Lesson 54: Crosswind Revision

August 5th, 2013 by PHC | 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)

August 3rd, 2013 by PHC | 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.


Navigation Exam : Passed

August 2nd, 2013 by PHC | Permalink

Navigation  - PPL3

Navigation – PPL3

Having done my four dual navigation lessons, only 2 land away lessons remained before my first solo navigation.  The catch being, if you’ve not passed the Navigation exam, you can’t go on your first solo nav.  So time was becoming of the essence.

Put a date in the aero club diary ~2.5 weeks away – you can read the books, but you revise better once there’s a deadline.

Both practice papers I did came out as 84% and there was some very questionable flight computer results in the answers of the book (but that will always be the flaw of such mechanical machines).

Passed :  84%

Not my best score and I think the margins of error on mechanical things may have got me on one question for sure, but that doesn’t matter now.

Yay!!! We can go flying far away on our own now, very soon!

A huge relief because I really hadn’t planned in any contingency time had I needed to resit.


Lesson 52: Land Away (Sywell)

July 26th, 2013 by PHC | 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)

July 18th, 2013 by PHC | 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…..so 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

June 19th, 2013 by PHC | 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)

June 4th, 2013 by PHC | 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)

April 22nd, 2013 by PHC | 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)

April 3rd, 2013 by PHC | 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.


Lesson 44: Navigation #1 (East Bergholt)

March 19th, 2013 by PHC | Permalink

Weather has been my enemy of late, still 5th time lucky as they say 🙂

Even this attempt was looking doubtful, with serious fog in the morning I was thankful I’d booked the 11am slot, but the race was on for the fog and low cloud to shift in time!

At 10:20 the METAR was still pretty rubbish, cloud at 200ft and the clubs webcam was making me doubtful.  Still experience has taught me that unless it’s a totally blatant no go, there’s often value in just being there – worst case you get a free coffee and a chat, best case the cloud clears or you get to steal a sneaky standby later in the day.

Coffee and Waiting

G-HERC (Golf Hotel Echo Romeo Charlie)

G-HERC (Golf Hotel Echo Romeo Charlie)

All the signs looking out of the club window were that it was getting progressively (although slowly) better.  Credit where it’s due, my instructor was planning for success and optimistic it would clear, the weather report would get updated and we could just go.   So in the mean time, check the plane (G-HERC) out, she’d check my planning and then hang around and wait for the green light.

It’s been weeks since I’ve run through the plane checkout so just flicking master switches on etc. was nice, especially as it wasn’t -2C for the first time in ages.   A quite civilised checkout, rather then freezing to death and sweeping snow off the plane!

Then it was just a matter of being optimistic and waiting…..

With almost an hour of the lesson slot burnt off and mid-day rapidly approaching:  Good Viz & Few clouds at 500ft.   That’ll do, lets go!!!  🙂

I know how these dials all work, I do, honest….

6 Basic Flight Instruments

Basic Flight Instruments

Maybe this is a good sign, but recently my mistakes have largely been small and really noddy ones (but therefore ridiculous and the sort you want to bang your head on the yoke and scream “what am I doing!!”).   This lesson would not break that curse.

I knew I wanted to set 118 degrees on the heading bug, for god knows why reasons my brain mangled this in weirder ways then I look back and think are possible.

First I think I set it as 180 (don’t ask), then I totally got the scale markings wrong and from a now vague memory I think I set 108 (don’t ask) before finally the cogs reengaged and I realised the scale was in degrees of 5 and we were good again.   This was me on the ground, god help us!!

I would continue my stupid errors my turning the altimeter QNH to 990 and then moving the dial so it was set to 1 mark ABOVE the 990 mark (you’d think 1 above 990 was 991 right?  WRONG, I still want to check the sense in G-SHWK, but I fear they have different directional sense and I’d just gone with what heuristically felt more correct……..but in fact I’d just set 989).   A top tip on human factors then, keep turning and verify the directional sense of the dials.

