• Justin clambering aboard for his training area solo. (Will Spiers)
    Justin clambering aboard for his training area solo. (Will Spiers)

After patiently waiting for CAVOK, Justin Grey finally tackles his training area solo at Bankstown Airport's Schofields Flying Club.

I awake with a startle and in a cold sweat at 0630, a full hour before my alarm is set to so rudely rattle me from my slumber. Perhaps my girlfriend’s ongoing concerns for my safety have finally entrenched themselves in my subconsciousness. Perhaps I’m suffering a fit of last minute nerves. Or perhaps our pet cat, an impossibly pure white ball of fluff named Moopsy, is simply nibbling on my little toe.

Today’s set to be my first flying lesson in three weeks – thanks again for your tireless support, Mother Nature – however based on the progress of my last lesson I sense that my instructor, Schofields CFI/Chief Pilot Bill Cooper, will send me off for my training area solo today. But something is nagging at me.

I put on a nonchalant, almost macho, guise (surely something many male readers can identify with) as if I’ve no trepidations as I drop my better half off at the train station, reassure her I’ll be safe, and make my way out to Bankstown Airport.

Despite the stabs of anxiety, I’m desperate to get my training area solo out of the way today as, while good flying weather has been ludicrously hard to come by in Sydney of late, today actually looks alright. “It’s CAVOK for once, so stop being a fairy and strike while the iron’s hot,” I chide myself quietly as I march towards the Schofields clubhouse and greet Bill.

Wisely, Bill doesn’t merely sign me out, toss me the keys and send me out to battle through my training area solo. Rather, he advises we both head out to the training area (TA) in dual mode so I can dust off the cobwebs before, all things according to plan, returning for my solo.

Perhaps it was just that I just needed another quick flight in dual mode to return my confidence to a more respectable level, as I’m now feeling a lot better about tackling my training area solo.

While I wait for the red-striped white Piper Cherokee Warrior (VH-NFR) to be refuelled, I double-check that I’ve got all my ‘cheat sheets’ – pieces of paper on which I’ve scribbled the various radio calls and frequencies on – in order.

Unlike First Solo, where you’re given a set route and defined task to complete, the training area solo is quite open-ended. As I sign the aircraft out I ask Bill if there’s anything in particular he wants to me to do or anywhere in particular he wants me to fly to while I’m buzzing around out there. He says it’s entirely up to me where I go, and that the whole point of the training area solo is just to get the student pilot to depart and re-enter the control zone according to the correct procedures. I guess this means that if you’re a smart arse – or petrified silly – you could conceivably knock over the exercise in 20-odd minutes, but surely that’d be missing the point.

Bill’s only proviso is that I return the aircraft in an hour as another pilot has booked it. With my early morning nerves calmed, I’d figured I’d put in a good 90 minutes or so so I could head down to Thirlmere and Picton in the far southwest corner of the TA. But with only an hour to play with I decide to just retrace a similar route to what I’d just flown with Bill.

Off I go
Taxiing out to the run-up bay for Runway 29R, I’m a lot calmer than I’d anticipated I would be. Run-ups done, I taxi out to the holding point, radio for take-off clearance and roll onto the centreline. Full throttle, airspeed alive, T’s and P’s in the green, 65 knots and rotate and I’m away. Maintaining a 290 heading, I flick off the fuel pump at 400ft and continue the climb out to 1000ft before levelling off.

Flying over the train tracks that mark the three mile boundary at the edge of Bankstown’s control zone, I climb to 2300ft as per airspace restrictions and level off once more. As I pass over the imaginary line that joins Prospect Reservoir and 2RN radio tower – Bankstown’s two inbound reporting points – I flick the transponder to standby, adjust it from 1200 to 3000, and flick it back to ‘alt’. So far so good.

However I’m now in a slight spot of bother as I can’t figure out what I have to punch into the GPS nav so it tells me how far I am from Sydney Airport – once you’re 20 miles from Sydney you need to switch the radio to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). While Bill had set the GPS nav on Sydney earlier, I was at a loss as to how to return it to that setting after starting up again.

