Ab Initio 57: “QXC”

In which I finally beat the weather and get the long awaited “qualifying cross country” done. Not much left now!

It had been a extremely soggy May, resulting in it being almost a month since I’d flown at all, and almost two since my solo to Gloucester last time around.

While I’d put the time to good use getting the rest of the exams and radio practical out of the way, this Qualifying Cross Country was starting to seem as though it would never come off.

I was beginning to climb the walls slightly, and was glued to the weather forecasts for days in advance. Bank Holiday Monday started looking possible but very much a ‘see what the day brings’, as the whole week was a mess of unstable weather in every direction.

Monday arrived with a fair bit of cloud about, some showers promised and a stiff breeze, but the morning phonecall to the airfield suggested it was still possible, and to come on down.

I duly arrived to find the wind had, if anything, increased. They were using 04 but there wasn’t much to choose between the runways, the wind being almost straight across. I was booked with Carl today and we decided to do a circuit and see how I felt, then make a decision.

G-BOHU, my usual mount for the longer trips was still away for annual, but we had, what Derek described as an “old friend” back, in the shape of G-BNHG. This was the Tomahawk, recently returned from Carlisle,  that the school had when I first started flying there . I’d liked her instantly back then, and it was with a probably rather silly sense of affection that I walked out to do the checks and get re-familiarised.

The circuit was flustery and the takeoff a bit wobbly (“There’s a bit of a crosswind as you’ve noticed” Carl commented as I swerved into the air!) but the landing was manageable and after a few moments’ thought I decided I was happy to go ahead. We headed back indoors to do the paperwork and double check the planning.

There were various forms to be filled in, mostly to relating to checks that I’d been told all the right things about what to do if I got lost, had to divert, or strayed into controlled airspace. Most importantly, I was given a form to get signed at my two landaway destinations, Shobdon and Gloucester.

We talked about the most likely problems and fallback plans — firstly for finding Shobdon and managing the crosswind once I got there, then about possible weather diversions.

When I went dual to Gloucester for the first time, we’d suffered from plug fouling, possibly caused by the long taxy at low power, so we discussed ways to avoid that recurring and how to clear if it did. (Fallback if the suggested method didn’t work–find a friendly instructor or engineer to do it for me!)

Then it was out for the off.

The wind still hadn’t made up its mind and Pembrey Radio suggested runway 22, then runway 04, then suggested I choose for myself! I went with 04, which seemed to be getting the best of it at that particular moment and was conveniently pointing in very nearly the direction I wanted to go.

I’d planned 23 minutes for my first leg to Brecon (the town not the VOR!) but had been flying maybe 6 of those when I had to go around the first shower. Happily it seemed reasonably isolated and I was soon back on track.

A local group aeroplane was also heading to Shobdon and called up from somewhere near Llandovery, having apparently gone north around the Sennybridge danger area instead of my southerly route via Brecon. I hadn’t thought of that route, despite it looking with hindsight like a nice easy run up the valley! Maybe I’ll try that way another time.

As it was, I was happily flying along, dipping a wing to have a look at a castle (Carreg Cennen perhaps) which I hadn’t spotted last time, scribbling down the time over Brecon, and heading up the river Wye which ran parallel to my track for a useful ten miles or so.

Once leaving the river I started peering out for Shobdon and, for once, spotted it in reasonably good time. I changed frequencies in time to hear HG’s tie-down neighbour, call final.

I made an overhead join, but got no further answer to my radio calls. Still, being used to a quiet place like Pembrey I wasn’t unduly worried until as I turned base I suddenly found myself second to a Cessna which seemed to have materialised from thin air. I never heard him either and I did start to wonder. I went around, as he clearly wasn’t going to vacate the runway in time for me to land. In fact he turned out to be doing a touch and go and I was rather perturbed to find myself catching him up.

He didn’t rejoin the circuit though so I carried on for another attempt. I did call up for a radio check at this point in case it was my kit playing up and not my ears or the a/g chap going for a smoko.

I got a reply this time, to my relief, and informed them I was downwind.

The drift angle for the wind was very noticeable now I was back down at circuit height and I eyed the runway which was decidedly narrower than Pembrey, albeit aligned a little more into wind today.

I crabbed down final with just a single stage of flap then swung around and dipped the into-wind wing for the last hundred foot or so before landing relatively softly on the one wheel.

We all whinge a bit about just having the one runway at Pembrey, but one thing to be said for it, it does mean you get plenty of practise at handling crosswinds. I think it would have been daunting otherwise to come all this way with a crosswind landing waiting at the other end.

I retrieved the airfield chart from the other seat and after checking where to park, joined the other little aeroplanes. Someone else was already landing — nice to see a busy little GA airfield. I taxyed warily on the grass, keeping the yoke well back. One thing we don’t have at Pembrey is much manoeuvring on anything other than hard surfaces.

I parked and shut down. The showers seemed to have been left behind over the hills and it was pleasantly sunny here, even the wind seemed to have dropped a bit.

I jumped down to the grass and peered in the wing tanks. I knew I needed to get fuel somewhere en route but hadn’t settled on which airfield yet. A look suggested I probably had enough to leave it until the next stop but after some thought I decided I didn’t want to be thinking about fuel all the way there, so would fill up before I left.

I got my form signed with a “good” written in both the “landing” and “airmanship” boxes, paid my landing fee, then joined the other Pembrey visitors in the café.

