cost a few quid more.   Getting a traffic service has been rather elusive for me, every time I ask, the radar isn’t on or there’s nobody home at the airfield we try….  So it was a missing box on my list of things to do.

The plan was, go up, quick exit out of the circuit into the local area.  Call up Cambridge, get a traffic service, come home and go off and do my solo nav.

Of course even the best made plans can be shot to hell, we climbed out of the circuit headed off to north Cambridge and then called up approach:

Sorry we’ve not turned the radar on yet….

Arrrrgh!   Come on, so now we’re just burning cash for fun and we’re not even ticking any boxes at all, lets get back in that circuit and get it down  🙂

The check flight was all good, my landing was ok, so all that was left was to pull up and drop off the instructor.   Quite rightly he had a list of things to ask had I got:   Map, happy with my frequencies, any final questions etc. etc.

Solo Navigation #1

A few nervy radio glitches before even getting into the air, in the excitement I forgot to get the ATIS again and just asked for a ‘further taxi’ clearance.   The Air Traffic at Cambridge are cool people though and were nice enough to feed me the airfield information.

Off to holding point Alpha for my power checks and other good stuff.

Then it was just a matter of holding while a Piper came into land, which I’ve gotta say they did a nice job of doing – made my landings look poor.

Clear to Take Off, Runway 23.

Turning Right Over Cambridge

Turning Right Over Cambridge

That’s it, throttle in and off we go, a few seconds later we’d be in the air climbing at 80 knots and there’s always a second or two where you just think “Hmmm, on my own now…..Hope I can fly this thing”.

A climbing turn out to the right over Cambridge and we were on our way to Point Alpha, from here we’d set our heading to aim essentially north for Spalding.   This stint of the trip would take us over Peterborough, but other than that there’s not masses of land marks.

Cambridge Radar

Of course it’s sods law that 20 minutes earlier the radar wasn’t on and I couldn’t have a traffic service.  Now on my first solo nav, the radar had been turned on and it was like the whole world was alive and flying over Cambridge talking to Cambridge Radar.

There just seemed to be a complete bombardment of radio traffic, the work load shot up as there was QNH changes, traffic information, requests for Squark codes to be set on the transponder.   All around the same time as I was aiming to set a heading north and fly it without deviation.

The airfield of Wyton is the last good landmark on the left for a while until you hit Peterborough.

Peterborough / Whittlesey

You can’t miss Peteborough, so no matter how good or bad the heading hold as long as you don’t have a gross error (i.e. you’re flying generally north), you’re going to always hit Peterbourgh and very little you could do badly is going to take you out of visual sight of it.

Thankfully almost to the minute the big city was in sight and it was clear I was a little, maybe a mile or two, off where I should have been.   Easily corrected now I had a good reference point for “horizontal” position (i.e. how east/west I should be over a given point).

Nobody was in town on Maraham’s frequency, so I was talking to London Information, but just past Peterbourgh is Wittering Military Airfield.

The more north I went the more I was starting to think “what if I can’t find Spalding?”, on this particular heading, other than the raw facts of dead reckoning dicatating at what time I should be over Spalding.  If I missed it, there would be almost no visual reference of any magnitude until maybe a set of wind farms just to the north – but if you miss those there’s one hell of a Military Aerodrome Traffic Zone (MATZ) beyond that point (Cranwell, Coningsby, Waddington, Scampton), you don’t really want to randomly fly into that!!

Where is Spalding then?

I’d hoped to have seen a wind farm on my left as a reference ahead of Spalding, but I couldn’t find it.  The only airfield in the area is Fenland and that’s hard to find even if you’re directly on top if it, from ~5+ miles out, forget it.   None of the roads were starting to line up with anything on the map.

It was like being on a World War 2 bombing run

Or at least I was beginning to form that image in my head:  Spalding was out there, the math said I should be over it any minute now, but where the heck is it???    Decisions soon needed to be made, keep flying north and hope it’s a head, or turn when the clock says to turn???

13:34 ……I spotted a town on the right, the flight plan said it had to be Spalding, I should be directly over it now and it was directly to my right, maybe 2 miles away.   Turn and go for it, or keep flying north??   Time to make a decision.

I tried to take a second to stop and think it through clearly:

  • The dead reckoning calculation couldn’t be more than +/- 90 seconds wrong, it never has been to date and I can do the math to show why over this sort of distance it would take one hell of a wind to stop this from being true.
  • In 90 seconds you can only fly ball park ~2.5 miles.
  • From 2,500ft you can see easily 5 miles on all sides.

So if there’s nothing ahead of us and a town to the right and the clock says we should be over Spalding, given the facts above, the town on the right was Spalding and we were off course to the left.

That was the theory, on the basis of that analysis my next decision was to turn right with a view to flying over it and then verifying that it really was Spalding.

Spalding has some useful features for verifying it:

  1. An industrial section to its north east.
  2. A River that goes South West to North East through it
  3. A Railway line with a station

Once over the town, I was pretty happy it was Spalding due to the industrial area but they teach never to make assumptions so I decided to do a complete orbit and to verify all three features and be completely sure.    If I got this way point wrong and headed south east randomly, things would only get worse quickly.

Three visual references confirmed, I was now very happy I had a visual fix of where I was and could now go about setting up to head east for Downham Market.

Flight Across the Nothing Landmark area

From Spalding to Downham Market, there’s a lot of, well NOTHING.

Go too far south there’s Wisbeach, go too far north and you’ll meet the coast.   All that being said though, I always find flying in this area like flying over endless fields of nothing – someone needs to build a wind farm!

The River Nene breaks up the journey, keep heading east and eventually you hit the River Great Ouse – which ~20 miles south becomes The Cam.

Downham Market!   Phew, what a relief to find that – actually this leg went much calmer than the moments of trying to work out where Spalding was, where that had begun to feel like I might be lost, this leg never felt uncertain as such, just a little bit out in the middle of nothing.

Railways, we like railways!!

There’s a railway line that runs North/South from Kings Lynn <–> London (via Cambridge), the route to Cambridge from here is almost a perfect south heading and if you follow it, it’ll take you directly to Cambridge City centre (and thus the airport).

So nothing could really go wrong on this leg.

