Ab Initio 47: “Out On My Own”

In which I go all by my lonesome to far-flung Haverfordwest for the world’s fastest coffee and back again.

When I was a lot smaller Christmas Eve was always a combination of excitement and nerves–what if I hadn’t been good enough, as the song said, and I woke up in the morning to not a single present? I used to toss and turn all night, the bed was too hot or too cold or the pillow ten times lumpier than usual. I woke up every few hours wondering if it was close enough to morning to get up yet.

I grew out of that of course, but that’s what the night before this particular flying lesson felt like. I would be flying alone to Haverfordwest and back and I’d had all week to stew about it. It didn’t help to tell myself that it could bucket down tomorrow and I’d have wasted all that worry for nothing. It was no consolation at all that the things I was worried about were if logic applied, ridiculously trivial. I wasn’t worried about engine failure or getting lost or any such drama. Nope–the terrifying prospects were, “What if I get lost on the ground trying to park,” and “What if I make a muppet of myself on the radio.”

I scrutinised the weather in more detail than ever, hoping for some clue that would tell me whether conditions would be suitable, nervous about doing it, but even more appalled at the prospect of prolonging the nerves until after Christmas, which would be the case if I didn’t go ahead today.

The weather in the morning was what generally gets called “Not great, but flyable.”

I needed a bit better than that today, but the forecast was better than the actual conditions, and there was some hope it would improve. I’d done most of the route planning the night before and all that remained was to fill in the gaps with today’s wind and work out the timing. Northerly today–if I did make it to Haverfordwest I’d be landing on a different runway to the one I’d used before.

The train arrived an hour before I was due to fly and I spent the interim staring at the windfarm on the opposite hill, as it faded in and out of view as showers passed. Every time it came back into sight my heart lifted, every time it disappeared again I sighed.

Various pilots and students wandered in and out, all doing the same can-we-can’t-we with the weather. One student, poor soul, had been waiting 9 weeks for the weather to do his qualifying cross country.

Keith returned from his previous lesson with the news that the showers were reasonably isolated and the visibility pretty good aside from that. Decision was made to go up and do a circuit to see what it looked like out west. Then if we were both happy with it, I could go.

Keith checked I’d planned it and we discussed contingencies.

“Worst case scenario–you get totally lost.”

He talked about the importance of keeping the bigger picture in mind if that should happen, and not getting too worked up over not knowing exactly to the mile where I was. There was the coastline, and a motorway and railway along various points on the route and on the way back the three big estuaries should make Pembrey impossible to miss.

By now the windfarm was visible again and this window of opportunity had four of the five parked aircraft all scrambling to get away. We got second place in the queue for takeoff and climbed straight ahead to circuit height before turning, so we could have a good look around. As promised, the showers were isolated, and easy to spot, and the visibility was generally good.

“What d’you think?” Keith asked.

I stared out across the estuary, past the windfarm, to where Crymych mountain was currently half in, half out, of one of the showers. I’ve sledged down that, I thought apropos of nothing much.

“I’ll give it a go,” I said. “Worst that can happen is I have to turn around and come home if it looks mucky.” I tried not to reflect on the fact that, actually, the worst that would happen is that I got lost in cloud and wrapped myself around a hill.

Nice smooth confidence building landing and I taxyed off to let Keith out and yet another queuing aeroplane past.

A few last minute words of advice, “Whatever you do don’t go into cloud.” Got that one! “Keep an eye out for good fields in case anything happens to the engine.” Eep. “And if you’ve got time–enjoy the view!”

I grinned, locked the door behind him and rearranged my clipboard on my lap.

“Oookkaaay.”

Back out on to the runway and very quickly up and off–it’s been a few weeks since I flew solo and the speedier takeoff performance delights me. We’re using 04 and my first heading is due north, so I climb out on the runway heading to a thousand feet before gently turning out away from the circuit.

I scribble the time on my plog and add (on my fingers, since my brain is too absorbed with shouting about the fact I’m flying off by myself, to work properly on sums) the calculated 7 minutes to Carmarthen. I should be there at 12:20, westernmost corner of town, just where the motorway and railway line meet.

Level at 2000 feet and with Carmarthen already in sight I have a bit of time before I reach my checkpoint to follow Keith’s advice and admire the scenery. I watch a helicopter pass in front, a thousand foot below and wonder where he’s off to. I crane my neck to peer around behind me at the airfield getting smaller, and stare out across the wings at the river, narrowing as it winds inland. I’m really up here all by myself, setting out across the countryside. This is wonderful!

I reach Carmarthen and have to resist an odd impatience to turn onto my next heading before quite getting there. I glance at my watch. I’m waiting until I reach the motorway. Overhead, I check again. Exactly 12:20. I’m mildly surprised.

Next heading is 288 and double check against the motorway and railway line.

My brain has recovered from the initial amazement that I’m here and is functioning again as I add up my ETA for Haverfordwest. About a third of the way there, I pass overhead St Clears, where the motorway ends.

I’m not supposed to be overhead St. Clears, I’m supposed to be 2 miles north of St. Clears so I correct right a little and double check the compass/DI alignment when I do my FREDA check. I’m back on track by the time I pass Whitland, with its diverging railway lines and river.

Whitland is about halfway and I’m a little ahead of schedule but otherwise things are going swimmingly. For once in a way I seemed to have managed to get the aeroplane trimmed nicely and it shows no inclination to wander off while I note my updated ETA on the plog and set the radio for Haverfordwest ready to change frequencies.

