Tag Archives: insights

Mission accomplished: I am now a licensed Private Pilot!

Date: 14/09/2011

Hours flown Dual Command Total
This flight 2.70 0.00 2.70
Total to date 51.2 15.2 66.4

Well, it’s official. I flew my PPL test yesterday and passed with (dare I say it) “flying colours”!

Well, not quite … in fact there were plenty of mistakes, on which I will reflect in this blog post. However, evidently none of them were deal-breakers.

I can’t quite express how happy and satisfied I am at having reached this landmark goal that I’ve held for so long. In fact I think despite 8 months of regular flying I still can’t quite believe I’ve actually done it. For so long, for so many years, being able to fly seemed like an impossible dream. Then opportunity knocked in the form of a TV game show, and all of a sudden it was within reach. Now it’s done.

Perhaps the best way to express my frame of mind today, the morning after, is “quiet but intense satisfaction”.

Now, my customary “long blog post” warning should probably apply from here on in. I don’t know how long this will take, but I’ve got so much to download, this could be fairly lengthy. Totes props to any of you readers who make it to the other end.

Preparing for the flight

I got to the club at 0730 sharp. And I’m very glad I did. Given the packed morning I had (as I’ll relate) before finally getting away at 1245, getting there early and getting the aircraft squared away definitely paid dividends.

I bumped into my instructor, John, who wished me well. The weather looked pretty good – CAVOK conditions – and he asked me where I was going. I told him I didn’t know, and would ask my test officer (our CFI, Bill) when he came in. John opined that I should have called Bill previously to sort this out. Well, I hadn’t (I’ve had a pretty distracting week at work), so I was a little apprehensive at that remark, but not overly so. I had the skeletons of 9 different flight scenarios already pre-planned, at least for the outbound leg. And there are only so many places you can go ex-Bankstown for a 2-3 hour round trip flight. So I figured I was reasonably prepared for whichever way Bill wanted to go.

I grabbed a cup of tea and walked out to the flight line. I was able to spend a relaxed ½ hour with the aircraft, NFR. I called up the fuel truck and while I was waiting, turned on the master switch and checked lights and stall warning indicator. The landing light was out (as had previously been noted on the Maintenance Release) but all good otherwise. Oil was just over the minimum 6 litres, brake fluid reservoir nearly full. All else was good. I then sat in the cockpit and spent 10 minutes re-familiarising myself with the NAV/COM systems so as not to repeat my radio error on my previous flight.

With full fuel on both tanks (and good luck wishes from the fuel guy), I filled a bucket of water and swabbed down the front and side windows, closed the aircraft and headed back to the clubhouse.

Flight planning twice over

As luck would have it, Bill was in the clubhouse when I got back from the flight line. I greeted him and asked him where he’d like to head for the test. Eyeballing the weather, Bill said he’d like to head to Bathurst, then down to Crookwell for some air work and back home via Bindook. I pulled out my flight plan for Bathurst via Warragamba and Katoomba and asked him if that worked – he said yes. So I downloaded the relevant weather reports and spent the next hour developing the full flight plan.

Once done, I checked in with Bill. We started on some of the preliminary paperwork, then I commented that there was still a SIGMET in place indicating possibility of severe turbulence below 6000 feet over and in the lee of the ranges. As it was, winds of up to 35 knots were forecast around the 5000 and 7000 foot levels. After reflecting on this, Bill decided (with my fervent agreement) that perhaps heading across the ranges in a Warrior was not perhaps the best idea for today’s test (downdrafts, anyone?) so we quickly decided on an alternative: Cessnock/Scone via Warnervale. While still windy and somewhat turbulent, the weather looked decidedly better if we stayed east of the Great Dividing Range.

So off I went for another 45 minutes or so of furious flight planning. I was thanking my stars (or more correctly, my pre-test preparation) for the fact that I already had that flight planned out as far as Cessnock, so I wasn’t starting from scratch.

I only had this thought this morning: thank goodness I chose to fly the Cessnock/Scone with diversion scenario as my last dual training flight before the PPL test. I didn’t have to do that last training flight: I could have gone straight to the PPL without it. But had I done so, I would have gone into yesterday’s PPL flight a bit “blind”. I wouldn’t have had the extra experience of flying through the Lane of Entry. I wouldn’t have had the familiarising experience of flying for the Singleton NDB (Non Directional Beacon) and navigating to stay clear of the restricted Dochra military area around Singleton. Nor would I have had the experience of having to divert to and locate the Warkworth aerodrome to the west – which is exactly what eventuated yesterday.  So I consider the fees for that last dual cross-country flight as money incredibly well spent.

Ground quiz

The second flight plan finally done, I swallowed hard and approached Bill to say that I was ready.

“Will you walk into my parlour?”, said the Spider to the Fly

Mary Howitt, 1829

Well that’s melodramatic of course – nothing so evil, though it does portray my moderate level of apprehension at that point. We closed the door, sat down, and got into the ground quiz.

What is it about this portion of the practical tests? As was the case with my GFPT ground quiz, I got through it OK, but on several questions I found myself stumbling and on a couple I flat out said, “I don’t know”.

Bill worked his way through the “Knowledge Deficiency Report” that spat out from my PPL theory test and satisfied himself (more or less) that I had adequate knowledge in each of the areas.

  • Refuelling precautions? Check – good answer there.
  • License privileges? No problems – nailed that one.
  • Take-off and landing distance calculations? I’d already had them done and reviewed them with Bill earlier in the morning. No further questions, y’r honour.
  • Interpret ARFOR? Fortunately the ARFOR for area 21 was reasonably straightforward. Bill asked me about the validity of a TAF (Terminal Aerodrome Forecast) and I fluffed half of the answer through simple mathematical error but nailed the other half and quickly corrected my error. It was enough to convince Bill I knew was I was talking about. OK, move on, nothing to see here.
  • Engine temperature control? Pretty good answer. Pass.
  • Pitot static systems? No worries.
  • Lift? Man. Try as I did, I just couldn’t seem to understand the gist of the question Bill lobbed at me here. Went around it for 5 minutes or more. Whether he moved on out of pity, or I actually gave him the answer he was seeking, I’m still not sure. Less said the better.
  • Visual scanning? Correct technique described, all good.
  • Threat & Error Management? Flubbed the actual answer, though I think again Bill was convinced I have a general understanding of the TEM model. Mercy was shown.

A couple of other technical questions which evidently were satisfactorily addressed, and Bill declared stumps. Time to get into the sky.

Getting away: Bankstown to Patonga

The ATIS was information Golf, with takeoffs on 29R to the west, with moderate and gusting variable headwinds with crosswind up to 10 knots. Nothing too arduous. As I walked out to NFR, having signed out and grabbed the flight bag, I thanked myself for having gotten in early and readied the aircraft. All I had to do at this point was the fuel checks (first flight of day and after the morning’s refuel) and another quick walk-around, untying and removing the pitot cover. I opened up the cabin, got my stuff organised and by the time Bill got to the aircraft I felt squared away.

I asked Bill whether he wanted me to demonstrate the aircraft inspection or go through the standard pre-flight passenger brief. He indicated that we could take those as read, so it was straight into the aircraft and into the start-up procedures.

I think Bill liked the look of the little custom-assembled Flight Procedures Manual I’ve put together. I have A5-sized copies of the Bankstown aerodrome map, our club PA28 Cherokee flight procedures, a list of essential radio and NDB frequencies (Bankstown, Camden) and my own custom-developed pre-flight procedures checklist all mounted on cards and filed in a book with plastic sleeved pages. As I pulled it out and ran through the pre-start and post-start checks, I heard a quiet grunt of approval and saw the pencil go to his checklist – so a solid start, I thought. Bill also had a squiz at my flight plan and liked what he saw, at least I didn’t get any challenges about that.

Out onto taxiway Mike 2 and taxi clearance obtained from Ground, I gave Bill a verbal Departure Brief and then pulled into the run-up bay. Run-up and pre-flight checks completed and the Emergency Brief delivered, we taxied for the holding point for runway 29R and held for a couple of minutes for a preceding aircraft to take off. Clearance obtained from Tower, I lined up and we were away.

At 500 feel AGL I turned on to 010M for Parramatta and immediately felt the influence of the moderately strong westerly wind that was to dog me for the entire day. Flying a more or less northerly track for Parramatta, I had to lay off about 20 degrees to the left just to avoid getting blown over into Class C airspace. OK, at least I knew what I was dealing with.

Over the Prospect-Potts Hill pipeline and it was up to 1900 feet over Parramatta. Pretty soon I picked up the Pennant Hills strobe light and was able to track direct for that point. Transponder to 1200 (for class G airspace) and radio to Sydney Centre on 124.55, I commenced a brief climb to 2400 feet and reported just south of Pennant Hills to alert any traffic possibly heading west to the Lane of Entry via Hornsby from the coast. This was a trick I picked up from John in my last dual training flight, and I think Bill liked it.

Conscious of the westerly all the while, I was mildly stressed about finding the right angle of drift to lay off, varying between about 10 and 20 degrees left. Fortunately the various northbound landmarks (M2 interchange, Pennant Hills CBD, the Sands hospital, Thornleigh covered reservoir, Hornsby rail sheds etc) all materialised into view and kept me honest. The only real area of uncertainty for me was north of Hornsby: there’s about a 5-minute period there where you’ve got no more immediate landmarks and you have to trust your flight plan to pop you out correctly over Patonga. As I approached the Hawkesbury River area I sighted Brooklyn Bridge a little too close on my left, indicating that I’d been laying off a little too much drift and was in danger of impinging on the southbound Lane of Entry. I corrected this and made for what I was reasonably sure was – and which turned out to be – Patonga. Phew. First leg done.

Whither Warnervale? And the terminal velocity of apple cores

My next leg was planned to overfly the Warnervale Aerodrome. Over Patonga, I did the standard Time-Twist (heading bug)-Turn procedure, turned for my planned heading for Warnervale and shortly afterwards commenced a climb from 2400 to 7500 feet.

Bill questioned me about the height I was planned to fly to – did I really want to get to 7500? My following track to Cessnock was going to require descending to 6500 feet anyway, why go so high? This conflicted somewhat with the advice I’ve always received from my instructor John – to wit, “height is your friend”. I didn’t feel it was the right time to say, “the Grade 3 instructor who trained me would disagree with you, Bill” so I kind of played a straight bat and continued climbing. Having reached 7500 feet and flown for a few minutes, Bill was kind enough to observe that “at least it’s smoother flying up here” – which it was!

Then came the first glitch of the day. Searching for Warnervale Aerodrome, I started to form the view that I was too far north! And, I think in hindsight, I was also too high to accurately spot the aerodrome.

