Lesson #5: Effects of Power and the Base Config

The first lesson this week was postponed due to fog that just wouldn’t clear, but I went to the airfield somewhat optimistically anyway. It turned out that even when it did clear it just turned the whole sky white so nothing flew that day, or the next. In the meantime we had about an hour of briefing on the next couple of lessons including turning and the base config. Not that I hadn’t been turning up until now anyway, but the formal structure has the proper checks in the middle of the point-the-plane part that I’d already been doing.

Today’s lesson on power settings and some base config was chock-full, to say the least. For one, the wind had switched so for the first time I was going to be taking off on runway 04 (left) rather than 220 (left) – it’s the same runway, just in the opposite direction and using the grass rather than the tarmac. There was also my first (and only) radio call. Taxiing is definitely improving, as is take-off – my second take-off now – and then a climb up.

Base config is a lot to remember, but the main thing I kept forgetting is where to put the power. So for the sake of trying to get it into my head:

  • Carb heat on and power to 1700RPM
  • Hold altitude at 1200ft
  • Check for speed falling into the white arc, then first stage of flap. Maintain altitude and stop the nose picking up.
  • Check white arc again and second stage of flap
  • Pitch for 65kts and start the descent

After some playing around with power settings and keeping speed constant we had a couple of test go-arounds, with most of the process going okay except for a bit of ham-fistedness meaning I took a bit too much flap off initially. Also, on the level-off I could feel the pull on my arm and instinctively started to trim before I’d brought the power back down – which was obviously pointless as I needed to trim again about 5 seconds later.

I flew a fair chunk of the circuit and then had to line up on the runway, and handled the descent down to the last patch – overshooting the runway numbers by a loooong way. It didn’t look long to start with but we were halfway down by the time we landed (under instructor control, of course). Psychologically it felt a bit odd just head straight into the leading edge of the runway as it felt as if we were low and descending fast, which we obviously weren’t.

After a bit of a taxi back and a reasonable attempt at parking it was time to go through it all in my head and be ready for hopefully another lesson tomorrow morning.

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Flying Lessons #3 and #4: Taxiing, Power Settings and Ascending and Descending

Two lessons in quick succession covered a bewildering array of new skills.

The first lesson started with a new spin: after some taxiing, I flew the initial take-off, including the rudders down the runway. I had actually expected this to be a bit harder than it was and the rudders and toe brakes are starting to feel a bit more instinctive (if only a bit). The cross-wind was of-course quite light, otherwise I doubt I’d be doing a take-off this early in my lessons after only a couple of short taxiing sessions, but passed without any drama. Once we were a hundred or so feet up James (my instructor) took over to stick to the circuit as there are a couple of turns and changes of climb rate to fit in.

For the first time I was messing with the throttle whilst in the air. I spent most of the lesson being too timid with it and taking a few seconds to get it to where I wanted it to be – it’s the drilling in of “treat the engine gently”, but I think once I get used to the sound of the engine at different RPMs it’ll come more naturally. I ended up losing a bit of altitude on some of the speed changes, though, and realised I was spending too much time on the very laggy VSI rather than just watching altitude. I think it’s a bad habit from playing computer simulators in the past as those can react instantly. For the near future I think I’ll be trying to ignore it and then I can always work it back in later.

The approach flight in was probably my worst attempt yet, although the wind was starting to gust a bit and some rain was forecast for a bit later. I spent a bit too much effort chasing speed, or lost speed whilst correcting direction, so that’s another thing to watch out for.

Post-flight we had a long briefing on ascending and descending, plus a look-ahead to the go-around procedure, which apparently is expected to go smoothly when we practice it out in the middle of nowhere but will go to pieces on my first attempt near the ground.

Lesson #4 was a few days later and covered a lot of ascending and descending. Again, I flew quite a bit of take-off, as well as all the build-up taxiing. The more work I get with the throttle the better, I think, whether that’s on the ground or in the air.

Ascending and descending went well, but took a lot of brain power. The whole process of:

  • Small weave for look out
  • Adjust power and carb heat (either before or after depending on whether going from high-to-low power or the reverse)
  • Get the speed right
  • Asjust pitch to keep target speed
  • Trim
  • Another small lookout weave after a few hundred feet
  • Engine warm if necessary; temperature and pressure checks; heading checks; keep an eye on airspeed; watch for target altitude
  • On descending: power on, carb heat off, attitude adjustment to maintain straight and level, wait for the airspeed to come up and then adjust power and trim as necessary
  • On ascending: attitude for straight and level, wait for airspeed, then adjust power and trim

I had it in my head from reading the briefing notes, and the training book, half a dozen times each beforehand, but it was still a bit of information overload when it came to doing it. Apparently I’ve skipped straight to levelling at a set altitude, though, so it must have been okay.

