Monday, 28 October 2013

Copper State Fly-in

All my solo navigation flights to date - it's fair to
say we are quite familiar with the local area now.
On Friday I flew and passed progress test three, which went really well. It is a visual navigation test based on "dead reckoning", meaning that you plan the route before hand on the chart, figuring out all the timings and headings in advance.

If you do your maths right, fly carefully and have an accurate wind forecast you should find yourself at each planned point at exactly the planned time. This rarely happens. But on Friday it all came together, I don't think I was ever more than a minute or a mile out even on the diversion leg, which is planned in the air.

After this, we did a practice forced landing from a simulated engine fire onto a little dirt strip, and a couple of "touch and go" landings at a different airport before returning to base. Everything went smoothly, and the few small errors I did make must have gone unnoticed as I was given top marks for the test. What a contrast to progress test two!

This week is looking very slow on the training front while I wait for the others in the group to pass their tests (I am keeping everything crossed hoping we will be home for Christmas). But I should be able to fly my cross country qualifier. This is a minimum 300 mile solo flight with full landings at two other airports. It will be a long day but I think a lot of fun as well. It will be pretty much the last solo flying I will do, as we don't get to fly solo in the twin engine aircraft sadly.

In other news, British Airways have just re-opened their Future Pilot Program for round three. If you or anyone you know would like to apply, don't hang around as they generally only give you a few weeks to apply. It's good news for us as well, it seems the demand for pilots to fly the new A320 fleet out of Gatwick is greater than expected and the jobs are there waiting for us next year.

Copper State Fly In

Four planes line up for a formation takeoff, while the
Stearman and its baby replica (below) show off
Last week, on pain of torture, we students were strictly forbidden to fly anywhere near one of our neighbouring airports, Casa Grande. The reason? Something called the Copper State Fly In was being held there, one of the largest in the US. What is a fly-in exactly? I wasn't sure really, but I was willing to find out so a friend and I decided to drive down and see what was happening.

What we found was basically organised chaos. The entire apron, and several dirt lots, were completely full of parked aircraft of all types. Some of them were clustered in groups, such as the ultralights and the kit-built planes, while others seemed random. If there was a pattern, it seemed to be the more interesting your plane, the nearer you could get to the middle where the action was.

Milling around the area were hundreds of people admiring the machinery and chatting to the owners. Planes were constantly arriving and departing from the single, uncontrolled runway. Some just flew circuits but others showed off their formation flying or did low passes over the runway. Planes constantly taxiied in and out of the busy apron, and how no body got minced by a prop I do not know. This sort of thing would never be allowed in the UK!

The awesome Lightning kit-build two seater. I want one!
There was a strong show from the experimental and home-built categories, a popular and affordable option for private ownership, if you have the time and skills. These are certainly not the shonky box-like death traps you might imagine, but often very modern, high performance composite aircraft with advanced avionics. Take a look at the Lighting for example - it can cruise at 140 mph while burning 5 gallons per hour and is fully aerobatic. Not bad for something you can knock up in your garage in a few hundred hours.

The Commemorative Air Force museum also put on a good show with an impressive number of still-flying and very highly polished WWII era planes including a B25 twin-engine bomber that was so shiny you could see your face in it.

Another kit aircraft, the Cozy has the engine and prop at the back, the
elevator at the front and the fins and rudders on the wing tips.
Either a genius design or plain contrary I'm not sure...
Little and large!

Someone has got far too much time on their hand for polishing.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Two Phoenix Transitions

The flight line at dawn - Red Mountain in the background

Phoenix Transition 1

As predicted, our move to Falcon Field over on the east side of Phoenix has not gone entirely smoothly. The operation here is cursed with a horrendous computer system for planning and dispatch that is the source of a lot of stress, maintenance is a perennial problem and I don't think the staff were quite ready for the extra workload of 45 extra students, 10 instructors and two more aircraft fleets.

Despite the wrinkles, we are making slow but steady progress and getting familiar with the area. I have been lucky with another excellent instructor who also happens to be an examiner and hence knows exactly what we need to learn for the tests.

Yes, another test is looming — progress test three — due around the end of this week. This one is a navigation test, where a flight is planned and flown on visual 'dead reckoning' techniques, no radio aids or GPS allowed!

Falcon Field - our new home base
At some point en route the examiner will call for a diversion. We then have a few minutes to plan a new leg in the air, figuring out the distance, time and heading (accounting for wind), altitude, fuel burn and arrival time. Arrival at the diversion point must be within three minutes of our stated time, which is actually a lot more generous than it sounds. The hardest part is flying the aircraft competently and keeping a good lookout while our head is down and hands are busy figuring out all this stuff.

