Spare a thought, if you will, for the newly born Guillemot. It begins its life high above the sea on a rocky cliff-face. Just weeks after hatching on the cold, wind-swept ledge, the chicks are ushered to the edge… and pushed off.
You can almost hear the mother Guillemot squawking “Fly, my pretties. Fly” as she pushes her offspring over precipice.
The narrow ledge, where the chicks have spent their entire lives, offers little space for flight-training. Or even to fully stretch their wings.
Given that shove, the student bird must unfold their wings and at least make a passing attempt at flight. Or crash onto the rocks below. It’s the ultimate game of “fly or die trying”.
By contrast with the cruelties of Mother Nature, learning to fly a light aircraft should seem much less stressful. On a blustery November morning, it doesn’t seem like that.
Most of us in comfortable, professional jobs have grown unaccustomed to being crap at anything. Experience in childhood taught us what we’re bad at, and we find jobs that cater to our strengths.
Depending on our personality we might choose to put ourselves in more challenging spots at work, knowing that we need the odd challenge or shot of adrenaline to avoid boredom. But we do this within the confines of carefully calculated bounds. It’s rare that we intentionally put ourselves at risk of doing something where there’s a real chance of failing.
And yet, I was about to start spending my weekends looking, and feeling quite incompetent.
I’d been thinking about taking flying lessons for some time. I’d bought the text books, even a couple of aeronautical charts.
I think this was a way to kid myself that I had started the process of becoming a pilot. But I kept putting off finding a flight school. Work got busier. The pandemic struck. And it seemed more sensible to have a decent amount in a savings account than start spending it with reckless abandon. Or maybe I just thought I wouldn’t be very good at it.
Then summer rolled around. Work must have been a bit quieter. Training for whatever was my latest whim of an ultramarathon had finished and I suddenly had a little time on my hands. Oh gosh, was I… bored?
Learning to fly starts with booking a ‘trial lesson’ at a flight school. I imagine that flight schools do a lot of these trial lessons for people who really have little intention of properly starting – or at least completing – flight training. They just want the first experience.
The studious amongst us might book trial lessons at several flight schools. You’d check out a few different instructors to see who you best got on with. Maybe you’d try a couple of different aircraft types to see what you wanted to learn in. You’re about to spend somewhere north of £10k. You’d like to think you’d done your homework first.
And yet I went with the first flight school and first instructor I tried. But I don’t think this was just laziness or an over-reaction to dithering for so long.
How many choices of planes are there? Most flight schools either use a Cessna 152 or a Piper PA28. And the Cessna is smaller, cheaper to fly, and probably a little easier to land.
And really, you’re going to want to have a pretty good reason for choosing an airfield that’s further away.
So maybe it comes down to the instructor.
Teaching and Learning.
Teaching and learning were always a big thing in my family. I’d been exposed to more discussions about my education than was probably usual. I never had a chance to be uninterested, or even disinterested, in my education. Not just what I learned but how I learned.
I’d long known that I learned best not by being taught, but by asking questions. I’d need an instructor who was sympathetic to my incessant questioning and constant analysis of my mistakes – rather than teaching by rote or just trying to repeat the course material when I failed to understand something.
I guess I was looking for an instructor who might be up for changing things around when I failed to grasp something.
I booked a trial lesson through Stapleford Flight Centre in north east London – just inside the M25. It was about 25 minutes drive from home. On the phone I tried to make clear that this wasn’t just a whimsy, but I wanted to do my PPL and enquired as to what the availability was like for instructors.
When I phoned reception at Stapleford I enquired what availability was like for instructors and whether they could pair me with someone who would be free for lessons at weekends. Most of the commercial students would be training during the week. I like to think I used my office-phone-voice to persuade them to give me someone good.
It sounded like a lot of their teaching was done by younger pilots embarking on the first stage of their career into commercial aviation.
Reception booked me in with an instructor who had a couple of students just about to take their skills test, so might have some availability next week. And If they did, that would be a good sign.
There’s the thing that people of a certain age are supposed to say about ‘policemen looking younger and younger’. I remember being conscious of almost a generational difference between me and my instructor. One not in my favour. He was younger – perhaps in his early 20s.
Sure, I work with people younger than myself. But maybe sitting behind a desk with poor office lighting ages you. Or maybe the younger people in my office aren’t paid to teach me. Or maybe I just wasn’t used to feeling like I had to earn the respect of someone younger.
I did briefly think, am I going to be ok with this? Hadn’t I been expecting a wisened old guy in a beaten up bomber jacket with decades of experience?
There’s something almost akin to speed dating in your trial lesson. You’re trying to quickly suss out on a personal level if the instructor is someone you want to share the small confines of the aircraft cabin with for hours on end. Are they going to patronise you when you get something wrong? Are they going to go easy on you when they should really be tightening the screws and giving you hell?
You’re also trying to make a snap judgement, without really much to go on apart from your gut instinct, whether you’re happy to put your life in their hands.
An engine-failure-after-take-off – know as an EFATO – is one of the most risky things in light aircraft. In the unlikely event this happens in your first few lessons, you’re not going to be in much of a position to help. How are they going to cope if the shit hits the fan – or, I suppose, the propeller.
And yet I was wondering – how much was he also assessing me? I vaguely had the notion that after COVID, flight training had suddenly become very busy again.
During COVID it looked like the world of commercial aviation – and therefore aviation training – might be decimated for decades. But now things were starting to look up again. After months of pilots being furloughed, and flight training being paused, it looked like pilots might once again be in demand.
Maybe the instructors got to pick their students rather than the other way around.
The day came around, I looked at the weather in the morning. Blue-ish skies. Little did I know how much of the following year would be spent pouring over forecasts and weather reports – and sticking my head out the window with an upwards glance and a deep reflective intake of breath.
After meeting my instructor we started with the walk-around of the plane. You’re checking that everything looks right. That the control surfaces work, there are no leaks, dents or bits missing.
You do this with a check-list in an orderly flow as you walk clockwise around the aircraft.
Teaching the walk around must be a lesson in itself – not really a focus for the trial lesson. My trial lesson was only an hour – but I felt like I wanted to couple of days to inspect the plane and understand how each bit worked. I was already getting bogged down in the detail that should come later.
One of the risks of light aircraft, or indeed any propeller driven plane, is of someone getting struck by a propeller unexpectedly whirring to life. You quickly become accustomed to checking the area is clear before shouting ‘clear prop’ before cranking the engine.
When the engine whirs to life it gets pretty noisy in the cabin until you slip on your headset. It’s perhaps the beginning of sensory overload. Immediately instruments where whirring to life and I was already mentally questioning what each one did. Again more sensory overload.
We took off and flew to what would soon become the regular practice area near Southend.
We did some steep turns and a few dives where the g-force when from zero – where a pencil held in the centre of the cabin would stay there – to a gentle pull-up which felt like my weight had doubled.
I hadn’t really expected to feel much in the way of g-forces in my training. But as I would later learn, training involves stall practices, spiral descents and steep turns where the force through the seat of your pants rapidly increases. I already weigh too much, so weighing twice-as-much-as-too-much was always going to be a shock. Again the sensory overload continued.
In bigger commercial airliners you might feel a bit of turbulence, but not much in the way of g-forces. In a light aircraft you also get bumped and buffeted by the air in a way you don’t in a big plane. It’s all a lot of new sensations.
My instructor, I assumed, naturally wanted someone who would be good to teach. Were the steep turns about giving me a bit of fun or about checking whether I was the sort of person who would… puke in a plane. If you’re going to be teaching someone for a while, you’d better suss that out early.
I hope I gave the impression that I would be a good student; that I was more likely to turn up when I said I would; wouldn’t piss about; and not turn up hung-over like I would have done when I was last a student. Or fail to turn in my homework on time. It turns out there would be a lot of homework.