On the way back I flew some of the circuit. Although we haven’t briefed and covered turns, let alone onto a heading, yet, it seems the most instinctive part of flying – the ailerons and elevators I can deal with, and I think it’s when you add throttle and rudder that it becomes “flying” rather than “pointing a plane at the sky and hoping”. We even had a cruise descent turn in the mix which felt like a lot going on, since I was aiming for a fly-over point at the end of the runway as well as getting ready to level off at 1,200 feet. A big plus point was apparently that I put power back on before adjusting attitude, which apparently many people don’t. At 65 knots and on idle I find a plane too quiet to do anything else, but I’m just glad that my “this feels really weird” instinct points me to doing the right thing.

James took over for a few key parts of the circuit – I wasn’t really sure what I was aiming for all the time so I think the turns would need to be sharper. (I’m not really sure, to be honest – there was enough going on.) Again I flew more of the approach and this was slightly better, although still a lot of airspeed chasing going on. James took over for the final landing and talked it through as much as possible, which of course makes a lot of sense when it’s just words but when it comes to me doing it who knows what will happen.

Apparently I need to crack on with Air Law now, and I have a medical to book. And start learning the radio calls (which is an area I’m convinced I’ll mess up).

Air Law is not as daunting as it looked initially, but it’s still daunting enough. If there’s something I hadn’t appreciated as much before I started these lessons was the difference between “flying a plane” and “being a pilot”. It’s not like a car license, which you get and then have permission to create mayhem on the roads (or so it seems); being a pilot is a bigger part of your life as there’s a lot to keep on top of even after qualifying.

Other current task is buying a headset. eBay is getting a lot of attention and I think I’ve scouted out the potentials and it’s just a case of finding an “it’ll do for a year or so” at a good price. At least it stops me having to read Air Law…

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Flying Lesson #2 – Straight and Level

The weather forecast for the day of the lesson wasn’t great – winds increasing throughout the afternoon, pretty much up to the point my lesson was due to start, and then decreasing again as rain came in. Still, the lesson wasn’t definitely off so I cycled the ten and a bit miles to Stapleford.

I was there early as usual and it seemed that my instructor was up in the air somewhere (it turned out to be a trial lesson – the tell-tale post-landing photo by the plane gave it away). I sat in the club room, which also doubles as a wasp sanctuary (or so it seems), drank tea and read through my PPL course book.

The flying itself started slightly late but I did have time to go through most of the plane checks whilst James (instructor) went off to fill out some reports or some such. The ones I could remember what they meant at least… The plane had only just landed anyway so it was just for practice. As I was checking the plane the wind was certainly gusting up, then some spots of rain fell… James returned and, after checking fuel levels, thought that although it was a bit windy we’d probably be okay higher up.

After a very skewed take-off we were in the air and, once at around 2,000 feet, went through the basic principles. Straight and level, if that’s all you need to concentrate on, doesn’t seem that challenging, to be honest. Keeping straight and level and fiddling with flaps/trim/power or working out where you’re going is another matter entirely.

Although we haven’t really covered turning yet I did go through a few course changes – again, this is something that feels fairly natural – and even started playing with the rudder to balance the plane. We also had a run-through of the effect of flaps, and the demonstration of what happens if you go from full flaps to none in a short space of time was memorable. The net effect is a loss of about 100 feet of altitude, the sound of the engine picking up speed, and all manner of plane-settling.

We didn’t manage the full hour flying in the end. The clouds were just getting a bit too thick and James decided on a fly-over of the airfield to check out the wind sock and then landing on a different runway. There was going to be a cross-wind no matter what, though, but this one seemed to give us a bit more into the head-wind.

I didn’t fly the approach this time – there was just too much going on, and I didn’t question it – and we had to look out for another Cessna trying to do the same thing. We knew they were on approach from the radio, and they knew we were lokoing to approach, but neither of us could see each other. That doesn’t feel good. As it looked clear we started our approach. A few seconds later the other pilot radioed that he could see us, and looking back I could see a landing light about half a mile back and a couple of hundred feet higher than we were.

The landing was certainly interesting. I could see James fighting with the controls to keep us reasonably straight, including the small dip just as we were coming to the hedgerow at the start of the runway, and then the massive veer to the right as some trees cut out of the cross-wind for a few feet, but the landing itself felt good enough given the conditions. I was glad it wasn’t me doing it, though.

