Ab Initio 42: “Bangs and Bumps”

In which I fail miserably to pop some balloons, and in which I am reminded again that there are “Days like These”.

“We’re having a balloon bursting competition, are you going to come down? Students can fly with an instructor.”

For those who haven’t seen this done, you take off, fly a normal circuit then as you descend on final you call on the radio “Release the balloon!” There’s a carload of kids’ balloons filled with helium parked up at the side of the runway, and when you call, they let one out. You then have to spot it (hard enough in itself!) and fly at it with the aim of hitting it with the propeller. If you get it, it pops with an almighty bang. If you hit it with anything other then the prop it just bounces off. (Though it does spin quite dramatically in the propwash)

I thought it would be an interesting spectator sport and fancied a couple of goes, though it didn’t sound at all easy!

We were lucky with the weather, and it turned out dry with a slight crosswind at 15 knots. We watched the windsock keenly for clues as to where these balloons were going to end up!

A number of students and club pilots had signed up along with some of the owners and a couple of visitors. The club aeroplanes were going to be doing running changes and just swapping pilots and students in and out without shutting down. Three in the circuit at a time had been settled on as a manageable number with causing too much bedlam.

I drew second to go. Drat! I would have liked to have had a better look at how everyone else handled it, especially as the first person up (Laurie, the CFI) got the very first balloon straight away! Me and Keith were both first time balloon poppers and ummed and ahhed about how to go about it. Laurie helpfully informed anyone listening that he’d called for the release just over the cycle path.

I left it a little later that that, thinking I wouldn’t see it from all the way over there! In fact it climbed much quicker than expected and was above us by the time I saw it. Hasty climb after it and it shot over the top of us. Foiled! Laughing anyway (this was fun!) I went around for another go. Lower and faster this time, as it was much easier to pick out the balloon once it was above the horizon.

Tearing in at near full power and high speed I had to resist the urge to shout “dakka dakka dakka!” in imitation machine-gunfire. Where was the ruddy balloon? This time Keith spotted it first.

“Right right right!” he shouted and I heeled over that way and climbed after it. Hit it, but we hadn’t got far enough right and just clipped it with the starboard wing.

I could have played this game all day if funds allowed, but sadly it was time to land and let someone else have a go. We taxyed off the runway, turned it around and I jumped out.

There were plenty of fence-leaners watching the action so I settled myself in a good vantage spot to join in the cheering when someone got one and the oohs and ahhs as people got close. A big Yak gave us a victory roll as he got his target, and a little Jabiru flying immediately after repeated the popping, but not the aerobatics!

All very good humoured, lots of people out enjoying themselves. My sister had brought her little boy along, who was enthusiastically shouting “Pop!” and “Neeoowwm!” at every aeroplane that passed.

Fun day out and a perfect example of the lovely club atmosphere which made me choose this particular flying school in the first place!


It was two weeks following before I was back down the airfield, and had, with unusual luck, managed to pick on the day of the week with a decent weather forecast. Bright and still with a blue sky full of high fluffy Cu. Great stuff.

A wonderfully energetic ex-mil Wasp helicopter was sporting about the place looking as though he was enjoying himself immensely, and by mid afternoon there wasn’t a single based aircraft on the ground. Everyone had apparently sprinted to the airfield to get some flying in during the break in the week’s rain and wind.

“Solo circuits, I think”, Carl said. “Perfect weather for them.”

I agreed and out we went for one dual circuit which, while a little firm in the landing department, was pronounced passable.

As we had climbed away we’d heard some discussion on frequency about the imminent arrival of a Hawker Hunter from Kemble which intended to do a couple of low passes and some aeros.

“If he turns up while you’re flying, then just give him a wide berth. He’ll be doing much bigger circuits than you anyway.”

“Okay,” I said, though I was quietly thinking “Eep!”

As we landed Carl called to see if there was an ETA for the Hunter.

Any minute now, came the answer. Carl asked what I wanted to do and I decided to employ the better part of valour. Besides I quite fancied watching! The Hunter must undoubtedly be one of the most drop-dead gorgeous looking fast jets out there.

We stood outside the club waited until a whoop and a wave from the tower balcony alerted us to his arrival.

Sleek, black, sunlight flashing off all those curves, and that noise! Makes me want to shout and jump up and down, like my toddler nephew does when he sees a “neoowm”.

Anyway once he’d finished and disappeared, it was “You going to go off and do some circuits then?”


