Appearance on the Backendy podcast

I’ve made an appearance on the Backendy podcast in which I chat with friend and former business partner Darren Beale about flying a plane, Facebook game development and advertising of the past, and various business and business-of-tech type things.

You can download the episode here or on iTunes, where you can also subscribe for future episodes.

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Lesson 17 – First Solo

I could tell something was planned when my instructor started briefing me on engine fires during start, on the ground and in the air. I thought to myself “Uh-oh, there are some boxes to be ticked here”. And of course, it was all preparation to getting me ready for my first solo landing.

It wasn’t going to come immediately, of course. First he had to satisfy himself that I was on a half-decent flying day and, having not been up for a fortnight, I was a bit unsure that I would be.

The wind was a bit stronger than I’d have liked, but it was virtually straight down the runway. It meant the first circuit was a tiny bit wonky as I didn’t correct enough for the crosswind component, but it came together at the end. Even the touch-down was okay and, as ever, I was told I could have held off a bit. Flying the approach with a strong headwind was interesting given the amount of still days, tailwinds and crosswinds I’d had. A fair fistful of power was needed even quite close to the runway.

The second landing attempt didn’t go so well. Airspeed was a touch on the high side – closer to 70 knots rather than 65 – and alignment wasn’t perfect so I was adjusting when I was still about 30 feet off the ground. It just didn’t feel right so I started a go-around, and there was going to be no instructor-hopping-out on this run.

The third landing brought back one of my bad (involuntary) habits: it was going almost perfectly, and I was determined to keep the hold-off going with some more pull-back on the stick. Unfortunately, my other hand moved in the opposite direction and I added a few hundred RPM of power. It was time to abort and a go-around at about 50 knots and probably 2 feet off the runway. That was definitely the landing that got away.

Still, my instructor was happy with the decision and everything I was doing, so the plan was to make the next to land and stop… gulp. Except that this was the worst landing I’d ever done. After some previous hold-off attempts where I’d thought I was still a couple of feet off the runway but was only a few inches, I was trying to re-adjust my perspective. Unfortunately, that meant we pretty much dropped the last couple of feet with a big “thud” – at least on the rear wheels, but it wasn’t pleasant.

No time to dwell and the plan continued, but we’d do another attempt the him in the other seat “just for confidence, even though your flying is fine”… yeah, right. This one went well, though, and everything felt in control all the way down. Of course I could have held off a bit more, but I’d rather keep getting a feel for how far to pull and land slightly early than go too far the other way and balloon all the time. And as the instructor said: once you’re slow enough and it’s on the rear wheels, it’s going to be a good enough landing.

So we taxied to a patch of grass near the holding point and after a radio-in for a callsign change to “Student Golf Mike Juliet” out he hopped. I ran through the pre-take-off checks, waited for a couple of other planes to taxi past, one of which I probably didn’t have to but I just thought I didn’t want to feel like someone was waiting for me. Taxi, ATPL checks, radio call, line up, and then I was off.

Take-offs are rarely anything worth talking about, and this was the same – thankfully. It felt like the wind was maybe stronger, but less gusty, which suited me fine. Then the turn onto crosswind, downwind, radio call, BUMFLITCH checks, and in no time at all I was turning onto the base leg and getting set up for the approach. It passed in a flash.

Given the wind, and having experienced it a few times now, I had a better sense of how much power to leave in on the approach. Apart from seeing the speed get close to 60 knots when I added the third stage of flap (when the magic number to aim for is 65) the approach was as good as any.  There seemed to be no trace of crosswind as I passed over the aerodrome threshold and, adding a touch more power to make sure I got to the numbers, I think I timed the flare well-enough. Maybe it was a fraction of a second late, but soon we were nose in the air flying level just above the runway. A touch of hold-off and then I felt the rear wheels touch and let her settle down on the nose wheel when good and ready. That was a relief!

If there’s anything in the post-mortem of landings I’d do better it would be, of course, more hold-off. But at that time the last thing I wanted to do was to end up going back into the air again and, in my book, touching down gently at 50 knots is a landing I’m happy with.

After-landing checks, taxi back, park in a gap that I thought looked tight but turned out to be fine, and then my first solo shutdown – more stressful than I thought it would be with plenty of “did I leave the iron on?” type thoughts as I walked away from the plane.

Apparently “all the old guys” (whoever they are) were also watching my landing from the radio room to check on how well I’d been taught! I’m glad not to have shown either of us up.

