Wednesday, 30 April 2014

On the fly.

One thing that was causing me a little anxiety* about my latest dual cross country was the mess of airspace located to the west of City.

A few miles off course or a few hundred feet off where you are meant to be could see you busting any number of very busy control zones. If I get around to it maybe I’ll do another post with some charts and stuff on it.

One way to pre-empt this is to use “flight following”. Basically this involves talking to the ATC guys who keep the big boys from bashing into each other. If they are feeling nice (“workload permitting” is the official phrase) they’ll provide traffic advisory and separation information to VFR flights. They’ll also hand you over to any control zones you might be about to enter.

Generally flight following is a good thing. But it does involve speaking to scary people (IMO). So I was a little anxious about the whole thing. As usual, to try and pre-empt some of this nervousness, I planned it all pout in my head. I’d take off from city heading west. Staying under 1700ft (below Pearson’s zone). Once cleared from the zone I’d contact London radio to ensure my flight plan had been activated and make any changes to the times. I’d have a brief window to do this before I contacted terminal on 133.4 to get flight following and be able to climb higher.

OK I think I’ve got that straight in my head. I make sure that before I take off I’ve got all those frequencies dialed in so that I just need to flick a switch or two. This is going to be high demand as it is. No need to be fumbling for frequencies.

Yeah, that ain’t how it worked out. At all.

I’m sure City thought they were being helpful, they probably saw the details of my flight plan (the route being quite precise thanks to the help of the fantastic people at London Flight services**) and realised that I wanted higher sooner rather than later. So they threw me a curveball that I wasn’t expecting. They cleared me straight away to climb to 2000ft (which takes me into terminal airspace) and rather than clearing me en route, handed me straight over to Toronto Terminal. Not only that onto a frequency that I wasn’t expecting!


Still I got it sorted without annoying too many people. Even if I did hesitate long enough after my initial call that they called me back twice. Better that than tie up the frequency with “umms and errs”

The trouble is that all ATC have to judge you on, is the quality of your radio work. They can’t see that in fact you are holding your heading to within a degree and your altitude to within 10 feet. All they know is whether you sound like a muppet on the radio or not.

I think I managed ok, I didn’t p!ss anyone off and it does genuinely seem to reduce your workload by being an extra pair of eyes in traffic spotting.

They handed me off to Waterloo at the appropriate juncture and I confidently made my radio call. I’d kinda monitored the ATIS, close to workload overload my brain had filtered out much of the unnecessary stuff. I’d picked out the active runway and maybe the altimeter setting and that was about it. In the back of my mind I was vaguely aware of some wittering about “reduced capacity”.

None the less it came as a bit of a surprise when they declined me permission to enter their zone, informing me I was “number 2 for the zone”

Slightly bemused I wasn’t too perplexed. Courtesy of City I have plenty of practice in flying in circles!
Eventually they let me in and land though, which was nice!

I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to bother with flight following for the next, relatively short leg.
On the final leg from Tillsonburg to City. Initially I had planned to get Flight Following, for some reason though, don’t remember why (maybe workload related?), I decided not to and just remain on the common frequency.

I was flying along quite happily and then realised that this decision had consequences. My route back home took me through Hamilton’s control zone. Without flight following to hand me over, I’d need to contact them myself.

Luckily I realised this before I blundered into their zone and made the appropriate radio calls.
Looking back on that wall of text that I’ve just produced, I think the biggest confidence booster I took away from all this is that things don’t always do to plan. Sometimes because of your own actions, sometimes because of the actions of others. And I coped.

I thought through the consequences of what those changes meant and handled it appropriately. For sure, not perfect, but I’ve given up beating myself up in a desire to achieve perfection.

Stuff happens “on the fly” and apparently I can deal with that.

* I’m back to mild anxiety about these cross country trips, rather than near paralysing panic. It’s a big improvement.

** I’m rapidly becoming a fan of the fine people on the other end of the phone when I call for flight planning. They are really helpful and usually cheerful and encouraging. It makes a huge difference to my nerves.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The runway shouldn’t come as a surprise.