It is also a dead-cert that at some point the engine will "catch fire", and we will need to execute an emergency descent to a forced landing on a suitable spot with all the associated checks. A forced landing in a small plane is really no different to a normal landing in a glider, except the glide ratio is a lot worse and there are no air brakes, so good judgement of our height relative to our landing spot is needed. We don't actually touch down in the desert of course, once the examiner is happy the engine will magically restart and we "go around" which is simply a full-throttle best-climb get-the-hell-out-of-there manoeuvre.


Phoenix has some of the busiest skies in the world. Of course, there are commercial jets in and out of Sky Harbor, one of the world's busiest airports. But the good weather and large distances attracts lots of general aviation (small private planes) and skydivers. Then there are extensive military operations, helicopters, some gliding and ballooning and of course heaps and heaps of student pilots. One of the ways this mess is kept in some sort of order is through classes of airspace.

An airspace is simply a defined region of space that has special rules attached to it. They may start at the surface or they may be suspended in mid air. Their boundaries are clearly shown on our maps, but sadly no one has yet worked out a way to mark them in the sky so these vital boundaries are totally invisible to the pilot.

Some types of airspace are strictly off-limits to us, and entering them even if briefly and accidentally has serious repercussions. Prohibited and active restricted areas fall into this category, as does class B airspace such as the one protecting the busy Skyharbour international airport.

Others we can use, but only if we follow the correct procedures. Our own base for example is a class D airspace, which means we can only enter if we are in communication with the control tower.

Airspace around Falcon Field

There is a lot of other airspace near Falcon field. Just to the west we have Sky Harbor's class B starting at 2700'. Our airport is at 1400' and we fly the pattern at 2400' so this does not give a large margin for error.

To the south we have the busy Phoenix Mesa Gateway airport which operates regional passenger jets. It has not only a class D zone to 3900' but also an instrument approach, which means large, fast traffic will approach the airport through 'our' practice area without looking where they are going.

Just south-east of this is restricted area R-2310 which for years lay dormant, but is now used for testing unmanned military drones. Let's not tangle with those!

Above all this, between 5000' and 10,000' is a huge aerobatics box used by a local company for upset recovery training. We will be doing this course soon, which is going to be an amazing experience, so I'm not moaning too much about that one.

Finally, a little further south we have some very busy parachuting areas and some radio beacons where a lot of people practice holds and instrument approaches. These latter two are not strictly airspace, but definitely best avoided.

Phoenix Transition  2

Sky Harbor seen from the transition
Phoenix Sky Harbor has its three runways running east-west, and with its extensive airspace and constant traffic it effectively cuts the entire area in half making it very difficult and long-winded to fly from the north to the south of the city and visa versa.

To address this problem there is a special route called the Phoenix transition. This allows small aircraft flying visually to enter the class B airspace and fly straight across the ends of Sky Harbor's runways.

Although this sounds balmy, flying at right-angles over the middle or ends of a runway is fairly safe as all the traffic taking off and landing will be well below you. You will only be in anybody's way if they make an early go-around or missed approach, meaning they didn't like their approach to land and want to climb up and try it again. Plus you have air traffic control keeping a close eye on things for you.

Still, it is not something to undertake lightly and student pilots are not permitted to try it. So it was a nice surprise when our instructor decided to shoot the transition during a lesson last week. It was quite an experience trundling overhead down-town Phoenix and one of the world's busiest airports, the heavy traffic passing just below.

Downtown Phoenix, with the Chase Field baseball
stadium in front, roof open.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Goodbye Goodyear

The school parking ramp looking is deserted as the planes
are shuttled over to Falcon Field
No, sadly I am not headed home just yet, but we are saying our goodbyes to Goodyear municipal airport. After nine years, the flight school is leaving and relocating to Falcon Field way over on the other side of Phoenix.

We have mixed feelings about the move; it seems to be due to corporate machinations rather than anything aviation related, and it is a shame to lose such a great base just for financial reasons. The new base is massive with lots of flight schools operating from a large new building, and the airspace around the twin-runway airport is positively buzzing with students from around the world. To move to a busier and therefore arguably less safe airspace does not make sense to me, but what do I know? I am just a lowly cadet.

Unfortunately my instructor has resigned (again — I hope I don't get a reputation) so it looks like there could be some delays ahead. In anticipation I have been packing in as much flying as I can in the last fortnight. As a result I am nearly two-thirds of the way through the course.

I am now just shy of the 100 hours milestone — one of several points in a pilot's career at which he is at the greatest risk statistically. Why? I suspect it is the point that you really feel that you know what you are doing, but you are very wrong! I will try to remember that I am still very much a beginner.

Today I flew the last of three land-away double solo trips. It was a fiendish route with a ridiculous number of turn-points several of which were difficult to spot. But it went really well, and it was a joy to fly in the smooth air of autumn now the temperatures have reached sensible levels and the turbulence has abated. The cafe at Chandler Municipal Airport is now my favourite, and I hope that we will be able to make it a regular stop after the move. I think Goodyear will also be a regular stop, one tinged with nostalgia for students and staff alike.

Until next time. Goodbye Goodyear!