Monday, 28 July 2014

Base training complete... passengers tomorrow... goodbye!

Neat and tidy circuits (not mine sadly) but a bit larger than usual.

Base training

We have just returned from a quiet airport in the middle of France, where we spent the weekend flying circuits.

Nothing unusual about that for a trainee pilot, but these circuits were flown not in a little Cessna or a Warrior, but in a company Airbus A320.

Trusted with sixty-odd tons of extremely valuable aircraft we proceeded to fly it around and around, about 50 landings between us, until we had all reached the required standard.

The poor thing worked its socks off with a full-power take off every seven or eight minutes and touch downs varying from the excellent to the rather firm.

I hate to even guess at the costs and fuel used, best not to think too hard about that! Base training is a rather special one-off experience that every airline pilot goes through just once in their career.

The obligatory cheesy photo

A quick trip to Aviation House at Gatwick Airport this morning with all the reams of paperwork, and I now have the A320 type rating on my licence. Legally, I am fully qualified as a first officer (co-pilot) to carry passengers on the whole A320 family from the baby 318 to the super stretch 321.

The four members of the A320 family
Practically though, the training continues. Just because I can legally fly, it does not mean I have must of a grasp of what the job is really like  nor much experience. This is where line training comes in.

For the next 40 or 50 flights, I will be operating on actual routes with actual passengers on board, which is a scary and humbling thought. Keeping an eye on my progress will be an experienced training captain, and for the first few trips a safety pilot will come along too. This is largely to step in should be captain become incapacitated. Nobody would want someone as new as me going it alone on the flight deck just yet, me included!

There is no hanging around, my first trip starts tomorrow. It's a busy two-day trip with six flights, four of which are quite short and hectic. It just so happens that we fly the 319, 320 and 321 on the same trip as well as visiting some fairly tricky airports (I will refrain from telling you where) In at the deep end...


And so, "Future Airline Pilot" is no longer an appropriate name for this blog, and "Current Airline Pilot" does not have much of a ring to it. The dream has become real and this story is at an end.

The last almost-two-years have been quite an adventure. A great deal of hard work has gone in as well a scary financial investment. I have come out of it with not just a licence but a whole new career, expanded horizons and lots of new friends.

A huge thank you to everyone who has supported me throughout morally, emotionally, factually and financially. Without my wonderful wife, family and friends I would not be where I am now looking forward to a quite different future.

Thank you for reading.

Onward and upward....


PS. Friends and family only: if you have a smartphone or tablet computer, you can download the Roster Buster Friends & Family app and follow where in the world I am and see my roster for the next month or so. Install the app then use either your facebook account or my mobile number to connect with me. Here are the links for the ipad/iphone and for Android.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Type rating part II

I'm writing this entry with about half my brain switched on, after waking up at 4.30am and reporting at Heathrow at 6am for a four-hour Operator Proficiency Check in the simulator. As the title suggests I am now working for an airline as a first officer complete with uniform, salary (finally!) and almost all the training completed.

The six weeks since my last post and we have been kept so busy I have not had the time or energy to write anything up. Yet despite the lack of updates, this blog has now been read over 50,000 times, a frighteningly large figure which I can only attribute to continuing public fascination with aviation rather than any skill on my part. I feel I owe my readers an quick insight at the very least.

Type rating part II

One of CTC's Airbus simulators outside...
The simulator phase of our type rating course in Southampton went smoothly thanks in no small part to the hard work of my flying buddy. Each detail is an action-packed four hour lesson with an hour and a half briefing and an hour debriefing, plus homework.

As simulator time is expensive a lot of material is crammed in to each lesson. As well as covering all the items necessary for the generic type rating test at the end of the course, the syllabus includes training for low visibility procedures and British Airways operating procedures and call-outs.

Thankfully we didn't find the Airbus a difficult aircraft to fly, at least in terms of manual handling. The clever fly-by-wire architecture and control laws means the aircraft will magically hold the flight path you have set once the stick is released and only tiny inputs are needed to keep it on track. It trims automatically so there are no control loads, and the instrumentation is superb both enabling and encouraging very accurate flying.

...and inside.
But really the line pilot's job involves very little manual flying and a lot of aircraft management. Managing the Airbus is not so easy.

A simple aircraft only has one level of control — manual flying. Large and more complex machines will generally have two — manual and automatic, where basic data like heading and altitude can be set on some sort of autopilot.

The Airbus has three different levels of control. Manual, selected (like a conventional autopilot) and managed, which is more of a strategic long-term control level.

