Sunday, 2 June 2013

An ideal birthday present for a pilot

Years ago, when I was at school and later university, my birthday would invariably be spoiled by falling in exam season. Now I am a student again my date of birth has come back to haunt me, with my 37th birthday falling on the first of four days of intensive exams.

I'm now delighted to report that I have finally received the exam results and passed them all. Apart from one slight wobble — Aircraft Performance — got some excellent marks. Without wanting to sound like a an Oscar acceptance speech, I would particularly like to thank my wife for her help and support. Her... inventive... memory techniques (ICAO became "I-Cacky-Boo-Boos" and EASA evolved into "Eee-Arse-A-Bum-Bums") she helped me achieve full marks in the dreaded Air Law exam.

The trusty PA28 Piper Warrior will be the basis for
all our single-engine training - but not in this livery!
A few people in our class did drop a paper or two, and sadly will have to retake in a month or so. We are joined by some new students who are in the same position from an earlier class. Welcome!

We have also crossed the bureaucratic minefield now required to undertake flight training in the USA; something they are understandably very twitchy about these days. With our visas, tickets, TSA permits, SEVIS forms, FAA medicals and other acronym-heavy paperwork firmly in hand, we are all set to jet off to start what should be the most enjoyable phase of our training — five months flying small single and twin engine planes in Arizona with the goal of a commercial pilot's licence.

An ideal birthday present for a pilot

What would a trainee pilot want for his birthday? More flight training of course! My wonderful family clubbed together to buy me a holiday course gliding at the Long Mynd, a rather special location on the Welsh Borders.

Rather than bore you with endless technical information about gliding (don't tempt me!) I will try to let the pictures tell the story. Throughout this blog, you can click on any picture to see a full sized version.

The sun setting as the weather clears over the Mynd on day two
 Although we lost the first two days to poor weather, on day three I was checked out and approved to fly solo from this challenging site. The airfield is shared with sheep, horses, pedestrians and cyclists. It does not have runways as such, rather areas where the heather is kept a little more trimmed. The site slopes this way and that, most of the landing areas being significantly up or down hill. And the whole thing is 1600' high perched on the top of a long, thin hill that is the reason for its existence.

The airfield from above
 The beauty of the Long Mynd — aside from its natural beauty — is its ability to attract all three types of lift commonly used by glider pilots; ridge lift, thermals and wave. Sadly the wind decided not to blow in its normal westerly direction onto the ridge, but remained stubbornly northerly. Despite this we had good thermals on the last day, and I flew for several hours in three different types of gliders.

The superb Discus, my favourite, a high performance glider that is a joy to fly
Sharing a thermal with Alan, a fellow course member, in a K23
At the Mynd, gliders are mostly winch launched. Their winch which consists of a 400hp Chevvy engine connected to a drum wrapped with about half a mile of steel cable and is located at the opposite end of the field. The glider is connected to the cable via a special hook and weak link, designed to prevent excessive forces on the aircraft and to automatically release the cable if slack or overflown.

On a signal the cable is wound in, accelerating the glider forwards rapidly. Once it has enough speed, the pilot will allow it to pitch up and generate lift, flying steeply up somewhat like a kite. Typically you can achieve heights of 1000-1300' this way though 2000' is not uncommon. After the launch, a smaller retrieve winch pulls the cable back to the launch queue.
A Twin Astir two-seater training aircraft about to launch.
The club's K13 two-seater being winch launched
Once launched, a glider is always descending through the air around it, typically at around 1.5 to 2 knots or a steady walking pace. The only way to postpone the inevitable landing is to find and exploit air that is rising faster than this. One such source is the thermal — pockets areas of air that have been heated by warm sunny ground and broken free.

Finding these thermals, and staying centred in them is a real challenge of piloting skill. It is necessary to fly slowly with a lot of bank to keep the circle small, and to control your speed very accurately to hold position and to coordinate with any other gliders sharing the thermal with you. The air is often turbulent, causing your airspeed and climb rate to constantly change. The thermal tends you throw you out, can be small and is generally surrounded by sinking air. And it is of course invisible — though if you are lucky Buzzards or Kites will show you the way, or a cumulus cloud above hints at its position.

View from the cockpit while thermalling
The launch queue stops for a civilised lunch
Eventually the sun got low and the sky clouded over, the thermals dying out for the day. It was time to fly the gliders back to the hanger and pack them away — and intricate 3D jigsaw that squeezes eight gliders and a motorglider into one small hanger.
The gliding day draws to a close

Hanger packing at The Mynd is a work of art
What a great birthday present! A big thank you to the staff and helpers at Midland Gliding club for a memorable week. And best of all I can go back again and claim the two rainy days another time.

Airbus G-EUOE

I am a cadet in the early stages of flight training, with little knowledge, no real experience and absolutely no authority. However this does not stop people asking me about accidents and incidents, like the Airbus A319 that ran into trouble at Heathrow last week.

My usual answer is simply that I don't know and don't wish to speculate. Fortunately in this case I don't need to. The Air Accident Investigation Branch have already released a preliminary report. It's short and readable, so go ahead — get the facts not the nonsense that appears in the newspapers.


  1. Splendid stuff, very many congratulations!

  2. Keep it coming Jeremy this is inspiring stuff, and a dream for us land lubbers.


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