Saturday, May 28, 2011

Merimbula and lobster

My wife and I had planned a trip to Merimbula for some while. I had visited Merimbula aerodrome once before and I was very impressed with what a friendly little set up it was. Rex have regular services there and the terminal building has a nice cafe for visitors.

I had originally booked Archer SFR, but maintenance had necessitated a change to Archer MJT, which is a similar start to my Taree trip story. MJT has no usable GPS receiver, so it was Mark One Eyeball and map to ground, ground to map and ADF navigation. Blue stuff on the left, green stuff on the right, then vice-versa for the return trip. Who said this navigation stuff was difficult?

We fuelled up and prepped MJT, a high pressure system on it's way out giving us warm weather and cloudless skies. We managed to negotitate our way out of Bankstown and headed south, again step climbing underneath Sydney's class C airspace, past Camden, Wedderburn, Wilton and Wollongong up to 6500 feet. Checking that Nowra's airspace was deactivated this Saturday, we broadcast on 118.85 at Kiama, Tomerong, Wandandian and Ulladulla before swtiching back to area frequency. During the week, when Nowra airspace is active, it is necessary to gain clearance from Nowra Control before transitting this VFR lane. Lots of transmissions from Jaspers Brush ALA, ultralights practicing circuits.

South of Ulladulla we flew above a smoke plume from burn offs in the bush. This gave me a perfect idea of what the wind was doing, and told me we were reaching the southern edge of the high pressure system. Further south and parachute ops conducted at Moruya, arranging separation between ourselves, me staying feet wet and the jump pilot feet dry.

I had arranged for the refueller to meet the our arrival in Merimbula before 1400, and I calculated I would make it with 10 minutes to spare. We began our descent and I tried to keep the speed up as much as possible, the conditions being glassy smooth and made a beautiful straight in approach and landing, and I have video evidence to prove if if you don't believe me.

The refueller was there waiting for us, helped us refuel and offered to give us a lift down the road to our accommodation. I tied the aircraft down and we found our comfortable digs. We rested until our booking for dinner at 1830 at Wheelers Restaurant. After a false start in the wrong direction, on the wrong side of the road (hey, what do you know, there's a footpath on this side) we found Wheelers opposite the golf course. Lobsters,oysters and champagne were on the menu to celebrate passing my CPL. I don't remember feeling the cold walking back to the hotel.

Up bright and early the next morning for a leisurely 1100 departure. We caught a cab to the airport, where Colin the Helpful Refueller agreed to meet us to let us in to the airport. Merimbula is the home of the ASIC program and security there is unnecessarily tight. We'd topped off the fuel tanks the day before and we only had to pack up, start up and go. The high pressure system had helpfully moved off to the east so they we could have another headwind on our way back to Bankstown.

We departed north and began our long climb to 5500 feet, negotiating with joy flights off the coast then parachute drops over Moruya once again. Long cruise back, past Ulladulla, Nowra, Wollongong to the edges of the Sydney Basin. An inversion layer was trapping a thick layer of smoke from burn offs around the Sydney area. There were some solid bumps descending through that transition, which certainly got Kirrily's attention. Normal entry and a longish landing for a very welcome return to Bankstown after a tiring trip.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Long overdue part 3

The previous day I had raced around to Sydney Aviators and arranged to hire HVX, an Arrow II, bumping into an old instructor of mine who is now a First Officer with Jetstar. He gave me some much needed encouragement.

I went around to Schofields to await the ATOs return. As usual they were running late, which only heightened my anxiety as the weak Autumn sunlight was draining into the west. Eventually they returned and I had around an hour to demonstrate to the ATO that I could, actually, land an aeroplane.

Taxied out again, lined up and took off. The aeroplane looked and sounded great, a real throaty thump from the Lycoming 360 and three bladed prop, but for some reason it was not an enthusiatic climber. Never mind, round we go and line up on final. The controller was in a chatty mood and gave witty quips to everyone on the frequency but neglected to give us a landing clearance. Go around and he promises to give us a landing next time. I thank him for his diligence. The aeroplane felt good, the control forces light but it felt sluggish and just a bit sloppy.

Final again and cleared to land. Holding speed very precisely, round out, reduce power, flare and then the aeroplane fell out of the sky, touching down with a pronounced firmness, which is a very kind description.

OK, I thought, that's just a warm up, but it was puzzling nevertheless. The ATO requested a flapless landing but otherwise kept a close and stoic countenance. Same again with 5 knots added and a very similar result. Almost a belly flop in the flare. I couldn't understand what was going on and I honestly thought I had lost the ability to land an aeroplane. Time to give up, chuck it in, tear up my licence and take up gardening.

