Having proven with my First Solo that I can successfully pilot a light aircraft for at least six minutes on my own, albeit without leaving Bankstown Airport’s control zone, I’m feeling pretty happy with my progress so far. My instructor – Dan Martin of Schofields Flying Club – informs me we’ll soon be heading back to the training to tackle some new, slightly more daunting, skills in preparation for my training area solo. Happy days indeed.
But before I get too carried away I need to first prove that my first two solo circuits weren’t mere flukes. So over a couple of lessons I focus on consolidating my circuit flying, making sure I’m flying precisely as the doctor ordered and maintaining the correct altitudes, airspeeds and attitudes throughout each of the four legs while keeping abreast of the various checklists and radio calls.
After taxiing out with Dan and completing a few circuits dual to make sure I’m in decent form, Dan instructs me to take him back to the Schofields’ clubhouse, fuel up and head back out and do it all by myself.
“The aircraft doesn’t have to be back for its next booking until midday, so see you in an hour or so,” Dan casually says as he jumps out of VH-SFM. “If you get tired, feel free to come back to the clubhouse, grab a coffee and then head back out again.”
I confidently assure him I’ll be fine as he heads indoors and leaves me to my own devices. I eagerly jump in the cockpit, close and lock the cabin door, and belt up. I jam the key in the ignition below the control cloumn, turn on the master switch, push the mixture to full rich and the throttle to about an inch open, give a “clear prop” out the window and turn the key to the ‘on’ position.
The engine fires to life, and much to my shock instantaneously the Warrior starts to bolt. Profanities fly as I jump on the brakes and realise the parking brake hadn’t been engaged. In truth, the aircraft barely moved, but I quickly, and sheepishly, glance back to the clubhouse and pray no-one is watching my antics and having a giggle.
Taxiing out to Runway 11R, I fiddle around with the various radio and comms knobs and buttons until I eventually hear the ATIS coming through my headset. As I pull up in the run-up bay, I work through the run-up checks, and then just to put myself at ease I carefully read over the checklist twice more to make sure I haven’t missed anything.
I get the feeling the air traffic controller in the tower is peering down at me wondering why I haven’t asked for clearance to move to the holding point yet as I pedantically ensure I’ve gone over everything I need to.
Satisfied the aircraft is good to go, I taxi out to the holding point, and then onto the runway centreline once I get clearance, and set off to consolidate my circuits. I’m comfortable and confident flying solo in the circuit now, so I consciously focus on perfecting all facets of the circuit, from rotating to landing.
As I fly circuit after circuit without any going pear-shaped I find myself mentally counting each circuit in my head as if I’m tallying laps on a race track. I rack up 10 circuits before I realise it’s nearly midday, so I make the call for a full stop as I fly downwind for the last time for today, land, and taxi back to Schofields feeling happy with my efforts.
The next week I’m back out at Schofields to further refine my circuits, and this time Dan gives me 90 minutes to play with as he sends me on my way out to runway 29L. I’m about half way through my allotted time and everything is very comfortable and cruisy as I complete lap after lap of the circuit, so much so that complacency momentarily creeps in. A few times on upwind I find myself occasionally glancing down at Georges River golf course below me trying to recognise which hole is which – I had recently got in a round at the course.
While nothing disastrous comes of it, I soon realise how foolish and potentially dangerous this is and chide myself, and for the rest of the lesson I commit to focusing 110 per cent on the job at hand. Such complacency can be put down to being confident in being able to manage the current task, and while I’m guessing that’s something many a pilot has experienced I’m aware it’s obviously no excuse.
Towards the end of the lesson, rolling out onto early final at 500ft I notice all the aircraft ahead of me are going around as a heavier aircraft is about to takeoff on runway centre. The tower instructs me to do the same, and as I make an early turn onto crosswind and concentrate on avoiding the other aircraft in close proximity I feel the force of the Toll Priority heavy as it jets off on upwind just ahead on my position.
Feeling happy with how the lesson is going, I consider requesting approval from ATC to practise a glide and/or flapless approach before I call it a day, but decide against it as I’m not sure if at this point in my training I have permission to conduct such manoeuvres in solo mode. So I keep flying normal circuits and on my 14th lap decide to head back to to Schofields, where Dan greets and informs me that I’m now ready for something new.
Exploring the training area
Dan tells me I can relax as we depart the Bankstown control zone and head out to explore the training area to the west, informing me that this is a pretty easy lesson as we gradually climb to 2500ft as we fly over the ground features that represent the steps of the Sydney control zone. As I soon find out, the Bankstown training area is huge, stretching well down to the south past Camden and well into the wilds southwest of Sydney.
