Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's that time of year again

I am not talking about the Christmas season, although we all had a lot of fun choosing presents for Twelve Days of Christmas: An Aviation Gift Guide, but about the start of the cyclone season over the tropical part of Australia. The cyclone season Down Under usually runs from December to April.

To kick off the season we have TC Laurence, currently in the Broome area in the north-western corner of Australia, about 15 degrees latitude south. Broome, which is as far from Sydney as Vancouver is from the Gulf of Mexico or Paris is from Greenland, is the region in Australia most prone to cyclones.

Although tropical cyclones very rarely move as far south as Sydney, the influence of tropical cyclones in the north-east can be felt in the south in the form of heavy rain falls. There's a great map here with the track of all cyclones around Australia for the last hundred years or so.

The aviation weather forecast for the Broome area (Area 69) spells out what tropical cyclone means in graphic details:

3000 5000 7000 10000 14000 18500
VRB/20 VRB/20 VRB/20 VRB/20 PS10 VRB/20 PS04 VRB/20 MS03

You will notice of course that winds blow clockwise around a low in the Southern Hemisphere, in opposition to how things are done north of the Equator. Blame my illustrious fellow Frenchman for that.

Interestingly, this is why this weather phenomenon is called a cyclone: a cyclonic air flow is an air flow that rotates in the same direction as the Earth. As the Earth rotates from East to West, the rotation is clockwise when seen from a point above the South Pole, and anti-clockwise when seen from a point above the North Pole. To add to the confusion, cyclones are known as hurricanes in the US and typhoons in Asia.

Depending which of the club aircraft I would choose to fly close enough to the center of TC Laurence, with a headwind of 110kt, I could either hover in the Archer (cruise speed 115kt), or even fly backwards in the Warrior (cruise speed 95kt). Not for long obviously, but a sure way to add my name to the shortlist for the Darwin Awards.

Friday, December 11, 2009

On the eleventh day of Christmas...

Pick your top ten favourite aircraft of all times. Now, tell me, how many of these are tailwheel aircraft? Hmmm? My point. For Christmas, I would like a tailwheel endorsement. Because it's fun. Because it's different. Because it opens the door to a whole new world of flying adventures.

This post is the eleventh in The Twelve Days of Christmas: An Aviation Gift Guide, a series of posts on Christmas wishes by a number of aviation bloggers. Make sure you check out all the other posts for a range of very diverse aviation wishes, dreams, and talented bloggers!

From what I've heard and read, flying a taildragger is not in itself harder than flying a tricycle-gear aircraft, it is just different. In cruise the aircraft behaves the same as a tricycle-gear aircraft, it is the taxi, take-off and landing phases of flight that are more challenging. There is reduced forward visibility while taxiing to contend with, increased P-torque effects on take-off and higher sensitivity to crosswind in the landing phase. Tailwheel aircraft do not tolerate sloppy landings the same way other aircraft do, which is a good thing training-wise.

I always enjoy watching the flying videos that French private pilot Jean-Claude Garnavaud regularly puts up on his blog Carnet de Vol. Jean-Claude flies a Piper J-3 with the Aéro-Club Hispano-Suiza at Cergy-Pontoise aerodrome near Paris. The Cub is so much fun to fly he says that he does not see the point of cross-country flying, circuits and local flights are all he needs!

I had a look at taildragger schools at Camden airport near Sydney. Most of them instruct in the Citabria. The time they quoted for a tailwheel endorsement ranges from five to ten hours and the price per hour is comparable to that of hiring an Archer. The whole endorsement won't cost me much more than a Bose-X headset, and I already have a headset.

The fact that many taildraggers are also certified for aerobatics adds to the attraction. I wouldn't mind trying my hand at a few wingovers, spins, loops or rolls during the endorsement training.

The range of new airplanes available for hire by a private pilot with a tailwheel endorsement reads like an airshow line-up: Tiger Moth, Chipmunk, T-6 Texan, Cessna 180, Pitts Special and even a Beechcraft Staggerwing. And that's only for the two flying schools I visited at Camden airport.

