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.


  1. Hope all is better. Once again always in wonder on how you manage to do it all!

  2. Hope you are on top of things and making good progress with the flying. Looking forward to your next update.


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