|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!
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:
- Our distance from Canberra Airport (at this point we were some 20 nautical miles away from the airport and increasing); and
- 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.
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:
- 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
- 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
- (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).
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!
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 …
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.
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.