Like most people out there, I’ve always thought it’d be great to be able to fly, and secretely envied those who could. I even went through the wide-eyed phase in high school where I envisaged becoming a pilot with the RAAF, before the allure of the vagaries of university life got the better of me.
It took stepping into my current role with Australian Flying to finally get my arse into gear, into the left hand seat and off the ground. In short, the decision to commence flying training was thrust upon me, and I’ve enthusiastically spent the last few months religiously getting up to speed on the basics.
The thought of learning to fly literally from the ground up with no prior experience is immediately appealing. Having never experienced the thrill of flying, I am keener than the proverbial to learn the ropes and embrace a steep learning curve towards this new skills set.
DAMEs, DAOs and X-Men
After being informed of the lenghty waiting period, I promptly jump onto the CASA website, print and fax off a completed Aviation Reference Number (ARN) application and book an apppointment with a reputable Designated Aviation Medical Examiner (DAME) for my initial issue class one aviation medical.
I consider myself in decent physical nick, and so did Dr Priti Bhatt of the Sydney Aviation Medical Centre. A word of advice though for the gents, be prepared to sacrifice three small squares of chest hair for the ECG. I anticipated my girlfriend’s ensuing fits of laughter as Dr Bhatt brought the razor closer. Also, if you want to avoid a particularly sheepish moment, don’t drop your little plastic urine sample container after you’ve filled it. It gets messy.
Next up is a mandatory, one-off appointment with a Designated Aviation Ophthalmologist (DAO) to confirm no eyesight issues are lurking. Blinding lights in the eyeballs and ominous-looking, pointed paraphernalia zooming in on the pupils aside, the DAO appointment goes well. In hindsight though it’s best to book your DAO date for late afternoon or when you have a day off, as the assortment of drops you cop in the eyes makes reading nigh on impossible until the effect wears off some six hours later. There I was back in the office bashing out emails in 34-point font for the rest of the day! My pupils dilated (or was it mutated?) so drastically I looked like one of the X-Men. So I went home and spooked out my flatmate; was great fun.
A false start
It’s the night before my first lesson and I get a call from my compulsive worrier of a grandmother. I bite my tongue to stifle a laugh as down the line in a taut voice comes concerned questions such as, ‘What kind of plane will you be flying?’; ‘It’s not a Tiger Moth, is it?’; and, ‘You’re not flying on your own, are you?’. No, not just yet. And, of course, she finishes with the assurance that she’s praying for me - rousing words of encouragement!
I arrive at Aerospace Aviation at Bankstown Airport under clear blue early morning skies with the air crisp and the wind nonexistant. My excitement mounts as I peer out towards the collection of Cessnas and Pipers sitting pretty in the parking lot.
Before getting carred away, first things first though. My instructor Dominic O’Kelly sits me in a briefing room and drops a sizeable folder on the desk – more on that later. Using a wooden model he introduces me to the various controls and their primary and secondary effects, and call me naive but I marvel at the simple design features and physics involved.
Given my height (186cm), we skip the Cessna 152 and jump straight into the larger Piper PA-28 Cherokee Archer, which I’ll be able to stick with for the duration of my training through to CPL. Filling out the weight and balance chart and plotting the zero fuel weight and take-off weight points, I realise we’re outside the centre of gravity limits, even with an additional 5kg ballast in the baggage compartment to balance out the instrument-heavy cockpit of the aircraft. Half my luck.
With no further ballast on hand, and with low cloud having quickly eroded initial visibility levels in the interim, I must curb my eagerness to get off the ground until next lesson.
Nonetheless, Dom introduces me to the PA-28 I’ll be learning to fly in. VH-PPR is pretty pink - not the greatest expression of masculinity, I know, but I affectionately christen her ‘Pinky’ and am confident we’ll get along just fine. I grip the control column as I cast my eyes over her interior, taking in the controls and instrument panel. I get a buzz sitting in the pilot seat for the first time, even if the aircraft is as stationary as the day it was built.
On my next trip out to Aerospace Aviation, with some low cloud holding off and additional ballast added to Pinky, all is set for my first sequence - Effects of Controls. Working through the pre-flight checks - all lights operational; no chips on the prop; uni joints secure but not seized; oleos extended and tyre tread okay; oil full; fuel full and free of water and dirt - induces a heightened sense of appreciation for the aircraft that has as much to do with self-preservation as it does with a desire to understand the aircraft’s mechanical and operational sides.
The first task to master is taxiing - easy enough, however learning to steer with your feet using the rudder pedals is a whole new concept. I generally manage to resist the almost unconscious desire to hold and try to steer with the control column, although it takes a few repeated warnings from my instructor before I manage to put a cap on my taxiing speed.