Remember to call up Lakenheath to get permission to fly through their Military Aerodrome Traffic Zone (MATZ) – as always a friendly, but very serious sounding, service provided.   Would you expect or want to hear anything less from armed forces traffic controllers.

Cambridge in sight – Rejoin the Circuit & Land

Turning to Rejoin Cambridge Circuit

Turning to Rejoin Cambridge Circuit

When I started my training, I could never find Cambridge Airport – instructors would ask “Can you see the airfield yet?” – I’d always say “no”, in fact city or no city I would probably have doubted myself that it was even Cambridge.   That self doubt didn’t go away until around my first local area solo, by then I was beginning to be confident I could find the airfield – now it was quite easy to find.

It might have been cheaper and/or quicker to ask for a straight in approach, but to date I’d only really done crosswind rejoins (and very rarely a standard overhead join).   So calling up Cambridge Tower, I asked for a crosswind join – possibly because they knew I was a student, they gave it to me without offering anything quicker or fancy.   Let the student do, what he knows best – less chance of them making a hash of it etc.

The circuit was really quite nice and the visibility and weather in general today was just glorious anyway.   Almost a shame to be landing.

Landing Runway 23

Landing Runway 23

Still we’d been up an hour or so and plus the check flight, today wasn’t going to be the cheapest of the training – but a lot of fun 🙂

A nice landing and taxi back to parking…….90 miles worth of flying on my own, plane returned safely, job done.


Lesson 52: Land Away (Sywell)

Friday, July 26th, 2013 | Permalink

If at first you don’t succeed, try again – as soon as possible.  After deciding the day before, against a questionable flight which might have been scuppered by rain clouds thinking about coming north from Oxford.  Some cancellations allowed me to re-book for 2pm, very next day.

On the day of the lesson, the phone rang very early, I wasn’t even planned up for the wind forecast.   It was the aero club asking how soon could I be down there, as a trial lesson cancellation meant we could now go sooner, which would mean there’d be time for some lunch at the destination 🙂

Arrival :  Gusting wind.

G-HERC (Golf Hotel Echo Romeo Charlie)

G-HERC (Golf Hotel Echo Romeo Charlie)

Although all the other weather factors were looking good, the wind was gusting up to 20 and thinking about pushing 25 knots.   Thankfully for now most of this was straight down the runway, fine for getting out of Cambridge, but it might be a problem getting back in.

A quick phone call to Sywell, not before announcing which plane I wanted to all around, to get Prior Permission to land there revealed they had similar surface winds (270/19, gusting 30!!).   Cracking out the flight computer, the numbers looked very questionable to go, at best there was a 12 knot crosswind component, at worst it was 20 knots – outside of a students limits.  This didn’t seem to phase my instructor, worst case he’d land it and we’d still have flown the circuit at Sywell so that would tick the box.   Fair enough, but I’d quite like to land it.

The wind was causing all around me to decide otherwise and call it a day, but we were on.

With 35 knot winds @ 2,000ft, it might be slow getting there, but it would be a rocket ship getting back.

Chart: Cambridge to Sywell

Chart: Cambridge to Sywell

Climbing out

The wind was very strong and it seemed to take forever to get the plane up in the air – once there it was all over the place for the first 1,000ft.   Looking back, the runway was still behind us, so it’d been quite straight, amazing.

My flight plan started at point alpha, so it was a manual flight to there, with a turning climb to 2,500ft.

The heading required was 276 degrees magnetic, being a bit clever (for once) I managed to line it up so that we crossed the starting checkpoint on 276 degrees.  This meant there was nothing more to do then start the clock – the more you can reduce the work load, the better.

Switching radio frequencies to Cambridge Approach, there technically wasn’t much more to do then count down the 8.5 minutes to Grafham water.   Of course this is never the case, there are gross error checks, FREDA checks, thinking about what radio frequencies you’re going to need next and generally keeping an eye on if you’re flying where you expected to be flying.

Grafham Water, Wind farms & Airfields

There’s a lot to be said for wind farms, the person who invented them was probably a pilot because they are excellent features to navigate by.   Though nothing quite beats a massive pool of water, massive pools of water are rare things, so when you can see one, the odds are you can positively fix where you are in the world.

A quick scan of the map and a look out of the window suggested we were passing an airfield to the left, it was the closest to us.  So that would make it Little Staughton (or at least it should be), but who knows how big that might be, looking out to the south west was another airfield only this one looked much bigger having crosswind runways.   Now the picture was coming together in my head, to the left is Little Staughton and the other one is Bedford.  It all made sense in my mind, but when quized by my instructor I found myself doubting my own logic – if I was correct, why would he be asking me? etc.

I was correct, time to mark down the actual time of arrival.   The nav. log I’d done was actually holding up, plus about 30-45 seconds.  Good stuff.   What I must remember to do at these checkpoints is automatically do a FREDA and think about the Time, Talk, Task sequence – otherwise it all gets a bit casual.

With Grafham on our right and Bedford Airfield on the left, things were looking good – but that is more than could be said for the weather!

Ahead was a big rain cloud, we might be diverting around it for real if it didn’t move south sharpish.  Meanwhile the cloud base was coming down, forcing the flight down from 2,500ft to more like 2,300ft AMSL.

Given the conditions my altitude holding wasn’t too bad, but when it drifted it was taking to long to spot and I suspect the additional loading of worrying about finding the airport, checking and rechecking the map and log, may have resulted in the altitude not being in my scan quite as often as it should have been.

I’d marked on my nav log to contact Sywell around the east edge of Rushden (~6 miles outside of their ATZ).

Aerodrome Traffic Zones & Different elevations of Terrain.

The flight was coming down in altititude and on a typical cruise, you cruise along with the altimeter (posh name for a calibrated barometer in this case) set on QNH, this means the number on the dial is telling you your altitude with respect to the pressure at sea level.   If the pressure was to drop and you didn’t reset it you’d fall victim to the saying “High to Low, Down you Go.”

However, the other catch with flying along using an altitude above sea level is that where an aerodrome has an Aerodrome Traffic Zone (ATZ) around it, airspace you cannot enter.  The dimensions of an ATZ are surface to 2,000ft above the surface.   If the elevation of the ground ahead of you is higher, then you can be in danger of flying straight into the ATZ.

