Category Archives: Aviation

Night Flying

A couple of evenings ago, I had an awe-inspiring flight that was a major first in my flying career.

I went for my first ever flight at night. With an instructor, of course.

At the moment, my licence only allows me to fly in daylight. In order to fly at night, I would need to add a Night Rating to my licence, which simply involves a short theoretical and practical flying training course and then five solo takeoffs and full-stop landings at night.

I have been thinking about going for my night rating for a good while now, shall I/shan’t I, will I like it, what if it’s really hard, what if I get all disorientated? The inspiration for the night flying came from one of those moments where I was standing in my garden at home and looking up at the brightly moonlit clouds above, and thinking, “I would love to fly up there in that sky!” And so was born the idea of training for my first additional rating in all my 20+ years of flying.

So I decided to go for a short hop with an Instructor and see how I liked it. As it was an instructional flight, I planned on flying the aeroplane for the entire flight, right from moving off from the apron to the final shutdown, as far as it was possible given that I had never flown at night before.

So, first, we had a little bit of a briefing, where Ollie (my Instructor) gave me some important points about the differences involved in flying at night as compared to daylight flying, and I asked a few questions. Then it’s engine startup and off we go.

The first thing I noticed was that it is really hard to read my checklist in the pitch black. I had brought my torch and used it, but I made a mental note that next time I would put a red filter on my torch so as to avoid loss of night vision.

So, engine start as normal, call the Tower, and then taxy the aeroplane to the holding point just short of the runway for the power and pre-takeoff ‘vital actions’ checks. The taxiways are lit with blue lights at the edges and green lights down the centreline, and there are two bright yellow flashing lights to mark the holding point. This wasn’t all that difficult although I did notice a tendency to overcontrol on the steering because of the lack of visual references. But essentially it was no harder than driving a car at night. Lining up on the runway, though, was a bit different because there were no cues at all apart from the white lines on the ground. All the lights on aerodrome surfaces are carefully aligned to cause minimum inconvenience by dazzle and maximum benefit for the different stages of flight. To be honest I don’t remember if I could see the main runway edge lights (the flarepath), but we were quickly cleared for takeoff so it’s off we go.

The takeoff itself was easy, not all that different from a daylight takeoff, but I think I would have found it hard in a crosswind, again because of the lack of visual cues. These visual cues are something that I have taken for granted in daylight flying, because everything is visible all around me and I don’t even think about it. At night, though, the default setting is that everything is black, everywhere, unless it’s a city or a road. But the wind was calm; a nice fine and quiet night weather-wise, just perfect for a night air experience flight.

In fact, the feeling is quite surreal as the aeroplane lifts off and I begin the climbout, just like I would in daylight, but relying on the instruments to maintain the correct airspeed and attitude. Everything is black, except for the bright lights of Exeter and its surrounding towns, and the bright car lights on the nearby M5 motorway, one stream of red tail lights, the other of white headlights. It’s rush hour so the roads are busy and easily visible even where there are no street lights, and the feeling is like climbing up into a huge black velvet coal sack but with all these islands and rivers of coloured lights (mainly orange, red and white) lighting up patches on the ground. Fortunately I know the geography of the local area really well so I am not fazed at all by thinking, like, ‘Where am I?’. That’s one major thing I don’t need to worry about.

The City of Exeter at night, seen from above Dawlish Warren at 2,500ft

I notice also that large water features, like the two major estuaries of the Exe and the Teign, actually reflect light from the sky that I didn’t even know was there; the Moon has not yet risen so the sky is lit mainly by starlight and a little bit of city glow, though not all that much as Devon is really very rural. In fact, I have read many times that water features are one of the best aids to night navigation, and now I can see why. Yeadon, my old home town near Leeds, has a lake near it that they had to drain during the War, because it is only a mile from a factory where they used to build Lancaster bombers. The lake would have been a major landmark that would have enabled German night bombers to attack the factory with some fair degree of accuracy. And the sea, of course, is a major feature around my current area, although it appears much darker than the rivers for some reason…but again it’s easily found because the coastal towns define the coastline really well. And there are all these little white lights dotted around that show where boats are located. You can see one just below the middle of this photo of Exmouth, taken from over Dawlish Warren at 2,500ft (photo is clickable for full-size image):

But the most striking feature, again, is the blackness. Everything is black apart from the towns and roads, and the rivers. In fact the feeling is like that of everything being almost abstract; it’s like I’m not really flying but instead I’m using a flight simulator or something. Because the aeroplane, once trimmed up, basically flies herself, all I need to do is to look out at the view and occasionally check the instruments for height, heading and speed. I know I’m above the MSA (minimum safe altitude) so I’m not going to run into anything. Other aircraft are easy to spot as they have flashing lights on them. In a lot of ways, despite the lack of a visual horizon reference, this is much easier than flying in the daylight. Quite a paradox.

And I can see. Although most of the ground is dark, I notice that there is actually enough light to see by due to the starlight, now that my eyes are becoming accustomed to the dark.

Straight away I notice that I am flying the aeroplane much more precisely and carefully, being careful not to risk disorientation by abrupt attitude changes, and paying much more attention to the instruments and what the aeroplane is doing. When flying, it’s really important to keep ahead of the aircraft at all times; to be proactive rather than reactive, so I am concentrating hard and thinking well ahead because at night it is so much more vital to be ahead of your game. Any tendency of the aeroplane to drift off course or change its attitude has to be seen and acted on early so that it does not ‘develop’. This is probably the most precise flying I have done in a long while.

Coming back to the airport, Ollie points out landmarks that will be useful for me when trying to find the aerodrome by myself. How does one lose a huge field with a 2,064-metre runway? Quite easily, actually 🙂 But the airport does indeed appear as advertised, and I position for a left-hand downwind join for Runway 26. Doing everything slowly, carefully and precisely, I fly a very nice downwind in all this blackness; several landmarks are available to help me in this regard but I also need to make sure that I am well clear of high ground to the east of the airport and below the place where I am going to do the base turn. Downwind checks complete, and turning base, then, at about 1,100ft, the runway approach lights gradually become more visible as a dim string of yellow dots as I prepare the aeroplane for landing. Turning for final approach, the runway is lit up gloriously – I have done dusk flarepath landings before, so the sight is familiar – but in between the flarepath lights, the runway surface itself is totally black.

Photo (not mine, credit goes to ‘Golfcharlie’ as signed on the picture) of the approach lights at Exeter as seen from a Beechcraft Duchess twin-engined training aeroplane. The main runway lights are actually white, not red as they appear in this photo.

I’ve been briefed by Ollie on when to ‘flare’ (the point where you arrest the descent); apparently it’s when the runway lights appear to be coming up around my ears. So I flare and prepare to hold off, but the aeroplane touches down straight away for a real greaser of a landing; almost perfect – except that it was pure fluke. I didn’t expect the aircraft to land so soon; normally she needs to be held off the runway until she stalls gently on from about 8-12 inches above the runway. Again, the lack of visual cues is something I’m going to have to learn to deal with.

I was surprised in that I actually flew the entire flight myself, with the exception of a minute or two where Ollie took over so I could take the two photos featured in this blog post, and the whole flight was easy, if a little surreal. But the precision flying I will have to perform will do nothing but good for my flying technique.