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Lessons 13, 14, 15 and 16

Too much excitement to write about the flying… Lesson 13 was a second dose of stalling, this time in flap and base to final configurations i.e. stalling in situations that are more likely to happen on an approach. The stalls were all cut off as soon as the warner sounded and, to be honest, the process is fairly straightforward. The only thing to watch is making sure I dip the nose before putting the power on rather than doing both simultaneously.

After stalling up at 3,000ft or so we had some spin recovery sessions while we had the height to lose. Again, it seemed fairly straightforward: power to idle, wings level, then pull up. It might be different close to the ground but at a couple of thousand feet there’s plenty of time to sort it all out.

Lesson 14 (if I remember) was some great fun in practice forced landings out over some deserted marshland on the south side of the Thames. Being able to put some dramatic(ish) weaves in to lose height and get approaches sorted out was a lot of fun, although I still found myself going quite long into the field at the point that I’d ideally be aiming for. I feel like the landings would happen, just I’d rather get them at the near side and not have to still be losing height at the point that I’d really like to be touching the ground.

Still, there are plenty more of those to come, which is something to look forward to as they were one of the most enjoyable things yet.

Lessons 15 was back to circuits and getting ready for my first solo. Apparently the landings were good enough now, even with winds outside of those that I’d be allowed to fly solo in, so it’s just a case of waiting for the right weather – which could be any time between now and Spring. The funny thing is that although it’s definitely a big milestone to get out of the way, and I’m keen to do it, I don’t feel like I need to tick the “I flew solo after X hours” box. So we’re just going to carry on with the course and let the weather do what it likes.

Lesson 16 was steep turns, which was short and, again, relatively straightforward. It shows how much more natural being in the cockpit becomes after all these lessons as the steep turn I got to do on my trial lesson (albeit with the instructor at the throttle and balance ball) felt like we were spinning around with no idea which way I was facing. This time, rolling in and holding altitude came fairly naturally, and after a couple of practices even rolling out onto more-or-less the right heading was okay too.

After the turns we came back for another couple of circuits, with first an overhead join and then a flapless approach. The crosswind was gusting a bit, and again more than I’d be doing on a solo, and the approach was going well until I tried to get as much hold-off as I could and felt like I’d pulled back a bit too hard. Apparently it was actually fine, but I was worried that we’d keep going up into the air and losing speed at the same time. As it turns out I must have done all of this at between about 6 to 12 inches off of the runway and, what I thought was a balloon (over-pulling and ballooning up into the air) wasn’t much of one. Still, I wasn’t sure about it so went into a go-around which my instructor says should give me some confidence as I was doing about 50 knots and under 2 feet above the runway at the time. I still think I did the right thing once uncertainty entered my mind, but I also wish I’d known that we were only 2 feet over the runway and not the 6 feet or so I felt we were as we’d have landed just fine.

Still, the next (or one of the later) approaches to land worked well, even with a good dozen or so knots of crosswind. Given how much pain crosswinds had caused me in the past this was the highlight of the lesson and helps my confidence no end. Being able to feel what was happening with the gusts and direction, and the correcting rudder on touchdown, really felt like flying. I can’t say that I won’t have many more over-control moments, but if all of my crosswind landings were like that then I’d be happy.

Now I just need the weather to clear before I forget how to fly, let alone land.

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Lessons #12a and 12b: More Circuits, First Flapless and Glides

Lesson 12 started in grey conditions, but with circuits to do the cloud was high enough, but at the end of the first circuit the rain came down and the touch-and-go became a full-stop. Still, it had been nearly two weeks since my last lesson and although I forgot almost everything, culminating in turning onto approach with no flaps, it came out okay in the end as I got the approach under control and did a half-decent landing. The most important thing was that in the 10 minutes we’d been in the air I’d erased the bad memories of the terrible approaches in the previous lesson and I was feeling much more ready to start going forward again.

The following week saw one lesson cancelled after checks due to rain coming in so we covered yet more briefing, this time on forced landings. I feel well and truly briefed up now, having had flapless approaches, glide approaches, and now unpowered forced landings briefed. Hopefully I can remember it all when it comes to using them.

The next day was perfect for more circuits, though, and it turned out to be a nice long lesson at 1 hour 10 minutes, with a total of 11 circuits completed (albeit 1 was a demonstration glide that was aborted due to someone coming onto final, 2 were my own glide attempts which were only partially successful, and another 1 became a go-around as there were heavier planes taxiing back down the runway to avoid the soft grass).

