Tag Archives: airports

Down the Sydney coast with my father – an unforgettable flight

View flight photos here

Yesterday, Easter Monday, my father and I flew down the coast of Sydney to land at Wollongong, then returned to home base. It was a magnificent flight, for many reasons but most significantly for the sheer joy and pleasure that it clearly brought to my father. I’m blogging about this one because I don’t want to forget the sheer enjoyment of it.

Dad has flown with me before, just the once, not long after I attained my GFPT. (This, for those who may not know, is what used to be called your “restricted license” and in my case permitted me to fly within the environs of the Bankstown training area.) But that was about a year ago, and wasn’t a particularly memorable flight, marred slightly by some radio problems. And the opportunity to take Dad flying doesn’t come up much as he lives interstate from me. So an Easter visit from him offered the opportunity to finally show him what it’s all about.

Weather

Sunday was a bit questionable weather-wise and the evening brought some moderately severe storms, prompting some careful review of the aviation weather forecasts. However, both the aviation forecasts (AirServices Australia) and the general forecast (WeatherZone) offered reasonably encouraging news, so I was fairly confident we’d at least get a start. The possibility of isolated showers was out there and it was clearly a case of “see how things look in the morning”. I’ve learned from experience that crap weather the night before a flight is in itself no firm predictor of similar conditions on the following morning. Once or twice in the past I’ve cancelled a flight because the weather “looks bad” only to rue my decision when the day in question turns out fine – or at least, perfectly flyable.

And, I was right. Yesterday morning dawned cool and clear, with a light to moderate southwesterly breeze blowing. It was absolutely stunning.

Pre-Flight

I’d booked SFM, a club Cherokee that I’ve not yet flown. However a quick (and well advised) familiarisation check of the cabin, controls and instruments revealed that the seat belt retractable shoulder sash was firmly stuck at about 3/4 retracted and there was absolutely no budging it.

Faced with the choice of trying to get some assistance to get it fixed, or grabbing an older but perfectly serviceable aircraft (FTU), I chose the latter option.

Fuelled up and pre-flight checks done, we returned to the clubhouse to file the flight plan, check the latest weather and the ATIS. All continued to look lovely. We were started up and away only slightly behind schedule, which in my experience for a cross-country flight of any kind is not bad going.

Harbour Scenic

First main leg of the flight was (hopefully) to do a Harbour Scenic, what I consider to be the jewel in the crown of flights available to light GA aircraft in the Sydney Basin. However you can’t always get clearance to do this flight – depends on prevailing conditions and controller workload at Sydney Airport – so you never quite know until you get out there if it’s going to happen or not. Filing your flight plan early, as we did, helps – but it’s no guarantee.

Taking off to the west and tracking north over Parramatta, I radioed Sydney Radar approaching Pennant Hills from the south and made my initial clearance request. I was directed to track to Longreef, as per the standard procedure, and stand by. Sounded good.

Reaching Hornsby and turning right for the coast just over the railway sheds, I was pleased when Sydney Radar contacted me with the instruction to “squawk zero four six one and contact Sydney Departures on 123.0 when approaching Longreef for clearance”. Awesome! That looked as though they were going to let me in. So with 0461 on my transponder (and confirmation from Radar that they had me identified) I proceeded for the coast, descending to the required altitude of 1500 feet just by the time I overflew the Narrabeen Lakes. Turning south for Longreef over the golf course, I radioed for and received my clearance for Harbour Scenic One, and I was off headed straight for Sydney CBD and the Harbour Bridge. Conditions were CAVOK and visibility was crystal clear, I was able to head straight for the Bridge with a clear visual fix.

Once approaching the bridge I throttled back slightly and put out one stage of flap to slow us down a bit for a better look. We then executed the standard 2 left hand orbits (remaining east of the Bridge, north of the Opera House and west of Garden Island as required), Dad enthusiastically snapping away with the camera on my smart phone so that I could finally have a visual record of one of my Harbour Scenic flights.

Orbits done – and with yesterday’s flawless weather we got some truly magnificent views – I retracted the flap, throttled up and headed east over the harbour. I requested and received permission to track directly out through the Sydney Heads and descend directly into Victor One South, the low-level coastal route that runs from Longreef in the north to Seacliff Bridge in the south. Once Radar had us out off the heads and over the water, I was cleared to descend to 500 feet and switch to the Victor One radio frequency.

Victor One

It was just one of those rare, gorgeous days, not only due lovely flying weather but also because we seemed to have the sky all to ourselves. There simply was no one up there with us.

Dad enjoyed this bit in particular I think. It’s hard not to. Down low, you’re up close to the magnificent sandstone cliffs that mark nearly the entire southern coastline of Sydney. We could clearly see the heavier traffic in and out of Sydney Airport on our way past.

We coastal flew the beach at Cronulla, then passing south of Jibbon Point, I climbed to 1000 feet. I’m always happier with at least 1000 feet of air below me, preferably more (not that much of the Sydney coastline gives you any decent forced landing options). Past Marley Beach, then Wattamolla, my signal to climb higher as it marks the southern end of the 1500 feet control step. I climbed to 2000 feet and levelled out.

Notwithstanding a little mild turbulence due to the effects of the westerly wind blowing over the coastal ridges and peaks of the Royal National Park, it was a reasonably smooth ride down to Seacliff Bridge. I switched radio frequencies (back to the area frequency 124.55) and consulted my Visual Terminal Chart. This final part of the southwards leg to Wollongong was new to me: on previous flights in the area I’d approached only from the west.

Not much to my surprise, I didn’t need to work too hard to identify relevant ground features to determine where I was. Not far south of Stanwell Park and Seacliff, you’re already abeam the northern sprawl of the Wollongong area with districts and townships like Thirroul. And it’s pretty hard to miss the dark rusty red hues of the sprawling Port Kembla steelworks on the northern reaches of Lake Illawarra, let alone the massive chimney stack on the headland. At nearly 800 feet in height it’s definitely an attraction you do want to miss …

Once south of Port Kembla and and established at a circuit overfly altitude of 1500 feet, I headed southwest over Lake Illawarra in search of Wollongong airport. Again, fairly hard to miss as it’s located right on the southeastern reaches of the lake, not too far south of the easy-to-spot Dapto dog track. I picked the airport up visually about 5 or 6 nautical miles out. Having already checked the AWIS weather report and picked up some radio traffic indicating that the 16 (north to south) runway was in use, I decided to head slightly inland at overfly altitude and then descend to circuit height of 1000 feet on the “dead” side. This allowed me to join the circuit on the crosswind leg and get properly established in the circuit for approach and landing, also (hopefully, by virtue of my radio calls) fully alerting other traffic in the area to my presence and intentions.