Bill agreed, and opined that I’d already passed it. Clearly I was so focused on the climb to 7500 feet (during which, in the last 2000 feet or so, climb performance had been woeful due thinner air and my full fuel tanks) that I’d neglected to get my head outside the cockpit enough. A glance to the left and I saw the end of the mountainous area north of Sydney that borders the southern end of the Hunter Valley, confirming that I was already entering into the general vicinity of Cessnock Aerodrome, which was my next destination after Warnervale.

So I decided to cut my losses and head straight for Cessnock. I relayed this decision to Bill, who agreed calmly enough. I changed course and descended to 6500 feet. Bill also commented that our groundspeed had been quite slow (he’d been monitoring the GPS in the cockpit, more on that later) and that as a consequence he’d like to do a few touch-and-goes at Cessnock, rather than overflying direct for Scone per the original plan. OK.

Levelling out at 6500 feet, Bill asked me to crack open the storm window on my side of the cockpit. About 10 minutes earlier he’d pulled an apple out of his pocket and had eaten steadily through it. So I complied, at which point he leaned across and neatly lobbed the core out the window! I was mildly taken aback – though reflecting on this, we were over what looked like unpopulated and bushy territory so there was probably no immediate safety risk to life or property below us. But much as this may have been a habit born of Bill’s (doubtless) thousands of hours of flying, it’s not something I’ll be doing in a hurry. I wouldn’t want to be the unlucky recipient of an apple core to the head from 6500 feet …

Over the ranges and into the Hunter Valley, I informed Bill that I would approach Cessnock Aerodrome on the dead side of the circuit and would descend to 1700 feet to overfly the aerodrome if needs be. Bill commented that while a lot of training material recommends overflying at 1500 feet AGL, this is in fact circuit height for heavy aircraft (jets, RPT etc) and the strictly recommended height is 2000 feet AGL. My question was, how can you see the windsock from that height? Good question, Bill replied! Basically it comes down to conditions and common sense, in Bill’s view – for example, there is no RPT operations around Cessnock that he is “aware of”, and 1500 feet was OK for today.

Down to 1700 feet and approaching Cessnock from the west, I had tuned in to the Cessnock CTAF in an effort to identify which direction the traffic was using. I had intended to overfly the aerodrome and spot the windsock (mainly to show Bill that I was aware of proper procedure), however we heard a couple of transmissions and saw traffic confirming that circuit direction was on runway 35.

So Bill recommended we descend to circuit height and get on with it, which I did quickly, dropping to 1200 feet and joining mid-crosswind. As I did so, I ran through the prelanding checks and saw another box get ticked off on Bill’s worksheet.

Circuits and bumps at Cessnock

First up was a standard landing with 2 stages of flap. Radio calls were fine and so was the approach, though the wind was pretty choppy down low and I was struggling a bit to fly proper square circuit legs. Final approach was fine, though – of course – I had to drop it down hard, having fallen prey to my old bugbear of flaring too early above the runway. Bugger. Oh well, anyway, down we were and then with flaps quickly retracted we were off again. Put it out of the mind and move on.

Second circuit was much better. Managed to fly the legs reasonably square, and I remembered to fly an extended downwind leg as this was to be a flapless landing. In any case, traffic ahead of me was doing the same. On the way in, Bill advised that after this landing we would depart to the north and head for the Singleton NDB.

And fortunately, this one was a greaser! I more or less intentionally managed to keep my speeds 5 or so knots above normal – is as the procedure for a flapless landing in Cherokees – touching down lightly at around 75 KIAS. Much better. Flaps in again, and off we went.

Climbing to circuit height, I levelled out and continued on runway heading for 2 nautical miles, extending the upwind leg so as to depart the area safely. Once clear of the aerodrome, I made a departure radio call, then as per Bill’s instructions set course for the Singleton NDB and commenced a climb to 4500 feet.

Circles over Singleton

As we climbed, Bill took me to task for the way I was flying the aircraft in terms of controlling pitch. I was struggling to reach the Best Rate Of Climb airspeed of around 80 KIAS, and was probably falling into the trap – in my admittedly overanxious state – of chasing the VSI (Vertical Speed Indicator) as it dipped above and below the zero mark in the choppy air.

The gist of what he was communicating to me was that I was failing to use my Attitude Indicator properly. He told me to choose the correct attitude for the climb – in this case about 5 degrees above the horizon I think – then trim it out and leave it alone.

This frankly has not been a big part of my training to date. In the climb, the main instrument I’m used to using is the Airspeed Indicator – making sure I’m at the correct speed (usually around 80 knots BROC), not too fast and definitely not too low, risking a stall. The only time I’ve had to really pay much attention to the Attitude Indicator is during my mandatory 2 hours of instrument flying – under which circumstances the Attitude Indicator becomes all-important.

Bill offered the view that many instructors tend not emphasise the importance of using the Attitude Indicator during PPL training, resulting in the need to breaking “bad habits” when pilots progress to higher levels of training and instrument flying.

Anyway, he was at me about this all the way to the NDB and intermittently for the rest of the flight. I was of course unsure whether this meant black marks against me for not flying within altitude tolerances, or whether it was in a more general sense part of Bill’s approach, which is to instruct in ways that don’t influence the outcomes of the actual check ride. Also he may have been intentionally building up some pressure on me to see how I would perform under a bit of pressure.

A few miles south of the NDB Bill informed me that once past the NDB he wanted me to do a 45-degree of bank steep turn to the left. Oh, great. Just the thing I’d been hoping to avoid having forgotten to practice this manoeuvre on my recent solo flight in the training area.

Well, I’m not sure if it was the accumulated pressure and stress, but quite simply I ballsed up the first attempt. In a nutshell, I didn’t bank past 30 degrees but (as per steep turn procedure) I did open the throttle full wide and consequently found myself over-revving the engine and climbing well outside of desired tolerances for a steep turn.

Bill was not overly pleased with this. Not sure if this was strictly allowed in terms of stepping outside his role, but Bill saw fit to demonstrate a short steep turn to me, driving home again the importance of using the Attitude Indicator to maintain desired pitch.

I humbly (and quickly) asked for a second chance, to which Bill agreed, and this time – thank goodness – I managed a reasonable attempt. I find steep turns a bit of a challenge, and of course while I should really have been observing whether I was maintaining a constant attitude (relative to the real horizon or to the Attitude Indicator), what I was of course watching were my altimeter (to try to avoid climbing or descending too far during the turn) and my Directional Indicator (to try to ensure that I anticipated the roll-out to straight-and-level by 30 degrees or so).

It was a bit up and down, but I pretty much nailed the roll-out on the desired heading and managed to bring it out flat on 4500 feet, from which I’d started the turn. Whether out of eventual satisfaction or despair I can’t be sure, Bill said that would do for now.

Diverting activities: Return to Warkworth

And then – this was where I was so thankful for having done the previous cross-country flight up in the area – Bill said that instead of heading for Scone he would like me to divert to Warkworth. He offered to take the controls while I sorted out maps, headings and so forth.

Fortunately, this took me all of 30 seconds or so. I pulled out my VNC (Visual Navigation Chart), and sketched a quick line from the Singleton NDB to Warkworth Aerodrome. Reading from this line a true heading of about 270 degrees, I subtracted local variance to arrive at an estimated required track of 258 degrees magnetic. And laying my notched pencil over the flight planned track, I quickly estimated about an 8-minute flight to Warkworth.

Resuming the controls, I quickly radioed Brisbane Centre and made my request for a flight plan amendment. This exchange went perfectly, with Bill’s only comment being that I should also have identified myself as a VFR flight.

So, we were off west to Warkworth flying at 4500 feet, with me anxiously searching for the airstrip. Fortunately, I arrived more or less directly overhead the airstrip and was able to identify it quite distinctly from 4500 feet altitude, a good 2000 feet lower than when I’d last been over the area. (Having located the aerodrome a few days previously on Google Maps didn’t hurt, either).

I pointed out the aerodrome to Bill and indicated that I would overfly it before changing course southwards. Bill concurred, and then asked me to prepare a track southbound for the Mount McQuoid NDB.

As it happened, I’d planned the flight assuming a southbound leg from Scone to Warkworth and thence to McQuoid and home, so I already had the required magnetic heading at hand. Therefore over Warkworth it was a simple matter to do Time-Twist-Turn and get sorted out for McQuoid.

Heading home: Instruments, NDB’s and GPS’s

Once established on the southbound track for McQuoid, Bill asked me to hand over the controls and to put on the hood. I hadn’t expected this, but I’ve been quite comfortable with the hood work so far in my training and saw no reason to be scared of it this time around. Bill said that he wanted me to fly on instruments for a few minutes.

So with the hood on, I focused on my Attitude Indicator as the primary instrument, and my other instruments as secondary, and moved into the rather zen-like state (at least that’s the way it seems to me) of relying solely on your instruments. At the PPL level, I believe the goal is to stay within 5 to 10 degrees either side of your desired heading, and within plus or minus 100 feet of your required altitude, all the while of course maintaining a steady desired attitude for straight and level flight, turns, climb or descent as the case may be. Four or five minutes in, evidently this part of the flight was successful and I was allowed to remove the hood and resume visual navigation.

With a good 20 nautical miles or so to go, Bill took the opportunity to quickly demonstrate some of the features of the (rather antiquated) GPS system installed in NFR’s NAV/COM stack. I’d already indicated in conversation earlier in the day that I was keen to get my head around GPS navigation, about which Bill was very supportive as he’s a keen advocate of “use every bit of equipment available to you in the cockpit”. Whereas I think my instructor John is more of the “navigate by dead reckoning” school of thought, at least so far as PPL training is concerned –hence my training has had no GPS content to it.

Didn’t take Bill long to convince me that my next learning step is to get into GPS navigation (as a secondary means of navigation, of course, to back up the traditional methods I’ve learned). For a start, knowing just how far I had to go to reach the NDB was invaluable – no need to guess, you know at any point exactly how many nautical miles away the waypoint is. And further, knowing exactly what my current magnetic track across the ground was, versus the track required to get to McQuoid, took all the guesswork out of chasing the needle on my Automatic Direction Finder. And this was just an old GPS unit – lacking all the fancy features of more recent ones, with on-screen maps and what-have-you.

Once at McQuoid, Bill took the controls while I practised entering our next waypoint – in this case, the NDB at Calga just north of Brooklyn Bridge – into the GPS unit. And bang, there it was. Too easy.

Descending to altitude 3300 feet to be under the 3500 foot control step by the time I reached Calga, I was well set up for the Lane of Entry and well clear of Richmond airspace as well (which had nearly been my nemesis in my previous flight up that way). So note to self: when southbound for the Lane of Entry, use Calga NDB as final waypoint before Brooklyn Bridge!

As we approached Calga, Bill also pointed out to me a region of some cleared spaces on low peaks off to our left, one of which is (apparently) an airstrip at Mangrove Mountain. Useful to know in the event of a forced landing or PS&L scenario, over an area otherwise consisting pretty much of hills and bush.