When we got to the ground, I’d pretty much decided that 1) we would get on and have fun, 2) there wasn’t much of a difference in price between competing flight schools, and 3) the airfield felt safe, friendly and well run. The instructor guy was good. ”
Perhaps I was also a bit afraid of my instructor not choosing me. No one wants to go through speed-dating and not get chosen. Maybe I worried I’d get dumped by an instructor before we even started, and end up with the instructor no-one wants, whose students always fail.
“Ok, lets do this. When can you start” I said almost before the wheels at hit the ground. He had a couple of students about to do their final skills test the next week, so we could get going in a couple of weeks.
What makes pilots interesting is that – like architects – they inhabit differing worlds. At its most basic, flying is physical, requiring quick wits and good instinctive judgement. Just like a racing driver. But it’s also a little academic, requiring knowledge of meteorology, biology, aerodynamics, electronics and mechanics. Isn’t it this intersection of the Venn diagram where things – or people – get interesting?
I’ve often noticed that many people who are seemingly gifted academically can’t drive a car. For whatever reason I come across non-drivers more and more. Many say they’ve just never learned. Maybe they grew up in a city and never needed a car. But even if you didn’t want your own car, it always seemed to me to be hugely limiting in life to not be able to use a car. ”
The ability to rent a car in some far flung place and head-out-on-the-highway-looking-for-adventure always seemed one of life’s great freedoms. Maybe they just knew they wouldn’t be very good at driving and decided – as we all do – not to risk doing something they wouldn’t be good at.
I was charmed by how my instructor took me at face value. He didn’t ask me about why I wanted to learn to fly or what I did for work. Did he think I was an arts graduate or a science graduate? Maybe he didn’t care. I suspect he had better things to think about.
I remember thinking that if I was teaching, I’d want to know about the person I was teaching. Did they have a PhD in Fluid Dynamics – in which case I might consider more deeply how I talked about a stalling aerofoil.
Perhaps this consideration of audience comes from half a career working outside my area of education, mainly with arts and politics graduates, where I’d regularly have to make snap judgements about professional people and adapt my message accordingly.
He didn’t ask, and I remember thinking I wouldn’t say – unless asked – that Bernoulli’s principle and that Newton’s Third weren’t going to be a problem.
“You don’t know this yet but we’re going to get this done in the minimum 45 hours.” I remember thinking to myself. How quickly I would disabuse myself of that view. ”
You don’t actually get a huge amount of time to talk to your instructor about anything other than the matter in hand. Lessons are short and there’s little room for small talk.
It was only during a lesson before my final test, that on a slightly longer return to the airfield, I had anything like the time or mental capacity to engage in just the slightest small talk. I remember being delighted that I could talk and fly at the same time. But we’re jumping way ahead.
The introduction to flying starts with the basic handling of the aircraft: straight and level flight, climbing, descending and turning. You start – as commercial flights the world-over do – with a briefing.
Your instructor runs through the lesson on a white board whilst you’re safely on the ground. Then after the flight you debrief. Incidentally I found the debrief afterwards hugely helpful as it quickly became evident that during the flight I was often so mentally overloaded that I couldn’t take anything in.
After you’ve done the briefing, and your instructor has done the paper work, and you’ve done the walk-around, they take off.
They do this in a away that gives you the reassuring but entirely false impression that you have taken off. You then fly to the the training area where each concept is introduced slowly over a series of lessons
The aim is to ease you gently from the zone of ‘unconscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious incompetence’ as you’re exposed to more and more of the work that goes in flying.
When I started flying I immediately bypassed this Dunning-Kruger effect. I was immediately conscious of my incompetence.
A misspent – or well-spent depending on your perspective – childhood as an aviation geek meant I knew a fair amount about what was going on. What each of the instruments were and what information they conveyed. Maybe I had read some of those textbooks I’d bought.
This might have been part of the problem, in that I was immediately subject to information overload. I should have been focusing on the tasks in hand – learning how to keep the plane straight and level. But my mind immediately kept trying to jump ahead. To work out where I was over the land, which direction we were heading; what they were saying on the radio, what frequency the radio was on, and everything else. All of this I could have ignored. It wasn’t important at the moment.
I was incensed that my mental map of where we were was totally gone. I’m normally good at spatial orientation. I don’t get lost. And here we were, somewhere over Essex, and I didn’t know which direction the airfield was in. I didn’t need to know. But it was hard to let go. Letting go meant acknowledging I couldn’t do everything just yet.
When there was a lot going on, in an effort to cope, I quickly realised that not only had I mentally tuned out the radio and air traffic control, but that I was also incapable of listening to my instructor.
We soon realised that I had to hand over the controls to the instructor to be able to listen to what he was saying. And even then I found it hard to properly take in what he was saying. The debrief whilst back on the ground made a big difference.
And then I realised I could stick my Go-Pro camera up in the cockpit and record the video as well as the audio from our headsets.
Watching back some of the early lessons was like watching someone else’s flying lesson. My ability to block out auditory distractions when I was concentrating on something difficult was epically good. Or bad.
But all this added to the homework after the lessons.
This basic handling took up the first few lessons.
Stalling and Alarming
Early on in training you’re introduced to the principle of a wing stall. A wing stall, as distinct from an engine stall, is where you disrupt the airflow over the wing so much that it no longer provides lift. It happens because you’re going too slowly or climbing too steeply. When the stall occurs the airflow over the wing catastrophically stops providing lift and the plane suddenly drops.
In normal flight you never want to stall. But you need to know how to get out of a stall if you accidentally enter one.
You start by practicing stalls both with the engine providing power and with the engine idling. In both cases you pull the yoke towards you – fairly hard – until the plane is at an ever steeper angle until the stall happens.
In the old Cessnas there’s a mechanical horn that sounds an audible alarm as the stall is starting to develop. If you keep pulling, you start to feel some buffeting on the plane. Keep going still and then the plane starts to sink, and, as often as not, one or other wing drops unpredictably away.
If left unchecked or unrecovered this can develop into a spin and a rapid reintroduction to the ground. Of course in training we don’t get that far. Hopefully.
It took me a while to be robust enough with the controls to bring on the stall. I kept limping half-heartedly and unassertively into a stall.
The training is designed to train out the natural inclination to either pull up or steer out of the roll with the yoke – both of which make the stall worse rather than better.
Getting out of a stall is supposed to be fairly easy and should become natural. You release the pressure you’ve applied on the yoke. You then apply full power until your speed picks up. Then you gently climb away from the stall. If a wing drops, you use the rudder pedals – not the yoke in your hands – to counteract the roll.
Only at one point in my training did I sense my instructor seem genuinely alarmed and piped up my controls as the ground rapidly filled a windshield that had only moments ago contained nothing but sky.
In trying to overcome my timidity with the controls as we went into a stall, I had overreacted on exiting it. Rather than simply relax the pressure on the yoke, I had thrust the yoke forward. This had the effect of exiting us from the stall, but also starting a rapid dive towards the ground.
Phew, I don’t know my own strength I joked as the instructor recovered to straight and level flight.
As in so much with flight training, you learn more through your mistakes than your successes.
We worked on stalls for a bit. It’s important to get the physical feel of the plane – so that if you accidentally get into a stall in normal flight, you’re quick to get out of it.
Bigger commercial planes even have what’s called a stick-shaker – literally shaking the yoke in your hands to alert you to in impending stall. And if you keep ignoring that, a ‘stick-puller’ so if, despite the warnings, you keep pulling, the plane will push the yoke forward itself.
This is one of the reasons that when you practice stalls, you make sure you’re somewhere safe and high enough to be able to recover.
There’s a formalised way to remember these checks with the mnemonic – HASELL.
The HASELL checks – Height, Airframe, Security, Engine, Location, Lookout – are about checking you’re not in any danger of crashing into another plane or built up area if anything goes wrong in the stall practice. These are supposed to be committed to memory rather than read from a checklist.