(I could just as validly have joined the circuit on the downwind leg, or – less preferably – on the base or even a straight-in final approach, but from my own personal experience, recommendations from others and some of the safety reading I’ve done, I’m a reasonably big fan of doing the full circuit at CTAF aerodromes where possible.)

Ironically, the importance of staying alert and observant in and around the aerodrome area was reinforced to me by virtue of the fact that despite my crosswind, downwind and base radio calls, a light aircraft on the ground announced his intention to “enter and roll” just as I was turning on final and having to delay my radio call due to the broadcast of another aircraft departing the area. I quickly made my “on final” call with only the mildest tone of reroof, fully prepared and ready to go around if no response from the aircraft on the ground. However, he was quick to respond with a call of “holding”, leaving me free to execute a crosswind landing that to be frank was probably only a 5 out of 10. However, we made ground safely and taxied to the parking area next to the HARS (Historical Aviation Restoration Society) museum hangar for a stretch of legs.

We had a half hour of aviation geekdom, gawking in at the lovely aircraft on display in the hangar, especially the RAAF DC3 and the fully operational Lockheed Super Constellation, named (naturally) “Connie”. Dad loved this bit, which was rewarding for me too, as I’d envisioned and planned this as a fun part of the trip for him ever since my first visit to Wollongong back before my first cross-country solo.

Back home: north and inland to Bankstown

In striking contrast to the 94 nautical mile outwards leg of our trip, the inwards/home leg was only 45 miles – it’s a much more direct trip between Bankstown and Wollongong directly overland via the Royal National Park rather than going the coastal route. I expected that the trip would take us less than half an hour, and indeed with the moderate southwesterly behind us we achieved that easily. Having climbed up to 3500 feet to clear the escarpment and head north to Appin, we quickly picked up the Hume Highway and – by the simple device of keeping the highway just on our right – we stayed well clear of the Holsworthy Army Base restricted area and enjoyed an easy trip leading us straight to the junction of the M5 and M7 motorways, with the 2RN radio tower just beyond.

(I have long wanted to do another trip back in via 2RN, as I’ve never found it particularly easy to locate visually. It has a strobe nearby, which I’ve sometimes picked up but which isn’t always easy to spot on a bright and clear day. As things turned out, I dialled the 2RN frequency of 576 kHz into my Automatic Direction Finder and used the ADF needle to guide me in. With the knowledge that the tower is just beyond the M5/M7 junction I was able to school myself on the surrounding ground features a bit more, and feel more confident about locating the tower without the aid of the ADF the next time I fly in from that direction.)

Making my inbound call to Bankstown Tower at 2RN, I received an unusual traffic instruction, specifically to track direct over the control tower at 1500 feet to remain clear of a Beechcraft Duchess which was about to take off from 29R. Halfway there I radioed to confirm the instruction, just to be sure … then, reporting overhead the tower, I was directed to join crosswind for 29R as per the usual procedure. He chipped me slightly for flying too far west before turning crosswind, however he wasn’t unkind and quickly cleared me for my visual approach to the runway. I quickly dropped down to circuit height and, receiving an early landing clearance, turned base conscious of the growing crossswind. This time the landing was a 6/10, nowhere close to my best, but I, pax and plane were home safely and in one piece.

Reflecting

Hands down, this is one of the best flights, overall, that I’ve done. Others have, of course, been special for various reasons – my cross country solo flights, flying into Canberra’s controlled airspace, my first Victor One/Harbour Scenic, taking my son flying, and of course my GFPT and PPL flight tests. But yesterday’s – because I was flying my dad, who is significantly responsible for my love of aviation; because Dad is by far the most enthusiastic passenger I’ve had so far, and he had an absolute ball flying with me; because it was my fastest visit to another airport since I qualified for my PPL; and because it was just such a spectacularly beautiful day that showed off scenic Sydney in all it’s glory; for all these reasons, plus the fact that it was another successful, enjoyable and instructive flight – it was probably the best one so far.

This is why I learned to fly.

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Nav 5: First time in Canberra, and in Class C airspace with airways clearances

Date: 04/05/2011

Hours flown Dual Command Instruments
This flight 3.90 0.00 0.00
Total to date 44.04 7.30 2.00

Last Wednesday – 4 May, after a break of nearly two weeks (the longest interval yet, since I started my flying training, in which I’ve not flown), I had a fantastic dual cross-country navigation flight to Canberra and back. Many things stand out in my mind, with lots of learning.

*** Warning: Long blog post follows ***

Pensive but positive frame of mind!

Last Wednesday’s flight was twice rescheduled in recent weeks – once due to weather, and once due to my family circumstances. I was therefore champing at the bit to get out there amongst it again. In fact I didn’t think I’d get up on Wednesay, either, but the weather improved a bit unexpectedly. I’d been more or less resigned to not flying – or at least satisfying myself (weather permitting) with an hour in the circuit, so getting out for nearly 4 hours flying was a total bonus.

Having had the unusual luxury, for a private pilot, of flying nearly full time since the start of my training, I was slightly (and probably a bit neurotically) worried that in the 11 days since I last flew I may have forgotten how to do so! Fortunately, as the day proved (and as my Qantas pilot mate Chris opined), I didn’t forget. While it may not yet be as second nature to me as riding a bicycle, it’s not far off. Thank goodness for that. I feel a bit more sanguine about the inevitable multi-week (and realistically, for some years to come, perhaps multi-month) absences from flying.

Pre-flight planning and briefing on Class C airspace and airways clearance procedures

I’d planned the flight several weeks ago, leaving out only the things you do on the day – checking for weather, estimating headings and ground speeds, time estimations, finalising fuel requirements etc. I spent half an hour in the club checking the area forecast and finalising my flight plan.