I was feeling reasonably elated even though I wasn’t quite halfway yet, as this had promised to be the trickier of the legs.

After refuelling my stomach, I brought HotelGolf over to the fuel pumps for the aeronautical equivalent of coffee and chocolate cake. The very helpful chap who filled her up also helped me push back and wished me a good flight.

I did my checks, climbed in and was preparing to start up when some unexpected traffic passed in form of a teenager on a bicycle and a large family complete with pushchair and kids in tow.

I’ve never put so much feeling into, “clear prop!”. Visions of headlines swam before me – “Student pilot minces family of six…”

They cleared off sharpish enough and I cautiously turned around and head back for the runway.

The wind was still crossy and it was another rather frisky takeoff but this leg was a short hop with the wind at my tail and I was approaching Gloucester in what seemed like no time at all.

Nice big runway here, and very definitely lots of life on the radio–I ‘stood by’ while half the aeroplanes in the country called up, it seemed! Most of them seemed to be elsewhere when I actually joined though-which made things nice and stress-free. I came in a bit high but there was bags of runway so I didn’t lament about it too much.

The taxy back to the GA parking was something of a scenic tour of Gloucestershire. Aware of the previous discussed plug fouling I was at pains to keep the RPM up a bit. and I was very grateful for the ATCO keeping one jump ahead of me and passing directions.

A very swish looking bizjet landed not long after me and beat me to the taxiway. “Hold short of the intersection the jet will be coming the other way,” I was informed. I sat there and ogled, hoping he had good brakes. Not exactly an airliner but as a student from the middle of nowhere it was quite a thing to see bearing down on you!

I eventually reached the parking area, shut down and trotted across to the terminal. Another signature, another pair of “good”s and another landing fee were all present and correct. No chocolate cake though!

I had a quick can of pop, then stood up to return to the aeroplane, and the heavens opened.

I sat back down.

“Isolated showers, some heavy” was the phrase I recalled from the morning’s weather check, and I was willing to sit it out for a while and see what happened.

Once it eased off a bit I wandered back across to the terminal to pick up a recent actual. I didn’t like the visibility much, so waited a bit longer. A local instructor overheard this conversation and thoughtfully strolled over to see that I was all right. As time was wearing on I gave Pembrey a ring to warn them I was a bit delayed.

The weather back there was still fine, similar to when I’d left, so it didn’t look like there’d be any trouble getting back as long as I could get past this mucky bit.

About 40 minutes after I’d first moved to leave, the sun started to filter through and the worst of the cloud cleared. There were still some gloomy bits about but the edges of it were quite defined and it looked doable.

I headed back out to the waiting HotelGolf and started up. A much shorter taxy to this end of the runway, and I was the first of several scurrying to catch the gap in the weather.

Back in the air and established on track it was a straight run home. A few miles on from Gloucester I slipped out from under the dark layer of cloud and back into full sunshine. Lovely! Looks like the showers really were “isolated” as forecast.

I changed frequencies, got a squawk and a FIS from Cardiff and stayed with them all the way to Swansea. I was starting to feel the effects of a long day now but the sunshine and familiar view meant I was quite pleasantly relaxed, helped by the fact that I’d managed that rare feat of getting one of the tommy-hawks properly in trim.

As Pembrey got closer though my mind turned back to that wind and since I was talking to Swansea by then, I asked for their surface wind to get a bit of advance notice. The wonderfully obliging chap on the other end duly gave me Swansea’s wind then offered to find out Pembrey’s for me too.

Northerly (still straight across!) came back the answer. 10 gusting 16.

Lively, shall we say.

Swansea were about to shut up shop for the day so I switched to Pembrey and announced my return. Since 04 was still in use and I was the last one airborne it seemed simple enough to make a base leg join rather than fiddle about overhead.

I did have second thoughts on that point once I was bouncing along over the trees. That bit of the circuit is always bumpy and I could have spared myself a bit of it through a different join.

I was kept very busy by the wind on final, but landed without incident, if a little firmly.

I taxyed back in with a massive smile in a sort of haze of mixed tiredness and triumph!

The tiredness momentarily won as I thoughtlessly deposited my clipboard on the wing while getting my coat on, only for the wind to snatch and scatter every bit of paper on it. I chased across the field after it, no doubt looking quite a spectacle! Not an entirely dignified end to the day, but by this point there was very little that could have spoiled my mood. (though Arriva Trains did attempt it on my way home, by leaving me standing at the station instead of stopping to let me on–so I went to the pub instead)

I got home and still have a satisfied grin on my face!

What struck me at least as much as the satisfaction of the flying, and left me with a warm fuzzy feeling towards the flying community in general was all the little kindnesses on the way. Terry and Eric, the Pembrey pilots keeping me up to date on where they were so I knew I wasn’t going to run into the back of them, (and springing for the choccy cake!), the refuelling bloke who helped a scrawny girly push ‘HG back, the instructor who came over to offer a friendly word of advice to someone else’s be-weathered student, the a/g operator going out of their way to fetch a little bit of extra info, smiles and well wishes from every member of airfield staff I met at both places, Derek back at Pembrey, as always, on train-run duty (and rescuing me when it went without me!). Everyone just made it a complete pleasure.

I’ll be grinning all the way to next payday for certain!

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