Managed control is mostly set up before take-off and gives the aircraft some autonomy to select speeds and calculate descent points in the interests of economy. It makes life easy for the pilots while everything is going to plan, but when things change reprogramming can be complex and distracting. Using the right level of control at the right time is key, in fact Airbus call it a 'golden rule'.

Sorry. Pilot joke.
The type rating is focussed much more on abnormal and emergency situations than day-to-day flying. On the Airbus, most but not all of these events are dealt with with help from the aircraft's own Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitor (ECAM) which prompts which steps are required to deal with the situation.

But some situations require a quick response from memory, some are not detected by the ECAM and others are done with reference to the paper manual instead. Again it's a complex system designed to make the job easier, which mostly succeeds but also causes a lot of complex repercussions. In fact that last sentence, in a nutshell is my summary of the Airbus!

We had twelve four-hour simulator sessions covering everything from manual flying to low visibility operations, non-precision approaches to engine fires, pilot incapacitation to single engine landings. Finally, it was time for the dreaded licence skill test.

We had a pretty good idea of what to expect... a lot of engine failures both before and after take-off, various other faults and emergency situations, and lots of single engine flying, approaches and landings, all presented in a line-flying scenario. Very similar in fact to the instrument rating test, only in a very different machine and with two pilots. Although both my buddy and I had to re-fly one or two bits of the test twice to satisfy the examiner, we both passed first time and headed home mentally exhausted to sleep for about a week.


After the intensity of the type rating training, the induction period was a welcome break in the form of relatively low intensity office hours activity. Lots and lots of admin, of course, and lots and lots of new names and faces.

We toured around the operation department and terminal 5, collected uniforms, listened to presentations and were generally made to feel very welcome in our new workplace.

Those of you that watched BBC's recent series A Very British Airline will have some idea of what came next — just like the cabin crew, we had to train in emergency medical care, learn about all the emergency equipment on board and how to use it, how to fight fire, security briefings, how to safely operate the doors and so on. Though we had only four days to complete everything. And, it almost goes with out saying, sit more exams.

There was a visit to a local swimming pool to practice donning life jackets in the water, lifesaving techniques and climbing into a life raft unaided. And yes, there were the obligatory emergency slide descents, cue cheesy picture. Fancy actually being paid to jump down slides for the afternoon... almost as good as being paid to fly!

Conversion course

But the easy life did not last long, as next up was the conversion course. Five days of back-to-back simulator details designed to consolidate our flying to company procedures, allow the training staff to evaluate us and complete the operator's proficiency check I mentioned earlier.

Our first flying test in a professional capacity, the check is a regulatory requirement that we can look forward to every six months for the rest of our flying careers. Happily it went well enough, given the lack of sleep, another tick in another box!

But anyway I must go and get some rest as it is a 6am report again tomorrow... next time I post I will have something very exciting to tell you about. Base training day, a once-in-a-career event and the first time we will get our hands on a real jet. Until then.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Type rating part I

Onward and upward! I'm a few steps closer to the real thing this week; firstly I received through the post a little blue plastic wallet containing that magic piece of paper from the Civil Aviation Authority.

Formally, it is a commercial pilot's licence with multi engine and instrument ratings. Informally it is called a 'frozen ATPL', and is basically a licence to act as a first officer on passenger-carrying flights.

One of CTC's Airbus simulators. We'll be on these next week.
Secondly, three friends and I have just completed the type rating ground school and sat and passed what should be our last formal written exam — the type rating technical exam. This was 120 question exam on the minutiae of the Airbus A320.

Next week we move on to the flight phase of the type rating in some very fancy new full-motion simulators. You can actually take a look around these machines yourself, thanks to a recent visit by Google Streetview. Pretty impressive I think you will agree.

"If it's not Boeing, I'm not going"

For years there has been something of a rivalry between pilots that like Airbus and those that prefer Boeing. From the outside perspective this seemed to make little sense as there's really isn't a lot to differentiate them visually.

Our (admittedly limited) training on the Boeing 737-400 simulators didn't really shed much light on the mystery either. We had a lot to learn in adapting from our simple light twins to the 737 but fundamentally it flew and felt fairly similar, that is like a conventional mechanically controlled aircraft.

Boeing have moved on a long way from the 737-400 of course, and the tools to help the pilots to fly safely and efficiently are incredibly good, even going as far as heads-up displays on the 787. Fundamentally though it is a conventional aircraft that is flown in a fairly hands-on way to which has been added lots of clever extras.

Airbus, I'm starting to realise, have taken an entirely different philosophy to their design. Rather than asking "how can we help the pilots to do their job?" they ask "how can we stop the pilots from making mistakes?"