The lesson was fantastic, though, and the first couple of circuits and touch-and-go’s went well. My problems with timing the flare are going away now I’m trying the “fly along the runway” approach, and especially making sure I’m keeping my eye on the end of the runway rather than fixing too much on the tarmac nearest to me. It helped that for the first time there was no cross-wind too.

After a couple of normal approaches, James requested I do a flapless one for the first time. We took the circuit out a bit wider and initially I had a bit too much power. The speed kept nailed to 70kts, though, which I was very satisfied with, and the numbers started to come back as we got closer to the airfield. Even from a few hundred feet away I thought we were still a touch high and was getting all ready to call a go-around, when a minor gust of wind not only needed a small adjustment but also helped us lose the small amount of altitude to put us exactly on course. Not that I can count on that every time, but still. The gentle flare was slightly early but as I didn’t overdo the pull-back we were still descending slowly.

The downside was I seemed to have developed some bad motor habit of pressing ever so slightly on the throttle during the hold-off. It’s not intentional, and it’s surpising just how much even an extra 50 rpm can keep a 152 in the air for longer, but it’s the black mark against all of the landings I did. I’m not too worried about squashing that reaction – I just need to focus on “don’t push the damn throttle” during the hold-off the next few times until my body learns to do what it’s told.

The glide approaches were less successful. Not that we wouldn’t have been able to land if we really had to in a real emergency, but we were certainly high and nowhere near the numbers. The judging of the approach was certainly far from accurate enough, though, and I think it’ll take another few at least before I get my eye in. Trying not to think in terms of the normal turn onto final is the key here, I reckon, but having just gotten into the “habit” it’s hard to get out of it.

All-in-all, if every lesson goes like this one then I’ll be very happy indeed!

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Lessons #9, #10 and #11: Good circuits, bad landings, good stalling, bad approaches

Some patchy weather meant we initially put stalling on hold and got into circuit flying. Both lessons #9 and #10 had a fair amount of wind, but it was mostly coming down the runway, although still gusty enough to need a bit of work on the approach. The first few approaches went predictably badly, but the circuits themselves were okay for first attempts – on track, adjusting for the wind, and even getting the BUMFLITCH checks in after the first couple:

  • Brakes
  • Undercarriage
  • Mixture (rich)
  • Fuel
  • Instruments: DI especially
  • Ts and Ps
  • Carb heat
  • Hatches and harnesses

As the wind was in different directions for both lessons I got to fly both runways – albeit they’re both virtually the same bit of ground but in opposite directions. (Although not quite the same bits of ground.) I think I prefer 04, for some reason – there aren’t any pylons, the M25, or a hedgerow to worry about. Still, I’ve got to crack 22 as it’s the most commonly used one.

Some of the approaches on lesson #10 I was rather pleased with, although landings were still a complete mystery to me. I didn’t feel like I was seeing the runway and gauging the level off at all, just randomly pulling back on the stick when I got nearer the ground. Lesson #11 was more-or-less the other way around as I did two terrible and one passable approach, but the landing was actually okay… considering. Okay, we landed on the left hand wheel first rather than the right (into the crosswind), and although it may not have looked much different to some of the others from the outside I actually felt like I was controlling it a bit more. Still a long way to go, unfortunately, and now I need to get my approaches back.

I blame the lack of concentration on the half hour of stalling, which was actually fairly straightforward, but it was the first lesson for a few hours that I was doing regular flying like climbing, turning, cruising, and basically not just doing a circuit. Somehow my brain was overloaded after half way through and I was forgetting carb heat at the wrong times, left the flaps on for almost half a circuit on a go-around, and just didn’t get on top of airspeed on the approaches at all.

Now it’s time for a week and a half away, and hope that I’m not too rusty when I come back. At least I have a full set of course books to read (oh joy… although actually they’re not too bad), and the weather forecast for the coming week is atrocious anyway so I’m not sure I’d be flying anyway.

I’m just itching to erase the mistakes of the last lesson…

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Lessons #7 and #8: Slow Flight and Circuits

Lesson #7 nearly didn’t happen because of the weather: visibility was pretty poor, but I went to the airfield anyway as there was a lot of briefing to be done and the forecast was for the weather to clear anyway. The following lesson was due to be another student on solo circuits and, as it was also quite windy, that likely wouldn’t happen so I’d be able to have that spot. And that’s exactly what happened.