Anticipating flying down the Lane of Entry and approaching Prospect and Bankstown, I already had my required radio frequencies dialled up and had a sneaky listen to the Bankstown ATIS to find out conditions there. Bankstown was on information Juliet, with landings on 29R to the west and with a crosswind alert. Great, good to know well in advance.

Lane of Entry and the ever-present Richmond restricted airspace

Descending to 2400 feet to be under the control step, I flew over Brooklyn Bridge and made my southbound call to Lane of Entry traffic. Conscious of Richmond to the right, I scanned keenly for the Berowra strobe, which Bill informed me had been inoperative the previous night. (It’s out very frequently, apparently). I was all set to have to visually identify the Berowra township itself and the strobe area just to the southwest, when I saw the strobe and was therefore able to relax a bit and head straight for it.

Once there, I set the required southbound track for the next waypoint – being the strobe on top of the Dural tanks – and started to scan for it. With the westerly wind very stiff now, I had to lay off drift to my right to avoid getting blown left into controlled airspace, and as a result allowed myself to stray a bit too close to Richmond airspace on the right for Bill’s liking. He alerted me to this but was kind enough to allow me to correct the situation – which in any case was not out of control as I’d correctly identified the electricity substation at Galston and was keeping it well clear to my right.

What I hadn’t spotted – until Bill pointed it out to me – was the second strobe flashing quite prominently just out and off to my left. Additional note to self: actively scan when up and down the Lane of Entry. Use my head and neck, lean forwards, don’t allow the windscreen pillars to obscure my vision of important landmarks.

Once the second strobe was reached, it was then a matter of heading south over Castle Hill and visually locating Prospect Reservoir, and descending to the required height of 1500 feet for the Prospect reporting point. I made another check of the ATIS – still on Juliet – and then dialled in the Tower frequency, to monitor local traffic and prepare for contact with the tower.

And it was at this point – though I didn’t realise it until down and parked – that I made my last mistake of the day. And a blood annoying, niggling mistake it was too. I forgot to change my transponder back from 1200 to 3000 once I dialled up tower frequency and approached the Bankstown control zone. Simple mistake, but not a good one to make. Fortunately, this didn’t finish me off as I’d correctly set the transponder when exiting the Bankstown zone at the start of the flight. I reckon Bill put this down to stress of the flight, and let it slide. It pissed me off though: after all the flights on which I’d correctly executed this simple part of the procedure, I had to pick my PPL test flight as the first (and only!) time to forget it.

Reaching the quarry east of Prospect which serves as the reporting point, I reported inbound and was cleared to join downwind for runway 29R and maintain 1500 feet. I turned left and headed for the airfield, searching as I did so for the Dunc Gray Velodrome which now serves as a landmark for GA VFR aircraft approaching runway 29R. I ran through the BUMFISH checks and, once more or less abeam of the velodrome, I reported downwind and was cleared for a visual approach to 29R, being number 1 for the runway.

Down and dusted

Happily, I made a pretty good job of the approach and landing. As I’ve blogged before, I’ve found the quick drop from 1500 feet to circuit height (1000 feet) and then getting set up for approach and landing to 29R a bit of a rushed challenge in the past. But thankfully yesterday it worked out well.

I can’t quite recall my exact sequence of actions (throttle back and nose down, carby heat on, 2 stages of flap) to get down to 1000 feet on time to reach circuit height on late downwind, but the base turn was right on schedule, at the right height and airspeed, and after a bit of initial juggling to get aligned and on the right approach path, I nailed the final landing. Lovely to hear those tires go “chirp” for the CFI on the last lap of the day!

Off the runway and with taxi call made to Ground, I taxyed for parking and ran through my CFROST checks. Bill was asking me why my switches weren’t off yet – not sure if I’d adequately demonstrated to him that I had the right post-landing procedure in hand – but I told him I was using CFROST and he seemed happy enough.

I taxyed very carefully off onto the grass and into parking, ran through the shut-down procedures, and then took one deep, deep breath. I was mentally and physically exhausted! 2.7 hours on an often-choppy PPL check ride, with no break for a stretch, and my right leg had been a bit crampy on the way home. There’s no question but you do plenty of work on a PPL check ride.

So? Did I pass?

Bill started to debrief me on the flight and review the things we’d discussed and he recommended I focus on. Not wanting to interrupt him, I listened patiently for about 10 or 15 minutes, until I could stand it no longer. My gut said I’d probably passed – just – but I needed to hear it one way or the other. So I said, “So, how’d we do here, Bill?” And the bugger just offhandedly looked at me and said, “Oh, yeah, that was alright, you passed” and then grinned at me. He then offered me his hand and congratulated me, and I thanked him – genuinely – for being part of what was one of the proudest days of my life.

Bill tied the plane down and put the cover on the pitot tube while I did the paperwork and squared away the cabin. On the walk back to the clubhouse I was regaled with stories of Bill’s time as a Head Teacher of Aviation Studies with TAFE, in the days when TAFE owned and operated a Beechcraft Baron. Those were the days …

Paperwork, and silly English scenarios

To cap off the afternoon, some CASA paperwork to finalise outcomes of the test and apply for my PPL, and then the last thing that had to be done was an English language proficiency test. This consisted of Bill playing me a couple of audio tracks from his computer, put together apparently by people at CASA and consisting of imaginary “in flight” scenarios and conversations between pilot and air traffic controllers, speaking variously with very heavy, impenetrable “foreign” accents. The gist of the exercise was for me to listen to these scenarios and then describe to Bill exactly what was going on.

Simple enough for me, as a proficient English speaker, though I can see that this would have been a stiff test for those with not proficient with English – which I suppose is the whole point. I had enough trouble listening carefully for 5 or 10 minutes as it was, after the often-arduous flight, but evidently Bill was satisfied. A final handshake and a promise to mail the papers to CASA immediately, and we were done.

Mistakes and things I learned

  1. Missing Warnervale. I think 7500 feet or so AGL is just too damn high an altitude from which to visually locate a small aerodrome. I had the same challenge when I was trying to locate Warkworth Aerodrome from 6500 feet back in my last dual cross-country flight. Conversely, as I related earlier, I had no problems locating Warkworth yesterday from 4500 feet. (Though admittedly I’d been there before). So my tentative thinking here is: if I’m trying to locate an aerodrome I’ve not previously been to, 4500 feet or so AGL is about the limit from which I can hope to spot it.
  2. Overflying the aerodrome. Strictly speaking this should be at 2000 feet AGL to avoid circuit traffic at 1500 feet AGL (heavies, RPT etc). But it’s kind of a “common sense and circumstances thing”, according to our club CFI.
  3. Maintaining desired pitch attitude during flight. Whether you’re climbing or descending, or in straight and level flight, pay attention not just to your attitude as indicated by looking out the window, but also to your Attitude Indicator. If you use the AI to set and maintain the desired pitch attitude, and trim the aircraft properly, you won’t need to chase the needles and should be able to fly effectively “hands off”.
  4. Use GPS technology where available. Of course, only as a secondary means of navigation. But man oh man, it’s handy.
  5. Actively scan for the strobes and landmarks on the Lane of Entry. One might be hiding just behind the windscreen pillar and out of your sight if you’re not actively and fully scanning – left, right and forwards.
  6. Setting the transponder when exiting/entering Bankstown control zone. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS make the required change to transponder setting at the same time as I change radio frequency, both when exiting Bankstown control zone (radio to 124.55, transponder to 1200) and entering it (radio to 132.8, transponder to 3000). No exceptions.

Reflecting on the journey

So here we are. 8 or so months after my first flight, and with many significant landmarks along the way. Lots of things stand out.

All in the space of 8 short months. And here I was – here I am – suddenly having reached the goal that so many have shared over the years since general aviation became accessible to members of the general public. Not to over-romanticise too much, but I do feel as though I’ve joined a very privileged and select group of people: those who are lucky enough to be able to step in an aircraft and “slip the surly bonds of earth”* for a few hours at a time.

* With a nod to John Magee, an American pilot and poet killed in a flying accident while serving in the Battle of Britain. Magee wrote the famous and rather lovely poem High Flight.

Where next? Not sure. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and I don’t know when I’ll next fly. Somewhere in the next 6-8 weeks I guess. Somewhere in the general scheme of things to do next are:

  • First flight with my wife (maybe a weekend to Mudgee at some point?)
  • Joy flights with family members and friends
  • And, hiring John to show me the ropes of the Victor One/Harbour Scenic flights over Sydney.

Plus I also want to get my head around using GPS as an additional navigation tool. And I wouldn’t mind getting a CSU/retractable endorsement in the near-ish future as well.

Whatever lies next, I now have my “license to learn”. Can’t wait for the piece of paper to come in the post …

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Nav 7: Final cross-country navex Bankstown-Cessnock-Bankstown (next stop: PPL test!)

Date: 01/08/2011

Hours flown Dual Command Instruments
This flight 2.60 0.00 0.00
Total to date 46.64 13.10 2.00

Last Monday, on probably the best day for flying I’ve enjoyed in my nearly 60 hours so far, I finally managed to get out for my final cross-country navigation exercise. It was a truly magnificent flight: I think I enjoyed it more than any other so far. However, like all flights, it was not without its challenges and hiccups, as I’ll relate.

Flight route and objectives

Yesterday’s flight took me, in simple terms, north from Sydney to Cessnock in the Hunter Valley, then further northwards towards Scone, followed by a diversion west to Warkworth and then south back to Bankstown. The flight was planned and flown using the following waypoints:

  • Depart YSBK (Bankstown)
  • Fly north to PAA (Patonga) via northbound Lane of Entry (overflying Parramatta, Pennant Hills, Hornsby)
  • Direct north to YCNK (Cessnock) for landing
  • Then further north via YSGT (Singleton) to YSCO (Scone)
  • South to YWKW (Warkworth), MQD (Mt McQuoid) and Brooklyn Bridge (BBG)
  • Then south to PSP (Prospect) via southbound Lane of Entry (overflying Berowra, Dural, Pennant Hills)
  • And home to Bankstown.

In actual fact I didn’t get as far as Scone, as one of the main objectives of the flight was to practice a diversion in that general area so that I’m reasonably prepared if I fly up that way for my final PPL test with the club CFI. (I’ll describe that exercise shortly). Other objectives were to:

  • Fly again up and down the Sydney Lanes of Entry. (These routes have to be flown quite precisely and I’d only been through them once before, on my first navigation exercise. Club policy is to require students to have flown these routes twice dual before being allowed to go solo through them).
  • Become familiar with flying around and avoiding the Singleton Army Base restricted area “Dochra” to the west of Singleton, and
  • Generally do a last “consolidation” cross-country flight before heading into my final PPL test.

