I was planning to do some more solo circuits on Sunday, however in the end I got to do something even more fun! Instructor Bill rang me in the morning to ask if I would like to go to the flight school earlier and share a navigation exercise with fellow aviation student Terese. Of course I wanted to! The plan was for Terese to fly the outbound leg and for me to fly back.
I was somewhat nervous as I hadn’t done any navigation before and had only watched a few videos online about the basic concepts, but felt better as I would get to see navigation skills in action before having to use my own.
The method of navigation you use for flying under visual flight rules is called Dead Reckoning. In simple terms dead reckoning is using speed and heading to determine where you currently are in relation to a previous known landmark. Therefore, the first thing you need to do to create yourself a route is find landmarks that will be easily visible from the air and ensure that the route between them will not pass over any restricted airspace or gliding activity.
When I arrived at the Mid Anglia School of Flying briefing room Terese and Bill had already selected a route to get to our destination of Turweston from Cambridge.
Now that a route was selected the three of us worked together to determine the track headings, which you can think of as compass headings, that we would follow at various stages of the flight. We then made adjustments for magnetic changes across the route and forecasted wind. Using the heading, distance and weather information we had acquired we could work out the estimated time between each landmark we would see enroute. All of this was noted down on a document called a flight log.
As it was my first time doing it, and Terese is also fairly green, filling in our Flight Log took almost as long as the flight was planned to! But time spent planning is always worth while, much better than spending time and fuel going in the wrong direction — or worse.
On the outbound trip I was sat in the back of G-BFWB. I hadn’t sat in the back of a PA-28 before, but even at 6ft 3 I was pleasantly surprised by the leg room! As Terese got to grips with the ultimate multi-tasking challenge of flying a plane whilst looking for landmarks and filling in actual arrival times on the Flight Log I was able to enjoy looking out the window at some familiar places, including; Grafham Water Water, Milton Keynes, Northampton and the Silverstone Formula 1 track.
When we arrived at Turweston I was pleasantly surprised by the airport! I’m not sure what I was expecting but I certainly didn’t expect it to be a flash as it was. It certainly helps that it is the closest airfield to Silverstone for the Gran Prix fans who arrive in their private jets and helicopters.
The staff at Turweston were also great! The gentleman with whom we had booked out came to meet us at the plane and took the photo of the three of us which is at the top of this post. In order to pay our £15 landing fee we had to go to the Control Tower, which I was quite excited about!
Turweston as a small airport which exclusively caters to General Aviation doesn’t have a full Air Traffic Control service that big commercial airports such as Heathrow might have, but instead has a “Radio” service which is a little more casual and can only advise aircraft what to do, rather than tell them and provide clearances. For a bit of fun we rated some of the landings coming into the airfield, with ATC providing scores to the pilots themselves.
Before leaving I told the controller on duty I would be flying out and apologised in advance 😉. Having been spoilt by Cambridge Airports 1965m runway Turweston felt comparatively short at 1000m, though clearly more than enough to take off in a PA-28.
Flying back I realised the sheer amount of work involved when thinking about navigating as well as aviating as someone so new to both. At one point I even told ATC I was heading “west” for Cambridge, despite the lack of fuel or onboard toilet facilities required to circumnavigate the globe.
Despite the amount of thought required it was however terrific fun and a bit of a rush when I was overhead the M1, my first landmark, enroute and only a minute behind my estimated time of arrival! After that I was looking out for Podington Wind Farms and then Grafham Water where I changed course to get to Cambridge Airport (all detailed in the aforementioned Pilot Log).
When I got to Cambridge I got into the circuit through a standard overhead join and Terese captured my landing on video.
Thanks to Terese and Bill for a great day of flying! We all agreed we would do it again as it is helpful for Terese and I to watch each other learn, and it means we can go farther-a-field to new and exciting airports like Turweston. Hopefully next time we shall arrive at our destination 10 minutes before the Cafe shuts, rather than 10 minutes after!
My brother posted a video to YouTube of when he came flying with me some time last year. You can watch it above.
Last Saturday, 16th December 2017, I flew an aircraft solo for the first time — that is to say with no-one else in the plane! It was simultaneously the most terrifying and exciting thing I’ve ever done.
After having flown about 50 minutes worth of circuits at Cambridge with instructor Nick Camu we set ourselves down and I ran through the after landing checklist. Nick then asked if my medical was valid, which it was, and if I had completed the necessary examinations, which I had. He then told me I was going back out again on my own!
We taxied to an area where it would be safe for my instructor to jump out and he shook my hand and wished me good luck — I was on my own.
The first thing I had to do was check the ATIS in order to set my altimeter correctly and be aware of any change in the weather.
Despite having said the aircrafts call sign — Golf Bravo Foxtrot Whiskey Bravo — dozens of times in radio calls to air traffic control over the previous 50 minutes I managed to totally forget my phonetic alphabet when speaking to Cambridge Tower to let them know I had the updated weather information and provide them with my intentions. Unfortunately, unlike the US, the Very High Frequency aviation radio channels are considered private and are not published online — so you cant enjoy listening to me tongue twistering myself.