A whole new world of flying indeed. So make yourself happy, or make your favourite pilot happy, and put a tailwheel endorsement on your aviation wish list for 2010!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

On the fifth day of Christmas...

A few fellow aviation bloggers and I have decided to hang our Christmas stockings to the same virtual fireplace and take turns at blogging about what we wish for Christmas. This ranges so far from a Cirrus SR-22 to Monika Petrillo's FlyAbout DVD, aviation coasters and one very impressive pilot watch.

For Christmas, I would like a Portable Collision Avoidance System, such as Zaon's PCAS MRX. This system is just as portable as a hand-held GPS unit and provides alerts on nearby traffic as long as other traffic is transponder-equipped and there is an interrogating system nearby, such as a secondary radar or an airliner overhead.

Priced at USD 449 on, this is a very good investment for anyone who has come too close for comfort with another aircraft and wish he had identified the threat before it turned into a real danger. I'm thinking for example of entry points to busy GA airports such as the only two compulsory entry points for Sydney's Bankstown airport. Max Trescott also identified a number of similar local hotspots such as navaids and prominent geographic features.

Blogger pilotbrad ordered the Zaon MRX, unpacked it, started using it and already reported one instance of the system picking up an aircraft Brad and his instructor would have missed otherwise.

A portable system is ideal for pilots who do not always fly the same aircraft such as private pilots who hire aircraft from flying clubs and flight instructors who may instruct in a dozen different aircraft in the course of one week. A large flying school in the US just decided to buy the Zaon product for all their flight instructors rather than equip the airplanes.

For the price of two or three hours of aircraft hire, a PCAS system may well represent the best investment for improving in-flight safety. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Santa always takes his PCAS with him whichever sledge he's flying, even though NORAD is tracking him.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A380: The Quiet Whale of the Skies

I flew in an Airbus A380 for the first time last week on a Singapore Airlines flight from Sydney to Singapore before continuing on to Frankfurt in a Boeing 747-400 and finally arriving in Stockholm in a 737-500. On the way back the aviation history timeline was retraced in chronologial order with an MD-80, a 777-300ER and again the A380. A comparison of the three long-haul airliners from the point of view of an economy class passenger is therefore in order.

The A380 has become a familiar sight in the Sydney sky since Singapore Airlines, the launch customer for the A380, started flying the aircraft on the Singapore-Sydney route in October 2007. Qantas and Emirates also operate the A380 out of Sydney.

Because it is a lot stubbier than the 747, the A380 does not look big when seen in flight. But it does look big at the gate. Think about it this way: the diameter of the fuselage of a 737 is 4 meters. The diameter of the fan of one of the Trent-900 engines on the A380 is 3 meters. This is not the largest jet engine in use though: the 777 I flew in on the way back holds the record for the largest turbofan with the GE90-115B: 3.25 meters. And it only needs two of them.

Three airbridges are used for loading the A380: one for each deck, and an additional one for the exclusive suites on the main (i.e. bottom) deck. Even though the airplane was full, boarding and un-boarding was surprisingly quick.

The cabin is bright and spacious. The nicely curved windows looks great. Windows in doors have a built-in lens so that the crew can see in the dead angle against the fuselage. Smart. Everything looks new of course, I couldn't see a single streak of oil or grease on the wing flaps from my seat.

Watching the ailerons operate at low speed is amazing: the computer moves each of the three ailerons independently for minimising load on the wing, a function known as Load Alleviation Function apparently. Plenty more technical details on

The A380 is a very quiet airplane. In cruise it is definitely quieter than the 777, and a lot quieter than the 747-400. Put on your noise-cancelling earphones and you won't hear a thing. But the most surprising thing is how quiet it is on take-off: none of the usual shaking and rattling, just an increased hum and we're airborne. The level of vibration in cruise is very low. One cannot quite forget being inside an airliner, but little by little we're getting close.

The interior and in-flight entertainment system are the same as on the refurbished 777. Actually, the new interior was initially designed for the A380, but ended up in 777s when the A380 was delayed. The seat pitch is far from generous though, and as my next-seat neighbour remarked the seats could do with an extra inch of padding.

