This was going to be the post about how I’d finished sandblasting my rusty pilot’s licence, completed my RA-Aus (Recreational Aviation Australia) endorsement checkride, and been cleared to fly solo pretty much whenever I wanted. (Which is pretty much all the time.)
As it happens, that’s not quite how things turned out.
Go? No go.
Flight training has a frustrating capacity to teach you about more than just flying. As sure as you’ll learn that pulling the stick slows the aircraft down, you’ll learn that factors beyond your control can slow you down just as effectively.
Once you’ve scheduled all your solo nav exercises on rainy days, you’ll know what I mean.
So anyway, I turned up at Aldinga the other Sunday for my booked checkride, only to find out that was no longer the plan. Instead, I found myself doing something totally unexpected, very enjoyable, and almost certainly beneficial.
Back up to speed
First of all, let me bring you up to speed.
Since I last wrote about getting back into the air, I’ve been going to Adelaide Biplanes roughly once a fortnight to get my skills up to scratch. I appreciate that fortnightly is far from ideal, but try to remember that my flying is self-funded and I’m in it for the long haul. I’d rather fly less frequently than blow my all my money in a rush and have to stop again.
Besides, I’ve found that fortnightly flying is curiously testing: It’s not quite long enough to forget everything from last time, but it’s pretty close. So in that regard, it takes more mental effort than going once or twice a week would.
In fact, things have mostly gone pretty well. I’ve flown a lot (a LOT) of circuits in the SportCub, and got to know Aldinga Airfield with its eight (two per strip) runway headings. For a country paddock, it’s probably the most complex field I’ve ever flown out of! At least taxiing is still simpler than at a capital city airport.
The location develops some interesting winds when a southeasterly blows off the nearby ridge. These manifest themselves as attention-getting turbulence on the climb-out from runway 14 and then, while you fly around the circuit, organise themselves into small wave that provides exciting amounts of sink on short finals for the same runway.
Still, once you know to expect it, none of that is a big deal. Some days it would be more patchy, so allowing for the sink would only leave me with large amounts of side-slipping required to bring the ground back into range. Occasionally (and only occasionally, I’m happy to say) I’d have the opposite problem and need to drag the SportCub in with power.
‘Push the throttle, LEAVE the stick’ is now hard-wired into my muscle memory.
Not why we do things
Finding a cross wind to train in proved slightly more troublesome. There was one memorable hour where every time we changed runways, the wind would follow us round. Flying teaches you to be patient, remember…
I also struggled with wheel landings for a little while. I had the theory in my head about carrying extra speed and holding a flying attitude while reducing the rate of descent, until the grass was almost magically painted down by the tyres.
Turns out, that way really is as hard as it sounds.
It was one of the few times I found myself looking at the local Sportstars and Cessnas, and thinking how much easier it would be to fly a tricycle aircraft instead. But that’s not why we do things…
After a lot of thinking and watching a couple of salient Flightchops clips (handy because he points a camera at his tailwheel) I realised the art of the wheeler was to still lower the tail – just not all the way to the ground. Thanks Mister Chops!
The increasing angle of attack makes it easier to manage the rate of descent, and the increasing drag slows the aircraft down for a tidy landing.
Once it clicked, I was in. Or so I thought.
The worst of times…
Because then came ‘the day’. I guess we all have them, right?
A fortnight earlier, I’d had a fantastic session flying circuits onto RWY 14 without a problem. After half an hour the instructor hopped out and let me do another 30 minutes on my own. I was totally on my game – confident, competent and error free.
Two weeks later I came back for my next lesson, with a very light southwesterly putting us on RWY 21. It was, quite simply, a beautiful day for flying. But could I? Well, yes. But could I land? Not at all. Out of ten circuits, I only managed to stick one wheeler and my final lumpy landing of the day.
Adding to my stress over suddenly losing any ability to return an aircraft safely to earth was the fact that it was just before the Christmas holiday, and various commitments meant it would be a month before I could come back and try again.
As I drove home, fuming and puzzling, the pieces started falling into place. I wasn’t incompetent – but I had managed to accumulate a perfect storm of small errors.
My greatest sin was hubris. Having flown such a perfect session the time before, I simply expected to turn up and do the same things for the same results. Nuh-uh.
I’d also (and partly for the same reason) skipped on my usual mental preparation/transition. It was as close as I’d ever come to kicking the tyres and lighting the fires.
And finally, I’d underestimated the aircraft.
…the best of times
I had flown my good session with about 10 knots of headwind straight down the runway. (The fun side of that was the airplane felt almost stationary when it landed, and would leap into the air almost as quickly as I added power. But I digress.)