Central to the Airbus is the fly-by-wire concept. No longer are the pilots' controls connected to the elevators, ailerons and so on with cables and levers. The only connections are electronic ones through the many and varied flight computers.

This ability to intervene between what the pilot commands and what the plane actually does fundamentally changes the way the plane is flown. The pilots do not have to worry about overspeeding, stalling, over banking or over stressing the airframe because the aircraft will to prevent it happening*. A lot of the tricky secondary effects of the controls are cleverly eliminated, making it far easier to hand-fly.

On the face of it this seems to take control away from the pilots whose job is to control the aircraft. The buck, after all, stops with the captain. But in fact it gives pilots the ability to respond quickly and aggressively when the situation demands without fear of losing control or breaking anything. It's safer.

The 'glareshield' panel contains the commonly used controls for
both controlling the autopilot and manipulating the navigation displays
But the design philosophy goes much deeper than that. The cockpit layout reflects what pilots actually require most of the time — that is clear, unambiguous information on the state of the aircraft while it is flying automatically and quick access to the key controls.

Line pilots spend hardly any time flying manually, so the control columns are smaller and positioned out of the way. There are two computer interfaces, the glareshield (above) for short-term control inputs located right in the centre and unit with a screen and keyboard for longer term planning and navigation affectionately known as the McDoo down below.

Two basic principles ensure the pilots are not dazzled with a messy array of lights and gauges; 1. if a system is normal, it will be 'lights out', and 2. almost everything you need to know or touch is right in front of you.

More key information is shown on two small screens that the multitude of gauges and
dials on older aircraft.
Four flat screen displays replace all conventional instruments. One (on the right in the picture) tells you everything about the way the aircraft is flying; attitude, speed, altitude, height, heading, track, autopilot and auto thrust modes and much more, presented in a very neat format.

On the left is the navigation display. Finally, a proper moving map display such as car drivers have been enjoying for years! Again it is well thought out and can combine all sorts of data including weather radar, terrain, airports, approach procedures, you name it.

When things go wrong, 'Fifi' won't just bombard you with
alarms, she will actually help you fix the problem...
On the centre console, the third and forth screens contains all the engine and system information, plus an area that gives details of the state of certain aircraft systems (only the ones you need to know about!) and where any faults will appear. Not only will it tell you what has failed, it will also tell you what to do about it, and in what order. No more scrabbling about in reference books to find the right page.

This aircraft will help out the pilots in all sorts of clever ways. Anything that could possibly be automated has been; eliminating a large amount of error-prone switch bashing and mental arithmetic. Yet careful thought has been given to how this automation can be overridden if required, and the consequences of one system on another in all sorts of situations.

It's not perfect of course. Already I can see that the manuals are a bit of a linguistic mess and the obsession with acronyms has got way out of hand. With so much automation, you have to work much harder on situational awareness (knowing where you are, where you are going and where you should be). And the lack of any movement or force feed-back on the primary flying controls is going to take some getting used to.

My initial impression is the Airbus is a very complex aircraft to really understand — its logic is full of 'what if' situations and deeply nested trees of causes and effects — but hopefully a safe and an easy one to fly.

I'm not going to have to wait long to find out.

* When it is operating normally. If enough systems fail it will revert to a simpler mode, in other words it becomes like a conventional aeroplane again.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

I'm there!

I've done it! We completed our line evaluation check ride on the 737 simulator yesterday, passed, filled in a heap of paper work and that is it, I am a qualified airline pilot at last!

Admittedly, there is one slight snag as I'm not yet qualified to fly any particular aeroplane, that is the next stage of my training. Known as a type rating, it consists of six weeks of ground school and simulator work to learn every detail about, in my case, the Airbus A320 family.

The check ride was a short trip from Heathrow to Manchester and back. I was pilot flying for the first leg, while my buddy flew the return trip. On both trip there were three 'events', ranging from minor technical breakdowns to smoke obscuring the runway to the airport's instrument landing system failing.

Heathrow to Manchester in a 737 is a very short trip, in fact as soon as you have finished climbing it is time to descend again. When we first tried it a few weeks ago, the instructor had to freeze our position as we bumbled through the required checklists and briefings. This time we were able to complete all the necessary tasks and deal with the 'events' in real time without rushing — it is amazing how quickly we have improved.

We were far from perfect of course — this is why when we start the job we will be flying with very experienced captains not other cadets. But I was very happy with our trips and delighted to have finished the course at Oxford.

