Ab Initio 60: “Skills Test”

In which, after a few false starts, I manage to convince the weather o cooperate and the examiner that I’m fit to be turned loose on an unsuspecting sky.

Thursday morning and I’d taken the day off work in the vague hope that weather forecast would prove less dismal than forecast. Successive early rising at 5, 6 and 7am, did nothing to improve my optimism. However when I finally gave up on sleep and got up at 8am, the mist had lifted and sun shone through the scattered cloud.

I picked at some toast, lost interest, picked at some cereal, lost interest, drank half a cup of coffee before getting distracted and letting it go cold, then finally decided that food on one sort of another was absolutely essential, and settled for several of the squashed choccy-oaty flapjack-type bars from the depths of my bag.

The NOTAMs kept me busy for a while, I don’t usually fly during the week, and this Thursday South Wales was awash with active danger areas, including, at the moment, an extra bit around Aberporth. Meeting an unmanned goodness-knows-what was not on my agenda for the day, so I got out a thick, brightly coloured marker and drew the extra restriction on my chart.

Examining the weather did absolutely nothing to settle my nerves as the promising 215 was totally contradicted by a number of very depressing TAFs.

Nevertheless the view out of the window still looked good, so I enlisted my sister, with son in tow to run me up to the airfield. I was taking the test from Haverfordwest, as the instructor at Pembrey, Keith had done too much of my initial training to examine me.

Watching my nephew tear up and down the cafe garden pretending to be a ‘neeoowm’ fixed the nerves that the coffee and planning had failed to and I was positively eager to go by the time Derek turned up with keys and headsets for ‘HG.

He introduced me to Gwyndaf, the examiner, who was very relaxed and friendly and not at all the fearsome driving-instructor-from-hell type I’d been half expecting in spite of reassurances from everyone that GFT examiners aren’t usually like that.

He went through a very thorough brief, stressing that the flight wasn’t a test of memory and he’d explain everything again as we went through it, and I was free to ask as many questions as I wanted.

He explained we’d start by flying a route up to Lampeter, then to Swansea and back. Somewhere on the second leg would be a diversion and a radio position fix. He said that he wasn’t concerned about the details of my method, and didn’t care if it was different to the way he taught his own students, as long at it was recognisable as something sensible, and worked.

He added that I should make sure to tell him if I decided to change heading, or alter the ETA so he knew I wasn’t just wandering, but had an idea of what I was doing.

Once the navigation bit was done we’d go on to do the general handling.

When he came to mentioning the unusual attitude recovery he explained that he’d put the aeroplane into an unusual attitude, “Assuming you haven’t already done it as part of the steep turns!”

I laughed, my tension about that particular element at least partially broken. He went on to explain that if I did mess one up that I should just say so, recover it and he’d let me try again. He also emphasised that he was very keen to see a good lookout.

After checking I was happy with all of this, he asked me to plan the route, and showed me to the briefing room for a bit of peace and quiet.

This wasn’t too difficult a route, though it did run to within 5 miles of my carefully drawn NOTAMed area around Aberporth. I checked the landmarks carefully there!

I double checked my plog then headed back to Gwyndaf, who double checked it and asked me a few questions about my method – how I’d chosen the minimum safe altitude, and what method I used for working out diversions.

Then came the “but”.

“Have you looked out of the window?”

My heart sinking, I did just that, only to be confronted with an almighty fog bank rapidly rolling across the airfield boundary.

We went outside, where several other pilots, looking mildly stunned at the sudden change, were also staring at it.

“Must be some sort of front,” said someone.

“An affront,” someone else put in. “An affront to aviation.”

I sighed and headed for a second round of coffee. And waited and watched, and crossed fingers for it to clear, and drank more coffee, and when my appetite suddenly rematerialised scoffed a sausage sandwich.

My booking was for 11 and, apart a brief hopeful moment around 12:30, by the time 2:30 rolled around it was started to look as if it was in for the day.

Everyone was very sympathetic, but well wishes alone weren’t enough to hustle the weather along and finally we had to give up on it for the day.

Derek dropped me off back at my sister’s, and I spent the afternoon with the passable consolation prize of assembling plastic dinosaurs for my nephew.

The nerves at least had been slightly quelled by the brief and meeting Gwyndaf so I was feeling hopeful for the next opportunity.

Friday was no better. Next chance was Wednesday and scuppered by low cloud. Sunday was nominated as plan C (or possibly D by now)

Happily, as the week wore on a great glorious blob of high pressure sprawled across the country. This was more like it!

Sunday dawned hot and still and cloudless. Finally.