My ‘mystery’ town from last time proved to be Clunderwen but as I pass over it I settle for reporting “eight miles west of the field” again. Odds are if I don’t know it then any non-local pilots wouldn’t have a clue and I’d just as soon as many people as possible knew where I am and what I’m up to.

The field comes into view and I try to suppress a silly triumphant grin. I still have to land.

Overhead join, with many many repeat checks that I am actually descending for the correct runway, on the correct side. The taxiway used to be a runway and still looks rather too much like one for comfort when trying to orient yourself in the air!

I’m high on the approach, or is it just the displaced threshold fooling me as my eyes are drawn to the start of the tarmac instead? I concentrate on my actual aiming point and try not to be distracted. There’s more runway here than Pembrey, stop fixating on the two inches immediately after the numbers for goodness sake. Reasonable landing.

“Vacate that left,” says the bloke in the tower quickly as I sail right past it. Oh well.

“Backtracking,” I tell him, not quite able to keep the laughter out of my voice. I made it!

“Where can I park?” I ask, as I vacate the runway.

“Take the next left and park on the right next to the black twin.”

The parking area was wide and flat, just off the large taxiway, and it was as easy as that–no panicked confusions and getting lost confused, and taxying through someone’s wing at all. I wasted all that worry after all even though the weather was flyable!

I shut down, checked everything was indeed off, and climbed out.

I looked around at the quiet field and tried to take it in. It was a different sort of happiness to my first solo. More a deep satisfaction than that trembling delight. Different, but every bit as good a feeling.

I positively strutted to pay my landing fee! Everyone was friendly, and obviously well used to people back and forth from Pembrey.

I had a very hasty coffee, near scalding the roof of my mouth, acutely aware that the next person would be waiting at Pembrey if I were late back.

Then it was back out to the aeroplane.

Quick walkaround to check that nothing’s dropped off in the ten minutes I’ve been indoors. There was a tiny dribble of fuel on the concrete beneath the port wing fuel drain and I frowned and peered underneath. The drains do sometimes leak a bit if you don’t tweak them with your fingers after checking. I’d checked it at Pembrey before leaving for that reason, and now gave it another little tug. The fuel level didn’t seem to indicate any major loss though and I made a mental note to mention it once I got back, and continued with the checks.

All quite routine until I called for a radio check and taxy. No answer came the loud reply. And again. Switch radio off. Switch back on again. Waggle bits. Ask again.

“Golf Hotel Uniform, runway in use is 03 left hand, QNH 1025.”

Aha! We are not alone! I’m not sure whether the interruptive maintenance was the resolution or if the a/g chap had gone for a coffee of his own, but in either case it was working now. Much relief. I suppose I’d have had to get out and gone to see if anyone could hear me if I hadn’t been able to get an answer.

I taxyed down to the hold for 03 and did my power checks before entering and lining up. Homeward bound.

I turned into the circuit as I climbed, intending to depart from the crosswind leg.

After a few minutes on my heading of east and blithely informed Haverfordwest Radio that I was, “Leaving the circuit to the west-correction-east.” Muppet.

I blame the slight disorientation of doing a little roundabout of the circuit before taking up my heading while trying to avoid all the houses below because I couldn’t remember which ones were mentioned specifically in the noise abatement!

In any case no audible amusement came through in a/g chap’s voice as he responded with, “Golf Hotel Uniform, roger. Are you remaining on this frequency?”

“Affirm. For a few miles. Golf Hotel Uniform.”

At this point my gross error check did indeed reveal a gross error. If I was heading east, as my DI said, then I should certainly not be looking down the Cleddau river.

I looked at the DI. 100. I looked at the magnetic compass. 130. I knew the area, so spotted it early, but it really made me think about the importance of establishing good gross error checks when flying somewhere unfamiliar. And of not relaxing too much just because you’re on the homeward leg!

I realigned the DI, and took up my planned heading of 091. After a few minutes later, the rollercoasters of Oakwood Park slipped by under the nose, and Narbeth came into view, confirming my track. Sigh of relief. I called Haverfordwest and told them I was changing to Pembrey and got a very friendly “Have a good flight,” in return.

“Thanks, byebye, Golf Hotel Uniform.”

I laughed at myself as I pressed the flipflop switch to swap frequency. I’m pretty sure “byebye” doesn’t appear anywhere in CAP413!

I was heading for Ferryside, to avoid D117. Although inactive today I hadn’t know that when doing the planning and didn’t fancy a hasty reroute. The windfarm I’d been so watchful of earlier confirmed my track and allowed me to reassess my ETA.

I looked down at my chart and plog to do this and looked up to a wisp of cloud going by. Good grief–where had that come from? Not remotely IMC but I descended a few hundred feet until it passed anyway, to be to the safe side. Another lesson–look outside while you’re adding up!

Bit of an untidy join but I sorted myself out and back into the circuit to land.

Very big grin indeed as I stepped out. Happily there was also a smile on the face of the student whose lesson I’d managed to delay!

I dawdled around in the clubhouse grinning like a mad thing and recounting the trip to anyone who would listen.

I also witnessed the heart-warming sight of someone other than me trying to pushback an aeroplane after having put the handbrake on… I am so glad it’s not just me who does that!

Once I’d had a coffee and wound down I decided to also get the radiotelephony written out of the way, as I’d been plugging at it for weeks, and come to the conclusion that I’d learned as much as was going to stick for now!

Passed comfortably, with the two questions I did get wrong being ones I’d known I was hazy on as soon as I read them. I always find that more reassuring than discovering the ones you thought you knew were wrong!

Very satisfying day all round!

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