‘… But I’m near the end and I just ain’t got the time
And I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home….‘ – Blind Faith, 1969
Its been over a month since my last lesson, but thankfully the weather was perfect – yet another in a long string of sunny, cloudless, mild days as we wrap up winter here in Sydney. A bit surprising, given my usual luck is to have it rain precisely on the day of my lesson after any number of perfect days.
Originally the plan was to fly over Katoomba over Bathurst and Orange to Mudgee where we’d stop and plan our way back. However, the school was down an aircraft with the J170 being in for maintenance so Brett asked me if we could have a later start and cut the lesson shorter by only going to Bathurst. That worked out for me, as we would be able to cover the same things without having to go so far anyway.
As is my wont, I rocked up about an hour early to get the weather report and finish up my flight plan. Weather was good, but winds were reported as “variable”, which makes it a little harder to accurately plan a heading and ground speed. To be conservative, I just kept the headings the same as track, and allowed for half of the wind to be headwind – we could figure it out once we were up there in it.
So I filed a plan with Air Services Australia to go from Bankstown to Prospect Reservoir, Katoomba, Oberon, Bathurst and return via Bathurst to Oberon to Camden to Bankstown. In moments, Air Services called up and requested a change – Prospect is a busy inbound reporting point, so would be better off not using that as a departure waypoint if I could help it. Fine, so I revised the plan to go via Warragamba Dam out to the West, then up to Katoomba from there.
To add another new experience, the school recently acquired another Jabiru plane – this time a J160 model. The main difference is it has a somewhat shorter wingspan, so I could expect a slightly lower glide ratio and less tendency to float. Performance and handling I was told should be roughly the same as the J170 I am used to. Some of the instruments and equipment are in different locations or in some cases are different brands, so I had to factor in a quick learning curve. Didn’t present too much of a problem once I figured out a few new buttons and knobs to do the familiar tasks.
Preflight inspection, taxi and takeoff were all pretty much normal.
As is usual here at this time of year, there are many control burns going on – this is where the Rural Fire Service deliberately burns back strategic areas of bush so as to reduce the possibility of wide-spread bushfires. On a warm and windless day like today, this means there was an area of dense smoke covering most of the Blue Mountains – visibility was practically zero in that area, and in fact it was a bit hazy everywhere.
The air vents in the J160 seem to be aimed a bit differently because my papers and charts were blowing around, which was a bit distracting as well. I don’t know how the guys in the open cockpits do it!
So with that, it looks like I was off track to my first waypoint, a local small pond called “Tadpole” because it is shaped like one. With Brett’s help, we sighted it and I changed our heading to fly over it, then adopted a heading to the next point which was Warragamba dam.
I had not actually used Warragamba before, so I wasn’t too familiar with the view from above. By the time we spotted it, I was actually about 3 miles South of it. So now I am starting to get a picture of what the winds are doing, but from 4,500′ looking Northwest, I could see that the whole area around Katoomba was completely obscured, so there was no point in even attempting to resume my plan to go there.
Had I been solo, I would probably have just turned around and gone back, but Brett was with me to show me what to do and add some more tools to my collection.
We weren’t planning to cover diversions today, but we had no choice in this case so it was a good unplanned practical lesson. From our position South of Warragamba Dam, we picked a prominent spot nearby – Trial Hill about 5 miles SW of Warragamba, and used that as a new waypoint. When we reached it, we did a nice spiral climb to about 6,500′ so that we could see over all the smoke, then changed to a heading which worked out to be almost parallel to our original planned track. This worked out well as it took us almost straight to Oberon, thus bypassing Katoomba altogether. That was a shame, because I was really hoping to be able to take some nice pictures of the area.
So at this point in the exercise I have developed a very strong impression at how mind-bogglingly easy it is to be utterly convinced of where you think you are located and where you think you are heading!
So now with composure regained and new headings, we arrived overhead Oberon and ultimately Bathurst only 5 minutes later than our original plan. The key to this is being vigilant with the cockpit work cycle – known as CLEAROFF’s – a methodical cycle of things to check: Compass, Log, Engine, Altitude, Radio, Orientation, Fuel, Forced landing – part of this is noting each positive fix on the chart and a time.