During our briefing for my second cross country adventure I was feeling mildly confident. The planning had come a lot easier. I seemed to know and understand which number went in each box and why. I still made the odd mistake but they became evident very quickly. This is a good sign, you catch mistakes by constantly asking yourself “does this make sense, do those numbers look right?”

When you have a tail wind, you expect that your calculated heading isn’t going to change much but if your ground speed isn’t larger than your airspeed , well then you know you’ve messed up on the old whizz wheel somewhere.

Bob furthered bolstered my confidence, this time not by the questions he asked, but by the ones he didn’t. The night before he’d asked a few questions about the route that I’d planned and presumably had plotted a similar one onto his chart. He briefly glanced at my meticulously filled in planning charts and just asked “so what heading do we need for this leg? What are your check points?”

I imagine that he was just doing a quick mental comparison of what he’d worked out and when he’d found them to be close enough didn’t feel the need for further explanation.

Whew, stage one passed!

We then spoke a little about the airports.

First stop Waterloo, this is a controlled airport. Bob was satisfied that I’d got all the frequencies I needed to hand and knew roughly what the plan was. As a controlled airport we went over the fact that basically they can clear you into any part of the circuit.

One down, one to go. “What can you tell me about the runway at Tillsonburg?” Bob asked me.

I glance down at the diagram I’ve printed off. “Hmm, well I assume we are going for the tarmac and not the grass, ok it appears to be about a third narrower than I’m used to, for a start.”

“So what does that mean?” he probed.

“Well, it means that this isn’t the time for me to be having centre line issues, “I quipped.

“aaaaand, “ I drawled out, buying myself some thinking time, “it’s going to mess up my visual on approach.” I close my eyes trying to imagine the mental picture of a narrow runway and what it’ll look like on final. “I’m going to think that I’m higher than I am.” I conclude.

Bob agreed, warning me to watch out for this and not to drag it in too low. I nodded and vowed that I would keep a sharp watch out for this.

Unfortunately it would seem that my best intentions went straight out the window. Now I’ve had landing issues before, and I’ve unashamedly blogged about them. 

I’ve had flat landings, bouncy landings, landings every which where but the centre line and finally landings where I just couldn’t get the plane to come out of the sky. But I’ve never experienced an unexpected landing before.

Which is exactly what happened here at Tillsonburg. I’d scraped together a passable circuit and was happily about to set up for the final part of the landing,


Screech, screech screech.


That is the sound of the runway being somewhere other than where I expected it to be.

I honestly wasn’t prepared for the landing to be happening so… soon.

Despite Bob’s careful preparation and briefing, the landing came as a complete and utter surprise.

Not so good.

Bob, bless him tried to be tactful during the debrief where he described it as “a bit of a flat landing, without much in the way of a flare or hold off”

I was a little more brutal, “Bob, there wasn’t a landing. I flew the plane into the runway!”

Monday, 28 April 2014


I’ve just returned from another dual cross country flight, this will inevitably spawn a myriad blog posts but I’m still processing a lot of what happened.

Overall I’m really happy with how it went, I coped well with things which might seem small and insignificant to other people, but to me are huge achievements.

I’m feeling kind of warm and fuzzy inside at the moment because I got paid two huge compliments by the people who have been closest to me during this whole learning to fly malarkey.

It turns out that RTH had been watching and listening to me (until I cleared the zone to the west). This is nothing unusual, I used to do the same to him all the time. In the course of our conversation he asked me “did Tower hand you over to a frequency you weren’t expecting?” I laughingly confirmed that they had indeed. I had planned my radio set up meticulously for the handover to terminal that I was expecting only to get told to contact them on a different frequency.

“Well, you didn’t seem too surprised or shook up about it,” he commented “You know, I watched you take off and disappear to the west and well, I wasn’t worried. I mean I knew you’d be back in a few hours. I’ve never flown with you but I know you are a safe and cautious pilot. I knew you’d be fine.”

This means a lot to me, because at some point RTH is going to have to cope with being my passenger and to know that the idea doesn’t fill him with dread, well it is a good start. Seriously though, I think we are going to have less of a problem than I thought.

