Thursday, 15 August 2013

Ups and downs

Common sense suggests that if you work steadily at something, you will get steadily better at it. But as usual, life disagrees; improvement goes in sudden jumps and sometimes you have to get worse before you get better.

Left: how you think you learn
Right: how you actually learn!
Two weeks ago, things weren't going very well, and despite a successful solo flight I was really struggling with flying circuits. One problem was workload — I needed at least two extra brains to cope with the radio, traffic, circuit pattern and actually flying the plane. This is a frustrating barrier because there is no systematic way to overcome it.

The second problem was adapting to a different method of controlling the plane during the most critical part of the flight — final approach. In all my previous flight experience, the philosophy has been to control the air speed with the stick/yolk/elevator and the rate of descent with the throttle/air brakes. Here, on final, we do it the other way around meaning I had to constantly fight my automatic responses. Sometimes previous experience can be a hindrance!

These two difficulties led to a horrible lesson where nothing seemed to go right, and my instructor reasonably decided not to let me fly solo again. I felt frustrated and depressed, which was compounded by the apparent indignity of having to ask the boss for permission for extra training flights.

I need not have worried, he was a total gentleman about it and also offered a lot of helpful advice. The first extra lesson went a little better, but I decided to make use of two of the three lessons he offered just to consolidate. The second lesson too went reasonably well as did the three solo circuits I flew afterwards.

However the next item on the timetable was my Progress Test 1. Had I really killed my gremlins? I was not convinced, and felt sure I was bound to miss radio calls or be unable to fly stable approaches. It didn't help that the briefing was at 7.30am and the test eventually took place at 2.30pm leaving plenty of time to stew.

By this time was stinking hot (42C) and bumpy. Neither me nor the examiner were looking forward to it. I was, I felt, rather lined up for a fall. Being a bit nervous I made a fairly fundamental mistake almost straight away, skipping over an entire checklist. Fortunately I realised before entering the runway and was able to rectify it.

Like the big boys, we aim to fly to the runway on a fixed
slope of 3 degrees. To help, lights called PAPIs are installed
which will show whether you are above or below this slope.
There's nothing clever going on; they are just "Ovaltine
tins with a metal plate welded in at 3 degrees." (David Gunson)
But then something unexpected happened — just when I needed it everything fell together. Suddenly I had time to think during the circuits. Each time I rolled out of the final turn I found myself on the correct slope, and managed to keep it stable all the way down. Even the landings were pretty good.

Perhaps it was the examiner, who was one of the most friendly and calming instructors I have flown with. But I think it is more about the vagaries of the learning process — I had finished getting worse and was quite suddenly getting it right. Tasks that were taking all my concentration just a few days before had become automatic, spare brain capacity had appeared. Incredibly, I found that I was even able to manage a friendly chat (about gliding) during the circuit. It felt almost as if someone else — someone much better — was flying for me. In the debrief the examiner had nothing to criticize except of course for the checklist cock-up and gave me an excellent mark.

So a valuable lesson learned; progress will not be smooth and I should not get upset and frustrated when things don't work out as planned. Help is waiting. I will not blame myself for failures, and I will not take too much pride in successes either. As Baz Luhrmann said;

"sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind…the race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself. Remember the compliments you receive, forget the insults; if you succeed in doing this, tell me how."

Monday, 5 August 2013

Going solo

This morning I flew my "first" solo flight — and subsequently suffered the traditional dunking in the pool in full uniform by my classmates.

The first time you are trusted to fly an aeroplane solo is a significant and memorable moment in any pilot's career. Whatever your opinion might be, the instructor has decided that you are skilful and safe enough to execute a circuit* in sole command of a valuable aircraft without undue hazard to life or property. It can't be an easy decision for them.
For the student, it's an exciting but nerve-racking experience, the aim being to do nothing new or different, just get the thing around and back down safely. Only there is no-one to correct your mistakes, point out deviations or help you out on the radio any more, it's all down to you. There is no-one to talk to either, but I still chunter away just the same.

I wasn't expecting to go solo today, partly because there was too much crosswind on the runway, and partly because recent lessons had not gone as well as I had hoped. But a lot time spent at the weekend "chair-flying" around imaginary circuits seemed to pay off.

I flew six circuits with the instructor; two normal powered, two without use of flaps and two glide circuits where the engine is cut at some distance from the runway and the rest of the landing executed "dead stick".

You might think that a glider pilot would be at some advantage here, but a Piper Warrior with the engine idle is no glider — it descends laughably steeply, something like 1 in 10, and my first attempt was headed well short of the runway threshold. At least I got to practice a 'go-around' (abandoned landing) which is a very important manoeuvre used to get the hell out whenever things are not looking good during a landing.

So I was a little surprised when at the end of the lesson the instructor said "good job", pointed out that the wind had dropped, and sent me off to do a circuit alone. Despite the fact that I have had two "first" solos already — in gliders and motor-gliders — there was enough new and different about this experience to make me just a little nervous.

It's normal practice to tell the control tower it is a first solo, so they can try to get you around without any holds or modifications to the circuit. But this did mean holding short and waiting for quite some time for a big enough gap in the traffic. With no airspeed there is no ventilation, the doors and windows are shut and it is 36C outside. By the time I was cleared to take-off I was melting.

Normally we fly lessons with two students, one instructor, 200 lbs of fuel and a fair bit of baggage. On this flight I was alone with 60lbs less fuel, so the plane was somewhat more... lively. The 'rotation' (take-off) speed of 65 knots came around very quickly and when I reached the cross-wind turn at 500' I was still over the runway.

The circuit was, as required, boring and conventional and I don't think I fluffed any radio calls today (at last). The approach was one of my better ones though the ensuing landing, while in no way dangerous, certainly left no doubt that I was back on the ground. All that remained was to taxi back to the parking where my instructor was waiting, looking mightily relieved.

After a couple of hours of consolidation training in the circuits the next hurdle awaits... progress test one.

* A 'circuit' consists of a take-off, a rectangular loop around the airfield usually to the left and a landing. You get to practice taking off, various check-lists, lots of radio work, flying the climb, levelling off, traffic awareness, holding altitude, turning, descending, use of flaps and of course approach and landing. Most of the key pilot skills in fact, crammed in to just five or six minutes.

The standard circuit