When I one day look back and put together my list of best experiences in aviation, last weekend will certainly get a mention. Finally, after all of the box-ticking, paper-shuffling, fees and forms, tests and weather delays, I started my flight training in the aeroplane that will take me from my Recreational Pilot’s Certificate to my fully internationally-recognised Private Pilot’s Licence: The venerable Piper PA28-161 Warrior II.
Without regurgitating a bunch of information you could google if you are really interested, the Warrior II is a low-wing, single engine 4-seater. It has a 160 hp, 4-cylinder Lycoming engine and all of the instruments you could imagine (analogue, of course – I insisted). Much larger and more powerful than the little Jabiru I am used to, but functionally the same.
I got up early in the morning, much too wound up to sleep much past 6:00 or so. Made some coffee and checked the weather. The forecast was still good, although it was cloudy outside and had rained. Hadn’t been expecting that. Generally puttered around, drank more coffee, and made a nice omelette for breakfast and got myself ready to go at a leisurely pace. I know from experience that if I run late or get in a rush, I get flustered and do not get the best out of my lessons. So after the time-honoured Ritual of the 3 S’s, I drove out to Bankstown to Schofield Flying Club to get started on my other favourite ritual, the preflight inspection.
My instructor was running a little bit behind, so I found myself talking to an elderly lady who was there to cheer on her husband who was taking a joy flight given to him for his birthday. She had a lot of questions, and I did my best to answer everything and make her feel at ease. She may have thought I was an instructor.
Finally, Chris arrives and I sign out the aeroplane and its bag of gear (paperwork, keys, fuel drain, dipstick). I catch a ride with the fuel truck guy and we chat as he fills up the tanks to 70 litres each. Chris walks out after a few minutes and observes as I go through the pre-flight inspection. I try to be very thorough, vocalising all of my thoughts as I go through the steps – mainly for his benefit so that he knows I have had the thoughts. Everything seems to be in order, seems as though I have remembered everything he showed me last week when we did the walk around but didn’t get to fly due to weather.
With the preflight inspection done, we then started on the startup checklists. Very similar to the Jabiru, though a few more items to consider. Main thing is to check each item methodically and understand what you are checking, don’t just go through the motions.
It is upon taxiing that I notice the first big difference – with twice the power, it does not need any coaxing at all to start rolling! Very responsive in that respect. Also the brakes have quite a bit of authority, quite unlike the Jabiru. Another change is that it has the differential braking system – each pedal controls that wheel separately. I thought that would take some time to get used to, since the Jabiru just had the handbrake, but it actually is pretty intuitive. And, with each wheel having its own separate brake, the plane can make incredibly tight turns – just apply the brake for the right wheel and it will spin in place to the right… very handy, but otherwise it is the same and steers with the nosewheel using the rudder pedals just as the Jab does.
From taxi to runups to lining up, everything was pretty much the same as I have done a hundred times before – though it did seem to require less effort oddly enough – it almost drives like a car. All the way, I am continuing to vocalise my thoughts and explaining what I am doing so that Chris will know that I know what to do. This way he can concentrate on teaching me what I need to know without feeling he has to start from the beginning – it’ll save us both time, and save me money that way.
For this flight, we are going out to the training area to the west. The first thing we need to do is get me familiar and comfortable with the new plane – where all of the buttons and gauges are, what engine speed settings to use, proper airspeeds for different manoeuvres, and just getting a feel for it.
So from the holding point, I made my first call to the tower from a VH-registered aircraft: “Bankstown tower, Piper India November Hotel ready at holding point alpha-8, runway 29 right for upwind departure to the training area”. And all this time, I was worried I was accidentally going to say “Jabiru”…
“India November Hotel, clear to takeoff” came the reply which I acknowledged then lined up and gave it full power. The Piper surged forward with no hesitation and in very little time reached 60 knots and leapt off the ground like a homesick angel. I did carry over the tendency from the Jabiru to start with back pressure at 40 knots which Chris said is unnecessary, so I’ll need to retrain myself out of that habit. Because this plane is so much heavier, it feels considerably smoother and easier to keep straight without being blown all over the place.
