Tag Archives: passenger flying

Down the Sydney coast with my father – an unforgettable flight

View flight photos here

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

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

Weather

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

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

Pre-Flight

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

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

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

Harbour Scenic

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

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

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

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

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

Victor One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back home: north and inland to Bankstown

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

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

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

Reflecting

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

This is why I learned to fly.

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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.

Later influences – passenger flying and airports are cool!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aviation geek? Guilty as charged.