Sorting out the aircraft and getting away

I’d booked one of the club’s Archers, SFA, for this flight. I’ve only flown it once before. It’s a slightly better touring aircraft than the Warrior as it has a bit more grunt up front (cruising at 110 KIAS vs 105) and is a better performer – in terms of range vs passenger load – than the Warrior.

Unfortunately, SFA was due and into its 100-hour maintenance on Monday, so I missed out. Denied SFA, I quickly rebooked Warrior UFY (flown on my first cross-country solo flight) only to find out that my instructor had booked another Warrior, IJK, which I hadn’t yet flown. (IJK was undergoing a comprehensive engine replacement and external/internal refit in the earlier stages of my training, which is why it was new to me on Monday). I’m always up for flying a new aircraft, so I elected for IJK. Weather checked (CAVOK conditions) and flight plan done, I headed out to the flight line.

IJK, my ride for this flight

For an aircraft just out of a comprehensive refit, IJK was mildly suss, I must say. Landing light was not working and the strobes on the wings were only functioning intermittently. However, given the weather conditions we decided these were not issues requiring a change of aircraft.

Of ever so slightly more concern was what appeared to be a slightly stuck or damaged fuel drain below the right fuel tank. After fuelling, the standard test for fuel quality involves draining a sample of fuel, via the fuel drain valve, into a container to identify any water or impurities in the fuel. On doing this, the fuel drain developed quite a steady drip of fuel. On manually pulling the drain down, the drip stopped.

Given that the fuel drip had ceased, we decided to fly to Cessnock on the right tank and (upon landing) check our fuel situation there. If the right fuel tank drain was leaking in any way and our fuel supply was diminished, we could refuel at Cessnock and in any case have more than enough fuel in our full left tank to make it back to Sydney comfortably. In the unlikely (in our judgement) event of running out of fuel in flight en route to Cessnock, we could always switch to the left tank. (In any event, as I’ll relate, we suffered no loss of fuel whatsoever).

Another view of IJK that I love - with Bankstown's resident DC3 parked in the background near our flight line

I started up,  taxyed out to the run-up bay and ran through the pre-flight checks, deciding to do the pre-takeoff checks before engine run-up as engine temperature was not yet quite in the green. All done, we taxyed to the runway and took off to the west on Bankstown’s runway 29R (right), climbed to 500 feet and then made a right turn towards Parramatta on a magnetic heading of about 010 degrees. Reaching 1000 feet, I levelled out until over the pipeline that runs east from Prospect Reservoir to Potts Hill, then climbed to 1900 feet to clear Parramatta, changing to area frequency (124.55 mHz) and transponder code to 1200 as I did so.

Parramatta to Cessnock: Over the hills

The Parramatta to Cessnock leg was essentially two stages. First, head north up the Lane of Entry from Parramatta to Patonga. Second, track direct from Patonga to Cessnock.

The Parramatta-Patonga stage was the first time I’d navigated along the Lane of Entry without any assistance. It went well enough. AirServices Australia publishes a handly little spiral-bound guide for entering and exiting Bankstown Class D airspace, complete with landmarks and navigation references, magnetic track headings, radio frequencies and altitude limits, that made it (relatively) easy to map-crawl all the way to Patonga. Once over Parramatta I climbed to 2400 feet and changed to area frequency 125.8 just before overflying Pennant Hills. Then it was further northwards over Hornsby, and another 10 minutes or so before identifying the small Hawkesbury area communityof Patonga lying in a small sheltered beach north of Berowra.

Along the way, John recommended making a radio call when northbound just before Pennant Hills, which is just south of Hornsby. Hornsby is the point at which northbound aircraft can turn right to track towards the coast for Longreef (usually aircraft planning to do Harbour Scenic and/or Victor One flights down the coast). They also track back from Longreef to Hornsby to rejoin the Lane of Entry and can be a traffic hazard, especially if they don’t make appropiate radio calls/position reports. So John recommended I make a this call to alert any traffic in the area to my presence. Good safety tip!

At Patonga I turned north onto a track of 349 degrees magnetic direct for Cessnock, put the aircraft into a climb for target altitude of 6500 feet and settled in for the 25-minute flight to Cessnock. Climb performance was not fantastic as we were still carrying close to a full load of fuel, we were probably only achieving a rate of climb of 400 feet per minute, so it was a good 10 minutes before I levelled out in the cruise.

The flying was magnificent! Still air, no turbulence, and despite some building high cloud, CAVOK in all directions with clear views off the coast to our right, the Hawkesbury area and Blue Mountains to our left, and the Hunter Valley to our north. This is how conditions remained all day (despite one shower on approach back to Bankstown), which meant that I was able to climb to and maintain optimum altitudes for the entire flight. I was rapt. It’s so much fun to get up into the clear smooth air and be able to stay in it all the way, and the views are magnificent. This is one of the many things that make flying so much fun for me.

After about 10 minutes in cruise, we approached the northern reaches of the coastal ranges and the southern end of the Hunter Valley. I put IJK into a 500 feet-per-minute descent, ran through the top-of-descent checks and started scanning for local traffic (visually and via the radio) as well as looking for the airstrip. Radio traffic informed me that runway 35 was in use, which at Cessnock involves flying a right-hand circuit. So I descended to the west of the aerodrome to circuit height of 1200 feet and joined the circuit mid-crosswind, behind an aircraft doing circuits from the airstrip. Still not 100% sure of the fuel situation in the right tank, I switched to the (full) left tank as a safety precaution in case we had to do a go-around and needed power in a hurry.

The landing was solid, though as John pointed out, my feet weren’t as awake as ideal. (I find this is one of the “feel” things that erodes as your time between flights increases). Regardless, we taxyed for the Cessnock southern run-up bay and parked and shut down for a quick stretch of legs and a fuel check.

John checked the fuel. Full in the left tank (as expected) and about 30 litres down in the right tank. This squared precisely with my expectations of the fuel we should have used (according to my flight plan and fuel log), so we were 90% reassured that we weren’t losing any fuel.

With that said, John – being ever-cautious, which I like about him as an instructor, because it teaches me good habits – suggested a 2-prong strategy for our return leg:

  1. Take off and climb on the left (full) tank – reason being that these are the most “vulnerable” phases of flight during which running out of fuel is to be particularly avoided; then at the top of the climb switch to the right tank and
  2. Run on the right tank for another hour so as to conserve fuel in our known “best” tank for the later stages of the flight and return to/landing at Bankstown.

Cessnock to Warkworth – Diversion practice!

So, start-up, run-up and pre-flight procedures and checks, and I made the very short taxy  to Cessnock’s runway 35. “Entering and rolling”, I made an upwind departure and climbed to 1500 feet above circuit height. Reaching that altitude, I turned direct for the Singleton NDB (non directional beacon), which is situated to the northwest of Singleton township. I was heading for the NDB as a means of skirting well clear of the Singleton Army Base, a restricted area located immediately south and west of Singleton.

I climbed back to 6500 feet before reaching the NDB. As soon as I overflew the NDB John diverted me to Warkworth – diversions being part of the final PPL flight test, and something that I’d only done twice before. So with Scone out of the picture (as planned), I pulled out my VNC (Visual Navigation Chart) and quickly sketched a line between Singleton and Warkworth. Visually, the line was a straight line to the west, which I estimated meant a track of 270 degrees true, or about 258 degrees magnetic when adjusted for local magnetic variance. Laying my pencil – specially notched with 10 mile/6 minute increments – I estimated my time to reach Warkworth at 8 minutes. I then set course for Warkworth and set about making my radio calls to Brisbane Centre to amend my flight plan.

This radio exchange went OK, though the controller sounded a tad frazzled and impatient. In fact before I spoke with him I heard him flaming a Virgin flight somewhere in the area, whose pilot could not seem to get the controller’s message that he was using the wrong radio frequency. Equal parts heartening and disturbing to realise that a commercial pilot with the airlines could make this mistake also, but I suppose that’s human nature …

I was very quickly in the Warkworth vicinity, overflying several large open-cut mines (this being the lower Hunter Valley). But could I locate the aerodrome? Could I hell. 5 or 10 minutes of circling around was fruitless. John encouraged me to bank the aircraft to both sides to improve my visibility of the ground, but to no avail. Finally John took pity on me and banked the aircraft steeply to the right to reveal that I was in fact right over the aerodrome! A grass strip used for gliding, I could even see the twin crosses marked on the aerodrome to indicate gliding operations. Oh well – didn’t find it that day, but I now know what the place looks like if that’s my diversion destination during my final test.

Warkworth to Mt McQuoid – Just cruising

After circling Warkworth for a couple more minutes I turned south to begin the southbound trip back to Bankstown, putting the aircraft into a climb to 7500 feet as I did so. Conditions remained beautiful – there was some cloud around, but well above us, with great visibility and no turbulence to speak of.

South of Warkworth I still had to be mindful of remaining clear of the Singleton Army Base restricted area, so with a bit of map shuffling and visual reference to the ground I decided that if I could stay to the west of the road joining Warkworth and Broke – which is to the south of the Army base – I would remain in the clear.

Once over Broke, I turned to align myself with the ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) needle, set the DI (Directional Indicator) bug and made straight for McQuoid. I checked the radio freqencies I’d need for the return trip and then “relaxed” for a few minutes with nothing else to do but steer for McQuoid and maintain straight and level flight at 7500 feet.

McQuoid to Brooklyn Bridge: On track, or heading into controlled air space?

We were over McQuoid after about 10 more minutes of cruising. I switched maps to my more detailed Sydney VTC (Visual Terminal Chart) and put the aircraft into a 500 feet-per-minute descent. (Estimated time from McQuoid to Brooklyn Bridge was 16 minutes and I needed to get down from 7500 to 2400 feet by that point, so a steady but not drastic descent was called for). I set course of about 161 degrees magnetic and started visually scanning for the general vicinity of Brooklyn Bridge, expecting to reach it in around 16 minutes.

About 10 minutes in, John remarked that the area immediately south of us didn’t look much like what he was expecting, and he wondered if we were too far off to the right and heading for the controlled airspace of Richmond RAAF Base. A quick check of the map and a scan outside suggested he might be on to something, so I pointed us another 20 degrees or so towards the east. After another few minutes we caught sight of Brooklyn Bridge, which from its position off to our left confirmed John’s suspicion that we’d been far off track to the right. Had we maintained that track, unquestionably we would have busted into Richmond air space. This would not have been a good situation, either in general terms or particularly if this had happened to be my actual PPL test flight.

Flight track adjustments made, we arrived over Brooklyn Bridge at 2400 feet and ready for our final leg home via the southbound Lane of Entry.

Brooklyn Bridge to Prospect and Bankstown: Map crawling, looking for strobe lights, and virga

As with navigating through the northbound Lane of Entry, going southbound it’s necessary to maintain pretty specific altitudes and headings to avoid infringing on various areas of controlled air space to the right and left. This also involves looking for some prominent land marks, and a couple of strobe lights as well.

