Thank you everyone for reading my blog and taking such an interest in my progress learning to fly. I’m sorry I haven’t blogged in a while, I’ve had a difficult and busy few months. This post seeks to provide you with a summary of my flying experiences to date while I work on writing up my lessons and editing my videos more thoroughly.
Practice Forced Landings (PFLs)
This post was written when my lesson on operating at lower levels in April 2016 was the most recent blog entry on my website. After that lesson Derek took me through practice forced landings and precautionary landings. The former is where we practice gliding with the engine set to idle, simulating an engine failure. I had to identify a suitable field to land in, assessing it for size, shape, slope, surface and surrounds (the 5 Ss). Then, descending to within a few hundred feet of the field, demonstrating I could land if I needed to, before applying power and climbing out without touching the ground.
I thought practice forced landings (PFLs) would be great fun, but found it really difficult to judge how much further I could fly with the engine idling. Rather than coming up short, more often than not I was too high by the time we reached the threshold of the field. I also found it very hard to choose an appropriate field. You make your decision about where to land at 2,000 feet or more, but from there it’s hard to see if the field has obstacles in it, or is full of tall crops, or has ravines and ditches in it. You also have to assess the wind direction so you can land into it; this means looking out for puffs of smoke from chimneys or using the last wind direction you recorded.
Precautionary landings are very similar, in the sense that you are practicing landing in a field without actually touching down, but instead this time you have full use of the engine. This means you can fly circuits assessing the suitability of the field and even change your mind if necessary. You would do this in real life if there were nothing wrong with the engine, but you needed to land away from an airfield, perhaps because the deteriorating weather forced you to abandon your trip.
Qualifying Cross Country
In May 2016 we moved onto land-aways in preparation for my qualifying cross country. First, Derek and I flew to Kemble, landed, parked up on the grass in front of the ATC tower and paid the landing fee before flying back to Bristol. Then the following week I made the trip solo. This was really exciting, flying solo to an airfield away from home and not just doing circuits, but actually parking, getting out and having a cup of tea in the AV8 Restaurant!
In the next lesson we flew from Bristol to Swansea, flying across the Severn estuary, over Caerphilly, Maesteg, Port Talbot and Swansea Bae and into the airport on The Gower. Some really beautiful countryside to take in. Like Kemble we parked up and paid our landing fee before returning to Bristol. And then, the following week, I made the trip solo. I notched up two hours of solo flying doing that return trip.
The next thing to do is my qualifying cross country. This is a 150 nautical mile round trip flying solo and landing at two different airfields away from my home airfield. Obviously, as I’d already practised flying to Kemble and Swansea, these would be my two airfields, and the distance from Bristol to Kemble to Swansea and back to Bristol is just over 150 nautical miles; perfect.
However, the weather has to be good enough not just at Bristol, but also at Kemble and Swansea in order to achieve this. Unfortunately the weather gods poured more scorn on my hobby and throughout June the weather wasn’t good enough on days I had a lesson booked.
Diversions and Instrument Appreciation
Instead, we covered other aspects of the syllabus. The first was diversions. I was asked to plan a trip to Hereford and fly there, then Derek told me to divert to Sbobdon, an airfield a few miles away. I really struggled to calculate the heading I needed to fly and ended up entering the danger zone above the Special Air Service (SAS) training field. The air traffic controller was not best pleased with my navigation skills, but I got away with a ticking off over the radio.
In the next lesson we moved onto instrument appreciation. This is where we fly without looking out the window and just use the instruments. This is not something you’d normally do as a light aircraft pilot, but the syllabus includes a section on just appreciating what’s involved so you can pilot the aircraft safely if you inadvertently flew into cloud and needed to turn around to fly back to clear skies without climbing and risking a stall, or descending and risking a crash. Derek was impressed with my handling of the plane just on instruments. I put it down to hours spent in front of the flight simulator on my PC at home.
After this lesson we did another instrument appreciation lesson, but this time Derek simulated instrument failure by placing black-out cards over some of the instruments. I then had to use the remaining instruments to ensure I could fly safely with just a limited panel. We also did a few more PFLs. I was starting to improve, but still found them very difficult.
I’d been keeping an eye on the forecast; and it looked like the weather would be good enough for my qualifying cross country on Tuesday. I booked a day off work and headed over to the club in the morning with my route planned, PLOG written, track traced on my map and NOTAMs checked. Derek wasn’t working today, so I was signed off by another instructor, Kevin, who checked my route and talked me through a few scenarios to ensure I knew what to do if anything went wrong. He also gave me a form I needed to get signed by the controller at each airfield certifying I had actually been there and that there was no cause for concern.