We had a detailed discussion about procedures for obtaining and flying with airways clearances in Class C airspace. This was my first foray into a Class C area. As is the case in most countries, Class C airspace is that which surrounds most major metropolitan areas with significant or international-grade airports. In Australia’s case, this includes all state capital cities as well as that of Canberra, our nation’s capital.

What’s special about Class C airspace?

Among other things, Class C airspace is typically characterised by having to handle large (“heavy”) aircraft up to and including the size of your 747s and A380s as well as (in many cases) their military counterparts. Civilian and military aircraft of this size carry large payloads of passengers and/or freight over vast distances. They fly at high altitudes that we GA pilots in our prop-driven planes rarely (if ever) reach and are generally flying to IFR (Instrument Flight Rules), as opposed to the VFR (Visual Flight Rules) which is the limit for most private (and student) pilots like me. With the rapid advancements since WWII in the use of radar and electronic systems for maintaining air traffic separation and control, Class C airspace is managed by sophisticated air traffic control operations with radar capability.

So what did this mean for Wednesday’s flight?

Up until last Wednesday, my flying had been confined to Class D airspace (around my Bankstown home aerodrome) and the Class G airspace that lies outside most of our controlled airspace areas. Class G airspace is not subject to air traffic control, and for both VFR and IFR traffic, responsibilities for traffic separation lie squarely and solely on the pilots in command. You don’t need anyone’s permission to enter or fly in Class G airspace. In Class D, you do, but there’s no radar separation involved (for VFR traffic anyway, which is me), and the air traffic control procedures are somewhat more elementary than in Class C.

Not so in Class C. In Class C airspace, air traffic control facilities using radar-guided tracking and control techniques to control all air traffic, both VFR and IFR. As with Class D airspace, you cannot enter Class C without establishing two-way communication with Air Traffic Control and obtaining clearance to enter. Class C airspace takes this a step further. You require a specific “airways clearance” both to enter and depart the Class C airspace, and you are usually assigned a specific and unique 4-digit code to “squawk” on your aircraft’s transponder – which allows ATC to uniquely identify your aircraft, including your height and heading.

Once you’re under the tender guided care of ATC, they control you all the way in and all the way out, giving you specific headings and altitudes to fly, with which you must comply unless unable to do so.

Slight change of plan

We’d originally planned to report in to Canberra Approach over Lake George South, a reporting point just clear of the eastern limit of the Canberra control zone. However, we decided to use a slightly more distant reporting point at Lake Bathurst, giving us a bit more time between reporting in to Canberra Approach and actually entering the Canberra airspace. So, I spent 10 or 15 minutes rejuggling my maps, tracks and flight plan to reflect this alteration.

My instructor John checked my flight plan against his and, satisfied, we were good to go.

Change of aircraft

Just as we were finalising our briefing and flight plan, my flying club’s General Manager, Nelson approached us and asked us whether we would mind a change of aircraft. We’d planned to take UFY, a venerable Warrior that I’ve now flown on many occasions (including my first solo and first cross-country solo. Nelson asked us if we’d care to take the newest addition to the club’s fleet, EOM (Echo Oscar Mike) instead? A newly reconditioned Warrior with 200 hours on the engine, Nelson told us that EOM was lovely to fly and that he would like to get our feedback on how it flew. Neither John nor I needed asking twice – we jumped at the opportunity!

Takeoff from Bankstown

For a change in recent weeks, takeoff was to the southeast in the 11 direction (runway 11L). EOM certainly looks the goods – it’s in pretty good nick and has nice new, comfortable seats.

Take-off clearance received and we were rolling. Going through our rolling checks – checking that engine revs are max and stable, T&P’s (temperatures and pressures) good and ASI (Air Speed Indicator) live, we found straight away that revs were not yet max. In the other Warriors in our fleet, opening the throttle gets you max revs around 2500 or 2600 RPM almost immediately, whereas with EOM, revs on takeoff seemed to be sitting around 2300 and increasing a bit more slowly. But the airspeed was fine, T&P’s were fine and the engine felt and sounded fine, so we proceeded with takeoff.

Rotating at the usual 55 KIAS and climbing away, trying to maintain the usual Best Rate of Climb airspeed of around 79 KIAS, things started to seem a bit – well, lengthy. It took a bit longer than usual to reach 500 feet AGL (above ground level) which is the minimum height before you can commence your turn. After turning, we both started to monitor the aircraft’s performance and saw immediately that our climb performance was woeful. We were climbing at less than 250 feet per minute. OK, we had full tanks, maybe EOM was just a bit underpowered. But it took us an awfully long time to reach circuit height.

Continuing our turn onto downwind, we were still climbing OK – more slowly than usual, but acceptably. Then before we reached 1500 feet AGL, I spotted another Warrior climbing below me and to my left, which obviously had taken off after us and was overtaking me. He accelerated well ahead and climbed out with no threat to me. However, it was a great illustration of just how piss-poor my climb performance was. Consquently, we were extra vigilant about climb performance for the rest of the flight. And, as I’ll describe below, ultimately we decided (to my regret) not to land at Crookwell’s lovely-looking grass strip for fear that our our take-off performance on climb-out from Crookwell wouldn’t be enough for us to clear the hill that lies west of the strip.

Track to Menangle

So, I climbed to 2000 feet and it was a quick 10 minutes or so past the 2RN tower and down the M5 to Menangle Park, being careful to keep the Camden (Class D) control zone well on our right. Over the Menangle Park racecourse (or perhaps it’s a trotting track) I turned right onto our new track direct for Lake Bathurst and commenced a climb. I’d wanted to climb to 6500 feet on this leg but scattered cloud prevented this so I settled for a cruise level of 4500 feet.

Track to Lake Bathurst

As we flew the early stage of this leg and I prepared to switch from the Sydney VTC (Visual Terminal Chart) to the larger-scale VNC (Visual Navigation Chart), John looked at the VTC and noted our close proximity to Wilton, a marked Danger area that frequently plays host to sky-diving activities. The track John had asked me to plan took us very close to this area. John got on to Sydney Radar, who informed us that no parachuting was taking place that morning. So we proceeded as planned, though I noted that from now on I will plan that track to avoid Wilton on future flights. (It’s not that you’re forbidden to enter a Danger area – hell, the Bankstown training area in which I fly regularly is also marked as a Danger area. You’ve got a perfect right to be there. You’ve just got to be careful, sensible, and where possible and appropriate, steer clear or proceed with extreme caution).