Land grab

In the UK, nobody really owns beaches. There are there for everyone to enjoy. Sometimes, for safety reasons they are divided up into sections, perhaps one part for the swimmers, one for the surfers and so on. Some areas will have life guards watching over them and others you take your chances.

Airspace is very similar. Nobody owns the airspace above our heads and it is there for anyone to use. Clearly it is not a complete free-for-all, and for safety reasons some if it is controlled airspace with restrictions on it usage. In some of it, pilots can receive a radar service, much like a life guard watching over you and preventing accidents.

The details of controlled airspace vary, but the basic idea is to protect aircraft on busy commercial routes from coming into conflict with any other aircraft. As I see it, it is purely a safety issue.

To fly in controlled airspace, a pilot generally needs prior permission, current ATC clearance, constant two-way radio communication, usually a radar transponder system and often specialised instrument-flying equipment and training. This means that most light aircraft are generally unable or unwilling to enter controlled airspace, while gliders, balloons, microlights etc are excluded.

The tricky job of balancing the needs of commercial aviation for controlled airspace and everyone else for somewhere to fly falls to the Civil Aviation Authority. Although often seen as stuffy and bureaucratic, they genuinely do try to do their best to satisfy everyone.

TAG's attempted airspace grab
So why do I mention all this? Because there is a massive attempted land grab (or should I say air grab) going on right now. The new owners of Farnborough airfield, TAG, have applied for a truly massive amount of controlled airspace. Just have a look at the picture.

TAG are not a commercial airline that provides a service to the general population, they specialise in transporting wealthy executives and VIPs in private jets. They have perhaps two or three paying passengers per day, yet they are asking for their own controlled airspace that rivals Heathrow in size and exceeds it in complexity.

Should this application be approved, it would be a disaster for general aviation. There are several airfields below or actually inside the proposed airspace that would likely go out of business. There are several more gliding clubs that would shut down.

The large area of insanely complex airspace is frankly frightening to the ordinary pilot (airspace busts are taken very seriously). No one will want to fly anywhere near it, with the result that all the light traffic will be concentrated into corridors around the edge, significantly endangering their safety. Meanwhile the large volume of controlled airspace will lie unused almost all of the time, some of it permanently empty.

Even more worryingly, it could set a precedent. Smaller commercial airports such as Cambridge, Coventry and Oxford have been operating happily for years without controlled airspace protecting their instrument approaches. If TAG get their way, then airports like this will soon be making similar bids. Uncontrolled airspace will become squeezed more and more. 

Imagine if a private company tried to lay claim to all the beaches between Southampton and Brighton that they didn't even own and close them to everyone but a handful of super-wealthy people. There would be public outcry.

This is no different. There is no benefit to anyone but TAG. There is no safety argument. It will cripple non-commercial aviation in the area. It is completely disproportionate and unfair.

Please help to prevent this crazy plan going ahead. All you need to do is spend a few minutes contributing to the consultation document (parts B to E) before it closes on 6 May.  For more information, the British Gliding Association has written a guide to the proposed changes.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

He's got my back

We are well into the final phase of training at Oxford now, learning to fly the Boeing 737 using full-motion simulators and operating as a two-pilot crew. It is demanding but very satisfying and I am really enjoying it.

No longer are we a single pilot operation, with all the stress and pitfalls that entails. Instead we are a team, we can split the workload, help each other out, catch errors and so on. Each session is two hours and we take turns as either pilot flying or pilot monitoring. Both jobs keep you busy and involved, and in fact the pilot monitoring ends up flying a substantial chunk of each sector.

The early lessons were fully manual exercises to get used to handling the aircraft. At around 50 tonnes and with powerful jet engines it's very different to the light twins we are used to.

"What happens if I press this?"
The large mass and high speed means you must really think ahead of the aircraft. Low drag and turbine engines mean the power settings and speed control need to be very accurate and adjustments must be made quickly. High power means giddy climb rates on take-off — you better be ready. A yaw damper system means that the rudder takes care of itself in normal circumstances, so we have to flight our instincts to coordinate turns and keep our feet still.

But ultimately an aeroplane is an aeroplane and they all work pretty much the same way. It takes surprisingly little time to get used to the handling and fly it manually reasonably well.

This course is not about accurate manual flying however, it is about training for the job — part of a crew flying a passenger jet. Great care has been taken to make it as realistic as possible. We are instructed by experienced airline pilots and work to company procedures using company check lists and reference material, routes and paperwork. Communications with ATC, ground crew, cabin crew and passengers are all part of the simulation.

We are even expected to make passenger announcements and get a kick out of saying things like "cabin crew doors to manual and cross check." Asking the purser for a cup of tea might be taking it bit far though.