All in all the A380 wins hands-down against the 747-400 for comfort on long-haul flights. And if Boeing manages to make the 747-800 even quieter than the A380 when it enters commercial service with Lufthansa in 2011, I may even reconsider my decision to never fly Lufthansa again on long-haul flights again.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Up the coast and down the worm: a daytrip to Taree

Chris over at The Online Temple of Chris Parkes (best name ever for a personal blog if your name happens to be Chris Parkes) posted about a flight we did together from Bankstown to Taree and back. This was a great flight, and the first flight where I shared cockpit duties with a fellow pilot who was not an instructor, so this was a big first for me.

Flying from Bankstown to Taree involves crossing the restricted airspace around and above Williamtown RAAF base. Since this was the week-end most of the restricted airspace was de-activated, but we followed the prescribed VFR route anyway, both because it is good training and offers fantastic views: who would say no to following the coastline at 500ft on a CAVOK day?

There's plenty more photos and trip details in Chris's post so I won't double-up here. Let me just say that the flight up the coast was truly spectacular. Finding Taree airport wasn't too hard, it's right next to the town and not too far from where the Pacific Highway crosses the Manning River. A Rex Saab 340 was waiting for us to vacate the runway before they could backtrack and take-off since there is no taxiway alongside the runway at Taree.

We parked on the grass right in front of the Manning River Aero Club and went inside to say hello and ended up having a bit of a yarn with the local flight instructor. It's a great club-house with a very homely feel to it, really the kind of club I would love to fly with if it wasn't so bloody far away from the big city. Their fleet is very typical of a small club: one Cessna 152 and one Piper Archer.

The friendly character of the club house is confirmed by the central location of the combined kitchen and bar bench right in the middle of the clubhouse. The whole setup was probably designed long before CASA came up with the idea of the AOD Initiative.

Across the street is the Taree Airport Hotel. For my non-Australian readers, this is not a hotel, this is a pub. Many pubs in Australia are called hotels, because there used to be a time when pubs, especially in rural areas, performed the role now played by motels and budget hotel chains. Some pubs still today provide accommodation. They're few and far between though, but definitely worth it, especially in remote areas. Articles written by Shelley Ross in Australian Flying often feature great outback locations, with a dirt strip in the back paddock as a bonus.

Keeping with the aviation theme, the board used by the Airport Hotel Bottle Shop (that's a liquor store for my American readers) is a taildragger of sorts, with a long fuselage and short stubby wings. Must require a lot of rudder to enter a turn! I'm not quite sure it would take-off anyway, due to the position of the center of lift ahead of the main wheels.

I do not know what type of watering hole this is, but I can give you one piece of factual evidence: as I walked back to the airport I came across a pair of female undies in the ditch across the road. I doubt the action that lead to the loss of the garment originated from the airport.

We left and tracked west down the valley and then turned south in the direction of Gloucester, still following the train tracks. I tried to get flight following but we were too low and the controller didn't have us on radar, we would have needed to be at least 5000ft AMSL in this area to appear on his scope. So we were literally flying under the radar.

Following the tracks was easy because there was one of us flying the airplane and the other one reading the map. With an upper limit of 1000ft AMSL and hills on both side I wouldn't want to spend too much time reading the map if I was on my own. There's one section right before Dungog where the track disappears into a short tunnel but that wasn't enough to throw us off. We didn't overfly Dungog to avoid breaking the 1000ft over populated areas rule.

Being in the left seat and not in direct control of navigating or radio communication is a bit unsettling at first but I quickly adjusted to it. Of the two legs I enjoyed the second one most, i.e. the one where I was in the right seat navigating and taking care of the radios and GPS. That was the same for Chris who said he too preferred the right seat.

In my opinion the satisfaction comes from the fact that not having to hand-fly the airplane frees up time and brain space for managing the flight in a thorough manner. Flying a technically advanced aircraft with an autopilot coupled to a smart navigation system must feel the same.

