With the elements impeding his progress of late, Justin Grey tries to make the most he can of his lessons with new instructor Bill Cooper, the new CFI of Bankstown Airport-based Schofields Flying Club.

With Dan Martin, my previous instructor at Schofields Flying Club, having now taken up a position with CASA, I’m placed in the very worthy hands of new Schofields’ Chief Flying Instructor (CFI) Bill Cooper. On a coincidental side note, Bill was actually Dan’s instructor back in the day when Bill taught and Dan studied aviation at TAFE in Sydney, so I felt assured straight off the bat that I was in very capable hands.

I saddle up for my first lesson with Bill and we head out to the Bankstown Airport’s training area for some familiarisation. Bill has been teaching at various flying schools, clubs and TAFE for decades, and I’m immediately impressed by his methods, even when he chides me every now and then for my poor form.

Interestingly, Bill occasionally is wont to throw in some history of the Sydney basin throughout our lessons. As we fly over various townships and ground features in the training area he gives me a quick rundown on the area and what it used to be like in times past. I particularly enjoy his pointing out of the incredibly hostile terrain we fly over on the eastern edges of the Blue Mountains and how hard it would’ve been for the early settlers to overcome.

All of this is obviously peripheral to our actual lesson, and you may call it trivial, but for someone like myself who grew up in Far North Queensland and has only been residing in Sydney for a little over a year I find it an interesting aside. And in no way does it interfere with the actual instructing.

It takes a couple of lessons for Bill to gauge my piloting performance. During these initial lessons he generally instructs me to depart Bankstown’s control zone, head for the training area according to the correct procedures regarding maximum altitudes, switching radio frequencies, adjusting the transponder etc, and track towards and identify various ground features.

Then, after about an hour or so of that, he asks me to accurately track back to Bankstown, re-enter the control zone and circuit, paying close attention to procedures, and put us down safely.

During these few lessons Bill offers various little tidbits of advice on how I can touch up my flying and make it all a bit more on song. While I take all of these on board, it’s interesting to see how some instructors have differing levels to which they will scrutinise their students.

For whatever reason, some will be a bit more lenient while others push you to improve yourself. While I feel quite sheepish every time Bill has to correct me on things I should already know, I’m nonetheless very grateful.

Bill, presumably sensing I’m showing signs of improvement, tells me as we sit in the run-up bay at the start of one lesson that we’ll be heading into Camden Aerodrome for a few circuits to make sure I can make the radio calls and safely get in and out of the airfield should things go pear-shaped at Bankstown and I’m in need of an alternative. I had, during a previous lesson with Dan, conducted a few touch and goes using one of Camden’s grass strips, but this time we’d be using the sealed main runway.

Three touch and goes and it all goes according to plan, however there was a little initial confusion as, unlike Bankstown where the piano keys start at the very beginning of each runway, on Camden’s main runway there’s a few hundred metres of tarmac before the threshold. As a result, on the first touch and go I momentarily think I’m about to overshoot the landing, before coming to my senses.

Mixing it up
While Dan had been hesitant for us to venture too far over the Blue Mountains that border the western edge of the Bankstown training area lest we have an engine failure, Bill is a bit more accomodating in this regard. We spend a fair amount of time circling Warragamba Dam and Bill gets me to follow the waterway that flows through the dam and supplies some of Sydney’s water.

While it’s undoubtedly child’s play for most pilots, this is the first time I’ve continuously tracked over a ground feature and there’s no hope of wiping the big dorky grin off my face as I trace our Warrior over the waterway as it bends, curves and snakes its way southwest through the mountain ranges.

Granted, we were flying at 2500 feet, but had we been down at a few hundred feet or less I imagine it would’ve felt like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie, or Star Wars, as we weaved our way through the steep cliffs above us that border the waterway.

One of the added benefits of a recent stint of leave I enjoyed was the opportunity to fly in the mid-afternoon rather than the standard early morning lessons that office duties had necessitated to date.