A real 737 from the outside. Our simulators look more like a cross
between an portacabin and a giant spider.
Importantly, we are getting a grounding in automatic flight, learning how the auto-throttle and autopilot can help and equally when they can be a liability.

To some extent it is true that the plane can "fly itself", but only if it is set up correctly in the first place, if all systems are working correctly and if plans do not change. Getting the automatics to do the basic flying and navigating frees up the pilots for other important tasks, but never reduces the requirement to monitor exactly what the aircraft is doing now and next.

So far, our scenarios have been realistic but smooth sectors, for example today we flew from Heathrow to Manchester and back (a short and busy route) but the weather was fine and nothing went wrong with the aircraft of the ground based equipment. Next we will be learning how to deal with situations such as poor weather, delays, diversions and of course emergencies.

Ultimately we will be assessed while flying a complete sector with a full complement of imaginary passengers and cabin crew, without any instructor input. During the flight two or three 'situations' or full emergencies will arise and must be dealt with.

And we will be doing this... next Friday!

Monday, 24 March 2014

Instrument rating - in the bag!

The instrument rating test is often said to be the hardest test a civil pilot will ever sit, and employers are keen to find pilots who pass first time. So you can imagine how pleased (and surprised) I was when the examiner turned to me at the end of the flight today and shook my hand, saying "congratulations, you have passed."

On a gliding day, this temperature profile would be good
news, but today I could have done without that 5000'
layer of unstable air causing strong thermals.
I almost cancelled the trip because I knew a gusty and variable wind across the runway at our destination coupled with very unstable air would make the instrument approach and limited panel work difficult, and generally act as an extra stressor on the whole flight.

I expressed my concerns to the examiner, with evidence, and he told me to take five minutes to consider. My instructor (as usual) thought I should go, so I decided to give it my best shot. It was just as I expected, but I think expressing my concern was a good idea as I earned myself a little leeway on the tight accuracy limits.

The IR is a strange test really, because it ultimately comes down to the examiner's discretion. It's very unlikely that a pilot with our experience could complete the whole test within the limits and without significant errors, so technically they could fail almost everyone. Certain dangerous errors will guarantee a fail on that section, but outside of that the examiner takes an overall view of the flight. They want to see someone who is ahead of the aeroplane demonstrating they know exactly what they are doing — situational awareness.

The flight was far from my best effort. I know I missed radio calls, wandered off altitudes and speeds and other misdemeanours, some of which I was lucky to get away with. But I always knew where I was, what I was doing and what was happening next. I reckon that's what pulled me through.

Anyway that's the last big hurdle between me and my airline pilot's licence successfully cleared. The next 'real' aeroplane I fly professionally is likely to be the Airbus A320 on the base training day. No more plastic screens hiding the view, no more ancient analogue instruments and no longer as a single pilot.

Friends in one of the school's 737 simulators
The next part of the course (starting tomorrow!) is the three-week multi-crew training and jet conversion course. This teaches how two pilots work together to operate large and complex jet aircraft. After a brief ground school, we will be training on full-motion 737 simulators. That completes the training at Oxford and ends in the issue of the precious licence.

After that, a short holiday (remember them?!) and onto the type rating course, where I will need to learn everything there is to know about the Airbus A320 family, not least how to fly the beasts. If all goes to plan, I could be flying passengers on their holidays as early as July.


Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Nearly ready...

Just a quick update as it has been a while since I last posted.

I am almost ready for the big test — the instrument rating. Just one simulator session and two practice flights remain. The pace has slowed down a bit due to a large number of students arriving at the school from the US, and the patchy weather.

But this has allowed plenty of time for practice and study, time for the wife and friends, and even time for a little early season gliding. At the weekend I managed a 40 minute flight, not bad for February.

The test and its accompanying mock version known as the 170 should be within the next two weeks. Keep everything crossed for me!

Look, no engines! I'd almost forgotten what it is like to see where you are flying.

Strange reflections in the K13's canopy

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Trip to the seaside

It's no coincidence that health and personal problems often crop up during periods of high workload and stress but it certainly does not help. The last four weeks have been a struggle, which is why I have not posted anything, but thankfully I am finally getting on top of all the issues and making a big improvement in the flying too.

I thought it would be good to talk through a typical instrument flight, such as my recent mission to Bournemouth. Perhaps that makes you picture ice creams on the beach, or more likely cups of tea in rain-swept sea front cafes. It's nothing like that!

A student flying with the screens in place. They
are supposedly designed so the instructor can see out.
When we fly "to" a destination we rarely land there, and we usually divert back to Oxford afterwards. The 'screens' will be installed from before take-off until just before landing so the cadet flying won't see a thing outside for the whole trip.