As we cruise out to the far limits of the training area I pull out my Sydney Visual Terminal Chart (VTC) and Dan points out various reference features – small bodies of water, train tracks, highways, dams, tiny privately owned airstrips, the now sadly defunct Hoxton Park Airport, and scattered townships, to name a few – and gets me to find them on the ground below us. I find most of them easily enough, but one particular ‘lake’ proves particularly evasive as it’s currently dried up and been reduced to little more than a puddle.
We cruise to the base of the Blue Mountains, which represent the western edge of the training area. For future reference, Dan advises me to try not to venture too close to Blue Mountains as any engine failure over this area will likely lead to my doom – lots and lots of mountainous forest and not a lot of options for a forced landing. We head down to the southernmost corner of the training area, flying over Picton and Thirlmere.
While we’re doing nothing more than simply straight and level cruising while occasionally descending down to 1000ft to check out the sights – or lack thereof – I’m loving it as this the furthermost I’ve ventured from Bankstown Airport to date. It’s not like we’re getting into navs or anything just yet, but when you’ve logged most of your flying hours in the circuit it’s something of an adventure to fly 40-odd minutes – the time it takes to get down to Thirlmere – from your home airport.
Dan tells me not too many students venture to this far end of the training area, preferring to stay within closer proximity to Bankstown – no wonder it’s so quiet out here, I think to myself. Although we do get a nice little surprise as Dan points out a 747 as it blasts by us at 3000ft – about 1000ft above us. Apparently this isn’t something you see to often.
As we’re checking out the sights out here in what I’ve dubbed ‘the wild west’, Dan introduces me to using the automatic direction finder (ADF) – a very handy device I’d yet to use. Simply punch into the ADF the three digit non-directional beacon (NDB) code (which is written on the VTC) for the aerodrome you’re looking for and the ADF needle points directly to that aerodrome. Surely this is child’s play for most pilots, but to the low experience student pilot like myself it’s comforting to know that if I’ve lost my bearings when I’m flying out it in the sticks this handy little device could be my saviour.
As we do a 180° level turn and start backtracking for the big smoke, I punch 281 into the ADF and follow the needle that’s now set on a heading for Camden Aerodrome. As we near Camdem Dan suggests we go in for a closer look and conducts a touch and go before letting me have a crack doing the same on both the airport’s hard surface main runway and one of its grass strip. Camden’s control tower only operates on weekends, so we switch our radio to the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) and keep a good look out for other traffic as we fly the circuit.
The grass strip we line up for on final approach proves an interesting challenge as there’s a row of trees, power lines and a small creek quite close to the runway threshold that we have to remain above until late final. As soon as we pass over those obstacles I cut the power back to idle and pull on full flap to slow the airspeed down. I flare and it’s a bumpy ride as soon as the landing gear starts skidding along the turf.
The grass creates a lot more drag than I’ve come to expect from landing on hard runways, so Dan instructs me to leave one stage of flap out to afford us additional lift and start to rotate earlier than usual so we can gain enough airspeed to clear the trees that border the other end of the runway.
We leave Camden and set a heading for the northern end of the training area, flying over Warragamba Dam and then following the pipeline that links Warragamba to Sydney city to the east. The pipeline isn’t technically the northern border of the Bankstown training area, but Dan advises to use it as such as just to its left is the joint Army-RAAF Kingswood Armament Depo – above which is strictly a no-fly zone as they often send up flares and other assorted ballistics.
Mayday, mayday, mayday
The main new skill Dan tasks me with acquiring to prepare for my training area solo once I’ve gotten accustomed to the borders of the training area is how to handle forced landings in the event of an engine failure. As Dan has control of the aircraft and we’re at about 3000ft I cut the power to simulate an engine failure – not just for kicks, but as Dan instructs me to – and he demonstrates the correct emergency procedure.
The first move is the immediate actions – fuel pump on, mixture full rich, and carby heat on. Then you do everything you can to settle and maintain the airspeed at the best glide speed, which in the case of our Warrior is 75kts. As Dan demonstrates this he emphasises that the most important thing at this point is setting and as precisely as possible keeping the airspeed at that best glide speed in order to ensure you’re maximising the time you have before hitting the deck.
Then comes the task of searching for an adequate makeshift runway, which even above the bountiful array of paddocks and farms currently below us is something of a mission. As Dan advises, the most important thing is to find a landing area that’s into the wind, so you can slow down the airspeed on final and not overrun your makeshift runway and career into fences, houses, livestock, or onto roads.