Having enlisted my sister again, I trooped up to the airfield well in advance and filled myself with chocolate (we were post-lunch this time), and ‘HG with avgas.

No wind to speak of, so the planning was simple enough, and with the brief still fresh in my memory I wandered out into the sunshine and made a leisurely check of the aeroplane, before re-examining my route for likely landmarks.

The get-go was delayed slightly by a sudden influx of visitors which saw Gwyndaf shanghaied into service as air-ground operator and landing-fee-collector, all while trying to fit in a quick lunch!

Eventually we did make it out to the aircraft and I went through the checks, pausing one or twice to explain ‘HG’s particular idiosyncrasies – the fuel pressure gauge wildly over-reading and the radio display’s charming habit of needing a poke every often to bring it back to life!

I consulted my airfield chart for at least the seventy-fifth time since arriving, making sure I was indeed parked where I thought I was and wasn’t about to get lost on the way to the runway.

Power checks and takeoff were uneventful, though I was making more of a conscious effort to call my checks out loud. I climbed in the circuit then continued downwind until clear before turning onto my first heading of 063.

Llys-y-fran reservoir with nearby mast promptly turned up on the left wing confirming I was pointing in the right general direction. I changed frequencies to West Wales and made the first fluff of the day by forgetting to tell Haverfordwest I was doing so.

This leg was well supplied with landmarks, and between masts, and windfarms, and rivers I was comfortably confident of my position throughout.

In spite of this, Lampeter crept up one me, and disappeared under the wins before I’d properly identified it, resulting in a bit of wing waggling while I looked for distinguishing features. Gwyndaf helpful spotted the disused railway line that I couldn’t see an announced I was looking for.

Right on time too. 20 minutes in and a nice reassuring start!

We turned south and flew on. A few minutes into the leg Gwyndaf asked for a radio position fix. First line, from the Strumble VOR wasn’t too bad, but I picked the Aberporth NDB for the second line, and had a devil of a time getting a useable fix from it. I wandered all over the sky while fiddling and umming at an ADF readlencoded
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Eventually Gwyndaf offered to fly for a few minutes while I got it sorted, and I got a ‘close enough’ fix just as I was about to give up and try for another radio aid instead. Looking out the window revealed Llandeilo – about 4 miles south east of my fix.

“Can I have the chart for a minute?” Gwyndaf asked, and pulled out a marker. “I want you to divert me to there.”

I looked at the chart as it was handed back to me. A pair of masts were circled.

“They’re on a disused airfield,” Gwyndaf added.

I squinted at the angle between where I thought we were (remember that “thought” – it becomes relevant later on!) and where we were going and hazarded a guess of 250 degrees and 20 minutes. I pulled my ‘bendy’ square protractor from behind my plog to use as a straight edge to draw a line and since I had it out, checked the angle and distance. All looked well.

We flew on and as we approached Carmarthen it became clear that we were some good way south of track. Rather than mess around I decided to go for the simple option and fly straight to Carmarthen, which I could hardly miss, and resume track from there.

I announced this intention, got an “okay”, and didn’t think any more of it, assuming that my heading keeping had been a bit ropey.

Back on track we arrived overhead the unmistakeable signs of a former airfield on schedule and I identified the masts.

“Good,” said Gwyndaf. “That’s the navigation bit done.”

One small sigh of relief, but not a lot of time to relax as next up was the 180 turn on instruments. This went smoothly enough, then Gwyndaf asked me to track towards the Strumble VOR on whichever radial we were on at the moment.

Today was obviously not my day for radio navigation as I managed to get myself into a bit of a tangle here as well, ending up thoroughly disoriented as to where I was in relation to the VOR and losing any sense of what I wanted to be seeing on the dial.

“Ermm. I’m going to start that again,” I said after a few minutes puzzlement.

I attempted to re-gather my wits. I could do this with no bother at all last time I tried it! Come on brain. Right. We’re on the 150 radial and we want to fly towards the ruddy thing it so we need 330 on the top and TO showing.

By the time I’d turned around I was out to the right of it so picked it back up and after a bit of wobbling around settled down and tracked it almost all the way to the coast.

As we’d been bounced up and down a fair bit, Gwyndaf was hoping that the thermal activity would be less near the coast and make the general handling bit easier.

I was all in favour of this idea, and it did seem to work.

First up were the steep turns. To my mild surprise (and white knuckles) they went reasonably well. Stalls were fine too. We did three, one clean with power off, one with first stage of flap and partial power and one with full flap and power off.

A steep gliding turn through 360 degrees and 1000′ was next and although I rolled out a bit early and had to come around a bit more, that was okay.