It’s not like I was hell bent on breaking the land speed record; rather, I was concerned about riding the brakes against power and burning them out. I soon get into the habit of reducing power to idle before breaking, which helps alleviate this ongoing concern.
I realise that taxiing, as well as many of the other initial steps in learning to fly, can be explained using the relevant contrasts of driving a car. Granted, more coordination is generally required with an aeroplane and there’s obviously some fundamental differences.
And the fact that driving a car is so ingrained in one’s subconsciousness means it takes longer to divorce oneself from what’s second nature and in turn grasp these new concepts.
While only covering the very basics, the Effects of Controls sequence is an exciting introduction. The first flight is a rush, even when only following the instructor on the controls. As we enter the Bankstown training area Dom calls “handing over”. I tighten my grip on the control column, calm my nerves, reply “taking over”, and start flying for the first time. Sure, I’m only doing the very basics, but it’s certainly liberating nonetheless.
Dom demonstrates the primary and then secondary effects of the elevator, aileron and rudder, then I follow, making Pinky yaw slowly, roll gently and pitch up and down. As could be expected in these early stages, I sometimes find myself gripping the control column too hard - but eventually I learn to refrain from tensing up and realise just how subtle you can actually be on the controls to get the desired result. My instructor gets in early and imparts the sound advice that I start manipulating the control column using only my left hand so I can keep my right hand free for the other controls. Such a move almost seems premature so early on in the piece when it’s all still very new, but it can’t hurt to form the right habits early.
Getting a head start
As I found out soon after putting on a generic brand headset for my first flight, the importance of choosing a quality headset is critical insofar as practicality goes. The headset I initially borrowed while waiting for my David Clark H10-13.4 to arrive from the factory cut the mustard for about a lesson and a half before it started causing headaches.
The force wearing it exerted on my jaw line below the ears was very uncomfortable. Despite attempts at readjusting it, the whole headset had a tendency to slip down my head, pushing the mic further away from my mouth. On a number of occasions I actually had to hand over the controls so I could fix the headset’s position using both hands – which needless to say is quite distracting to the student pilot.
On the contrary, the DC H10-13.4 felt very comfortable straight off the bat. The gel earseals and foam filled headband alleviate any pressure on the head, so much so that it’s almost possible to forget you’re actually wearing a headset at all. It feels that natural.
It’s a sturdy yet comfortable fit once in place and allows you to concentrate on communicating with the instructor and making radio calls, making the whole learning process that much easier.
Straight and level
I start the Straight and Level sequence by having a crack at starting the engine. Pre-start checks complete, I yell “clear prop” out the storm window, give her a two-second prime, eagerly push the start button, brace myself to feel the roaring power ... and all I get is the lousy stut-stut-stutter of a cold engine that doesn’t want to budge. Thankfully, Dom tells me this happens often on chilly winter mornings, and after a few more attempts Pinky roars to life.
Out at the holding point Dom says he’ll follow me on the controls as I conduct my first takeoff - I affect my best John McClane and give a merry “yippie kayae!”. Easing Pinky out onto the runway, taking care to put my body over the centreline, I peer over the cowling down the stretch of tarmac ahead of us, open her up to full power and focus on maintaining the centreline. In the back of my mind I’m saying to myself, ‘Don’t step on the rudder pedals too hard and flip the plane’, but before I get too anxious we hit 60kts, gently apply aft pressure on the control column and we rotate up. I’m initially going at it a bit too steep, but with Dom’s help I set up the best rate of climb and we level off and traverse out to the training area.
Setting up straight and level flight, Dom hands over the controls and asks me to maintain it. It’s a hazy day and I’m finding it hard to establish a distinguishable reference feature. Dom says you can sometimes use clouds as reference features; initially I feel a little skeptical trusting a cloud not to move on me, but who am I to question an instructor? I settle on what looks like a one of a kind cloud in the distance and focus on maintaining straight and level.
On many occasions Dom stresses the importance of learning to fly by sight rather than by the instruments. Spend 90 per cent of the time looking outside the cockpit and 10 per cent looking in is the rule of thumb, my notes tell me. This is good news, as I’m finding it easier looking outside and concentrating on keeping the attitude fixed rather trying to interpret what all these foreign instruments are indicating at this stage.
Dom says being a beginner has its advantages here - as if you’ve spent next to no time playing flight simulators at home you won’t have a tendency to focus on the instrument panel as much. Nice to know.
