PPL – Done and Dusted!

I really have been horrible about updating this… but I promise I have not been idle!  Last Monday, 1st of September 2104 to be exact, I finally took and passed my flight test for my Private Pilot’s Licence!  More on this in a little bit.

Since my last update, after earning my Controlled Airspace Endorsement, I did what is called a Pre-licence Flight Test.  This was a long cross-country trip where I had to go through all of the paces from startup to shutdown and everything in between.  It was much like the test I did for the Recreational certificate, and much like that one, I found that at close to 3 hours of flying my brain was fried and I had trouble with some of the basic things.

In a nutshell, we went north via the Lane of Entry to Parramatta > Patonga > Warnervale and Cessnock where we did some touch and goes and engine failures.  I got a little discombobulated on the circuits and it took me awhile to get into the groove of it.. I also am finding that after a leg of straight and level, my brain takes some waking up to get back into the procedures of circuits.  So that was one area that needed improvements.

We departed Cessnock and on the way to the defunct Aero Pelican strip (YPEC) on the outskirts of Lake Macquarie we did our steep turns, stalls, incipient spins.  I found YPEC with no problems, and of course Chris pulled an engine failure on me right there…  no problem, from 3500 feet I had all day to get to the strip.  We just did a go-around and I began the trip back via Warnervale.

Before I could get back up to height, Chris threw in a line of hypothetical angry low clouds between us and I had to get down to 1500′ and get us to Mangrove Creek reservoir.  Luckily, I could see Warnervale from where I was, so I estimated my position, drew a line to the new waypoint, eyeballed the degrees for the track, subtracted 12 degrees for magnetic variation, a bit more for the crosswind, and determined a new heading.  Once I got us pointed in that direction, I worked out ground speed and an estimate for time.  Now it was just a matter of waiting the time, and looking for clues along the way.  I ended up very close, within a mile or less, and within a minute or 2 of my estimate.  Not bad for low level and being unfamiliar with the landmark.

We pointed back south so I could look for the Brooklyn Bridge and hop on the Southbound Lane of Entry back to Bankstown.  On the way we did another .2 hours of instruments – turns, descents, climbs, standard stuff.  We made it back to Bankstown and this is where I mentioned earlier the circuits started to really fall apart.  I did them OK I guess, nothing to write home about for sure, but neither Chris nor I were happy with them, especially knowing that I have done much better in the past.  

We then spent a few hours going over all of the knowledge items I should brush up on for the oral test before the flight test – Chris is a real trooper, they do not pay him near enough I am sure!

So I made a booking to do more circuits and a bit more practice in the training area, just to make sure I had stalls and steep turns down.  That was a very busy weekday, and workload was even higher – even had a runway direction change in the middle of joining on the arrival procedure – I had read about that but never had to do it!  Talk about pressure!   But, I just did what the tower told me and was now doing circuits on runway 11L instead of 29R.  After a couple of those, the tower moved me over to runway 11R (having me cross all the way over on a long crosswind leg).  For the final landing, I did request 11L so I’d be closer to the taxiway back to Schofield’s.  That was done as a short field landing, and we came to a stop before the first taxiway intersection.

We were much happier with the procedures and I had been working on the knowledge items, so we were happy to start thinking about booking me with a Testing Officer to do my official flight test!!

Of course, it immediately started raining for the next several weeks which is never helpful when you want to strike while the iron is hot.  After a couple of weeks, Bill rang me and scheduled Monday the 1st of September at 9 am as it looked like it was going to be the only decent day for weeks on either side (which more or less turned out to be the case).

This actually gave me quite a bit of time to study all of the items I missed on my PPL written exam, which would need to be discussed during the oral exam, as well as all of the other items of general aviation knowledge I needed to brush up on.  He wanted me to plan 3 different scenarios, and depending on the weather we would pick the best one on the day.  I even bought new charts so I wouldn’t risk adding confusion with my already well-loved charts.  I always donate my old charts to the flying school, they are good for new students who will need to learn how to read them but won’t need to buy them for awhile yet.  Pay it forward…

When the day arrived, of course I was out there bright and early (before they opened of course) and got myself settled with some coffee and looked over all of the area forecasts.  I decided I would have the best chance by choosing option 3, which was up to Cessnock again then to Singleton, Denman, then Mount McQuoid, Calga, and back.  Winds and cloud cover was very light in this direction, and I had recently done most of it during my pre-test, so it should be familiar enough.  Why make it hard on myself, right?