Briefing on stalling and circuits was about an hour, and a lot to remember. Stalling doesn’t seem too bad, but circuits looks like it’ll take a while to get the positioning and set up working at the right points. So after the briefing and a quick lunch, it was time to check the plane out and then up we went.

Take-offs seem almost routine now (famous last words, I’m sure), and we were on runway 04 left again as the wind was from the north-east. Once we’d climbed and left the circuit we headed out to the edge of the reservoir to start our slow flight experiments. It certainly was a bit murky up there and I think borderline as to whether it was worth going up, given how the horizon just disappeared into the white mist. But it was just about okay and you could sense where the horizon would be if it were clearer, and visibility was about 8-10km anyway. Even though it was a bit gusty on the ground it was relatively still up in the air.

Slow flight was interesting, and keeping the plane at 55 knots without the stall warning going off or drifing over wasn’t that easy. But it was really extreme feeling the difference in the power settings at such a low speed and I can see how this ties into all-round aircraft handling, especially when on the approach. Basically, being either side of the 60 knot drag curve affects the performance of the plane dramatically and if there’s one thing I take away it’s this: don’t go below 60 knots if you can help it, and if you need to climb, turn, or whatever then you should really pitch forward for 60 and then do what you need to do. Once over 60 knots the plane starts behaving more normally again.

Again, I got to fly the approach, all except for the last 50 feet where it all goes to pieces. Lining up was better this time but I just put a bit too much power on to correct and that was it: we were pointing at the wrong angle at the wrong speed. Oh well – learning from mistakes and all that. The one good thing was that it showed just how responsive the plane is even at that speed and close to the ground, which means there’s nothing to fear from a go-around.

Lesson #8 was going to be either stalling or circuits, depending on either wind or cloud. As it happened there was a fair amount of wind, but it was steady and not gusty and, more importantly, straight down runway 22, and the lowest cloud level was about 1,200 feet or so – almost exactly circuit height (although when we got up there it seemed a bit higher than that). So circuits it was.

After all the external and internal checks we taxied close to the hold point for the into-the-wind power check, only to find the left magneto running extremely bumpy and dropping about 300 RPM. James took over and gave it a good warm through on a leaner engine setting. At least I know what a failed check sounds like: bumpy. But after a few minutes it seemed to clear itself and we were good to go after all. Until we (again) checked temperatures and pressures and saw that the temperature was still at the bottom of the gauge. It was a warm day, and after a few minutes of revving to clear the magneto it really should have been warmer. It was looking like this would be a red light on flying, until James tapped the glass and the needle sprang into the middle. “I thought that just happened on films?” I said, not really joking.

Anyway, we set off, and because of the combination of win and clouds the skies were pretty much clear and we didn’t have to wait for any landings or take-offs. Runway 22 is the more usual runway, as it points almost dead south, but this was the first lesson for a while that I’d taken off down it. Having read the circuit notes I was trying to work out where to turn etc etc. James flew the first circuit for a touch and go and handed the controls over as we were climbing away from the second.

The circuit actually didn’t go too bad. The climbing turn to crosswind at 900 feet; the turn onto downwind at 1,200 feet (and head for the forest staying parallel to the runway); then the turn to base leg just after the pylons. I didn’t really attempt the BUMFLITCH checks on the downlind leg for the first attempt as there was plenty going on, but did on the others – getting about 3/4 of the way through on the first try and going through them all relatively easily by the end. As well as the downwind radio check, and the need to actually fly the plane, given the strong tailwind there certainly wasn’t a lot of time to hang around with them.

And for those who don’t know, and for me that needs revision, BUMFLITCH means:

  • Brakes: check they have some pressure in them
  • Undercarriage: fixed in the Cessna 152
  • Mixture: make sure it’s set to rich
  • Fuel: make sure there’s enough for a go-around
  • Landing light: switch it on if it isn’t already
  • Temperatures and pressures: the usual engine check
  • Carb heat: give the engine a bit of a heat just in case there’s any icing
  • Hatches and harnesses: seat belts on, check doors are closed

The first turn onto final was quite late, and I nearly let the speed drop far too much after the second stage of flap. With the meaty headwind we had quite a slow approach and a bit more power than usual to keep us over the pylons and above the M25. It still seems a bit mental crossing that at under 400 feet. I never have reason to be on that stretch of the road so I’ll never have noticed the planes before.