It was a glorious day, the perfect weather for flying. I soared over the Cotswolds to Kemble where I enjoyed a packed lunch on the lawn. As the controller signed my form he said my radio skills were good, this was a nice confidence boost. Then for the only part of the route I hadn’t already flown, Kemble to Swansea (I’d flown to both from Bristol, but not between each other). I flew towards Thornbury, past the old Severn crossing, over Newport and on to Swansea. I was pleased with my landing, a real greaser. Even the controller mentioned it while signing my form. That was it, done. I just had to get back to Bristol now. This was easy enough in clear skies, but I was certainly starting to feel tired from an intense day of flying. I landed well at Bristol and slept soundly that night.
The following weekend we revised stalls, practice forced landings and flapless landings. After which Derek said it was time to book my skills test; next Saturday would be the day. Before then I had a lesson on Wednesday and we went through PFLs (which I now had mastered), advanced turns and instrument navigation. We flew up to the VOR in Brecon and tracked a radial out to Badminton and then did a short field landing (also known as a performance landing) in Bristol. That’s the last time I’ll fly before my skills test. I’ve racked up 47 hours of flying, with 10.2 solo flying hours in 38 lessons. The minimum is 45 hours total and 10 hours solo, I’m chuffed I’m only just over the minimums, I’d thought when I started I might need as many as 60 or even 70 hours training.
When back at the club I completed the last few written exams. I really should have done these earlier, I’d thought you had to complete all the exams and the skills test within 18 months. But this is only true for the exams. You have to pass all the written exams within 18 months and then have two years to take the practical skills test. So if you’re thinking of learning to fly I suggest you take the exams earlier than me.
Overnight the weather forecast for the weekend had deteriorated and it now wasn’t looking likely I’d be able to fly then. But the club phoned Thursday morning and asked if I could come in and take the test today. A mad panic rush to sort out time off from work, plan my route (I’d been asked to plan one to Hay-on-Wye via Ledbury) and sit my radio-telephony practical.
The examiner, Mark, meets me at the club and talks me through the schedule and checks my pilot’s log to ensure I’ve completed all the relevant parts of the syllabus. Then we head out to the plane, I complete the checks, get my clearance and take off. I feel very nervous. As I fly towards Ledbury I identify windmills several miles east of our position, I’m satisfied I know exactly where I am. But Mark asks why I’m looking over there, he says “We’re heading towards the Malverns, those big hills straight in front of us!”
He also asks me what my QNH is set to, I realise I haven’t switched over to London Information and requested the regional QNH. I hope this doesn’t wreck my chances of passing.
Next he asks me where I’d divert to from here if I had an ill passenger aboard, I check my map and say that it would depend how urgently ill the passenger was, Gloucestershire Airport is nearby, has a hard surface runway and is more likely to be able to have facilities that can assist an ill passenger, so I’d aim for there. He seems happy with this. Then he asks “and if it was really urgent?” I check my map and see Ledbury is the closest airfield, but has a grass landing strip. Mark asks me to find it, I scour the fields below us but cannot see it. Mark says it’s behind a tree line and admits it’s a hard one to spot. He says my choice of Gloucestershire was the better option.
I turn west to fly towards Hay-on-Wye, but before we get there Mark says he’d like me to plan a diversion to Kemble. What a relief, an airfield I’ve been too and know roughly where it is. I draw a line on my map from my current position overhead Hereford to Kemble and estimate the bearing. It’s 33 nautical miles away at a rough heading of 120°, which I estimate will take us 22 minutes. I radio London Information and inform them I’m doing a practice diversion, give them my destination and an ETA.
Next up Mark asks me to get a fix using radio navigation aids. I tune Brecon VOR, we’re quite a long way from it, but I do enough for Mark to be sure I know what I’m doing. “That’s fine” he says. We fly past Gloucester and ahead I can see Kemble airfield. I radio the controller and tell him I’m descending. I complete my pre-landing checks and line up for landing, but I’m too high, so have to take the power right back to idle to descend faster. To add to the mix the tower gives the plane behind us permission to land; they’ve confused us for the other plane. Mark tells me to go-around. I apply full power and wait for the airspeed to increase before taking the flaps up, but Mark tells me I should have taken the last stage of flaps off, called the drag flaps, when going around.
I climb back into the circuit and line-up for another approach. This time I flare and touchdown gently, but I’m left of the centre line. Mark quips that “We usually land on the centre of the runway.” I feel like I’ve binned it, there’s no way I’ll pass now. I try to put these feelings behind me, I might still be able to get a partial pass.
We do another circuit, this time I’m asked to land without flaps. I try my hardest to stay on the centreline, but what I gain in position I loose in smoothness of landing, a bit of last minute rudder leads to a fairly hard landing. I take off again and this time Mark instructs me to return to Bristol. We haven’t done any stalls, steep turns or PFLs. So I guess I’ve failed.
