Archive for April, 2013

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.

Lesson 45: Navigation #2 (Peterborough)

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013 | Permalink

Just for a laugh we’ll do the flight plan.   Watching trees outside getting practically blown over and looking at a Met Office Form 214 Spot wind chart suggesting there was a 35 Knot @ 2,000ft.   Forget it, but the speeds would be ridiculous so I’d do the plan anyway….

General Flight Path

General Flight Path

This trip would take me further West and North then I’ve ever flown before:

  • Raunds
  • Crowland (Just North of Peterborough)
  • Back to Cambridge

It’s sort of strange that for this many hours you stay so close to your home airfield, but there’s no reason really to go further afield.

Now the trips are starting to get a bit more interesting in terms of mileage, roughly speaking this is a 97 statute mile round trip.

The last Nav. couldn’t go too far wrong, point a plane east from here and short of an engine failure, you will find the coast.   Today we’d have to find two small villages and if I found the coast while flying west, something would be very wrong.

The Wind and Snow

Strangely on arrival the wind had calmed a little, but was still gusting to 21 Knots, however as luck would have it today, gusting straight down the runway between 10 degrees and 50 degrees.   So what would otherwise be a show stopper, was actually not a problem at all.   As for the 35 knot winds at 2,000ft also fine, there was nothing to suggest we’d have any problems trying to take off or land.   So bizarrely, we were on.

A few minor suggestions on my flight plan, but no changes required and it all looked good so we’d go with it as is.

The leg up to Peterborough crosses RAF Wittering MATZ (Military Aerodrome Traffic Zone), so we had a quick chat about calling them up and it was noted that they often aren’t there!  If they didn’t answer our calls we’d call up London Information and get a Basic Service off them (Hmmm, never spoken to London Information, something new to try), I don’t really know why this seemed more daunting then calling RAF Wittering, maybe because of the potential for more people to be listening.

NOTAM’s and other documents checked, it was off to check the plane – largely through my preference we took G-SHWK,  it is my favorite and I rarely miss a chance to fly it.

G-SHWK in the Snow

G-SHWK in the Snow

Today however, it was ridiculously cold, the wind was just making it all the worse.  Just stopping the planes’ door from blowing off in the wind was a challenge and my hands were going red with the windchill.  A broom was required to get some snow off the stabilizer, but other than being cold, Whiskey Kilo was looking in pretty good shape.

I’d made a mental note I wanted to check the sense of the altimeter in G-SHWK, and sure enough it was the “correct” sense (e.g. 1 knotch ABOVE say 1010hPa is 1011hPa), as noted in an error repeatedly made in my last lesson, G-HERC’s altimeter has what I’d describe as an inverted sense (e.g. 1 knotch ABOVE  1010hPa is actually 1009hPa).   Given that I fly G-SHWK alot, that would explain that error.

Go, Go, Go….

River Cam

River Cam

Having spent a fair old while sorting the plane and talking through the route and weather, my instructor blitzed the start-up checks and engine start-up.   Taxi clearance was all good except I misheard holding point Charlie for Delta (hear what you expect to hear I guess), easy enough to sort out and just to be random we took a whole new route to get there (40+ trips and I’m still being given new ways to taxi around the airfield!).

After a seeming age of waiting for the engine temperatures to get into the green, we were soon out on runway 05 and being cleared for take-off.

The left turn out from 05 I always associate with a chance to look down and see the river cam, it’s rare to fly out this way and it’s a nice view – especially if people are out rowing.

All that was left to do from here was point the plane in a westardly direction and find Point Alpha, it seems weird to suggest it now, but it’s pretty straightforward to find this land mark.

Set the Clock – 35 Knot wind you say!

With a heading of 296 degrees set, the distance of 12 miles to my first way point of Buckden would take just 5 minutes 30 seconds!   My flight notes tell me that we got there 2 minutes late, I guess the wind wasn’t quite all what had been forecast (Not quite realising the full significance of this late arrival would come and get me later).

I was about to fly further West then I’ve ever flown (myself) before

As we flew over and past Grafham water, another minor but important tick box of firsts was crossed off.  This was as far west as I’ve ever flown a C172 before, so far Grafham water has been a virtual barrier beyond which I’d never been allowed to venture – we would press on from here though, next way point was

They don’t seem to appear on Google Earth photography, but the fairly ‘recent’ sprouting of Wind farms is in my opinion an aviation blessing, they sure make navigation easier.  Raunds now has the “luxary” of a wind farm just “behind” it (well closer to Kettering), meaning that the ‘town’ with a wind farm directly west of it and a bigger town to it’s south (Rushden) and a fairly major road adjacent to its west side is very likely Raunds.