The next one came from Bob himself, in two ways really. On the last leg of our trip , where I was really beginning to settle in and relax, well it seems that he was too, because he seemed to spend most of the flight sightseeing! At one point he kept twisting to look out of my window. Eventually I asked him what was wrong, I thought he was eyeballing some traffic that I’d missed. But I was on flight following so that seemed unlikely. “Oh, we stayed in a nice little place on the escarpment down there, I can’t remember the name but I was trying to find it.”

Yep sightseeing! He also found the time to point out his house to me as we flew past it.

Finally he said to me, during our debrief, that he felt “a lot more relaxed in the plane with me now.”

I may have cracked a joke but in all I know where he is coming from. I’m still getting the same amount of feedback from him but the stuff I need to improve on is trivial compared to where I was a year or so ago.
Being told “have you considered holding your chart like this…” is a world away from being told “have you considered not putting us in a 2000fpm dive?”!

I’m kind of pushing through the agonising self-doubt that has plagued me throughout this process. Feedback like that from RTH and Bob has been crucial in helping me get through this. And I am getting there, one flight at a time.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

How do you solve a problem like WMAP?

One of the things (and there are many) that concerns me about my up and coming solo cross country is landing at Peterborough. Aside from the fact that the airport has its own cloaking device, there’s the problematic task of joining the circuit.

There is a set way of joining the circuit at an uncontrolled airport, basically at Peterborough I’m going to end up joining mid left downwind. The last time I tried this with Bob on board I got myself totally and utterly disoriented. I mean I knew in theory what I needed to do; I overfly the field at circuit height and join the mid left downwind leg. I even drew myself a little picture of what the runway orientation would look like from my approach angle. It didn’t help.

As I flew vaguely in the direction of the circuit, I admitted to Bob “I don’t know where I am, I’m completely disoriented.”

Bob, for some reason seemed strangely reluctant to help. I was stressed and didn’t really appreciate his silence on the matter. To be honest I thought he was being a bit of a d!ck, I mean he’d warned me that he’d be helping less and less as the flight went on and although I accepted this when we briefed, personally I felt his timing sucked.

Reviewing the video footage though, I can see exactly what the problem was and why Bob “decided” not to help me.

 I didn’t really need it. Despite my whinging and whining, I was pretty much where I needed to be, doing pretty much what I needed to do. I just didn’t realise it. And because of this I was stressed and angry and because I was stressed and angry I was doing stupid stuff (like dragging it in under power on a 6000ft runway).

As usual WMAP is her own worst enemy. So how do you solve a problem like WMAP?

The honest answer is that no one can, I mean the reason Bob wasn’t “helping” is that he was genuinely confused as to what the problem was. There wasn’t one.

So WMAP help thyself. I’ve had time to think, time to review some of the footage and time to reflect on how I can help myself. Here’s what I’ve come up with

Breathe – always been my problem, when I get stressed I genuinely don’t breath properly. Brain cells require oxygen to function, planes need brain cells to fly them

Look around me – instead of panicking and pleading for help, if I’d taken a moment to glance out of my window, I may well have seen a runway exactly where I needed it to be.

Be assertive – I let the intense traffic around Peterborough intimidate me, I think it’s the old “imposter syndrome” again. I perhaps don’t feel like I have as much right to be there as “proper pilots” do. Bob was fairly clear in our debrief, no need to land short, the runway is yours. Set up the landing and take your time if you need to. If traffic behind you is crowding then that is their problem not yours. I really need to take this on board, Now that I have enough situational awareness to know what’s going on behind me, I tend to stress about it too much. I noticed this on my way into City on a number of occasions where I’ve felt traffic was following too close behind me. It is not my problem to deal with.

Take my time – again, breathe and evaluate. When the I was reporting at the same alleged position and altitude at the Muskoka traffic, a few moments of analysis would have let me figure out how to deal with the situation. It is very rare that you don’t have time to inhale and think. I should remember that. And once again as Bob has pointed out, if it’s all going a bit quick, slow down, drop some flaps and take your time.

Have faith – if your flight planning is correct, all you need to do is fly your planned heading. It genuinely does bring you out exactly where you want to be, this was certainly demonstrated this flight. I need to have faith in my plan and follow it. It will do what I need it to do. In the same vein I actually need to have a bit of faith in my own abilities. All the time I was moaning about my lack of situational awareness, I was following another plane on the base leg. I must have had some idea of what was going on.