Clearing the clouds?

Clearing Wilton, John remarked on the bumpy ride we were having, and wouldn’t I prefer to see if we could get above those clouds to smoother air? Personally I was reluctant, as I thought the clouds – though not more than “scattered” – were too extensive for me to feel comfortable flying above them. However, I was with my instructor and I’d never actually had to deal with this particular decision before, so I decided to have a go. I put the aircraft into a climb and headed upwards.

We reached the bottom of the (scattered cumulus) cloud base at about 5500 feet and I asked John whether he really felt that we could fly on top of them. There were very distinct breaks in the cloud – blue sky areas that we could easily use to get above or below the cloud. And, as I mentioned earlier, flying above clouds (for VFR flights) is certainly permitted under specific conditions. John suggested that we go up to have a look; we could always get back down quickly through the breaks in cloud that we could clearly see.

So I continued the climb and almost immediately, once above the cloud bases, I experienced by far the most gorgeous still air I have yet been in during my roughly 50 hours of flying. Flying in and up the random, shaded corridors between these 1000-foot high cumulus clouds was, quite literally, one of the most other-worldly experiences I have ever had, despite my reluctance about even being up among the clouds in the first place. I was floating. Turbulence was absolutely zero: evidently the air about about the 5500 or 6500 foot level was no longer cooler than the rising air below, hence there was no further ability for the warmer rising air to rise. On either side of me, and ahead and to one side, 1000 feet of puffy white cumulus clouds with opalescent hues inlaid in their sides sat – apparently – still while I strung my way between them and attempted to peek around, up and over them.

I have lost count of the number of times I would have flown in exactly these conditions as a passenger on large commercial airliners. In a 747 or 737 or whatever you may be in, you can feel the exact moment, through the seat of your pants, in which the aeroplane makes the transition between the bumpy air below and the smooth higher air. But the big difference, of course, is that in a 747 or 737 you’re a passenger. You can’t see out the front, you can’t see where you’re going, and you’re pretty much enclosed in the aluminium and composite cylinder of the plane’s fuselage. If you’re lucky you might get a limited view out your side window, but what you don’t get (well, I don’t, anyway) is the sense of awe, mystery and discovery that comes with intentionally choosing your path through the clouds, picking and ducking your way between them, exploring whether you might be able to get above them while remaining in a state of heightened alert, ready to duck back below at any stage while you still can, if things don’t look so good up top. But flying a light aircraft in this situation – you’re looking out front, you feel much closer to the outside elements and much more connected with them. And above all, you’re in command.

Anyway, enjoying this experience for the 1000 feet or so between the bottoms and tops of the clouds we were climbing above, I got up to my originally planned flight level of 6500 feet. Looking in the direction of our planned track, I certainly didn’t like our chances of flying above them and being able to maintain visual fixes on the ground at the required time intervals. Much higher and I would have been scraping the lower reaches of Class E airspace. And, the cloud to the southwest also looked as though it could well build up from “scattered” to “broken”. I voiced this view to John, who agreed with my reservations and recommended that we take the next available gap in the clouds and drop back down below. I did so very readily, having enjoyed the experience but glad to be clear of an above-the-cloud situation I didn’t think would have been all that prudent. I said as much to John, who – not at all to my surprise, and with the hint of a sly grin – said that he’d fully expected this to be the outcome but he’d wanted to take me up above the clouds just to give me a taste of this new situation. Hah – suspected as much.

OK, where are we?

We were up in the clouds for about 10 minutes all up, picking our paths left and right to steer among them and consequently deviating from our planned track to Lake Bathurst. So as we started to descend, it seemed like a good idea to try to figure out exactly where we were. I have to admit that I hadn’t been really vigilant with the CLEAROF(F) checks and map checking while mucking about in the clouds, so it was with more than a little uncertainty that I started to attempt to orient myself. Peeking up through the clouds off to the left was what could well have been the Mittagong/Bowral area in the southern highlands – the time seemed about right – but it seemed much further off to the left than it should have been relative to our planned track.

Another few minutes trying to identify landscape features that we could pinpoint on my map, we spotted another locality off to the far left that (again) could have been Marulan (the locality I totally failed to identify on my first cross-country solo!) From other map features we developed a reasonable certainty that it was in fact where we were – then I spotted the cement factory and we were 100% sure. Which put us a fair bit north of my planned track to Lake Bathurst, due wind drift and/or mucking about in the fluffy stuff.

Getting back on course

It was time to test the efficacy of the 10 degree wind drift lines that John recommended I sketch on my maps to aid in-flight dead reckoning. A few seconds assessment and I decided that I had deviated a good 10 degrees right of my planned track, and further that I probably needed another 10 degrees left as closing angle to reach Lake Bathurst, for a total required course correction of some 20 degrees left. So a time check, a 20-degree left turn and I was testing my in-flight navigation skills. Passing abeam Goulburn off my right wing (verifying it by dialling in the Goulbourn NDB) I started to feel better, because Goulburn should have been off to my right. Had I maintained my original track it would have been off to the left. So that was good. With Goulburn positively identified I could now switch over to the Canberra Visual Terminal Chart and navigate in to Canberra with much more map detail.

Finding the lake

After another 10 or 15 minutes I spotted a large collection of wind turbines off on the horizon just over the nose of the aircraft. Searching the VTC, the only place I felt these turbines could be were the Bungendore wind farms south of Lake George. But I couldn’t for the life of me spot Lake Bathurst, which should have been somewhat closer to me and a bit further left. We turned towards Lake George to see if we could locate Lake Bathurst closer in – with John in my ear enjoining me to keep searching out my left window. After a minute or so I identified two rather small pond looking bodies of water off to my left which could in fact be extremely dried-up forms of the two lakes that comprise Lake Bathurst. I turned left again for a closer look, and on arriving over them, John confirmed that this was in fact Lake Bathurst. So, caught out by a rookie error!

Insight #34

Just because a map shows a lake doesn’t mean you’ll actually find water when you get there. In Australian conditions – prominent lakes can frequently dry up completely! Don’t rely on seeing water.