I have to echo what others have said before me – after flying the Jabiru, it is almost easy! It is so intuitive and the controls are heavy but responsive – a bit like driving a big car when you’re used to a go-kart. And with 160 hp and 2 lightweight pilots, it really goes like the clappers!
In very little time at all, we’re in the training area at around 4,000 feet. He has me do most of the basic handling procedures so I can get a feel for the proper attitudes and engine sounds etc. Straight and level is about 4 fingers from the horizon for me (was 3 in the Jab). Best rate of climb is 80 knots, which puts the tip of the engine cowl at the horizon. And so on…
I do climbing turns, descending turns, steep turns. We practiced stalls, and this is one area where I am going to need a ton of practice. My tendency is to push the nose too far forward to exit the stall, but that results in losing too much height. So that will need a bit more finesse. Practiced a bit of slow flight as well. It even rained part of the time, but that is no big deal in this plane. By this time, we’re over an hour and need to get back for his next session. That is fine with me, it will give me a chance to have some lunch and digest what I have learned.
I make the inbound call over Prospect reservoir and join downwind for 29R. After being cleared for visual approach, I make my first landing in the Piper, and a nice smooth one it is! I will definitely need to work on brushing up the circuit skills since none of my visual cues are the same as in the Jab. Also the order of operations is a little different – things like carby heat, flaps and power changes being done at slightly different times, so again just a matter of unlearning those habits so I can do them properly in the Piper (and hopefully remember them again next time I fly a Jabiru).
I parked the Piper and walked back to the clubhouse. They had very helpfully brought in a whole roast chicken and some rolls and salad which made a very tasty lunch along with some cold water. I spent the next couple of hours just mentally replaying everything. Eventually, Chris returned and I went back out to do another preflight and we started it up once again.
He was happy with my handling skills and learning where everything is, but wanted to spend some time doing some circuits so I can build the skills needed by repetition. It was getting pretty late in the day however, and it looked as if I might have scored the coveted Last Light circuits!
He demonstrated the first circuit and then let me take over from there. The overall procedure is the same as any other – take off, turn at 500′, level off at 1000′ and turn back parallel to the runway, do pre-landing checks, turn and turn again to land. There were a few minor differences which took me a few goes to get down – no flaps on takeoff to contend with for one thing, and slightly different speeds, RPMs, etc. Minor stuff, and I think I had it pretty well in hand by about the 4th or 5th circuit.
As Chris is night-rated, he wasn’t too fussed that the sun had gone down and the runway lights were on – we still had just enough light left for a few more and there are few things as spectacular as a sunset from that particular vantage point. And I felt very good in hindsight to think that having only flown together for one day so far, he trusted me enough to land a plane in the dark! I will definitely never forget that experience and I’ll probably want to pursue a night rating eventually – just too cool!
We got back to the club and had our debrief. At this time, 2.5 hours in, he feels that I am sufficiently familiar and comfortable with the Piper that we can go straight into the Navs next week! We had figured on 3-4 hours for familiarisation, so I am ahead of the curve! Obviously I’ll continue to get more comfortable with it as we go through the cross-country flights, and we can take time to work on things like stalls and generally fine-tuning everything as we go.
I have already been working out the flight plan for the upcoming weekend, so am hoping for continued good weather. Just to be sure, I’ve planned a route that will take me north to Cessnock and back, and another one to the south that will take me to Goulburn then Crookwell and back. Depending on conditions on the day, we’ll go with the best one and shouldn’t have to cancel due to weather! I really want to prepare myself so that the cross country flights go well and I can progress onto more things that I haven’t done such as the Controlled Airspace endorsement and getting ready for the flight test.
Stay tuned – things are happening!