Rather, as I fly further and further from Bankstown the little avionics screen is telling me how far I am from Bankstown. But, remembering that Sydney Airport is about 10 miles from Bankstown, I figure I’ll just wait until the GPS nav tells me I’m 10 miles from Bankstown and then switch to the CTAF. But, low and behold as I edge closer to the 10-miles-from-Bankstown mark the screen automatically changes so it’s now telling me how far I am from Camden Aerodrome, the next nearest airfield. “Damn – I wish I’d asked Bill more about working this thing,” I curse audibly.

This isn’t too much of a drama at this stage though as I remember the ground features that approximately mark 20 miles from Sydney – ‘tadpole’ lake and a very recognisable brickworks site.

Keeping the Warragamba Dam-Prospect Reservoir pipeline that roughly marks the northern boundary of the TA clear to my right, I adjust my heading to about 260 and track for Warragamba Dam at an altitude of 3500ft. Once overhead Warragamba I make a level turn and track southwest over the eastern edge of the Blue Mountains.

As I’m sure most student pilots soon come to recognise, there really isn’t much to actually flying the aircraft, per se. Flying in a familiar, wide open area, such as the TA, and being able to just sit back and buzz around is very therapeutic for one’s confidence and reinforces the inherent fun in flying. But, of course, the actual flying is only half of the pilot equation.

Turning for home
As I reach a very distinct, cleared out area on the range – an isolated, tree-less property that, littered with discarded machinery parts and other rust-laden bits and pieces, resembles a deserted junkyard – I check my watch and decide it’s time to head for home. Turning east, I punch the non-directional beacon (NDB) code for 2RN radio tower into the automatic direction finder (ADF) and the yellow needle enthusiastically flicks towards my chosen inbound reporting point. I adjust my heading so the ADF needle points directly vertical, telling me I’m tracking accurately for 2RN.

As I fly over Mayfield and Bringelly – two inbound reporting points for Camden – I maintain 3500ft so as to keep well above any aircraft that may be joining the circuit at the aerodrome.

Airspace regulations dictate that pilots must be below 2500ft before they get within 20 miles of Sydney Airport, so once clear of Camden on the return to Bankstown the standard procedure is to set the aircraft up for a gentle cruise descent so as to level out at 2500ft as you hit the 20 mile mark.

However, with me not having a clue how to set up the GPS nav to show how far I am from Sydney and fearful of ‘busting airspace’, I figure my best bet is to increase my rate of descent and get back down to 2500ft well ahead of time. However if my engine decided to pack it up at this point my lower than ideal altitude would’ve only exacerbated my plight.

As I near 2RN, I rip out the now sweat-soaked cheat sheets that have been wedged under my left thigh and flip to the page that has my radio call for re-entering the control zone. At 1500ft and back on the Bankstown tower frequency, as I fly over 2RN clasping my cheat sheet in my right hand and the control yoke in my left, I hit the transmit button and make the call, “Bankstown tower, November Foxtrot Romeo, a Warrior, inbound at 2RN, 1500ft”. ATC returns fire, instructing me to maintain 1500 and join downwind for Runway 29R.

Keeping my eyes firmly outside the cockpit as I fly through what could rightly be considered a ‘black spot’ for potential collisions, I make the right-hand turn towards my downwind leg. Maintaining 1500ft, as I draw level with the tower I make the next radio call, “November Foxtrot Romeo, turning downwind”. “November Foxtrot Romeo, clear visual approach, follow the Cessna ahead of you, you’re number two in the circuit,” comes the crisp reply.

Circuit concern
While flying circuits one after the other is now a no-brainer, I still find myself flying some very ugly circuit legs when I join the circuit upon returning from the TA. Normally it’s a piece of cake – turn downwind at 1000ft, turn from base to be established on final at 500ft and you’re set. Perhaps it’s just me, but a fistful of spanners are hurled into the works when joining downwind at 1500ft; things just seem to get out of whack. And as I come in to complete my training area solo such is the case.

On early downwind with clearance to descend to circuit height, I run through my pre-landing checks, pull back the throttle and lower the nose in an effort to lose altitude in quick fashion. Perhaps distracted by this extra workload, by the time I turn onto base I’ve extended my downwind leg too far. Working to rectify this error, I decide to fly an oblique base leg and establish the aircraft on a somewhat wonky final.

Flying down early final, the situation is looking on the up altitude-wise (400ft) but my airspeed is wandering a little too far below the 70 knots I want to see at this stage. I’ve got two stages of flap out and I’m keeping my aiming point more or less where it should be (or so I think), but as I edge closer to the threshold I’m hopelessly sinking.