I’d always been told I was lucky to be flying earlier in the mornings as the conditions were always more stable and I’d be less likely to encounter a bumpy ride, but I was grateful to have a recent lesson booked for 1530-1700. After all, I had to experience flying in the muck sooner or later.

Perhaps it was just a really calm day, but as it turned out my one afternoon lesson to date was quite sedate and it was a pleasant change to be heading back to Bankstown as the sun began to slowly set.

However, that setting sun did have the last laugh when we turned from base onto final and lined up to land on Runway 29R. With our runway pointing only 20 degrees to the north of directly west, I endured a frustrating battle with the sun as its last few rays for the day all but blinded me on short final.

Inevitably, the fact that I’d somehow misplaced my sunnies (doesn’t that always happen?) upon completion of my previous lesson and had yet to replace them didn’t aid me in performing a satisfactory landing. Try as hard as I may, I could barely see a thing out of the front of the cockpit for the last few seconds before the landing gear bit into the runway.

As a result, I ended up not flaring our poor Warrior for long enough, and while I thought I was holding off adequately, and quietly praying that the sweet sound of the stall warning alarm would bleet and we’d gently kiss the runway with a nose-up attitude, we’re jolted by an thud as I clonk the aircraft onto the runway.

While the aircraft wasn’t damaged in any way and Bill didn’t angrily hurl any stern words of advice my way, my embarrassment was palpable. But I learned my lesson and the next day tracked down a new pair of shades with nice dark tinted lenses.

CAVOK? Tell ‘em he’s dreaming
I’ve run through about three lessons with Bill when Mother Nature snarls upon myself and every other trainee pilot at Bankstown and Camden. For a period of about six weeks I lose all but one of my one of my weekly lessons to bad weather. While I’d been warned on a number of occasions to expect to lose flights to poor weather, this nonetheless proves incredibly frustrating. All geared up and no chance to fly, as it were.

And if it’s not the torrential rain Sydney has been hit with of late, it’s cyclone winds. On the morning of one particular lesson, I awake to find thick cloud blotting out the sun, but by the time I get out to Bankstown it’s almost completely cleared and one couldn’t ask for a more impossibly blue sky.

Parking out the front of Schofields, I’m all smiles and thanking my lucky stars that the weather has somehow cleared when Bill calls. The not-so-great news? Winds are at 10 knots on the ground and a havoc-wreaking 35 knots at 2500 feet. So the odds of getting up in the air today are tantamount to the likelihood of the ALP and Coalition putting aside their difference, forging one happy political family, and ceasing all the relentless, oft-fellacious campaign bashing that almost has me turned off voting at the forthcoming Federal election altogether.

Bill is sympathetic to me losing out again to the elements, but what can one do? And when I get back to the office that morning I receive an email from Airservices Australia issuing a strong wind warning for Sydney International Airport, so I guess many a Sydney pilot was reduced to sitting around twiddling their thumbs that day.

The disruptions that bad weather can render upon the training of a one-lesson-a-week ab initio student pilot can be disheartening. At times, it feels like I’m making scant progress and those milestones of GFPT, PPL and eventually CPL hardly seem to be getting any closer.

The other alternative to minimising the negative impact of ongoing poor weather on my training could be to hightail it out of Sydney, head for the country and learn to fly at a rural airfield, where the weather is generally more favourable. Although, that’s not really an option for me. But either way, if I had the time and the means to learn to fly on a full-time basis, I dare say that’s the route I’d be taking.

Class D…Duh!
None too serendipitous for my training (and perhaps for yours as well if you’re currently around the same point as me) was the timing of the introduction of  the new Class D procedures on June 3.

While the changes are a necessary evil that we seemingly all have to get accustomed to eventually, the fact that their introduction coincided with my just getting comfortable with the old radio calls etc felt like a cruel kick in the guts by Lady Luck herself. Making the correct radio calls at the inbound reporting points when re-entering the control zone is obviously of the utmost importance for safety reasons, so I focus on getting these down pat as soon as I can. And I’ve all but memorised them.

