Back in the saddle

Next step

I was a little busy for taking photos, but this isn’t too far off the view of a DA-40 that we had. Fortunately, it wasn’t *quite* this close! (Josh Beasley | wikimedia CC BY 2.0)

“Look at that!”

‘That’ was a Diamond DA-40 making a sharpish climbing turn about 50 metres in front of our windshield. It’s as close as I want to be to an oncoming aircraft in mid-air. 

I know the local Diamond fleet has TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) installed and we had our transponder on, so I imagine one future ATPL just got an impromptu lesson in obeying the Resolution Advisory.

Still, I didn’t think TCAS let encounters get quite so cosy…

Flight review

If you haven’t guessed, I’ve been busy with a few other things recently. I’ve come to realise that I can’t possibly do all the things I need / want to get done at the same time, so I operate a sort of revolving attention system (although ‘system’ is probably an exaggeration) and try to give each project some time in the sun.

Most recent visitor to the top of the pile was a flight review to revalidate my PPL, which I did last Thursday morning. (And passed, so technically I’m rated again. Yay.)

The rather charming 1930s-era control tower at YPPF. The field first opened in 1929. (Phil Vabre | wikpedia GFDL 1.2)

Class D for a change 

I booked the review and flight with Parafield Flying Centre, a friendly independent school at Parafield YPPF, my local Class D airport. That in itself is a far cry from the bucolic set-up at Aldinga, where you might remember I’ve been flying a Sport Cub.

With a major flight training operator based at YPPF, it is easily the busiest airport I’ve flown at. It certainly felt a lot busier than Bankstown (YSBK) in Sydney, even though that’s the GA airport for a city with four times the population. 

To put you in the picture, we sat at the runway hold point with four aircraft behind us and waited through five landings before getting clearance to line up. And for added fun, it was 34C on the ground.

When the call came to take off, I was as keen to get going as the tower was to have me clear their strip.

We were flying a 1970 Rheims Cessna 150L ‘Aerobat’, VH-MQP, which wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about climbing in those conditions. It did manage – even if the oil temperature kept climbing with the aircraft – but seemed a lot happier once we got into some cooler air above 2000 feet. 

Again, I was too busy to be taking photos, but you get the idea… G-AZID is also a 1970 Rheims C150L Aerobat. (Alan D R Brown | wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0)

If Mr Bean drove a plane

I haven’t been in a Cessna since I did my ab initio training in a C152 back in 2002. Not only was it like getting into a new type, but I was struck that Cessna managed to make and market something so diminutive. If Mr. Bean drove a plane…

I remember how proudly I took my girlfriend for a flight in that 152 when I’d first qualified. I didn’t see any of those tiny, rattly, door slammy, lightly powered shortcomings – all that mattered to me was it was an aeroplane I could fly! As a non-pilot, she was a lot braver than I gave her credit for.

I feel like I’m starting to malign the Cessna now, which isn’t really fair. The seats on a budget carrier’s A320 may seem wide by comparison, but being a pilot comes with more legroom and a much better view. 

And, as fifty(!) years of service indicated we would, we both fit into the cockpit without having to link arms or rub shoulders.

Before long we had started up and I was picking my way through the radio traffic, taxi ways and other aircraft to the run-up bay.

Really, Witchita? Although this is actually a C150M, the cockpit is just as cosy… The flap lever is behind the comms cord of the right-hand yoke – still within easy reach of the left-hand seat. (Spotting973 | Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0)

Keeping a lookout

As part of the flight review, we’d pre-briefed on likely threats and counter-measures, and I’d specifically mentioned traffic in the training area and my unfamiliarity with the aircraft as risk factors for the flight. We were primed to be alert and vigilant.

And yet, I’d only glanced down at the panel long enough to find the flap lever and check the Oil Temp (which wasn’t enjoying the hot weather) after doing some stalls, and looked back up to see a whole lot of other airplane.

But what really made an impression was the ‘Look at that!” 

There wasn’t even time to rally enough emotion for ‘Look out! or ‘Oh shit!’ Just ‘Look at that!’ and the whole situation was gone. 

Fate really is the hunter

Parafield’s designated training area is a narrow wedge set in a club sandwich of Restricted, Prohibited and Class C airspace. It’s busy. That’s why it’s a designated Danger Area. But even with preparedness, a good lookout and (as far as we know) a TCAS system, collision avoidance most likely came down to luck.

Adelaide’s airspace. YPPF is in the middle, nice and close to RAAF Edinburgh. The training area is (YM)D-220, with Class C airspace from 4500 ft. D-280 is an aerobatics box in the Class C air. (Map Data ©2019 SkyVector, ARINC, OpenStreetMap).