Except you cannot exchange flying tales with a glass cockpit, so I'll choose Chris over George the Autopilot any day!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why flight planning matters even more at night

The first two dual navigation exercises towards my Night Rating were very different from each other. Thankfully, it was the first one that was very bad, and the second one that was rather good, so I must have learnt something in the middle. I'll spare you the usual blow-by-blow account of each flight and rather focus on what went wrong and the lessons learnt.

My first night flight beyond the confines of the local circuit took me and my instructor Ben from Bankstown to Canberra via Goulburn and back via Goulburn NDB, Bindook VOR and Camden NDB.

My airmanship was all over the place. Soon after departing Bankstown I realised that making any sense of the ERC chart at night was going to be very, very difficult, especially when trying to distinguish between the blue and the green lines under red light. The track I had carefully drawn and highlighted was also undistinguishable from the million other lines on the chart, and the large yellow streak of highlighter had disappeared.

It would have taken me five seconds to look at the chart at home under red light and anticipate the problem. But I didn't and ended up giving Ben a massive headache on the way back when I descended at more than double the standard rate in order to stay under controlled airspace. Staying ahead of the airplane is hard when you are reading the chart with your finger like a six-year-old.

I had also forgotten to write down the PAL frequency for Goulburn. No problem I thought, let me look it up in the ERSA. Where's the ERSA? In my flight bag. Where's the flight bag? On the back seat. I turn around. While flying on instruments. Where's my black bag? Which bag is which? I can't see anything. I hand over the controls to Ben who kindly accepts, at that stage probably wondering what he got himself into when he took me on as a student.

Ah good, here's my bag. I can feel the spiral-bound book, I pull it out. Bad luck, that's the VFG, which is also spiral-bound. Second try lucky, that's the ERSA. Flip, flip, flip to the page for Goulburn. PAL is 119.6. Scribble it down and tune it in. End of the minor drama, which could have been altogether avoided with five extra seconds of preparation at home, namely writing the PAL frequency down on my flight plan, next to the YGLB waypoint. Lesson learnt.

My two circuits at Canberra were so abysmally bad I still feel the full pain of utter embarrassment writing about it. And that was in controlled airspace, with someone telling me what altitude to keep and when to turn base in order to avoid the big hill not too far from the threshold of runway 30. The hill was named Disaster Hill, after what is known as the Canberra Air Disaster of 1940.

When initially approaching the airport coming from Goulburn I mistook one runway for the other, which threw me off right from the start. I was soon overwhelmed by loss of situational awareness, flying a circuit at an airport I had never been to before, even by day, listening to and talking to the controller at the same time. Which could all have been saved with preparation since I knew exactly which direction I would be coming from.

I was obviously very upset with myself after the flight. It was one of those moments I mentioned earlier when I wonder if flying is really the thing for me and if am I not deluding myself thinking I can reach the standard required for the test, let alone fly an airplane safely.

But going through the (many) notes I took during the debrief and after counselling myself on the topic I decided to make the next flight an absolute success by being thoroughly prepared.

The other flight took us to Cessnock for circuits via the Calga and Mount McQuoid NDB, then east to the Norah Head lighthouse and following the coastline south to Barrenjoey Head, a Harbour Scenic procedure at 2500ft and back to Bankstown down the GA lane.

Apart from a bad approach on the first circuit when I decided to go-around, the rest of the flight was fine and even very enjoyable. I was most of the time sufficiently ahead of the airplane and could anticipate turns, climbs, descents and all frequency changes. The only thing that threw me off was situating the aerodrome relative to the town of Cessnock. That was the only bit I had forgotten to prepare, and it came back to bite me. In the photo below the town is the yellow area on the left, which turns into a thin outline under red light.

How did I prepare for the flight? I had drawn a number of mud maps, one for each section of the flight. I didn't invent the concept, it is recommended in the Civil Aviation Advisory Publication about Night Flying. Here's what a mud map looks like:

It's a schematic representation of the flight that contains all the information I need for flying the flight as planned, and only that information. Obviously if I had to perform a diversion I would have to revert to the regular documentation. Preparing the mud map is also of course a great way to rehearse the flight at home. I drew my mud maps using only a lead pencil on A5 portrait sheets so that they would fit on my kneeboard.