And so my training starts on Monday, weather permitting. For the first time in 20 years, I will be undergoing a flying training programme. I did have a lesson or two a couple of years ago, where I learned things like radio navigation and such, but this will be the first really new formal flying training program that I have done since completing my PPL in 1997. Once again, I will have to summon all my courage, discipline and determination to make this work. The courage to face new and potentially dangerous situations, the discipline of concentration and excluding all extraneous thoughts from my fizzing Aspie mind; and the determination to overcome all the obstacles to learning that I will likely encounter, and come through with my shiny new Night Rating. It will be really freeing to be able to not worry about whether or not I am down before sunset. And I love the flarepath landings; it’s all very pretty.

Outside the local supermarket yesterday evening, I looked up into the black sky and thought, “Crumbs, I flew in that last night!” Well, hopefully I’m going to be doing a lot more of it over the winter months.

Wish me luck!

[Edit] I completed my Night Rating at the end of November 2017, and wrote up my experiences (including sections of this present piece) to be submitted for publication. My article was published in the October 2018 edition of the UK’s best-selling General Aviation magazine, Pilot, and occupied five pages including photos. Very pleased 🙂

[Second edit] – Now that my published article has been out for a few months, it’s become freely available on the Pilot Magazine website. If you’d like to have a read of it (it’s similar to this present article, and obviously based on it, but there are some differences) then here is the link.


North American F-86 Sabre

This entry is part 18 of 22 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

The F-86 ‘Sabre’ is certainly one of the most beautiful aeroplanes from the Cold War era, and is an icon of the classic jets genre.

First used in combat in the Korean War, the Sabre soon proved itself to be the best of the fighter aircraft in the United Nations’ arsenal, and it was the only fighter capable of facing the North Koreans’ MiG-15 fighters on equal terms. Other fighters fielded by the UN were either slower piston-engined prop jobs like the F-51 Mustang, or straight-wing jets such as the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and the Gloster Meteor, which were a good deal slower than the MiG-15.

But the Sabre was fast (it was just supersonic in a shallow dive), manoeuvrable, had good visibility from its bubble canopy, and was often flown by experienced combat veterans who had fought in WWII. In many ways, the Sabre and MiG-15 were virtually equal aircraft, each with strengths and weaknesses with respect to the other, very much like the Spitfire and the Messerschmitt 109 were in the Second World War. Here are a preserved Sabre and MiG-15 seen together at an airshow in the USA (photo is clickable to magnify):

But the Sabre is just plain beautiful, and that’s one reason why I’m featuring it in ‘Beautiful Destroyers‘.  Look at those lovely clean lines, the perfect wing sweep angle, the sleekness of the curves of the fuselage…this is a beautiful aeroplane in the same league in the beauty stakes as the Hawker Hunter.

In the photo above, you can clearly see the ‘bubble’ shape of the canopy; this gave the pilot an excellent all-round field of view; this is very advantageous in close-in air combat. There is an old fighter-pilots’ adage: ‘He who sees, wins’ and the Sabre’s canopy certainly fits the bill for that purpose.

Armed with six 0.50″ machine guns, the Sabre packed quite a punch – the six 0.50-cal machine guns were a proven weapons fit from the Second World War – but they did not have quite the range of the cannon with which the Soviet fighters like the MiG-15, and jet bombers like the Ilyushin-28, were armed.

Indeed the early Sabres were in some ways some of the last of the gun-only armed aircraft; changes in the performance of jet bombers meant that there had to be new developments in air-to-air combat that would enable fighters to bring down Soviet bombers which had nearly as good speed and altitude performance as the fighters that would be trying to stop them in the event of a war.

Eventually, the ability to stop fast jet bombers was realised by the advent of air-to-air guided missiles; indeed the Sabre was one of the first aircraft to be fitted with early versions of the AIM-9 ‘Sidewinder’ heat-seeking missile. But in the meantime, other methods had to be developed to enable interceptors to attack enemy bombers without being exposed to withering cannon fire from the tail turrets of aeroplanes such as the Tu-95 ‘Bear’. (Remember that at this time in history, the ‘Cold War’, the threat of nuclear war was ever-present, and the West and the East both poured tons of money into developing effective defences against enemy nuclear-armed bombers). The temporary stop-gap measure adopted by the USA and Canada, at least, was to arm their interceptor jets with many unguided ‘folding-fin aerial rockets’ (FFARs) which had explosive warheads but which had to actually hit their targets directly in order to cause damage. A good number of these rockets were carried by various interceptors, from 24 in the F-86D (below) and F-102A, to a massive 108 FFARs in the Northrop F-89D ‘Scorpion’. The idea was to attack enemy bombers using a single head-on pass, using a specialist radar-guided attack computer which launched all the FFARs at the target in one (hopefully devastating) salvo. Hopefully, the combination of reasonably accurate aiming and the ‘shotgun’ effect of having so many FFARs in the air at the same time, would bring down the enemy bomber before it got to its target. That’s what interceptors are supposed to do.

And so was born the F-86D ‘Sabre Dog’; the FFAR-armed interceptor version of the F-86. The inclusion of the fire control radar and the retractable rocket tray meant that the airframe shape was nowhere near as graceful as the gun-armed F-86s, but I suppose it was for a reason and it did its job. The F-86D was never intended for fighting against enemy fighters, though; its entire armament for its mission was based around the single salvo of FFARs, to be used to intercept a single enemy bomber. You only got the one shot. Here is the F-86D, and another shot showing its retractable rocket tray, which was just under the cockpit:

The big black dome on the nose of the Sabre Dog (which I feel spoils its lines!) is the radome containing the fire control radar for the FFAR aiming computer. Here’s another shot of the whole FFAR salvo going off:

Impressive though that looks, this technique is of questionable value at best; it was appallingly inaccurate, and it was fortunately never really necessary to use it for real, in this role at least. (See the Wikipedia article on FFARs for more on this)

Now, this is more like it. Here is a gorgeous painting of an F-86 punching off its drop-tanks as it prepares to engage a North Korean MiG-15:

Drop tanks were an idea from the Second World War, where fighters could extend their range by carrying extra fuel in external tanks. Because these external tanks increased the weight and drag of the aeroplane, they could be dropped, or ‘punched off’, as the enemy was sighted, hence the name ‘drop tanks’.

The fighter would then be lighter and cleaner and better able to engage the enemy. The idea was that you would use the fuel from the drop tanks first, so that the tanks would hopefully be empty by the time you ran into trouble and jettisoned them. Or, if you didn’t make contact with enemy aircraft, you could just bring the tanks home empty and use them again.

The Sabre served with many nations’ air forces , including the Royal Air Force, for many years and in many operational theatres, with the last ones being retired from service in the Bolivian Air Force in 1994.

So, there she is; the F-86 Sabre. Beautiful lines, sleek, fast and deadly. A ‘Beautiful Destroyer’ for sure.


Aerobatics with Lauren Richardson

The other day, I was privileged to meet Lauren Richardson, aerobatic display Pilot and former British Female Aerobatics Champion. Lauren performs her superb routine, in her customised Pitts Special S1-S aeroplane, at airshows all over the  UK, before crowds of tens of thousands of people or more.

Lauren flying her Pitts Special aeroplane in a classic ‘knife-edge’

I also got to meet her partner, Simon Wilson, who is himself an accomplished diplay Pilot,  displaying the vintage Percival Provost at airshows all over the UK.