The first thing you’re looking for is the Berowra strobe, a visual navigation aid for pilots that lies just south and west of the Berowra township. Trouble is, the strobe wasn’t working on this day – and apparently has been out of action for at least 4 days. Anecdotally, it’s often out of action or hard to spot anyway. So I was a little unsure of what I was actually looking for. Another good reason for having done this flight today, as John was able to point out the general location of the strobe in relation to Berowra township, and also the actual location of the strobe, in a kind of cleared area.

Next up are a couple more prominent features left and right of your required track – being particularly important not to stray right into Richmond air space – and in particular the South Dural strobe situated atop a water tank. This strobe was fortunately easy to spot, though CASA’s Class D procedures recommend that you be able to identify the water tank (green sides/orange top) without the aid of the strobe if needs be.

At Berowra John commented on a couple of virga showers of rain in the vicinity up ahead. In simple terms, these are rain showers where the water evaporates in the air before reaching the ground. So amazingly, in a day of mostly CAVOK conditions with only high cloud and no precipitaion, I found myself briefly flying through a rain shower!

From the South Dural strobe it’s a track of about 205 degrees magnetic to Prospect Reservoir and the inbound reporting point for entry to Bankstown. As I flew this final part of the leg I descended to 1500 feet and progressed through the required sequence of radio frequencies. Monitoring the ATIS for local weather and runway in use, I made my inbound call, then approached Bankstown and landed towards the east on runway 11L. Landing was reasonable, though in the light 8-knot crosswind I should have used more rudder on late final to achieve better alignment with the runway centre line.

The usual short taxy back to parking and I shut down with the satisfaction of a great flight and the knowledge that the next cross-country flight I do will be my final test for my Private Pilot License!

Checking the fuel in the tanks, I haven’t done the exact numbers but the fuel remaining in my right tank was about 35 litres, consistent with the additional hour or so I flew on the right tank between Cessnock and Bankstown before switching to my left. So I conclude that we in fact experienced no leakage of fuel from the suspect fuel drain underneath this tank.

Flight post mortem: Reflecting on the Richmond air space thing

Reflecting on what could have caused me to be off track southbound from Mt McQuoid and heading straight for Richmond air space, I’ve come up with the following possibilities:

  1. Incorrect magnetic track determined during initial flight planning. I have yet to go back to the map to check the track and heading I’d planned between McQuoid and Brooklyn Bridge, to see if I calculated it inaccurately. A mistake is obviously possible. However, I planned the flight weeks ago slowly and methodically, so I’m not inclined to think this is the most likely cause of the problem. Probability as a contributing factor: LOW
  2. Incorrect heading determined when adjusting for forecast wind during final flight planning. I was under some time pressure that morning before the flight – I’d had to dash down the road to buy a new E6B flight computer and was conscious of needing to get the flight and weather stuff done so I could fuel and check the aircraft and get away at a reasonable time. As mitigating factors, I’m getting more proficient at doing the final flight planning immediately pre-flight, and despite time pressure, I consciously forced myself to slow down and focus on doing the planning right. But if I was to make a mathematical error regarding this leg of the flight, the morning flight planning definitely involved a bit more stress and pressure than usual. Probability as a contributing factor: MEDIUM
  3. Incorrect heading maintained due to misreading flight plan during flight. Looking now at my flight plan, I see possible error resulting from misreading my flight plan. My planned track from McQuoid to Brooklyn Bridge involved a magnetic heading of 166 degrees. However – and I can’t be sure of this – I may have inadvertently set a course of 161 degrees, which was my planned heading for the preceding leg from Warkworth to McQuoid. My memory is a bit hazy on this point – but I seem to recall having a figure of 161 degrees in my head at the time. Having said this, a magnetic heading of 161 degrees should have actually pointed me more towards Brooklyn Bridge than a heading of 166 degrees. So I’m inclined to feel that if I did in fact make this error in reading my flight plan, it should actually hav worked in my favour. Probability as a contributing factor: LOW
  4. Stronger than expected easterly winds blowing me off course and to the west. It’s of course always possible – even probable – that the winds you experience in-flight are totally different to those which were forecast. You can be flying in the smoothest possible conditions and still be subject to a 20 knot wind blowing you sideways. It’s one of those things you can never predict, and have little control over, other than remaining watchful and making regular checks of your actual versus planned position and track. Probability as a contributing factor: HIGH
  5. Inadequate monitoring of position when actually flying that leg. I must confess to “letting my guard down” a bit flying the initial part of that leg back to Brooklyn Bridge. I knew (or thought I knew!) where I was, where I was going, and what I was doing next. I took the opportunity to chat for a few minutes with my instructor about life, the universe and everything. And in doing so probably didn’t remain as vigilant about my navigation as I should have been. Probability as a contributing factor: HIGH

In my defence on point 5 above, it was the first time I’d navigated southwards over this area towards Brooklyn Bridge, so it was unfamiliar ground – and, flying over the hills in the Hawkesbury area away from the coast can make visual identification quite challenging, ground features being an extensive series of green hills interspersed by the occasional waterway, with only isolated and hard-to-spot landmarks or distinguishing features.

What I learned: Things to do in future

At this stage – and subject to checking my flight plan in point 1, I’m inclined to think my track error was a combination of factors described in points 4 and 5. So, what can I do in the future to minimise the likelihood of making this mistake again – particularly when flying in this region north of Sydney?

  1. Never assume I’m “on the right track”. At all stages of flying a leg, make regular checks of your actual vs planned position and track using all means at your disposal: estimated vs actual flight times and positions, time checks over known landmarks, reference to navigation aids, general scanning and assessment of “am I, within reasonable limits, at or near where I expect to be”.
  2. Make sure I’ve read my flight plan correctly. No matter how clearly you’ve planned your flight, in-flight with other demands on you, it’s quite possible to focus on the wrong line on the plan and read a heading for a leg other than the one you’re actually flying. Take an extra second to make sure you’re reading the right figure.
  3. Assume that the winds you experience in-flight are different to those forecast. In other words, expect to be blown off track and to have to navigate and correct accordingly. Make it part of your work routine to always be looking for how far off track you are and what you have to do to correct it. If you find you’re maintaining track without any additional effort, so much the better.
  4. Southbound from McQuoid to Lane of Entry, incline towards the coast. In this specific area north of Sydney, flying the McQuoid-Brooklyn Bridge southbound leg, a safe way to leave plenty of margin between yourself and Richmond air space is to incline to making track error towards, rather than away, from the coast. Once the Hawkesbury waterways start to come into sight – assuming reasonable visibility – Brooklyn Bridge is reasonably prominent and you can always adjust your southbound track to arrive overhead. If you’re flying south on this leg and you can’t see any water, or the water is way off to your left, it’s a safe bet you’re headed into restricted air space.

Next

So that’s it. So far as my PPL is concerned, the training flights are over. The PPL flight exam is scheduled for Wednesday 14 September, hoping the weather is suitable. I’ll go out and do a solo hour in the training area a couple weeks prior to practise emergency procedures (stalls, forced landings, precautionary search and landings, steep turns) to brush up as it’s entirely possible I may have to do one or more of these during my final exam flight.

And some study and revision between now and then, especially on the areas listed in my “Knowledge Deficiency Report” from my PPL theory exam. Can’t believe I’m nearly there!

Nav 6: 2nd solo nav flight Bankstown-Cowra-Orange-Bankstown

Date: 03/06/2011

Hours flown Dual Command Instruments
This flight 0.00 4.00 0.00
Total to date 44.04 12.30 2.00
Second solo nav
 
On Friday 3 June 2011 I flew my second – and final, pending my Private Pilot License tests – cross-country solo flight. It had been a full month since my last cross-country flight to Canberra. Since then I’d had a short flight in the training area, but nothing too substantial, so it was really good to get out and stretch my wings, as it were.
 
For those not wanting to read about this flight in detail but wishing to have a look at the pictures I took (with my humble Blackberry), see the Google Picasa slideshow.)
 
The flight requirements and route
 
Flying a few hours solo cross-country is part of the curriculum requirements for the Private Pilot License. On this flight it was necessary for me to achieve three things. First, minimum flight duration of 3 hours. Second, minimum flight distance of 150 nautical miles. And finally, 2 landings at 2 separate aerodromes.
 
For practicality and safety reasons it made sense for me to fly solo a route I’d previously flown dual with my instructor back on my 2nd navigation exercise. So the planned route was YSBK-WAD-YCWR-YORG-YBTH-YKAT-WAD-TWRN-YSBK. Which translated means:
  • Start from my home airport of Bankstown (YSBK)
  • Fly to Warragamba Dam (WAD)
  • Thence direct to Cowra for first landing (YCWR)
  • Thence direct to Orange for second landing (YORG)
  • Then home flying Orange direct over Bathurst (YBTH),
  • Then Katoomba (YKAT),
  • Then back to Warragamba Dam
  • Reporting inbound to Bankstown at the 2RN radio tower (TWRN) then home.

Getting away

For weather and schedule reasons I’d postponed this flight several times. It was reassuring, during the preceding few days, to read consistently favourable forecasts, and conditions were CAVOK at my place when I woke up that morning, and out at the airfield a few hours later. Having already done most of my flight planning, it was relatively quick to check the ARFOR (Area Forecast) and TAFs (Terminal Air Forecasts) and factor the forecast winds into my flight plan for my planned tracks and time and fuel calculations.

My instructor had a quick look at my flight plan and at the weather forecast and quickly signed me out to go. He DI’d the aeroplane for me (that is, he did the Daily Inspection – I can’t sign off on this until I’m qualified), wished me an enjoyable flight and left me alone without further ado. I taxied NFR to the edge of the taxiway and called up the fuel truck. (Fuel trucks being unable to go on the grass due to recent rain). I performed my own inspection of the aircraft as well – I make it a rule that I always do this even if an instructor has already DI’d my plane and signed off on it – and after getting a full load of Avgas in both tanks I was ready to go.

Leg 1: Bankstown to Cowra

Taking off to the west in calm and nearly CAVOK conditions, I exited the Bankstown control zone and climbed to 4000 feet, flying through the Bankstown training area and tracking for Warragamba Dam. At Warragamba I climbed to my planned altitude of 6500 feet and maintained the same heading to track for Cowra.

As I crossed the Great Dividing Range I could see large patches of morning fog abeam both sides of the aircraft. I knew from my pre-flight planning that Bathurst was fogged in, which was of mild concern as I planned to overfly Bathurst on my return leg later in the day. However, I figured I could check the weather conditions from both Cowra and Orange when  landed at both those aerodromes, and if necessary steer clear of Bathurst. As things turned out, the Bathurst fog cleared well before I was back in the area later in the day.