Because we are navigating by instruments, we do not need topographical information, and angles and distances do not have to be accurate. I write down track and altitude for each leg, frequencies for ATC and navaids, boundaries where to change frequency, and anything else that may be useful, such as circuit altitude or forecast QNH for an aerodrome. Writing this I realise that one thing is missing, it is the lowest safe altitude for the area, which I would need for a diversion.

It only costs the time it takes to draw the mud map, and it makes a world of a difference. It is amazing how much difference preparation can make. And not just being prepared as I would for a day flight, but being prepared for navigating at night. Which by now you must have realised is a very different kettle of fish.

I knew I had to be very prepared for flying at night. I read about it. I even blogged about it. But for some reason I had to get burnt once for the lesson to permeate my thick skull.

Or, as I read recently, good judgment comes from experience. Unfortunately, the experience usually comes from bad judgement.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Instrument Flying in the Flight Simulator

Part of my training towards a Night VFR Rating happens in a flight simulator rather than in an actual aircraft. I have had four sim sessions of about one hour each where we practised instrument flying and navigation using navaids. We flew NDB and VOR intercepts, first without and then with wind, before putting everything together.

Training in the sim helps lower costs, but also makes training safer and more comprehensive. It is safer because it does not involve flying an actual single-engine airplane in the dark over mountains around a navaid that attracts training flights like a honey pot attracts bees, but also because some situations that can be easily simulated would be either impractical or too dangerous to practice in flight.

The sim installed at the club is an Elite Airtrainer AT-21 which can simulate a range of single and twin-engine airplanes, including the Piper Archer. It is a Category B Approved Synthetic Trainer (all the details in CASA-speak here), meaning it can be used for teaching the parts of the curriculum that have to do with instrument flying but I can only log time as instrument time in simulator, not as regular flying hours.

If I had to sum up my experience with the simulator so far, I would say that the sim is very effective and efficient as a training device, but absolutely underwhelming as an experience. I think this has more to do with the sim I trained in itself than simulated flying in general. Max Trescott blogged a while ago about all the fun he had training in the Cessna Caravan simulator, so there's hope!

The sim comes in two parts: a small enclosed cockpit for the student to pretend he is flying a real airplane, and a workstation for the instructor to monitor the student and control the world he is flying in. The instructor can change winds, turn navaids off or fail airplane equipment. It must feel like playing God.

The cockpit itself is not very different from the set-up many flight simulator enthusiasts have at home. It's all PC-based, and the hardware such as yokes, radio stacks and rudder pedals can be purchased from Elite. The controls have some element of force feedback in them but fail at getting anywhere near realistic. Trimming the aircraft is really hard because one cannot really feel the simulated airplane through the controls.

The avionics are more realistic than the flight controls, with dedicated buttons and LED displays for the radio stack and an ersatz Garmin 430. The switches, knobs and buttons all feel a bit flimsy compared to the real thing. The PCB can be felt flexing behind when a button is pushed.

That's the instructor's view of the panel in the photo above, which is exactly the same as what the student has in front of him. The screen resolution is 1024x768, which may sound like enough, but picture yourself trying to read the tiny compass for aligning the DG: there's less pixels than degrees displayed!

The graphics are inferior to what one would find in, for example, the latest versions of MS Flight Simulator or X-Plane, but that's no big deal at all since I was flying in the dark and concentrating on the instruments. As far as I could tell the flight model is realistic enough. There's a feature built in that puts the airplane into a very extreme attitude if no control input is detected for about 5 seconds. A very effective reminder to fly the airplane whatever happens!

There's a placard on the flight sim that always draws a smile from me: instructions for "real emergency procedures". There are the emergency procedures that you practice in the sim and that won't kill you and may even make you a better pilot, and there's the real ones, such as the computer catching fire, which forces the student to get out of the room while the instructor hoses the fire down using a real-world fire extinguisher.