The gorgeous Percival Provost at Torbay Airshow, flown by Simon Wilson

Lauren and Simon are well-known in the British airshow circuit for their highly professional, sparkling displays of these two classic aircraft; displays that are so different (although both aerobatic) and each riveting each in their own unique way. Apart from their immense skill, what makes display Pilots like Lauren and Simon so special is that they have to perform their displays at a low level, typically below a maximum height of about 2,000ft, because if they went any higher than that, the crowd wouldn’t be able to see them well enough. In fact, that figure of 2,000ft is only the very apex of their manoeuvres; most of the display is actually performed much lower than that. And this kind of low-level flying, and the consequent lack of time for recovery from an error, means this: there is no such thing as a minor incident in low-level aerobatics. These guys have to get it right first time, every time; there is very little margin for error. Flying like this requires a precision that is unmatched in virtually any other type of flying, with the possible two exceptions of fast-jet operations on aircraft carriers, and low-level terrain-following flight.

Lauren has recently begun publishing ‘behind the scenes’ videos of her flying, detailing such subjects as why she loves what she does, what preparation she has to do before each display and so on. She has also started doing, well, not exactly ‘how-to’ videos, because you can’t just hop in any old aeroplane and perform these manoeuvres, but at least videos showing how she personally is handling the aeroplane in each manoeuvre. I find these videos quite fascinating, so I have showcased this video today, the second in the series, with Lauren’s permission. Here it is; enjoy!

Wisely, Lauren concludes the video with a ‘don’t do this at home’ disclaimer, which is spot on and wholly correct. You can’t do this sort of thing in a Tomahawk, a Cessna 152 or a Warrior.

I would also like to point out that not only does Lauren do public airshows, but she also performs routines of up to 12 minutes for private functions too, such as weddings, corporate functions and the like. The service Lauren provides includes all the paperwork and insurance and what-have-you, so it’s totally hassle free for you. If you’re interested in booking Lauren for your event, click the image below or follow this link for further details.


Picture Credits:
Header photo:
Lauren’s Pitts in Knife-Edge:
Percival Provost photo:
Private function photo:


Piper Warrior Conversion

This entry is part 17 of 22 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

Well, when I first began the Beautiful Destroyers series here on my blog, I did say that I would not always be featuring military aircraft.

If you remember, the most beautiful aeroplanes are often the ones that are designed to break things belonging to other people, hence the title ‘Beautiful Destroyers’, and I said I would also feature civilian aircraft from time to time. I’ve already featured one of my favourite civilian aeroplanes last time – the Cessna 152 – and today I am going to feature another of my favourite aeroplanes to fly – the Piper PA-28 Cherokee, also known as the ‘Warrior’. And, although she’s not a ‘Destroyer’ (although actually there are some military versions), she’s still beautiful.

The Warrior exists in various versions, and the one in the title picture, G-CIZO (‘Zulu-Oscar’), is actually a PA-28-161 ‘Cadet’, incorrectly listed in Wikipedia as being a two-seat variant. It’s not; there are definitely four seats in Zulu-Oscar! And four sets of seatbelts and four sets of headphone jacks.

And this is the aeroplane that I flew a couple of weeks ago, in order to convert back on to the Warrior after nearly sixteen years away from the type.

But that aside, the Warrior is, in my opinion, the prettiest of the light aeroplanes that I have flown. I love the double-taper wing shape; here is a lovely photo of Zulu-Oscar showing off her beautiful lines really nicely:

Zulu-Oscar on final approach (note position of flaps just behind the main undercarriage)

In the past, when I have flown a Cessna 152, it always felt as if I was putting on my second skin, so familiar am I with the aeroplane type. The aircraft very smoothly becomes an extension of me, my senses, my body, you get the picture.

And I am thrilled to have been reminded that it’s the same with the Warrior. Even after sixteen years of not flying the type, I have to say that I took to it immediately. Having completed my hour and a half conversion flight with an Instructor, five days later I took the same aeroplane up solo for a skills consolidation flight and it was just like I had never been away from the type, so delightful is this aeroplane to fly. It was like putting a glove on; she instantly becomes a part of you. She’s smooth, steady and stable, responsive and light to the touch. A real pilot’s aeroplane.

The Warrior I have flown most in the past, at Plymouth (where I learned to fly) is G-BTSJ ‘Sierra Juliet’.

Sierra-Juliet on the grass at Exeter

Since Plymouth Airport closed a few years ago, Sierra-Juliet has lived at Newquay (where Plymouth Flying School relocated to) and I had seen her occasionally at Bodmin (where I flew after Pymouth closed) when she was there for maintenance. Now, however, she has been bought by my flying school at Exeter and I am looking forward to taking this dignified old lady up into the skies once again. She’s the aeroplane I was flying when we had the humorous ‘Forced Landing’ incident I related previously.

So, as I said, a couple of weeks ago, I flew in Zulu-Oscar, with veteran flying instructor Mike, for my type refresher conversion. Why? Well, unless you have flown it recently, you can’t really just jump into a new (to you) aircraft type and fly it, at least not safely; you need to know where all the switches are, how to handle emergencies, and especially what speeds to fly for climbing, gliding, cruise, final approach, all that sort of thing. These are what’s known as the ‘V Speeds‘. My instructor Mike is a great bloke whom I have known for most of my flying career; he was an Instructor at Plymouth just after I finished my PPL and he’s patient, unflappable and great to work with. So off we toddled up towards Cullompton and Wellington, two towns to the north of Exeter, for General Handling practice including steep turns, stalls and a PFL. Then across the moor to the busy local General Aviation (GA) aerodrome at Dunkeswell for circuits and touch-and-go landing practice. Because Dunkeswell were using their shorter Runway 17, I had to relearn very quickly about the Warrior’s acceleration/deceleration characteristics. The PA-28 is a very slippery aeroplane and, while she accelerates readily, slowing down is really not that easy. And so I had to fly four circuits of precision flying, controlling height, heading and speed accurately as well as communicating with the ground radio people, keeping a lookout and maintaining high situational awareness because of the busy circuit traffic at Dunkeswell that day. My first landing was admittedly more of a controlled crash; after raising the nose for the flare (just before landing), my airspeed fell off a little too quickly and I came down like it was on an aircraft carrier. Boomps-a-daisy. And to cap it all, on our last final approach, they decided to chuck a load of parachutists out over the airfield and they were coming down all over the place. But they kept to their area of the airfield and away from the active runway, so all was well, although Mike did double-check with the ground people to make sure they were happy with us continuing our approach (they were). So, a quick full-stop landing for refuelling, then it’s off to Exeter again, land there, get my logbook signed to say I’d requalified on the Warrior and the job’s a good ‘un.

Here’s a profile view of Zulu-Oscar:

Look at those lovely, clean lines and the beautiful curves on the tailfin. Also worthy of note is the ‘slab tailplane’. The entire tailplane – that’s the small wing-like structure at the back end – is what’s known as an ‘all-flying tailplane’, ‘stabilator‘, or ‘slab tailplane’. What this means is that, instead of the tailplane being fixed but with separate moving surfaces (known as ‘elevators’) as the part of the tailplane that controls the ‘attitude’ or ‘pitch’ (nose-up/nose-down) of the aeroplane, instead, with a slab tailplane, the entire tailplane moves as a single piece to provide this control. Because the slab tailplane has such a large area when compared to normal elevators, this means that this sort of tailplane confers excellent ‘pitch authority’, in that the aeroplane responds decisively and enthusiastically to pitch control inputs. This gives a very ‘positive’, yet also very light, feel to the controls when flying this type. In addition, unlike the Piper PA-38 ‘Tomahawk’ that I also fly, which has a high ‘T’-tailplane, the lower tailplane on the Warrior sits in the propeller slipstream – the ‘wash’ of high-speed air blown backwards along the aeroplane by the propeller – and this gives it even more pitch authority. Because of this, it’s virtually impossible for the tailplane to enter a dangerous ‘deep stall‘ condition, which makes for a much safer aeroplane.