Up and down
Sequence three, Climbing and Descending, introduces me to the first of the many work cycles I’ll pick up as I progress through my training. Voicing the PAST (Power/Attitude/Speed/Trim) steps as I enter my first climb over the training area, I adjust power to full, set the best rate of climb attitude, wait for the speed to settle, trim the pressue and maintain a steady climb from 2500ft up to 3500. During the climb I focus on running through the Attitude, Lookout, Performance (ALP) work cycle, making sure to check my performance visually first before glancing at the instruments to confirm it.
Maintaining a reference feature to the left of the nose and far enough off in the distance so I can see it over the cowling during the climb, I do my level best to counter the increased yaw tendency by applying right rudder. My instructor informs me that 90 per cent of students struggle at first to use the rudder effectively, so I work hard at coordinating rudder use into my flying early so I can buck that trend. Anticipating 10 per cent of my rate of climb and this time voicing the ASPT (Attitude/Speed/Power/Trim) work cycle, I gradually start lowering Pinky’s nose at 3400ft to trade angle of attack for airspeed. Once we reach a constant height and cruise airspeed I set straight and level attitude and as the speed stabilises I ease the throttle back to 2400rpm. We level out at 3500ft okay, but I need to work on streamlining the ASPT work cycle, particularly in keeping the nose down as I level off and refraining from trimming too early.
At this early stage I’m finding it hard to appreciate the trim function as much as I probably should, but having not conducted long climbs as yet I put this down to having not experienced the full strain of control pressure over an extended period. I’m sure with time I’ll come to love the trim wheel.
While my climbing is mostly error free, I hit a snag during descending as I start chasing the instruments. My instructor explains that the instruments, particularly in older aircraft, operate with a three-second delay. By not allowing for this and chasing after the instrument indication I want to see on a cruise descent, I put Pinky into a state of oscillation. Aiming for an ideal 500fpm descent, I overpitch the nose down into a 1000fpm descent, then apply aft pressure until we were back at the desired 500fpm and the descent looks on track. But as the VSI catches up to my manipulation of the controls it turns out that we have actually come all the way back to level flight.
It crosses my wires a bit at first because I set the attitude correctly for the chosen descent but the instruments indicate otherwise - guess patience is a virtue after all. After a few practices though I learn to set the known attitude visually first, hold it and wait to see if the VSI stabilises at the desired altitude, and then make further adjustments visually if needed using attitude.
Weather or not?
It soon dawns on me how much of an impact weather conditions have on flying - or trying to fly - light aircraft. In quick succession I’ve lost lessons to all manner of punishment the heavens can hurl earthward. Low cloud and visibility, rain, and wind - the works. I soon find myself peering out the bedroom window on a flying morning, begging for CAVOK, and invariably decrying or praising Mother Nature.
While obviously these things are out of anyone’s hands, save maybe for those of Moses, it proves frustrating, particularly as I’m just starting out. It’s a steep enough learning curve as it is, and it’s a hard feat to go two weeks without a lesson and not return rusty. I realise it pays to take full advantage of the good days and commit to a regular lesson schedule without too many days in between until I get the basics down pat.
Hitting the books
Back in the briefing room, the theory side is progressing smoothly and the notes for each sequence are for the most part easy to digest. There’s an equation to remember here and there and an assortment of graphs and diagrams to explain things like lift, drag, angle of attack and the forces acting on the aircraft, but I’m told not to worry too about the finer details at the moment.
It could be the journo instinct in me, but I find it purposeful to record our briefings for future reference. This is particularly useful with the de-brief sessions, which I listen back to afterwards and make notes on what I need to work on. I find on most occasions that the theory tends to make a lot more sense once we’ve gone up and flown the sequence. It’s almost like when you put the theory into practice and gain that hands on experience you’re coming at it from a more logical angle and it’s easier to compute.
Although I realise it won’t be too long before the theory starts to get more heavy duty and I’ll have to commit a boatload more hours at home with my head in the books - it’ll be just like uni, minus the shenanigans.
Feeling a burst of zeal after a particularly successful lesson, I drop into Concept Aviation and ask for all the text books I’ll need. The assistant loads me up with half a dozen or so books, each the size of an encyclopedia, and I curse the fact that I don’t have a photographic memory or the ability to speed read.
Back in the cockpit and traversing out to the training area for the Turning sequence, my instructor takes the opportunity to suggest I make simpler and smoother movements when advancing and reclining power. I try to justify my rapid throttle adjustments by explaining that I’m trying to do it as quickly as possible because naturally while adjusting power for a certain setting I have my eyes on the instruments rather than outside, which I’ve been drilled to avoid.
He quickly assures me though that in due course I’ll be able to set power mostly by ear by noting the noise change, then just use the engine RPM gauge for confirmation. So I begin getting into the habit of listening to the engine more attentively as I adjust power, as well as taking note of where the throttle roughly sits for the various speeds required.