The sim does not care about the weather outside, hence training in the sim is never canceled. Or so does the sales pitch goes. My limited experience though is that the sim itself is in the end no more reliable than the real world. I may have been unlucky, but out of four sessions one was postponed because the sim had broken down. From the warning sign above, I suspect this was not a one-off, there are more systemic issues with that sim.

All in all, the simulator is an efficient, safe and cost-effective training device which falls short of being exciting or fun. This is very far from the full-motion flight simulators with sound and smoke effects used by the airlines. But then again the price tag is very different. Still, $50 an hour just for the sim ($118 with the instructor) seems a bit high for me. Knowing the software industry, I suspect a large part of the costs goes into the maintenance contract.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

How much does learning to fly really cost?

The cost of learning to fly is often found to be the main obstacle standing between aviation enthusiasts and their dream of one day flying an airplane on their own. In this post I hope to shed some light on the topic by sharing the actual cost figures for my initial flying training, from pushing the door of the Redcliffe Aero Club for the first time on March 17th, 2007 to obtaining my Private Pilot Licence 585 days and 76 flight hours later.

The dollars quoted here are Australian dollars. One unit of our national currency is worth 90 US cents and 60 eurocents. The cost of flying training varies considerably between countries, so if you're reading this from overseas any direct conversion of the costs into your local currency won't help you much. As a rule of thumb, flying training in Australia is a bit more expensive than in the US but a lot cheaper than in Europe.

Granted, the figures given below are extracted from a statistical sample of exactly one, but at least these are real figures. Which begs the question, how representative is yours truly of the average student pilot? Let me put it this way: no-one ever referred to me as a problem student (at least not while I was listening) but I was never called a born aviator either.

Some flying skills I acquired rather easily, others took much longer to sink in. I trained in very typical General Aviation aircraft, namely C152s up to GFPT and C172s up to PPL. My training schedule was disturbed many times by spells of bad weather and multi-week business trips overseas. I also had to fit flying lessons within the typical schedule of someone with a full-time job, a partner and a social life. There are a couple of navigation exercises that I had to do twice, either due to weather or because of me busting controlled airspace.

There were also a couple of occasions when I walked back to my car after a flying lesson thinking that flying was not the thing for me after all. Of course each time I came back and of course the next time was great. So all in all I think my experience is fairly representative.

The costs of PPL training can be broken down into five categories:
  • Dual hire of the aircraft: you pay for the aircraft and for the instructor sitting next to you in the right seat.
  • Solo hire of the aircraft: you pay for aircraft hire only.
  • Briefings: that's when you receive one-on-one classroom-style instruction from your instructor, typically before and after each flight.
  • Fees: you cannot escape paying fees for your medical, for theoretical exams and flight tests, and for that useless ASIC card.
  • Pilot paraphernalia: maps, ERSA, textbooks, protractor, ruler, flight computer, headset, etc.
Without further ado, here's the figures:

Total budget is therefore $19,382. It's a lot, but notice that 87% of the budget went directly toward time spent in the air, either solo or under direct instruction. I flew 76 hours in total, i.e. 25 hours more than the 51 hours that are considered as a minimum by the training curriculum of the aero club where I learnt.

Because $19,382 is a scary figure, we'll now talk about it in terms of a monthly flying training budget, since most flying schools follow a pay-as-you-go charging model: you pay if and only if you fly.

In my case the monthly expenses averaged $1000. This is only an average: be prepared for an increase in the cash-burn rate in the final few months though. The last two or three navigation exercises in the PPL are long flights, which can easily add up to more than 10 hours of flying in one month if you're lucky with the weather.

This is why I would recommend saving money before starting training so that you know from the start that you will not have to put flying training on hold because of a cash-flow problem. The more often you fly the less you have to re-learn with each lesson, and therefore the lower the overall number of flight hours required. For example, you could have $10,000 saved beforehand and then set aside $500 each month for flying expenses over 20 months.

In conclusion, learning to fly is expensive. There's no two ways about it.

That being said, I believe anyone whose income allows them some degree of discretionary spending can afford flying training up to the Private Pilot Licence and even beyond, provided they plan their training properly and have their priorities straight in the entertainment and hobbies department.