If you’re vigilant with this, then navigating is very simply a matter of Time > Map > Ground. That is, you can look at the time and know where you should be based on heading and speed, look at the map to see what you should be seeing, then look at the ground to confirm.
On arrival to Bathurst, we flew overhead at 1,500’ and determined that the wind was actually favouring the dirt cross-strip, so we joined the circuit for runway 26 and I was able to perform my first landing on a dirt strip! It was very smooth and I had no issues, though i could probably have been a little closer to centre…
Backtracked on 35 to parking and spent some time in the Bathurst Aero club, where a nice gentleman allowed us to use the facilities and use the space to have a stretch and talk about the plan back. This time, the plan was to forget the plan as we were going to get lost!
By then the wind had changed direction so we backtracked and used 17 for a South departure. Since we were heading East, I climbed to 5500’…. then Brett took away my maps and covered all of my instruments with Post-it notes:
He had me change to a random heading of 150 degrees and we just flew for 10-15 minutes.
After that time, he gave me back my maps and instruments and said “OK get us unlost”. So knowing where my last positive fix was, and my heading, as well as a quick calculation of ground speed I was able to find a probable area which I circled on the map – then things started popping into view – powerlines here, a river there, and before long a postive fix over Teralga.
Finding the probable position based on knowing the position of your last positive fix, direction, speed, and time is called “Dead Reckoning”. When you have logically determined a rough area based on where you “should be” based on the above, the cycle temporarily changes to Time > Ground > Map…. look for features in the area of probability, then try to correlate to the map. When you think you have a fix on the features, start looking for other features to support it – rivers, roads, power lines, lakes… anything. With 3 supporting features, you can call it a positive fix!
Somewhere between Oberon and Teralga:
I found that power lines work really well, so I saw a prominent set and paralleled them until it started crossing rivers and roads and other features I could match up to the map. Before long a substation came into view!
I marked that as a possible fix on the map. Thinking I had it, I turned east to follow the power lines coming from the substation. I started spotting towns, but their position showed me that I was wrong about the substation – at least it wasn’t the one I thought it was, but it did get me in the right area. Dead Reckoning is not meant to be 100% accurate, and really I could have been anywhere. But it was close enough, and in a few minutes I spotted a couple of towns along with 2 distinctly-shaped reservoir and a major junction of railroad tracks. I was passing between Moss Vale and Bowral!
Now I had a positive fix, and we were un-lost. I followed the railroad tracks to Picton then Camden where I was able to resume my original plan which was to have been Bathurst to Oberon to Camden to Bankstown.
Brett always asks “what is your plan?” to get me to think about my options. The point is to be flexible and not get overwhelmed in trying to make the flight fit the plan. If conditions change, always remember the order of priorities:
Basically, above all – fly the plane! its not going to drop out of the sky if you forget to make a radio call or temporarily lose track of position. If you always keep this in mind, you won’t get overwhelmed trying to think of a million things you need to do or say if flying becomes a handful.
In a case where I am over unfamiliar rugged terrain, I would have plenty of options – including simply flying East until I see the ocean, then working it out from proximity to Sydney skyline. Or I could call ATC for help.
Anyway, it was a normal leg from Camden to Bankstown, don’t really even need a map for that anymore.
This was a great lesson and an excellent confidence builder. Brett was pleased with my ability to get us un-lost. There will be plenty more opportunities to get lost and found, but it was a good feeling knowing I was able to do it!
So, I am about halfway to having my Cross Country endorsement – next lesson will cover diversions in depth and low-level navigation (500′). For this lesson I am thinking a trip to Cessnock. After that, I only need the 2 hours of solo navigation and the test – Brett says we will probably fly out to Young and go through all the paces on the way out – then solo from Young to maybe Cootamundra, Temora, Wyalong, Cowra and perhaps Parkes and back. Then for the test – “get us back to Bankstown!”.
I am pleased this phase is going so much quicker… once my navs and passenger endorsements are finished, more possibilities open up, including conversion to PPL and maybe even CPL down the track. Or at the very least start ticking some of my goals off the list. Stay tuned!