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Pretty momentous to have finally taken my first official flying lesson! It’s weird enough to all of a sudden be a man of leisure for 8 weeks, but to finally start chasing the dream of a lifetime, it’s really something.
I wasn’t really sure if the lesson was going to happen today. After an OK couple of days, it’s been quite humid and drizzly since yesterday afternoon and the forecast was not very encouraging. Teach me to schedule my lessons during the summer/autumn change of season I suppose. Even after an hour’s ground briefing with my instructor John, we weren’t sure if the lesson would go ahead, but after spending another half hour inspecting the aircraft and getting it fuelled, the weather lifted sufficiently and fortunately the lesson proceeded. (I would have completely understood and respected John’s decision if he’d decided not to fly today. Frustrating as this would have been, given my extreme enthusiasm to go ahead with my first lesson as scheduled, I would not care to take any risks. No doubt my patience will be tested thus on future scheduled lessons, possibly even this week. However today worked out – a good omen, if you believe in such things!)
Wow. So many reflections bouncing around in my mind, so many things learned from just the first day. I won’t write exhaustively about each of these, but just list the things that stand out in my mind or seem particularly significant.
Pre-Flight – In The Clubhouse
After months of flight theory, it was really great to start to learn some of the practical, operational, day-to-day things a pilot needs to know and do. John walked me through:
- Checking ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) on the school radio when you arrive – get the initial picture of weather conditions, runways in use etc.
- Getting the booked aircraft’s “flight bag” from the school reception – critical bag that needs to be taken on the aircraft in flight, includes such important goodies as keys, maintenance release, dipstick, fuel tester, flight dockets (for recording flight details such as Air Switch and VDO start and finish readings for maintenance and billing purposes)
- Checking the maintenance release to confirm that the aircraft is still flyable based on “engine hours” since last scheduled maintenance (pending mandatory 50-hour or 100-hour services) and that there are no outstanding maintenance issues that may prevent the aircraft being flown
- And – critically – signing the flight sheet at the reception area prior to the flight and ensuring that it’s signed off by the instructor.
By the time we got through all that, did some paperwork and had an initial chat (including a few quiz questions from John to test some of my basic knowledge), an hour passed but weather was still questionable. Some circuit flying had taken place this morning, but no-one had been out to the training area to report on conditions. So John decided we would go out to the aircraft, check fuel and oil and do our aircraft checks, and see how things progressed.
Pre-Flight – PA-28 UFY
My training aircraft today was Uniform Foxtrot Yankee, one of the club’s older Piper Warriors but with a pretty new engine. As we walked out to the flight line I couldn’t suppress an inner grin – how many years of aspiration, and for the last 12 months, of planning – had led up to this point!
First thing was to check the fuel. Fuel in left tank was up to the “tabs” – meaning about 70 litres of fuel in left tank, enough for around 2 hours of flight in the training area. Fuel in right tank was lower than tabs – and John’s preference was to get some fuel in that tank. So a quick call to the Shell people, then we proceeded with pre-flight walk around and checks, including:
- Lights (navigation, landing, anti-collision)
- Flaps/aileron (right wing), general condition of right wing
- Engine (oil – just over 6 quarts, all OK – and general check for any loose/cracked wiring etc.)
- Propeller (check for nicks/scratches, check air intake tubes)
- Engine (brake fluid, more checking for loose/cracked wiring etc.)
- Left wing (same checks as for right)
- Fuel (this after the Shell truck came and put another 15 litres into the right tank) – drained left/right wing fuel drain points, plus engine drain point, to inspect for water
- Tailplane (stabilator, rudder)
Having finished the exterior checks and fuelling, John decided it was likely – but by no means certain – we would go ahead, so we climbed into the aircraft, got ourselves seated and ran through the pre-flight checks. By the time we got to checking the ATIS again via the COM1 radio, John looked me in the eye and asked me two questions. “Are you OK with turning the engine on and proceeding, even if we may not complete the lesson?” (bearing in mind that I would be billed for the time that the engine was running, regardless). I said yes – it’s all experience, after all. “Will you be pissed off if we don’t fly today?” I replied that I would be disappointed, but not pissed off – not wanting to take a risk on flying in marginal conditions. Finally John made his call. ATIS reported broken cloud at 1800 feet AGL (above ground level), which meant that we would need a special clearance (“special VFR”) from Bankstown tower to get to the training area. John decided we’d go ahead and see how we went. So he radioed the tower to request take-off clearance.
