Sunday, 6 October 2013

Unhappy landings

Flying recently has mostly consisted of futile attempts to go solo again. I seem to be going backwards (metaphorically, that is). For the last four lessons, I have had few successful landings - always something for my ever-patient instructor Peter to say or do as we get onto the ground. Until I can land several times perfectly I won't be able to recapture my solo glory days in April and May.

The problem is wind. (No jokes, please.) As we come in on final (the last 100 feet or so before we skim over the hedge and land on the grass airfield), there always seems to be more wind shear or wind variation than I can recognise. (Wind shear is a sudden change in wind direction. Variation could mean, for example, a sudden drop in wind, or flying through a rising current of warm air, pushing the plane up just when you don't need it). This requires a) recognising what is is happening  b) making the correct adjustments with the airbrake and control column to compensate. Failure to do both of these results in being thrown off course, suddenly drop a lot or bounce onto the ground. Without Peter beside me, I am just too slow to recognise what is happening. I make my adjustments too late or make the wrong ones and the result is invariably a drop (dangerous), a slewed landing (hitting the ground a little sideways) or a bounce (not good for the undercarriage).

It's a little like trying to cycle slowly down the path from your front door through your (narrow) front gate. Just as you come to it, a hand reaches out of the bushes and pushes you sideways. Or grabs the back of the bike and slows you down so you wobble - you have to react quickly enough to stay on course and get through the narrow gate. If you could cycle faster you would have more momentum and it would be easier to stay on course but you must go slowly (light planes generally land relatively slowly and are easily thrown off course at the last minute).

Yesterday I did five landings. One was okay - in the other four wind shear or sudden wind drops catch me out. I do my best to compensate. Peter exercises great restraint - he doesn't touch the controls unless the situation is about to become irretrievable. He rescues the situation, we land (awkwardly but the great thing is we haven't damaged the airframe or the crew!) and off we go again to make another circuit and approach. Discussions of what happened and how to prevent it are informative as we take off again but somehow they don't seem to help - next time around something different happens. It seems there is no end to the possibilities with even a light wind.

Thinking back to all those successful solo landings earlier this year, I wonder if it wasn't a run of good luck. Confidence shaken? Yes. The remedy? More circuits and experience. Sigh.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013


Photo: Gyro flight. Great!

After weeks of circuits, the occasional short solo and a successful medical (yay - another year flying!), I had an interesting encounter with gyros recently. This guy flew his machine, an ELA-07, from Kildare. Following a chat about gyros and their amazing abilities, he invited me to fly with him. It was a wonderful experience! Gyros appeal to me because....      
  • they can be landed in practically any field (even a large garden) if you run into trouble.
  • they fly lower than most other craft so you get a great view of the countryside.
  • you can taxi into a small shed or load it onto a trailer easily.
  • they use much less fuel than planes.
  • they're simpler (thus more reliable) than helicopters.
For those who aren't familiar with them, autogyros (or gyroplanes or gyrocopters, the names vary) have been around since the 1930s. Unlike a helicopter the rotors are not driven - they spin in the wind as the machine moves forward: this generates the lift needed to fly. Should the engine give trouble (always a concern for pilots of single engine aircraft!), there's enough energy stored in the blades to descend like a helicopter (autorotate is the technical term) into any field or even a large garden. In my opinion this adds a huge safety margin over most other aircraft. They have their own idiosyncrasies, however, and one does have to be careful to learn proper techniques. But, hell, that applies to everything: driving, motorbikes, skiing etc..

Alas there is no training facility in Ireland so I'll have to have a think about how to follow my interest. Here's 40 seconds of it flying (note the short landing):

Friday, 21 June 2013

Flying Solo around Kilkenny

Made a long solo recently. Around the mast at Mount Leinster, then over Borris, Graiguenamanagh, and my house before returning to the airfield. Had my newest toy, the videocam, in the cockpit again. Even after editing down to a few minutes, the file is too big for Blogger so I put it on YouTube. You can see the trip here.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

First video

Bought a video cam last week and mounted it in the cockpit. My first short video (<2 mins) shows an emergency engine failure drill. The motor glider's engine is cut to idle seconds after take-off while still climbing and, thanks to it's great gliding range, there's time to execute a 180 degree turn back to the field. This is all but impossible for most light airplanes and provides the glider with a greater safety margin. Note the thumbs up from the instructor (on the right) after touchdown!


Monday, 27 May 2013

First solo cross-country - a cautionary tale...

