|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.
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).
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:
- 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
- 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:
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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?
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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!