I could omit these errors and save grace, but I can point you at plenty of accident reports from far more experienced pilots then me who’ve done equally stupid things.  You might deny doing similar things, or find you’re also doing stuff like this, I’m certainly not the first to do them.

Which way to Six Mile Bottom?

East Bergholt

East Bergholt

Ahhh we weren’t over the noddy errors just yet, in my head I was so rehersed on a take-off from 05, that I instinctively said “Right hand turn”, even as we’d jumped in the plane I’d been fearing an 05 take-off because I’ve never found 6 mile bottom from that direction.

As you can see on the photo of my map when this flight was first planned weeks back, it was from an 05 exit.

We’d already been told we’d be on 23, I was making this mistake up on total mental auto-pilot, from 23 obviously it’s a left hand turn.   Arrrgh, great way to start a navigation lesson 🙂

We’re up, now to fly our way to the coast – but first, find the train tracks.

I hate finding train tracks, particularly the ones that lead to 6 mile bottom.   Firstly because I’ve rarely had to find them and second because they’re actually not as big as you’d expect them to be.   Still we found them and with a bit of hmmm’ing and ahhhh’ing convinced myself the right road was crossing the right train tracks etc.   Time to start the clock.

East Bergholt Flight Plan

East Bergholt Flight Plan

As you can see from my flight plan, first waypoint was to find a road ~4.5 minutes away assuming the ground speed stuck with us at 109 knots.   The flight plan also says we planned to fly at 2,000ft but due to cloud this wasn’t possible so the route was flown at 1,300ft – ATC asked us what our maximum was, I reported 1,500ft.

As the cloud cleared we got permission to climb as navigation this low was not ideal.

Worth pointing out that as of Six Mile Bottom, the instructor took over the flying part and I was ‘freed up’ to concentrate on the navigation and radio parts.   What this also meant was that, as you can see from my visual reminder arrow on the flight plan, when we found that road 8 nautical miles away, I’d have to tick a “first time” box.   In this case:  The first time I’d called another aerodrome.

Sounds sort of rediculous right?   Nearly 40 hours on the clock and to date I’ve spoken to my own aerodromes approach & tower frequencies, London Centre for a practice emergency and that’s it.   Just to add to the mix, I’d be calling  RAF Wattisham – a military aerodrome which has such fun things in its book of words as “Beware of lasers when Apache’s operating.”   Plus I had no idea how different an RAF controller would be relative to the forgiving and well used to training pilots operators of my home aerodrome.

Turns out, pretty much the same and I was thankful all my R/T with them went pretty smooth, something along the lines of this sequence:

“Wattisham Radar, G-HERC”
“G-HERC, Squark 6541 and pass your message.”
“Squark 6541 G-HERC.”  (Forgot I was going to be asked to do that so I broke my reply up).
“G-HERC is Cessna 172, from Cambridge to Cambridge via East Bergholt, altitude 2,200ft, QNH 991hPa, request basic service and MATZ penatration.”
“G-RC, Basic Service and MATZ penetration approved.”


And we can breathe again, the noddy screw ups I can live with but I wanted that call to go ok and essentially it was all good.   I was now an approved little dot on some Wattisham Radar operators’ screen 🙂

Birdseye view of Sudbury

Birdseye view of Sudbury

In six minutes, we should be over Sudbury, now the map shows Sudbury as having a river going roughly around it and you’d think that would be a good visual cue.   However, I’d done my homework, I knew the one distinctive feature of Sudbury is not it’s shape, but the fact it has a relatively huge industrial site on its east side.

This shows up as you can see as a massive white/grey patch against a sea of buildings.   From the air this is very easy to spot and so with four minutes to go I was pretty happy Sudbury was ahead of us and it was also telling me that we’d drifted off to the right.   My instructors flying was looking pretty spot on, so I assume the wind wasn’t quite as forecast.   Slightly to be expected given the planned wind was from a forecast now at least 2 hours old.