Having noted the above, the good news was that – either by good luck or good management – my track correction back before Goulburn had been reasonably successful, as we’d approached the Lake Bathurst/Lake George area without further navigation difficulties and more or less on time. So it was my first experience of (succesfully) making an in-flight track correction using the visual “best estimate” approach with pre-drawn track error lines. It worked!

(I was, of course, also using my ADF – Automatic Direction Finder – for added orientation, dialling in first the Goulburn and then the Canberra ADF freqencies to confirm my general location and orientation via nav aids. But my dead-reckoning had also proved pretty useful as well. Nice.)

Radio calls at Lake Bathurst

We had to start thinking about getting in to Canberra. I dialled up the Canberra ATIS and received information Hotel, with current runway, conditions etc. It was time to get in touch with Canberra Approach. Circling over Lake Bathurst, John ran me through my radio call routine again. Rehearsed, I dialled up Canberra Approach on COM1, then a deep breath and I had a go:

ME: “Canberra Approach, Echo Oscar Mike”.

CANBERRA APPROACH: “Echo Oscar Mike, go ahead.”

ME: “Canberra Approach, Echo Oscar Mike, a Warrior, over Lake Bathurst at 4500, heading [whatever it was], inbound, received information Hotel, 2 POB (Passengers On Board), unfamiliar with airport, request airways clearance”.

CANBERRA APPROACH: “Echo Oscar Mike, squawk 0405, maintain 4500, stand by”.

ME: “Squawk 0405, maintain 4500, Echo Oscar Mike”.

I switched the transponder to “Standby”, dialled up 0405 and switched it back to “Alt”. I stayed on my path towards Lake George, and about 30 seconds later, Canberra got back to me. Without replaying the conversation verbatim, Canberra then asked me to confirm the QNH setting I was using on the altimeter (I confirmed I was using 1017 as received from the ATIS) and the altitude I was reading (I confirmed 4500 as read off the altimeter). Canberra had positively identified us on radar but was showing me variously at 4700 and 4800 feet. This suggested a problem with the transponder or with the altimeter. Canberra told me that the variation was “within tolerances” but that I would be well advised to get the aircraft’s transponder checked out on return, which of course I acknowledged in the affirmative!

Inbound to Canberra

Once in established contact with Canberra Approach, John more or less leant back in his seat and folded his arms, saying to me that “from here on in, it’s easy”. Which I have to say was largely the case. Apart from watching my altitude lik a hawk (wanting to maintain that 4500 feet at all costs, especially given the transponder issue), and maintaining a watch outside the aircraft, flying conditions were reasonably easy and all I had to do was wait for the vectoring instructions from Canberra Approach, repeat them back and obey them promptly. Example:

CANBERRA APPROACH: “Echo Oscar Mike, turn left heading two two zero”.

ME: “Turn left heading zero two zero, Echo Oscar Mike”.

We spotted some air traffic nearby doing aerial work of some kind (photography, agricultural, not sure exactly what they were doing), which Approach steered us clear of. Approach advised me that they were going to bring me in to runway 30 from a long-ish 5-mile final, and vectored me in accordingly, bringing me down to 4000 feet and on to approach for 30 from the south-east. It was an unusual experience to be hand-held all the way in until suddenly there I was, beautifully lined up with the runway and with approval from Approach to switch over to Tower frequency.

ME : “Canberra Tower, Warrior Echo Oscar Mike, with you”.

TOWER: “Echo Oscar Mike, cleared visual approach for runway three zero”.

ME: “Cleared visual approach for three zero, Echo Oscar Mike”.

I ran through my pre-landing checks, started to slow the aircraft down to approach speed and commenced my descent, pretty soon receiving my landing clearance from the Tower along with instructions to exit the runway by making a left turn onto taxiway Kilo and when clear contacting Ground for further instructions. I made a good landing on 30 – far and away the biggest runway I’ve landed on thus far! – and kept the speed up on roll-out until nearing the exit point, not wanting to taxi slowly while still on the runway. Sighting Kilo (thank goodnesss for an airport with signage, unlike my local aerodrome where you have to rely on maps and memory), I turned left, passed the manoeuvring point line, stopped, contacted Ground and received clearance to taxi to GA (General Aviation) parking.

Passing the domestic terminal on my left – a Qantas 737 parked just outside – I turned right past the Brindabella Airlines hangar and found a parking spot and shut down, feeling very stoked to have landed at a major airport for the first time.

Break and refuelling

I’d expected to have a bite to eat in Canberra – it was after all about 1.15pm and I’d not eaten since before 9. However John’s preference was for a quick stretch, refuel if needed and then head up to Crookwell on the 2nd leg of our trip, Crookwell apparently being a grass strip with rather more scenic surrounds.

So after a quick stretch and toilet break we looked at the fuel situation and had quite an extensive discussion around what additional fuel, if any, we would take on board. There were several factors at play here. The first, obviously, was having sufficient fuel to get back to Sydney with at least the required 45-minute fixed reserve still in our tanks, taking into account the interim leg to Crookwell and about 15 minutes fuel usage at Crookwell conducting a (simulated) precautionary search and landing. The second was not wanting to have too much fuel on board at Crookwell, as being a grass strip with a hill immediately to the west, John didn’t want unnecessary weight impacting our climb performance. The third was that this (EOM) was a new aircraft both for John and me, and John was clearly conscious of not wanting to make any unfounded assumptions about EOM’s fuel efficiency or climb performance, especially given our climbing performance at Bankstown earlier on.

After some haggling and figuring John (with my agreement) decided that we would take on an additional 20 litres of Avgas, which we felt would give us sufficient fuel to meet all of the above conditions while adding only 15kg or so in weight to the aircraft. We would do this by filling up our left tank to full and leaving our right tank as it was.

Unfortunately while reaching this decision another aircraft taxyed across and moved in front of the credit-card activated self-serve Avgas bowser, so we sat for a good 15 minutes waiting for this aircraft to fuel up. I took the opportunity to listen to the ATIS and orient myself with my Canberra Airport map in my ERSA (En Route Supplement Australia).