You may have to cut back on other discretionary expenses, but once you've caught the bug you won't look back. And you will need to free time up anyway, because for the next year or so learning to fly will consume a lot of your free time and spare brain cycles.

You may also want to check with your family and partner that they are in agreement and supportive of your plan. Discuss financial arrangement of course but also the time demand flying training is going to put on your evenings and week-ends. Don't downplay the risk factor either, there are inherent risks with flying and you'd better be upfront about it and use the opportunity to dispel common misconceptions about those little airplanes who keep falling off the sky.

The price tag may be expensive, but the benefits of learning to fly reach far beyond the cockpit. Vincent at Plastic Pilot said it all once: how flying improved my life. I can relate to each and every on the list. The only thing I regret about learning to fly is to not have made the decision years earlier. If you're reading this thinking you may want to give it a go, ring your local aero club and book a trial introductory flight. You'll never regret it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Robert Brothers' Flying Flea

I discovered the amazing life of George Roberts by reading his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald. A very gifted person with all things mechanical, George Roberts was the oldest living former employee of Qantas where he had contributed in a major fashion to aircraft maintenance and flying safety before, during and after World War II.

Other national and local newspapers also carried the story and the forum thread on pprune has a photo of George Roberts as well as messages from people who crossed paths with him and unanimously remember him as a gentleman and a great bloke.

His dedication to the Flying Kangaroo did not stop when he retired in 1970 as he went on and volunteered his time to preserving the history of the early days of Qantas. Such a priceless treasure trove of information he was that a book was written about the pioneering years of Australian aviation seen through his eyes.

I would like to expand on one particular story from his very rich life.

In 1935, one year before he joined Qantas at Archerfield near Brisbane, George together with brothers Norm and Don built a Flying Flea aircraft. Building anything from plans was certainly no challenge for the three brothers who grew up building cars in the family's motor shop in Ipswich.

The aircraft only flew once and is now on display at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. The fact that no-one got hurt in the maiden flight is more than many can say about the Flying Flea. On a recent visit to the museum I took a few photos of what was probably the first aircraft design in history made available to amateurs who wanted to build and fly it themselves.

As these photos unfortunately fail to show, the Flying Flea has two staggered wings. The pilot controls the angle of attack of the larger wing above his head by moving the stick forward and back, while the smaller wing behind the pilot is fixed and is actually more of a horizontal stabiliser. There are no ailerons, which explains the very large rudder: roll is obtained indirectly as a secondary effect of yaw. There's nothing wrong with that: the first-generation ultralights in the 70's were designed this way.

The text next to the display has this to say:

The ultra-lightweight Flying Flea was designed in France by Henri Mignet for hobby builders. Considerable numbers were constructed throughout the world. This example was built by members of the Roberts family in Ipswich in 1935. Due to the large number of crashes of Flying Fleas, particularly in England, the Roberts' aircraft was not officially allowed to fly. After one unofficial test it was stored under their Ipswich house, until they donated it to the Queensland Museum in 1982. The aircraft is constructed of plywood and fabric, and is powered by a 23 h.p. (17 kW), 4 cylinder Henderson motorcycle engine.

Note how the lateral movement of the stick controls both the rudder and the tailwheel using external cables, very similar to a billycart. Legend has it that Mignet failed at flying regular 3-axis airplanes because of his lack of coordination between hands and feet, hence the absence of rudder pedals in his design.

Later designs of the Flying Flea solved the aerodynamics problems that killed many flying enthusiasts in the late 1930's and convinced the Roberts brothers not to attempt a second flight in what people started calling the Crashing Flea. In the video below Henri Mignet can be seen showcasing his airplane in England after flying across the English Channel, 26 years after Louis Blériot.

The video also shows a Flying Flea built by a young English pilot by the name of Stephen Appleby, with sponsoring from the Daily Express. After an unsteady take-off, the footage captured his airplane performing a somersault after landing in a ploughed field. The pilot was unhurt and went on to rebuild the machine, again with sponsorship from the Daily Express.

