Lesson #6: Turns of the Normal, Climbing and Descending Kinds

The second lesson it two days started with a bad omen: the clubhouse had no crumpets. I was knackered after my 11 mile cycle in, not being used to riding that distance (and hills!) two days in a row. I settled for a mug of tea and the plan of reading some of the briefing notes and trying to memorise the radio calls, but in reality since the runway for the day was 04 (left) I had a good view of the multiple landings, touch-and-gos and go-arounds that were happening in good conditions.

The lesson started a bit late but I had time to go through the entire checklist, which is only the second time I’ve done so. A lot of taxiing to the end of the runway, and I ventured into a slightly higher speed than usual, not that my directional control was quite up to it. Then we were lined up and I was set for another take-off which went smoothly, and then a climb and a turn into the wind.

We’d have the briefing on turns and a demo followed, with the more drawn-out process for a proper turn being drilled into me:

  • Lookout
  • Bank
  • Lookout
  • Check back pressure to maintain altitude
  • Lookout
  • Check balance and correct with rudder
  • Lookout
  • Check bank
  • Repeat until:
  • Lookout ahead
  • Roll out of the turn, and keep an eye on altitude

There seems to be a lot going on in a turn… These were all things that I’d been doing in past turns, but not necessarily in that order. Since the order must have been made for a reason, that’s what I’ll have to learn.

Climbing and descending turns seemed simple enough, although climbing or descending to an altitude and onto a heading was border-line information overload. I tended to be within 10 degrees of the heading, and generally got the altitude okay, but can definitely do a lot better.

There were also a couple of practice go-arounds, particularly after a practice “set us up for final and aim to land in that field” exercise when we were getting down to about 700 feet. The handling of the nose was definitely ropey, but at least the general aim of “stop going down and start going up” happened quickly. More practice needed there though.

Finally the re-join of the circuit and starting to pick up landmarks. Having flow the circuit for 04 left twice in two days I now know that one better than the “standard” runway 22 circuit. The “keep the right wing just inside the M11” direction, and then “turn when you’re over the golf course” direction helps, and maybe I’m not overloaded by the flying quite so much now. Setting up for base is definitely not a quick task for me, but it works and the altitude holds okay, and then I was in charge of both power and attitude for the descent for the first time.

It actually went better than not having power control the day before, since I knew if I was dropping power that I would have to drop the nose to maintain airspeed rather than reacting to the instructor’s power adjustments. We were high to start with so some full flaps and lower power sent us downward, although I was still slightly high right at the end. It’s going to take a couple more attempts before the sight of the runway numbers filling the cockpit window doesn’t seem quite so unnerving. There was a reasonable crosswind, though, so the speed and direction were as well as I think I could hope at this stage. I followed along for the landing which was the first time feeling just how much elevator to use on the flare.

It was an excellent lesson, though, and although we were only up for an hour it felt like I’d been flying for half a day with the amount that was going on. The glass-half-empty side of me knows that sometime I’ll have a bad lesson, but I’m glad I’m postponing it so far!

Now, about that air law again…

Lesson #5: Effects of Power and the Base Config

The first lesson this week was postponed due to fog that just wouldn’t clear, but I went to the airfield somewhat optimistically anyway. It turned out that even when it did clear it just turned the whole sky white so nothing flew that day, or the next. In the meantime we had about an hour of briefing on the next couple of lessons including turning and the base config. Not that I hadn’t been turning up until now anyway, but the formal structure has the proper checks in the middle of the point-the-plane part that I’d already been doing.

Today’s lesson on power settings and some base config was chock-full, to say the least. For one, the wind had switched so for the first time I was going to be taking off on runway 04 (left) rather than 220 (left) – it’s the same runway, just in the opposite direction and using the grass rather than the tarmac. There was also my first (and only) radio call. Taxiing is definitely improving, as is take-off – my second take-off now – and then a climb up.

Base config is a lot to remember, but the main thing I kept forgetting is where to put the power. So for the sake of trying to get it into my head:

  • Carb heat on and power to 1700RPM
  • Hold altitude at 1200ft
  • Check for speed falling into the white arc, then first stage of flap. Maintain altitude and stop the nose picking up.
  • Check white arc again and second stage of flap
  • Pitch for 65kts and start the descent

After some playing around with power settings and keeping speed constant we had a couple of test go-arounds, with most of the process going okay except for a bit of ham-fistedness meaning I took a bit too much flap off initially. Also, on the level-off I could feel the pull on my arm and instinctively started to trim before I’d brought the power back down – which was obviously pointless as I needed to trim again about 5 seconds later.