The approaches were, in rough order:

  • slightly too high, but fixable
  • definitely too low, and my first go-around in anger
  • definitely too high, and another go-around
  • mostly okay until the last 30 feet, but the landing happened (with help) and then it was flaps up and off again
  • even more mostly okay, but again the flaring went a bit awry

I actually don’t think flaring is going to be a big problem, but the gusts of wind weren’t helping me today. I felt we were being pushed into the wrong direction by the wind once we were almost on the ground and at least twice as I levelled the wings I released some of the pressure on the flare: a big no-no. Still, some of the approaches were okay, and the circuits themselves seemed as good as I’d have expected of myself for first attempts (and I even managed to fit the checks in, and heading corrections on the downwind leg).

The good news on the landing part and the final section of the approach is in that in each case I know exactly what I did wrong and I feel like practice will sort these things out. Apparently I was also very unflustered by the go-around, something that I put entirely down to the over-application of power when trying to land on the last lesson. I just have to make sure to learn from those mistakes and try to stop myself repeating them!

Having read other PPL blogs and seeing how much time circuits take up then maybe I will be fed up with them at some point, but for now I just want to keep on doing them until I get it right. Flying is a very addictive form of perfectionism, or so I’m starting to feel.

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Lesson #6: Turns of the Normal, Climbing and Descending Kinds

The second lesson it two days started with a bad omen: the clubhouse had no crumpets. I was knackered after my 11 mile cycle in, not being used to riding that distance (and hills!) two days in a row. I settled for a mug of tea and the plan of reading some of the briefing notes and trying to memorise the radio calls, but in reality since the runway for the day was 04 (left) I had a good view of the multiple landings, touch-and-gos and go-arounds that were happening in good conditions.

The lesson started a bit late but I had time to go through the entire checklist, which is only the second time I’ve done so. A lot of taxiing to the end of the runway, and I ventured into a slightly higher speed than usual, not that my directional control was quite up to it. Then we were lined up and I was set for another take-off which went smoothly, and then a climb and a turn into the wind.

We’d have the briefing on turns and a demo followed, with the more drawn-out process for a proper turn being drilled into me:

  • Lookout
  • Bank
  • Lookout
  • Check back pressure to maintain altitude
  • Lookout
  • Check balance and correct with rudder
  • Lookout
  • Check bank
  • Repeat until:
  • Lookout ahead
  • Roll out of the turn, and keep an eye on altitude

There seems to be a lot going on in a turn… These were all things that I’d been doing in past turns, but not necessarily in that order. Since the order must have been made for a reason, that’s what I’ll have to learn.

Climbing and descending turns seemed simple enough, although climbing or descending to an altitude and onto a heading was border-line information overload. I tended to be within 10 degrees of the heading, and generally got the altitude okay, but can definitely do a lot better.

There were also a couple of practice go-arounds, particularly after a practice “set us up for final and aim to land in that field” exercise when we were getting down to about 700 feet. The handling of the nose was definitely ropey, but at least the general aim of “stop going down and start going up” happened quickly. More practice needed there though.

Finally the re-join of the circuit and starting to pick up landmarks. Having flow the circuit for 04 left twice in two days I now know that one better than the “standard” runway 22 circuit. The “keep the right wing just inside the M11″ direction, and then “turn when you’re over the golf course” direction helps, and maybe I’m not overloaded by the flying quite so much now. Setting up for base is definitely not a quick task for me, but it works and the altitude holds okay, and then I was in charge of both power and attitude for the descent for the first time.

It actually went better than not having power control the day before, since I knew if I was dropping power that I would have to drop the nose to maintain airspeed rather than reacting to the instructor’s power adjustments. We were high to start with so some full flaps and lower power sent us downward, although I was still slightly high right at the end. It’s going to take a couple more attempts before the sight of the runway numbers filling the cockpit window doesn’t seem quite so unnerving. There was a reasonable crosswind, though, so the speed and direction were as well as I think I could hope at this stage. I followed along for the landing which was the first time feeling just how much elevator to use on the flare.

It was an excellent lesson, though, and although we were only up for an hour it felt like I’d been flying for half a day with the amount that was going on. The glass-half-empty side of me knows that sometime I’ll have a bad lesson, but I’m glad I’m postponing it so far!

Now, about that air law again…

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