So, there we go, that’s the Piper Warrior. I’ve not given much detail on performance or stuff like that, but instead a proper ‘pilot’s-eye’ view of a lovely aeroplane which flies as nicely as it looks. Here’s a final shot of Zulu-Oscar, taken just after my consolidation flight last week:


Cloud Dancing, May 2017

The other day I took the PA-38 Tomahawk ‘Romeo-Romeo’ (so called because of the phonetic alphabet rendering of the last two letters of her registration ‘Golf- Romeo Victor Romeo Romeo’) up for a dance among the clouds. The idea is that you find some medium-altitude clouds, and use them as a point of reference around which to throw the aeroplane. Turning, rolling, swooping, soaring, climbing and diving – the feeling of freedom is huge, and the scenery (both of the clouds and the beautiful Devon landscape) is spectacular. Sometimes you fly so close to the clouds that it feels as if your wingtip is grazing the brilliant white vapour and you feel like you could simply reach out and touch the clouds themselves.

So, today I present a photo record of my recent cloud dancing flight. All of the pictures are clickable to give you the full-size, zoomable detailed picture. I hope you enjoy them!

This is Romeo-Romeo, prepped for flight and raring to go. Preflight check completed and everything is ready.
Here’s where the fun begins…

Yes, that is Auntie Betty’s Headset sitting on top of the instrument panel, along with my kneeboard and flying gloves…

There are fewer more thrilling, evocative sights than this. Lined up and cleared for takeoff on Runway 26 at Exeter. The adventure begins…
Five minutes after take-off. North end of the Exe estuary and Topsham.
Here I dipped the starboard wing to get a better view of Topsham and the Exe M5 motorway bridges
Exmouth and the seaward end of the Exe Estuary
A good view of Starcross and Dawlish Warren. Shaldon, Babbacombe Bay and Hope’s Nose, Torquay visible in the distance
Rainbow over Dawlish Warren, looking towards Exmouth from the Kenton area.
Torbay coming into view in the distance.
Teignmouth Golf Course with the Teign estuary behind.
Heavy squall near Newton Abbot. I will be avoiding that…
Despite the dark cloudbase and squalls, the visibility today was actually immense. You could see for miles.
Another view showing the excellent visibility.
Chudleigh from 2,000ft.
Time for some cloud dancing. At 3,500ft near Newton Abbot I found these little beauties. They will do nicely for my proposed activity today. When you go cloud dancing, the aeroplane feels like an extension of your own body; the instruments an extension of your senses. There is a real feeling of being ‘in the Zone’; at one with your machine and you can feel the airflow over the wings and fuselage, you can feel the whole thing…there really is nothing like it.
…and some more clouds too. You can tell that I am clawing for more height by the wing angle… Things got a little busy from here on in: swooping, banking, rolling, climbing, diving, skimming the cloud tops and ducking under them, flying through valleys of cloud. Too busy to use the camera, unfortunately. Cloud dancing involves both hands and both feet working the stick, throttle and rudder respectively; this isn’t aerobatics but sometimes it feels as if it is…you need to maintain the ‘energy loading’ of the aeroplane (this is a combination of airspeed, altitude and engine power) and keep a close eye and feel on what the aeroplane is doing. Because the Tomahawk can ‘bite’ quite viciously at low speeds around the stalling speed, you want to stay away from there as much as you can, and this means maintaining a high airspeed. This is especially important when performing tight turns because the margin of airspeed above the stalling speed decreases, due to the stall speed increasing with the square root of the g-loading. So, for example, if you’re pulling 2’g’, the stall speed becomes 1.414 (the square root of 2) times what it normally is. So for a clean stall speed of around 50kt, at 2’g’ you’re looking at about 71 or 72 kt. You really need to keep an eye on things and maintain at least 90kt for the whole thing, and this demands your full attention. Certainly there are no hands free, nor brain cells available, for operating a camera! My apologies…
‘Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . ” Cloud so close you could reach out and touch it…
Cloud dancing finished, plenty of altitude left at 3,800ft.
View down the River Teign from nearly 4,000ft.
Oh, all right then, one last go….More clouds to dance around! These clouds were treated to a powered dive through a valley of cloud between them. The impression of speed is awesome, at about 120kt (that’s about 137mph).
And here’s Romeo-Romeo back on the ground. Thanks for the flight, dear lady. See you next time…

Controlled Flight Into Terrain

‘Controlled Flight Into Terrain’ (or CFIT) is the number-one cause of fatal aircraft accidents in the UK. That is to say, the pilot has not lost control of his aircraft – he is still completely in control – but the aeroplane is destroyed by a collision with the ground. How can this happen? Far and away the most common cause of this sort of accident is where the Pilot flies into a cloud* at low level, and that cloud just happens to have a solid centre. So, something like a mountain, a hill, a radio mast, that sort of thing. Pilots have a name for that sort of cloud; we call it ‘cumulogranite’. Invariably, the aeroplane loses such an argument, but, of course, the simple answer is to avoid flying into cloud at all, never mind at low level. My Pilot’s licence does not allow me to fly in cloud anyway, so it’s a no-brainer.

So, for me, a CFIT accident should never happen.

Or so you would have thought.

Let me tell you the brief story of a rare ‘hairy moment’ I managed to contrive a bit back, that could have become a CFIT but for my decisive action.

While flying one of the Piper Tomahawks from my local Flying Club in Devon, I decided to perform a ‘Practice Forced Landing’, or ‘PFL’ for short. As described in this article, it’s where you pretend that the hamster has died** and the engine has therefore failed, so you need to practice the unpowered glide down towards a suitable field. But you don’t actually land there, as you would do in a real emergency; no, once you think you’d have made it, you open the throttle again and climb away.

Now, I have only been flying from this airfield in Devon for a year or so. For the previous few years, I have been flying over the gently rolling, undulating Cornish countryside. The Devon countryside is similar, but we do have at least one giant ridge, called Haldon Hill, which rises several hundred feet out of the western side of the Exe Valley. Oh and there’s the huge, high plateau of Dartmoor as well, but that doesn’t figure in this story. Most of the time, though, Haldon Hill is not a problem because we fly at 2,000 feet or higher, so the Hill is well below us.

But for a PFL, by definition, you do go down low and fly pretty close to the ground. You are pretending you’re going to land, after all.***

So, on this particular occasion, I ‘failed’ the engine at 2,000ft at a randomly-chosen time and chose a field a few miles west of Starcross on the Exe estuary (‘randomly-chosen time’ because you don’t look for a nice big field and then fail the engine once you’ve found one; in real life, the engine would likely fail with little or no warning and you wouldn’t have that luxury). A nicely-sized triangular field on a slight uphill slope (this helps slow the plane down once you’ve landed) and directly into wind, and with a farm next to it. In real life that would have been the perfect place to land. And, also noting that Haldon Hill was well clear a good few miles away to the west so that should be fine; there was plenty of space for me to climb away so I don’t hit it.