In fact, in can be quite hard to believe we have actually been to any of these places no least because it's all over so fast. With a bit of tail wind we can achieve 200mph, and flying more or less directly to the destination gets you there very quickly.

The flight starts about two hours before take-off, with the customary mountain of paperwork. I have to check the schedule, winds, weather, airfield reports and forecasts and NOTAMS (notices to airmen). I  review the aircraft's maintenance status, do mass and balance calculations and work out the take off and landing performance. I complete a flight plan so ATC know what to expect and prepare a navigation log with key figures to help me during the flight. I plot the route on the map and finally assemble all the 'plates' showing the arrival, departure and approach procedures we might need.

Now it is time to head out to the aircraft for the pre-flight checks. Me or my flying buddy will do a detailed walk-around checking all sorts of items including lights, de-icing equipment, fuel, oil, tyres, flying controls and so on. If all is well we jump in, get settled and get a start-up clearance.

There is a lot of equipment to set up and check after the engine start. The key to single-pilot instrument flying is set everything up in advance if at all possible, ideally while still on the ground.

It can easily take twenty minutes to prepare between start up and take-off. This has to be factored in as I have slots booked for take off, arrival at the destination and return home. Miss these slots and things rapidly get complicated.

I take off looking through a little 'letterbox' in the screens, which the instructor closes a few moments after we are airborne, then it's eyes down to the instruments for the rest of the flight.

Oxford airport is surrounded by other airports, danger areas and controlled airspace, so we always depart  to the north west via one of two waypoints. A waypoint is a defined location used by pilots for navigation that appears on maps and charts, but rarely is there any feature on the ground. Each gets a pronounceable five-letter name, which sometimes is meaningful (LESTA is near Leicester) but mostly they are pretty abstract.

Shortly after take-off the tower controller hands me over to the local radar controller (not always available), from whom I request a traffic service. This means the controller will let me know about any other aircraft nearby, but it remains up to me not to crash into them or the ground.
A very soggy Avon valley near Southampton

One of the requirements of the instrument rating test is flight through controlled airspace, so the next controller I talk to  is London Control who can give us clearance to do this. Often they are busy talking to the big boys so it's sometimes necessary to hold and wait before crossing the imaginary but very important line into class A airspace. Now, it is the controller's responsibility to keep the planes apart, which is one less thing to worry about.

I navigate our way along the planned route from waypoint to waypoint. Where possible, I use the old fashioned radio aids I explained in my last post, but occasionally I have to resort to GPS. This particular trip passes through the waypoints BAMBO, DILAX, KENET (where controlled airspace starts) and PEPIS before heading to the VOR station at Southampton airport and finally the non-direction beacon at Bournemouth for the approach.

Today I am practising an ILS (instrument landing system) approach, and rather than following this round-the-houses route, the controller decides to give me radar vectors direct from before PEPIS all the way to the final approach. If that sounds technical it's not, it simply means he can see us on radar and tells us what headings and altitudes to fly.

It's easy to relax when on radar vectors but not a good idea. You need to keep your wits about you and maintain situational awareness which is actually more difficult if someone else is navigating. The key thing is to get everything ready so when you get that final turn onto the approach you are at the correct speed with all the check-lists and briefings done and the instruments checked and ready to roll.

Flying an ILS approach in a strong cross wind -
you are looking at the runway through the side window!
Now I simply follow the cross-hairs down to the runway threshold. Not quite as easy as it sounds, it requires very accurate control of heading, consideration of wind drift and control of descent rate as the instrument gets more and more sensitive as I get closer.

At a certain altitude — decision altitude — I look up and decide whether I can see enough to land. Of course I can't, as all I can see is a bunch of bits of plastic in the way so I have to go around.

In reality engines fail very very rarely. But oddly enough one seems to give up the ghost on us every single time we go around from an ILS. Yes, the pesky instructor has closed one of the throttles but he won't tell me which one.

When an engine fails on a twin during a climb, the aircraft veers rapidly off course, starts to roll and quickly loses speed. I have to get the aircraft smartly back under control, on track and in a gentle climb before carrying out the lengthy engine failure drill.

Having dealt with the simulated engine failure, I can divert back to Oxford, which we generally do at a lower altitude staying out of controlled airspace. At Oxford we will do a dreaded NDB approach (see last post), only guess what — the other engine will fail this time!

The challenge is to fly the approach using the intricate but vague radio-magnetic compass for the course guidance and a combination of the altimeter and a distance measuring device for the correct height profile, all asymmetric ie. with one engine 'failed'.