A picture speaks a thousands words, so a quick picture of what I mean:

QNH / QFE: ATZ Airspace

QNH / QFE: ATZ Airspace

You should be able to see the problem for someone cruising along and thinking they’re going to fly over ATZ by a couple hundred feet or so.   However, I was going to this ATZ with an intent to land in it, what’s the problem?

My problem was that the circuit is flown at 1,000ft above ground level, instead of being about to overfly the airfield at ~2,000ft above the ground, I was actually about to lose a ‘virtual’ 500ft of height.   Once I turned the dial on the altimeter from QNH to QFE it would drop to ~1,5000ft.   Remember the circuit is flown at 1,000ft, so all it takes is another student to be having their first solo or be wondering a few hundred feet above the circuit height for similar daft reasons and we no longer have much vertical separation.

Sure I know all this and outside of the airplane I can do the theory, but on the day, it hadn’t dawned on me at all to think I was going to loose ~500ft due to the difference in elevations from where I took off to where I wanted to land……..but you do learn quickly from your mistakes 🙂

The Rain Strikes

We’d just about got away with it when the heavens opened up on us, all of  about 3 miles to the ATZ, visibility was bordering zero – but by this I mean you could see you were above the ground, but where the heck was the airfield that was just minutes away???

I then said the stupidest thing ever:

Do you want me to descend out of this rain?

Hmmm, think about it…

But it was a short burst and then behold, a set of runways that look a lot like Sywell’s entry in the flight guide 🙂

Which runway?

Sywell Airfield from South

Sywell Airfield from South

I include that picture both to brighten up the post, but also because if you click it, have a look at the runways on the far side.

“Runway 23 in use, Left Hand Circuit”

Upon hearing that and glancing down to the left, my comment to the instructor was “I guess we’re landing on the grass then….”

Which was met with something along the lines of “Why, there’s a left and right, we’ll land on the concrete one on the right.”

I found myself looking at the numbers on the runway for the concrete runway, they clearly say “21”, how could 23 Right be marked “21”?????   We’d find out.

Descending deadside and flying the the circuit and announcing our position downwind to land, we were told to announce when we were on final.   Turning off base and onto final approach the reported gusting winds didn’t seem all that bad, so I called final.

It was met with:   “…….you’re lined up for runway 21 Right, active runway is 23.   You can land on 21 if you want or go around.”

And there’s your answer:  You can’t have a runway 23 marked as runway 21 (or at least not without some seriously big & quick shifting of the magnetic north pole).   What had happened is essentially my instructor had heard what he’d expected to hear, runway 21, which is what they’d said was the active when I’d phoned for prior permission.   Followed by my own inaction to challenge the answer that we wouldn’t need to land on the grass – arguably because that fitted with my subconscious desire to preference towards a concrete runway.   Human Factors is a interesting topic (and I’ve passed the exam!).

The crosswind would be better/less on 23, so time to go around.

Lots to be thinking about now, so much so that I forgot to raise the flaps and climbed away with them fully extended – I was down wind before noticing.   Downwind checks done and a radio call to let them know where we were, all that was left to do was land the thing on the grass.

Always check your runway lengths, before taking off I knew only that 21 was long enough for us.  To be entirely honest at this point in time I actually had no idea if 23 was actually long enough for a Cessna 172.   Hmmm, there’s a valuable lesson to learned here beyond what box to tick on the theory!  🙁

With that in mind, I was pretty focused on touching down early and that came at the price of it being flat (it’s a developed habit).   Still, considering the PPR call had said it might be gusting 30 knots, this was all nice enough.

Spot of Lunch and then Home

The airfield was very quiet due to the wind, anyone who’d been planning to come to Sywell today had bailed on the idea.   So except for a small jet, we were the only plane in town today.   Thanks to the trial lesson cancellation we had time to grab a coffee and some lunch.   The trip here and the return flight home would cost £200, so lunch was in the noise and I paid for my instructor as thanks for his patience with my flying  🙂

Sywell Airfield:  G-HERC Parked up.

Sywell Airfield: G-HERC Parked up.

The GPS never lies…..

My instructor had been recording the flight on his GPS/Skydemon setup the entire way, now it was time to go over the verdict of how the flight was getting here.

I’ll save you the detail, but essentially it was pretty spot on the track I’d intended to follow, altitude holding was about there.  The general comment just being to watch it a bit more often in the scan so I didn’t let it drift for so long.

Over lunch my instructor accepted the runway mix-up was his fault & I accepted I should have challenged him harder on it.   It was fine and you learn more from the experiences of when things don’t go smooth, so just another good experience really.

Time to fly home

Walking out to the plane my instructor remembered something, I’m so used to flying at Cambridge which has a tower that provides an Air Traffic Control service.   That when I came into land, I automatically replied to a radio call on final with “Cleared to Land”.   At Sywell, this is wrong, they provide an Air Traffic Information Service.   An information service cannot give clearances to do anything, they can only give you information and the decision & responsibility for action remains squarely with the pilot in command.    I knew this was the case, it just hadn’t gone through my head on final.

Now however, it was time to start it up, get airfield taxi & information.

Then it was just a matter of reaching behind the seat for a map of where the holding points were and we were off to line up for Runway 23.

Is this runway long enough to get airborne?

Arrrgh, it may have read like I thought about that question when we were coming into land, but this is the moment when I realised I’d never actually looked at 23’s runway lengths in my prep.   We’d been joking about what my day job involves and the shear amount of testing that goes into the products that are the net result of years of effort, so it seemed only fitting to reply

There’s only one way to be sure a runway is long enough……and that is to test it.

I totally accept that this is in the book of words and is what has been done to certify a Cessna 172, I doubt very much he’d have let me line up here if it wasn’t, but valuable lesson learn’t.   You can see why if you prep for the best case scenario and then get sent off to a unexpected runway, you might at this point take a “well we’re here now, might as well press on” approach, which if it wasn’t a well known airfield etc. you could see how this next bit could end in tears!

Thankfully the gods of lift chose to let us get airborne 🙂

Nearly taking the ‘long way round’ to get to my starting point for the nav. home I corrected it and then it was largely a matter of flying the same trip back home.   On the plus side the visibility had improved.

Out of my Limits

On return to Cambridge I was allowed to fly the approach (we got a slightly random Right Base join), my instructor said I could keep flying it and he would decide who would land it when they read out the surface winds.

