Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Run or walk?

Ok I’m going to come out and say it. Possibly for the first time in living history, I’m going to commit this thought to the printed (published?) word.


For those of you who wondered what they hell I thought I was doing all this time, I merely refer you back to the start of this blog.

Genuinely when I started this “learning to fly” stuff. I never envisioned a realistic scenario that would see me with a Pilot’s Licence.

My metaphor of choice was “like a flea trying to climb Mt Everest”

Well it looks like the summit might well be in sight. Even though I had a fair amount of feedback from Bob-the-pretend-examiner after my last practice flight test, it wasn’t anything stupidly major. Nothing that I can’t fix. Nothing that I don’t feel is within my grasp.

So I’m allowing myself to dream a little. Make some future plans.

Plans in the cockpit.

Without an instructor.

I am blessed with some adventurous friends who actually want to fly with me, they appear to be almost as keen for me to get my licence as I am. I’m particularly proud of K, who has gone from someone with a fairly deep rooted mistrust of air travel in general to someone who wants to fly with me.

Somehow, watching my less-than-stellar videos and listening to my tales of woe about the various manoeuvres I’m forced to do has helped her. God knows how!

But she wants to fly with me and I want to take people out on flights, so who cares how it has ended up this way?

Now there are many things to consider for my first-flight-as-a-proper-pilot; who to take, where to go and so forth. And I’m a little torn, the sensible part of me realises that I should start off with baby steps and probably take RTH up for a little local jaunt, so we can get comfortable with each other in the wrong seat of the plane. But part of me really wants to shove a couple of my friends in the plane (willingly of course, no abductions here!) and just do something epic. Go somewhere I’ve never been, do something I haven’t encountered before. Something that’ll force me to think on the fly (pun intended).

Run or walk, that’s the question.

Monday, 29 September 2014


Occasionally the world does reward me for thinking of others.

I’m fresh back from Maryland and as usual I’ve brought something back with me other than the conference gift bag.

Yep it’s upper respiratory virus time. Seriously I can block off to the day on my calendar when I’m going to come down with this. The combo of insanity at work, exposure to virus breeding children and airplane travel means that it happens with a tedious inevitability.

As usual, despite knowing this, somehow my brain refuses to accept this and I do stupid stuff like agreeing to a mock flight test with another instructor the day after returning from the states.

My throat is sore and my head mildly fuzzy. I’m not drop dead flu like ill but I’m not 100%. If I was flying with Bob, I might be tempted to cancel. If it was my actual flight test, I definitely would.
But Bob’s away and he’s gone to great trouble to schedule this flight for me. Another instructor, a “career” one with no full time job to fall back on. One who has probably given up time with his own students to spend an extended flight with me.

I feel obliged to fly if I possibly can.  A quick inventory of my symptoms reveals a mildly sore throat that can probably be masked with Tylenol*. If I keep my radio work short, I’ll be ok and it’ll probably encourage me to listen more than I talk in the debrief. My head is a little fuzzy around the edges but I can concentrate sufficiently to re do the first leg on my planned cross country with the forecast winds.

Most importantly though, I can clear my ears, they aren’t blocked. I’m okay to fly if not exactly on top of my game.

So dutifully I gather my gear, organise my paperwork and force down some food.

Then I get a text.

From Bob, who is still away in Montreal.

“JES is offline, flight cancelled, sorry”

Relief washes over me. I don’t have to fly. I don’t have to screw up anyone’s plans either. The timing couldn’t be any more perfect.

I’ve never actually had a flight cancelled in the 3 years I’ve been at this before due to tech issues. The planes are that well maintained and dispatch that well organised. The timing for this occurrence simply couldn’t have been any better.

Apparently there’s some kind of damage to JES prop spinner. Bob was discrete enough not to ask how.

I’m just bizarrely grateful to whoever dinged her. You got me out of what would have inevitably been a less than stellar performance with my dignity intact and, more importantly, without screwing anyone over.

*Parecetamol to the Brits. There aren’t many drugs you can take when flying (for obvious reasons) but that’s one that is reasonably safe.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Checking in

What I normally do straight after entering a new hotel room

  • Spend 5 minutes getting the random placement of light switches and the bulbs they control straight in my head
  • Set aircon to its lowest possible temperature
  • Pull back curtains to reveal what is inevitably a disappointing view of the hotels aircon units
  • Bash my head on those stupid plastic things dangling from the curtains
  • Spend 5 minutes trying to prod the Wifi into action
  • check whether that is a fridge or a minibar
  • open every single drawer on the off chance something interesting might be lurking inside

What I didn’t have to do this time
  • Spend 10 minutes looking for an available power outlet. Someone has stuck a strip adapter to the side of the nightstand, crude but effective.