I flew a fair chunk of the circuit and then had to line up on the runway, and handled the descent down to the last patch – overshooting the runway numbers by a loooong way. It didn’t look long to start with but we were halfway down by the time we landed (under instructor control, of course). Psychologically it felt a bit odd just head straight into the leading edge of the runway as it felt as if we were low and descending fast, which we obviously weren’t.

After a bit of a taxi back and a reasonable attempt at parking it was time to go through it all in my head and be ready for hopefully another lesson tomorrow morning.

Flying Lessons #3 and #4: Taxiing, Power Settings and Ascending and Descending

Two lessons in quick succession covered a bewildering array of new skills.

The first lesson started with a new spin: after some taxiing, I flew the initial take-off, including the rudders down the runway. I had actually expected this to be a bit harder than it was and the rudders and toe brakes are starting to feel a bit more instinctive (if only a bit). The cross-wind was of-course quite light, otherwise I doubt I’d be doing a take-off this early in my lessons after only a couple of short taxiing sessions, but passed without any drama. Once we were a hundred or so feet up James (my instructor) took over to stick to the circuit as there are a couple of turns and changes of climb rate to fit in.

For the first time I was messing with the throttle whilst in the air. I spent most of the lesson being too timid with it and taking a few seconds to get it to where I wanted it to be – it’s the drilling in of “treat the engine gently”, but I think once I get used to the sound of the engine at different RPMs it’ll come more naturally. I ended up losing a bit of altitude on some of the speed changes, though, and realised I was spending too much time on the very laggy VSI rather than just watching altitude. I think it’s a bad habit from playing computer simulators in the past as those can react instantly. For the near future I think I’ll be trying to ignore it and then I can always work it back in later.

The approach flight in was probably my worst attempt yet, although the wind was starting to gust a bit and some rain was forecast for a bit later. I spent a bit too much effort chasing speed, or lost speed whilst correcting direction, so that’s another thing to watch out for.

Post-flight we had a long briefing on ascending and descending, plus a look-ahead to the go-around procedure, which apparently is expected to go smoothly when we practice it out in the middle of nowhere but will go to pieces on my first attempt near the ground.

Lesson #4 was a few days later and covered a lot of ascending and descending. Again, I flew quite a bit of take-off, as well as all the build-up taxiing. The more work I get with the throttle the better, I think, whether that’s on the ground or in the air.

Ascending and descending went well, but took a lot of brain power. The whole process of:

  • Small weave for look out
  • Adjust power and carb heat (either before or after depending on whether going from high-to-low power or the reverse)
  • Get the speed right
  • Asjust pitch to keep target speed
  • Trim
  • Another small lookout weave after a few hundred feet
  • Engine warm if necessary; temperature and pressure checks; heading checks; keep an eye on airspeed; watch for target altitude
  • On descending: power on, carb heat off, attitude adjustment to maintain straight and level, wait for the airspeed to come up and then adjust power and trim as necessary
  • On ascending: attitude for straight and level, wait for airspeed, then adjust power and trim

I had it in my head from reading the briefing notes, and the training book, half a dozen times each beforehand, but it was still a bit of information overload when it came to doing it. Apparently I’ve skipped straight to levelling at a set altitude, though, so it must have been okay.

On the way back I flew some of the circuit. Although we haven’t briefed and covered turns, let alone onto a heading, yet, it seems the most instinctive part of flying – the ailerons and elevators I can deal with, and I think it’s when you add throttle and rudder that it becomes “flying” rather than “pointing a plane at the sky and hoping”. We even had a cruise descent turn in the mix which felt like a lot going on, since I was aiming for a fly-over point at the end of the runway as well as getting ready to level off at 1,200 feet. A big plus point was apparently that I put power back on before adjusting attitude, which apparently many people don’t. At 65 knots and on idle I find a plane too quiet to do anything else, but I’m just glad that my “this feels really weird” instinct points me to doing the right thing.