And when you’re considering the ‘location’ part of the HASELL checks – there’s also another mnemonic – ABCCD – to remind you that the location should be clear of Airports, Built up areas, Controlled airspace, Clouds, and Danger areas.
I’m pretty good at working out systems, but less so at just remembering things by rote.
As we went through the various stall practices, I found more than anything, I was struggling to remember the order of these memory lists.
Oh god, what does the second ‘c’ stand for? By which time the location in which we about the be practising the stall would now be miles behind us.
Right across your flight training there’s a lot to remember by rote. And trying to remember it all got in the way of actually flying.
Before you enter the runway you have the FATPL checks: Fuel, Altimeter, Transponder, Pitot Heat, Landing Light.
Immediately after takeoff its FELT checks: Flaps, Engine, Landing Light, Trim
As you’re getting ready for landing there’s what looks like someone sat on your keyboard BUMPFFLICHHC – Brakes, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop, Flaps, Fuel, Landing Light, Instruments, Carb Heat, Hatches, Harnesses, Clearance.
At school I struggled to recite poetry verbatim, and it took me an age to remember lines for plays I was in. That was all without the pressure of trying to navigate a one-tonne piece of metal through the sky whilst also trying to remember your lines. I remember thinking I could learn to fly a plane but at the expense of forgetting my own name.
Flying just once a week on a Saturday or Sunday, the weeks quickly passed and we started to get into the cooler days of autumn.
Once you’ve started to master the basic principles of flight – climbing, descending, turning – you begin to bring these together in the circuit.
The circuit, or traffic pattern, is the standard rectangular route flown by light aircraft around the airfield. You always take off in the direction of the runway and into the prevailing wind. You climb on the same heading as the runway before turning left, so as to take you at 90 degrees away from the runway – this is known as Crosswind.
You turn left again so you’re now flying in the opposite direction to the runway – parallel to it and in the opposite direction to which you took off – this is called the downwind leg. Then you turn left again to bring you back towards the runway – the base leg. With one final left turn you are again lined up with the runway on final approach.
At airfields without full air traffic control you’ll often reference your position in the circuit over the radio to help other aircraft build up a picture of who’s doing what in the circuit.
Flying this circuit pattern means that all aircraft around the airfield are flying in a predictable way. When you return to or approach another airfield, you’ll slip in to this pattern around other aircraft. You’ll listen to the radio to gain situational awareness of where the other planes are.
Circuit training forms a big part of flight training. By repeatedly flying this circuit you can practice takeoff and landing again and again and again in what’s called a touch-and-go.
In a touch-and-go, you let the aircraft gently touch the ground as in a normal landing, but instead of applying the brakes and bringing the aircraft to a stop, you apply full power and transition from landing into a takeoff again. This is quicker than landing, stopping and taxing back to the start of the runway and taking off again.
Take off and landing are the biggies in flight training.
I once heard another student refer to his ‘slam-and-gos’. He was having the opposite problem to me. He had an overdeveloped urgency to get the plane on the ground. I was suffering a huge reluctance to get it down.
At some stage in your flight training, you’re bound to hear an instructor offer the advice that take-offs are optional but landings aren’t. In bad weather, it’s one thing to be able to take off but quite another to land. You don’t have to go flying but if you do, then you do have to land.
The runway at Stapleford has two quirks about it. One is that when the winds are coming from the south or west, as they are most of the time, the runway you use slopes upwards at two degrees. This gives a feeling that the runway is coming up to meet you.
As you’re approaching the runway the plane should be in a nice gentle descent. The trick with landings is that you have to transition from descending to ‘not descending’ at just the right time. Do this too late and you’ll hit the ground too hard. Do it too early and you’ll float down the runway and run out of runway on which to land.
At the same time as arresting your descent, you have to flare the aircraft so the nose of the plane is slightly raised, so the main landing gear, at the back of the plane touch the ground before the more delicate single front wheel.
I’m not sure whether this was complicated by the upslope of the runway, but every time we got close to the ground some form of built in protection triggered deep within me.
Oh gosh that ground is coming up rather quickly. Better not slam into it and before we know it my hands, almost without control of my conscious brain, would pull back on the controls and we’ve be climbing again. Meanwhile the runway was rapidly running out below us. So I’d increase the power to full, slowly retract the flaps and we’d go around for another try.
Go-Arounds, as they’re called, are an important thing to practice. If you’re not happy with the landing, perhaps you’re coming in too fast, or too high, or the wind changes, or there’s something on the runway – then it’s best to go around. But eventually you do have to land. And I was developing something of a tendency to be ground-shy and wondering whether I would have to be airborne forevermore. I was becoming the ‘go-around king’
Immediately before the big focus on landings, we had numerous lessons on stalls. You are immediately aware that if you try to fly too slowly your plane will literally fall out of the sky. This caused something of a tendency in me to want to fly too fast on final approach.
Stalling just above the ground would not be good.
It took me a while to figure out that the second quirk of the Stapleford runway might also be contributing to my difficulty in getting the plane down.
The first half of the main runway is tarmac, the second half is grass. A decent pilot could easily land and stop on just the tarmac. Indeed, soon even I would be able to do so.
But you could perfectly well land on the first half and continue slowing down on the grass at the end. At a push you could even manage to land on just the grass, on the second half of the runway, and still have time to stop.
But as you’re approaching the runway from above, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s just the little bit of tarmac that forms the runway.
So rather than let the plane gradually transition from descent to level flight, settle, and then an easy flare, I was panicking on two counts.
Sensibly, the self-preservation part of my brain was seeing the end of a tarmac runway and deciding to go around. But of course it wasn’t the end of the runway. I had plenty of time.
It was almost like my hands had a mind of their own as we got closer to the ground I had to fight the urge for my hands to want to pull the yoke back towards me – sending the plane back up into the air.
“Don’t pull back. Don’t pull back. Don’t pull back” I’d mutter to myself as we got closer to the ground.
As we got closer still – fighting the urge to send us around for another go – I’d have to fight the urge to look away, as you might close your eyes before crashing.
I talked to my instructor after one lesson. I just couldn’t shake the fear of smashing the plane into the ground. “Something just isn’t working”.
He came up with the suggestion that instead of trying to land we’d break things down further. As we approach the runway, we’d arrest our descent and fly just above the runway. Then apply power and, towards the end of the runway, we’d go around. “
Somehow this convinced the vestigial part of my brain that as we weren’t actually going to intentionally smash into the ground – or even land – I could focus on the individual parts that make up the fine controls needed the landing.
I’d started my training in the summer when the weather was fine. Training just once a week, at the weekend, means that it can take a while to make progress.
It was late autumn or early winter before we got into proper circuit training. By this time the weather was frequently causing us problems. Some weekends we’d have to cancel the lesson as strong winds or a low cloud base would make flying impossible.
Just as I got over the ground-shy tendency, I was getting knocked sideways, often quite literally, by a cross wind.
What worked on a still summer day didn’t work when the winds picked up. With the wind roaring directly down the runway, you took off almost unnaturally slowly. But as soon as you’d turned left and left again for the downwind leg of the circuit, you’d find yourself getting blown quickly back towards the airfield.
All the things you normally had time to do were now suddenly rushed as your speed over the ground was now much quicker with a tailwind.
And then we had some lessons where the wind wasn’t straight down the runway – but seemingly diagonally across it. As soon as you took off you were been blown with alarming speed in the direction of France. And would soon be there if you didn’t take corrective action.
Until this point you are used to the plane travelling forward in the direction the plane is facing. But now the plane is facing one way and you’re moving forwards in another.
Taking off in a crosswind is one thing, and fairly easy to deal with. Landing, not so much.
You don’t want to land the plane sideways, so at some stage just before landing you have to make sure that the nose of the plane is facing directly down the runway with the plane staying just above it. ”
There are a couple of ways of dealing with crosswind landings. Whichever method you use, you have to get used to controlling the direction of the nose of the plane with your feet, using the rudder pedals. And control your movement parallel with the runway with the yoke. At the same time you’re controlling your descent with one hand on the throttle.”