What I did have to do this time

  • Unscrew the back of the alarm clock. It was set at the wrong time; I think it is meant to auto pick up the time signal. It wasn’t and the hotel had, for some reason, screwed a plate over the buttons that allow you to alter it manually. Once I’d prodded the wifi into life, a quick search pulled up the user manual and a nail file took care of the screws.

Friday, 26 September 2014

It doesn’t get anymore “up”

Today’s flight was bumpy, in many ways. Strong upper winds causing me some headaches, some scattered/broken cloud at lower than I’d like altitudes not helping either.

Bob’s reply to my “I’m not convinced that there is sufficient ceiling for me to set up for the stalls you have requested” was to pull back the throttle and state “well, there goes your engine”

I made the field but got spatially disoriented yet again and landed the wrong sodding way.

Eventually we headed back; I stumbled my way through a diversion, at least this time remembering to make some position calls even if my wind correction factor was off a little. My ETA, at least, was spot on.

I’d been painfully aware of the upper winds but the crawl back to city made me realise just how strong they were. I didn’t even protest when Bob switched on the GPS unit (normally I object to the beeping sound it makes, usually just as I’m about to land). The display told me exactly what I needed to know.

As I entered the zone ATC implored me to keep my speed up. Many many responses flew through my mind. I settled for a mere acknowledgement with my call sign.

Twice more ATC requested that I “keep my speed up”, even going as far as to request that the Porter behind me “keep dialing the speed back,” as there was “a slow Cessna on final”

Consummate professional that I am, I refrained from saying what was really in my head, which went something along the lines of “I’m near redlining my engine at 2400 rpm, I’m in bumpy air and near yellow lining my airspeed. It isn’t my fault that I’m limping in at a measly 55 Knots ground speed. This is as UP as it gets!”

I just settled for casually nailing my crosswind landing! 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Establishing limits

 Although not as successful as I’d like in some ways, today’s lesson was good in others. Amongst other things it was good in helping me explore some personal limits.

The winds were “fresh” leading to some “feisty” conditions. Upper winds of maybe 30+ knots. I’d already been warned by several people that the approach to landing was a little on the fun side. This didn’t come as a surprise, the crosswind was a healthy 10 knots at least and due to get sportier as the day got on.

Conditions at the practice area weren’t great either, I’d dodged my way around some scattered cloud and had to level off before my pre planned altitude and even descend at some points. The usable altitude was hovering around the 3000ft ASL mark, enough so that I could set up for some slow flight but not high enough that I felt comfortable practicing stalls.  Maybe I could have found a hole to work in but the slow flight was problematic enough. Every time I tried to get stabilised, a gust of wind would knock my wings or jostle my nose. It was hard work for sure.

Strangely though, even though doing the airwork bothered me, the actual flying per se didn’t. Yes it was bumpy, yes progress was painfully slow at times with the massive headwind but it was totally flyable. Even when coming into land, when Bob had asked me what I was expecting the crosswind to be, given the latest info from ATC (some quick mental math gave me a rough and dirty figure of about 11 knots) I quickly realised that I wasn’t bothered at all, even when Bob decided he wasn’t going to give em a speciality landing to practice “the cross wind is enough,” he explained “just…”

“Get the plane down in one piece?” I helpfully finished for him.

A year ago I would have balked at even attempting a landing like that but I knew I could do it, carefully maintaining just the right level of slip to land one main first then the next, keeping the aileron input in right through the roll out.

Bob looked suitably impressed.

While I was secretly feeling a little smug about my crosswind landing abilities, I did have a couple of concerns. On paper today’s conditions weren’t too bad. Visibility was fine, ceilings maybe a little low but nothing that screams “not VFR”, yet at the same time there’s no way I’d want to do my flight test under those conditions.

I needed reassurance from Bob that “these conditions would make passing my flight test sufficiently challenging that I don’t think it is a fair reflection of my flying capabilities.” Is a legitimate reason for not wanting to take my flight test on a particular day.

He assured me that was a legitimate way of thinking and that if I discussed it in those terms with the examiner I’d be fine, the examiner may or may not elect to do the ground portion on that day but ultimately the decision to fly would be mine.

To be honest, if I was flying around for a bit of fun, I’d probably be okay with it. I might think twice about taking a nervy passenger but for me I’d be Ok.

