In which I make a decision, learn several new and interesting things about aerodynamics and some not-so-interesting things about the vagaries of the British weather.
At the back of my head since August had been this nagging desire to get back up in the sky. The internal carping voice of “You can’t possibly afford to fly” was still there, but with the arrival, come Christmas, of the regular cash presents from relatives who have concluded that I’m “Impossible to buy for.” I again had enough money in my pocket to get of the ground with.
It was time to choose. If I waited until I could comfortably afford it I would never do it. If I wanted to learn I needed to scratch the money together and do it now.
I thought–dithered would be more accurate–about it for a long time, reading up on the costs and travel to the various flying schools in my neck of the woods. I’m a public transport user and consequently settled on giving Pembrey a go. It was about 20 miles further away than Swansea but near a railway line with trains that were both more regular and cheaper than the buses to Swansea Airport itself.
It also had the attraction in pure aesthetics of flying Piper Tomahawks instead of the more common Cessna 150 variants and I just thought they were lovely looking little aeroplanes. I was to later discover they also had the more practical advantage for a short-arse like myself of having rather lower nose meaning I didn’t have to peer over the nose like a mad granny in a mini or perch on a cushion.
Feeling unreasonably nervous I telephoned the Cambrian Flying Club and enquired about booking a trial lesson. I’ve always been bad on the phone and mumbled something almost incoherent along the lines of “What’d’I do–I wanna learn to fly?”
“Good!” said the friendly sounding voice on the end of the phone. “Best thing to do, is to come down to the airport and have a chat and a look round.”
This enthusiasm was more than I’d been expecting. The genuine interest the chap on the phone seemed to show was wonderfully reassuring however and I had an immediately good feeling about the school.
We arranged I’d come down the following weekend. I was keen to start immediately but there was no training during the week as the airfield is next door to an RAF air-to-ground range and there can be a lot of hanging around waiting for clearance to get across. Once I mentioned I’d be coming on the train the chap on the phone–who turned out to be one of the part owners of the club, the other being the instructor–offered to come and pick me up. Again I was struck by the friendliness and enthusiasm which I was to find a common trait about flyers.
For the rest of the week I watched the weather like a hawk. Every change in the forecast made me scowl or grin according to how it augured for the weekend.
The day itself dawned overcast and still. Morning fog was wreathed around the hill as I twitched the corner of my bedroom curtain aside to peer out. I sighed–this did not look promising. I got up and dressed and breakfasted none the less then telephoned the school to see if we’d be going ahead.
“It’s okay.” I was told. “Not great, but it’s okay.”
I nearly hit the ceiling in glee. Trying not to sound too manic on the phone I confirmed the train time and hung up.
The train ride was half an hour and the fog grew steadily thicker. By the time got off the train and met the car it was looking a bit dire.
“Laurie, the instructor, is up there now,” Derek, my lift and the friendly voice on the phone, informed me. “He’ll be able to tell us what it’s like.”
We pulled into the airport and betook ourselves to the portacabin that was office come clubhouse. A gas fire and some coffee to take the chill off and we surveyed the weather.
Shortly a Piper Cherokee appeared through the fog in the circuit and touched down. Laurie and his student stomped into out of the damp and headed for the coffee.
The weather was too bad. They’d had to come down.
More coffee followed as several more pilots drifted in, pored over the weather charts and debated the possibility of it clearing up.
The student doing circuits in the Cherokee was a new pilot who’d learned on Tomahawks and had been trying to get his checkride done on the larger type before going on a flying holiday to New Zealand. This was a source of a lengthy discussion on flying abroad which spread into assorted flying stories and passed a few damp hours quite satisfactorily.
Laurie offered to go through the basic ground briefings with me while we waited and picked up an unpainted airfix model with the control surfaces coloured in marker pen. We discussed the primary and secondary effects of the controls. I’d read over these in the Flying Training manual but it made much more sense with a three-dimensional model in front of me.
We also went through what the syllabus entailed and what the costs would be in terms of flying hours and equipment and so forth.
I rather sheepishly mentioned that I didn’t even know how to drive a car but he was unperturbed. “Flying is more important to you than driving.” was his only comment. Summed it up better than I could have myself! When I said the same thing to one of the students he expressed the opinion that it might makes things easier anyway–I had no preconceptions about things that seem strange to car drivers, like steering with your feet on the ground.
The conversation turned to a number of pretty watercolours of the club aircraft which were hanging on the wall. Apparently they been painted by a local artist who was selling them to pay for lessons. Trouble was, as one of the pilots pointed out, “No one here can afford paintings–we spend everything on flying.”
I was knocked sideways again. Everyone else I knew who I’d talked to about wanting to learn to fly had either snickered over the idea that I couldn’t even drive but wanted to fly, or they’d wondered aloud how I thought I could afford it. Here were people who really seemed to understand both. The why not just the how. The ‘good feeling’ about the place was well and truly established. I would enjoy learning here.
It was not to be today however.
Another glance at the fog outside which was now obscuring even the edge of the airfield and attention returned to the forecast charts. I got a crash course in interpreting the met office gobbledygook that is TAFs and METARs, but discovered it was not a great deal more accurate in practice than the smiley sun on the TV weather map.
The day was declared a write-off. Derek suggested Laurie take me to taxy the Cherokee back to the hangar and show me over the Tomahawk I’d be learning in so I could at least have some experience from the day.
We went outside and Laurie showed me how to climb aboard through the unusual single door on the right hand side. I attended to the list of ‘things not to grab hold of’ and slid across into the left-hand seat.
We went through a string of internal and pre-start checks some of which stuck and some of which went straight through my head and out the other side.
Having never even started a car, I fumbled the key into the starter and pushed and twisted hopefully. Within seconds the prop burst into a blur ahead of us and everything started to vibrate. Post-starts checks completed and throttle set to 1200RPM to taxy, release the brakes and off we went.
Keeping straight wasn’t too hard, though constant attention was needed. As we got out onto the empty runway Laurie took the controls to demonstrate some huge swerving turns before handing it back. Rather nicely, the nosewheel is hooked into the rudder which makes steering on the ground very crisp.
We reached the short, rather rough taxiway to the hangar and I was warned to keep a careful eye on the wingtips as the track got rather narrow. We arrived intact and with a warning about not aiming the propwash at the other parked aircraft or into the hangar Laurie took back the controls and brought us to a gentle stop.
Derek had driven over in his car and started to put the Cherokee away as Laurie and I went over to look at the Tomahawk. G-BNHG, a sweet little blue and green striped number.
My initial impression of the type as a lovely looking little aeroplane was only confirmed by a close up inspection. Unlike it’s bigger sister it had doors both sides and a high “T” style tailplane. We climbed in and I was instantly struck by the wonderful all-round visibility–much better than that in the little Cessna I’d trial flighted at Haverfordwest.
We went through the instrument panel and Laurie pointed out the few differences from the Cherokee we’d just left. I was thoroughly looking forward to taking this little birdie off the ground!
Sadly though that would have to wait. We climbed out and pushed the Tomahawk back into the hangar where it kept company with the Cherokee, an attractive red microlight, a tiny tarpaulin-draped plane tucked at the back (it later turned out to be Laurie’s Tipsy Nipper with mice living in it) and a gaggle of storm lanterns in one corner.
I arranged to try again for weather next week and Derek dropped me back at the railway station.
I didn’t know how I was going to wait that long.