We reached the point in the checklist where it was time to start the engine. I yelled “Clear Prop” out the window, then turned the key – the propeller turned a few times then the engine fired. Keeping my hand on the throttle, we set 1000 RPM, then went through our start-up checks. Once satisfied, John released the parking brake and we commenced our taxi. After testing the brakes, John immediately put me in the pilot seat (metaphorically, as I was literally sitting in the pilot seat for the flight, of course!) and asked me to taxi the aircraft, John controlling the throttle and brakes, me controlling the nosewheel with the rudder pedals. Fighting the impulse to steer the aircraft with the control yoke (most student pilots do this after years of driving cars), I managed to keep the aircraft on the centre line along our taxi path.
Reaching our point just short of the manoeuvring area, we stopped the aircraft while John requested permission from Ground to proceed to the run-up bay and also for our special VFR clearance. (The special VFR clearance, in essence, allowed us to fly to the training area despite not having 500 feet vertical clearance from cloud on our way out). Clearance obtained, we taxied to the run-up bay then ran through our run-up checks – including running the engine up to 2000 RPM and checking magnetos, carburettor heat, warning lights, ammeter, suction).
Finally, with run-up checks completed and clearance to take-off obtained, John quickly lined up on runway 11L (one one left) and took off.
After takeoff it was pretty clear why today’s conditions were a bit less than ideal. Visibility was within acceptable minimums, but the cloud was quite low and it wasn’t long before we were at 1500 feet and just 300 feet below cloud, heading out west to the training area. A few minutes and we were ready to start the lesson, which was the standard first lesson, “Effects Of Controls”. Significant things that John demonstrated, and I then undertook, were:
- Primary controls – ailerons, elevator (stabilator on a PA-28), rudder
- Main effects of primary controls (ailerons for banking/turning, elevator for pitching nose up/nose down, rudder for yawing aircraft left/right)
- Secondary effects of primary controls (use of ailerons causing bank then yaw, use of rudder causing yaw then bank)
- Pressure on control yoke required to maintain aircraft in desired attitude when “untrimmed”
- Trimming the aircraft to maintain desired attitude without exerting pressure on control yoke, and
- Maintaining straight and level flight (choose desired attitude relative to horizon by visual reference outside the windscreen then adjusting trim wheel to maintain that attitude).
By the time we were through all that, 30 or 40 minutes had passed and it was time to head back. We pointed the nose towards Prospect Reservoir – difficult to see off in the distance today, but it became clearer as we approached it – then towards the quarry just to the right – at which point John radioed the tower to report in. We turned right towards Warwick Farm Racecourse, looking for the railway line that runs between Fairfield and Liverpool and aiming to arrive over the railway line at 1000 feet AGL. Landing clearance received, John lined the aircraft up with runway 11L and we were quickly on the ground with John executing a perfect landing. Five minutes later we were back at the clubhouse and tying down the aircraft.
Wow. So much to take in. Good thing John was up there with me today – not just to fly the aircraft, not just to teach me my first lesson, but also to watch out for traffic! I was so focused on John’s lesson, and on the aircraft’s primary controls, that I had no headspace to look out the window or check my instrument panel. A plane could have approached me side-on, or an instrument could have failed or indicated a bad reading, and no way would I have noticed, I was so focused on what I was learning. It was only in the last 10 minutes of the lesson that I had enough head space to look outside a bit and take in the importance of the routine that John mentioned – Scan (outside), Attitude (check aircraft maintaining desired attitude), Performance (scan instruments), Attitude, Scan, Attitude, Performance, Attitude … etc. No wonder it takes so much time to integrate all the things that need to be learned to successfully fly an aircraft.
John seemed reasonably happy with the way the lesson had proceeded – he felt it went well. My control inputs are, apparently, appropriately light and I got the hang of trimming the aircraft. So all bodes well – weather permitting, of course – for Wednesday’s lessons, which will be Straight & Level Flight, then Climbing & Descending.
So I will live in fear of bad weather, it seems, ever day of the next 8 weeks, hoping that conditions for the next lesson are sufficient for us to proceed as planned. I know it won’t always turn out that way. But at the very least, I can reflect on a very successful first lesson, and proudly record my very first hour in my log book!