So, I conducted the PFL drill and got down to about 300ft. I wanted to go a little lower than normal – usually no lower than 500ft above ground level – to see what an open field looks like from a lower level. Having decided that, had that been a real forced landing, I would have survived, I selected full power and began the climb away. Looking up from the field, well I can’t say I went into a panic because I don’t do that, but right there in front of me, less than a mile away, was a bloody great big treeline – a ridge with loads of trees on it – and I was looking up at it! The top of the treeline was a good 250ft above me…

You see, because I had descended for the PFL from above the height of Haldon Hill, I had failed to see the treeline in the foreground and a mile beyond ‘my’ field, because it was well below Haldon Hill. It was down in the ‘ground clutter’, as it were, and as I was concentrating on the field and the landing procedure, I hadn’t seen the ridge under my ‘exit route’. I found out a few days later – by finding ‘my’ field on a map – that the treeline is a medium-sized copse near a wood called ‘Mamhead Big Wood’. Maybe it was called ‘Mamhead Little Copse’ or something. Well, whatever it was called, it certainly looked like it was living up to the larger name right now, Mamhead Big Wood or not, and not only that but it was above me! and it was also getting closer. With less than a mile to run, low on airspeed because I was just recovering from the descent and getting rid of the drag flaps and also nose-up as well (which reduces the acceleration), and not yet at best climb speed, I knew I was going to have to do something pretty decisive. Low on airspeed, altitude and ideas, this is a situation we Pilots call ‘tumbleweed’ for obvious reasons. No way was I going to gain sufficient height to clear ‘Mamhead Little (but getting bigger) Copse’ in the time available.

Adopting the only course left open to me, I decided to turn gently right – again, in a climb, your turning is restricted too because turning uses ‘lift’ from the wings, and when you are climbing you are using most of that already – so the gentle right turn brought me northwards and parallel to the ridgeline. With that terrain feature now to my left, I now had plenty more space to complete the recovery manoeuvre. CFIT avoided.

Map showing my PFL flightpath. Dotted line shows the gliding descent, ‘my’ target field is the triangular one marked with the blue ‘X’, and the climbout escape path is shown as a curving solid line. Arrowheads give direction of travel. ‘Mamhead Big Wood’ visible to the left of the map, but actually it is on the reverse slope into the next valley; the problem wood was that smaller copse to the east. Look at those contour lines; each one of those is 5 metres more altitude…but also see how the land drops away again west of the ridge through Mamhead Big Wood. Scale: Large blue grid square – 1km

So, I learned from this that I should only really do a PFL in properly rolling countryside; I know now that the area between the Exe estuary and Haldon Hill is a tricky complex of ridgelines, slopes and forests which is not good terrain in which to practice forced landings. I have no doubt I would get a plane down in that area safely should the real thing happen, but for practice? Not good, because the exit routes are potentially not good. When you’re trained to do PFLs, you’re trained to look out for certain types of field: fairly level or with a slight upslope; big enough to land in with enough space to stop before you hit the far hedge; into wind and hopefully not into the sun (but the wind direction is more important); hopefully a reasonably smooth and firm ground surface; preferably near to civilization so you can get a cup of tea while you wait for the AA to come out; and no obstructions like trees or power lines on the approach path. But nobody ever mentioned the escape routes. The vast majority of the time, you are going to be doing these sorts of things for practice only, so it’s not just a matter of ‘would I have got into the selected field safely’, but also ‘can I get out again once I have completed the PFL exercise?

The day a Pilot stops learning is the day he should stop flying. I’m glad to say that I learned from this event; I got in some good practical and real-time decision-making, and I lived to tell the tale. I wouldn’t say that the event was necessarily dangerous, but it was what we might call ‘marginal’; not much room for error and very much dependent on my skill, experience and knowledge of my aircraft in order to resolve it satisfactorily.

I’m probably going to drive over and have a closer look at ‘Mamhead Big Wood’ and ‘Mamhead Little Copse’ sometime. I would say that it’s in order to see what it looks like from the ground, but I would think that I can make a pretty-well informed guess about that already, don’t you? 😉

*The number two cause of fatal aircraft accidents is ‘loss of control in IMC’ (‘IMC’ meaning ‘Instrument Meteorological Conditions’ or, again, cloud), that is, the Pilot gets into cloud, gets disorientated, and loses control of the aircraft. Again, very rare and easily avoided (because we’re not supposed to fly into cloud for that very reason), but still worth bearing in mind.

**Everyone knows that light aeroplane engines are powered by a hamster running on a little wheel, under the engine cowling; this makes the propeller go round very fast.

***People sometimes ask me “How low can you fly in those aeroplanes of yours? How close to the ground can you go?” To which, of course, the only correct answer is, “All the way down. It’s called “landing” ‘ 😉

Header image shows Piper PA-38 Tomahawk G-RVRR, callsign ‘Romeo-Romeo’, one of the two Tomahawks I fly.


Auntie Betty’s Headset

Sadly, my Auntie Betty died last year (she was 90!), and she kindly bequeathed me a money gift in her Will.

I always like to use a bequest to buy something that will remind me of the person who left me the gift. So, for example, a few years ago my godfather Geoff died and left me £250. We used that money to buy an awning for our caravan, which was very fitting as Geoff was an avid caravanner. And so we think of him when we use the caravan and the new awning.

Since my Auntie Betty was involved with building Lancaster aeroplanes during the War, I decided to buy an aviation-related item with her gift. And so I bought myself a new flying headset. I have been flying light aeroplanes for over 20 years and, up until now, I had never yet got myself my own headset, instead using flying club headsets which are often less than perfectly functional.

The purpose of the headset is four-fold: a) to shield the ears from the loud noise of the engine; b) to enable intercom communication with passenger(s) in the aeroplane; c) to let me converse with the air traffic controllers and other helpful agencies on the ground; and d) most importantly, to help me to build up a picture of what’s happening in the area in which I am flying, up here in the sky and on the ground too (aircraft about to take off, that sort of thing). This is what’s known as ‘Situational Awareness’, or ‘SA’; a skill that takes time to develop and which is vital to survival in the air. SA is basically knowing what you’re doing, where you are, and what’s going on around you. It is gained by a combination of visually searching the sky for other aircraft; keeping an eye on the weather, cloudbase and wind direction; being aware of the condition of the aircraft (fuel state, engine behaviour and so on) and of your own position, course, speed and altitude/height; listening to the radio chatter from other aircraft and relating their information to your own situation; liaising with radar controllers who perform a most useful service by providing an extra ‘pair of eyes’, and more*. And that of course is the part where the headset comes in.

So, here’s my new headset, a brand-new David Clark H10-60, a top of the line passive noise reduction headset which is the best you can get without going into active noise cancellation technology – but those types of headset cost nearly £1,000 and I have always found passive headsets like this one to be perfectly adequate for my kind of flying.

It came with free cotton ear covers (that’s the white speaker covers in the photo); these serve to keep the headset dry in use – flying an aeroplane can sometimes be hard work, and you can get quite sweaty at times! Also, there was a free case to store the headset in when not in use:

And I imagine my cousin Pete (Betty’s son) will be pleased with this idea, because he’s a Pilot too and will totally ‘get it’.