Morning fog off to my right, outbound to Cowra

Once across and west of the mountains I noted an increasing build-up of cloud up ahead, roughly level with my altitude. I decided fairly quickly not to try to fly about the cloud, firstly because from what I could see it was building up to be at least 4 to 5 OKTAS (that is, covering four to five-eighths of the sky), and I felt that flying above the cloud layer would exceed my personal minima. Secondly, an increase in flight level would have taken me to 8500 feet (per regulations for flying levels about 5000 feet) which would put be just under Class E airspace. There’s nothing that would have forbidden me to enter Class E, but having never done so before, I decided my first time would not be on this day. Possibly over-cautious, but I prefer this to not being cautious enough.

Cloud building up, outbound for Cowra

So it was down to reducing altitude and seeing how the flight progressed, being ready to turn around if the cloud forced me below the LSALT (lowest safe altitude) listed on my flight plan. So down I went, progressively, to about 5200 feet, putting up with the more turbulent air.

As things turned out, the cloud didn’t force me any lower – albeit things were darker once I was under the cloud layer – so my passage to Cowra was unimpeded. I flew the rest of the 1-hour leg uneventfully, noting more cloud off to my right around the Blayney area. Passing Mt Misery on my left and skirting the northernmost edge of the Blayney Wind Farm, I selected the frequency for the Cowra NDB (non-directional beacon) on my ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) receiver, making my inbound call to the Cowra CTAF when I judged myself within 10 nautical miles of the aerodrome and descending gradually to circuit height.

Tracking for Cowra, approaching Mt Misery

There was not much wind evident in the Cowra area but as luck would have it there was a bit of traffic around the aerodrome, including a light trainer and a paraglider, both making radio calls indicating that runway 33 (landing towards the north-west) was in use. So I joined the circuit mid-crossfield and flew a standard circuit approach, making my mandatory radio calls as I did so, and made a decent landing at Cowra. I decided to park and take a toilet break, so taxied off the runway to the small Cowra terminal and parked on an otherwise empty tarmac. It was bitterly cold with no-one about (apart from a Diamond trainer who landed shortly after me), so I didn’t hang around too long.

Leg 2: Cowra to Orange

I took the opportunity to check the current weather conditions at my next destination of Orange, courtesy of the web browser on my Blackberry phone, and while indications were low-ish cloud around the aerodrome, nothing suggested that I alter my flight plans. So without further ado I started up, backtracked on 33 then turned around and took off to the north-west, circled left and climbed to circuit height, then overflew the aerodrome and tracked direct for Orange.

Instrument panel, 4200 feet inbound for Orange

It’s only about 20-25 minutes flying in a Warrior from Cowra to Orange and a pretty straightforward leg of flying, apart from staying well clear of a designated danger area off to your left in the form of an open-cut mine. So aided by my ADF turned in to the Orange NDB I pretty quickly found myself in the Orange area and listening to the CTAF for clues on local traffic and runway in use.

Turned out there was quite a bit of traffic around the Orange circuit – probably the busiest day I’ve so far experienced at a non-towered aerodrome. Amusingly, one pilot in the area was clearly from the West Indies, broadcasting his position and intentions with a lovely Caribbean drawl that made me picture Bob Marley in the cockpit (“November Mike Lima, turnin’ ba-a-a-se”) and brought a smile to my face.

Fortunately, my experience from my first solo flight landing at Wollongong had taught me the value of extreme vigilance in and around the circuit area and I made sure not to rely solely on what I was hearing through my headset and to keep a very sharp look-out. Despite the several aircraft in the area, I felt calm and in control of the situation, which as a small but satisfying confidence boost.

Traffic was landing in the 29 direction (towards the west), unlike my previous visit to Orange when landing was in the easterly direction. Finding myself approaching the aerodrome on the live side of the circuit, I decided to join on the downwind leg and announced my intentions accordingly. I was quickly down on the ground with another satisfactory landing. On roll-out and approaching the main taxiway connecting the Orange runway with the terminal area, my path on the taxiway was blocked completely by a large twin (not sure what it was, possibly a King Air) or something larger, so I was left with no choice but to taxi the full length of the runway to exit on the smaller taxiway which I knew to be at the runway’s far end. So I kept up my speed – not wanting to hang around on the runway and knowing that other aircraft would soon want to be landing behind me – and fairly sprinted for the taxiway, breathing a small sigh of relief than I was able to radio my “clear of all active runways” message.

I taxied to the Wade Aviation hangar where the fuel bowser is located, and finding another aircraft already fuelling, parked just across the taxiway and shut down. Once he was clear, I started up, taxied to the bowser and shut down again, then hunted down someone in the Wade hangar to help me with fuelling. Armed with one of their swipe cards, I filled NFR up, returned the swipe card, paid for the fuel and sat down in the adjacent small lawn area for a quick lunch.

Warrior NFR, parked in fuelling area at Orange Airport (YORG)

Leg 3: Orange to Bankstown via Bathurst and Katoomba

It being time to go – and wanting to get back to Bankstown so I could get home in a reasonable time – I was back in the cockpit and going through pre-startup checks still wiping crumbs from my mouth. A quick check on the CTAF frequency told me that the traffic pattern had changed and Orange traffic was now using the 11 runway – a takeoff to the east. So without further ado I was away, with the usual pre-takeoff checks and the mandatory radio calls.

Tracking east direct for Bathurst I climbed to 5000 feet and levelled out, with cloud still above me and not wanting to move above 5000 and be in contravention of the regulation requiring any flight tracking between 0 and 179 degrees magnetic above 5000 feet to maintain altitude of “odd plus 500” thousand feet (eg. 5500, 7500).

Again, it’s a fairly quick hop from Orange to Bathurst and I was soon overflying the aerodrome, intentionally seeking it out for the sheer discipline and exercise of doing so (rather than turning early on to my Katoomba heading). You never know when you might be in need of any local knowledge during a future flight …

Overflying Bathurst

From this point, it was uncovered territory for me. On my previous flight in the area, Bathurst was the point at which my instructor had given me, as an exercise, a diversion south to Oberon. This time, no diversions were necessary and I was bound direct for Katoomba.

So I set course south-east for Katoomba, noting that as I tracked eastwards the cloud appeared to be lifting again. As I approached Katoomba I decided not to overfly the airfield proper, preferring to skirt west of Katoomba and over lower ground, giving me more options in the event of an engine problem at that point in the flight.

Heading south-east abeam Katoomba

To my pleasure – especially given the mountainous terrain of the Great Dividing Range that I was crossing for the second time that day – abeam Katoomba just before crossing the range proper I was able to climb my planned altitude on that track of 7500 feet. This was the highlight of the day’s flight, not only allowing me (albeit briefly, as I was close to home) to climb into some gorgeous still air, but also affording me some truly majestic views of the Blue Mountains and the Great Dividing Range, with serried ranks of imposing sandstone cliffs and escarpments rising above the greenery. These moments truly make recreational flying worthwhile.

I was struck, although still some 50 nautical miles away from home, just how early I could see the smudge-like look of the entire Sydney Basin open up before me as I glanced left from 7500 feet up. Which reminded me that I was pretty close to home and I should start thinking about how I was going to get there!

Looking east towards the Sydney Basin from 7500 feet

Approaching Sydney from the north-west as I was, the logistical issue to be dealt with was to avoid infringing on controlled military airspace in the Richmond area (that is, Richmond RAAF Base), which lay directly between me and Bankstown as the crow would have flown. (The alternative would have been to seek an airways clearance to enter Richmond airspace, which is frequently done in certain circumstances, but  hadn’t done it before – my flight through Canberra’s Class C airspace notwithstanding – and wasn’t about to attempt it now). I started descending, knowing that I had to get down from 7500 feet to 4000 feet by the time I reached Warragamba Dam to fly under the Sydney Class C control step. And as a quick means of confirming how far south I was on my track towards Warragamba Dam – enabling me to skirt the Richmond area – I tuned my ADF receiver to 576 kHz, the frequency of ABC Radio National as broadcast by the 2RN tower which is one of the two inbound reporting points for Bankstown. Noting the ADF needle swinging to roughly 45-450 degrees to my left, I reasoned that it wouldn’t be long before I’d be needing to turn east to head home and that I must be getting close to Warragamba. Almost immediately, I sighted what I now know to be Lake Burragorang – the main water storage that is impounded by Warragamba Dam – up ahead and knew that all I had to do was to turn left and follow it all the way to the dam. Which I did, continuing to descend to 4000 feet, and I was soon overflying the dam, seeing the expanse of the Sydney Basin open up before me.

Tracking Lake Burragorang east towards Warragamba Dam

Ten minutes more and descending to 1500 feet, I was quickly at 2RN and, inbound clearance received, joined “right crosswind” (a slightly unusual direction from Bankstown Tower) for my approach and landing from the east on runway 29R. Down with a light landing, I was soon parking, shutting and then tieing down the plane, knowing that the next time I fly solo cross-country will be after I have gained my Private Pilot License.

Joining right crosswind leg for landing on runway 29R Bankstown

Reflections and learnings

The main thing I took away that I think I need to work on is to work on the strict discipline of tracking my progress against my flight plan. I think I was a little bit spoilt on this flight in that I’d done it before (albeit with an instructor beside me) and therefore didn’t perhaps have to work quite as hard on staying aware of where I was as I might otherwise have had to. I feel that I could definitely improve in terms of using my watch to maintain frequent estimates of how far along (and off) a flight planned track I may be, and cross-checking those estimates against visual indicators on the ground. I’m not saying I’m not doing these things – far from it – but I think there’s plenty of room for improvement in terms of how often I do it, and how accurately.

What’s next

Since making this flight I’ve passed my final theory exam and once cancelled my final cross-country dual training flight due to illness. I’m hoping to do this final flight in a couple of week. Once that’s done, all that remains  is the PPL test!

First time up with the parents: A short joyflight, with some sound issues

Date: 13/05/2011

Hours flown Dual Command Instruments
This flight 0.00 1.00 0.00
Total to date 44.04 8.30 2.00

Last Friday I had the pleasure of flying my father and stepmother for the first time, on a short flight in the Bankstown training area. (It was Friday 13 May, which if you believe that sort of thing is not an ideal day for flying, but I find superstition to be total bollocks, so it didn’t bother me!)

There’s not an awful lot to recall or relate about the details of this flight – it was a relatively quick hop out of Bankstown out to Warragamba Dam and back. But, as ever, I learned a few things. As I’ve blogged before (I think) – there’s never a flight I take, however brief, on which I don’t learn something. Which is one of the eternal beauties of flying for fun, I guess.