Once overhead we corrected for the drift and then set our heading again, next “stop” East Bergholt and the seaside!  🙂

Distinctive features………like the Sea?

From this point on it’s largely grass and fields, East Bergholt is flanked by Ipswich and Colchester so go to far left or right and you should find (unexpectedly) that you’re heading for a big town.  However, from 2,000ft quite quickly you can see another very distinctive feature that suggests East Bergholt should be coming up:  The Sea.

I still find this weird, normally to get to the coast I’d have to drive for over an hour and a half.  We’d been in the air at this point for a touch over 12 minutes!!   To see the coast is just mind blowing, regardless of the fact that maths says this is obvious.

It wasn’t the best day to be at the sea side, as we approached East Bergholt we flew into some rain and the weather was more murky in this part of the world then back home but we were about to turn round and head for home anyway.

Having had the luxury of my instructor doing the flying so far, now I would have to do everything.

It’s perhaps worth noting that actually flying the plane after a few hours practice is pretty easy, what you’re actually training to do is to fly the plane while managing the workload of flying, navigating, communicating on the radio etc. etc.   Once you start trying to do  these together, you’ll find your brain is working quite hard, the solution is practice to make more of it instinctive.

Heading for Home

The flight home was nice enough, the bit that was making me think harder was planning my ETA’s and adjusting as we hit a point sooner or later then expected.   Generally speaking though I flew back holding 2,000ft and a heading of 294 well enough, I only really deviated when because I could see Sudbury again I knew I was left of course and so started a “progressive recovery of track”, meaning the heading no longer matched the bug for quite a while (which got spotted), quite rightly I was told to fly the course regardless and then correct when over Sudbury.  This is just one of those instinctive things to do when you know to you’re off-course.

I was trying to announce my plans as I went so my instructor knew what I was intending to do etc.  I mis-read my plan and announced I was going to get over Sudbury and then call RAF Wattisham to request a transfer to Cambridge approach.   My instructor just acknowledge this, a few minutes later while glancing back at my plan (remember that visual cue arrow, pointing from Road->Wattisham), I realised I wouldn’t be out of the MATZ until the road, so instead of calling them at Sudbury I should call them at the Road waypoint.   To which my instructor said it was good to see I’d spotted the mistake and corrected my intentions.

RAF Wattisham saved me from having to call them up and  let us know we were good to now call Cambridge Approach.   The wind farm that was getting ever bigger out of the window suggested we were still on course, time to call Cambridge Approach (the bit that always seems to go wrong).

Initially it went ok, we got a basic service and were told to report when 5 miles out, no problems.   However at 5 miles out it was time to request a rejoin and my radio call just went to hell after transferring to Tower, a mumble of rambling roughly related statements followed – even my instructor couldn’t hold back an outburst of laughter.   Every time I call them up they seem to give me a totally different set of things to read back or a sea of traffic.   Still we got there in the end and were cleared to join downwind for runway 05.

Go Around

The circuit was good, but the final approach I just lost too much height and on runway 05 there are two large pools of water which make you sink quite a lot in the last few hundred feet.   I’ve got used to expecting this extra sink and thus coming in high, but today I didn’t and just let it come down too much.   Time to go around and try that again.

The go-around was a decent circuit, though now my instructor spotted I’d done it again: I’d set the airfield QFE which should have now been 989, to 991 (inverting the mistake I’d made on taxi), hmmm.  I had a better turn onto final and came in higher over the water this time.  Just didn’t quite get it as settled as I’d have liked so the landing was a bit hard but I’ve had soooo much worse, it wasn’t bad enough to ruin the flight, wasn’t my best, but was far, far from my worst.

For a day that had started so questionably, all things considered, I felt I walked away from this having learnt tons and it had been a very enjoyable lesson (even with the moments of stupidity).   Roll on Nav #2, a trip out to the east and north 🙂