We taxied off the runway fairly quickly once we’d lost some speed and then watched the other pilot coming in. He seemed very high and then, just after the hedgerow where we’d dipped, he was suddenly lifted 20 feet, and then dropped 30 more. He landed very far down but it was smooth and looked less battered by cross-winds than ours did, so maybe that part of the runway is a bit quieter if the wind’s from that direction. Something to look out for in the future anyway.

In the 50 minutes we were up we managed to cover what we had planned in the hour anyway and there’s just a bit of Exercise 6 to finish off for the next lesson, which is planned for Friday. Looking at the weather I’ll be surprised if it happens, but I think this is going to be a common theme of my flying for the next eight months.

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First (real) Flying Lesson

It may not be my first actual flying lesson, but since my first taster session was over ten years ago and my last lesson was also just a trial, this morning is the first one to count as a real lesson.

If there’s one thing I wasn’t prepared for it was how much pre-flight briefing there was, especially since this was a first lesson. From start to finish the entire “one hour lesson” lasted three hours, with only the last hour being in the air. The start was running through the theory of the controls and all the things I’d need to buy: logbook, PPL course books etc etc (and £tc £tc £tc).

Next was the pre-flight checklist. Obviously my first time is going to be ridiculously slow, since I wouldn’t know what half the things on the list were. As someone who is mechanically inept it’s reassuring to have a process to go through to check a plane is air-worthy, rather than relying on my own judgement. It was extremely worthwhile time not only to start to get the process of the check in place, but also to see parts of the plane close-up and have a better idea of how what I’m doing in the cockpit affects what’s outside.

Then, we refuelled. Or we did once the plane started, and after I’d done some more checks. G-BNUTS (which is easier to remember than most of the other plane codes I saw) didn’t want to start, so the instructor did plenty of pulling and pushing of throttle and fuel mix and eventually it got going.

Refuelling involved a taxi close to the pumps up behind the plane that was refuelling, engines, off, and then pulling the plane into position to refuel.

Finally, we pushed away from the pumps, pointed ourselves away from anything that might get upset by the props starting, and started up again. This time it fired up first time and the instructor taxied us down to the runway and into the air.

And then – drama! Or minor drama as my door sprung open. “Sprung” is slightly melodramatic as the air over the plane meant it only opened a crack. It had been difficult to close and doesn’t seem to be in quite as good shape as the rest of the plane – it almost looks like it’s been hit from the side, so it doesn’t really sit flat even when closed. Once we were higher the instructor slowed the plane so I could push it open and then slam it shut again. The drama was indeed minimal, as the harness is always in place, but it’s a reminder not to trust the catches!

The perfect-day-from-the-ground was still a good-day-from-the-air, but there were a lot of thermals and a bit of a crosswind. There were a couple of substantial bumps which seemed to be generated from no discernable feature whatsoever.

The lesson was mostly basic: here’s what roll does/look how it rolls, but still getting a feeling for the controls is good. Plus I’ve never really used a rudder before so trying to work that out to balance the plane towards the end was a challenge. We also did some trimming and since it didn’t prove too difficult I’m now in charge of keeping the plane in trim when I have controls.

There was some comparisons of handling at different speeds, and also at different RPM settings to try to get a feel for how control responsiveness changes.

Finally we dropped into the circuit (“we” meaning “not me”) and I got to fly some of the approach. It felt like we were heading straight towards the hedgerow at the front of the airfield but I wasn’t in charge of power and all went well.  As with the trial lesson last week, I was surprised at how much we seemed to be pointing down on the approach and then pulling the nose up at the last minute. Once I come to landing I can see myself wanting to keep the nose too high.

The debrief was minimal and I booked in for two more lessons, and then it was off to the aviation shop to spend (yet more) money on a logbook, fuel tester, fuel gauge (stick thing), a copy of the checklist book for myself, and finally a couple of course books. It all adds up, and the pile of reading is stacking up already.

It felt like good progress, though, and apparently we’d covered most of what is supposed to be lessons one and two. Onto flaps next time, and hopefully the weather will stay as good.

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A New Venture: Wedu Games

My new venture, Wedu Games, is up and running. Or at least the site is as there are no games finished yet. There are a few things in development, though, including an interactive storytelling table app (that isn’t a game at all) and a stud/hold-em poker hybrid to launch on mobile and Facebook together. Everything’s being built in HTML and JavaScript with possibly a bit of Node.js for simple back-end.

In the meantime there are a few blog posts to read. Now, back to making the games again…

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Trail Flying Lesson

After ten years since I last had a short taster session flying a Cessna at Wycome Airfield, I finally have the time and (just about) the money to try for a private pilot’s license from start to finish.

