Monday, April 21, 2008

First solo nav: I love it when a plan comes together

Nav4 was my first solo nav. It was very enjoyable, very rewarding and, of course, amazingly quiet in the cockpit.

I showed up at the club bright and early and got started on the flight planning tasks that can only be done on the day. I downloaded the weather and NOTAMs, computed headings, ground speeds, time intervals, fuel consumption and endurance, and finally filled in the flight notification form.

Mal was about to sign me out when I mentioned that this was my first time flying VH-MSJ. This airplane is a Cessna 172N, while the other three 172s at the club are the much more recent 172SP model. The 172N model came out in 1977 and VH-MSJ was first registered in Australia in 1979, which makes it about 30 years old.

Even if it is the same type, there are sufficient differences between the two models to make an instructor uncomfortable at the thought of sending a student solo in a model he has never flown before. The model N has a 160 HP carbureted engine, while the SP has a 180 HP fuel-injected engine, which resulted in a significant increase in cruise speed, from 105kt up to 115kt. In addition, the flaps on the N model can be extended down to 40 degrees, which was later brought back to 30.

In addition to differences with the type, there’s a few idiosyncrasies with MSJ itself. As they say in the Qantas safety briefing, subtly, every aeroplane is different. You bet they are. MSJ has only one radio, which is situated on the right-hand side of the panel, making it awkward to dial frequencies. All navaids are unserviceable, even though the second ADF is not tagged as such. This is fine of course since Nav4 is pure dead reckoning in class G airspace. And although the rudder trim is forever set fully to the right, a very healthy amount of right rudder sill needs to be applied at all stages of the flight, even in cruise.

Mal suggested we go together for a few circuits so that I could familiarize myself with the airplane. So off we went. My first impression was that MSJ behaves a lot more like a 152 than the 172SP. The biggest difference is when extending the last stage of flaps on final. Mal was right, it really feels like pulling the handbrake.

We did a normal circuit, a go-around and a full-stop landing. I really had to push hard on the yoke when applying full power with 40 degrees of flaps on the go-around. This may be why Cessna limited flap extension to 30 degrees in later models; there may have were just too many accidents caused by stalls on a go-around, with the airplane pitching up violently too close to the ground for any form of stall recovery to be carried out.

We came back, Mal jumped out, I refueled, parked and took some time to set up everything nicely in the cockpit before starting again. I took-off on 07, left the circuit on downwind and maintained 1000ft as VH-TRE, one of the two C182 of the club, was inbound at 1500ft just above me. I carefully climbed under the CTA steps, identified the Woodford prison, then stopped climbing because a line of CUs had formed over the top of the ranges. After Kilcoy I resumed climbing, eventually reaching 6500ft and started to relax a little.

That’s when it really hit me, the pure pleasure of being on my own in the aircraft on my way to somewhere else than the home base. I was flying an antiquated 172 with a groundspeed of 95kt because of a headwind, but I couldn’t have been happier. You know a good flying moment when you can’t stop smiling to yourself in the cockpit.

As part of my CLEAROFF checks I kept looking for suitable areas for forced landings under me. There weren’t many in this very timbered area. I found some comfort in the idea that, at 6500ft, it would take me about 10 minutes to glide down to ground level in the even of an engine failure, which hopefully should be enough time to find a suitable landing site and conduct an approach.

Speaking of engine failure, I scared myself a little while leaning the mixture. On the 172SP, I am used to leaning the mixture using either the EGT or the fuel flow indicator. On MSJ, the only way to go is by the ear. It all worked as expected, except that the engine started running rough as I was leaning the mixture and really sounded like what I had imagined an engine quitting would sound like. It only lasted a fraction of a second but that was enough to send a chill down my spine. I gave the mixture two full turns and everything was back to normal on the rich side of peak.

The visibility was so good I could see Tarong power station far under the left wing. On my right was lake Barambah, and ahead of me I could see rooves glistening in the mid-day Queensland sun. According to my map I should have been over the tip of the lake, which meant I was off course by a few miles. Remembering the lesson I learned on Nav3, I decided to keep flying the current heading. Three towns appeared ahead of me, which matched the map and meant Wondai was the one on the left.