So far, so good.

London Information Calling

With a new heading of 051 set and an ETA to the A1/Services, just south of Peterborough of 11 minutes, all that was really left to do was to request a frequency change from Cambridge Approach and try our luck with RAF Wittering (129.975).

Of course that frequency meant I had to learn the radio had additional switches I’d never played with before, more toys 🙂

As much as I wanted Wittering to reply, sadly after two attempts I had to accept nobody was home.  Time for plan B:   London Information.

Another first, I’ve never spoken to London Information before, I could live without having to but life would be boring without new experiences.   To no surprise, they were there and asked us to set a squawk code I’ve since forgotten (possibly 6521), the radio call all went nice and smooth and London Information seemed happy enough to entertain our flight and Basic Service request.

The Leg Home : Navigation at lower altitude

Peterborough seemed easy enough to find and from there Crowland just north east of it with a river on its west side was reasonably easy to identify.   However, up until this point I’d elected to fly at 2,500ft, I knew from my previous lesson that navigation was easier at this altitude (at this altitude the forward/down visibility is ~5 miles).  Now my instructor ‘suggested’ we try descending to something lower, I compromised with him and settled on aiming to fly at 1,600ft (this would kill the forward visibility, down to ~3.4 miles).

Interesting fact:  If the flight visibility was <= 5Km you’d be at the limits or out of VFR flight and the book of words on the topic will tell you that navigation is going to be very difficult unless you really know the area.    It just so happens that 3.4 miles = 5.5Km, which gives you some idea of what Navigation at this altitude is like.

This was made worse because the weather was blowing the plane all over the place, it was a fight to stay in trim and when it was, it never lastest.   At times the altitude was down to 1,300ft (not ideal, my flight plan showed a Minimum Safety Altitude of 1,500ft).

Remember how I arrived late at Buckden, suggesting the wind was not as forcast, well that wind was supposed to have been a massive 35 knots from 080 degrees (essentially a full on cross-wind for this leg), so the compensated flight plan had adjusted a True Track of 154 degrees, to a True Heading of 135 – if the wind wasn’t as forecast I was going to be flying 20 degrees off course!

The magnitude of this difference is hard to express in words, but the accuracy of the forcast had the potential to essentially decide which side of Ely City I flew!!

So it will hopefully come as no surprise then that on this leg of the trip I found myself “sort of” knowing where I was.   Forget finding Fen End Farm as planned and in the effort to work out where I was I left it quite late to contact Cambridge Approach again, requiring an orbit to buy some time to get cleared for the rejoin.

Still it was all good and the call to Approach and Tower went better then it has typically done recently.

Landing……..could you move the C-130 please?

C-130 Holding

C-130 Holding

The circuit I was generally happy with, but ATC called and told us to report final not sooner than 2 miles out which meant extending downwind quite a way, it’s been an age since I’ve approached from this distance.

The reason was that a C-130 was doing an APU check and was currently sat on runway 05 exactly where I wanted to land.   A go around can be easily converted into financial terms of about £30, maybe when I landed someone would tell me where to send the bill….

Thankfully however, that was not required, as the last stage of flaps were lowered and we descended through 600ft, the beast of a plane started to lumber off the runway and we kept coming down and down until with about 400ft to go we got the clearance to land.   I rattled off a quick response but was mentally very busy trying to stop the wind and keeping the plane on course, there were points in this descent where I knew I absolutely had it, you know when you’ve got it just right because everything slows down and the descent becomes effortlessly calm.  Then the wind would gust and it was back into getting it all back to being calm again.

Touch down was a bit further in then I’d originally hoped, but it just wouldn’t quite go down that last 50ft, but we landed with a mass of runway to spare and I’d take the landing any day of the week although not my smoothest ever, given the wind not too bad.

All in pretty happy, the last leg could have been better but I’m starting to get quite comfortable with flying completely out of sight of the airport and having a map on my lap and attempting to scribble ETA’s etc.

Next trip is out towards Thetford, so fingers crossed for some good weather.