It’s like a version of the coordination exercise where you have to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time. Only its like doing this whilst tap dancing.
In fairness I was probably learning in about the most challenging weather. ”
“Nice and relaxed” my instructor would say as we were on final approach – seeing me hunch up as if I was preparing for a fight. Or impact.
“Nice and gentle on the yoke” he’d say.
But what he meant, seeing my white knuckles, was “for god’s sake Owen, you’re gripping the yoke like the plane is trying to rip the yoke out of your hands”
He suggested I try just using thumb and forefinger of my left hand on the yoke. Your right hand is resting (or I suppose gripping for dear life) on the throttle.
I really felt like I had no idea what my limbs were doing, It was hugely unsatisfying to keep getting it so wrong. It was like someone was pulling the runway out from under me like people do with a tablecloth on fully laid table. Only this time it felt like the planes were just about to crash to the floor.
Again the breakthrough came when we practiced flying directly above the runway at low level, so that I could practice the precise coordination of the rudder and yoke dealing with the gusty winds.
I’d end our circuit training lessons with sweaty palms, and aching forearms, feeling totally drained. Just happy to be back on the ground. But also hugely frustrated at my incompetence.
After coffee and breakfast in the clubhouse, I’d find that I’d struggle to drive home. The switch from controlling an object in three axis to just two was more than I could handle. I was totally mentally shattered. I’d drive home slowly and find that, like a baby, I needed an afternoon nap.
At about this stage I started to be aware of that nagging fleeing that I’d made no progress on studying for the nine written exams you need to pass.
Once you’ve shaken off the total incompetence of the circuit training, you progress to your first solo flight. Your instructor steps out of the plane and you do a circuit by yourself. Your first time flying by yourself. It’s almost a bigger step than passing your final test.
For me the first solo came reluctantly. It came first after a period of bad weather in October and November. At the end of one lesson of circuit training, and a few half decent landings, my instructor asked how I would feel about going up for another lap by myself.
But he didn’t quite ask that. He asked, in an almost hypothetical way. It was a conditional.
If I asked how you would feel about going up for another lap by yourself, how would you feel? He wasn’t asking. But he might have been. If I said no, then it wasn’t a question. He was sussing me out.
I was the Guillemot clinging to the ledge for dear life.
You’re not pushing me over the ledge just yet I thought.
I felt flustered and annoyed at myself for not nailing the cross-wind landings. Something still didn’t feel quite right.
I still didn’t feel totally at one with the plane. I hadn’t fully understood what my feet and arms were doing to counteract the cross wind. They were doing something, but it wasn’t under full control of my brain. I’d felt my few successful landings were still a fluke rather than baked in to my brain.
On this occasion the wind was right down the runway, so my instructor was presumably thinking it might be a few weeks before another weather window opened up. And I’d done a few half-decent landings. But I felt tired and liable to make a mistake.
“Not today” I said. It was an instinctive answer said without consideration. And I’m sure it was the right one. Normally I’m up for giving everything and anything a try. So I was surprised by my automatic answer.
Fortunately the spell of bad weather didn’t last too long. The opportunity came a couple of weeks later at the end of November, just before my birthday. After a couple of circuits with the instructor he asked if I felt ready and I had no hesitation.
“Yeah no problem”.
The solo itself was pretty uneventful.
After signing various bits of paperwork, the instructor jumped out. And with minimal drama I taxied back to the runway to fly the circuit, now prefixing my radio calls with the word “student” as all trainee pilots must do when flying by themselves.
The plane, now lighter than before, climbed quickly. It felt like a rocket. I landed to congratulations over the radio from the radio room and another plane in the circuit.
During my lessons I’d tended to talk quite a lot – talking through what I was doing – often asking questions out loud. Sometimes answering my own questions but at other times directly asking him questions.
As we progressed through the training, I’d often ask a question of the instructor, and my instructor would just keep quiet – letting me answer or problem solve the answer myself. He was clearly trying to get me ready for flying by myself without the comfort blanket of an instructor next to me making decision for me.
It made me smile. Years ago when I worked on an IT help desk, I’d get asked how to do something or other. I’d often reply with well how do you think you do it? And the person would work out their problem by themselves and feel satisfied they could do more than they thought.
Long Way Down
It was perhaps my second or third set of solo circuits, some time in late December, when I had my first surprise. The plane hit a few bumps of air. Presumably the airframe flexed a little, and the door next to me popped open as I was turning onto the downwind leg. It felt like there was suddenly a tornado sweeping through the cabin,
The air-flow around the plane means that the door doesn’t fully open but it does open a few inches. Suddenly there was quite a lot of cold air rushing about. I alost had the realisation that without your seatbelt there’s really not a lot to stop you falling out. These types of planes are used for parachute jumpers.
Aviate, Navigate, Communicate is the mantra that’s drilled into you early on. The most important thing is to fly the plane and not get distracted by other stuff – even navigating or communicating. Plenty a pilot has come to harm by getting bogged down in the task of navigating whilst they’ve forgotten to keep the plane aloft.
I heard myself recounting this mantra to myself, after the first instinctive expletive. Methodically, if not quite calmly, I levelled out and got stable on the downwind leg, flying the plane in the right direction. I made the usual radio call on the downwind leg. I was aviating, navigating and communicating. I reached over pushed the door out and then pulled and gave it a big slam. Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. Don’t fall out.
I hadn’t got in a flap, or been mentally overloaded by an unexpected problem. Perhaps it was the adrenaline, but when I landed I felt more proud than I did after my first solo.
All being well, most pilots go through their entire flying career without ever suffering any kind of emergency. It’s hard though to make it through any lesson without considering an emergency.
The inescapable thing about a small, single engine plane is that it has just a small single engine. If that engine quits, you’re got to be able to land the plane safely. The old Lycoming or Continental piston engines are hugely reliable. If they fail it’s almost always down to pilot error: carburettor icing or fuel starvation.
Even over the most populated areas of south-east England, once you get airborne you’ll see there are literally hundreds of fields where you could put the plane down in an emergency.
And that’s what you begin to spend a lot of time practicing – what are called PFLs practice forced landing.
It becomes a studied exercise in getting everything done quickly but not panicking.
Your instructor pulls the throttle back to idle – so you essentially have no power. Then its over to you.
You pitch the plane so it’s has the best speed for gliding as long as possible. Pick a nearby field that’s
big and flat enough, ideally facing into the wind, try to restart the engine, put out a mayday call, brief your passengers and prepare the plane for a gentle off airport landing.
Often, as we began our navigation flights I’d be ready and waiting for the instructor to pull the engine back to idle and say ok, so your engine has failed, what you gonna do?
And you’d have to run through the whole exercise, again and again until it became indelibly fixed in your mind.
Initially I wasn’t very good at a picking field. Then as we looped around I’d loose my orientation and lose the field I said we’d be landing in.
At other times I’d struggle to describe the filed I’d chosen. That big green field with the grass didn’t really narrow things down much. Okay, no, maybe not that one with sheep in it
I often found myself coming up short – finding the plane didn’t glide as far as I thought. My instructor would wait until I got close enough to the group to be sure I’d be able to make a safe landing, before instructing me to ‘go-around’. Added:
Later on, back at the airfield, we’d practice PFFs (Practice Forced Landings) in the circuit, where I’d be given control of the throttle and told to idle the engine when I thought I could make the runway. Again and again you’d have to actually put the plane on the runway without power.
At altitude you’ve at least got the benefit of a bit of time if your engine fails. What’s more challenging is an engine failure just after take off.
During take off the plane is setup for a climb with the nose raised. If the power suddenly goes, you lose speed very quickly and would rapidly stall. So you have to get the nose of the plane down fast, by pushing hard forward on the yoke.