Another giant leap for mankind last week. After a few practice landings with Peter keeping an eagle eye on my flying, he suggested a short cross-country solo. I was to fly west from Kilkenny for 25 miles, cross the Dublin-Cork motorway and pick out the town of Thurles on the far side. Once there, I was to fly along the motorway north and south of the town, becoming familiar with local landmarks for future flights then head back, using Mount Leinster and its mast as a heading to bring me back to Kilkenny. Total distance: about 60 miles.

It sounded simple enough. Go outward on a compass bearing - fly West into the setting sun - and come home on a landmark - the mountain range was visible for miles. I had the aeronautical chart on the seat beside me and intended to use it to relate features I fly over to my position on the chart.

A few brief engine and airframe checks and I was up and away. No circuits this time - my climb-out was west so all I had to do was climb to my cruising height of 2,500' and let the plane accelerate to 120kph - best cruising speed.

The terrain west of Kilkenny is relatively featureless but I made note of such landmarks as seemed significant to me: a curiously shaped wood on a hill top with a red barn inside, a Georgian house and grounds, wind turbines etc. Only the last were on my large-scale chart, so I wrote down the others, intending to use the list in reverse to find my way back.

Once things settle down in the cockpit there is little to do. A scan of the engine gauges once a minute to make sure all was well, a scan for other traffic (just to make sure I didn't fly into any other small planes containing novice soloists!), a check of the compass heading and speed and a little sightseeing (the best part). Repeat ad infinitum. As the distance from the airfield grew greater, the scan includes a look for likely fields to land in should the engine fail. (As long as possible, preferably parallel to the wind, and with no wires or animals.)

Just as I was thinking I had missed the motorway, I saw it. It crossed my flight path so all that was necessary was to identify Thurles on the other side. To my delight it was exactly where it should have been. From 2,500' you are allowed to fly over towns and cities so I made a slow left-hand turn around the town before following the motorway north to the first junction. Back again to the town and, aligning the plane due East, it was time to fly home. I scrabbled in the cockpit for my list of features to follow and started to look for the last recorded one, a completely circular field. And that's where the trouble started.

What I hadn't realised was that features that are distinctive as you approach from one side may not be as easy to pick out going the other way. I saw a circular field and almost immediately another one further away. Unsure which I had recorded, I flew between them and continued East. After all, Peter had said that flying due East would bring me home. So I flew on, scanning the ground for the other items on my list. I found none of them.

I wasn't lost - but I was unsure of my position. None of the features on the chart matched the ground and none of the features on the ground were on the chart. All I could do was continue East. After all, about 20 minutes should bring me back to Kilkenny, or at least near enough to identify something. Shouldn't it? I could see the mountain range on the far side of my destination and could pick out the TV transmitter mast that was to be my aiming point.

As the time crept on and nothing seemed familiar, I debated calling Shannon (the nearest major airport with a permanently-manned control tower) for a position fix. I also considered a PAN PAN call, once step down from a Mayday, stating my destination and asking for advice from other pilots who might happen to be within earshot.

Then I flew directly across a motorway. It had to be the one that ran N-S from Dublin to Waterford, just east of Kilkenny. If so, I could follow it home. Trouble was, I had no idea which way to turn - north or south along it. If I chose wrong, I could get further and further away from my base and the evening, though beautiful, would not last forever. Nor would my fuel.

A river to the east of the motorway had a railway bridge over it, leading to a village. The combination was unmistakeable - it had to be Bagenalstown. I had somehow ended up 12 miles north of Kilkenny! I turned south for home to discover that nothing looked right. To be safe I turned back towards the village and, losing height to get a closer look, looked for the features of Bagenalstown that I knew would be clear from the air. None were there.

Clearing my mind of preconceived ideas, I flew lower and examined the road layout, bridges, and river. I knew most of the villages in these valleys. It was just a matter of being objective, not panicking, and getting an accurate fix. Within a minute I knew where I was. It was Thomastown, a village 12 miles south of Kilkenny. Its topography was similar to Bagenalstown - a combination of roads, river and railway. With a sigh of relief I knew I could follow any of these north to Kilkenny. The sight of a train crossing the railway bridge over the river, a tiny sliver of silver worming its way along, made up my mind for me. I turned north and followed the train.