But I wouldn’t do my checkride.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

It’s that time of year again

My attendance at the annual “conference for people who organise conferences” In Bethesda, Maryland.

It’s not so bad really, just comes at a crappy time of year, where I could really do with not being out of the office for three days.

Anyway, part of the fun is guessing what’ll be in my goody bag. Previous years offerings can be found here and here.

Any suggestions?

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Helicopter funnies.

Whilst doing my preflight checks I heard the unmistakable sound of the local air ambulance landing.

Those things are loud!

They have the hanger next to us so I paused a moment to watch them taxi in. Sometimes they taxi, sometimes they hover.

They parked up and the whine from the rotors diminished somewhat (they take a while to spin them down completely, I think it has something to do with cooling them)

I watched as the two guys in the front got out and was relieved to see that they didn’t appear to be in an immediate hurry, no patient in the back.

I was vastly amused though, to see the fact that they were both carrying plastic bags from a local supermarket chain.

I’m sure it wasn’t the case but it looked exactly like they had just nipped out to do their grocery shopping.

I wanna get me that mode of transport to pick up some snacks!

In the meantime I’m hanging on for dear life to the wing strut, that rotor wash is fierce!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Something bad…

….but I really wanna do it.

Last lesson Bob and I were skirting around some light scattered clouds that were lurking around the practice area. Nothing too problematic, just a bit of avoidance needed on occasion, as Bob pointed out.

The problem is… I could see the cloud and could see it was easily avoided but part of me, a big part of me actually, had this really mischievous urge to fly straight through it.

I’m dying to see what it’s actually like to fly through cloud (just a small one) and what better time than when you are sat right next to an instructor?

I resisted but the devil in me wants to know what’s the point in learning to fly if you don’t get to see a cloud from the inside!

Sunday, 21 September 2014


I screwed up my forced approach. You know I can cope with the fact that I messed up and failed a flight test item; but the most common one, really? If I’m going to fail I want it to be for something spectacular and different, like coming up behind a Mig in a spilt S manoeuvre when I should have bugged out and let my wingman take over ……

….really gottta stop with the Top Gun viewing, I guess!

Anyway back to the plot….

One of the factors that meant I screwed up more than I needed to was the light and variable winds. With a strong enough headwind you can be a little more aggressive with your turn and it doesn’t bite you quite so much.

No head wind, no do overs.

Moving on to the precautionary landing, we picked out the same field and I set up for a series of fairly shaky high and low passes with mildly sloppy altitude control.

That; however, wasn’t the worst of my problems. As I set up for the “low and over”, I suddenly realised something. Faced with the choice of getting annoyed with myself and laughing it off, I chuckled aloud, despite my resolution to take this seriously.

Bob didn't even comment at the time, presumably he is well used to the random assortment of noises that I emit during a flight.

During the debrief, I was on my mistake before Bob was. Yeah I attempted to land my forced approach to the South but my precautionary to the North.

The queen of spatial disorientation strikes again.

“Really WMAP, if the winds are calm like that, pick a direction and stick to it! You can probably get away with landing with a very slight tail wind, but you’ve got to be CONSISTENT!” he admonished.

As I mentioned before, my situational awareness was pretty much shot that lesson. I don’t know what it is with precautionary landings. I seem to forget I’ve got engine power and time to set up properly. Again it comes down to needing to pause and think about the best way to approach things.

The only thing I can say in my favour was at least this time I didn’t set up for a right hand circuit and I didn’t lose sight of the field.

I just tried to land the wrong way.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Head in the cockpit syndrome.

Couldn’t really argue with Bob when he accused me of suffering with this today. I knew my situational awareness and general looking outside the damn window skills were shot to hell today.

Whilst secretly proud of the fact that I managed to use my E6b whilst flying the plane and give a sensible revised ETA using it, I knew my altitude control suffered as a result.

On a similar vein, although my steep turn executed as a part of the HASEL was flawlessly executed, I was instrument watching the entire time. Which kind of makes a little bit of a mockery of the “lookout” bit really.

Rooky mistakes abounded, like my seeming inability to remember to make the required position calls in the practice area, seemingly wilfully neglecting the “communicate” bit in the holy trinity of “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.” And I guess in a way I was, ever mindful of my ability to get distracted and focus on the wrong thing, I recalled the adage “don’t drop the plane to fly the mike.”