The temptation might be to try to return to the airfield. It’s a temptation you have to avoid – it’s called the impossible turn. At low altitude and airspeed you almost certainly won’t have the momentum to avoid stalling in the turn. Aircraft stall at higher speeds in a turn. So you must push forward on the yoke and pick a field ahead.
As we got further into the lessons my instructor would introduce other ‘problems’
Traffic 9 o’clock he would say, which would immediately get me looking out of the left window, scolding myself for not having spotted the other aircraft.
When I readjusted my view forwards again, having been unable to see the traffic, there would be a warning light on the dash. Or the plane was suddenly out of trim. Would I notice and what would I do to correct the issue.
He was brilliant at creating fake distractions to get me looking elsewhere. Or perhaps I was just easily distracted.
After you’ve gained something of the basic principles of flight in the circuit, its time to start navigation and learning to fly away from – and back to – your home airfield.
Most older aircraft don’t have the fancy computers built into the dash. You have to rely on the traditional ‘steam gages’. Once they’ve passed, most pilots chose to fly with a GPS-enabled iPad, which, much like a car satnav, helps your navigation and flight planning.
But during training and the exam you have to be able to use old-school paper charts, protractors, slide-rule calculators with your flight meticulously prepared flight plan that lists each leg of your journey. You also have to learn to navigate using old-school radio navigation beacons.
After all the challenges of crosswind landings, I found the navigation remarkably easy.
The absolute minimum number of training hours you need to have recorded in your log book is 45 hours before you can qualify as a pilot. It doesn’t take a maths genius to work out that if you’re restricted to one one-hour lesson a week you’re talking about the best part of a year to get your training done. Over the winter, some weekends – indeed some whole months are written off with bad weather.
When you’ve had a busy weekend at work, on a Friday evening you have to start thinking again about planning for the next day’s lesson.
Sensing my awareness at my slow progress, my instructor suggested I have two lessons a weekend – Saturday and Sundays. My excuse, that I was running on Sunday, must have initially sounded like a bit of a cop out.
But throughout the late summer and autumn, my training runs had escalated to the five or six hour-long variety. Add in driving to and from the hills, and virtually the whole day was written off. And I was as physically exhausted at the end of the day as I was mentally exhausted after flying.
But eventually, after the solo, I started to feel that I might have the mental capacity to be able to manage a double lesson on a Saturday, and when the weather allowed, we started making a bit more progress.
Some weeks I’d do a bit of solo circuit training, then we’d fly off on a navigation exercise.
More Time Please
When I first started training I was almost competitive in wanting to pass in as close to the minimum hours as possible. How childish that now seems.
When the autumn came and the weather got a bit worse, and I started struggling with cross-wind landings and getting over my ground-shyness, at least for a while, the idea of flying without an instructor sitting next to me didn’t seem like such a good idea.
For a few months we got into a routine that my flights would be from 8am to 10am on a Saturday morning.
We’d normally WhatsApp just before 7am to confer on the weather. Often the weather was outright too bad for flying and we’d cancel the lesson and I’d go back to bed.
Other times the weather might be marginal and we’d agree to come up to the airfield and take a proper look. Pilots and students spend a lot of time over winter standing around looking up at the sky in a pensive manner.
Perhaps it was because the rest of my life was so scheduled, that I came to quite enjoy these weather related delays and just hanging around the airfield waiting for the weather to clear.
As I got further into my training, I needed to start building up solo time – time in the plane without the instructor. You need at least 10 hours solo time before you can qualify.
When the weather was marginal I might have been able to fly with an instructor (who had instrument rating, so if necessary we could fly in cloud). But the weather was often too bad for my instructor to send me up by myself And solo time was what I needed.
Instructors don’t get paid if they don’t fly (or if their student doesn’t fly). You know you’ve got a good honest instructor when they suggest cancelling your lesson because they can’t send you up solo, and there’s not much point in you just doing more circuit training with them in the other seat. I think you’d just be wasting your money my instructor would say.
I could sense my instructor had a personal pride in getting his students through their training as close the to the minimum hours as possible. Good instructors are efficient instructors.
But I’d often push to fly anyway, thinking I’d welcome more opportunities to fly in marginal weather for the experience.
Suddenly 45 hours of lessons didn’t seem like much. In theory you could qualify having done all your training in the clear blue skies of summer.
We did a lot of bad-weather circuits, at a lower altitude and closer to the runway. We even practiced radar approaches on instruments – where he’d be looking out and I’d be following the circuit on instruments. We practiced circuits with one or other of the instruments covered up with a post-it. He found ways to keep things interesting. And I was happy to take the extra experience.
There are nine ‘written’ exams that you have to pass for your Private Pilots Licence – though really these are multiple choice tests of between 12 and 16 questions. You do these on a computer at your flight school.
The exams range in subjects from ‘human performance’ (like functioning of the heart, optical illusions in the eye and gas transfer across a membrane in the lungs) to meteorology, the functioning of a reciprocating ‘Otto cycle’ engine, to radio spectrum.
These exams can be staggered over your training. Only the first exam – Air Law – has to be taken before you’re allowed to do your first solo flight.
For me, Sir Law proved to be one of the most difficult. Maybe it was because I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The other exams were broadly drawn on physics or biology or mathematics.
I found with a bit of concentration and time I could normally work most things out from first principles. But ‘Air Law’ – has to be memorised. The 1944 Chicago Convention, the rules, aerodrome signs and symbols that you’re still fairly unfamiliar with just had to be stuffed into a brain that was already pre-occupied with work.
After passing Air Law, I let the other exams go for a while as I was too busy with work.
It was only in January 2023 that I started to think I should properly crack on with them. The last thing I wanted, if the weather cleared, was for ‘passing my exams’ to be the thing holding me back.
So for what seemed like most of the beginning of the year, I took Friday afternoons off work and drove up to the airfield for an exam. As the test was online, the results came back straight away. Once I had my results, I’d book the next exam for the following Friday. This focused the mind on studying. Work expands to fill the time available, I told myself. And truth be told, I didn’t really have any more time available to study if I wanted to get them done.
It meant that I broadly had a week for each exam – so the better part of two months of weekly exams.
I’d study a large part of the syllabus at the weekend, then during the week I’d come into the office for 7:00am each morning and squeeze in an hours’ study before work. And then try again after work if there was any brain capacity left.
I built up tons of revision cards which seemed to accompany me everywhere.
Lunch time? The cards would come out for a bit of study. Sat on the Tube on the way to work? Out came the cards. Unbelievable, I know – who manages to get a seat on the Tube?
Fortunately the six big text books I was studying from were PDF copies on my iPad, so at least I didn’t have to lug those around too. But it meant that almost every waking moment seemed to be staring at a screen.
Each Friday, I’d struggle to get work finished by lunch time, then drive up to the airfield. As I’d drive there I’d try and switch my brain from finance spreadsheets and tiresome emails, and back to the business of aviation.
I did pretty well on most of my exams – getting 100% on many of them, I’d probably spent too much time revising. But who wants to go flying with a pilot who just scrapes through their exams?
For a couple of exams, particularly the meteorology, I basically ran out of time to properly study and feel totally in command of the subject. So I went into the exam not quite sure I’d covered everything. I passed. This was about the only time in my flight training I thought I’d be winging it.
Hours in the Day.
Work was particularly busy at the time. It was one of the reasons I’d delayed my exams for so long. I just couldn’t delay them any longer without putting qualifying off.
On top of all that I was starting to crave a weekend off. Perhaps a weekend in Chamonix with nothing but running in the hills and lounging by a swimming pool. But I couldn’t do that either without delaying things further.
Over these weekends in January and February I was still trying to fit in training for both the Thames Path 100 and the Western States Endurance Run – two big 100-mile ultra marathons. And I was still trying to fit in a flying lesson each week, which further exhausted by brain. Oh, and work.
