Ab Initio 07 “The Joys of Spring”

In which I go around and around and up and around and down and around and around some more. And in which I enjoy the company of happy pilots making the most of the weather and newly arrived longer evenings.

After weeks of weather and lack of funds I was about climbing the walls and come the weekend I was glued to every update of the met reports. The previous weekends lesson had been rescheduled after waking to fog and gales and the next free slot was a Sunday afternoon.

Now, Sunday afternoons are not kind to public transport users, especially those alighting at middle of nowhere request stops so it was with some trepidation I noted down the single train that arrived the same afternoon as my lesson.

Nevertheless it was rather pleasant to lounge abed and make up for lost morning spent twitching the curtains to stare at the weather.

Sunday arrived cloudy but calm and I leisurely went about getting lunch and pottering about the house before calling the airfield to check the train time was good for a pickup.

“Uh, that’s in five minutes?” came the voice of my confused-sounding instructor.

I looked at my watch, back at the phone, up at the calendar.

Bollocks. Clocks forward and I’d forgotten again. With a wail of “I’m a muppet–let me get back to you,” I hurriedly rechecked my train times and worked out I could still get there on time (just) if I scrounged a lift from the next station along.

Another apologetic, pleading phone call and I was sorted. Derek met me at the station with nary a word of complaint.

“You’re not in a hurry are you?” he asked as I climbed in the car.

In a hurry? I’d just spent the entire half hour train ride in a state of abject mortification in case I was holding up some poor soul due to fly after me. No I was not in a hurry. I was in fact quite happy to sit around as long as need be.

Anyway the reason for the delay was one I doubt anyone could bring themselves to complain of, as the student before me had just passed his airlaw exam and whether he knew it or not, was about to do his first solo. I settled in with a coffee as he went off with Laurie to do some circuits.

The weather had cleared to a gorgeous spring evening and had everyone in fine spirits. A little blue and white Cessna was visiting from Haverfordwest and I suddenly recognised the it as the very same that I’d had my trial flight in back months ago and was quite delighted with the coincidence.

The bloke manning the radio and a few other pilots wandered in to chat, and every time the radio announced final everyone trooped to watch the landing.

Clearly he was getting the book thrown at him as we watched go arounds and simulated engine failures and flapless approaches. Eventually he landed and Laurie climbed out and left him to it.

I watched and tried to guess what must be going through his mind. Someone else wondered aloud what it was like for the instructor–hell of a responsibility. I watched Laurie as he walked away from the aeroplane, He certainly seemed calm enough, not so much as a glance over his shoulder and just a, “Give me a shout when he’s coming in,” to Derek, before starting on my ground briefing for the day.

The theme for today was turns and we’d just finished with medium level ones (keep the nose up, don’t worry about the airspeed dropping a bit, and remember to anticipate the rollout heading), when the school’s newest solo student called final and everyone went back outside to watch. He put it down without incident and there was a loud “Congratulations,” from the tower and much grinning all around.

He even managed to get in two more circuits while we finished up the ground briefing, then while Laurie did the paperwork with him, I went out to check the Tomahawk and get ready to go.

The longer evening and the unexpectedly fine weather seemed to have brought everyone out to play and with the Tomahawk, the visiting Cessna and the resident “Rocket’s” Cherokee all going through their startups, the place was as busy as I’d ever seen it.

I went through the startup checks and on my second try got the engine started. I still tend to hang on the starter too long after it’s started and am usually in imminent danger of over-revving it, but I’m starting to feel a bit more confident about it. At least I know now not to get flustered if it doesn’t start and just calmly(!) switch off and try again. Oh and while checking the mags I managed not to switch to off instead of left this time too.

We taxyed out with me being very wary of the two aeroplanes following behind and lined up on the runway.

The wonderful weather had really put the joys of spring into the pilots out in it and there was a joking remark about a formation takeoff, to which, “No answer, came the loud reply.”

We were first to go and in the complete lack of wind I was pretty pleased with the takeoff. It seemed a lot straighter and for the first time I felt like I had time to think about what I was doing and time to glance at the instruments as needed instead of staring out the window in fear of ending up on the grass if I took my eyes off where I was going for half a second.