Working my way up from shallow to medium to steep turns all goes smoothly and I find the concept relatively easy to grasp. Again, it’s surprising at first how little the ailerons need to be adjusted to roll the aircraft to the correct degree, even for steep turns. The simultaneous aileron/elevator/rudder action of rolling the aircraft, holding the horizon through a turn using back pressure, while also applying rudder to maintain balance isn’t as taxing as it might sound.
Just for kicks, after giving me a verbal pat on the back on my turning, my instructor tops off the Turning sequence by taking the reins and demonstrating an aerobatic turn, putting our valiant Pinky through a greater than 60° angle of bank.
Despite being a little rusty having not flown in almost a fortnight before the Stalling sequence due to weather, this final step in learning the basics turns out to be the most beneficial and enjoyable lesson yet. Like most ground dwellers, I had some pretty dramatic preconceptions about what would happen in a stall (thanks Hollywood). As I find out though, stalling is a very undramatic affair, although it’s not without its moments.
As I pull the power back to idle, the lack of sound coming from the engine, coupled with the reduced sound of the slower slipstream over the airframe, creates what feels like an eerie silence compared to the racket pilots are usually exposed to. It momentarily feels like we’re silently drifting, 3500ft about the earth - very surreal.
Then all of a sudden I’m jolted from the lull by the stall warning alarm and the splutter of the prop as it enters the stall.Even though I knew this would happen it still made my heart skip a few beats. Despite my instructor ensuring me beforehand that a wing drop rarely happens in a Cherokee, as he demonstrates a prolonged stall the left wing drops suddenly. Experiencing your first wing drop during your first stall is definitely an adrenalin rush, even with a competent instructor holding the reigns.
Out over the training area at a comfortable 3500ft, losing 300 or 400 feet in a stall doesn’t set off alarm bells. But should I stall at 500ft on final down the track and not be able to recover within the acceptable 100ft my instructor informs me in no uncertain terms that I’d be up the creek sans boat, paddle and life jacket, so he drills me further on refining my stall recovery technique.
There’s only a few movements to it, but I slightly struggle with making the adjustments quickly while also not making them too pronounced. As Pinky enters the stall and starts pitching down on her own I find myself pushing the nose down too much, so as I apply full power I have a farily solid view of Mother Earth over the cowling. I guess it was only natural then that, instead of easing out of the dive and setting best rate of climb, I gave a white-knuckled yank to the control column and headed for the heavens.
After a few more steady runs through I manage to smooth out my stall recovery technique, although my instructor says I need to briefly spend more time on it next lesson. Practice makes perfect - or permanent - as they say.
I end the Stalling sequence by conducting my first landing with the assistance of my instructor, managing not to bounce the aircraft onto its arse in the process. Similarly to takeoff, I envisaged the landing being a complex process, but it’s a pleasant surprise to find it somewhat straightforward and that it feels like everything moves at half pace.
Turning onto final, the last 500ft are particularly gentle as we gradually let out the stages of flap, reduce power and glide towards the piano keys.
As we lose the remaining altitude it almost feels like we’re operating in slow motion, meaning undershooting and overshooting appear to be relatively easy problems to negate - touch wood. It’s a surprisingly subtle motion over those last few moments as we hold the nose up and caress the rear wheels down onto the runway, followed by the nose wheel.
Granted, I bounce poor Pinky a little more than she would like and it isn’t the cleanest of touchdowns, but I nonetheless feel a sense of achievement as we taxi back to the parking lot.
While having not flown in a fortnight before the Stalling sequence, this final step in learning the basics nonetheless turns out to be the most beneficial and enjoyable lesson yet.
Basics and beyond
By the sixth sequence (Revision) I’m beginning to feel a lot more at home behind the control column and comfortable operating the aircraft. The various checks and work cycles are lodging their way into my memory, straight and level is now a given, I’m keeping the nose on the horizon during turns, climbing/descending/levelling off is a breeze, and with a little extra practice my stall recovery technique is now sound. And while still occasionally charging at what my instructor calls “Hollywood speed”, my taxiing is now steady as she goes. I’m 7.1 hours in and stringing together all I’ve picked up over the last two months and it’s ever so slowly edging towards second nature.
The theory side has proved steady enough, although it looks like I’ll soon be devoting more time after hours to memorising power settings, radio calls, airspeeds and more as I start ploughing through the next slab of theory.
Soaking it all up like the proverbial sponge, I’ve made a lot of progress since first stepping into Aerospace Aviation, even though I know I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface. It’s been a lot to absorb, but there’s a whole lot more flying and learning to do yet and it only gets more exhilarating every time.
Now, bring on circuits!
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