I found the airstrip and positively confirmed it was Wondai thanks to the big white letters that conveniently spell WONDAI near the windsock. I joined crosswind for runway 18. Somewhere in the base turn I lost track of where the runway was. My excuse is that Wondai is a grass strip in the middle of an area of similar color tones. I found myself on base and way too high. I turned final, extended full flaps and still couldn’t go down fast enough. With 1400m, the runway would have been long enough to accommodate a landing with a touchdown point somewhere mid-strip, but that would have been a display of rather poor airmanship, so I decided to go around. Good thing we practiced go-arounds with full flaps earlier in the day…

The second attempt at landing was the good one, I touched down OK, taxied down the grass runway and turned left onto the sealed apron. I parked MSJ right in front of the local terminal building and next to a King Air 200. I dipped the tanks and found 150l, exactly what I had planned to find. I love it when a plan comes together.

I had lunch and chatted with the pilot of the King Air, who was kind enough to let me use his mobile phone on Telstra to call the club and let them know everything was fine. Damn Vodaphone and their ridiculous coverage of rural areas. I guess you get what you pay for.

I started again and took off on runway 36 since there was virtually no wind at the time, which saved me and the airplane having to backtrack all the way back up the runway. I extended the downwind branch to establish myself on track for Kumbia. I had the Gordonbrook reservoir on my right, gave a call to the Kingaroy CTAF and enjoyed the scenery. There were lots of patches ahead of me which could have been Kumbia. I kept flying my heading and Kumbia appeared right under my nose, right when I expected it. Dead reckoning is such an absolute joy when it works perfectly well…

I made a turn to the east and passed abeam the Tarong power station on track to Kilcoy at 5500ft. I was about 10 miles west of Kilcoy and ready to switch to the CTAF frequency to make an overfly call when I heard the controller on the center frequency give traffic advisory to an IFR flight. I mentioned some “unknown VFR traffic 10nm west of kilcoy 5500ft”. I though, Hey! That’s me they’re talking about on the radio! I’m famous! I got on to the controller and told her I was MSJ and tracking to Kilcoy maintaining 5500ft.

She asked me to squawk ident. I looked at the transponder to find the “ident” button. Apart from the rotating knob there was only one button on the panel of the transponder, but I couldn’t read the label on it. It HAD to be the ident button. I pressed on it and the voice of the controller came back saying I was identified. She then asked me to report sighting IFR traffic at 6000ft in my 10 o’clock. I turned my head to the left and there it was, right under my left wing and in the opposite direction. I reported traffic sighted and clear of traffic.

After Kilcoy I descended to 3500ft and cleared the ranges. The visibility was so good I could already see the Redcliffe peninsula. I gave the Caboolture CTAF a call then landed on 07 at Redcliffe.

As I was taxing back I heard a Cessna 172 coming from the south make a call for joining the circuit at Redcliffe on a “right base 07”. That’s funny because joining base is not allowed in non-controlled aerodromes, and there are no right-hand circuits for runway 07 at Redcliffe anyway.

All in all an extremely enjoyable day. Great flying, and dead reckoning navigation worked flawlessly. I've heard about people who always prefer to fly with a passenger, even if the passenger cannot act as a safety pilot. As far as I'm concerned, I can't wait to go on a solo nav again, it's such an awesome feeling.


Anonymous said...

What a great read. I'm currently pursuing the idea of gaining my PPL and possibly CPL with RAC, and this story gets me even more excited by the idea. :)

Do you have plans to get a CPL?


Julien said...

Hi Jazz,

Thanks for the nice comment! I only have one piece of advice for you: go for it! You'll never regret it. Sometimes I wish I had started earlier.

RAC is a great place to learn flying, and I can only recommend it. Great instructors and great airplanes. The only problem is that you will need to book your lessons quite some time in advance, the booking sheet is very busy those days. Which I guess reflects positively on the quality of the training.

If you haven't come across it yet you definitely need to have a look at Shane's Website: It's another great read about learning to fly at RAC.

Hope to see you in a cockpit at Redcliffe aerodrome soon :-). If you have any question, just ask.