All in all, reviewing the video of the dual flight was a little bit of a shock. Normally I find a million and one things I could have and should have done better. This time, although it wasn’t exactly perfection I was viewing. It wasn’t the unmitigated disaster I feared either.

The truth is you can’t really solve a problem like WMAP until she admits that there really isn’t that much of a problem to fix.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Philosophical musings.

After our dual cross country flight, Bob in his own, sweet gentle way prompted me to “review my radio calls” for certain scenarios. This was his way of politely drawing my attention to the fact that most of my radio work on that flight was of an appallingly low standard.

I couldn’t argue with that, I know that when I’m stressed, the English Language is the first thing to exit my brain.

His final reminder to me was “just go back to the basics if you are stuck. Remember WHO you are, WHERE you are and WHAT you want.”

I couldn’t help myself, all the tension, fear and frustration of the previous flight came spilling out and I started giggling uncontrollably.

“I’m sorry,” I explained “but philosophically I think those are a little too deep for a simple position report, don’t you?”

Bob may or may not get my sense of humour at times. I think he was mildly amused. I found it totally hilarious. I warned him that it’d spawn a blog post.

After a high demand flight like that my brain is so scrambled that you’d be lucky if I could tell you where I lived, let alone what my life goals were.

At the moment I’m struggling with the basics like pointing the plane in the direction I want it to go, philosophical musings will just have to wait.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

The night before.

I’m not a nice person when I’m anxious and stressed. RTH normally takes the brunt of this. Friday night he made the fatal mistake of coming home early, I was just off the phone with Bob, contemplating the mass of flight planning in front of me. I didn’t know where to start.

Irritatingly one of the pages from my previous flight was missing, meaning that I’d have to redo some of the landmarks and distances. Somehow this must have been RTH’s fault.

Sensing that leaving me alone was probably the best thing to do, he retreated to his den. I plugged in what numbers I could and then abandoned it until the morning.

I went to bed early, planning to be at the flight school a good few hours before my flight. Despite my best efforts I knew I wasn’t going to sleep that night.

Sure enough I woke at about 4:30 in a sweaty panic, suddenly realising that the TAF was calling for easterly winds at Peterborough. That mean an over the field, descend, turn back and join mid left downwind approach for the runway. I haven’t done that one before and I got "lost" on the simpler approach I did last time.

This doesn’t bode well.

At 6:30 I finally call it quits. Sleep isn’t coming anywhere near me. I spend some time reviewing GFAs NOTAMS and anything else with an acronym and head down to the flight school.

Why do I feel like the condemned prisoner on their final march?


Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The day before.

After my last flight with Bob, I readily agreed that I needed some landing practice. Bob suggested that I head down after work on the Friday and bash out some circuits.

I was up for that, some nice relaxing flying at my home base sounded exactly what I needed. I’ll admit to being a little unsettled by the fact that Bob had no intention of being at the flight school that evening.
He booked me a plane, told me to do some circuits and call him when I was done. Okaaay.

No one at the flight school seemed unduly concerned either, handing over the keys; they merely asked how long I planned on being before returning to their YouTube watching.

I attracted their attention though when I returned back after 5 minutes. I wasn’t happy with the oil pressure reading on my run up. It was low; despite the fact that I knew I had enough oil in there. I’ve seen it low before but this actually dropped. I needed a second opinion.

Dispatch were quick and efficient and, more importantly, kind. It turned out to be a none issue but no one chastised me for over reacting. The overarching opinion being that I‘d done the right thing.

Eventually I got her airborne and bashed out some circuits. That descriptor being a little too accurate, my first one could only be described as a “bounce and go”.

Jeez, it’s been a while since I’ve done that. The gentle winds threw me a curveball, I couldn’t get the plane down. Two overshoots later I finally made a full stop.

Time to call it a day. I wasn’t confident about tomorrow’s flight. Landing was going to form an integral part of the flight, mandatory even. I couldn’t even manage it at my home airport.

Not an auspicious start.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014


I genuinely am feeling like a different person behind the controls of that plane at the moment.
Bob texted me with the option of heading down to do some late afternoon circuits. He was going to be down there with a night student and wanted to know if I fancied some flying.