Stapleford Flight Centre is close to me, being about ten miles away, so I booked myself in for a trial lesson. Resisting the urge just to start the course right away, I thought a one-off trial was a sensible way to sanity-check that I still really did enjoy flying a plane. I needn’t have doubted it.

Here’s the plane I was about to wiggle the stick around in:

Cessna 152, pre-flight

Despite the terrible photo, it was a really good day with a touch of high cloud and slight haziness, fairly light winds, but still about as good as you can realistically hope for in the UK. As the flight had been postponed by a couple of days due to really terrible weather, anything good enough to get in the air would do me.

And just to kind-of-prove I was actually in the plane at some point:

Karl Bunyan, flying a goddamn plane

The instructure, a guy named Ollie, seemed to perk up a bit when I told him that, no, this wasn’t a present from a relative but I’d paid for myself to check that I really wanted to start the PPL properly. We took the decision that the hour-long flight would be a bit of fun, and maybe a bit of instruction, but not identical to a first lesson.

As such we did a few fun things – some sharp turns and just a bit of “getting the feel of things” – plus a “trim the plane” challenge, which was in the “okay for a first attempt” category. (The trimming was okay, but we’d gained about 350ft in altitude by the time I’d done it.) It felt surprisingly liberating to fly right over Southend Airport, which is obviously safer than flying near Southend Airport as directly above is the one place you know there are no jets buzzing around.

I was allowed to fly the approach but not the landing. I still can’t really believe that in my first lesson at Wycombe I really did get to land ten years ago; maybe a combination of lighter winds and a slightly deranged instructor.

Needless to say, I’ve booked the rest of the course. At just under seven grand it’s maybe not the most sensible purchase I’ve ever made, but what the hell. Whether I’ll make it as far as blogging every lesson as much as the excellent Forty Five Hours blog is doubtful, but I’m looking forward to the true start of my flying adventure in a week’s time.

Karl Bunyan, flying a goddamn plane

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Alton Station Landmark Trust, Summer 2012

2012′s Landmark Trust visit was to Alton Station, which is remarkably close to Alton Towers in Staffordshire. After the wettest few months every in the history of Britain (only slightly exaggeration) it cleared slightly and, as the rest of the country started to work out whether the Olympics were a good thing or not, we were away from the rush in the station building.

Photos below anyway.

We had the whole of the old station building to ourselves. This is the main waiting room building which had the kitchen, main room, a bathroom and one bedroom in:

And here’s Iain getting in the way of it:

There was also the second building which was the station master’s house (I believe), with two more bedrooms, bathrooms and a sitting room:

The tracks had long since gone and the line was now a footpath, and the station made a handy seating spot:

This is the end of the waiting room building, and also an excellent spot for barbecues:

And from the far end of the platform:

As it was a footpath we did get a fair amount of passing traffic (foot, horse and bike) but no unwelcome visitors in the waiting room itself which had apparently happened in the past when walkers think it’s a tea-room. The private sign may help, but then again not many people read them:

The station from the opposite platform, which was well overgrown now. I’d always watched post-apocalyptic films and didn’t think the plants would take over deserted buildings as quickly as they show, but the growth on the abandoned station shows that maybe the set designers are right:

Both station buildings together:

The station master’s house had a balcony, and here’s Ann on it:

The canopy on the front of the waiting room which was a good place for consuming the previously mentioned barbecue, as long as the temperature held up in the early evening. It was also a great place for mosquitoe spotting as there were a few patches of standing water in front of the platform:

Another shot of the station master’s house:

And from the front:

As mentioned, the path was used by walkers, cyclists and riders alike:

We walked along the path to the next village, Oakamoor where there’s a weir:

… and flowers:

Also the pubs weren’t bad there in Oakamoor. The walk wasn’t too far as even the unfit (Kerry) and the pensioners made it:

Using a load of Kerry’s Nectar or some other reward points we had free entry to Trentham Gardens, which was a bit like a National Trust property except there was music playing in the cafes just to lower the tone:

Weeping Angel alert:

And finally some wildlife. The slope up to the road was one big maze of rabbit warrens and there were rabbits a-plenty:

The station was a fine place to stay. The closest we got to experiencing Alton Towers was watching the coachloads of people going up and down the main road from down on our quiet platform. The weather could have been better, but it had cleared a lot from the weeks before – and we don’t expect much from July in England anyway. Having now stayed in the station, Ingestre Pavilion and Tixall Gatehouse (which is highly recommended) we may have exhausted the Landmark Trust’s Stafforshire offerings, though.

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