I drifted off track a bit in the climb out–Carmarthen Bay doesn’t offer an awful lot in the way of aiming points and I need to find something there to orient myself by. But the climb was reasonably stable and I got the trim sorted pretty well.

The trim was less of a problem this time all round, I tended to get it more or less right most of the time. I’m starting to get the feel of the aeroplane I think–certainly when we put the carb heat on the slight drop in RPM was noticeable in a way it hadn’t been before.

Turning along the coast towards Loughor I looked inland. The clear sky above us turned to a grey murk inland so we decided to stay along the coast. The estuary made a brilliant landmark anyway.

Beneath us the Cessna and Cherokee bimbled across the landscape, looking very small–I hadn’t realised we’d climbed so fast.

“Is it okay to go over the top of them, they’re not going to climb up underneath us or anything?” I checked.

“No it’s okay. We’re well above them and they can’t out climb us.” Laurie looked back out of the window. “Well the Cherokee might be able to but they’re not going this way.”

He smiled suddenly. “We could go down and join them. Jump them from up here, we could shoot them down!”

I laughed and peered down at them. From up here it was very apparent why all the stuff you see in films and read in books about aerial combat goes on about the importance of having the height–very easy targets they would have looked down there.

Battle of Britain fantasies notwithstanding, we watched them safely clear and got back to the business at hand–turns. This was immensely good fun–far more like playing than learning! Laurie would give me a heading and around I’d go. Around and back and around and around back and around, with the Loughor wheeling about below us. Fantastic.

I was initially a little slow and cautious applying the bank so Laurie took the controls to demonstrate the right sort of speed. Far more positive and crisp than I’d been doing. I think I’m still convincing myself I’m not going to break anything on the aeroplane.

Following this demonstration I was more confident and firm on the controls and much quicker to get the turns started (which was even more fun and just felt more right). Keeping the correct angle of bank was an interesting balancing act but started to come to with a bit of practice.

I was getting better at combining looking out the window with checking the instruments, but every so often had a turn where I so busy gazing at the horizon for my bank angle I utterly missed the rollout heading. Or was watching for the heading and wobbled out of the bank. It did happen less often as the hour went on though.

I still had a slight tendency to overcontrol–most noticable at one point I leaned forward to switch the carb heat and all of a sudden we were descending–I’d been holding the control column too tightly and accidentally shoved it forward when moved!

Climbing turns were next and the main difference was the need to limit the bank angle to a more gentle 15 degrees. (We’d been doing level turns at 30 degrees). Gliding turns were next and not too much more complicated, although I did note, when it was pointed out, that the descent rate could increase very rapidly and needed an eye kept on it.

Main difference I noted between level turns and climbing and gliding ones was that in a level turn your main concern is to maintain your height–you don’t mind if the airspeed drops a bit. Whereas in a climbing or gliding turn you want to maintain your airspeed and it’s the rate of climb/descent you don’t mind varying a bit.

Next up was descending turns with power. Now I still remembered the juggling performance that was descending in a straight line with power so adding a turn to the game was surely going to be interesting…

Pitch for airspeed–power for rate of descent, I reminded myself. Again that proved rather simpler in theory than practice and there were times I didn’t have either right.

“What happened to 90knots?” asked Laurie. “What happened to 300foot per minute?”

“Um, dunno,” came the reply from me.

I think it was improving (slightly) by the time we finished, and anyway once we get into circuits there’s going to be more than enough descending turns to practice! Plenty of time to get that juggling sorted.

With the main points of the lesson covered and some time still to go Laurie took the controls again and brought us back up high over Loughor.

“Steep turns are covered later in the course but do you want to do some now to see what they’re like?”

I very definitely did! Laurie explained that the main difference was the need to add power as you increased the bank angle past 30degrees. That and the fact that everything is exaggerated. So the amount of back pressure you need is greater, the amount the stall speed is increased by is more, there’s a lot to keep track off and on top of that it’s very easy to get disoriented when you’re turning so steeply.

The Loughor again proved a wonderful navigational aid–facing along the estuary it was almost impossible to lose where you were.