I walked out to the aeroplane. Even though I’d already done one dual circuit today it felt odd to be walking out there by myself. Moving the instructor’s headset down off the coaming to lie on the seat out of the way. Leaning over to check his door as well as my own. Things he’d normally do as he got out.

I talked out loud to myself as I did the checks and started the engine, and did more checks. Then throttle to idle, park brake off, and ease the throttle forward to get moving. Once rolling I checked the brakes. I even opened my mouth to ask if the instructor-that-wasn’t-there wanted to check his, and laughed when I realised what I was doing. I clearly still haven’t got over this delightful novelty of flying an aeroplane all by myself!

A/G emphasised very carefully the runway direction, which had changed since my earlier flight and I read it back equally carefully–I’d hate to meet someone coming the other way. The wind, while slightly favouring 22, was actually very light indeed and it had been a while since I’d flown in such calm conditions. I realised this once I noticed how much more runway I was using for both take off and landing. I had made myself a rule of thumb to use a while ago, that if I wasn’t rolling straight, with the flaps away and wits about me, ready to open the throttle by such-and-such a point then I would backtrack. Halfway down a runway is no time to be dithering shall-I-shan’t-I. Today was the closest I’d got to having to change a touch and go into a full stop and backtrack.

The first landing was atrocious. I let myself be fooled by the higher than usual ground speed and let my airspeed get low. The stall warner was yelling while I was still several feet too high and before I managed to do anything about it I arrived with an extremely unpleasant thump.

I cursed briefly then shoved the flaps away and switched my attention to the take off. If nothing else I’m getting better at not letting the occasional clanger ruin my concentration. I did think about it briefly as I flew downwind, trying to figure out why in such perfect conditions, when I was in relatively recent practice did I muck it up so much? Didn’t find an answer but did repeat the hopeless performance next time around, albeit for different reasons. This time in trying to make sure I didn’t get slow I failed to allow for the fact there was nothing in the way of headwind to help slow me down once I wanted to. I arrived far too fast and kangarooed straight back up into the air.

How bloody embarrassing–I actually land worse in good weather than so-so stuff! At this point I rather wanted to just plonk it back on the ground and sulk with a large portion of chocolate. Instead I decided to do on more touch and go before stopping. If it was good then I’d feel better and if it was rubbish then I could console myself with the conclusion that it was “just not my day”.

Happily the next one was better. Better being a relative term–I’ve done plenty of nicer ones. But it was at least comfortably on the mains, at a speed which allowed me to stay on the ground without it feeling like a bellyflop getting there. This in spite of the fact I’d forgotten to lower the first stage of flap on base. I’d still ended up at the right height and speed turning final, just puzzled as to why it had taken such a big power reduction to do so. Well, until I looked out of the window along the wing anyway!

I did one final circuit feeling slightly more satisfied that I could still do this flying stuff after all. The last landing was actually the best one of the day, and left me smiling and shaking my head ruefully over the other ones. Don’t get cocky, Leia!

The aeroplane needed fuel and I’d been asked to taxy down to the bowser once I landed, so I backtracked and advised A/G that’s what I was doing. I was ‘reasonably’ certain I knew the way! Follow the taxiway around to the fire station. Pembrey is not exactly Heathrow so it seemed unlikely I could get lost. Still, it was first time I’d been down this end, let alone by myself, so I was somewhat perturbed when I heard over the radio, “Golf Hotel Uniform, I think there’s been a misunderstanding. You’d better stop there for now.”

I came to a halt, frowning and trying to work out what the problem was. I was pretty sure I hadn’t hallucinated the request, and pretty sure that the fire tender in front of me and the hangar containing the fuel bowser to the left of me meant I was in the right place.

I shut down, got out, and walked up the taxiway to meet Carl. I was mightily relieved to discover he didn’t know what the problem was either. In the end it turned out that the bowser had broken down and no one at the school had known about the problem.

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding” had apparently been polite radio-speak for “What on earth are you doing down here–there is no fuel!” Some kerfuffle later it ended with the rearrange of the next lesson to include flying off to Swansea to refuel.

Not quite Chaos, Panic and Disorder but certainly Confusion, Frustration and Irritation!

The powers that be who write train time tables are apparently of the opinion that no one travels on a Sunday afternoon so the next train was two hours away. I therefore, got my chocolate fix from the cafe, leaned on the fence and gossiped for a while, watched a three-ship formation of Yaks from Haverfordwest fly by on their way to somewhere else, and generally killed the hours very easily and enjoyably. I think time must run differently at airfields!

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