Once again, on reaching our decision altitude I can see only the screens and must go around, this time on one engine which takes great care. It is very easy to lose directional control with one engine on full power and the other on idle. Also the aircraft can barely climb until the landing gear and flaps are retracted, so it's not a good idea to waste any time.

At long last the screens come down, and leg aching from holding the rudder it is just left to fly a visual circuit to land. An asymmetrical circuit of course, and without the luxury of climbing to a healthy 1000' circuit height due to the low cloud.

At this point my tired brain rather gives up and I make a mess of the final turn and approach so once again have to go around, at which point the instructor shows some mercy and demonstrates his low-level asymmetrical circuit and landing technique, much to my relief.

It just remains to taxi back to the stand, close down and tie down the aircraft and head in for a cup or tea and a de-brief.

Sadly, with the screens up beautiful cloudscapes like these can only be appreciated by the passengers.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Next stop - instrument rating

Happy new year everyone.

"London" Oxford Airport
We are back home in the UK, Christmas binge over and the shock of the British weather has subsided. Some of us have got off to a 'flying' start with our new instructors on the next section of training — the instrument rating.

I've talked before about instrument flying (controlling the plane with no outside references). I've talked about asymmetric flight, check-lists and a little about radio navigation, holds and approaches.

The instrument rating is really about putting all this together at the same time.

By the end of this 10-week 50-flying-hour block we need to be able to convince a CAA examiner that we can plan and fly a twin engine aircraft on a complex route to public transport rules and standards, flying and navigating purely on instruments.

CAP 413; how to use the radio in
just 350 fun-filled pages.
We need to negotiate the complex UK airspace and deal with the UK's excellent but very formal air traffic controllers. We need to log our progress and write down lots of information. We need to quickly read and understand complicated approach plates. We need to do this on old fashioned analogue equipment without the help of an autopilot or GPS, and quite often we will need to do it with one engine 'failed'.

But most daunting of all we will need to do it completely unaided; the twin-engine single-pilot instrument rating test is quite possibly the most difficult flight we will ever undertake in our careers.

So far, we have been working in the simulators practising Oxford's departure, hold and arrival procedures, desperately trying to get everything together. There is never enough time, and as soon as some vital task diverts the attention, the plane will wander off course and off altitude almost like it is doing it on purpose.

The instructor assures us that with enough repetition things will become... not exactly easy, but possible.

Describing our flying in this section of the course is going to get unavoidably technical, but I will do my best to explain it. You can't understand radio instrument navigation without an idea of what the radio beacons and systems are and what they do, so here goes my attempt to explain.

The instrument approach

The approach is simply the phase of flight between arriving in the vicinity of the destination airport, and the point where you can see the runway in front of you in order to land visually.

The microwave landing system at Heathrow. That's an
A380 landing, so it's a fair bit higher than it looks!
This may be just a few hundred feet above the ground so clearly there has to be a way to arrive at the right place, at the right height and speed ready to land without being able to see outside. This is what instrument approach systems are for.

Almost all instrument approach systems use ground-based equipment to guide you in. GPS approaches are starting to appear but are still fairly new... 'new' in aviation being anything invented less than 25 years ago.

The cleverest approach system is the microwave landing system (MLS). First appearing in 1979, it also qualifies as a pretty new technology. It can guide the plane in via a whole range of different glide slopes and approach paths, is immune from interference and reflection problems, is reliable and accurate and is generally the bees knees.

Microwave systems were planned to replace earlier instrument landing systems at all major airports by 2010. In fact, only about three airports actually have one, and few planes have the equipment to use them.

So we don't get tested on MLS approaches.

The ILS is basically an invisible funnel of radio waves that
guide the pilot down the glide path to the runway
The next best system is the instrument landing system, or ILS, which has been with us since about 1938 so counts as a reasonably mature technology. You tune it in to a navigation radio just as you would with an FM radio station, and your instruments will indicate whether you need to fly left, right, up or down to get on the ideal three degree approach slope and centre line.

ILS has quite a few problems which I will leave you to read about on your own if you are interested, but it works well enough and has been installed at almost all large airports and many smaller ones worldwide. From the pilot's point of view it is reasonably easy to use, and we will be looking at ILS approaches next week

But ILS approaches are not considered difficult enough to be a 'real' test.

The microwave and instrument landing systems are known as precision approach systems, because they give guidance on height as well as direction. However it's perfectly possible to use simple radio beacon for directional guidance, the pilot taking care of the altitude. This is a non-precision approach and it's a bit more involved.