On final as the tower called out the surface wind,  it was well out of my limits, I didn’t need them to tell me actually, the entire approach the plane had needed to be nearly 50-60 degrees to the right just to keep flying straight towards the runway.

The instructor took over a few hundred feet from the runway and I’m sure he did a very good job in difficult wind but we slammed into the runway.   If that was his landing, god help what mine would have looked like!!

All switched off and back in the aero club there was talk of someone having an incident on the runway, so I guess others had found the crosswinds tricky to.

Another (Non-EGSC) airfield in the log book, yay!    The debrief was generally all good, a few reminders of bits and pieces to watch, but no show stoppers, all happy with my nav. etc.  Good times.

Next Lesson:   Weather permitting etc.  Solo Nav #1


Lesson 51: First Land Away (Connington)

Thursday, July 18th, 2013 | Permalink

This was a trip out to the clubs standard ‘first land away’ location:  Peterborough Connington

There’s not much time on land aways, so the aim is to get there early – perhaps when they say early, they mean more than 10 minutes to spare :-\    The world was against me this morning, so best laid plans to be there with a clear 30 minutes of margin got shot to bits…….still my flight log had it as ~24 miles of nav.  How much free time do you really need??   Apparently, lots!

Things to do:

  1. Check my flight planning
  2. Go through the briefing for landing away
  3. Phone Peterborough Connington and get Prior Permission.
  4. Reminder on Additional Documents required to be carried for Land Aways
  5. Check the Plane

Why did you Plan that Route?

Cambridge to Connington General Route

Cambridge to Connington General Route

I’ve marked up the general route I had planned to fly on the right, it’s not rocket science to notice that my plan of attack was to fly along the A14 and then turn right and follow the A1.  Straightforward enough.

Of course you can fly Cambridge to Peterborough Connington direct.  This way is about 2 nautical miles shorter, but you’ll have to fly over RAF Wyton’s ATZ, the route will take you within 2 miles of Upwood Glider site who are capable of launching to 2,100ft and your approach direction is not ideal for a standard overhead join, given the airfields main runway is on 100 degrees magnetic.   So all things considered I’d decided those 2 miles of distance weren’t worth the hassle and had planned it up for a route that would be near impossible to get lost.

 Speeding up the Checklist

With prior permission obtained and the report from the airfield that the weather was all good there.  Nothing left to do but grab the bag with the POH and other documents in and get going.

My instructor raced through the startup procedure to save time – this is a gift and a curse, as it does leave you trying to remember what’s been done and what hasn’t as it’s now all out of sequence.

The climb out was good, now just a matter of getting to point alpha and starting the clock.

Turning over Huntingdon

My map suggested that the first big roundabout we got to, we needed to turn right and head north.   The clock seemed to tie up with a roundabout that looked correct, so I turned north.

Fairly quickly I started to piece together that I’d turned too soon, the big give away was the fact we had the dissused airfield of Alconbury on our left.  The flight plan said it should be on our right.  We also should now be tracking parallel with the A1 but it was a good few miles out  to the left, clearly I’d turned on the wrong roundabout.

Not a massive problem though, Alconbury is dissused and there was no reason we couldn’t correct the track onto the A1.

With that out of the way, time to call Cambridge Approach and switch over to Peterborough Connington Radio.   They knew we were coming, so they sounded quite expectant and welcoming to hear our call sign.

Peterbourgh Connington: In Sight

The map said we were near and my instructor had said “Let me know when you can see the airfield”, so I knew it was out there.  A few seconds later, the fairly unique sign long straight strip of concrete of an airfield appeared, that would be Connington then 🙂

Their radio operator informed us they were on active runway 10, left hand circuit.

Few things to think about given this information:  Firstly it means the circuit is flown with only left hand turns, for a runway on 100 degrees magnetic, this tells you that the “active” side of the runway is on the far (north) side of the runway.   So we’d need to overfly the airfield at 2,000ft above ground level, turn back on ourselves, overfly at 2,000ft again and then descend on the dead side (south of the runway), before joining the circuit at 1,000ft above ground level and performing the series of left hand turns required prior to landing.

It’s a fairly busy little airfield and today was no exception with a good few planes in the circuit or about to join behind us.   The other minor complication being that they have noise abatement here, so you have to try and avoid directly overflying the village to the north (I like hearing & looking up at planes, but I can appreciate that not everyone does…..especially if it’s all day long).

Generally speaking I was quite happy with my circuit considering I’d never flown a circuit in my life away from the hugeness of Cambridge.

You call that a Runway!?!?!

Ok, I totally accept that for most people learning to fly, Connington is possibly as good as or better than their airfield.  It’s got a concrete runway for starters courtesy of when it was built in the 1940’s by the 809th US Army Engineers.

That being said, the main runway is 23m wide, now remember that I’ve flown more circuits than I can remember, but every one of them has been flown at Cambridge and good old EGSC’s runway is 46m wide, I’ve never tried landing using only one side of the runway before! 🙂

All that being said, the landing was quite nice, a touch flatter than I’d have liked but all in all gentle enough – before being bumped about by the less than smooth runway (I now appreciate how high my standards are for runways!).

Just a matter of taxing down to the far end and parking up amongst the million (well ok 10 or so), other aircraft – it felt like a million, there wasn’t a lot of maneuvering space.

G-HERC Parked up at Peterborough Connington

G-HERC Parked up at Peterborough Connington

Welcome to the next problem that I’ve never experienced before, the apron was packed with planes, so it was a case of carefully squeezing past them and being very careful to keep an eye on where walking humans were.  Hi-Viz appeared to be optional.

Very little time to enjoy the sights though, it had been a rush to get out here, now there was just time to have a stroll around the outside, a quick look inside only to find a bar and club atmosphere that would arguably make even Cambridge jealous.   Still there was no time to soak any of that up, time to pay our £10 landing fee for the privilege of stopping  (and to be fair the services of a very helpful ground to air radio operate, much thanks!).   Then it was a case of a dash for the plane and lets get out of here.

Peterborough Connington Club Entrance

Peterborough Connington Club Entrance

Without the mass procedure of a big airfield, starting up again was more like a simple matter of checking the oil & fuel, jumping in and starting the engine. Taxing out wasn’t far behind in its simplicity: No requests for clearance here, just a statement of fact that we were. Of course as the radio service here is essentially just that, they cannot clear you to taxi as they’re not a control service. After over a year of asking for permission, it’s weird & feels almost wrong not to.