But I over compensated, I need to find a little corner of my brain that can spare the capacity to make those position calls as well. RTH had a great tip, once I confessed the issues I’d experienced on the flight, he made the suggestion of using position calls to buy yourself some time.  Want a few seconds to catch your breath? Then, make a position call. For me it’ll get my head out of the cockpit, looking around to see exactly where I am, It’ll slow me down and allow me to take stock of my situation and I’ll remember to make those calls. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Thanks, for nothing!

Bob and I are both taking this practice flight test seriously. Rather than using the dreaded index cards of doom, he’s got a printed sheet with all the exercises on it, complete with tolerances and he’s marking me, with comments, as an examiner would.

 The ground debrief consisted of him running through these exercises and grading me on the 1-4 scale and sharing his comments.

Everything you do is judged, right from the point you get in the plane. Your checklist use, your safety in even starting the damn thing and how you manoeuvre around the airport before carrying out your run up checks and calling “ready for takeoff”

Everything before the takeoff a “4”. Bob highly complementary, but I’m tired and a little wrung out. In an attempt to break the high intensity of the lesson and debrief, I can’t help but laugh “Yeah Bob, basically I passed at ‘not leaving the ground.’ Thanks but I kind of think I already knew how to do that!”

We both had a bit of a chuckle over that before getting on with the serious matter of debriefing the actual flight.

I made light of the situation but secretly I’m a little pleased. I was on 08 today, which is not my runway of choice, complicated by the fact that the winds were light and the ATIS was calling 26 the active. I hedged my bets, merely requesting taxi instructions to “the active” when I had a suspicion that they’d switched, keeping an ear on the instructions other planes were getting while doing my preflight checks.

Yet again, I was so focussed on the technique that I didn’t have any room for negative emotions. 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Before you ask

No I really don't care about the Scotland England referendum thing.

I suspect each side will eventually get exactly what they deserve.

Not what they wanted.

But what they deserve.

The only amusing thing today has been watching Canadians try to figure out which side of the border my accent hails from

It’s the simple things….

That terrify me sometimes (OK all the time!).

Now that I’ve proven to myself that I can fly a plane to flight test standards (mostly!), I’ve obviously got to start fretting about something else.

In this case it is the dreaded passenger briefing. Actually there are three of them.

Three of them that I’ve pretty much been able to avoid by mumbling “thisiswhereiwoulddothepassengerbriefing” at the appropriate time and hoping that Bob wouldn’t notice.

Well he has!


The real issue I have with them is the whole “pretend” factor. I haven’t been giving Bob the delight of my passenger briefings because, quite frankly, he knows a lot more than me and I don’t find it hard to acknowledge this. I never was very good at the pretend thing, I can’t pretend that Bob is a clueless passenger any more than I can pretend to like some of the utter morons I work with.

So what are these problematic briefings I hear you ask?

Numero Uno

The “as pilot in command I’m about to assume responsibility for you so here’s how not to die on the ramp and getting into my plane” briefing*

This covers a whole whack of stuff, right from where you can smoke (hint: nowhere!), how to get into the plane, how to adjust the seat, how to open the door and how to work your seatbelt.

I am NOT qualified to give this advice. It took me 10 hours of lessons before I figured out how to work the door and seatbelt together, maybe another ten before I figured out how my headset came into the mix. I’m sure Bob spent most of our first 20 or so lessons together sitting patiently as yet again I attempted to garrotte myself on my own headset wires. After that I didn’t get any better, he just started sending me into the plane 5 minutes before him.  Either he was bored with trying to hide his amusement or he was secretly assembling an audience to join in the fun. There’s probably video footage somewhere.

Part Deux

The “yes the reason you can hear me very clearly now is because our engine has quit and we are about to make what I’m going to euphemistically call an off airport landing, you may know it as a CRASH” briefing

Actions here include telling people to take off anything sharp and cushion their face before we “touch down”! Oh yeah and crack open the door now in case we can’t afterwards. And if you could hit the big red switch that I specifically told you not to touch before we get out, someone might eventually come looking for us.

How much of this a panicked passenger might take in is anyone’s guess. I don’t care.

I’ll be trying to land the plane.

The Third

The “yes the engine is still going but we are going to have to put it down in a field anyways” briefing
Many reasons for this and probably the briefing would be tailored to the demands of the situation. It might be a dodgy sounding engine, in which case it’ll go more like #2 on the list. Or it could be a sick passenger, it which case it’ll probably just consist of “GET IT IN THE BAG PLEASE!”

It’s all too stressful. In real life I know my potential passengers and would be fine speaking to them and telling them what they need to know. I can’t do that with Bob and I’m going to struggle with the examiner.