I’m not sure if there’s any other valid out-take. Obviously it’s not counting on luck at all – but realising that you probably do anyway. Because if those guys weren’t using their TCAS, they still wouldn’t know how close we came.

Over and gone

What was also interesting is that we didn’t dwell on nearly dying at all. The moment passed as quickly as it came, and we just went back to flying the Review. 

I pulled the appropriate controls for a practice engine failure and got on with that. 

There was no point in making the Aerobat claw its way back up to altitude afterward, so we followed the glide approach with some low level flying and turns – practice scud-running, just in case – before heading back to the airport for a few circuits.

Familiar patterns

As expected, the Class D reporting point was busy but the radio calls and controllers made things a lot less Wild West than the training area. We were vectored overhead the airport to join downwind for runway 03R on the eastern side of the field. 

Some idiosyncrasy in the flap selector meant my first landing was flapless – something about trying to tweak the flap setting makes the system reset to Flaps 0. It didn’t really matter. In the hot crosswind, the cleaner wing and extra speed probably helped. 

YPPF from above, looking east. The runways across the top are (running from right to left) 03R then 03L. 08L and 08R run up from lower right. The tower sits at the top corner of the apron. (Michael Coghlan | wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0)

We went around twice more, with me re-learning that a city circuit means you have to descend with power to follow everyone else’s pattern, rather than flying the power off approaches I do at Aldinga. I didn’t really nail it, and my final landing was too fast which meant the nose wheel landed several hundred meters after I’d bundled the mains down. It’s always that last landing of the day, isn’t it?

I think I prefer the extra options you get with a tailwheel…!

P for Pilot

In all, it was 1.6 hours of an almost retro return to my early training. Flying the Sport Cub to get back my stick and rudder skills certainly took the edge off: I think a combination of flying, Class D airspace and high traffic levels would have delivered an overwhelming learning curve otherwise. 

As it was, the flying part has become fairly instinctive, leaving me more brain space to manage the unfamiliar environment – which is what I’d gone to Parafield for. And I’ll be going back.

For now though, once again, I’m entitled to put letters after my name. 

They may only be ‘PPL’ (for now) but that first P still stands for ‘Proud’.

5 thoughts on “Back in the saddle

  1. Congrats! If you’re ever out this way, I’ll take you up from SNA. It’ll give a whole new meaning to “busy”. 🙂

    I’ve never flown an Aerobat but people seem to have quite an affinity for them. I’m all in favor of anything that makes flying and aerobatics affordable. It’s a shame there’s not much in that vein being manufactured today.

    About 15 years ago I was actually in a midair collision. Thankfully there were no injuries, but it was still quite a scare. And one of the things it taught me is that instructors are most at risk because they spend most of their day flying VFR, in practice areas, and in traffic patterns—the very places that most midairs happen. See and avoid? It doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but to say it’s sufficient to keep one safe is just not backed up by the facts. It’s one of the things I’m hopeful ADSB will help with.

      1. Okay, I’m putting that on the North American bucket list. I’m yet to fly in a busy mix of commercial and GA traffic, but if YPPF makes me feel like a country bumpkin, I’d better wear a brown flight suit for KSNA!
        I think you’re right about ADSB. I can remember some old glider pilots complaining about installing transponders some years ago, and at the time all I could think was ‘Why wouldn’t you?’. Gliders are near-invisible as it is.
        See and avoid AND get all the help you can.
        Personally, I think mandatory ADSB is a good thing and I suspect the alternative will be some kind of legislated ‘death zone’ below 5,000 feet.

  2. David. I spent 20 years staring out of the tower windows at Bankstown (aprx 1975-1995) in that airfield’s hey-day (1000+ movements a day on weekends) and saw my fair share of near misses as well as plenty of practice pressing the crash alarm.
    I was lucky to avoid being embroiled in a mid-air, arriving just after one and leaving for Sydney Tower before the next.
    In a see-and be-seen environment it has to be accepted that they WILL occur despite everyone’s best efforts. In ATC parlance, “I’d rather work with a lucky controller than a good one.” I guess I was at least the former.

    1. Controllers too, huh? Bankstown was very much top of mind when I was briefing the collision threats pre-flight. Not just around the parallel runways either; YSBK has shown the risk of conflict around inbound reporting points is every bit as high. Once we’re in the control zone, there’s the added protection of eyes and situational awareness from you good people in the tower.
      Still, it will never hurt to throw some luck into my headset bag in future!

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