Once I’d composed myself and had the required conversation with tower I taxied to the engine run up area and ran though all the pre-flight checklists. The aircraft performed as expected and having positioned myself at the alpha hold shot line I informed ATC I was ready for departure — at this point I could feel my heart beating like it intended to leap forth out of my chest. The adrenalin hit very hard. Cambridge Tower told me to line up on the runway and wait.
Having lined the Piper Warrior up on the white centreline of runway 23 ATC told me I was cleared for take-off. I replied “Cleared for take-off, wish me luck. Golf-Bravo Foxtrot Whiskey Bravo”. The lady who often controls at Cambridge Tower simply replied “You don’t need it”. This settled me down a little.
Normally rotation, the act of pulling back on the column and taking the aircraft into the air, occurs at 65 knots. At around 60 knots I did question why I was doing this mad thing. However, come 65 knots I went back into flying mode and did as I had been taught over the previous few months by the excellent instructors at the Mid Anglia School of Flying.
The single circuit I did was actually fairly standard. The aircraft felt a little lighter and more eager to get off the ground, it also had a higher rate of climb at 80 knots than it normally would with a second body in the plane.
I had the classic “oh my god I’m on my own” moment on the climb out portion of the circuit, as I looked right over Cambridge City Centre and there was no one in the seat next to me.
On final I was mainly concerned with staying on the 3° glide slope indicated by the precision approach path indicator and just staying safe. I wasn’t as worried about “greasing” the landing as I normally would be. This obviously worked because the landing was really smooth, and I was complimented on it by pilots in the school clubhouse when I got back.
As I backtracked to vacate the runway ATC told me “well done” which was nice — when you do something as far outside your normal day-to-day life as flying an aircraft its nice to have that kind of confidence boost.
Once I’d got back to the General Aviation Parking and shut the aircraft down Nick came back over and shook my hand. I’d finally done it! After many hours work with Nick and the other instructors at MASF I’d flown a plane on my own — I extend my thanks to all of them for such a great experience.
The next phase of my flight training will be to conduct 3 hours of solo circuits including not only full-stop landings but touch-and-gos and go-arounds — as I have been doing so far with instructors. After that I’ll move on to the navigation portion of the training, in which I’ll learn to get from one airport to another using strategies like dead reckoning.
I’ll keep the blog up to date with my progress.
I started a YouTube channel this week for me to upload videos I record whilst flying. I suspect they’ll be quite boring to most viewers, but I’m hoping to refer back to them at some point to see any progress with my airmanship.
I’ve embedded my first video above. It’s a few laps around the Circuit at Cambridge International Airport; with a few touch and go’s, a few practice go-arounds and a few mistakes 😉
I’m quite happy with the quality considering I used a £40 “GoPro knockoff”. I might add a few more to the mix in order to get some more interesting exterior shots and a few different angles. It would also be cool to get a headset convertor so I could capture ATC and intercom audio.
Apologies for the constant engine noise and long run-time. I’m still working my way around iMovies features and have no real editing experience.
For anyone wondering my YouTube channel name, Super Friendly Aviator, is a reference to lyrics from The Zephyr Song by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
I’ll update the blog when I upload anything new.
I passed my first two CAA exams today; Air Law and Operational Procedures with marks of 94% and 91% respectively.
Went for a flight afterwards and did a few circuits and a PFL from the downwind leg. Was only up for 40 minutes as the airfield shuts at 6pm and the lesson before mine lasted a little longer than expected.
All in all a good day out!
This video was recorded before I got my rudder pedals, and is no indication of my ability to perform a take-off 😛
As I wrote in my last post: this year I have been making an effort to get in the air more often and get closer to attaining my pilots license. This month I bought some equipment and software for my own personal flight simulator. My set up consisted of X-Plane 11, the Logitech G Saitek Pro Flight Yoke System and Thrustmaster TFRP T-Flight Rudder Pedals.
My thought process behind putting together the simulator was that if I could practice some elements of my training from my home office and therefore save myself even a few hours of real life flight time, I’d break-even or even save money. An added benefit was that I could use VatSim to practice my radio communication with Air Traffic Control and other aircraft outside the busy environment of an aircraft cockpit.
Unfortunately my time with the combination of hardware and software I bought and used left me feeling dissapointed.