After a five or six hour run on Sunday I found that my brain wasn’t particularly receptive to mental reasoning or revision, so I had to time anything that remotely taxed my brain to be done before the physical stuff. I could run after studying but not study after running. Even the running suffered though because when you’re mentally tired, it’s hard to force yourself to work hard physically or endure physical discomfort.
I was still finding I needed a restorative nap after my flying lessons. And I was now increasingly conscious of the need to make sure I got enough sleep in the week. Not only as recovery from physical training, but as a way to rest my brain. I often found that something I was failing to understand one evening, would suddenly be quite clear the next morning after a restorative sleep
For short periods of course, you can just burn the midnight oil. And I can scrape through on little sleep better than most. But I knew this wasn’t a long term solution. So even my sleep started to feel like it was scheduled.
I don’t want to over dramatise the amount I had going on, but it often felt like I was pushing at the boundaries of my intelligence. For a long time with ultramarathons I was used to pushing at the boundaries of what I was physically capable of. Not since my physics degree had I felt the same about the use of my brain.
Taking a month or two off work and studying would have been easier. But I didn’t really feel I should have to.
I’ve never really been one to skimp on my job. October, November and December had been particularly full-on at work – so much so that my training had suffered and I’d had to put virtually all study on hold. So I didn’t really feel too bad about giving ‘just’ 100% at work for a months or two.
By early March I’d noticed I my brain was struggling a bit. I think other people might have noticed. The first thing that happened was I’d get peoples names wrong at work,
In hindsight, I should probably have just slowed the pace of things.
Instead I found tricks to hide my overloaded brain. On video calls I’d often glance into the bottom left hand corner of the screen to see someone’s name before I used it in conversation.
I worried that these were the little tricks people used to cover dementia from their loved ones.
By March I couldn’t really face another exam. And the advantage of the weather delaying my training in the plane meant that completing all the exams didn’t quite have the same urgency. So I took the luxury of spreading out my last couple of exams over two weeks. Having two weeks to revise for an exam seemed delightful. I even took a weekend away to a spa hotel to study with a change of scene.
I woke up the next morning in the hotel and it took quite some time – whole minutes – to work out where I was.
After all your written exams, there’s a final practical exam for your radio licence – which allows you to legally broadcast on the aircraft radio.
I always found listening to air traffic control strangely poetic. The language is a strange mix of speed, functionality, the lyrical, exotic and very precise.
The CAA produce what’s effectively become the bible of aviation radio communication in the UK. It defines the prescribed and precise language you should use. It even advises the pilot to “avoid excessive use of courtesies”
There’s no room for ambiguity in air traffic control communication. And air traffic controllers won’t look kindly on pilots who dither and fluff their lines when they’ve got a queue of other planes to talk to.
Often, on a busy day, it can be hard to find a break in the radio traffic. You’ve got to be quick, precise and confident in getting your transmission in.
By all accounts its something people struggle with. Instructors are quick to get their students to use the radio in their first few lessons – perhaps trying to break their shyness. Perhaps its the same shyness that students, on entering the world of work, first find when using the phone in an open plan office.
By contrast I’d already made my peace with looking and feeling stupid in flying the plane. Feeling a bit self conscious in broadcasting over the radio wasn’t really a problem.
But remembering the order of transmissions was just another one of those things you had to remember. To force into your brain. Again there was a mnemonic for that. ADDPAA.
Aircraft, Departure, Destination, Position, Altitude, Additional info.
You have to know how to talk to different types of air traffic control, how to declare emergencies, relay radio messages, ask for clearance to cross controlled airspace, and much more.
The practical radio exam comes toward the end of your training, so you’ll have heard a lot of other people talking on the radio during your flight training. You’ll have heard lots of people using language that differs, often quite markedly, from the precise script the CAA prescribe. And there seems to be just the right amount of efficient courtesies in real life.
Again one Friday afternoon I drove up to the airfield for the exam. You’re given a route to plan on your chart. You have to work out which air traffic controllers you would need to speak to, just like on a regular flight.
Then for the exam, the examiner sits in another room and you’re given a device to mimic a radio. You press the ‘push-to-talk’ button and conduct your simulated flight.
To spice things up a bit, you have to make the radio calls that you’re lost and need a position fix, as well as a simulated emergency.
In hindsight I probably got a bit het up on the precise wording – as if I was learning another language.
If trying to speak french, I would have seen it as the utmost failure if I had to resort to plain English to make myself understood.
At least a couple of times in my training my instructor reminded me that if I couldn’t get the precise wording, I could… well, just speak English on the radio.
(Landing) light at the end of the tunnel
Come April it was the weather that was starting to become the thing holding me back. Where as previously the odd cancelled lesson provided a bit of rest and a welcome bit of spare time at a weekend, I was now starting to get itchy feet and ready to get passed. Every cloudy, windy or rainy weekend was just another delay to passing.
Another weekend was written off running the Thames Path 100 miler.
Memorably, it pissed down with rain that weekend too – so as I squelched through mud some 80 miles in, I remember thinking that at least I wasn’t missing a weekend of flying,
There were now just two hurdles to pass before becoming a a qualified pilot.
My ‘qualifying cross country flight’ (QXC) and my skills test. I’d been waiting a couple of weeks for the weather to be good enough to do by cross-country, but finally on 20th May 2023 the weather was looking ok.
Before you’re ready to do your qualifying cross country flight, you’ll have flown a fair bit by yourself. With my instructor we’d flown to Earls Colne, Lydd and Southend, getting experience with different types of air traffic control and different types of controlled air space.
I’d also flown to Earls Colne and back by myself.
The ‘qualifying’ bit just means that one of the cross country flights that you have to plan and execute must be a flight to two other airports, with a cross-country distance of at least 270km.
It seems like most training schools have their own recommended routes. I flew from Stapleford down to Hastings, on the south coast, before routing East along the coast to Lydd Airport in Kent.
Lydd has full air traffic control and a rather convoluted circuit that involves shaving a corner off the usual rectangular circuit to avoid flying too close to a – thankfully decommissioned – nuclear power station. Gulp. What could possibly go wrong.
Everyone at Lydd was friendly and welcoming – particularly as I told them it was my QXC. Sadly the cafe there was closed, and I was dying for a coffee.
After a quick stop to get my paperwork signed and pay my landing fees, I took off again, this time north for Ashford. I asked for clearance to cross Southend’s controlled airspace – flying over the mouth of the Thames then directly over Southend airport.
I landed at Earls Colne – a little air field with a really narrow tarmac runway and a wider grass runway. Given the wind was directly down the runway, I tried landing on the tarmac. With a hefty crosswind the student pilot might elect to land on the wider grass runway to avoid embarrassment,
The nice elderly couple running the burger shack outside the airfield chatted to me whilst they were cooking my fresh bacon sandwich and making my coffee. They must have been able to see my excitement as I was now almost ready for the home-stretch. As I was leaving they offered me a can of soda from the fridge as a little present for celebrating my cross-country. I took a chilled can of sprite, which I open on landing at Stapleford. It felt like a celebratory glass of fizz.
At Earls Colne I again checked my fuel and oil levels and decided it would be prudent to take on a bit more fuel. It’s a short flight back to Stapleford and I’d easily arrive with a legal minimum of 30 minutes of fuel in reserve. But the club requires a minimum of 1 hour reserve and I’d be a little bit close to that if I ended up with a few go-arounds. As I’m accustomed to doing.
In the end I make a nice comfortable landing at Stapleford. I was physically tired after my jaunt-across the country in a small cabin. And truth be told, whilst the Cessna is perfectly comfortable for a short one our lesson, after a whole afternoon it starts to become a bit like an easyJet seat. But without the distraction of a Gin and Tonic to ease the discomfort.
I was relieved though that whilst I was physically tied, I no longer felt mentally shattered as I once did after even just an hour’s lesson,
The next weekend I had another big weekend of flying with a mock test and a another cross-country solo flight to bump my solo hours up to the minimum of 10 hours solo time required before my exam,
My mock exam wasn’t a huge success, it must be said. But it gave me the basic structure on which the exam would take. That gave me something on which I could revise against.