VOR stations like this are dotted around the country
at strategic points.
Of the two types of radio beacons that can be used for non-precision approaches, the newer and better one is the VOR. I really do my best to avoid acronyms in this blog, but I can't this time. VOR actually stands for VHF Omni Range — yes it is an acronym inside another acronym. (VHF stands for very high frequency, which is the type of radio waves that the FM radio in your car picks up).

VORs have been around since the forties, and there are about 3000 of them beeping away world wide. They send out two signals. One just splurges out equally in all directions, but the second is highly directional. By comparing the two signals, the equipment on board can work out the bearing from the beacon to your aircraft. You then know you are somewhere on an imaginary line that starts at the VOR and heads off in a specific compass direction, known as a radial.

The advantage of the VOR over the simple non-directional beacon (below) is that it works accurately irrespective of what the aircraft is doing. It can be heading in any direction, travelling in any direction or even be upside down and the reading will be steady and accurate, a small but useful advantage over the simple non-directional beacon.

But we don't get tested on VOR approaches either — still too easy!

Because there is one even more ancient and troublesome technology — the non-directional beacon (NDB). This is exactly what it sounds — a simple aerial sending out a blank carrier wave indiscriminately in all directions. They nothing more than an medium-wave radio station without the music. In fact medium-wave radio stations will work as non-direction beacons.

The Radio Magnetic Compass.
The yellow needle will point
towards an NDB, the green
one towards a VOR. We spend
hours staring at these needles.
There is no information contained in the signal from the non-directional beacon, but with a cunning arrangement of aerials on the aircraft it is possible to calculate where the signal is coming from. This drives a pointer on an instrument called an radio magnetic compass. All this pointer does is point to the beacon but this is enough, just, to enable entire holding and approach procedures to be flown.

First introduced in the thirties, non-directional beacons were supposed to be phased out decades ago, but are still with us. Mostly they are used for navigation but a handful of airports — including ours — use them for instrument approaches.

Compared to VORs, they are pretty tricky to use. Instead of a simple deviation bar telling you to fly left or right, you have a pointer on a compass face. You have to squint at it very closely to keep it within a degree or two, remember which end of the needle to use (the head when going towards the station, the tail going away) and work out which way and how much to turn when you are off course. You have to account for wind by flying just the right about of into-wind heading to keep the needle still.

They suffer from a multitude of errors — even nearby railway tracks can send them screwy. Most annoying of these is dip error. As soon as you bank the plane the needle veers off course, making it unreliable outside of straight and level flight. All in all, NDB approaches are a pain in the backside and most professional pilots would run a mile before they would attempt a NDB approach.

So guess which one we get tested on!

Here is part of the approach plate for the "Oxford NDB DME 19" approach, the one we use most often. DME stands for distance measuring equipment which is yet another type of radio navigation device which tells you how far away you are from something, in this case from the end of runway 19.

There are masses of information squeezed onto approach plates and they look a bit scary, but the basics are actually quite easy to decipher.

The airport is the little cross in the middle, and the round blob indicates the position of the NDB. The boxes show you what radio navigation facilities are available, what frequency they are and their Morse code identifiers (yes really, we do still use Morse code). In this case you can see that Oxford has both an NDB called 'OX' and a combined ILS/DME called 'IOXF'.

Extending down and right of the airport is a racetrack shape, this is the holding pattern. Normally the hold lines up with the approach and runway, but at Oxford the it is sort of bent off to one side to keep pilots well away from RAF Brize Norton.

Early attempt in the sim; room
for improvement!
To fly the approach, we arrive overhead the NDB from any direction and join the holding pattern, if necessary shuttling down to 3500'. Once we ready, we leave the pattern and fly off to the north on the outbound leg (the one marked CAT A & B), descending to 1800'. On reaching 6.5 miles away from the NDB, we hang a right and head inbound on a course of 194 degrees magnetic.

This course has to be held accurately accounting for wind and we have a few moments to get everything sorted before the final descent starts at 4.7 miles. Because this is a non-precision approach, we have to check our height every mile to make sure we are descending on the correct slope.

Eventually we will reach our minimum decision altitude. If we can see the runway, then we can go ahead and land. If not we have to go around and try again. This is called a missed approach and is indicated by the dotted line on the chart. Back to the hold and start all over again!

Well that's the idea anyway. There are a lot of checks and radio calls to squeeze into these very busy few minutes that make it a lot more difficult than it sounds... not that it sounds all that easy.

We should be flying some of these approaches for real this week. It's been over a month since I last flew a real aircraft so fingers crossed I can still remember how!