Wind concerns

I’d watched the weather anxiously for a few days, quite prepared to cancel the flight if conditions were beyond what I currently consider to be my “personal minima”. A late-autumn cold snap had reached Sydney by mid-week, bringing lovely cool air, but also some wind that could have presented problems if it had been too strong in general, or (in particular) if it had presented too strong a crosswind for the aircraft or for me. In fact right up until an hour or so before the planned flight I fully expected to cancel it as I was aware that some other pilots had experienced some significant turbulence that morning, one instructor in fact hitting his head twice on the roof of the plane! However I saw no evidence of that being a risk in the immediate local training area, and the conditions in general were quite benign. I therefore decided to proceed with the flight. We could always return quickly and land if turbulence turned out to be an issue.

Getting my passengers sorted out

My dad and stepmother are pretty limber, fit types in their late 60’s, so it was no problem at all getting them into the aircraft. (I’d snagged my trusty little chariot-of-choice, NFR, for this flight – I must have at least 15 hours flying time in that particular plane.) However I paid particular attention to making sure that I’d briefed my parents appropriately as per standard passenger briefing requirements, and also that they were comfortably seated, seat belts safely fastened and headsets plugged in, adjusted and working. This did take extra time – not an issue if you’re not trying to work to a schedule, but worth noting for the future.

Insight #38

Whenever you take passengers with you – especially if they’ve not flown before, either at all or with you – expect to spend additional pre-flight preparation time briefing them and attending to their needs. Factor in another 10 minutes or so if you’re trying to take off to a schedule. And don’t underestimate the amount of your attention that passengers need both on the ground and in the air – this adds to your work load as a pilot.

In-flight sound issues

After engine start, I was running through the rest of my checklist before taxying when we heard an intense, high-pitched humming sound coming from the in-cabin speaker. It lasted for about 60 seconds and was nearly ready to shut down and abandon the flight, having checked everything I could think of in my radio and comms stack. But then the sound disappeared abruptly and did not reoccur, so I decided to continue with the flight.

We taxyed out and took off, all good and normal, but during climb-out we all started to experience an extremely intense and annoying hissing sound through each of our head sets. It was intermittent, but recurring frequently. Again, I checked headset plug connections, volume levels and everything else I could think of but could not lick the problem. It quickly became so annoying that I became mildly concerned and decided to cut short the flight.

By this time we were approaching Warragamba Dam at 3,000 feet, so after a gentle left hand turn to allow my parents a view of the dam, I turned around and headed back to Prospect, descending to 1,500 feet to come in under the 2,500 feet control step and arrive at Prospect at 1,500. The sound problems persisted and while I doubted that they related to an imminent radio failure, I nonetheless mentally rehearsed my radio failure procedures should they be required.

But as events would have it, I remained in acceptable radio communication with the tower – evidently they could hear me just fine. Landing for runway 29R I was fairly close behind another Warrior just ahead of me. Just as I was preparing for a go-around on late final, tower kindly informed me that runway 29C was available if I wanted to use that. I gladly jumped at the opportunity. (The go-around would not have been a problem, but by this time we all wanted out of the aircraft to ease our suffering ears).

So I made a pretty nice landing, was cleared to cross runway 29R, and had us back at parking pretty quickly. The sense of relief when I shut down the engine was palpable.

Bumping into a fellow student, I described my predicament and he related a similar recent experience, oddly enough in that same aircraft. Perhaps a maintenance issue for attention? (NFR is nearly due for a 100-hour service and in fact as I write is probably already in the maintenance hangar). However he also asked me if I’d checked the squelch on the radio?

As a matter of fact I’d been unable to even locate the squelch knob on my COM1 radio. Couldn’t find it in-flight – it just didn’t seem to be there.

From a quick glance before I closed the aircraft out, I located a small panel on the bottom left hand side of the dashboard with – you guessed it – a Squelch knob. NFR is in fact fitted with an avionics master switch, which provides power to all of the aircraft’s radio/navigation equipment, so I’m wondering if that squelch knob is also a kind of “master” squelch control? At any rate, I wasn’t even aware it was there, so it wasn’t much use to me in-flight.

I’m still not at all convinced that the problem was related to squelch. But I was a bit mortified that I hadn’t even been able to find the squelch knob. It’s something every pilot should know – it’s a very important part of the controls for the radio. In every flight up until that one, I’d never had to adjust squelch levels. I knew about squelch, and I knew where the squelch knob should be. Usually on the radio stack. But in NFR, it was just in a different place, a place in which I didn’t think to look when I actually had need of it.

Insight #39

Part of knowing your aircraft is knowing your radio stack. If you fly different aircraft every time – as I and my flying club colleagues tend to do – you are usually dealing with subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences in each aircraft’s radio-communication setups and controls. Familiarise yourself with the specifics of each and every aircraft you fly – you owe it to yourself and your passengers.

Notwithstanding the sound problems, my parents enjoyed the flight immensely and I think gained confidence through the quality of my landing. I think they were able, for the first time, to truly appreciate the discipline and effort that goes in to making a flight pleasurable, smooth and uneventful.

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.


Close encounters in the circuit: Was the other guy in the wrong, and what can I learn?

It’s been nearly two weeks since I last flew, and in that time I’ve returned to full time work. The balance of my PPL – perhaps another 15 hours – will now have to be done on a part-time basis, maybe once a week. Factoring weather variability in, I anticipate it will take another 2 to 3 months.

Back in late April I made my maiden cross-country solo flight, a 2-hour return trip down the Hume Highway nearly to Marulan, then east direct to Wollongong, land, then direct north back to Bankstown. It was a fantastic trip on which I learned a lot.

But there’s one thing that stands out particularly, and the more I think about it, the more it’s got me reflecting on the question of safety in the circuit.

Standard circuit legs

To set the scene, for any non-flying readers, there are standard “legs” that you fly when flying in the circuit around a landing strip. As described in the diagram below, these legs are always relative to the “active” runway in use. This in turn depends on the prevailing weather conditions, in particular the direction from which the wind is blowing.

For illustrative purposes: in the below diagram, the runway runs in the 11 (110 degrees magnetic) direction (from top to bottom of page) and in the 29 (290 degrees magnetic) direction (from bottom to top of page). Let’s assume the wind is currently blowing from 110 degrees magnetic. In this situation, the runway in use would be runway 11 – that is, takeoffs and landings take place in the 11 direction, “into the wind”. The standard circuit legs are sketched accordingly, assuming a standard left-hand circuit.

The situation at YWOL

When I landed at Wollongong (YWOL) back in April, this was the standard circuit in operation that day. (YWOL’s north/south runway has different headings to the example I’ve sketched in the diagram, but the principles and circuit legs are the same).

I approached YWOL from the west and made the standard 10-mile inbound call on the YWOL CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency). I then descended to circuit height by doing a couple of orbits on the “dead” side of the YWOL circuit (on the left hand side of the runway with reference to the above diagram).

At circuit height, I made the mandatory CTAF call indicating my intentions and joined the circuit “mid-crosswind”. That is to say, I flew at circuit height across the runway, from left to right as you view this diagram, more or less right across the middle of the runway between the north and south ends.

Once across the runway and on the “live” side (on the right hand side of the runway with reference to the above diagram), I then turned onto the downwind leg of the circuit, making the mandatory CTAF call as I was doing so.

Now, here’s where things got interesting. The following amended diagram hopefully illustrates the situation.

As I flew downwind, and (as I recall it) not long before I was due to make my base turn, I heard a call over the CTAF, “Traffic Wollongong, Diamond XXX [I don’t remember his call-sign] joining base for 11”. (Actually it was for runway 16, but I’m trying to stay consistent with my diagram). I glanced ahead of me and to my right, and a second or two later, there he was, joining the base leg from my right – and it was the first time I’d seen him! I was not a little surprised. Here I’d been happily tooling along, alone in the YWOL circuit, and all of a sudden I had traffic joining the circuit ahead of me and flying directly across my flight path from right to left.

(The diagram may be a bit misleading insofar as the scale is off. The Diamond was not as close to me as the diagram suggests. But having said that, I felt the separation between our two aircraft was more than a tad too close for comfort).

A split second’s assessment and I decided on two things:

  1. That I was not at risk of colliding with the Diamond – he flew right across my flight path from right to left, and was quickly clear of my flight path. I did not need to take any sort of evasive action. Having said that, if he was any slower, or if he’d been much closer to me when he joined base, I do feel that I would have had to take evasive action.
  2. To maintain adequate separation between the Diamond and me, I would have to fly an extended downwind leg and then turn base later than I usually would, in order to give the Diamond time to land and clear the runway before I came down behind him. (I would have course had the option to go around had I approached the runway and felt that landing was still not safe, but this did not eventuate).

So that was that. The Diamond landed. I flew a slightly longer downwind leg, then turned base and final and landed uneventfully.

My take-outs

The more I’ve thought about this since, the more I think it’s one of those classic learning situations in aviation in which, regardless of who’s “in the right” and who’s “in the wrong”, the critical importance of maintaining situational awareness and practising alerted see-and-avoid techniques is highlighted.

Was I in the wrong, or was the Diamond?

It’s difficult to say. I definitely felt that the Diamond’s entrance to the circuit was too sudden, that he did not give enough notice of his intentions, that he was too close to me, and that he was unaware of my presence in the circuit.

Checking the current AIP (Aeronautical Information Publication), I note that para 47.7.1 in AIP ENR 1.1 notes the following (the italics are mine):

Joining on Base

Joining in base leg, whilst not prohibited, is not a recommended standard procedure. CASA recommends pilots join the circuit on either the crosswind or downwind leg. However, pilots who choose to join on base leg should only do so if they:

  1. have determined the wind direction and speed;
  2. have determined the runway in use;
  3. give way to other circuit traffic and ensure the aircraft can safely (no traffic conflict likely) join the base leg applicable to the circuit direction in use at the standard height; and
  4. broadcast their intentions.

I am aware, from some introductory Googling, that there is a wide variety of opinion around the practice of joining circuits on the base leg (and even more so around joining on final). Some are for it, some against it. And CASA does not make things easier by not recommending, but then failing to forbid, joining on base. Based on the above, it must be acknowledged that the Diamond was not breaking any rules simply by virtue of joining the circuit on base. However, I certainly believe that the Diamond contravened provision (c) in that he did not give way to me, and in that he did not ensure adequate separation between his aircraft and mine. I also feel that he contravened provision (d) insofar at it was literally only a second or two between his radio call for joining base and his proceeding to do so.

On balance, I’ve arrived at the view that – strictly speaking – the Diamond was in the wrong.

So what? What about my situational awareness?

With all that said, I have to acknowledge the fact that I was completely unaware of the Diamond’s presence until his base call and joining base. I did not see him until alerted to his presence by his radio call. And I can’t say for sure whether he did, or didn’t, make his inbound call at 10 miles or closer. If he had made an inbound call, you could certainly make the case that good airmanship on my part – had I been listening out carefully on the YWOL CTAF – would at least have put the Diamond somewhere in my “mental picture” of the YWOL traffic situation and made me at least aware that he was out there somewhere and inbound. Had this been the case, I could perhaps have been more vigilant when joining and in the circuit, perhaps been slightly more ready to respond to his arrival, and perhaps have seen him earlier through more active scanning.