If my mock exam had been a real exam I would have failed. I can’t remember all the things I got wrong – but it was a fairly long feedback session.
After the long list of of things which were sloppy or poorly executed, my instructor asked if I felt ready for the exam.
Um… did you just hear the feedback you just gave? I thought.
But yeah, sure, no problem is what I actually said.
My instructor found the local examiner and booked me in for the following Sunday – 4th June.
The examiner said he would phone me the following Friday to talk me through the exam structure – then he’d text me a route for me to plan just before the exam.
One of the bits of feedback my instructor gave was to just sound more confident. It was a valid and useful bit of feedback – not just for the examiner but for flying in general.
Over the course of my training, I’d developed a habit of verbalising my though processes – essentially thinking out loud. I suppose early on in my training I thought this ‘showing-what-was-going-on-in-my-brain’ would be helpful to the instructor. But by the end of training it must have just projected a lack of confidence.
Fake it till you make it
It’s hard to understand how you can revise for what is essentially a practical skills test. But actually there’s a lot you can do.
On Monday and Tuesday that week I studied before work and after work – going through my notes, trying to make mnemonics roll of the tongue and ensure the emergency drills could be performed with the grace of swan lake.
By Wednesday I was getting a bit concerned that, again, I didn’t have enough time to get through everything, so I reluctantly booked a precious day off work for Friday to give myself more time. I’d already used up a lot of holiday time for study.
I briefly considered postponing the test, but was reminded of the pep-talk a race director had once given before an ultramarathon.
You never feel you’ve done all the training you need. This is as good as you’re ever going to be. This is it.
And also a note of advice from one of Tony Blair’s special advisors that sometimes in order to perform at your best, you need to ramp up the pressure, not ramp it down.
To add to the pressure, I was due to fly to California in a couple of weeks to run a race that I’d been trying to get into for the best part of a decade. Epic amounts of snow had covered the Sierra Nevada mountains in California and I’d been reading various stories about mountain lions and bears being particularly hungry this year. My skills test might not even be the hardest thing I had to do in June.
Sure I could delay until after I’d come back from running the Western States Endurance Run. But in a month I’d have forgotten more than I’d learned.
I hadn’t really told anyone I had my test, so there was no external pressure. It was all coming from me and I was unusually and uncharacteristically nervous. Really, really nervous. For the whole week.
It was a feeling I’d probably not had for the best part of a decade, since I first toed the line for Ironman. I had to keep reminding myself to smile and enjoy the pressure. Pressure leads to performance.
The worst that would happen is I’d fail and have to resit. This wasn’t a ‘worse that can happen is you drown’ situation as the Ironman might have been. And yet the nerves were still there.
There was a bit of uncertainty as to whether the plane I was booked to take my test in, registration Golf Oscar Papa Alpha Mike – G-OPAM (GO PAM to its friends) had a working and reliable VOR receiver. I’d need to use this during the test to track my position to various radio navigation beacons.
I’d flown a lot of the flight school’s Cessna 152s during my training. Each were a little different and had their quirks. Some of the instruments in some planes worked better than others. Given the uncertainty on the VOR and the slight difference between equipment, I thought it would be prudent to go check for myself ”
On Thursday afternoon, after work, I drove up to the airfield and, when the plane was on the ground between other students, I took 15 minutes to sit in the plane. The VOR was fitted and looked like it worked. I ran through all the emergency drills with the engine off.
Back in the clubhouse I went through with plane’s tech-log and minimum equipment list so I could talk the examiner confidently through it. The plane was getting close to its 100 hour check – I made a mental note to point that out to the instructor.
On Friday I spent some time on the flight simulator on my computer, practising with the VOR – reminding myself how to track to it, from it, and take a position fix from two separate stations.
On Saturday morning I took a break from study to do Park Run. Still partly aware that my training for Western States had dropped off for the last couple of weeks and I’d hardly been running. I thought a good hard run on the Saturday would help me keep still in the plane during the exam on Sunday.
Structure of the Exam
Late on Saturday my instructor texted me a proposed routing he would want me to fly from Stapleford. The route would take us to the little town of Heathfield in East Sussex, and then on, in theory to the disused airfield at Manston in Kent. But you’ll never actually reach the second point because they will give you a diversion during this second leg.
In your skills test, the first leg of the route is intended to test your planning, navigation and direction holding skills.
You need to be able to plot and measure the route on your paper chart. Then calculate the bearing. With that, you calculate how the forecasted wind will affect you. Then calculate the angle you need to fly to take account of the wind – essentially how much you need to steer into the wind so the path you trace over the ground is the one you want to follow.
You then calculate your ground speed from your known airspeed. Finally, with that you know the time each leg will take. Once you’re airborne you can calculate your ETA.
So the test not only tests your ability to plan the route, but how accurately you can actually fly it.
When you start out on your first leg, you tell your examiner the compass bearing you’re going to hold and the time you expect to arrive at your turning point. They expect you to arrive there within 3 minutes of your calculated ETA.
If the forecast for winds aloft is accurate, it’s almost like magic that you set out in the plane in a certain direction and speed and – if you can hold a direction accurately – you end up where you planned.
As you’re flying you need to cross reference your predicted position with the chart and the view out the windows ensure to check you’re not drifting more than expected.
At the half way point, you’re expected to revise your ETA and if necessary correct your heading – and let the examiner know.
After receiving the text message I pulled out my chart and pen.
I was conscious that the examiner would want to give me a fairly long leg so as to be able to test my direction holding skills.
But the direct route he’d given me would take me pretty close to London City Airport’s airspace – less than the recommended 2 mile buffer.
But I certainly wouldn’t fly that close the controlled air space on my own.
I read and re-read the examiner’s text. Then I texted the examiner back:
A direct route from J28 [Junction 28, near stapleford] to Heathfield would take me a little closer than I’d normally be comfortable with to City’s airspace (1nm). I trust you’d be happy for me to route via grays or the tilbury docks then direct Heathfield? That would still leave a 30nm leg for the nav.
Clearly this was the response the examiner was hoping for.
He told me it was my choice. The examiner wants to check you’re being vocal and proactive.
On Sunday I started revision again in the morning. I’d slept well. I downloaded a copy of the wind forecast chart from the Met Office, but knew I’d have to wait till later in the morning to get the most up-to-date forecast as close to my test as possible.
I copied out my weight and balance calculations in neat handwriting for the examiner. Then wrote out my fuel plan.
I went through my calculations a second and third time.
I drove up to the airfield, a little later than ideal.
Demonstrate confidence and professionalism I reminded myself.
When I arrived at the airfield, I reminded myself to smile and enjoy myself.
I met the examiner and I said confidently ‘let me take you through my calculations for today’s flight’. I walked him through the tech-log and pointed out that the aircraft was due it’s annual check in a few days and was fairly close to its 100 hour check
The examiner let me go and do my pre-flight checks of the aircraft get fuel.
For the test we could be airborne for up to three hours – particularly if I needed to repeat any sections of the test. And we needed a hours reserve.
When I calculated my weight and the examiner’s, and our bags, we could be easily over maximum take off weight for the little plane. I couldn’t quite fully fill the plane’s fuel tanks or we would be over max weight.
I gave the windscreen and windows a wash – not particularly so the examiner would see me paying care and attention, but because I hate dirty windows.
We were a little late getting airborne but we took off on runway 03, in a northeasterly direction with a right hand turnout towards Junction 28 of the M25.
Everything went as planned as we continued our climb. I weaved the plane to look for other traffic and changed frequency to Southend Radar.
At Junction 28, our starting point, I again took note of the time as we set a course south-ish for the docks at Tillbury and then on towards Heathfield.
I told him the heading I was holding and the time we would arrive at Heathfield.
