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."


  1. No name here.
    Re latest blog;
    Bloody marvellous!

  2. Insightful blog. Looking forward to updates. I wonder if you could tell us what was your profession before you started the FPP with BA?


Comments are very welcome, but please no names!