I lower the nose and increase power in a rushed effort to gain more airspeed and reduce my sink rate, but for whatever reason this only half fixes the problem. As I float down to the threshold for an almost comically slow and low landing, I swear I’m going to touch down well before the start of the runway. I brace myself, praying for the aircraft to reach the hard runway before the wheels and the dirt meet and hoping for the life of me that the main landing gear doesn’t dig into the wet grass before the runway and snap off.

I must’ve only been a few feet off the ground as the aircraft reached the start of the tarmac on Runway 29R, for almost immediately after the piano keys disappear under the cowling the main landing gear connects with the turf. Thanking the powers that be, I roll off the runway, somehow remember my radio call for taxi clearance, pop the storm warning window to let some well-needed breeze into the muggy cockpit and ponder my passable, but far from perfect, training area solo performance.

Under the hood
With my training area solo done and dusted, the march towards the General Flying Progress Test (GFPT) next leads me to basic instrument flying. Bill sits me down and explains how learning to fly accurately using the instruments will improve my flying skills in general.

As Bill says, flying accurately using only the instruments is tantamount to trying to juggle three balls without dropping any. The pilot has to constantly scan the primary flight instruments to ensure they’re all showing the numbers that’ll give them the aircraft performance they’re after, all the while not being able to use the horizon as a reference. The flight attitude indicator (or artificial horizon) becomes of primary importance, but you also must closely monitor the altimeter, vertical speed indicator (VSI), directional gyro and airspeed indicator (ASI).

It’s all about flying within accepted levels of tolerance, ie +/- 100ft altitude and +/- 10 degrees heading, and using the flight attitude indicator to precisely control pitch attitude. To the uninitiated like myself, it’s something of a fine art to fly accurately using only the instruments – to make the primary instrument needles look like they’re, “painted on the dials”, as Bill puts it.

With Bill in the right-hand seat of our Warrior, we head out for an introduction to basic instrument flying. As luck would have it, it’s not the most brilliant of conditions for such a lesson as the wind is blowing at a devilish number of knots. As I later find out, a strong wind warning has been issued for Sydney Airport, which has diverted some Airbus and Boeing behemonths and their very qualified pilots elsewhere. Nonetheless, we soldier on!

Flying straight and level at 2500ft, Bill reaches behind and hands me what looks like either a welder’s helmet (minus the bit you look through) or a discarded prop from the set of Star Wars, and tells me to put the ‘hood’ on. I slap it on and it nicely does its job of blocking my view out of the cockpit so I’m left to rely on the instruments.

Bill hands control of the aircraft back to me and in turn gives me various instructions, such as climb to 3500ft maintaining our current heading, descend to 2500ft on our current heading, turn onto a heading of 180 and maintain our current altitude, and so on. Given this is my first time flying under the hood, and that our Warrior is ping-ponging about in the gale that’s currently blowing, Bill tells me I’m doing quite well.

But my first flight under the hood isn’t without its hiccups. Bill reminds me on more than a few occasions to fly “within tolerance”, with my main problem being a sloppy control of my altitude. In an effort to get back within tolerance as soon as possible I find myself getting heavy-handed with the controls, to which Bill reminds me to make, “subtle, gentle corrections”.

Having battled under the hood in appalling conditions to the point where the first unpleasant symptons of nausea are knocking on the door, we decide to pull the pin and save it for another day.

Keep plugging away
It’s now been a year since I took my trial introductory flight (TIF), and I’ve loved every minute of my learning to fly journey to date. While I’ve generally only been flying once a week, and I did lose a three-month block altogether late last year, truth be told I’d anticipated being a little further along by now. I put this down to a lot of unkind weather, but also I may have figured I’d get the hang of it a little quicker than I actually have. While at times frustrating, this hasn’t dampened my desire to become a competent, qualified pilot, eventually.

I came across something from the US recently that suggested that 78 per cent of people in the US who commence flight training walk away without gaining the qualifications they were after, mainly due to, “shortages of time and/or money, bad weather, scheduling snafus, poor service, and changing priorities”. Nonetheless, I implore all ab initio students who aren’t progressing at the rate they’d hoped to keep plugging away at it. It may just be a matter of perservering. And from what I hear it’s definitely worth the effort!

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