James took over for a few key parts of the circuit – I wasn’t really sure what I was aiming for all the time so I think the turns would need to be sharper. (I’m not really sure, to be honest – there was enough going on.) Again I flew more of the approach and this was slightly better, although still a lot of airspeed chasing going on. James took over for the final landing and talked it through as much as possible, which of course makes a lot of sense when it’s just words but when it comes to me doing it who knows what will happen.

Apparently I need to crack on with Air Law now, and I have a medical to book. And start learning the radio calls (which is an area I’m convinced I’ll mess up).

Air Law is not as daunting as it looked initially, but it’s still daunting enough. If there’s something I hadn’t appreciated as much before I started these lessons was the difference between “flying a plane” and “being a pilot”. It’s not like a car license, which you get and then have permission to create mayhem on the roads (or so it seems); being a pilot is a bigger part of your life as there’s a lot to keep on top of even after qualifying.

Other current task is buying a headset. eBay is getting a lot of attention and I think I’ve scouted out the potentials and it’s just a case of finding an “it’ll do for a year or so” at a good price. At least it stops me having to read Air Law…

Flying Lesson #2 – Straight and Level

The weather forecast for the day of the lesson wasn’t great – winds increasing throughout the afternoon, pretty much up to the point my lesson was due to start, and then decreasing again as rain came in. Still, the lesson wasn’t definitely off so I cycled the ten and a bit miles to Stapleford.

I was there early as usual and it seemed that my instructor was up in the air somewhere (it turned out to be a trial lesson – the tell-tale post-landing photo by the plane gave it away). I sat in the club room, which also doubles as a wasp sanctuary (or so it seems), drank tea and read through my PPL course book.

The flying itself started slightly late but I did have time to go through most of the plane checks whilst James (instructor) went off to fill out some reports or some such. The ones I could remember what they meant at least… The plane had only just landed anyway so it was just for practice. As I was checking the plane the wind was certainly gusting up, then some spots of rain fell… James returned and, after checking fuel levels, thought that although it was a bit windy we’d probably be okay higher up.

After a very skewed take-off we were in the air and, once at around 2,000 feet, went through the basic principles. Straight and level, if that’s all you need to concentrate on, doesn’t seem that challenging, to be honest. Keeping straight and level and fiddling with flaps/trim/power or working out where you’re going is another matter entirely.

Although we haven’t really covered turning yet I did go through a few course changes – again, this is something that feels fairly natural – and even started playing with the rudder to balance the plane. We also had a run-through of the effect of flaps, and the demonstration of what happens if you go from full flaps to none in a short space of time was memorable. The net effect is a loss of about 100 feet of altitude, the sound of the engine picking up speed, and all manner of plane-settling.

We didn’t manage the full hour flying in the end. The clouds were just getting a bit too thick and James decided on a fly-over of the airfield to check out the wind sock and then landing on a different runway. There was going to be a cross-wind no matter what, though, but this one seemed to give us a bit more into the head-wind.

I didn’t fly the approach this time – there was just too much going on, and I didn’t question it – and we had to look out for another Cessna trying to do the same thing. We knew they were on approach from the radio, and they knew we were lokoing to approach, but neither of us could see each other. That doesn’t feel good. As it looked clear we started our approach. A few seconds later the other pilot radioed that he could see us, and looking back I could see a landing light about half a mile back and a couple of hundred feet higher than we were.

The landing was certainly interesting. I could see James fighting with the controls to keep us reasonably straight, including the small dip just as we were coming to the hedgerow at the start of the runway, and then the massive veer to the right as some trees cut out of the cross-wind for a few feet, but the landing itself felt good enough given the conditions. I was glad it wasn’t me doing it, though.

We taxied off the runway fairly quickly once we’d lost some speed and then watched the other pilot coming in. He seemed very high and then, just after the hedgerow where we’d dipped, he was suddenly lifted 20 feet, and then dropped 30 more. He landed very far down but it was smooth and looked less battered by cross-winds than ours did, so maybe that part of the runway is a bit quieter if the wind’s from that direction. Something to look out for in the future anyway.

In the 50 minutes we were up we managed to cover what we had planned in the hour anyway and there’s just a bit of Exercise 6 to finish off for the next lesson, which is planned for Friday. Looking at the weather I’ll be surprised if it happens, but I think this is going to be a common theme of my flying for the next eight months.