Saturday, 13 July 2013

'About to write blog' checklist complete

At long last, our flight training has begun. It's been a slow start, with instructors still busy with students nearing the end of their training but we've all been up at least once and lessons should fall into a regular rhythm next week.

One of the school's Piper Warrior aircraft on final approach to Mobile,
a runway in our Rainbow Valley practice area
(middle of nowhere) built by Lufthansa for training.
For me, the flying here could not be much more different from my previous experience. We are operating from a long concrete runway under air traffic control in a very busy area, which is a big contrast to the rural grass airfields of East Anglia. The aircraft handle in more or less the same way as others I have flown of course, but have far more instruments and equipment on a huge panel, and a comparatively poor view outside.

But the biggest difference is the deliberate, standardised procedural approach to flying. In gliding, you learn a set of skills but must constantly use your judgement to decide your next move. There is no fixed plan, instead you adapt to the situation, making the best of the sky around you.

The panel and controls in a PA28 (Photo Martin Hodgson)
Here — and in the passenger jets we will eventually fly — every phase of the flight is carefully planned and flown according to a standard procedure with an associated checklist. Many of these have to be memorised, which is a daunting task at first. It's one thing to master them on the ground, but when you are flying a plane, trying to follow a fixed route and listening and talking on the radio you tend to find they drop right out of your head. Silly acronyms certainly help (A-Bump-Firms and Meat-log are two of mine) but it's very easy to forget what each letter is supposed to stand for when you are a little busy.

To illustrate this idea (and not, I hope, to bore you silly) a typical one-hour lesson with an instructor might go something like this:

Two hours before take-off:
  • Meet up with flying buddy, in uniform with all the required kit packed.
  • Check with dispatch which aircraft has been assigned, review the technical log, then go out to the aircraft detailed set of checks on it (The 'A' checklist). 
  • Assuming no faults are found, return to the student crew room to plan the flight. 
  • Get the current and forecast weather for the route and any weather warnings. These are in an archaic and highly cryptic format that only pilots can understand.
  • Read all the special notices and restrictions (called "NOTAMS" or "Notices to Airmen").
  • Complete mass and balance calculations to check that the plane will not be overloaded or out of balance at any point during the flight. 
  • Complete a risk assessment.
  • For cross country flights, prepare a flight log with all the waypoints, times, speeds etc. Mark up the map with all this information. File a flight plan with air traffic control.
Half an hour before take off: 
  • Meet up with the instructor, brief the contents of the lesson and the departure and arrival procedure in use. Review all the paperwork prepared above.
  • Book out and walk out the the aircraft. Do the pre-start checklist, followed by the start checklist and the after-start checklist.
  • Contact dispatch to 'block out' and taxi onto the apron, while doing the taxi checklist from memory.
  • Complete the power checklist, followed by the lengthy before take off checklist.
  • Call ground control and get clearance to taxi to the runway holding point.
  • Call the control tower and get clearance to take off.
  • While lining up on the runway, complete the cleared onto runway check list from memory.
Take off!
  • While not strictly a checklist, there are various checks to be done during the ground run.
  • Between taking off and 200' you can concentrate solely on the flying!
  • At 200', complete the after take off check list.
  • During the climb, regularly check the engine instruments and weave from side to side, as you can't see over the nose.
  • Complete the top of climb checklist, and made a radio call when entering the practice area.
The actual lesson
  • The content of the lesson is defined in the school syllabus, and designed to start from the very beginning regardless of previous experience. Not that I mind this in the least, as you can see there is plenty to learn and practice even if in the early lessons the exercises are straight forward. Around 30 minutes are available for the actual exercises.
  • At regular points during the lesson, carry out the routine cruise checklist and make position calls on the radio
Going home
  • When it's time to head back, listen for the weather conditions at the airport (the "ATIS") and give a descent briefing.
  • Complete the descent checklist from memory, interrupting if needed to call the control tower and to announce your departure from the practice area.
  • Complete the initial approach checklist from memory once near the landing circuit.
  • Complete the landing checklist (memory again), also radioing your position and getting a landing clearance.
  • For the final part of the circuit, approach and landing, you are allowed to concentrate on the flying more or less uninterrupted.
  • At 300 foot, you must decide if you are 'stable' — on the right line, with the right speed and height, set up for landing and with acceptable visibility and wind speed/direction. If not... you must go around and try again.
  • When safely down and clear of the runway, stop and do the after landing checklist.
  • Radio ground control for taxi clearance and return to the parking area.
  • Complete the closing down checklist.
  • Call dispatch to let them know you are back.
  • Chain down the aircraft and install the sunshades.
  • Leg it to the nearest air-conditioned building.
At any point between start-up and shutdown, the instructor can and will throw in emergency drills. Here you must perform the correct emergency checklist from memory. There are seven of them.

And finally...
  • The instructor will de-brief the lesson, and make suggestions on what you could have done better (i.e. not fluffing the checklists). 
  • They will file a report on the lesson and enter the times in to the database, check and sign your logbook, and set you any homework. 
  • Oh, and if you filed a flight plan you'd better remember to close it or search and rescue will be out looking for you — and that can get very expensive.
So you can see that an apparently simple one hour flying lesson is in reality a three to four hour test of memory and endurance! Add to that daytime temperatures will be well into the forties and you can see we have our work cut out for us.

But it's not all work work work

Here are some of the ways we have been keeping busy.

At the local ballpark for 4 July celebrations...
...where we helped to break the world record for the most people wearing
false moustaches at the same time (2000).

At the South Mountain County Park

The Organ Pipe Cactus - emblem of Arizona

Phoenix is generally much prettier when it's dark (and your eyes are shut)

Not a bad selection at a local bar

Mucking about in the pool

At the Commemorative Air Force Museum, in Mesa. Douglas A26.

Schweizer TG-3A Army Training Glider
A very shiny Mustang

My first baseball game. Hardly anyone in the crowd and the Goodyear
Centennials lost, but hey it was only $1 a pint.

Note: A recent rule change means I am not allowed to take photographs in the aircraft. Any pictures on this blog from this point on showing the inside of a flying aircraft or the landscape will have to be borrowed from previous courses or found on the internet.


  1. Had a strange urge to do a 'finished reading blog' checklist!

  2. Well you seem to be settling in well,you sound very organised.


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