However, with no taxiway to the far end of the runway, it was a very long back-track down the runway before turning it around ready for a take-off.

Final checks done and a right hand turn out discussed, it was full power and off we charged down the runway. You could feel the difference a smooth surface gives for speed relative to this pot holes run.

Turning right my navigation, which would now be complicated if I’d plotted a direct route, couldn’t be simplier: Turning climb out to point at the A1, then when you hit the A1 turn left and follow it all the way to Huntingdon. From which you can set a course for Cambridge and start the clock.

A few words of thanks to the radio operator as we departed their ATZ and pretty soon it was a matter of switching over to Cambridge Approach.

Messing up the Landing
Back at Cambridge the runway in use was 05 (right hand), that would make rejoining complicated. Coming in from the West, if we had to do a standard overhead join, it would mean flying over the 23 numbers @ 2000ft, turning around, flying back over the 05 numbers, descending dead side and then doing a full circuit. That takes time and money to do… I thought I’d try my luck by asking for a pretty non-standard “Left Base Join”.

Essentially a left base join is asking to come in from the wrong side of the circuit and turn left (when all other traffic would be doing right turns), straight into the base leg and on to final approach. To have any hope there’d have to be basically nothing in the circuit.

As is so often the case Cambridge ATC were awesome and entertained my request.

I’d go and let them down a little by turning a nice enough approach into a bounce on the nose wheel! Hmm the last 75ft went wrong there, in hindsight I could have gone around but in the second(s) where I was beginning to think about doing that the ground was already with me. Damn…..had to mess it up on the nice big runway didn’t I, this is what you get for focusing on landing as soon as you can, rather than as nice as you can.

Still, back in once piece and finally something other than EGSC in the log book.

Lesson 48: Low Level Navigation & Box Ticking

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013 | Permalink

For a variety of reasons my training log had a selection of gaps in it, things that had been done but not signed off, or we’d gone up to try and do but couldn’t for one reason or another.   So this lesson was aimed at cleaning up the list of things to do.

Flying with yet another new instructor, that makes it about 10 instructors I’ve flown with to date on the course of this learning to fly adventure.


Things we wanted to get done today:

  • Base Leg Circuit Join
  • Traffic Service from an ATSU
  • Aerodrome Traffic Zone (ATZ) Transit.
  • Diversion Procedure
  • Low Level Navigation
  • Revision of Unsure of Position / Lost Procedures

There was no fixed route for today, but I was asked if I could get the instructor to RAF Wyton.   Figured if it’s on the map and we had enough fuel, there was no real reason I couldn’t get there, so we’d have a go 🙂

Plane Checkout

G-HERC (Golf Hotel Echo Romeo Charlie)

G-HERC (Golf Hotel Echo Romeo Charlie)

We’d take G-HERC, for those not wanting to read back through the blog this plane looks, feels and flys like it’s quite shiny and new and someone has taken good care of it.   It’s also the plane I flew my first ever solo in so I’ve no real objections with it.

And as expected it was looking like it always looks…….happy to go flying.

No major issues so it was just a case of cracking on and getting taxi clearances and such like.

Up, Up and Away…..Traffic Service Please

Once above 600ft and starting a climbing turn we switched to Cambridge Approach and as they are a full up Air Traffic Control Service, asked them if we could get a “Traffic Service” – in essence we’re saying we’d like them to tell us all about the traffic around us.   This doesn’t remove the emphasis on us to be looking out of the window, we’re flying visual rules after all.   It does however mean we get a reasonable chance to know about things that we can’t or haven’t yet seen.

Unfortunately it was just past 9:30am and the call back was “Sorry we’ve only just turned the Radar on, can only provide basic service.”

That’d have to do and I guess we won’t be getting our traffic service today 🙁

Out to RAF Wyton

Plan of attack was to climb out from runway 23 and turn right, heading towards RAF Wyton which is North West of the airfield.   Once you get your bearings of the world and roads etc. it’s not actually anything like as hard to find as I was thinking it might be.

Of course the reason for flying to RAF Wyton was because they have an Aerodrome Traffic Zone (ATZ) and the idea was to call them up and see if we could get permission to descend and fly through their ATZ.   An ATZ is controlled airspace from the surface up to 2,000ft and you cannot fly through it without permission, you can fly over it, but through it requires a request for a “Zone Transmit” and being granted permission.

Having got cleared to switch over to their frequency and calling them up with our call sign, I was met with radio silence 🙁     We tried again, but clearly nobody was home today, damn.

This meant we’d have to knock on someone elses door to tick the “Zone Transmit” box of my training sheet – if only there was an airfield nearby, one that had an ATZ and an air traffic controller known to be about….   Hang on, didn’t we just leave such an airfield?  🙂

Diversion Practice

Time to pretend that a town was actually a big rain cloud and divert around it.   Not a whole lot more to this than to point the plane 45 degrees to the right, time a journey of about a minute, then turn 45 degrees left, fly for a bit until past the problem and then turn 45 degrees left and fly the same minute back on to the original track.

To be honest it was good practice but you can’t go far wrong when you can see your destination at all times – towns make rubbish rain cloud simulators 🙂

Low Level Navigation

To mix it up, we descended to around 800ft above ground level, this is just above the legal low flying limits over non-built up areas and as you quickly learn, is pretty low.   It’s 200ft below what you’d fly in the circuit if you were coming in to land….and if the engine cuts out you’ll have at best, 2 minutes to decide what you’re going to do next before hitting the ground!

However, we were down at this height in order to practice some properly low navigation, the world is very close at this height and even the smallest hamlet and local back road are visible (and wizzing past at ~115 mph).

The objective was to pretend every block of houses or built up area was in fact an impassable cloud to be navigated around.

A lot of fun!!  –  A lot to think about, as altitude holding becomes quite key at this height for this duration, but a lot of fun.

Having ducked left of Bourn airfield, we carried on a few more miles and then it was time to climb and go and find our ATZ.

Zone Transit and getting “Lost”

They might not have turned their radar on yet, but Cambridge were at least happy to entertain us for letting us fly straight through their ATZ at 1,500ft (under strict orders to not deviate altitude).