My initial impressions of X-Plane were mixed. The hardware configuration wizards, aerodynamic physics and aircraft models are fantastic — however it’s not without some bigger problems, outlined below:
- To get close to the environmental detail you see in many videos of X-Plane posted online you need to download a load of mods (like ORTHO4XP and HD Mesh). Most of these are labours of love and, therefore, whilst excellent don’t have the best initial set up user experience
- The sim doesn’t come with a model of any of the PA-28 family of aircraft, which I fly in real life and is the second most popular training aircraft in the world. (In the video above I am flying a Cessna 172)
- Although the hardware setup wizard was excellent, X-Plane had an irritating habit of losing my rudder pedal settings everytime I launched it, so I saw this screen far too often
- In the out-of-the-box configuration everything is very american centric. First I noticed the massive amount of Delta Boeing 747’s at Cambridge Airport, then when I tried to use the built-in ATC it spoke of, for example, ‘altimeter settings’ rather than ‘QNH’. This, as far as I could tell, wasn’t configurable
Being unimpressed with the simulated air traffic control built into X-Plane I decided to join VatSim. VatSim is an impressive feat; a well-organised collective of virtual pilots and air traffic controllers all around the world coming together to produce a very realistic flying network. There’s a range of software built around the VatSims protocols including this neat Google Map which shows the sheer number of people currently flying in the network.
Whilst in theory and in terms of technology I loved VatSim in reality it wasn’t quite right for what I wanted to do. After spending far longer than I should have done configuring VatSim and getting connected I spawned into Cambridge Airport with my puny Cessna 172. Fairly quickly I realised that not only were there no other aircraft within 50 nautical miles, there was also no one playing as ATC in my region. It turns out that most of the VatSim pilots simulate large commercial aircraft (Boeing 747s, Airbus A380s etc) rather than small single prop General Aviation planes. This, in turn, means that most people simulating Air Traffic Controllers converge around large national or regional hubs such as Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester where GA isn’t welcome.
When I gave in and spawned at Gatwick in a 747 the ATC ‘chatter’ was of really good quality — I could have believed it was real — …right up until someone joined the server and proceeded to breath very heavily down their microphone for 5 minutes whilst everyone shouted at them.
On the hardware side of things my biggest complaints lay with the Rudder Pedals. In both a PA-28 and a Cessna 172 the pedals perform two major functions:
- Their primary function, as is evident from the name, is to control the position of the rudder on the vertical stabilizer. The rudder allows the pilot to control the yaw of the aircraft.
- The top half of the pedals, known as toe breaks, can be used to perform differential breaking on the main landing gear. Differential breaking can be used to aid tighter turning when taxiing on the ground, and both breaks are applied at even pressure during landing to slow the aircraft down.
I unfortunately had issues with both functions. Rudder control in an aircraft, as you can imagine, has some weight to it — the rudder is being hit not only by the air you’re flying through at 112kts but also by the slipstream caused by your propellor rotating at 2400RPM. Unfortunately with consumer grade flight simulation pedals you cannot feel any pushback when you press on the pedals, so they make very large movements. Even with the sensitivity turned right down in X-Plane I still had to take my shoes off and press as lightly as I could to make anything other than full whack changes to the position of my rudder. After a while I remember exclaiming “wow, it’s actually easier to fly a plane in real life than use these”.
Other than the issues related to the lack of force my Thrustmaster pedals also had a bad relationship with X-Plane. They often seemed to invert direction between simulated flights, and in more than one simulation both pedals just affected how far to the left I wanted my rudder to position. No right rudder for me!
I actually quite liked the Logitech Yoke. As well as being nicely shaped for extended use and having additional buttons on the controls for things such as flap extension it came with some very nice to use Throttle, Mixture and Prop Feathering quadrants.
Despite the good build quality and ease of use and set up of the Yoke it too suffered the problem that all affordable consumer greade flight simulator products have; a complete lack of feedback in the controls. This made it exceptionally difficult to trim (explanation) the aircraft, which was one of the skills I was hoping to improve on using the flight sim.
X-Plane 11 is a cool product, I think that if it came with ORTHO4XP and HD Mesh out of the box and improved its internationalization and built-in ATC I would be able to reccomend it to more PPL students.
The VatSim community remains impressive to me. It’s well organised and seems to have positive outcomes for most of the people involved. However, for someone who is practicing for their PPL I’d reccomend to give it a miss. In my experience you’ll quickly become frustrated with the lack of other single piston aircraft in circuits and ATCs at small and medium sized airfields and airports.
In terms of hardware the biggest problem for me was a lack of feedback on the controls. I understand that more expensive commercial set ups have this feedback built in using hydralics and I’d love to give these at go at some point to see how realistic they feel. However, for my budget I just don’t think the hardware is of great use — my equipment has therefore gone back to Amazon and I’ll be spending the refund money on some more real life flight hours.
It’s been a little while since I’ve posted about my flying. After spits and spurts of flying since my initial taster lesson last year I decided to make it my goal to be in the air every two weeks in 2017. I’ve stuck to that so far and now have 35 take-offs and landings under my belt.
The week before last I took my CAA Class II medical exam — which proved me to be fit and healthy enough to fly a plane on my own.
This week I have been reading from the excellent AFE Private Pilots Course books in preparation for my Aviation Law and Operational Procedures exams. Once those are compelete and an instructor signs off on my abilities I will be able to fly solo for the first time!
I will of course update the blog when that happens.
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