*these may not be the official designations!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014


Once I’d got established into todays practice flight test, I felt the familiar twinge of panic once the realisation hit that I’d have to do the dreaded power on stalls, only this time with Bob-the-pretend-examiner in the passenger seat as opposed to Bob-the-instructor encouraging me along.

When the dreaded moment came, I was strangely serene. Power off stall with full flaps carried out effectively, Bob’s hands firmly in his lap. There was no way I could believe that he was helping me along. This was all me.

So the power on stall. I take a moment to confirm the rpm setting and no flaps. I pause briefly and explain I’m just going to get us on what I consider to be a more appropriate heading for this exercise. I can’t put it off any longer, I start the long pull back on the yoke, entering the stall slowly and deliberately, checking the pull back a little as I’m left wing low and not coordinated. I sort it out and continue to pull back.

The stall horn whines, the pitch becoming ever more frenetic as the nose comes up and up and up. After a seeming age, the stall breaks with a slight wing dip. I recover on the rudder, full power and bring us back from the brink. I’ve been so focussed on getting the technique correct that there simply wasn’t any room in my brain left for fear. This is a good thing!

During the debrief, Bob chides me gently for holding it in the stall for a tad too long. “Once the stall horn is pretty full on, you can recover” he comments.

Obviously there is a touch of overcompensation going on there then!

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Take it slow

“Let me know when you believe you are established in slow flight,” Bob-the-pretend-examiner requests.

I take a look around, I’m well in the 40 knot range with full flaps, the stall horn is blipping in the background, I’ve nudged up the power slightly and the VSI is staying on the zero mark. Mildly wary that this may be a trick question, I bite the bullet and announce “I’m in slow flight,” concentrating so much on keeping the ball centred that I’ve genuinely forgotten that I hate this.

I make the requested turn to the east, making sure to keep the bank angle small, possibly a little too small as the plane takes an age to come around but better to err on this side of caution than whip it round and stall the damn thing.

That’ll come later.

To be honest I could do with slowing a whole load of my flying down. Some of the mistakes I’m making out there are a direct result of trying to rush through airwork stuff. Pulling out of the dive before I’ve leveled the wings on a spiral dive recovery, flinging the flaps up from 10 to 0 before I’m established on a positive rate of climb in the overshoot.  

The reason that I failed to make the field on my forced approach was that I pull the turn in too tight. The 360 method is a wonderful technique but it has its basis firmly in the rate one turn. Turn too steeply and you have no hope of dropping the height you need. And that’s exactly what I do and why I end up high.

Now that I know I can do this stuff, I need to focus on adding some breathing space. Take each manoeuvre one step at a time and add some pauses in. The flight test isn’t a race. It’ll take as long as it needs to and I should give myself space to think and plan. 

Monday, 15 September 2014

exhausting but productive

A full on practice flight test today. At least from the flying point of view. Bob’s kind of guilting me into keeping on top of the ground briefing portion. His “I’m assuming that you’re keeping up with your reading and are on top of the kind of questions you could be asked” statement elicited a nod, a guilty look and a silent mental vow that I probably need to put my novel I’m reading away and once more hit the textbooks at night.

Although by now I’ve carried out every single manoeuvre needed for the test a thousand times previously, this is really the first time where we’ve done everything under test conditions.

Bob was very much the examiner and not the instructor and I treated him as such. No banter in the cockpit, my only conversation with him was to confirm instructions or seek clarification. I purposefully and deliberately acted like it was a different person sat next to me. I barely made eye contact, which sounds terrible but is in truth probably the only way I’m going to be able to get through the test with an examiner next to me. I may have even called him “Sir” at one point. I don’t think he noticed or he was too busy afterwards to mock me for it.

Today’s flight was exhausting and productive in equal measures. I met up with a friend afterwards but had to leave her shortly after lunch as my energy levels just crashed. Before this flight I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to keep up my concentration level for the entire duration of  a flight test but now I’m fairly certain I’ll manage. But it is hard work.

I wouldn’t say I’m elated after today’s flight, not the giddy feeling of a first solo or surviving a cross country flight but I am satisfied. It was useful in many ways. Although it wouldn’t have been a pass, I messed up one airwork item (bets on which it was are welcome!), I did a whole lot better than I thought.

The fact that Bob can spend a good twenty minutes going through points I could improve on but only have one item as a failure and a couple of marginal 2/3s is incredible. I’m beginning to get a feel for the pace and the expected standard of the checkride.

And I’m fairly certain I can do this.