Ab Initio 50: “Flying Over the Fold”

In which I finally defeat the intractable nature of January, February and March weather, and fly around for several hours mostly knowing where I am and discover I do still remember which end of an aeroplane to point at the wind.

Between fog, wind, portly instructor, poorly aeroplanes, and me going on holiday it had been six weeks since I’d last flown. I’d stopped carefully laying everything out by the door ready to go because it was too disappointing to see it next morning when the weather had turned nasty overnight again.

In fact about the only concession to the possibility which I had made was to refold my chart so that Wolverhampton was no longer smack on the fold.

When Saturday’s weather turned out flyable therefore it was a mad scramble to get all my stuff together and bound to the train. Consequently I arrived sans checklist and bubbling over with excitement and a certain amount of nerves–did I even remember how to land after such a break?

I was flying with Carl today and had planned (some while ago!) Pembrey-Wolverhampton-Gloucester-Pembrey. We pored over the spot wind charts and decided on a rough average of 035 at 15 knots. This looked in keeping with the general shape of things on the synoptic charts, although by the time we took off the wind at ground level had swung right around so we took off on runway 22.

I had a brief mental block on how work the whizzywheel to extract the time from the groundspeed, the number refused to match my guesses. Turned out I was using the index marker instead of the 60 minutes marker. Daft. Comes of sulking about the weather instead of playing with my practice “imaginary trips” for weeks.

First part of the route had a dogleg in it to dodge around the Sennybridge firing range the danger area for which, D203 was slap in the middle of the route otherwise. I had planned via Sennybridge itself, which with a couple of roads and rivers looked likely to be relatively easy to spot.

We took off and as we had a little way to run until we reached the high ground so nothing much in the way, Carl suggested we adopt a cruise climb at eighty knots. It would take longer to get to our cruising altitude but would mean that our time to our first waypoint would be close to my calculated ETA without the need to climb to our chosen level before leaving the airfield.

In fact when we crossed the motorway, we were ahead of time, so as this was about a third of the way along the leg I revised our ETA by the simple, “It’ll take us twice as long to get there from here as it’s taken us to get this far”

I realised afterwards that I’d flown this leg on the heading in the column before I’d added magnetic variation but it was a sufficiently small distance and a sufficiently short leg that it didn’t make a noticeable difference. I think I’m going to go and colour in the important columns in my plog spreadsheet!

Once past Ammanford, “civilisation” sort of disappeared and we were surrounded by wonderful, striking countryside. Spot heights on the chart told us the three peaks off to our right were 2022′, 2084′ and 2631′ respectively while on our left a shallower range concealed the Twyi valley. I was open mouthed even in the slightly mucky vis at the beauty of it. It was also very noticeable how few landmarks there were, until Carl explained how to use the spot heights themselves as features. For some reason this hadn’t occurred to me when I was looking at the route and picking out likely landmarks, but as long as you picked out something else as well to check you were looking at the mountain you thought you were looking at, it worked quite well.

The was no one much to talk to out here, so we tuned into London Info, and just listened.

A road switchbacking down one side of the valley and up the other, then a large reservoir proved that people did actually exist down there after all, and shortly afterwards we came upon Sennybridge, tucked below a ridge, on the River Usk.

We were about five minutes early so I knocked a bit off the estimated time for the next leg and scribbled down a new ETA.

A solitary little village and a wooded spot height were the only clues among featureless hillsides until we reached the cluster of village along the river Wye, which we tracked parallel with for a while, until it peeled off to our right. We were now about ten miles from Shobdon so decided to give them a call. “And go overhead so you can have a look at it,” said Carl. This would be one of my stops come the qualifying cross country.

It proved rather elusive and we circled and criss-crossed the nearby countryside for some time. In the end we “cheated” and switched the ADF on at which point it became apparent that the largeish town we’d taken for Leominster was in fact nowhere of the sort and we were too far west.

