Archive for June, 2013

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.