What did I learn?

  1. Be super-vigilant in the circuit, especially at non-towered aerodromes. Just because you haven’t heard radio calls from other aircraft doesn’t mean they aren’t out there – somewhere – perhaps quite close to you.
  2. Don’t assume you’re alone. Even if you can’t see any other traffic – if you’re not hearing any – expect the unexpected. Keep scanning during all legs of the circuit, including directions from which you may not normally expect traffic to appear.
  3. It doesn’t matter who’s “right” and who’s “wrong” – you’ve still got to stay safe. This was not a particularly close call, but it could have been, and in the heat of the moment, no-one cares who was the good guy and who was the baddie. It’s still my responsibility to remain alert and to see-and-avoid, to keep myself and my aircraft safe, even if the other guy’s not doing the right thing.
  4. I did the right thing and handled the situation well. I heard the Diamond’s call; I immediately spotted him; and I took positive steps to avoid him and to ensure adequate traffic separation.

As a result of this experience, hopefully I am now a safer pilot. But I’d be really curious to hear the views of any other pilots reading this.

Navs 3 and 4: Going south this time, and first cross-country solo

Date: 19/04/2011 to 20/04/2011

Hours flown Dual Command Instruments
This flight 2.00 2.00 0.00
Total to date 40.14 6.60 2.00

Seems I have hit the wall in terms of blogging daily. Due general pace of life I have been unable to blog after each flight recently, so I’ll continue my trend of wrapping up recent flights in a single, catch-up blog.

Focus of this entry is nav flights 3 and 4. Both flights were very similar in terms of flight plan, tracks and locations. Nav 3 was special in being a checkride with Ashley (the Grade 1 instructor who reviewed me prior to my first solo and first area solo flights), and Nav 4 in being my first solo cross-country flight! Nav 3 took place on Tuesday (19/04/11) and Nav 4 on the next day (Wed 20/04/11).

Nav 3 – Bankstown – Goulburn – Bankstown (or was it?)

After my 2 apparently successful initial nav flights (see entries for Cessnock and Cowra/Orange flights), John evidently felt that it was time to send me up again with Ashley to see if I was ready for my first cross-country solo. So this flight was planned as a foray out over the ranges via Warragamba and Bindook down to Goulburn and return to Bankstown. The wrinkle in all of this is that Ashley was required to give me a diversion to another waypoint or destination en route, but he wasn’t allowed to tell me where in advance. So I didn’t know if we’d make Goulburn and then divert elsewhere on return, or whether I’d even make Goulburn.

The flight was in FTU, an aircraft I’d flown in only a couple of times, very early on in my initial flight training. Turned out it didn’t even have a working ADF (Automated Direction Finder), meaning I couldn’t make use of the NDB (Non Directional Beacon) navigation aides en route and had to rely solely on dead reckoning. It wasn’t bad practice actually.

The flight very nearly didn’t take place. FTU had apparently experienced severe spark plug fouling earlier in the day, and the same problem occurred when I was doing my run-up checks. (Very low RPM’s and rough idling when I checked my right magneto during run-ups). So we had to taxy over to the other side of Bankstown Airport to Schofields’s maintenance provider to see if we could fix the problem. A new spark plug on the lower left hand side of the engine and we were on our way, aided by the tower’s permission for us to take of (unusually) on 29 Centre to avoid me having to taxy all the way back to the opposite side of the airport again.

I have to say that FTU handled quite strangely on both takeoffs I made in her that day. During climb-out, normally I have to roll the trim wheel back a few turns to trim the nose upwards to maintain best-rate-of-climb speed of about 75-79 KIAS. But in FTU I seemed to have to roll the trim wheel forwards – quite disconcerting at first. Made me wonder if the neutral position on the trim wheel in FTU is correctly marked. It certainly felt on climb-out as thought I had to force the nose down, rather than the usual situation of needing to pull back on the control column to bring the nose up. Weird. But anyway …

Out over Warragamba Dam at 4,000 feet and then turned left towards Bindook, a major NDB/VOR (Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Radar) installation located south-west of Warragamba in the Great Dividing Range. Notwithstanding my lack of a working ADF, my track to Bindook was almost spot-on and Ashley pointed it out to me as we approached it – a cleared area amidst wooded hills.

Over Bindook, Ashley sprung the diversion on me. Could I please divert to Wollongong (YWOL), sorry we won’t be going to Goulburn today.

Dragging out my map, protractor and navigation ruler, I worked out a new track to YWOL fairly easily, along with an estimated time of arrival, and turned left to find Wollongong. Much to my pleasure, about 15 minutes later we dropped over the escarpment around Wollongong to find Albion Park Airport directly in front of us! Doing an orbit to drop down from 5,500 feet to circuit height of about 1,000 feet, we joined mid-crosswind for Wollongong’s 16 runway and made a pretty decent landing. Given the option, I elected to stop at YWOL for 15 minutes (as opposed to doing a touch-and-go landing) as I was getting a bit sore and wanted to stretch my legs.

As it happened, Ash both lives in the YWOL area and did his flying training there, so he knows the airport intimately. We taxyed over to park outside the HARS (Historical Aircraft Restoration Society) hangar, grabbed a bottle of water and had a quick peek into the HARS maintenance hangar. All manner of wonders lay within, which I’ll describe later in this blog.

Our break over, we started up and headed off again, making a downwind departure from runway 16 and climbing quickly to 3,500 feet (to clear the escarpment around YWOL) and heading more or less due north for Appin and Menangle Park. Once at Menangle Park (which is also an inbound reporting point for Camden Aerodrome), we map-crawled the rest of the way home to 2RN and Bankstown, remaining just to the left of the Hume Highway to avoid infringing upon Camden Aerodrome controlled airspace to our left and on the Holsworthy Army Barracks and military zone to our right. Joining crosswind for runway 29R at Bankstown, I made a really damn good landing and we were home. Ashley declared himself more than satisfied and that I was good to go solo the following day, weather permitting.

Nav 4 – Bankstown – Mittagong – Wollongong – Bankstown

Although I’d planned on heading solo to Cessnock for my first solo (having been there on my Nav 1 flight), John and Ashley were reluctant to send me there as they felt that I needed at least one more flight through the northbound and southbound lanes of entry before doing them solo. Ash wanted me to head to Goulburn as originally planned on the previous day. However, weather was getting in the way and as there were storms forecast (30% probability) around Goulburn, both I and Ash weren’t comfortable going there and Bathurst was not an alternative as the cloud base over the ranges was looking just too low.

So I proposed a brief first solo flight, literally Bankstown down to Wollongong and return. However, Ash felt that this was too short (you need a total of 5 solo cross-country flying hours as part of your pre-requisites for achieving the Private Pilot License), so I had to revise my flight plan to do as follows: depart Bankstown, head down the Hume Highway to Mittagong, continue to Marulan (distinguishable by a large cement factory and a couple of large truck stops), then head direct to Wollongong, land, then return home.

I fuelled up UFY (in which coincidentally I did my first circuit solo) and headed out. Taking off from 29R, I turned south-west for Menangle Park and, achieving Menangle, climbed to about 3,000 feet while tracking towards Appin. Over Appin I then turned south-west and more or less just tracked down the Hume Highway towards Mittagong, only getting up to 4,500 feet as clouds above were a bit dark and heavy.

I successfully located Mittagong Aerodrome then continued southwest for Marulan – though a bit carefully as the weather off in the distance looked dark and showery. I wasn’t sure weather I was going to make Marulan or turn around and head for home or the coast.

A good 10 minutes before I expected to reach Marulan, I spotted a large cement processing factory off to my left. Surely this couldn’t be Marulan already? I forgot to look for the truck stops that Ashley mentioned to confirm if I was there already. I was faced with a decision though. If this was Marulan, then now was the time to turn left and head for Wollongong. But if it wasn’t – how many prominent cement factories could there be within a 20 mile radius of the Marulan area? And did I really want to head closer to some dark looking weather, especially on my first cross-country solo?

Reasoning that if this wasn’t Marulan I still wasn’t very far away, and that regardless, my planned track to Wollongong would take me back to the coast within reasonable proximity to Wollongong regardless if I was actually at Marulan or still a bit to the north-east. So I turned for Wollongong and 15 minutes later dropped down over the coastal escarpment to find myself only slightly to the north of where I’d reached the coast yesterday, and still very close to Wollongong Airport.

Joining mid-crosswind for runway 16 (again), I was a bit startled when a Jabiru joined the circuit on the base leg and not too far in front of me. I’d made my appropriate radio calls on the Wollongong CTAF and hadn’t heard anything from the Jabiru so I was a bit narked when he made is joining-base call and appeared from my right, but of course I did the right thing and avoided him, extending my downwind leg to leave enough room for him to land and vacate the runway before it was my turn to land. I then made a good landing (my landings really are better again this week!) and taxyed to the same parking area as the day before, just next to the HARS museum hangar.

Parking UFY, I went for a stroll to stretch my legs and took a few quick phone snapshots outside the HARS hangar. Notably, HARS operates the only operational, flying Lockheed Constellation in the world! Known affectionately as “Connie“, this magnificent aircraft lives at Wollongong and, courtesy of my ASIC card entitling me to be airside at RPT airports, all I had to do was stroll over to the hangar door to gape in appreciation!

I also spied – briefly – a couple of DC3’s, a non-flying Lockheed P-2 Neptune, a de Havilland Drover and the shells of various other aircraft too numerous to mention. One of the first things I’ll do with my PPL will be to take a quick flight down to Wollongong to have a proper look at the HARS museum (I’ve driven past it often enough on the way to and from the South Coast). My quick Blackberry snapshots will have to suffice for now:

Connie, with DH Drover in front

Ex-RAAF DC3

Tourism done with, it was time to head home. I got back into UFY and retraced my steps from the day before, the only wrinkle being that I found myself at Menangle Park before I registered that I’d already flown over Appin! This and my earlier doubt about Marulan alerted me to the fact that a couple of my nav calculations (specifically my estimated time intervals between waypoints) may have been wrong, as I wasn’t in any significant headwind or tailwind.

Insight #33

Your flight plan is just that – a plan. Check and double-check it carefully so you can be confident in your tracks and calculations. But don’t expect everything to go to plan. Be prepared to deal with the unexpected, as and when situations arise. Think on your feet!

A final, again pretty good landing at Bankstown and I was home, well stoked I may say after a 2.0 hour flight being my first cross-country solo. I was very pleased with myself! The most enjoyable flight I’ve done so far.