I committed the place to memory as best I could. The earlier discussion of using the shape of the terrain was worthwhile again here as it seems to sit on the flatter ground where the hilly bits of Wales come to an end.

We turned overhead and Carl said we were now going straight to Gloucester and asked what heading I thought I needed and for an ETA. A biro-and-thumb guesstimate at 120 degrees and about 20 minutes proved acceptable, and a few minutes later we passed the real Leominster which confirmed we were heading in more or less the right direction.

Rather more features here. In fact so many it was sometimes tricky to distinguish one town/road/pond from another. A handy oxbow in the river, two crossroads one after the other and Ledbury complete with railway and ringroad served as the best ones.

We crossed the M50 and gave Gloucester Approach a call. I was poised with pen at the ready, not having talked to a full ATC field before, but it was all quite simple. They passed me the airfield details, and asked me to report 3 miles north-west of the field, which was easy enough as it coincided almost exactly with where we would cross the Severn.

At that point we were passed to the Tower frequency and positioned ourselves for an overhead join. The runway in use was 04, the reciprocal of the one we’d left from at Pembrey and I wondered about it. Something to do with the sea breeze at home maybe.

In any case we joined and reported downwind for 04 and were told we were number two to land, following a PA28. I found the unfamiliar circuit a bit of a challenge, too used to the landmarks back at Pembrey, and ended up slightly high on final. This was the bit that was nagged at my mind again, anxious about being rusty at landing. As a result I was on extremely short final before being prompted to get my call in and my clearance to land.

Perhaps because I was concentrating so fiercely on the landing, it actually turned out reasonably well, and I heaved a big sigh of relief as Tower directed us to the apron to park (where we were snapped by a poster at Airliners.net)

W had coffee, (plus cheese toastie for me), and a browse through the shop before it was time to head back. I stared at the airfield chart, more cuflumoxed once again by the thought of getting lost on the ground than in the air.

The power checks rough running on one mag, which was put down to fouled plugs and which eventually cleared itself, but was interesting mainly for the fact it was the first time the checks had revealed anything “not right”. I suspect if I’d been alone that would have been a case of taxy back and ask for help.

We were third in a small queue waiting to take off and were soon in the air and soon after that passed traffic information for someone incoming from the direction we were outgoing. Happily we spotted him almost straight away and he passed below us.

It had been quiet when we arrived and while we were watching with our coffee, but now it seemed to become busy all of a sudden. It took ages to get a word in to tell Approach were we there when we changed frequency, and another age to get a word in to tell them when we were leaving to talk to Cardiff.

We were back over the hills and somewhat right of course by this time, and Carl suggested it might be a good idea if we established a fix before talking to Cardiff, as they would probably rather like to know where we thought we were.

I turned back towards track, and located Abergavenny, which we should have passed directly over, and took up a slightly altered heading. I then managed to make extra work for a hapless Cardiff ATCO by forgetting to readback the service (FIS) I was getting from him, and only realising after the fact why he kept repeating that bit.

Somewhere near Rhigos they suggested we freecall Swansea and we changed frequencies. Carl commented that one of the quarries we’d flown over was used in the filming of Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy and looking down I could well believe it. Very alien landscape. An apparently half-finished windfarm was also conspicuous but not yet on the chart.

Either the wind was playing tricks, or my correction to our heading had been over enthusiastic, or I was just getting sloppy on the way home, but by the time we reached Swansea we were left of track and flew over the edge of it instead of passing a few miles north.

We changed heading again to head straight for Pembrey. This involved a slight detour to avoid low cloud which resulted in us skirting along the coast.

Arriving at Pembrey, another aircraft rejoining was over Cefn Sidan, also rejoining, but we squeaked in ahead of them, with much confirming of position over the radio that we weren’t about to end up in the same patch of sky.

And we were back. I logged 2 hours 5 minutes, and felt surprisingly tired, though the grin was extremely broad. Very nice indeed to get back up after such a break.

Next time out–same again solo!

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