Here’s the headset in place. I don’t like doing selfies and prefer to avoid the limelight, but this one is kind of important as it is intended to show the headset in use. Granted it makes me look like a Cyberman off Doctor Who, a picture of which is included for comparison 😉

I have already flown the headset a good few times and I’m very pleased with it; it’s really effective, it is very comfortable and it’s clean, and of course it also reminds me of my Auntie Betty whenever I fly. Which was part of the idea, of course.

To me, it’ll always be ‘Auntie Betty’s Headset’.

Which is nice 🙂

*Unfortunately, SA is a skill that is all too lacking in many of today’s car drivers. Most of the idiots I see on the roads here in Devon are skilled at ‘Situational Unawareness’. They haven’t a clue what’s going on around them and probably don’t even know what song is playing on their stereo. It’s quite scary if you think about it. So I try not to 😉 In an aeroplane, they wouldn’t last thirty seconds…

No doubt there are drivers of the same calibre where you live 😉


Cessna 152

This entry is part 16 of 22 in the series Beautiful Destroyers

I did say, when I began this series, that despite it being called ‘Beautiful Destroyers’, not all the aircraft featured would be military aircraft.

And today’s aircraft is the first civilian aircraft I am featuring in the series. The Cessna 152, first manufactured in 1977 and produced until 1985. The ‘152 is probably the most popular basic training aircraft in the world. Multitudes of pilots have learned to fly in this aircraft; it is steady and reliable, easy to fly, and a real delight. It’s a bit cramped with two people on board, but it does have a better load-carrying capacity than the Piper PA-38 Tomahawk, another popular training aeroplane (and the type I fly at present).

This is G-CEYH, ‘Yankee Hotel’, the aeroplane I flew a lot while at Cornwall Flying Club, Bodmin. In this shot, taken fron the observation point near the airfield approach road, someone’s on short finals for Runway 31. No idea who, though 🙂

The C152 has a maximum ‘never-exceed’ airspeed of 174kt (1kt = 1.14mph), a speed we’d never get near in practical flying, as at that speed the tail reportedly falls off. Maximum normal level speed 110kt; economical cruise speed 90kt or as near to 100mph as makes no difference. Ceiling (maximum altitude) is reportedly 14,500ft but all the Cessnas I have ever flown can make 10,000ft but will struggle to go any higher; there’s not a lot of oomph left by the time you get up there. Not that we can take them any higher than that anyway, as most Flying Clubs have rules routinely restricting pilots to 10,000ft due to lack of oxygen at altitudes any higher than that. Certainly at 10,000ft you can feel your heart beating faster, tingling in your fingers and toes, increased respiration rate and a slight dizziness; all signs of impending hypoxia (oxygen starvation).

Me with G-BNSM – ‘Sierra Mike’ – at Compton Abbas airfield, Dorset, after an epic 100-mile flight from Bodmin with my son David, July 2013. Note the stripe on the arm of my T-shirt; this can be clearly seen in my blog’s header image which was taken about ten minutes before this photo.

I learned to fly on the C152, at Plymouth Airport in Devon. During that time, I discovered that different aircraft of the same type can have very diferent handling characteristics, and so the Pilot develops a preference for certain specific aeroplanes over others of the same type, based on the ‘feel’ of the aeroplane. My favourite aircraft at Plymouth was C152 G-BSTO, ‘Tango-Oscar’. She had such lovely clean, sharp, responsive handling characteristics, along with an engine of decent power and decisive power response, I couldn’t help but favour her over the other two Cessnas at Plymouth Flying School. She always felt like an extension of my body – well, actually, all aeroplanes that I fly do, but especially Tango-Oscar. And she was the aeroplane in which I flew my first solo, which is described here. Tango-Oscar now lives at Newquay airport (just 20 miles from Bodmin), with the flying school there, and it was always strange, when flying out of Bodmin, occasionally to hear Newquay Radar talking to ‘Golf-Tango-Oscar’ and have to resist the temptation to reply to them. It took some getting used to to remember that someone else was flying Tango-Oscar at the time, and Newquay Radar weren’t actually talking to me. Here’s Tango-Oscar taxying at Cardiff Airport, with an unknown Pilot in command:

(The header image of this post shows me taking off from Bodmin in Tango-Oscar, in May 2009. The full story can be found at the bottom of this post).

Here’s another picture of Sierra-Mike at Compton Abbas in July 2013, this time on the ground and taxying for departure with David in command:

Note the elevator is fully raised – stick right back – and this has the effect (which can be clearly seen) of raising the nose away from the ground, to minimise the chances of a prop-strike (that’s where the propeller chews into the ground). It doesn’t do either the prop or the ground much good if that happens.

Finally for Sierra-Mike, here is the original photo, taken by an unknown photographer, that I use in my blog’s header image. It shows me flying Sierra-Mike down short finals for Runway 26 at Compton Abbas, 14th July 2013:

What is it that I love about the Cessna 152? Well, she has clean lines, a simple, uncomplicated design, docile and gentle handling characteristics, she’s easy yet still fun to fly, stable and reliable, and I am so familiar with the type that when I fly one she, more than any other aircraft type, feels like a part of me, like an extension of my body and senses.

Underside view of G-CEYH ‘Yankee Hotel’, photographed from the road just under the final approach for Rwy 31, Bodmin Airfield. This was on the day I joined the Flying Club there, and I had just done my Club Check flight in this aeroplane. By the time I left, it was someone else’s turn to fly her…

What’s it like to fly a Cessna 152? Well, for starters, here’s the instrument panel on Tango-Oscar, in flight over Teignmouth, Devon, en route to Exmouth at 2,250ft, looking from the passenger seat. It looks complicated at first, but believe me, you soon get used to all those switches and dials. It’s not so much, ‘What does that one do?’, but that you need some information, like ‘How fast are we going?’, and so you know to look at the airspeed indicator, which is the top left dial. Or you need to perform a task, like go into a climb, so it’s throttle to full power (the black knob next to the red Mixture control knob) and up you go. The picture is fully zoomable; click it once to download it to your browser, then click again to zoom, and scroll around as you like. many of the controls are actually labelled with a little caption saying what they do. You might find it interesting to take a closer look.

And another shot, this time a pilot’s eye view of the panel of Yankee-Hotel, again in flight, levelling out at 3,000ft and just finishing the turn on to heading:

And finally, here’s a little video shot by my friend Steve, where you get to see what it’s like to fly in one of these beauties (Yankee-Hotel) in short-field, grass-strip operations from Bodmin Airfield. Startup, taxying, takeoff, then rejoining the circuit (we’d probably been off to bomb Colliford Lake or something), final approach and landing. Points to look for: the building whine of the instrument gyros spinning up; the call of ‘Clear prop!’ before engine start; the bumpy ride on the takeoff roll (grass runway!) transitioning instantly to smoothness as she gets airborne; the final approach with the runway getting bigger; a little bit of sideslip at 5:50, where I dip the nose to lose a bit of excess height, and the extremely quick landing (not as rough as it looks) with hardly any hold-off at all. This was because it was a short-field landing: a landing flown with airspeeds ‘on the back of the drag curve’ at about 55kt or so. This means that as the nose is raised, the airspeed decays very rapidly and the aircraft comes down quite quickly. Which is what you need if you’re on a short runway. We were down, and slowed, and off the runway in 200 yards or less. That’s how it’s supposed to be done!