Once the guys in front had finished, we started up and taxyed closer so as to let them know we were waiting to use the bowser – they got the message and moved out. I shut down and we hopped out. Following the instructions on the bowser, I swiped my Visa debit card to activate the bowser, then John attached the earthing lead to the aircraft and filled up as per our plan. Finished, I swiped my card again to get my fuel receipt – 24.05 litres of Avgas for $50.24 – then, having quickly checked the fuel quality, started up and moved to the corner of the GA apron to do our run-ups and get going. I looked somewhat ruefully at my watch: it was nearly 2pm and Crookwell was at least a half hour away – my stomach not being pleased at the prospect of waiting until probably 3pm for a refuel of its own …

Outbound from Canberra

Run-ups complete, it was time to get my outbound airways clearance. This time I was talking with Ground:

ME: “Canberra Ground, Echo Oscar Mike”.

CANBERRA GROUND: “Echo Oscar Mike, go ahead.”

ME: “Canberra Ground, Echo Oscar Mike, a Warrior, at GA parking, received information India, for upwind departure direct Crookwell at 4500, 2 POB, unfamiliar with airport, request airways clearance”.

I also asked Ground for advice and assistance in remaining clear of the Mt Majura military restricted area directly to the north of the airport. Ground advised that that area was not active at present (despite the information provided in ERSA), so that did not present any issue for our departure.

Ground obviously accessed my previously-filed flight plan and noted that I’d filed an altitude direct Crookwell of 6500 feet: did I wish to amend the flight plan to 4500? I replied in the affirmative and received my airways clearance, with code to squawk on the transponder, authorisation to climb to 4500 and instructions to proceed on runway heading. Ground also noted (as the ATIS had indicated) that I would be taking off from runway 35. Acknowledging these instructions, I then requested taxi clearance and was instructed to taxi to and hold on taxiway Kilo adjacent to runway 30 (the taxiway from which I’d earlier exited the runway on landing).

As an exercise, John also set our nav radio to the Canberra VOR/DME (Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Radar/Distance Measuring Equipment) frequency and set our VOR indicator so that it tracked our orientation relative to the outbound 003 (3 degrees magnetic) radial from the Canberra VOR. I’ll talk more about this in a moment.

Reaching Kilo, I radioed Ground and advised my position. Ground replied that there’d been a change of plan, and instructed me to enter runway 30 and backtrack on the runway for a takeoff from runway 30 (instead of 35), authorising me to switch to Tower frequency. I acknowledged this and switched to Tower, radioing “Canberra Tower, Warrior Echo Oscar Mike, backtracking on 30 for upwind departure”. As with my landing on this large runway, I didn’t hang around and made the long taxy back to the runway threshold with considerable dispatch, turning around to line up and report ready.

Given our planned track to Crookwell, John had questioned me regarding whether we wanted an “upwind” departure or in fact a “crosswind” departure, but on lining up on 30 and noting Mt Majura ahead and to our right in what would pretty much have been the crosswind direction, I/we decided that “upwind departure” was the correct radio call and in any case were were in the hands of Canberra Departure so far as vectoring out of Canberra’s control zone was concerned. So, “Canberra Tower, Warrior Echo Oscar Mike, ready for upwind departure on three zero”, and with clearance received we were on our way.

Climbing out to clear Mt Majura directly on our right and the ridge from which it rises coming directly below us, we were again conscious of relatively poor climb performance similar to that which we’d experienced at Bankstown earlier in the day. I could almost hear the gears turning in John’s mind so far as the advisability of actually landing on Crookwell’s grass strip was concerned.

Somewhere close to 1000 feet AGL Tower authorised us to switch to Canberra Departures frequency, which I did and delivered a position report to Departures. Departures instructed me to maintain present course for a short while. Following this, we levelled out at 4500 feet (approaching which I managed to observe central Canberra, the northern parts of Lake Burley Griffin and Black Mountain/Black Mountain Tower to my left) and were vectored to the right. Departures asked me if I wished to resume my own navigation or whether I’d like to be vectored on to my original planned track direct to Crookwell. John suggested I take advantage of the “full service”, so I indicated this and we received further instructions tracking me direct to the township of Gundaroo.

Tracking towards Gundaroo, John took the opportunity to demonstrate the VOR/DME in action. Set to the Canberra VOR/DME frequency and to the 003 outbound radial, this told me 2 things of value to how we were tracking towards Crookwell:

  1. Our distance from Canberra Airport (at this point we were some 20 nautical miles away from the airport and increasing); and
  2. Our position relative to our desired track of 3 degrees magnetic from Canberra to Crookwell. Essentially the 003 outbound VOR radial from Canberra was the radial along which we wanted to be tracking in order to track direct to Crookwell, and was a useful navigational aid to confirm whether Canberra Departures had us on the right outbound track (and whether, later on, we were maintaining that track under our own navigation).

So a very useful (if brief) object lesson in using VOR/DME as a nav aid. No more than a minute after this discussion, we lost the Canberra VOR/DME thus confirming that a nav aid is only useful when you’re within radio communication distance of the aid itself!

Shortly afterwards we were overhead Gundaroo, at which point Departures informed me that I was exiting controlled airspace, cleared me to resume my own navigation and to switch to area freqency, and instructed me to squawk 1200 (the standard transponder setting in Class G airspace). I confirmed these instructions and thanked the controller for his detailed assistance. He signed off with a firm reminder to us to have our transponder checked as he was reading us intermittently at altitudes of up to 4800 feet (versus my altimeter reading of 4500), which was now “outside tolerances”. I promised that we would have this looked at on our return!

Inbound to Crookwell

Our track to Crookwell was only some 50 nautical miles from Canberra, about half an hour’s worth of flying. Soon after overflying Gundaroo I sighted another wind farm to our north, which I identified as the Gunning Wind Farm (noting Gunning township off to my left) and which confirmed us as being on the correct track for Crookwell. Steering to keep the wind farm just to my right (to avoid flying over the turbines and to be as close to my planned track as possible) I started looking out for Crookwell and confirmed it initially by spotting the Crookwell Wind Farm off to my right in the distance, and then sighting Crookwell township in the distance dead ahead.

I switched to the Crookwell CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) and made an inbound call at 10 miles out. So with Crookwell located, attention shifted to finding the airfield. John wanted to do a precautionary search and landing exercise over Crookwell’s grass strip as – unlike our previous exercises in the Bankstown training area – we could actually get down real low to the ground as you would want to do in a real precautionary search and landing situation. But – where was the airfield?

