Saturday, 21 September 2013

Training wheels are off

So much as happened since my last post I don't really know where to begin.

Yesterday I flew and passed my second progress test, although only just. Luck was not on my side as I had the schools most famously strict examiner and a nasty hot, rough afternoon to fly in. I didn't do myself justice but at least I got through.

So after feeling a bit down about the test, it was wonderful to fly today's solo navigation flight which could not have been more different. It was a calm, mild day (only 32C), I was assigned one of my favourite planes. The route was familiar but also had some longer legs which allow just a little time for sightseeing and contemplation.

For us, the person in the right seat is either an instructor or an examiner which means stress, concentration and hard work. It's great to get up alone and be the master of your own schedule. Every check feature and turn-point appeared at the right time, in the right place just as my planning said it would. Visibility was almost unlimited at 7500', the desert was looking majestic and I could look down at Phoenix far away festering under a yellow sheet of its own pollution. Once back at base, I threw in three glide circuits just to check I had not really forgotten how to glide and land properly, and they too went perfectly. If only I could have flown like that yesterday; c'est la vie.

Solo navigation

Much of our time now is spent on solo navigation routes. These are flown with good old fashioned "dead reckoning" techniques as used by sailors for centuries, with a bit of help from radio navigation aids. We do have some very nice GPS units in the planes which will navigate for you, but frankly that is just cheating.

The routes typically take about two hours, and the school supplies a list of the points they would like us to fly to. The rest is up to us, and there is a great deal of planning and paperwork required before we can actually fly.

The night before, we can mark the route on the map. This is not simply a line, but all the information we need for the flight. There will be checkpoints chosen so we can monitor our progress, drift lines to help assess wind, information on altitudes, headings and times to fly for each leg, radio frequencies to use, airspace to watch out for and so on. This is the most time consuming part.

The next job is the flight log, which is a kind of manual spreadsheet. Starting from the bearings and distances from the map, we have to work out what headings and times to actually fly. This does not sound too hard, but there is a lot to take into account; magnetic variation and wind affect the heading (which way you point the aircraft to achieve a particular direction on the ground). Wind, pressure and temperature all affect your ground speed which can be quite a bit different from the speed indicated in the aircraft. The flight log comes along with us and gets scrawled on extensively during the flight with timings, frequencies and any other information we wish to record.

Then there is the flight plan form to complete and file over the phone, the mass and balance to calculate, the risk assessment to complete and the all-important weather briefing. All this gets presented to the duty instructor to pick holes in, who will grumble a bit and finally authorise the flight and endorse our logbook. Finally there is just the dispatch log-out sheet and the aircraft tech log to complete. For every hour flying, there is probably another hour of paperwork to go with it.

Just some of the paperwork for tomorrow's flight

Flying the routes is very busy at first. In addition to the usual aircraft handling and numerous check lists we are navigating using the planned data and the map, trying not to get lost and fanatically looking out of the windows like a crazed meercat for other planes.

At the same time we need to talk to a lot of different people on the radio. We have two radios, each of which can be tuned to two frequencies and flipped between them. Even so, there are times when I wish there were three.

We will always be tuned to a frequency for the local traffic so we can report our position and listen to where everyone else is. The flight plans we file have to be activated by radio. If we are lucky, Phoenix Sky harbour or Luke Air Force Base will give us a radar service called "flight following" where they keep an eye on us and maybe warn us about traffic and other hazards. Usually though, they cannot be bothered. We need to talk to air traffic control when arriving and departing, and finally most airports have a recorded weather/information service we are required to listen to.

After all this planning and flying, we have a bit of down time then it is time to start all over again. In this case, doubled...

Tomorrow is another big day; my first land-away solo. This time the route heads way down south out of familiar territory and all the way to Tucson. Here I must land at a strange airport, run by mean and scary controllers (maybe), figure out how to refuel the plane and myself, then fly a different route back. Twice the paperwork yes, but I'm sure more than twice the fun.


After a wonderful three-week visit by my wife, where we squeezed in all sorts of tourist stuff around my flying schedule, she had to go back home last week to work in rainy old England. Sounds very unfair I know, but I'm sure the boot will be on the other foot in a few years time.

I will leave you with some pictures of our travels around Phoenix, Tucson, Patagonia and the surrounding countryside. Until next time.

The red rocks of Sedona

The roof opens at the immense Chase Field ballpark (we lost again)
Some gorgeous girl I met at the baseball getting into the local culture.
Cactus flowers for lunch
Ten engine madness at the Pima air museum
Worlds smallest flying aircraft - six foot wingspan.
Epic Saguaro cactus near Lake Pleasant
There's tons more but I would bore you and it's dinner time. Tomorrow; Tucson!