After 10 anxious minutes the familiar features of Kilkenny city came into sight. I must have flown right past it without seeing it! It was time to make my approach to the airfield, lose height to 1000' and position myself at the correct corner of the circuit. As I lined up for my final approach I realised that, in my eagerness to get back on the ground, I was too close and too high. Accelerating away and up again, I went around and tried a second time. Bumpy but successful. I threw open the canopy and sat still in the cockpit, enjoying the warmth of the sun and letting the shakes subside. I had been out much longer than expected. I had covered much more ground - a large triangle rather than the out-and-back line I planned. You can see my mistake on the map here: if you zoom out a bit.

An examination of the chart showed my error. On the return flight I had made no allowance for the wind, which drifted me south of my track. On a slow-flying aeroplane this allowance can be considerable and one often crabs sideways across the sky to stay on the correct line. I knew this but forgot to apply it in the excitement of so many other firsts. Peter pointed out I had done well to turn when collected by a line feature like a motorway (even if it was the wrong way at first!), had taken the trouble to get an accurate position over Thomastown when things looked wrong, and made a good landing decision (to go around). Making your own decisions and acting on them, was what flying cross-country was all about. Invaluable experience!

To finish, here's a brief clip of a landing at Kilkenny airfield. (Not mine, but perhaps enough to give my non-Irish readers a view of the flying conditions). You can see the city ahead of the runway and, just right of centre, is the mountain range I was aiming for!

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Cutting the umbilical - first solo flight away from the field

Another step forward last week. After a few practice circuits with Peter, it was time for a solo local flight. No flight plan - just a few instructions as he got out of the plane. I was to take off, fly half a circuit and, at the point where I usually began my pre-landing sequence, I was to continue climbing to 2000' and fly twice around the city (Kilkenny), about 5 miles away. Left to their own devices, novice pilots tend to stay near the field when making local flights - a well-developed sense of survival makes this a wise move - so instructors often get students to fly away from it as soon as possible, known as cutting the umbilical.

Take off by myself was exhilarating and climbing around and away from the field for the first time was a proud moment. The city is encircled by a ring road (mostly) so I had lots of time to sit back and enjoy the flight - a change from the usual heavy workload of the circuit. From two thousand feet with little to do I was able to see below me people enjoying the sunny evening in different ways, walking, playing on sportsfields, and on the river.

About 10 minutes later I had completed my circuits of the city and it was time to head back to the field. As I approached, I "went downhill", losing height to reach the airfield standard circuit height of 1000'. Crossing over the end of the runway at 1000' I flew round the last half of the circuit and made a good landing.

It's been a long wait, but this flight represented an ambition I had when I first sat into the cockpit just over a year ago. I may or may not have much more flying in future (I could fail a medical any August and that would bring my hobby to a sudden halt!) but, even if I can't continue today makes it all worthwhile.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

First solo - complete!

Finally. After two weeks of regular circuits and some pretty solid improvements in my landings I made my first solo flight. A calm evening. Six okay circuits and landings with Peter, the ever-so-patient instructor. Suddenly he said "Why don't you go up and do one on your own now?" Unlike last autumn when he made this offer, this time I felt I could do it safely.

With Peter in the control tower and on the radio (a virtual instructor!), I taxied out onto the runway and, with a glance at the empty seat beside me, concentrated on my pre-takeoff checks. My instruction manual says that one circuit and landing "will admit me to the family of pilots." I'd just done six. Now was the time.

Take-off a little earlier than usual (lighter now). Climb to 1000', turn and almost immediately, it seemed, make my pre-landing checks. Base leg looked good, the angle to the runway just where it had been each time before. Turn to final and the tense moments of getting it back down. Just the way I had been shown. Done. No need for radio advice. A acknowledging clap from another pilot just getting out of his machine as I swung the motor glider around and rolled to a stop.

It was after I shut down the engine and raised the canopy that I started to shake. A deep breath or two. It passed. Time for a photo.
I can fly!

Monday, 1 April 2013

Season 2

Back to routine flying in the motor glider on Saturday. Flying 101 is doing circuits, aiming for precision flying: a proper rectangular track, accurate flying speed (90kph) and accurate maintenance of height, ideally to +/- 150 feet of the intended altitude.

But could I do it on Saturday? No. Wobbly take-offs, circuits that must have looked more like a drunken albatross careering round the sky, ropey approaches that resulted in frequent go-arounds (that's when a pilot gives up on trying to land, realising that something is irreversibly wrong with his approach to the ground, and opens the throttle to fly away again), and bumpy skewed landings. It was about what I was able to do six months ago. Frankly, I was out of practice.

Next time, there's nowhere to go but up...

Monday, 25 March 2013

First flight of Spring

After a winter spent studying navigation, weather, flight theory and air law, the weather was finally good enough to fly last weekend. I was lucky enough to fly a 1947 Auster, bought by the airfield owner.