Locating the Crookwell airstrip

My VNC showed the airfield as south of Crookwell and adjacent to a road running south. Try as I had, inbound to Crookwell, I sighted nothing that looked likely. Flying past the edge of town and to the west towards the wind farm, and scanning the roads underneath, still nothing. Looking at my map I reasoned that I was looking at the wrong side of town and that I needed to go back to the southern approaches to Crookwell in the direction from which we’d come. So I turned left to pass over the township and headed back along the southbound road out of Crookwell.

Try as I might, I couldn’t locate the airfield! John suggested I slow the aircraft down, which of course in a precautionary search and landing situation you’d need to do anyway, so I throttled back and put out a stage of flaps to bring us down to 80 KIAS. Straining my eyes out of the window and circling left and right still revealed nothing, until I spotted a shed and what could have been a windsock. And there looked as though there might be white gable markers on either side of a field, indicating a landing strip. I asked John for confirmation. He indicated that this was indeed the airfield and (not unkindly) that I’d flown right over it on our way in! (And to ease my discomfort he noted that he’d been brought to this very airstrip during the final test for his Commercial Pilots License and done much the same thing).

So I’d learned a bit about how challenging it can be to locate an airfield or landmark you’ve not seen before. Particularly for the purposes of precautionary search and landing, sometimes you really do have to slow down and (conditions permitting) do a methodical search and scan of the area.

Insight #35

It can be quite hard to locate a not-very-prominent ground feature from 1500 feet above ground level!

Precautionary Search and Landing

Now I went into Precautionary Search and Landing mode. John made a call on the Crookwell CTAF to indicate we were engaged in a precautionary search and landing, and I prepared to run through the drill. First of all I noted the wind direction and determined that landing should be towards the west. I then prepared for and commenced a series of circuits around the airstrip:

  1. Letting down to 1000 feet, I circled both downwind and then upwind, counting the seconds abeam the airstrip and estimating it at some 800m length
  2. Then down to 500 feet, estimating strip length again as well as noting ground features more clearly, including the rather large hill immediately west of of the airstrip, then
  3. (This was a first) letting down to just 50 feet above ground level and flying the length of the airstrip, right above the deck, so close I could almost see the individual blades of grass! On this approach you are of course searching for detailed ground features that can’t be seen from higher up, using this as your final check that it’s safe to land, as well as scaring away any livestock present on the landing area.

This done, John directed me to climb out and steer slightly left to clear the lowest point of the ridge/hill west of the airstrip. At this stage, having cleared the hill and somewhat to my disappointment (I’ve yet to land on a grass strip), John decided that we would not land. He just wasn’t satisfied that the climb performance of EOM was equal to the task of clearing the hill to the west on takeoff. So we overflew the airstrip a final time and set course for Menangle on our trip back to Bankstown.

I established myself in cruise on the return track to Menangle at just under 5000 feet. This was slightly higher than my planned cruising altitude but we weren’t sure if our altimeter was correctly calibrated and the ground below seemed just a little closer than ideal, despite us being higher than the Lowest Safe Altitude I’d calulated. Once done, John took control and I snarfed half a sandwich – it was now 3pm and my stomach was protesting. A quick drink and I resumed control, not wanting to lose flying time by eating, and to allow John a chance to eat as well.

Track to Menangle

Established on the track back to Menangle and into the Sydney Basin, there wasn’t much to do apart from a couple of CLEAROF(F) checks and attempt to locate ground features to verify my exact position. Sighting water which delineates the lower reaches of the Warragamba Dam system, I knew we weren’t far away and (with a gentle reminder question from John asking about the upper airspace limit) I started descending to 2500 feet as soon as we’d cleared the ranges and it seemed safe to do so.

Tracking direct to Menangle – which is also an inbound reporting point for Camden Aerodrome – involved going quite close to Camden controlled airspace, immediately on my left as I approached Menangle. On the other hand there was a 1500-foot ridge immediately on my track to Menangle, so I didn’t want to let down to 2000 feet too early. Had I been flying solo I would probably have tracked southeast and then north to Menangle to give a wide berth both to Camden airspace and the ridge. However it was by no means a safety situation – just a matter of tolerances – and John seemed comfortable with the track we were on, so we continued on track. I gained Brownie points from John for the fact that I had accurately forecast that we would hit Menangle at 40 (3:40pm).

Back home

After reaching Menangle, we were on home turf. I dialled up 576 (the frequency for ABC National radio 2RN) on the ADF and enjoyed the luxury of being routed straight towards the 2RN tower, descending to 1500 feet before reporting in. Spotting the ground beacon, I zeroed in on 2RN, made my inbound call to Bankstown and was routed to join final approach for runway 11L. Clearing Warwick Farm Racecourse, I was cleared for visual approach and then to land on 11L. And much to my satisfaction I made probably the best landing I’ve yet done in the presence of my instructor – so much so that he gave a short grunt of approval and asked me, “Who taught you to land?” Praise indeed. About time I showed that bugger the sort of landing that I’ve been frequently capable of doing when on my own!

Post flight

A couple of interesting things post-flight.

Firstly, the aircraft. Talking with our club’s maintenance supervisor about the poor climb performance in EOM, it emerged that EOM is one of the earlier models of Warrior with a 150 hp (or perhaps even 140 hp) engine as opposed to the majority of our Warrior fleet that enjoy 160 hp engines. No wonder it seemed underpowered on the climb! According to Joe the maintenance guy, Best Rate Of Climb airspeed in EOM is in the region of 67 KIAS, not the 75-79 KIAS range that most of our Warriors use. So …

Insight #36

In a new aircraft ostensibly of the same type/model you’ve flown many times before, don’t assume it will perform the same way as all the others. Check the Pilot Operating Handbook for operating speeds etc before you fly!

Secondly, fuel. Imagine my surprise, checking my bank account later that night to see if the $50 fuel purchase had hit my credit card, to instead see a $1000 charge against my account! It took me 2 days to sort this out. Evidently the Canberra Avgas fuel bowser in the GA area is managed by Aero Refuellers, an aviation fuel company based in Albury. Like most major aircraft fuel companies, they have their own fuel card system but also endeavour to make fuel available for purchase by Visa/Mastercard at major aerodromes such as Canberra.