"You know that airspeed indicator is calibrated in miles per hour," the ATO remarked, casual like. I examined the dial and noticed there were two scales, large miles per hour around the outside and tiny knots on the inner scale. No, I was not aware of that, nor did anyone see fit to mention it to me and this was also the first ASI I had seen so marked. The aeroplane, or should I say airplane, is an American import with an American style ASI. Speed is life and the difference between statute and nautical miles makes a big difference, at least to me.

Now with 15% more speed the Arrow was a lot more sprightly and well behaved, transformed, it bolted into the sky, the controls felt positive and firm. Round we went, holding good speeds and precisely lined up, even if I do say so myself. I put everything I had into this circuit, it was as good as I've ever done and I was rewarded with the sweetest, straightest, softest squeaker of a touchdown I can remember.

"That's more like it," the ATO commented. I felt exuberant, all the stress and anxiety lifted off and wafted away behind us. "Take us back," he said, "I'm happy with that."

Round again and a short field landing, pulling up and exiting within 400M of the threshold.

I finally had my commercial licence, but my day wasn't over. I dropped the ATO off at the clubhouse and taxied back to drop off the aircraft. Unfortunately my way was barred with a crowd of red and blue flashing lights. A jet had reported difficulties and declared an emergency, closing the aerodrome and attracting a gaggle of fire engines, police and ambulance vehicles. Eventually the jet made an uneventful landing, reporting their throttles had frozen, the crew electing to shut down a good engine in flight so they could descend. The single engine landing had looked no different to any other. I taxied back in the dark and handed the aircraft over, relieved, exhausted and went home for a dinner of baked beans and eggs on toast cooked by my congratulatory wife.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Long overdue part 2

Following the aborted attempt previous, the testing officer and I tried again. The testing officer was a very cool guy who made me feel not like I was being tested at all, but that I was flying with a very experienced acquaintance. A common problem with this arrangement is the tendency to defer to the more experienced crew member. This would be a problem for the test as I was supposed to act as if I was in command so the ATO (authorised testing officer) could test my flying and command abilities. The ATO never made me feel as if anyone other than I were in charge, and all decisions were mine to make.

We departed in tired old LSG again. This aeroplane and I have a long history of not getting along. I had booked SFJ but a serious landing gear problem meant it was unavailable and was out for maintenance for at least six weeks. So it was that I took LSG, a T-tailed Arrow IV out for my most important flight test to date.

We departed on the same flight plan as before, bound for Mittagong, Goulburn, Crookwell and The Oaks and back to Bankstown. The weather was glorious as only an Autumn Sydney day can be, a strong high pressure system over NSW bringing calm winds and a cloudless sky. I couldn't have asked for a better day to do this test. We step climbed south from Sydney underneath the class C airspace of Kingsford-Smith International and levelled off at 6500 feet. Approaching Mittagong low cloud thickened until it was a solid undercast stretching off into the distance. Early fog in the valleys was warming and lifting. I suggested to the ATO that Goulburn was not going to be possible unless we got under the cloud. Dropped the gear and flaps and circled down through a likely looking hole in the cloud. Underneath the cloud there was no defined ceiling as different patches of fog had risen at different rates, leaving long tendrils of cloud hanging from the sky. Getting through that would be hard going indeed, if it was even possible. The ATO suggested we divert to Bathurst so I turned toward the north-west, cleaned up and started to climb up to 5500 feet.

The leg was a good 60 nm, or 30 mins flying time and the ATO chose this moment to pull out a magazine. I don't know if this was an affectation to put me at ease but it certainly helped reduce my workload. We started descending into Bathurst and joined a couple of other aeroplanes in the circuit for a normal landing. Good circuit, good approach and rounded out on final, where I struggled to pull the yoke back to round out and flare. We ballooned and put down for an ugly landing.

The T-tailed design was more a fashion statement by Piper than an aerodynamic improvement, T-tails being fashionable in the seventies along with flared trousers and skivvies. The problem is that the tail is high out of the prop stream, which reduces elevator control authority and makes weight and balance more critical. Coupled to which this particular Arrow has a history of elevator problems and was due for 100 hourly maintenance within the next 5 hours. Does this make me sound like I'm a ham-fisted plumber blaming the aeroplane for my shortcomings? I definitely felt that way after that landing, wondering if I was finding excuses for my own deficiencies. Most pilots flying LSG hold on the electric trim in the flare to help reduce the control pressures but even this didn't seem to help.