As luck would have it, today the wind is coming from the south and the majority of the potential landing areas below us are of an east-west orientation.
Once you’ve found a strip of ideally clear land that will suit an into the wind landing you want to make sure it’s long enough – about the length of two football fields, Dan advises. You also want your emergency strip to be as dry and hard as possible so your landing gear doesn’t dig in and snap off upon landing and send you arse over head, so brown fields are more desirable than green ones.
By the same token, you want the land to be as smooth as possible and devoid of ditches, ruts, or holes that’ll send things pear-shaped in a hurry. Dan also warns against landing in long grass lest you ram into a hidden log after you land. Finally, you want level land; slightly uphill can suffice if need be, but never a downslope or you’ll surely collect that livestock chewing its cud ahead of you oblivious to the aircraft hurtling towards it. And you want to make sure your approach won’t be obstructed by pesky things such as power lines.
As Dan demonstrates, the way you do all of this is to pick the best landing area that looks within reach, which could involve banking in both directions to get a better view. This is obviously made a whole lot harder if you’re at minimal altitude, so decisive, quick thinking is vital. Once you’re happy with your chosen plot of land you descend down for a closer look, all the while maintaining the best glide speed and keeping a lookout for an alternative landing area if the one you had in mind turns out dodgy.
As you do this you position the aircraft for an upwind landing by flying the legs of a standard circuit around your chosen runway. However, this is altitude-dependent – if need be you can throw in s-shaped manoeuvres and pretty much anything else to safely get you lined up for your approach in quick fashion.
Dan expertly maintains 75kts as he manoeuvres our Warrior down onto final approach, all the while talking me through his thought process on why he chose this particular field and his actions. With the demonstration over, he conducts a go around and we climb back up to 3500ft. Now, my turn.
Dan cuts the power and I do the immediate actions and go about halting the airspeed at 75kts while craning my neck to find the best possible landing area. I struggle to accurately maintain the best glide speed as I look for somewhere to land, but before too long I settle on a strip of relatively open land that suits the wind conditions and swing the aircraft around in an s-shaped turn and join my imaginary circuit on late downwind.
All is going well as I maintain 75kts and we turn onto base while crossing over a row of power lines. I roll onto final with plently of altitude, so I pull up one stage of flap as I aim the nose at the long, albeit increasingly narrowing, stretch of brown grass I’ve chosen to land on.
I’m confident I’ve got this thing all tied up, but as we narrow in on our intended landing area I notice it’s littered with what looks like large potholes. Wowsers! I point these out to Dan, who casually replies, “So what are you going to do?”. I consider braving the landing, but sensing Dan is testing my decisiveness, and having earlier spied a possibly better alternate landing area running to the left away from the pothole-ravaged strip, I roll to the left and line-up for this new landing area at just about the last minute. Not the greatest of first attempts I’ll admit, but Dan tells me I made the right choice as I return to full power, retract the flap and climb away.
As Dan advises, in the event of a real engine failure-induced forced landing there’s a few more things to remember to. These include the secondary checks to try and get the engine going again – change fuel tanks, cycle the mixture through the range, check that the oil T’s and P’s are in the green, individually check both the left and right magnetos, and cycle the throttle through the range.
If all of these fail to restart the engine then you’re going in, and Dan instructs in that case the first move is to make the (ideally calm, clear) radio call. This call starts with a “mayday, mayday, mayday” and includes the following information: aircraft type, call sign (x3), position, altitude, nature of emergency, number of persons on board, and intentions.
Then you give a passenger brief, remembering to tell your pax, amongst other things, to remove their sunnies and any pens from their pockets.
Then finally, just before you hit the deck you do the shut down checks to minimise the likelihood of an electrical fire – fuel pump off, mixture off, mags off, and master switches off. And if possible try and unhatch the door in case it buckles upon a rough landing and you’re trapped in the cockpit.
The sideslip and steep turn
Next lesson we’re going over forced landings again, and this time Dan pulls the power on me as we’re overhead the privately owned St Marys gravel airstrip. Flares shoot into the air at the nearby Kingswood Armaments Depo as I establish the aircraft on final. All is going well as we glide down to the gravel, save for the fact that I’m too high to make the runway as I hadn’t spent sufficient time losing altitude before turning onto final.
Not to worry, as Dan takes the opportunity to demonstrate a sideslip, a neat technique to rapidly lose lots of height.