Mark asks me to climb to 3,000 feet and then, to my surprise, he tells me to run through the HASELL checks. I’d thought it was all over, but it seems he’s still testing me. Perhaps that partial pass is in sight. I reach for my check-list and Mark says that the HASELL checks are not that difficult to remember. I can’t remember them, so I continue with the check list. Better to have to use it than forget something important; that really would be a fail.
Then I’m asked to do a power-off stall. I reduce power and keep pulling back on the elevators to stop the nose from dropping. I feel the controls go sloppy, then the airframe shudders, the red stall warner light illuminates and the stall is established. I push the nose forward, apply power and recover from the stall. Mark seems happy with that.
Then I have to recover from a stall in landing configuration while in the turn, as if turning final to land, but we practice at 3,000 feet so we don’t crash if I get it wrong! I slow down, apply the flaps and turn while holding the nose up. Once I start stalling I recover. Again, Mark seems happy.
Then I’m told to simulate an engine failure. I reduce power, apply carburettor heat and can see that directly beneath me is the long grass runway of Badminton. Perfect! I tell him I’m aiming for that and he nods in approval. I spot my 1,000 feet marker, turn base and then turn final. We get to 500 feet and Mark tells me that’s good enough and to climb out. That wasn’t too difficult, the easiest PFL I’ve done yet.
As I’m climbing Mark tells me to simulate an engine failure on take off, I’m already over 1,000 feet high, so I have plenty of time to choose a field. I select a good looking one and turn towards it. Mark is happy with that but says I didn’t “warm” the engine. I say that Derek had always done that and I hadn’t ever taken it upon myself to do it. He gives me a look to suggest that wasn’t the right answer.
Next up is a steep turn. I gently turn into 30° and apply a little power as I continue turning to 60° while holding the nose up. I roll out and Mark then takes the controls, he says a steep turn is done as an emergency manoeuvre and demonstrates a sudden steep turn. Oh dear, another thing I don’t feel I’d done right.
Then Mark puts the plane into a high speed descending turn and asks me to recover. I level the wings but forget to take the power off. Mark asks me to do it again, this time I do it a bit better. But I’m feeling thoroughly defeated.
After all that we return to Bristol. The circuit is clear and no one is on long final so we’re given number one and cleared to land. Mark asks me to perform a powered off landing, but I pull the power off much too early and he grabs my hand as I go to apply the first stage of rudder and says “You’ll never make it from here.” Oh dear. He says instead we’ll do a performance landing. I’ve only ever done one performance landing, but I know what to do. So I aim for the numbers and touch down as slow as possible and apply brakes. Mark says that was fine, but I should pull back on the controls as well if I really want to slow down quickly.
We turn off the runway and park up. I wait for those immortal words confirming I’ve failed. Mark discusses certain aspects of my flying, like how QSY is an old fashioned phrase, I should instead use “request frequency change”. He also comments on my map reading and how I need to concentrate on what’s out the window more. Then he gets out of the plane and asks me to put the control locks on. He didn’t tell me I’ve failed…
When I get back to the club Barry congratulates me and shakes my hand. I can’t believe it. I’ve passed! My hours get logged as P1.S, pilot in command under supervision. So I can log them as Pilot In Command (PIC) hours. Now that I can take passengers that’s what my time is recorded as, not solo hours.
But before I can fly again I need to submit an application for the initial issue of a PPL using the CAA’s online application form. I do this on Saturday 16th July 2016.
Their website says they “try to process all applications within 10 working days” but their processing time “is currently 15 working days”. After 4 weeks I emailed them to ask for an update but got an automated response stating “If your e-mail is an application for licence issue, amendment or renewal, we aim to process within 25-30 working days.”
I finally received my licence on Thursday 1st September 2016, couriered by FedEx, 33 working days since I submitted my application!
Two weeks later I return to the club and have a checkout flight with an instructor, we do a stall and pretend go-around, then a couple of circuits. He’s happy with my skills so signs my log book and reminds me that I need to have performed 3 take offs and landings in the past 90 days in order to be allowed to take passengers.
I then take my wife and daughter for my first flight with passengers. We leave controlled airspace via Cheddar Reservoir, fly past Wells, over Bath, over the Severn Bridges and then return over the city of Bristol. Then I take my parents across the estuary and up the Wye Valley, over Monmouth and the Forest of Dean and back to Bristol.
In November 2016 I do my first land-away with a passenger, I fly my wife for a romantic burger in Wolverhampton’s Halfpenny Green airfield. Then, in February 2017 I fly my sister-in-law from Gloucestershire Airport to Bristol. In the future I’d like to fly to the Scilly Isles and later perhaps across the channel to France. I’d also like to get my night rating and learn to fly aircraft with variable pitch propellers and a retractable undercarriage. But that all takes time and money, both of which I’m short of at the moment.