For reasons I don’t yet fully understand, this involves partnering with some merchant bank or another to provide the online credit card facilities at the point of sale at automated fuel bowsers, and involves the bank taking an up-front $1000 “security” charge against the credit card, fully refundable once the actual cost of fuel purchased hits the credit card. Unfortunately for the unwary – which included me – sometimes it takes 48 hours or more for this security charge to clear your card. And there was no signage on the bowser to forewarn me that this charge would hit my card (according to the fuel company, there is normally a sign there but apparently this was missing).

So on Wednesday night I cancelled my credit card – I couldn’t figure out how this charge had happened and I even suspected that my credit card details had been skimmed – and then had to make 8 or 10 phone calls to both the fuel company and my bank over the next 48 hours to get it all sorted out. The only bright spot in all of this drama was that Aero Refuellers, once aware of the situation, were profusely apologetic and extremely helpful and proactive in assisting me to get the matter resolved.

Insight #37

Beware using your credit card at self-serve aviation fuel bowsers! Make sure you understand the charges you may be up for in advance, to avoid nasty surprises.

But that unfortunate situation aside, it was an incredibly enjoyable and educational days’ flying. As you can see if you’ve read this far, there was much to observe and learn and I thought it worthy of describing in print in such detail. I’d very much like to relive this flight in detail 20 years from now.


Later influences – passenger flying and airports are cool!

I posted earlier about the experiences and influences from my childhood that got me really interested in flying. There are also many experiences from my adult years that have helped sharpen and focus this into a very strong ambition to learn to fly recreationally. Too much for one post, so I’ll start  with some reflections from the air travel I experienced as a younger adult.

I did a fair bit air travel in my early to mid twenties. When I left university in 1991, I joined a large management consulting firm whose global headquarters was based in Chicago, Illinois. Working for this company back then entailed regular travel to their global training centre in St Charles, Illinois at least once a year, and for those people located outside the United States, this of course meant a reasonably major air trip, particularly if you were in the southern hemisphere.

Naturally this was all pretty exciting for me and the other recruits I started with in 1992. Doubly so for me, of course, since it meant lots of plane trips and travel to places I hadn’t been before. That first trip to St Charles in 1992 involved, then as now, a flight from Sydney to the west coast (LAX, as I remember) and then a connecting flight on to Chicago. United Airlines‘ service was, then as now, nothing to particularly write home about, but I do remember vividly my experience of first flying in to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport at night. The lights of Chicago sprawled as far as I could see out my window – up to the sudden blackness of Lake Michigan – and what really struck me was the sheer size of the operation at O’Hare. I’d simply never seen so many large commercial aircraft, so many runways before. O’Hare was huge, and I found the whole place vibrant and exciting.

I suppose that, for me, there’s something cool about airports – even the crappy ones. Airports symbolise two of my passions, aviation and travel, so I’m probably more receptive to their hidden charms than perhaps the average jaded traveller.

In 1994 I moved to California for 3 years, to the San Francisco Bay Area. Over that time I had occasion many times to fly in and out of the Bay Area, both from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and from Oakland International Airport (OAK – which happened to be my “local” airport as I lived in the East Bay). Both are, of course, substantially smaller than major operations like O’Hare or LAX, but then of course they’re also picturesquely located on the wonderful San Francisco Bay. On a few memorable occasions, when sitting on the left hand side of the plane, I enjoyed the experience of taking off from SFO to the north and observing the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge outside my window …

For a while I did some air commuting down to LA. What blew my mind about this was how many airports most large cities in the US actually have … I variously flew in or out of LAX, Ontario, Burbank (now Bob Hope Airport), John Wayne and Palmdale. That’s not to mention LA’s other major airports like Long Beach and Palm Springs, nor the many other GA operations like Oxnard, Fullerton and Van Nuys.

What’s cool about this, in my view, is just how set up around aviation most American cities are. It’s a matter of size and scale, of course. LA (for example) is huge – got some 18-odd million people in the Greater Los Angeles area. Plus, it’s a major tourist and commercial hub, not to mention a centre for aerospace and defence in the US, so of course it’s got a huge aviation infrastructure. It’s just striking, when you are used to cities like Sydney and Melbourne, to experience cities with such a variety of large airports and aviation operations. (Sydney and Melbourne, by comparison, contain about 4.5m and 4m people respectively and each have just the one major international airport – Kingsford Smith in Sydney and Tullamarine in Melbourne, plus the other GA airports of Bankstown, Camden, Avalon, Essendon and Moorabbin. A special shout-out to Bankstown Airport, where I will be learning to fly next March!)

In was also from San Francisco that I made my first trips to Europe. In 1995 I flew to Ireland for a friend’s wedding, flying from SFO into London Heathrow (frustratingly, then, not even being able to leave the airport despite the fact that I’d never set foot in the UK before) and then straight onwards to Dublin’s international airport. Having spent my entire life being used to the relatively washed-out green shades of the landscape within Australia and then California, I was particularly struck, as we descended into Dublin, by the intense greens of the fields punctuated by vibrant yellow fields of rapeseed.

This was also my first experience of flying across Canada – over which I have since flown many times but still never actually visited – and then across the Polar regions to Europe. I was stunned to look down and see ice bergs down below!

Then in 1996 and 1997, before I returned to Australia, I was lucky enough to consult to a California-based company whose European distribution centre was located in Woerden, in the Netherlands. Over the course of 6 months, I flew four return trips with KLM between San Francisco and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Cool for so many reasons. Firstly, of course, because of the travel to the beautiful Netherlands. Secondly, because it was my first experience of flying business class – which apart from the obvious relative luxury, also helped me build a small collection of KLM’s renowned Delft blue houses that still sit on my mantelpiece. Thirdly, as an airport geek, I really enjoyed Schiphol – a beautifully designed airport, at least from a passenger viewpoint – sleek, modernist, efficient.

And the link between all this and my desire to learn to fly? Thinking about it, it’s just another cool reason to fly. If you like aviation, and airports, then recreational flying – apart from the sheer pleasure of the flying itself – also gives you a great reason to hang around airports.

Aviation geek? Guilty as charged.