Just to stop me getting too pleased with myself up, the next fluff was close at hand.

Gwyndaf asked me to shut my eyes and put my chin down on my chest so I couldn’t ‘cheat’. Then promptly had to ask me to take my hand off the controls as well. I laughed. Keeping one hand on while instructor demonstrates something had obviously become very deeply ingrained – I didn’t even realise I was doing it.

He manoeuvred a bit then said, “Okay, recover.”

I looked up. Nose down and banked over in a turn.

Alarming view that, and I hurriedly levelled the wings and stuck the power on to climb away.

“What’s the procedure for a spiral dive recovery?” Gwyndaf asked.

“Wings level, power–” Realisation dawned. “Oh.  Off.”

“We’ll try that one again then.”

This time I managed to avoid accelerating towards the ground! Power off, wings level then a rather more gentle pull up and power back on to come back to straight and level.

We turned to follow the coast, and there was a few moments of nice simple straight and level which I made the most of to relax a bit and compose myself after a busy bit of flying.

Next instruction was to stay on this headings and altitude but at 60 knots. I’d bobbed about and fumbled this bit when revising recently, but at least it was fresh in my mind and I managed rather better this time.

Back to normal speed and a few seconds later Gwyndaf announced our engine had caught fire.

The fluff here had me rather annoyed with myself as despite the emergency drills having practically replaced counting sheep at nights for the past few months, I still managed to forget both switching the mags off and closing the air vents. Bother.

Still the practice forced landing itself went well. Helped by the fact there was a suitable more-or-less into wind field practically on the nose.

Once we both convinced we’d have got in Gwyndaf gave the instruction to go around, and we headed back to the airfield.

Tiredness must have been setting in by now as the next fluff came hot on the heels of the last and was a particularly daft one – completely misreading the altimeter and blithely heading for 1000′ instead of 2000′ for my so-say overhead join.

A meaningful look upwards and the query “We are joining overhead aren’t we?” from Gwyndaf brought me back to reality and I hastily climbed back up before we reached the airfield, where I made another hasty swerve after almost descending deadside for the wrong runway, which had changed since we left.

I was a little daunted by the prospect of circuits at an airfield less familiar than Pembrey, but I quickly picked out some salient features of the area and it wasn’t too bad.

I kept overshooting the centreline – I always seem to do that when I’m flying somewhere I’m not used to, and the wind picking up didn’t help.

The landings themselves weren’t particularly special, with the exception of the flapless one which we were both pleased with, but they weren’t dreadful either and were at least declared safe enough. Gwyndaf advised using a bit more rudder to straighten up properly before touching down. That wind again!

We did several normal approaches, one without flaps, a go-around which also featured an engine failure after take off (which did present a nicer set of options than Pembrey which consisted of marsh in one direction and forest in the other!).

Somewhere in the middle of these Gwyndaf managed to catch me completely off guard by asking, innocently enough, “So are you going to keep your diary going once you pass?”

Apparently Keith at Pembrey had tipped him off. Or warned him maybe! Instant embarrassment. I babbled something vaguely affirmative, and he commented that it was interesting as an instructor to read the lessons from a student’s point of view.

I managed to find my tongue again and joked that I’d be too abashed to write anything at all if I knew they were reading!

We finished up with a glide approach, taxyed back in, pushed the aeroplane back and headed inside for a debrief. All the nerves which had mostly gone away during the flying itself came flooding back at his point!

We sat down in Gwyndaf’s office.

“Let’s have a look at your chart”, Gwyndaf pulled it across the table and ran a finger along the route. First leg, as I had felt at the time was good. Radio fix was a bit wobbly but good enough.

As he put his finger on the spot I’d fixed and I looked at the lines I’d drawn, I realised my booboo.

Remember that “where I thought we were” doing the diversion…

I had fixed my position, then determined that we were in fact overhead Llandeilo. And then, for goodness knows what earthly reason, had done my diversion planning from my original fix instead! No wonder we’d been the wrong side of Carmarthen. I was happily flying along having started from somewhere a good five miles away from where I though I was!

Daft daft daft!

The saving grace, Gwyndaf said, was that I’d spotted it (albeit not the reason for it!) and done something about it by getting back on track over Carmarthen.

None of the other fluffs were deemed too atrocious and so, with a smile, he reached a hand across the table.

“Congratulations.”

I shook it in a sort of daze.

“Thank you.”

We filled in the paperwork and I leaned on the fence in the late afternoon sunshine and watched the other aeroplanes while waiting for my lift home.

This was going to take some time to sink in!

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