With the blessing of air traffic control, a zone transit is just a matter of flying a straight line and reporting position if/as required.   Cambridge is a busy airport and you get every sort of traffic you can possibly imagine (Spitfires and Red Arrows, to C-130 and 757’s), but being busy and having this sort of traffic also means it’s very procedural – unlike smaller airfields supported by a ground to air radio service for example.

Having reported overhead of the aerodrome and continued on our way out to the east, it was time to get a bit of practice in on the Uncertain of Position & Lost Procedures.

Just because you’re unsure of where you are, doesn’t make you lost.

We knew were we were recently (flying over a fairly big airport), that wasn’t so long ago, so:

  • Keep flying in the same direction
  • Note the time now
  • When we last knew positively where we were.
  • Check the heading against the log – have we wondered off course or are we still flying the intended heading?
  • Is the Heading Indicator aligned with the compass?
  • Have a look outside, anything to give us a clue (a railway line, a wind farm etc.)
  • Is the radio serviceable?
  • Are we good for fuel?

We should now have set-up some options and know some limits (we shouldn’t be dangerously low on fuel and not in the ball park of an intended airfield, but you need to know because it’s going to dictate how much time you have to sort things out).  If we know when we absolutely had confidence in our position and we know the time and heading we’ve flown since, we can begin to piece together a circle of uncertainty.   At ~100 miles an hour you can cross the country at its widest point in around 3 hours, so you don’t want to go to long without having confirmed your position, but equally it’s worth noting that with a couple of hours of fuel, you can cover quite a distance to recover the situation.

Of course if the radio is working then through the wonders of VHF Direction Finding (VDF), as long as we know ball park where we are, there’s a fighting chance of getting a QDM (Magnetic Track to a station) and be good to go within a few minutes.

Should all of our options and best attempts come to nothing, we always have the emergency frequency of 121.5Mhz.   It’s not going to be great to have to announce a PAN on this frequency, but if you’re truly lost, it’s better to confess then to press on and run out of fuel or something equally silly for the sake of trying to save some pride.   At the end of the day people are going to think you’re more of an idiot if the AAIB report that you had plenty of fuel, a working radio, but pressed on without seeking help until you didn’t have either….

Walking my instructor through the procedure, establishing when we knew where we were and how long we’ve been flying to be honest it was good practice but when you know where you are because of local knowledge it’s very easy to piece it all together and sound like you know what you’re doing.

Time to head back then and get another tick box ticked off if ATC would play fair.

Base Leg Join

A standard overhead join has you coming in crossing the aerodrome at 2,000ft, descending turning over the deadside of the airfield to circuit height and then slotting in around crosswind end of the runway.  It’s not actually the simplest thing to do, but more importantly, it’s quite slow and if you’re approaching the airfield from the non-standard overhead join direction things get even more complicated as you have to fly overhead, then turn back, then descend deadside…..

Standard Overhead Join

Standard Overhead Join – CAA

As you can see in the diagram, if you join on the base leg, it cuts a whole heap of that out – as the base leg is the last leg before turning for final approach.

If you can get ATC permission to do it, then it has the potential to save you time and money.  However, it comes at the price of removing all that time you’d normally have in the circuit for getting your act together and running through the checklists.   Now you need to be thinking about things much sooner.

Air Traffic entertained our request, but with one catch:

Golf Romeo Charlie – Can you Accept 23 Grass?

I’ve landed on the grass enough times to not worry about it, but as this was my first time up with this instructor there was a quick glance and a  “I’ve done it before”  and then I was good to reply back and confirm the grass would be fine.

It was coming down quite nice, I was just thinking it was going to be flat when with the most gentle of taps (if even that), we were down.   A little fast, but unbelievably flush – in fact I couldn’t have put the wheels down more gently on the main runway!   Easily my most gentle of touch downs to date.

Next lesson:  Navigation Aids.    That Nav. Exam is starting to be a pretty urgent issue, I should start revising! 🙂

Lesson 47: Navigation #4 (Leighton Buzzard / Willingborough)

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013 | Permalink

Blue sky is hard to resist, not a cloud to be seen, not the faintest movement of the trees.   Yet twenty four hours earlier I was beginning to die of a cold, the whole lesson was looking doubtful – a real push at work may have just been about to take its toll.  Now it was a push to get well again, rapidly, with a bombardment of hot drinks and ibuprofen.

Nav. 4 General Route

Nav. 4 General Route

The morning of the lesson, looking out at those blue skies I figured I was mentally about 80%, sure I could fly the plane but I knew I was unlikely to be on top form should I get an exam barrage of questions etc.

Twenty minutes of waiting around at the aero club for my instructor and stupidly joking with other instructors that my flight planning was done – at least until it was proven to be total nonsense, didn’t help.   Right out of the blocks this lesson took its first hit, sure my plan was about right, except I’d misread the wind and instead of planning for 130/05 knots, I’d planned for 230/05 knots 🙁    For this trip, thankfully with the low winds on my side, that error would only mean being off by 3-4 degrees and ETA’s being wrong by 1-2 minutes, which could be sorted as of the first way point, so we’d go with it without a re-plan.

Had I checked the NOTAM’s?  ……..well I thought I had, but more on that later, suffice to say my mental performance was winning no prizes today and we weren’t even off the ground yet.

We’d be taking the plane that hates me:  G-UFCB

Engine Start……or not.

G-UFCB Cessna 172SP

G-UFCB : Cessna 172SP

Now people think I’m joking, but Charlie Bravo, we’ve had our happy moments together, but this plane hates me.   Today would be no exception, I thought it was just the continuation of my pain when with the oil temps in the green, turning the key to fire the engine it spluttered and stopped.   Trying again, it spluttered and stopped.   Ok let’s try priming the engine, nothing but a “I don’t think so” noise from the engine as each time it turned and then gave up in a very “I’m not happy” way.

Ready to take the psychological hit of my instructor leaning over to have a go, expecting it to burst into life first time, I was actually quite releaved to have Charlie Bravo continue to resist the requests to fire up.   A few more goes, this lesson could be going nowhere!

Switching it off, my instructor decided we’d let it rest for a few minutes and then give it one more go.  After about 3 minutes of sitting around, with one last turn of the key, it fired!!!