So, there she is. The Cessna 152, probably my all-time favourite aeroplane to fly, and for reasons that are probably obvious by now!

For more information on the Cessna 152, check out the Wikipedia entry on the type here.

Edit: You could in fact call the Cessna 152 a ‘Beautiful Destroyer’ in that we regularly used them to ‘attack’ the dams on local reservoirs. Tip in towards the target, a shallow dive to pick up airspeed, then race across the water at low level and high speed. Call ‘Bombs away!’ and then a sharp, high-g pull-up into the vertical and climb away. Most exhilarating, tremendous fun, and your grin is fixed for at least a week afterwards.


DaVinci on Flying

Many people may not know this, but in fact the famous fifteenth/sixteenth-century artist Leonardo DaVinci invented the helicopter.

He designed a vehicle with a large ‘Helical Air Screw’ on top that would use that device to climb up into the air. This is exactly the same principle as the helicopter, which has a large ‘airscrew’ on top – nowadays (specifically on the helicopter) we call it a ‘rotor’, and indeed all such devices like propellers, fans, impellers and rotors are still known today as ‘airscrews’. Any device like a propeller or rotor is esssentially designed to ‘screw’, or drill, its way through the air (or water for a marine propeller), which is why it spins very fast. Leonardo wasn’t just an artist; he was what is known as a ‘polymath’ – someone who is brilliant at lots of things, art being just one of his many talents.

Sadly, most of Leonardo’s concepts, although incredibly far ahead of his time, were essentially not going to work in his time because of the limitations of materials science and power technology. Structurally, the airscrew would likely not have supported the vehicle, and in any case the powerplant – four men turning cranks – would have been insufficient to generate enough thrust to lift the vehicle. Had it been available at the time, not even steam power would have been able to generate enough oomph to lift Leonardo’s helicopter. Indeed, it was only the advent of the internal combustion engine that enabled powerplants to be built with enough power and low enough weight to be used in heavier-than-air aircraft.

And Leonardo also ‘got’ the emotional element of flight too. From the quote I share below, it is apparent that he would have understood the heady feelings of flight and the euphoria it can produce.


We have a saying that sometimes it takes a week or so for the grin to disapper from our faces after a successful day’s flying.

I think Leonardo would have had the same problem, don’t you?

For more information on Leonardo’s flying machine inventions – and his others, too – click the image below (takes you to a new website in a new tab)


Of course, Leonardo DaVinci did the odd bit of art as well 😉

Recently, I had a request from the Webmaster of a Leonardo DaVinci art site, to provide a link to their site – so here it is, if you are interested. I’m not necessarily recommending the site or its services, but it looks reasonably bona-fide, and you can definitely view Leonardo’s art there. So I’m just providing the link. Click the Mona Lisa below to go there.


First Solo

“…and I was being chased by at least three Focke-Wulf 190s…”

“What, in a Tempest? Couldn’t you just outrun them?”

“Well, no, it wasn’t like that you see…..carry on, you’re doing fine….”

What an honour, having veteran flying instructor, senior flight examiner and war veteran Rufus Heald have me fly him for my pre-solo check ride. This is the final check by a senior instructor, to see if he agrees with your Instructor that you are ready to take an aeroplane up by yourself for the first time – the First Solo. And what a real gentleman Rufus was, taking my mind off my nerves by regaling me with war stories – albeit stories about being chased by German fighters!

But I have to be honest and say that in some ways I kind of felt like I couldn’t wait to get him out of the aeroplane so I could go flying by myself for the first time ever. Rufus, if you read this, please accept my apologies, although I am absolutely sure you understand!

‘Any questions?’

‘Just the one, Rufus: if some clot decides to prang a Dash-8 [an airliner] right on the runway intersection, what do I do?’

‘No problem. Just follow the A38 eastwards all the way to Exeter, and land there’

‘Oh, ok, thanks.’ A sobering thought, that; if that happened, then my first solo would turn into my first solo cross-country flight, but fortunately that doesn’t happen. Good job too; I haven’t started my navigation training yet.

‘Right then, off you go and good luck!’

So, once Rufus had hopped out, it’s interesting to see how quickly the flying discipline comes in. Settle down, now; you’ve got to get this next bit right first time, there’s no second chances. Crumbs, this is scary, do I have to do this? Yes, you do; you’ll never be a Pilot unless you do this.

Right then, time to get cracking. Power checks: check clear behind, set 1,200rpm, check both magnetos on, brakes on and oil temperature and pressure (T’s and P’s) in the green, set 2,000rpm and check brakes holding. Select carburettor heat HOT and rpm drop within limits at less than 175rpm, also no rough running and select carb heat COLD and check the rpm recovers to 2,000, Mag drop right – 100rpm; mag drop left – 100rpm. Max drop 125rpm so within limits; difference between drops less than 50rpm (in fact  they were the same) so that’s ok. Mags both on again, suction gauge showing 3″-5″ vacuum, ammeter charging,  T’s and P’s in the green, Idle check – close throttle, 700rpm, that’ll do, reset 1,200rpm.

Now pre-takeoff vital actions: Trimmer set for takeoff, throttle friction nut set, mixture rich, magnetos both on and master switches both battery and alternator on, pitot heat off, primer IS locked, fuel on and sufficient, flaps up, Instruments: Direction Indicator, artificial horizon, altimeter has the QFE set [pressure setting to indicate height above aerodrome level], T’s and P’s again, landing light goes ON and transponder indicating 7000 and set to Mode C, doors and windows secure, straps tight, carb heat recheck then select COLD, controls full and free movement. Call: ‘Golf Tango Oscar, ready for departure’. I know my Instructor, Tim, is watching from the Tower right next to the Air Traffic Controller, in case anything goes wrong and I need any help. Not that he can give direct help; I think that when flying an aeroplane by yourself, you are more alone, and beyond direct help, than you can ever be in any situation on earth. Another sobering thought.

“Golf Tango-Oscar, backtrack line up Runway 31”

“Backtrack line up 31, Golf Tango-Oscar”

Right, this is it, then. Brakes off, and off we trundle from the holding point onto the active runway, rolling along to the far end of the runway and then turn the Cessna on a sixpence to line up. The familiar sight fills my view: the runway stretching off into the distance, promising imminent adventure, exhilaration, concentration and the ultimate in achievement – that of flying an aeroplane in complete defiance of the gravity that has held our ancestors earthbound for so many thousands of years. But this time I’m on my own; there’s nobody sitting in the right-hand seat and I know that the next five minutes or so are the real beginning of my flying career – if I get it right. But surely Tim and Rufus wouldn’t have let me go if they didn’t think I was up to the task?