But the one change that seems to be throwing both myself and other pilots for a loop (at Bankstown, at least) is the new requirement for taxiway clearances. Each individual taxiway on the airfield now has its own specific name, for example Kilo Two, Golf One, Sierra Three, Mike Five, and so on and so on – you get the picture. There’s upwards of 50 differently named ‘taxiways’ at Bankstown, and while pilots aren’t expected to know all of them from memory, one can understand the initial confusion this has caused, even for some instructors on occasion.

For me, at least, this comes to the fore when, after landing for a full stop and hurriedly exiting the runway, looking wide-eyed at the map of the airfield on my lap to find out where I am and making the radio call for clearance to taxi back to Schofields. Am I on runway exit Romeo One, Mike Three, Golf Two, or something entirely different?

BAK exam

With the foul weather stalling my practical training, all is not lost as there’s always some new theory I can try and get my head around, and it never hurts to get ahead on that front. With it raining cats, dogs and a whole lot more adorable household pets outside, Bill sits me down in the Schofields’ clubhouse and gives me a solid introductory briefing on instrument flying, which I’ll need to get well-acquainted with for my General Flying Progress Test (GFPT).

And in my spare time at home I continue to plough through Bob Tait’s fantastic Basic Aeronautical Knowledge (BAK) text book to prepare for my forthcoming BAK exam, the theory component of the GFPT.

Bill loads me up with a practice BAK exam, performance and loading charts for the Piper Cherokee Warrior, and various other supporting documents and sends me on my way to study at home. The BAK exam comprises 40 multiple choice questions, a time limit of 90 minutes and a pass mark of 70 per cent.

In short time I find myself having a crack at the practice exam on the train to and from the office. The train ride is just under 40 minutes and I manage to complete three quarters of the questions in that time, but truth be told a few of my answers involved a modicum of guess work. Oh well, I’ll find out just how hazardous those guesses were when I get the answer sheet from Bill.

As I’m sure is the norm at most flying schools, Schofields offers four-day, full-time BAK theory courses that run over two consecutive weekends, with students sitting the actual exam on the final Sunday arvo.

However, I’ve chosen to go it alone, for this exam at least – a decision that wasn’t all that hard to make given if need be I have an ace in the hole in the form of Australian Flying Publisher Doug Nancarrow, who has previously taught aviation theory professionally, to help me fill in the gaps in my repertoire.

On the cusp
Arriving at Schofields for my last lesson prior to this issue of Australian Flying going to print, the weather has finally come good (albeit only just) and I’m set for my first lesson in three weeks. Bill greets me in the clubhouse and over coffee pipes up, “Now let’s try and get that training area solo out of way today”. I’m taken aback by this as, while I’m chomping at the proverbial to fly my training area solo, my lack of recent flying has me slighlty doubting my prowess in the cockpit.

Nonetheless, I head out to the training area (with Bill in the right-hand seat) and as he asks me to fly over various ground features for an hour or so and then re-enter the control zone at Bankstown to join the circuit and land I find myself regaining my confidence much quicker than I’d expected.

As we track back to the Schoies’ clubhouse, while explaining that the current low cloud and increasing wind isn’t conducive for an area solo, Bill asks if I feel ready for taking that next step. I tell him that the actual flying isn’t a problem, but that I’d feel more comfortable if I knew the radio calls for correctly re-entering the control zone according to the new procedures off by heart rather than resorting to reading them off a piece of paper on my lap.

While Mother Nature has conspired against me for now, her devilish ways have only worked to postpone the inevitable. As Bill wisely says, it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground. But, weather-permitting, that area solo is just around the corner.

As Bruce Springsteen once sang, I’m waiting, waiting on a sunny day.

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