It was life, not sounding quite as we know it, but life – we’d have to see how it went with its power checks, this could still be a non-starter yet.

The tower gave me clearance to taxi to alpha, I don’t know why but it feels a while since I’ve taken off from runway 23.   Cue the next error of the day:  I might have got my directions of the wind sock mumbled and parked up for the power check ‘away from wind’, rather than into it.   Ohhh kill me now 🙁

On testing the first magneto Charlie Bravo sounded very sick, my first reaction was it was about to cut out and die, but it picked up.   My instructor had similar concerns and we tested the magnetos a lot over the next minute or so to make sure it had been a one off.   We were still on though, just.

Up, Up and away…….waaaay to the left.

Considering there was no wind my take off was rubbish, as this was the first trip out where I wouldn’t be flying to a designated start point first, mentally my head was worrying from about 50ft when to get the map out, what heading to fly and how soon to set it etc.    This worrying sent the plane on a wondering mission out to the left, rather then being a straight climb out.

If nothing else this should emphasize the need for good planning.

Eventually got it together as we crossed the M11.

Watch out for that Plane!

Having switched from Cambridge Approach to Farnborough North (132.8), everything was actually feeling like it was coming together.  Heading was good, Henlow was where Henlow was supposed to be 🙂

Then with a handful of seconds warning my instructor said “Plane!” (or something similar), 1 O’Clock level and maybe 400ft away was a Piper Warrior and closing on us rapidly.   So rapidly that the instructor declared he had control and we took evasive action – which is more than can be said for the other guy, if he saw us, then there’s at least two people in this world that probably don’t believe it.

 ….and that glider (in fact all of those gliders)

The blue sky and great flying weather had brought out all the gliders (and everything else).

Now the more I learn about flying the more I get where powered pilots are coming from when they complain about gliders and being suicidal.   I don’t know enough about gliding to know how avoidable it is, but from what I’ve seen these guys almost do seem to take their knowledge of wearing a parachute too far – they’ll just keep coming at you.

The other catch with gliders is you can’t see the things, until they turn.

Still with a pretty intense  look out after that near miss with the plane we were largely on top of the gliders.

No NOTAM’s – Except that one.

Wing Airfield (Disused)

Wing Airfield (Disused)

The disused airfield of Wing just west of Leighton Buzzard isn’t the easiest in the world to spot but you can find it (spotting disused airfields is something I think you “get used to” with experience of their general shape etc.).

As you can see in the picture on the right, people have a tendency to like old runways because they make good foundations.  So instead of finding some abandoned looking airfield, what you actually get is a weird looking row of buildings in a ‘odd’ looking “If I was building an airfield, I’d put the runways in that shape” pattern.

Still, we found it alright, now to turn north and make our way over Milton Keynes and up to Wellingborough.

Other than crossing Milton Keynes slightly left of the intended track (probably caused by 100 degree error in Wind direction planning, which was expecting to be getting pushed from the left, but instead we were getting pushed from the right  🙁  ).   It was all going alright…

That was until my instructor finally decided to let on that there was a NOTAM in place over Sywell – hang your head in shame moment – I just hadn’t noticed because my morning planning had been done with less then ideal levels of concentration.   Clearly it was showing and hand on heart my brain was just not on it 100% today, I was flying the plane safely enough, but the below par mental capability was just making everything too laggy and needing too much thought.

In order to avoid the NOTAM we cut the corner off of our leg to Willingborough, with a chance to get some Diversion practice in.   My estimate of the angle for the new route was ultimately out by about 20 degrees (I said my head was starting to fade) and the diversion needed some corrective work.   The saving grace was that we were now in the “local area” of where I’m used to flying and with Grafham Water in sight, it’s hard to get lost in this area of the world.

Returning Home

Largely uneventful, I’ve had multiple answers to the question of whether you should barrage Approach with Information (i.e. Alpha, Quebec etc.) and the QFE, only to repeat it to Tower when they switch you over or not.  Or just give the information to Approach.   As the answer to this is inconsistent and the books largely assume you’re not learning from a big airport (so only briefly talk about the fact you might have both frequencies and a recorded ATIS), I’ve given up and now just rattle it off on first contact with both frequencies.   This is much easier, ensures in the event it’s two different people that they know, I know and I find I don’t have the mental blocks I was getting on return to the circuit caused by worrying about it all.

The landing wasn’t my best, it just wouldn’t sink so I must have floated along at 20ft for about half a mile.   Just as I was about to give up the main wheels touched down, we still had a bit over half a mile to stop in and that’s beyond safe for a Cessna 172 (most GA runways are shorter then what I had left).

All in all that was ok, I ticked some boxes (Nav 4) and missed others (Traffic Service), if the sky hadn’t been blue, if I’d felt worse a bit sooner I might have cancelled this lesson.   Looking back on it, I still think it was safe, it just wasn’t as performance productive as it would have been if I’d been 100%.   However, if you ever want to know why it’s not the best decision in the world to go flying when you don’t feel great, this is about as safe an environment as you can find to appreciate why.

Lesson 46: Navigation #3 (Diss/Swaffham)

Monday, April 22nd, 2013 | Permalink

Finally a day of sunshine, others may have been luckier than me but this would be my first really good flying weather day of 2013.



It’s been just over a year since I last flew with my instructor for today, but that being said on the two occasions we have flown together, for no directly tangible reason I’ve come away feeling like I’ve learnt loads.  Maybe it’s an experience thing, maybe it’s a training style thing, but some people you just seem to learn from really easily.   Still, a bit bizarre though that the last time we were in a plane, I was being taught slow flight and had never flown a circuit – today we’d be doing an 88 mile flight and if he touched the controls, the lesson would be going badly wrong.  Strange.

Another instructor had taken Romeo Charlie, so I got my pick of the planes, we’ll take G-SHWK.

The Route

General Route: Diss, Swaffham

General Route: Diss, Swaffham

I get the impression that, as you might expect, each Nav. lesson adds a different element into the mix and builds on the previous ones.  From this route you sort of get the impression it’s building on the RT side of things and also adds the addition of nearby danger zones and the potential to encounter fast moving stuff.