We took off again and round for another landing. Same result. My confidence was really getting a battering. A couple more just as bad and I complained to the ATO of the awful condition of the elevator. He took pity on me and asked me to fly to Katoomba ALA. I cleaned up and found the small X of orange dirt on top of the Blue Mountains with steep cliffs at every edge. I demonstrated a precautionary search and landing, fighting the downdraught off the edge of the mountains. We left Katoomba and the ATO put a hood on me to simulate instrument flight. We flew to The Oaks under hood with various instruments covered to simulate a vacuum pump failure. The ATO then took off the hood and asked me to demonstrate stall recovery, unusual attitude recovery and steep turns. He then pulled the throttle back and asked to see a practice forced landing. All this stuff went perfectly. Back to Bankstown we go.

Entered the Bankstown class D and joined the circuit with a Chieftain racing in behind us. For a while it was going to be neck and neck but somehow the controllers sorted it out and we lined up for a landing. Again an awful landing. I was thoroughly pissed off by this stage and once on the ground I showed the ATO what I was talking about. The yoke is attached to a tube which slides in and out of the control panel, pushing the elevator up or down via a series of pulleys, wires and rods. This tube should slide smoothly in and out all the way from fully forward to fully back. This was not the case with LSG. About 3/4 of the way out the tube stuck requiring a good hard pull to free it, at which point it flew all the way back. The ATO agreed this should not be the case. Some combination of worn components, slack adjustment and dry grease was giving me the equivalent of a stuck steering wheel at exactly the point where I needed to hold the elevator to land. The added combination of the T-tail and a forward CG made things worse. We taxied back and I was so gutted I could barely speak.

The ATO was frank and said there was no way he could pass me given what I'd showed him and I couldn't argue. The landings were borderline dangerous. He told me that everything else I had done was perfect, no problems at all and said that if I could show him some good landings some other day he would pass me. He told me he was testing another CPL candidate the following day in a different Arrow. I raced round to find the school with the other non T-tail Arrow and arranged to hire the aircraft from them the following day and that the ATO would test me then.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Long overdue part 1

Long time between posts, huh?

Apologies for this and some form of explanation is in order. Perhaps some silly superstition on my part, but I have been training for my Commercial Pilot Licence, and posting about it made me feel like I would jinx it or something? Seems a bit unnecessary now it is all over.

I passed.

My commercial flight test had to be completed in 3 stages, for reasons I will now go into.

The test was originally booked for the end of April. I met with the testing officer, who gave me a set of waypoints to fly to south of Sydney and told to get to work. I plotted a flight plan, completed weight and balance, takeoff and landing calculations, fuel plan and got all my cockpit resources sorted and performed a pre-flight inspection of the aircraft in under an hour. The testing officer then quizzed me on my KDRs, which are the bits I got wrong from my CPL theory tests. There are a couple of items which also have to be covered, AOCs, flight and duty time limitations, privileges of the licence and so forth. Then it was time to fly.

The flight is be to conducted as if it was a commercial charter, although as Mike has pointed out, in a commercial charter nowadays there would be a computer prepared flight plan and more reliance on GPS navigation. So it's more like a commercial charter circa 1975. The necessary passenger briefings were delivered and we taxied out to the holding point. All the necessary pre-flight checks were carried out from memory then verified against a written checklist. Takeoff safety briefing given then clearance obtained and line up checks then full power for takeoff. All going very well so far. Unfortunately my favourite Piper Arrow SFJ was unavailable so we had to take LSG instead. She is reluctant to climb, old LSG, for reasons no LAME or pilot can discover. Possibly she's just a tired old girl who needs to go out to pasture. With full fuel and two pax on board we clawed our way into the air at 300-400 feet per minute.

We left the Bankstown control zone and headed south for Mittagong. El Nino still in full swing and the skies were grey and gloomy, occasional showers and a lowish ceiling. The weather was not good, but not so bad as any respectable commercial pilot would cancel the flight. Legal, in other words, so there was nothing for it but to launch and do my best. By the time we got to Bowral it was clear that although we could continue, there was no guarantee we would get home again as rain showers paraded towards us from the Tasman Sea. The testing officer gave me every hint he could that he didn't feel like staying overnight in Goulburn so I turned the bus around and we headed home. Overall very pleased with the flight although pretty disappointed we couldn't get everything finished first time. Back to Bankstown and arranged a retest in 3 weeks time.