Laurie demonstrated one 60degree bank turn 360 around to the left, then one to the right and there was indeed a lot going on. Quite how he managed to deal with it all and narrate what he was doing to me was a source of amazement. Feeling flattened in my seat by the 2G loading, all I could see was the patterns in the mud below, as it seemed to pivot around our wingtip. I’m sure the sky was still there somewhere… I was grinning like a mad thing while trying to look sensible and attentive to Laurie’s explanations.

“D’you want to try?”

Yikes and here I thought this was just a demo. I gaped at him for a second then responded with an ever so coherent, “Uh, yeah?” Given my fumbling over the shallower turns I could see myself making a right dog’s breakfast of these, but it was too much fun not to have a go!

Fun it was indeed, if rather messy and chaotic. I did get a “not bad” out of my second attempt which I took to mean “Thank god we got away without a spiral dive into the estuary”.

As we still had time and height in hand Laurie suggested we do a few stalls as a taster for the next lesson.

Now I tend to be an enthusiastic information gatherer when I’ve got my teeth into a subject and as soon as I started learning in the Tomahawk started reading anything and everything I could get my hands on about the type. Consequently I’d heard rather a lot about its reputation for having a somewhat lively stall. I was rather looking forward to finding out.

We went through the pre-stall/aerobatic checks and then it was throttle closed and raise the nose. It took a lot of raising actually, the airspeed bled away and it got noticeably quieter–at least until the stall warner started shrieking and we started bouncing about in the buffeting caused by the start of the stall.

Again through everything that was going on my brain was whirring in overtime but Laurie was calmly narrating what was happening and what he was doing about it. Next best thing to a slow motion button for real-life!

The stall itself came with an abrupt pitch down and the left wing dropping away. Laurie promptly got the nose well down and reapplied the power to accelerate back to flying speed before levelling the wings and pulling up.

My go. Back to straight and level at a good altitude. Run through the checks and do a clearing turn to check we’re not going to fall on top of anyone who’s suddenly appeared since the last one. Ready to go. One hand on the throttle ready to recover. Then throttle closed and hold the nose up. “Pull, pull pull!” from Laurie. Losing speed, quieting down, buffet, more buffet, “Keep pulling!”. There’s the break, nose down, there goes the wing–don’t try and pick it up until you’re unstalled or you’ll make it worse. Nose down, power on, back to flying speed.

Not too alarming I thought. Definitely wouldn’t want to get taken by surprise by it though and the urge to try and pick that wing back up is very hard to bite back. Should be an interesting lesson next time.

Now it was definitely time to head back to the airfield, and today we were going to do an overhead join instead of sliding in downwind as we’d done previously.

This was something else that made a lot more sense flying it than reading about it. The idea is to fly over the airfield at around 2000 feet, well clear of any circuit traffic. As you fly over you can check the circuit direction, runway and signals area, before descending on the ‘dead’ side (the one where the circuit isn’t) of the runway to join the circuit itself. Effectively you can see what’s going on without getting in anyone’s way.

This was another opportunity to practice those descending turns so down we went with Laurie talking me through the approach. The flaps didn’t seem to put up as much of a fight this time, possibly because we were going pretty slowly by the time we needed full flap or possibly because I gave them a good haul, determined not to be thwarted by them again!

I was more involved with the landing this time, though Laurie was close on the controls helping and supplying constant instructions on what I should be doing and where I should be looking to best judge the distances and heights.

I’m starting to be able to see what’s going on with the landing now, it’s starting to make more sense–I know why we need that extra smidge of power or need to lift the nose that bit more–I just wouldn’t be able to judge it that fine yet! It no longer seems like quite such a daunting skill to obtain though–the component parts are beginning to fit together. I’m rather looking forward to starting the “circuit-bashing” stage!

19:00 and while we put the Tomahawk back in the hangar it was still light and blue skied. Overhead the Cherokee who’d been behind us for takeoff was up making the most of what really had turned into a beautiful spring evening. A number of the pilots were still hanging around drinking coffee and watching the Cherokee and telling flying stories.

With an hour still to wait until the last of the intermittent Sunday trains arrived, I kicked back, relaxed and soaked up the atmosphere. Life was good.

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