To do this, Dan simultaneously pushes in rudder and opposite aileron and lowers the nose, and as soon as he does so it feels like we’re plummeting earthwards. As he returns the aileron and rudder back to normal and raises the nose we’ve dropped a couple of hundred feet in the blink of an eye and are now on track to make St Marys’ runway. I’m very tempted to land on the gravel just to see what it feels like, but I stick to Dan’s instructions and opt for a low level go around.
When we’re back at a sufficient height Dan lets me try a few sideslips of my own, and I ask if this technique can be used anytime, such as on base if I find myself inadvertently higher than I should be. He kindly informs me that it’s generally (depending on aircraft type) meant to be used as a last resort rather than as a fix for inaccurate flying. And it’s important to remember that during a sideslip the airspeed indicator (ASI) won’t read accurately.
As we head back to Bankstown Dan introduces me to steep turns, another skill I’ll need before my training area solo and one that’s vital in order to quickly avert potential mid-air collisions and near misses. Following Dan’s demonstration, I give a good lookout first before rolling into a complete 360° level steep turn to the left from a level cruise.
As the aircraft banks through 30° I apply full power and increase back pressure on the control column a tad. I reach the intended 45° angle of bank and hold the attitude through the turn. As I come back on my reference feature I simultaneously reduce the power to cruise, ease up on the back pressure, and start levelling out, at the end of which I’ve lost about 150ft altitude.
A little sloppy, yes, so Dan gets me to do the same drill in the opposite direction and this time I nail it, only losing about 50ft by the end of the turn. PPL standard for altitude change in a steep turn is -/+150ft, while CPL is -/+100ft, so I’m happy with my efforts.
GAAP to Class D
As luck would have it, I come to the point in my training where I learn how to re-enter the control zone literally a week before the transition from GAAP to Class D aerodrome procedures comes into effect. As Dan explains the correct procedures to me both in the theory room and in the cockpit, he relentlessly reminds me that this is all about to change but for the time being we’ll just roll with it.
As we return from the training area to Bankstown, in turn we track at 1500ft to either the 2RN radio tower or Prospect Reservoir, Bankstown’s two inbound reporting points (IPR), and radio the tower of our intentions. As any student in a similar situation would attest, that damn 2RN tower is almost impossible to spot the first few times. From afar it appears to be about the width of a strand of hair, and the first time we use 2RN as our IRP we’re almost on top of it before I find it.
I’m particularly conscious of maintaining a constant lookout for traffic as we pass over these entry points as all other aircraft coming into Bankstown will be at the same height at the same spots, and I’m told it’s obviously therefore the place where you’re most likely to get collected.
After a few weeks buzzing around the training area Dan says my circuit flying will likely be a bit rusty, and as he gets me to do a few upon our return from the training area during one lesson I find he’s not wrong. It’s funny how you can do something over and over and feel completely at ease with it, and then come back to it after a few weeks away and it’s all gone sloppy.
During this reintroduction to the circuit, we get a pretty decent crosswind – about 12kts, still a few knots below our Warrior’s maximum acceptable crosswind of 17kts – and Dan tests my relatively uninformed crosswind landing skills.
While I’m definitely in need of more practice on the matter, it’s an incredibly fun manoeuvre trying to get it right as I wrestle with the controls on short final and try not to snap the aircraft in two upon landing.
As I’m learning all of these new practical skills, naturally there’s an accompanying amount of theory studies I need to plough through as well. I’ve been reading through the first in Bob Tait’s series of text books, the Basic Aeronautical Knowledge text, in preparation for the theory component of my General Flying Progress Test (GFPT), which is known as the BAK (Basic Aeronautical Knowledge). Mr Tait knows his stuff, that’s for sure, and I’m finding the book, with its practise exam questions at the end of each chapter, very useful.
And I finally start making use of my ERSA (En Route Supplement Australia), with Dan carefully explaining to me what’s what on the Bankstown page of the publication. The BAK is exam is open book, which thankfully means I don’t need to memorise word for word everything on Bankstown in the ERSA. Phew.
The poor weather of late in Sydney has seen us remain indoors and concentrate on theory recently, which has actually worked out good as it’s allowed me to clear up some queries I’d been pondering leading up to my pre-training area theory exam. This exam comprises 40 multiple choice questions, a 90-minute time limit and a pass mark of 70 per cent, or 28 correct answers. I have a crack at a practice exam at home and score a modest 28 out of 40, right on the pass mark.
The following week I sit the actual exam, and complete it in half the allotted time and pass with slightly flying colours with an 80 per cent mark of 32 out of 40. Now, bring on the training area solo!