UPDATE 21/9/13. The trip to Ryan Field near Tucson went great once I'd finally waded through the sea of paperwork. There proved to be at least six of us doing the route today so there was a sort of relay breakfast going on at the excellent airport cafe. On the return flight I managed to get the thing up to 8500', which is pretty good for these temperatures. Nice and cool up there, great views and hardly any traffic. A couple of times I made the classic error of talking on the wrong radio, with the consequence that Tucson approach now think I am an idiot. Oh well, they are only the second largest airport in Arizona. I should apologies to the radar guys for saying they can't be bothered with us. They were great today, covering me for the whole trip and handing off seamlessly between centres. Incredibly actually I remembered to open and close both flight plans - I must be getting the hang of this flying lark now. Tonight we are heading to the 24th Annual Goodyear Oktoberfest held in one of the maintenance hangers by the German Air Force. 1000 people are expected and the band and beer are flying in from Germany. Prost!

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Fly by night

The flying lessons are in full swing now. I have a packed schedule; often my flying buddy and I have two missions per day, many of them solo.

Our instructor recently left the school, lured by a job flying small twin-piston passenger planes in Florida and our new instructor — by popular opinion one of the best — is pushing us hard. She's excellent but does have a bit of a penchant for very very early mornings. Well, it does get us out of the heat (it's only 30 degrees at 4am, but still 40 at 4pm) and early morning are all part of the airline pilot experience.

Better still my wonderful wife is over on an extended visit. Life is good!

Seeing where you are going

There are basically two types of flying — visual and instrument. When flying visually you navigate, avoid traffic and handle the plane based 90% on what you can see outside the window. Visual flying is what small aircraft, gliders and private pilots do pretty much the whole time.

To fly visually you obviously must be able to see where you are going. We have some fairly complex requirements called the Visual Meteorological Conditions, and these bascially specify how far you must be able to see and how far away from clouds you must stay.

If you do not meet these requirements you are by definition in Instrument Meteorological Conditions and let's hope you have been trained and got your Instrument Rating, or you are now in some serious trouble.

Practicing instrument flying under the "hood"
In instrument meteorological conditions you may be able to see quite well, or you may be able to see absolutely nothing. You may now have to handle the plane entirely on what the little dials indicate.

To navigate you must rely on radio beacons on the ground, GPS still being quite novel in aviation. And to avoid hitting anyone else you are going to need help from an air traffic controller. Instrument flying is what airline pilots do 99% of the time.

So... what if you have excellent visibility and no clouds but it happens to be night time? Is it visual or not?

Well, oddly enough it depends on what country you are in. Some say yes, some say no, some say you will need an extra rating on your licence. Here in the USA they are quite happy to let pilots fly visually at night, and in fact it is part of our training requirements. (In the UK it used to be banned, but they have recently allowed it.)

Flying at night

So what is night flying like? A lot of fun, but also a little scary. We usually start the lessons just as sun sets, this way the later part of the flight is in true darkness but first we get some beautiful sunsets over the dramatic desert scenery which is wonderful.

As night falls, landmarks slowly disappear and lights on the ground become your main navigational aid. The surroundings rapidly become unfamiliar and it is easy to get disorientated even very close to home. Roads and towns show up well, and airport beacons of course, but lakes, mountains, railways and the all-important horizon slowly fade away into the night.

These days we live surrounded by bright artificial light and people rarely take the time to walk in the dark, away from habitation. Hence they often don't realise how much you can see. It is never truly dark, there is often moonlight or starlight and even when it is cloudy some filters through. If you give your eyes time, trust your feet, and do not use a torch, you will be amazed at your own night vision.

Final approach at night. There is a parallel runway to the right
and the four white lights (PAPIs) to the side of the left runway show the
pilot is a little high on this approach.
In the plane, we keep the lighting of the instruments and the cockpit low. As the flight progresses and the eyes adapt we keep turning it down. Slowly night sight develops and outside features start to reappear. Strangely, you can often see things better if you don't look directly at them.

Usually the air will be calm, cool and smooth though we had one memorable flight picking our way between thunderstorms, diverting and then diverting from the diversions and finally making a dash back home just before the heavens opened.

Runways are festooned with coloured lights, each of which has a special meaning to the pilot. But these lights are surprisingly difficult to make out when you are not lined up with the runway, making judgement of the circuits more difficult. Height too is harder to judge and the final approach feels quite strange until at last the runway surface texture appears in the landing light at about 10-15 foot and the landing is quite normal.

The scary part? You can not see the mountains. And engine failure. In a single engine aeroplane an engine failure is a pretty big deal, which is why we practice for it so much. But an engine failure at night when you can't see the ground is a lot more worrying. If you can see the ground — because it is lit — then it is probably not where you want to land. If you can not see it, you have no idea what the surface is like until you 'arrive'. I suspect this is why they don't let us do solo navigation flights at night.

Bye bye, sunshine.
Now I am signed off for both solo navigation and solo night flying, I have a busy few weeks building solo hours leading up to the next progress test. This is quite a big event in our training, and is similar to the private pilot licence skills test back home. Well... I passed it last time!