Did the weight and balance and performance charts, finished out my flight plan, submitted my notification, called for full fuel then grabbed my wad of papers and went in to get Bill.  Without going on too much about it, I feel like I did very well on the oral exam portion, definitely felt well-prepared (thanks, Chris!).  

I went out and did a preflight-inspection on trusty old INH and before long, I was starting up the engine with Bill in the right seat with his testing officer hat (and glare) on, and the dreaded Clipboard.  Now Bill has been doing this for longer than I have been alive, and he just oozes authority.  Think back to when you were 17 and taking your driving test – and now imagine your grandpa (who is also the sheriff and a former race car driver) is the one giving the test, and I think you’ll get the idea.

Anyway, the flight itself was much like the pre-licence flight so no need to bore with those details.   Mistakes were certainly made, and nerves were at an all time high.  But in the end, it appears that they are mostly interested in whether you recognise and correct your mistakes, and whether you are safe.  I am not sure I would have passed myself, but I must have done OK because he passed me!

We did a very long debrief session afterwards where we went over everything I did wrong, what I did right, what I could have done differently.  He had me listen to some recordings and checked my comprehension so that he could tick the box for “speaks English” (whatever…).  Then he extended his hand and said “Congratulations”.

So now I am just waiting for the paperwork, reflecting back on a long and circuitous path to this point, pondering what is next, and scheming my first trip!  I now have almost 85 hours in the logbook, and it took only about 16 hours in the Piper with the Recreational Certificate behind me – I would suggest however one’s mileage would vary widely – some might do it quicker, and some might take significantly longer.  In the end, I feel like I had a very solid grounding in piloting and navigation, thanks to Brett over at Sydney Jabiru, and that my skills were sharpened and my confidence increased thanks to Chris at Schofields.  I have been very lucky to have been put with some very bright and talented instructors, and only hope I can emulate their examples.  

I am just beginning to be broadly aware that I don’t even know what I don’t know, and will be learning aviation for the rest of my life!  For now, I just plan to enjoy the privileges and sharpen my skills through experience.  Who knows where this will take me – the sky is the limit; and it turns out the sky is a very big place!

Controlled Airspace Endorsement!

Knocked out another goal on the way to my PPL yesterday – the Controlled Airspace Endorsement.  This is one of the things that separates the PPL from the recreational certificate, the ability to request entry through various kinds of controlled airspace.

For yesterday’s flight, we treated it the same as the other lessons – I plan out a short cross country trip, do my weight and balance and performance charts, get the weather and winds so I can calculate my heading and ground speed and times.  Then at various points on the trip we practice other things such as stalls, steep turns, forced landings, diversions, instruments, etc.

For this particular one, we added in a couple of new elements – Low-Level Navigation (which I’d done in Recreational) and Controlled Airspace.

First off, we planned a trip through the northbound lane of entry in Richmond military airspace, then over to Warnervale for a touch and go, then down to do the “Harbour Scenic”, which is a procedure for requesting entry into the airspace around the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge to do a couple of orbits for the beautiful photo ops.

Weather was not great, but it was serviceable for the trip.  Most of the cloud was well above my planned height of 1,500′.  More on this later.

So before the flight Chris briefed me on the procedures which mostly involve radio calls for requesting entry then complying with whatever the controller tells you.  The key he says is in preparing early and sounding professional – if you sound like you don’t know what you are doing or are unprepared, they may just tell you “clearance unavailable”.