Transition to almost no wind and it was a different beast. The SportCub is light. In fact, it’s a Light Sport Aircraft with a maximum all-up weight of 600 kg or 1320 lbs. Less with just me aboard. Anyway, the clue is in the name.
With a low mass it doesn’t have much of what glider pilots know as ‘penetration’, which means 10 knots on the nose comes over as a lot.
So where I’d happily flown approaches that penetrated the headwind and sink on 14 one day, flying the exact same approach in still air would find me half-way down a rapidly disappearing runway with too much altitude and too much airspeed. Every attempt to get down from there made me arrive even faster and bounce even higher. Go around again.
The SportCub is also fitted with a full span of vortex generators, which make the wing want to keep flying until it is absolutely ready to stop. If you carry too much speed, the only landing you’re going to make will be a bad one.
That was probably a factor in my early wheelers too.
By the time I’d figured all this out (and it took around 24 hours) I was feeling a lot better about things – but champing at the bit to get back into the airplane and redeem myself. As it happened, I wasn’t too miserable for the whole of the holidays and I didn’t have to wait a full month to prove that I’d solved my problem.
I now look back on that session as the single most valuable hour of my re-training. I learned a lot about the aircraft and flying it properly, thanks to messing it all up.
Slow down, hotshot
So, fast-forward to the check-ride that never was.
After another session of solo circuits, my instructor and I thought I was ready for a checkride with the CFI. We even booked it in. But when I turned up on a balmy Sunday afternoon two weeks later, it turned out that wasn’t quite the case.
In fact, I needed to do a simple navigation exercise to show I could read a map and fly an airplane across it, because my RA-Aus transition would carry my pre-existing PPL navigation endorsement with it.
So with no warning and no preparation, I was embarked on a navigation flight across country I’d never flown over before.
That’s not something you’d do in the normal course of piloting – or even in a normal course of training. But as a way of checking in on your seat-of-the-pants nav skills, I can recommend it.
Take an instructor to get you un-lost, just in case, but create the opportunity and go for it.
Out and back
We started with a quick chat about where we’d go, then I drew a line on a borrowed map and measured it with a borrowed protractor. Adjusting for magnetic variation gave me a track to fly, which I wrote on a piece of paper with the frequency for our destination’s nearest airfield.
And then we launched.
My instructor helped me with my rusty radio calls. Otherwise I managed to pick some landmarks off the map to identify my track and adjust for wind drift along the course. With that, I flew somewhat uncannily straight onto our waypoint.
Then, instead of turning for home as I’d expected, I was given a diversion to another country strip where I did a fairly sound job of messing up a practice engine failure.
I think we would have survived – but I would have bent the plane for sure.
Actually, after cruising in smooth air above an inversion, we both agreed the winds were whipping around quite nastily close to the ground. Looking back, the layer of little puffy clouds I so enjoyed flying over almost certainly marked an underlying layer of cold angry air moving in from the sea.
So I should have expected the gusty turbulence down low. Another lesson learned.
A useful backup
After turning and climbing back to our cruise altitude, I guess-timated a track back to Aldinga and set out along it. On the way home I was shown the basics of the GPS unit – enough to get a better track and an accurate ETA.
In these days of cheap and near-bulletproof GPS, paper maps are often little more than a mandatory backup. Literally a paper weight. However, for cartophiles like me, the SportCub puts a fresh spin on the new order.
Being a warm afternoon, even at 4500 feet, we’d flown our whole trip with the cockpit window wide open. Losing your maps overboard is a distinct possibility in that situation and, love it or not, the GPS does have the advantage of being bolted down.
Besides, learning how to use all the stuff installed on the airplane is always a good idea.
Arriving back into Aldinga was uneventful and I headed home without the slightest feeling of remorse over my “missed” checkride. Yes, I’d wanted to get signed out. But instead I’d had a hugely enjoyable and satisfying flight. After something like six hours of circuits, I’d forgotten how much fun it is to get in a plane and go somewhere.
Once again, I was reminded that flying will take you places… and the things it will teach you aren’t always in the lesson plan.
Since my unplanned adventure, I’m glad to say I did go through my checkride a fortnight later and, to the sanguine assessment of “Safe enough”, I was passed.
Now I can move on to more ‘self-directed learning’, which I’ll start with some attitude flying for various configurations and airspeeds, then scale up with more detailed navigation refreshers.
I’m looking forward to gaining a lot more hours and experience. Every flight is a lesson and every lesson brings new things for me to learn, remember or improve. I hope that never changes.
But first, I’m just going to take my kids for a ride.