Ab Initio 23: “All change”

In which I discover the ups and downs, some quite literal, of a change of base and have an extremely busy afternoon’s flying.

I started the day with a much belated check of my voicemail messages only to discover on from the flying school “can you give us a ring about your lessons Sunday–we’re flying from Swansea at the moment.”

Swansea? Confusion reigned as I hastily worked out how I was going to get to Swansea airport. 20 miles closer but taking twice as long at least to get there, the transport issue was a good part of why I started at Pembrey in the first place.

Nevertheless, the recent Isle of Wight trip had convinced me that I could get myself to Swansea, albeit via a bit of a hike. As I had time in hand I took an experimental route which avoided the steepest hills and main road in favour of a muddy bridlepath with a cracking view of the approach.

I’d allowed a good time margin for getting lost, falling in bogs, or getting ambushed by Gower sheep and, as I’d done none of these, arrived about three quarters of an hour early. Coffee in the cafe (I’ve still to sample the all-day brekkie) was followed by a quick briefing on the airport layout, runways, taxiways, and hold points and a visit to the tower to have a better looky look. It would be horribly embarrassing to get lost…

As Swansea is full ATC we also had a quick run through of the main radio calls we could expect. Then it was out to the aeroplane (swipecards and high-vis jackets the next culture shock) for the checks. I was flying with Keith today who I’d only flown with once before–during an exceptionally bumpy circuit which we abandoned early in favour of coffee. A different instructor was the least of the changes though and he was so cheerful and relaxed I was soon feeling quite at ease in spite of what had felt a bit of an upheaval.

Checks all were routine, though we had to wait a while to get a word in edgeways on the radio. Keith advised listening out to what Laurie and his student got told when he was starting up as we’d get similar.

With that in mind the initial radio calls were relatively painless… Right up until we were at the hold point and I forgot which aeroplane I was in and requested departure for the wrong one. D’oh. I hastily corrected myself and we were cleared for takeoff, following the other Tomahawk.

My first thought as we taxied out was “Wow, what on earth to I do with all this runway?” Almost twice as much of it and a good 15m wider. I felt a little lost in the middle of it. Backtracking the whole length seemed an unnecessary waste of time, especially with someone else waiting to take off behind us, so we only went partway. The short backtrack we did take was made more interesting by the fact the runway is not very flat and there’s a distinct hump and dip near the middle, I forgot to allow for this and came down the hill at a bit of a pace before getting on the brakes.

Takeoff was fine, the ups and downs not really making a difference once you got shifting. We climbed out, me repeating more than once to myself that circuit height here was 1000′ not 800′ and looking for landmarks.

Reached 500′ and the second d’oh of the day as without thinking I moved to turn left. Drat. 22 is right-hand at Swansea. A hasty swerve in the other direction and I carried on climbing.

Turned again and spotted a handy golfcourse for an aiming point. Called downwind and entirely missed the call back to report final. On to base, then final where I entirely missed an instruction to go around. Someone was still on the runway. I realised this belatedly as Keith prompted me for full power and to get off to the side of the runway. Drat again.

I went through the rest of the go-around without incident but was starting to wonder if I was utterly out of my depth. That was two calls aimed at me I’d missed in as many minutes.

Back on the downwind and this time we were asked to orbit left. Somewhere up ahead of us Laurie was doing the same, and somewhere else the air ambulance was zipping about.

“Are you sweating yet? I am.” Keith said, breaking the tension somewhat.

A few wide, slow circles above the salt marshes at Penclawdd settled my nerves as well as the traffic. I had to smile–a few days ago I’d been doing an installation job at a school down there and sighing after the little aeroplanes going by overhead.

Traffic sorted out we slotted ourselves back into the circuit and followed Laurie in. To simplify the radio work somewhat Keith advised that we wait to call final until Laurie had taken off again, as we wouldn’t be cleared to land until then anyway and would just get told to “continue approach.”

This time we actually did get on the ground, albeit a bit abruptly as I flared too high and then sank rather fast. This in fact was to be the now traditional “mistake of the day”. The ballooning of the previous session was less apparent though and only one of them was a nasty bounce.

So around we went again. The wind was getting a bit more crossy now and I wasn’t doing too good a job of compensating for the drift and we ended up a bit tight in next time around. And the one after that, and the one after that with the result that we were starting to catch up with Laurie and worry the ATCO, who commented on it and asked Laurie to do a tighter circuit next time.

I went a bit wider as well, trying to keep a sharp eye out for traffic, something I hadn’t had much occasion to practise and still find tricky.

The last circuit of the day was a case in point as we were asked to extend downwind for a helicopter joining the circuit and search as we would, neither me nor Keith could spot him. By the time he was clear of us we were halfway to Pontarddulais and seemed to spend half a year on a very long final before landing for a much needed rest.

I was absolutely knackered, decidedly on the frazzled side but definitely grinning. Whether it was the change of scenery or the increased pace I don’t know but something had definitely sparked an extra enthusiasm.

It’s going to be an interesting stay.

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