Anyway, we decided to add a short field takeoff to the mix so I requested a 15 second delay to line up, brakes on, 2 stages of flap and full throttle, then let off the brakes and leaped off the ground at best angle of climb until Chris was satisfied we cleared any “obstacles”.  Lowered the nose to best rate of climb and departed the area towards Tadpole Lake and Warragamba dam as normal.  It was quite windy so got a little off track, but corrrected early and made those waypoints within a minute or 2.

Got the weather info for Richmond over Warragamba and made my first call a few miles from Nepean Bridge – “Richmond tower, Piper India November Hotel, 2 persons on board, one thousand five hundred feet approaching Nepean Bridge with information ‘Golf’, request northbound lane of entry”

The tower immediately responded with my clearance and a “squawk” code to put on my transponder – so they can identify me on radar.

After this it is just a matter of following the published procedure for entry, reporting where required, and reading back any instructions.  Once I was out of the area, the tower lets me know they are terminating service and I confirm I am out of the area and I can go back to VFR code 1200.

So that went reasonably well, though I did get myself a bit lost trying to find Wiseman’s Ferry – one of the hard parts of low-level navigation is its a bit harder to see things from down low, and so easy to convince yourself you’ve seen something you are looking for.  Anyway, Chris gave me some more pointers there, and we were close enough to get there and set a new heading for Warnervale.

Here is where it got very interesting indeed.

I had wanted to cruise at 4,500 to Warnervale, but the cloud base was reported to be more like 3000, so that was out.  To make it worse, it looked like in the areas of rising terrain, it was getting lower than expected!  So visibility was crap and getting worse, and the doors were shutting behind me.

To be clear, on a day like this, I would not have chosen to fly – my personal minimums are way higher than that.  But Chris, being an IFR instructor, and a pragmatist, wanted to use this as an opportunity to put me in a real-world situation.

I could see the coastline, so I knew if I continued east I would at least be able to fix my position over the coast where it looked a bit clearer.  As we got closer, I found Warnervale which was good.  I made some mistakes in identifying the right runway to use – they have 02 and 20 – and I got them backwards in my adrenaline-addled rush to be clear of the weather.

Finally got myself sorted and did a touch and go at Warnervale and it was time to set my heading for the next waypoint – Long Reef for entry to the Harbour Scenic!

I was still a bit addled at this point, so we headed over Tuggerah Lake and did a bit of airwork with the hood on to get some more instrument time in and get me back into my comfort zone – if doing climbs, descents and turns with a hood on in the rain could be called comfort 🙂

So he was happy with that but we still had the weather to contend with – my proposed track looked pretty grey.  So as an initial plan, I thought, well let’s just go down low and follow the coast until I can pick up my original track.  Plan B was to head back to Warnervale and wait it out, since we knew we were good there.

Plan A worked fine, and just a few minutes directly south at low level, we found that the weather cleared nicely and I was able to identify Lion Island and get back on my original track.  A few miles from Long Reef, I made my next call to Sydney Terminal who then passed me on to Sydney Departures for clearance to Harbour Scenic One!  This is another case where if you do not sound like you are prepared, they will not let you through.  But we made it, and did 2 (well ok 3) glorious orbits around Sydney Harbour, to the east of the bridge.  I concentrated on flying at my assigned altitude of 1,500′ and gave Chris my phone to take some pics:

Harbour Scenic 1 Photo 20-07-2014 3 42 49 pm

After that, back up to Manly then cut over to Brooklyn Bridge to hop on the Bankstown southbound Lane of Entry.

Photo 20-07-2014 3 46 49 pm

We did a few circuits to cap things off, of course my brain was fried and I could have done better, but they were safe enough and I achieved the objective for that flight:

Photo 20-07-2014 8 06 13 pm

So that is it – the entire country unlocked!  All I have left is the pre-licence flight wherein I hope to brush up on those things that caught me off guard but that I know i can do, and hopefully be scheduled very shortly for my test!

Watch this space, its about to get busy!

Piper At The Gates of Dawn

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.

The venerable Piper Warrior II

The venerable Piper Warrior II

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.

Instrument panel

Instrument panel

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!

landing at last light, photo by Chris Koort

landing at last light, photo by Chris Koort

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!