Flying up to Diss takes you through the Mildenhall/Lakenheath Combined Military Aerodrome Traffic Zone (CMATZ).   Lakenheath is home to a lot of USAF: F-15’s, while Mildenhall is home to a lot of big military tanker aircraft.   The runways at both are immense, Lakenheath’s being 9,000ft and to give you some perspective, Cambridge is 1 mile of runway – Lakenheath is 1/3 longer!   Just to add to the fun, there’s a danger zone over Thetford where fast jets go to play “how low can you go….” types of games.

The top of the triangle touches into RAF Marham MATZ, it was expected they wouldn’t be there today but if they were it would be one more RAF controller to talk to.

Give a student an inch and they’ll take a mile….

With Runway 05 in use today & power checks done, we were cleared to enter the runway from Delta and take off as ready.  From holding point Delta you already have well over the take off run required of a C172, you could probably take-off, abort and take off again no worries at all…….so why I decided to turn right and grab a little extra runway I’m not sure (technically I wasn’t cleared to backtrack either).  Anyway, that minor mental slip aside, a fairly nice take-off and climb out.

Turning right to head south to catch the runway that leads to Six Mile Bottom, I overshot it a little in my search (Railways are smaller then you’d think), but we were soon on our way to the first check point.

Not an immense amount of time from Six Mile Bottom before you’re on the edge of Lakenheath CMATZ, so my flight plan notes show and arrow at Six Mile Bottom to Lakenheath’s approach frequency (a visual reminder to swap frequencies and get MATZ penetration clearance at this checkpoint, a very useful tip on flight plans).

I was expecting a military sounding controller, but all the same this controller sounded much more serious and to the point then the RAF controller I’d spoken to fly through Wattisham MATZ.  Straight to the point we were given a squawk code and cleared to penetrate Lakenheath CMATZ, in addition although we asked & got a basic service, we also got a Radar service (would come in handy shortly).

Traffic, 8 miles, 12 O’Clock

While in the middle of convincing myself (and talking my thought process outloud “just for info” to my instructor) that Bury St. Edmunds was in fact where I expected it to be and we were just past a round about as shown on the map, so reassuringly were dead on course, almost to the second.   Lakenheaths controller called us.

G-WK, Traffic, 8 miles, 12 O’Clock……

I called them back to say we were looking but did not have visual contact, now things started to get a bit more interesting:

G-WK, traffic, 7 miles, 12 O’clock

Still looking

G-WK, traffic, 6 miles, 12 O’clock…….Recommend Climb.

When a controller with a radar tells you to climb, I’m of the view your best move is to do as they say immediately!   Remember I said they operate F-15’s at Lakenheath, who knows if we’d ever see this traffic.

Just as I pressed the Mic button to reply “G-WK climbing….”  I got visual with the traffic, it was 12 O’clock, low, maybe 700ft below us and now maybe only 3 miles out.   “…..and visual with traffic.”   Quite pleased to find it wasn’t a fast jet.

From here on in it was a pretty smooth flight to Diss, my instructor pointing out a smoking chimney to our right along the way and how it could be used to consider wind direction (and whether it was as per forecast etc.).

Almost to the second Diss was below us, you’ve gotta love it when dead reckoning works 🙂    Diss is fairly easy to identify, it has a railway line running north to south and an industrial section to the east, which if you’ve done your Google Earth homework is very handy.

North to Swaffham

Snetterton Race Track

Snetterton Race Track

Gotta admit I was looking forward to this leg, the planned route would take us just right of Snetterton race track and it would be a fun landmark to sightsee from the air.

Snetterton didn’t let me down, being a weekend they had a race going on, from 2,500ft it was like watching toy cars speeding along but you could clearly make out the track and the racing – would have been really fun to orbit here for a bit and enjoy the race, but we had to crack on.

Just past Snetterton my expectant wind farm let me down, stupidly I’d decided a mast would be a wind farm and was trying to mentally force things into position when I couldn’t find the wind farm.   However, the town of Watton has a distinct shape, so after a bit of hmming and arrghing (and accepting the elapsed time couldn’t be far wrong), I had a rethink on my position and all was well with the world again.

Swaffham however, does have a wind farm just north east, so again easy to identify the correct town with key landmarks like that.

For not the first time this flight I was reminded to raise the wing before turning on to the new heading.   Hmmm, seems to be the latest creeping in error, I used to be meticulous about this in circuit flying, I guess instructors have let me get away with it and it’s warn out of my memory.

Visual with Lakenheath

RAF Lakenheath

RAF Lakenheath

You can look at it on Google Earth, but you don’t fully appreciate it, as noted at the beginning, Lakenheath’s runway is immense!   From 2,500ft up, approx. 4.5 miles north, it was blatantly impossible to miss the almighty runway out of the left window, surrounded by airfield buildings and big open space.  A very impressive sight, but I don’t think they’d take too kindly to us landing there (or getting close, so we’d keep well clear).

All credit to them though, Lakenheath ATC continued to be good to us.

Time for a bit of a Diversion

Just passing Soham my instructor asked me to plan a route to fly to Wyton.

Not being a million miles off course this was a reasonably straight forward new heading to judge, we then used other land marks including the now unused RAF runway at Waterbeach to verify our position and that our heading was going to work out.   A few top tips along the way, but this all went ok.

Finding the way home

This last minute diversion, right on the boundary of where we’d normally be asking for rejoin sent the workload skywards.   Now there was a stack of stuff to do and I began to really think “where the heck is the runway going to be…….”   Weird, because I could see the A10 so I knew where I was, it’s not like the runway would have moved, but suddenly the city of Cambridge seemed less familiar in shape.

A half decent radio call to rejoin, resulted in getting a downwind join.   The picture all started to come together, but I’m not sure I could recall how it was I got there.   This tells me the work load was running high.

Up until very recently I’ve landed with nothing on my lap, now I’m landing with a ton of things on my lap (knee board, map, flight plan….) and it’s just a bit weird – half expect it all to hit the deck any second.   Still the landing was ok, it wasn’t my greatest, smooth but I touched down on the back left wheel first and a bit flat.   My instructor took the opportunity to raise the nose after landing to remind me of the perspective I should have for an ideal landing – all good, but unless it’s flapless, rarely do I let myself do it like this.

All in all a very enjoyable flight, I rarely fly with this instructor but wish we could have more lessons as I just seem to get a lot out of them.

Next up, Nav #4……..down to Luton.