Once the busy period after take off is over, there’s a tendency to relax and start chatting, but instead I went through my FREDA checks, and started cross referencing points on my chart with our current position.
We reached Heathfield exactly 18 minutes after crossing Tillbury, And much to my surprise exactly on ETA.
I noted this on my flight log, and turned the aircraft towards Manson.
After a few minutes the instructor told me there was bad weather ahead and he wanted me to divert to Rochester airport.
I looked at my chart then out the window. There was a huge lake to my left, Bewl Water. So I flew the plane there and proceeded to fly a rectangular shape around it as I started to plot out my next course to Rochester. Flying around a fixed position means you don’t inadvertently stray into controlled airspace or get lost whilst you’re doing your calculations and measurements on your chart.
As it took a few minutes to get to the lake. I did another FREDA check, checking the fuel, radio, engine and carb icing, direction indicator and altimeter.
I pulled out my paper chart and drew a line on it with a magic marker, read the distance with a ruler and measuring the angle of the line with a protractor. With that I calculated the wind effect on that track, all the while keeping a good look out of the window, turning the plane 90 degrees every so often, to keep us flying around the lake.
Just a few months ago the idea I would be able to do all this whilst making a stab at flying the plane, would have seemed crazy.
It’s a small cockpit and trying to juggle a map, note pad, protractor, ruler and pens around takes some organisation. I managed to make a big blue mark on my trousers with my indelible pen and I tried to fold the chart. Bugger
“Aviate, Navigate, Communicate” I reminded myself. Deal with stain removals later.
Later on, in the car after the exam, I realised I’d also managed to put a big blue pen mark on my left cheek.
Once I had an idea of direction, I set the plane on the right heading and said right, let’s go to Rochester. I calculated our ETA and told him what time we’d arrive.
I tuned the plane’s standby radio frequency to Rochester and asked Southend for a frequency change.
We arrived overhead Rochester. Success. I was starting to relax and feel comfortable.
Now the instructor said he would be responsible for navigation and tuning the radios – so I could demonstrate the rest of my flight handling skills.
Ok, if you’re sure I said somewhat cockily. But in truth it made things a lot easier.
Next I had to demonstrate steep turns – flying the plane first right and then left in a steep level turn at 45 degrees bank angle, keeping a good lookout and maintaining altitude.
He made notes on his pad as we did the turns. After the steep turns he said ok, fine. I felt like saying, no, it’s not ‘ok’ I can do better than that. But fortunately I didn’t.
Next up came the hood, which blocked my external vision. I managed to stop myself making a wholly inappropriate joke about it not ending well for the last people to be hooded in a plane, and them being headed for Guantanamo. Keep your mouth shut Owen.
In hindsight it was probably a good sign that I was feeling confident enough to at least think about making comments.
With the hood on I had to demonstrate what I would do if I inadvertently entered cloud – essentially turn the aircraft 180 degrees on instruments. The hood means you can’t see outside and can only fly on instruments.
By this time we were almost back to my usual practice area north of Southend.
Emergency drills were next. The examiner pulled the throttle back to idle and told me I’d had an engine failure.
I went through the drills I’d practiced – pitching the plane for a glide, picking a field in which to land into the wind, demonstrating the engine restart checks, simulating a mayday call, warming the engine, and positioning the plane to land in my nominated field.
As we got lower, I was closer than ideal to my field and higher than I would have liked, so it was a bit of a struggle to get the plane down. But this was a better position to be in than a field too far away.
There were some pylons in the next field so I didn’t really have too many options. I applied full flaps to increase the drag and entered the aircraft into a fairly aggressive slip. In a slip you angle the plane slightly sideways to increase your drag.
Clearly my examiner wasn’t quite convinced we were going to make it into the field and let me get lower and lower. I thought he might actually make us land. I felt I’d been assertive with the plane rather than it being assertive with me. I was handling it well.
It was then that the examiner was convinced we’d make a decent landing, and said I could go around. I applied full power and slowly retracted the flaps and started climbing as we would after a take off.
Then he pulled the engine to idle again to test my reactions for an engine-failure-after-take-off.
After that I had to demonstrate three stall recoveries, with and without power; straight a a stall with turns.
Finally he put the plane into a spiral dive and asked me to recover.
Eventually it was time to head back to Stapleford. I was asked to track a VOR radio beacon back to Stapleford – which was useful because after all the practice landings and stalls I’d totally lost my sense of direction. The Lambourne VOR is right next to Stapleford airport.
I set the plane on a track towards Lambourne and took another bearing off the Detling VOR to give the examiner a triangulation of our exact position on the chart. Fortunately I managed to avoid covering myself or him and any more indelible pen marks,
Now that I knew where we were, he asked me to rejoin the circuit at Stapleford. He said he had tuned the radio back to Stapleford for me – but as I made my radio call there was no answer from the radio room.
We were getting closer to Stapleford’s zone and I still hadn’t had an answer. I could see the examiner sit up in his seat which made me think this wasn’t him testing me.
Interesting, what you gonna do now? he said.
My first thought was that he’d mis-tuned the radio rather than the radio operator at Stapleford was busy. Legally, I thought I could enter the zone without permission form the radio operator, but given he hadn’t told me the runway in use, I thought this unwise.
I was barrelling towards the airport at speed, so had to make a snap decision.
I was just starting to turn away from the airfield with the intention to enter a hold a little distance away whilst I sorted myself out. It was then that the radio operator came on and gave me the airfield details. He’d been on the phone.
My first landing towards runway 03 was to be flapless. In hindsight I was coming in a bit fast and fluffed my first landing so went for a go-around. This was probably a good way to demonstrate I’d happily go around if things weren’t quite right,
After a flap-less touch-and-go – well-executed second time around, he asked me to do a practice-forced landing touch-and-go. With a PFL the student gets to decide when to idle the engine and land on the runway.
And then finally I made a final regular landing.
As we slowed and vacated the runway, he said that unless I crashed the plane into something he was pleased to tell me I’d passed.
But I was focusing on after-landing checks, so didn’t really take it in.
In truth, I think you know if you’ve passed. And I felt I’d given a good account of myself. But you don’t really want to celebrate until it’s all official.
I parked the plane – in a tiny gap between two other aircraft. The examiner when back into the offices whilst I tied the plane down and put it to bed.
I know you said, but, just checking, you did say I’d passed? I wasn’t imagining things.
I had passed.
Then we went through out debrief. Broadly I’d done well.
My instructor had been away on a flight somewhere else, so I texted him with the good news when I got home. The next week I left a bottle of champagne and a thank you card for him at reception. This was his pass as much as it was mine.
By the time I got home it was early Sunday evening. I was shattered and had a ton of work in the morning. I hadn’t really considered celebrating.
Oh gosh, I could have an early night. What hedonism.
The next week I caught up on work, and then almost immediately I started packing for California and the Western States Endurance Run.
I managed to complete all the paperwork and pay the £250 application fee for sending off my licence application to the CAA. Exercising the privileges of my licence would have to wait until I was back from California, when hopefully I’d have received my physical licence.
A few days later I was back at Heathrow, sitting in the lounge waiting for my flight. I think I might have instinctively reached for my revision cards, only to realise they could be consigned to the bin.
Where better to celebrate my pass, I thought, than a nice airport lounge. I ordered a first glass of Champagne. I didn’t have to fly this plane.
A lifetime of flying lay head. Endless and as yet unknown adventures in a plane, that I could captain myself were ahead.
But for now, until my licence arrived, I was more than happy to let the Captain of our Virgin Atlantic Airbus A350 pilot us across the ocean to Los Angeles.
As our Airbus climbed out West over the cold North Atlantic below, I thought how far I’d come in one short year, and thought of that cold wind-swept cliff edge below.
I pictured the Guillemot ushering its chicks to the edge and squawking “fly my pretties, fly”
I no longer felt I needed to hold on for dear life.
I was ready to spread my wings and fly. After another glass of Champagne.