It's made from a steel tubular frame, covered with fabric. Tail wheel design means that the propeller is kept well clear of the ground (useful on grass fields) but the pilot can't see so well while taxying, and has to turn the plane from side to side to see where to go! 

Inside it's like sitting in a comfortable old leather armchair. The controls are simple and robust, although a modern GPS unit sits atop the instrument panel - a reminder that it had just been flown over the sea from Wales to Ireland. It flies at about 70m.p.h. and can land and take off in a short space. When flying the view out is excellent when level, as the high wing allows a view down in all directions. Turning does reduce view, as the wing dips into the turn, and you have to look carefully beforehand. Engine noise is low-pitched, as the engine runs relatively slowly compared to modern machines. A treat to fly!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Something to aspire to...?

Just after I began my latest flying lesson, an unexpected visitor arrived into the circuit over Kilkenny. We were in the middle of our first circuit when we saw it approaching. We had heard nothing on the radio - it had no radio. It swept over twice then came in to land. Peter identified it straight off - a Luton Major. Designed in the 1930s and still produced today - beautiful:
It's a tandem two-seater (one person sits behind the other) and its USP (unique selling point) is that the wings swing back for storage. Pull a large retaining pin on each side and the wings you see, complete with strut support beneath, swing back on each side to the tail. It can fit in a standard garage! Fantastic or what?

Inside is simplicity itself. Basic mechanical controls & non-electric instruments.

No radio. It's not needed in the uncontrolled airspace around here; the person who owns it chiefly makes short flights around the area after work (much as other people might go for an evening stroll). Installing a radio would mean installing a battery to power it. And a magneto or alternator to charge the battery. And all the wiring.

Of course no battery means no electric start. Instead the engine is started the old-fashioned way - by hand-swinging the prop. Wonderful! There's a 20-second video of how to do it here.

If I ever get my pilot's licence and outgrow club aircraft, this is the way I want to go - though I think I'd have a radio!

Sunday, 16 December 2012


An acronym for Engine Failure After Take Off (i.e. as you have just left the ground and are climbing away.) A pilot's worst nightmare, as this is one of the points in a flight where, for a few minutes, you are utterly dependent on the engine not to fail.

If it does, the plane is at great risk of stalling (flying too slowly to keep in the air) and so falling back to the ground before the pilot has had time to react. Just last month, the deaths of an instructor and pupil at a nearby airfield emphasise the dangers of EFATO.

The only solution is to practise the correct responses until it becomes instinctive; every so often, as the machine is climbing out just after take-off, Peter cuts the power. I then have about 10 seconds to point the nose down and select a suitable farmer's field for landing. The terrain around the Kilkenny airfield is a mixture of farmland (at this time of year newly ploughed), grazing pasture and scrub, with small woods dotted here and there. Many of the fields are very wet; some have standing water in them. We'll probably travel 10 metres on the ground before the undercarriage digs into the wet ground and we jerk to a stop, perhaps flipping over onto the nose as we do so. There isn't much choice - any field long enough to attempt a landing will have to do. Down we glide and, at about 15 feet off the ground I reapply power and we climb away. We can't actually land as it would inevitably damage the machine. But we've practised the approach and, more importantly, the instant response needed to survive.

If we've climbed a little higher, say 500 feet or so, before engine failure occurs, then we have more options. We could make it back to the airfield if we're lucky and react immediately. So we practise steep turns and downwind landings, and very tight circuits at low height, swooping back in a figure of 8 over the runway to land.

This is some of the most exciting flying I've done as, when you're low, the sensation of speed is much greater, the stakes a little higher. There's less time to spare so the need is for accurate flying. There's no second chance.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

First Solo - declined

Bright sunny Saturday afternoon. More circuits and landings. All without guidance or intervention from my oh-so-patient instructor. During our now-customary pit-stop Peter announced that I could go up and do a couple of circuits by myself! I was..... flattered, dumbfounded, unprepared even. He pointed out that I had just completed 5 textbook landings in a row.

I considered it briefly and then decided to stick to my plan of allowing a few more lessons after he determined that I was good enough, just to add a little safety margin of my own. After all, I don't want to be remembered as the guy who wrote off the machine on his first solo! A few more landings in challenging conditions, with Peter beside me, and then I'll do it. I haven't read others' blogs on this topic so I invite comment and opinion on this view from anyone with similar or greater experience.

Does anyone out there read this? Consider this request a message in a bottle....