Never one to turn down the opportunity to fly, I readily agreed. To be honest, although I’m happily anticipating my next cross country flight, I’d mentioned to RTH that I was a little unhappy with how my landings were playing out at the moment. I felt the need for some practice.

I wandered down to the school, found my plane on the ground and waiting. I organised my gear, waited on the refuelers and preflighted her before Bob arrived.   

Bob strolled in and he started to chat about the flight, he mentioned that he’d noticed my landings getting a little on the bouncy side and wanted to sort them out before they became an issue. I couldn't argue with that.  “Apart from that, what’s your plan?” He asked “Want to thrash out some solo circuits?”

I’d thought about this, I’m not scared of the solo flying anymore, so there’s not the pressing need to overcome that psychological barrier. I don’t really even need any more solo time for my license, apart from the cross country stuff. So I made an executive decision.

“To be honest, I need to practice my landings, as well as all the speciality takeoffs and landings and stuff. I’m not afraid of solo flying anymore, what I need is the feedback on my technique. At this point I’m better off with you in the plane to critique.”

I felt happy with that decision. Every flight is for a purpose now. Every flight is getting me one step closer to my License.

The flight went well. The weather was slightly cruddy. Fine for circuits, no use for anything else. The airport eerily quiet.

The lack of traffic allowed for stop and goes. We thrashed out short field, soft field and obstacle takeoffs and landings. Each time we went round Bob laid out the specifications for the next series.

One time the runway ended at Foxtrot. The next, someone had strung power lines above the threshold.
The calm winds made judging my approach a challenge but I got there. I was being challenged, but I was having fun.  I got out of that plane feeling like I’d been tested and had passed.

It was a worthwhile flight, I felt refreshed and renewed. For a change I wasn’t a sweaty heap of mess when I got out the plane. I just felt satisfied with a job well done.

I’m not the person I was for sure.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Paperwork explosion: an explanation.

Now that I’ve survived the cross country experience I feel the need to expand on this post a little.

I was not in a good frame of mind. I’d done all the “shoving numbers into boxes” planning that I needed to do, now I was attempting to visualise the flight. Figure out what I needed to do, where I needed to do it and how I needed to be speaking to at the time.

As I looked at the stack of paperwork in front of me, consisting of

  • A flight planning sheet for every leg (so times 3)
  • A flight summary sheet to go on my knee board for each leg (3)
  • A weight and balance sheet for each leg (3)
  • An index card with an airport diagram and every radio frequency needed as well as a brief summary of the call, for each leg (3)
  • A VTA marked with as much of the route on it as possible, along with pencil marks depicting key points (call points, descents etc.)
  • Ditto VNC
  • An E6b
  • A pencil and pen

I was suddenly overwhelmed by the enormity of the task in front of me. Every time I looked at the stack, I recalled something else that it was vitally important that I remember. I was never, ever going to manage this.

I told Bob as much.

I didn’t feel ready. I didn’t feel prepared but something kept niggling in the back of my mind. Weeks ago Bob had asked me “What do you feel you need to practice before our Cross Country flight?”

I didn’t have an answer. I knew what I needed to do; I just wasn’t convinced I could.

In which case, I’d never be ready. I had nothing to change.

It really was going to be now or never.

I oscillated between the two options, leaving Bob in an impossible position. He can push me, but only so far. I need a nudge but he can’t force me into that plane.

He has other students to deal with and disappears off , the next time he sees me, I’m phoning in a flight plan. Strangely enough the thought of this no longer terrifies me; quite frankly it’s the least of my problems. “There, now I can’t back out.” I explain.

Of course I know that flight plans can be cancelled but I’m trying desperately to do this despite the voices in my head.

I tell Bob I can’t do it. I tell RTH I can’t, I text my friend A from ground school to voice my fears.
Every single one of them is unanimous in their opinion.

I can do this. A texts me a whole slew of motivational texts, RTH tells me what I already know. Bob, well Bob’s just Bob.

I choose to believe them, right up to the moment I put my hand on the plane door and open it.
“I can’t do this,” I plead with Bob, turning away from the plane.

And yet; somehow, magically, I do.