Without any delay, the Controller’s voice comes in over the R/T: “Golf Tango-Oscar, clear takeoff runway 31, right hand circuit, surface wind three-three-zero, five knots”. Good, that’s the wind more or less straight down the runway, then; no significant crosswind component. “Clear takeoff 31 right hand, Golf Tango-Oscar”. So, hold the aeroplane on the toe-brakes, power to 2,000rpm and check T’s and P’s in the green, then brakes off heels on the floor [so toes away from the brakes] and full power applied smoothly. Everything happens very quickly but this is what I have been trained for. Check full power: 2,500rpm, T’s and P’s in the green, airspeed building, keeping straight using the feet on the rudder pedals and looking for 65 knots and rotate and….”AIRBORNE! Wooohooo!” the shriek of pure delight erupts spontaneously. I’m flying an aeroplane all by myself for the first time ever and the only way I’m going to live through this is if I get everything right. That’s honestly what I thought, you know! Right, concentrate now, five hundred feet, after-takeoff checks: Fuel is on and sufficient, Engine T’s and P’s green, radio tuned to Plymouth and we’ve got our clearances, Altimeter has the QFE in, landing light stays on because we’re staying in the circuit. Crumbs this aeroplane is performing so much better; we’re at circuit height, 800ft, already and only just turned crosswind. Must be because we’re so much lighter with only one person on board. ONLY ONE PERSON on board and I’m flying an aeroplane on my own oh my goodness this is crazy right settle down and remember your training. Set 2,000rpm for 80kt at 800 ft. And you’re going to land in a couple of minutes so you need to do something about that. Right then, turn downwind, level now with the end of the runway and report “Golf Tango-Oscar downwind to land” Just the one circuit for the first solo. “Golf Tango-Oscar, report final”. “Report final, Golf Tango-Oscar”.

Right that’s him told, now let’s do the downwind checks. Brakes are OFF (check them), undercarriage is fixed down, (and now miming the actions) mixture is rich, fuel on and sufficient, flaps up, instruments QFE in the altimeter – and we’re a little high; must be the excess power – T’s and P’s are good, landing light is on still, carb heat check – no rough running – and then selected COLD, hatches and harnesses secure; yours? Oh, there’s nobody in the right hand seat, now isn’t that weird? Aeroplane feels empty…. ok downwind checks complete, runway in my four-o clock position, time to turn base.

So, a neat 90-degree right turn and now I’m on base, the last part of the circuit before my final approach. Immediate actions: carb heat HOT, power back to 1,700rpm and hold the height as the speed decays; we are already within Vfe [maximum flap extension speed] so flaps to 20 degrees and watch the nose come down. Establish 70kt and 500fpm descent and re-trim the aeroplane. Everything’s looking good except that I’m still too high; now at 900ft instead of 800ft. I know exactly why; it’s because I didn’t have the weight of the instructor aboard (how ’bout that!) and so the aeroplane had excess power at 2,000rpm so she was climbing slightly. Anyway, never mind why, what are you going to do about it? Nothing for it but to select full flap; save that until you’ve turned final so you’re not trying to do too much at the same time. Don’t let the aeroplane get ahead of you; you need to stay ahead of the aeroplane all the time. Crumbs the workload is so high in the circuit; no wonder they use it as a First Solo test. If you can do circuits, you can do anything. Looking for 70kt on the airspeed indicator for the final turn; plenty of speed, nice and safe. Slow turns on final are what kills people.

So, lined up on final approach and the call, “Golf Tango-Oscar, finals to land”

“Golf Tango-Oscar clear to land runway 31, surface wind three-three-zero, five knots”

“Clear land, Golf Tango-Oscar”, so now it’s all up to me. Let’s have those flaps now: the full 30 degrees of flap come on and pull the power all the way back and she comes down not quite like a piano, but at least like a dive-bomber anyway. Adjusting the rate of descent with power and the airspeed with the nose attitude, this is precision flying at its best. It has to be if you’re going to arrive properly in the right place. Setting 65kt all the way down final, trim it up, nice and easy, coming down nicely. 300ft: pre-landing final check – Cleared to land, runway is clear, happy with the approach (although still a little above the glideslope, still, I’m doing all I can about that), carb heat goes COLD so the engine can deliver full power in a potential go-around situation. Crumbs I love this stuff. Over the hedge now, looking for 60kt but still a little high, we’re safe as it’s a nice long runway. Flare now, nose up and arrest the descent, aeroplane now just a few feet off the runway and hold her off as the airspeed decays, she sinks and Bump she lands but the airspeed is a little too high and so she comes unstuck again because she still wants to fly and I don’t blame her, but re-establish the hold-off and add just a trickle of power to slow the rate of descent so she doesn’t come down like a safe and Bump she’s down again but this time she stays down. “Golf Tango-Oscar: six out of ten for the first one; seven for the second one”. Cheeky so-and-so; I’d like to see him try and do what I’ve just done. Still, Tim most likely put him up to it anyway; sounds like a Tim comment. “Congratulations, well done!” That’s more like it. I’ve just fulfilled the dream of my entire lifetime and as you can imagine I’m feeling pretty good about it. I am now a Pilot; granted I haven’t got my licence just yet – that is still more than nine months away – but it means that I have just joined that very few select people who have flown an aeroplane by themselves. I am now a member of the ‘Fraternity of Pilots’, and nothing will ever be the same again. The feeling is indescribable and I can tell you that it took approximately ten days for the delighted grin to disappear from my face.

To commemorate my first solo, Tim gave me a certificate to mark this milestone event. And because I flew my first solo on the ‘unlucky’ day of Friday the Thirteenth of September, 1996, and I am so completely and totally unsuperstitious, I asked Tim to annotate my certificate accordingly. Here it is:

As you can tell, that flight is etched indelibly on my memory. They say that you never forget your first solo; twenty years down the line and I can attest to that as a fact.

I know this article is a bit techy, but I wanted to put across as realistically as possible what goes through a Pilot’s mind as he is flying, and also to try to share some of the feelings of concentration, discipline, training, exhilaration and panic that the first solo entails. I hope you have enjoyed it.

Here is a video of a young student pilot doing her first solo. Listen out for her comments, like ‘Holy shit, I’m flying an aeroplane on my own!’ Having read my article, perhaps you can appreciate that a little more easily! This is a great little video which gives an intimate insight into flying a light aircraft solo for the first time. Enjoy!

Header image shows me and my son David departing Bodmin Airfield on 2nd May 2009 in my favourite Cessna 152, Golf Tango-Oscar, the aeroplane I flew my first solo in.

There’s an interesting backstory here. I had to get my Pilot’s licence signed by a senior examiner, and we didn’t have one of those at Plymouth Flying School at the time. So I’m thinking, like, Ok, David, let’s go flying at Plymouth and then drive from there to Bodmin to get my licence signed by Phil the Chief Examiner. Hey, hang on a minute, I’ve got an aeroplane! Why not just fly to Bodmin and take my licence with me? So that’s what we did. First time I’d done a landaway since my solo cross-country qualifier in 1997, and the first time I’d ever done a landaway at Bodmin [apart from some touch-and-goes in ’97 when we had to go to Bodmin because weekend circuits were banned at Plymouth. I was converting onto the PA-28 Warrior and needed some landing practice in one]. It was the warm welcome we got at Bodmin, combined with a great first impression of the airfield and its surroundings, that decided David to do his flying training at Bodmin with Cornwall Flying Club, and then for me to move to Bodmin as my home airfield when Plymouth Airport closed.

The photo shows me performing a classic textbook soft-field take-off: full power, ten degrees of flap, stick right back to get the nose wheel off the ground early and craning my neck to see forward over the cowling. Aircraft gaining speed, looking to lift into ground-effect at about 50kt or so and ‘fly’ about three feet above the runway allowing the airspeed to build to 65kt at which point we rotate into the climb attitude for the climb-away. It all went really well, too….


(This photo is clickable to get the full-size picture)