The Flying Flea today serves as a reminder of a time when flying was new, trendy, accessible and dangerous. An era nicely captured in the 1958 French film Les Copains du Dimanche and plenty others.

Homebuilt aircraft are now on the come-back. Safe designs are available as pre-built kits. Some use wood and fabric, others are all-metal or even composite airframes. And enthusiasts can still be found who build and fly Flying Fleas.

It is a big understatement to say that aviation safety has come a long way since the time of the pioneers. Every single aspect of aviation, from weather forecasting to pilot training and from engines to airframes and instruments is now many orders of magnitude safer than it was back then. Something we have to thank people like George Roberts for.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Warbirds at Cessnock: Albatros, Trojan and Avenger

After shutting down at Cessnock on our $100 wine bottle flight we noticed a nearby hangar with shiny warbirds inside: a T-28 Trojan, a Grumman Avenger, and two L-39 Albatros. All airplanes that rank far higher on the aviation coolness scale than our Piper Archer. But we love the Archer too.

We walked into the hangar and asked for permission to look at the warbirds from up close and snap a few photos. The friendly pilot in a flight suit invited us to join the guided tour, which for $10 each meant we could take as many photos as we wanted, sit in the cockpits and ask all our questions. Bargain.

Let me say it again: we were allowed to sit in the cockpits. In many aviation museums they won't even let you approach the airplanes, probably for good reasons. I've seen a small child hang with both hands from a pitot tube once. But today was different because this was not a museum, this was a hangar full of airworthy aircraft.

This is Ingo on the photo above reluctantly extracting himself from the Czechoslovakia-made jet trainer L-39 Albatros. The Albatros is a very popular aircraft with private owners since it is relatively cheap to maintain and operate as long as you are able to buy it in the first place. The cockpit has a definite military feel to it. The parts that do not have inscriptions in cyrillic characters on them are standard General Aviation avionics, such as the VHF-COM unit, transponder and ELT who are exactly the same models as in our Archer.

Not only are the two Albatros airworthy, they're also available for joyrides. This explains why we were allowed to sit in the cockpits. Just the age-old foot-in-the-door marketing technique: if at first you think $3040 is a ludicrous amount of money for 30 minutes of engine time, after having spent 2 minutes sitting in the cockpit looking at the dials you start thinking of reasons why this may not be so ridiculous after all. This is only 32 times as expensive as hiring a Piper Archer after all. Half an hour in a jet above Cessnock or a cross-country fight from Sydney to Ayers Rock? Entre les deux mon coeur balance.

The other side of the hangar contained a beautiful T-28 Trojan, this time from the other side of the iron curtain. It was used by both the US Air Force and the US Navy as a trainer, and saw some action in Vietnam. As is rather obvious from the photo below, it is a single-engine 9-cylinder radial engine driving a massive tri-blade metal propeller.

Climbing into the cockpit is surprisingly easy thanks to a number of handles and footsteps built into the (lowered) wing flaps. When sitting in the cockpit (did I mention we were allowed to sit in the cockpits?), the controls feel amazingly light, thanks to counterweights. The stick can be moved in all directions with only two fingers. I checked, the control surfaces moved accordingly!

The engine is an air-cooled Wright R-1820-86 Cyclone 9 radial engine, the same as on the B-17 Flying Fortress. A single row of nine cylinders delivers 1425 hp. The dark blue case in-between the cylinders and the propeller is a planetary reduction gear box which allows the propeller to rotate slower than the engine crankshaft. Propellers become less efficient when the linear speed of the blade tips approaches the speed of sound. Linear speed is proportional to the length of the propeller blades, and this is a rather large propeller, which explains why it needs a reduction gearbox while our Archer doesn't.

The last warbird of the lot was a Grumman Avenger. Just like the Corsair, its wings can be folded back for easy storage onboard aircraft carriers where space is at a premium.

Note the old-style attitude indicator with only a white line on a uniformly dark background to signify the horizon. No way to tell if you are up or down if you find yourself in an unusual attitude!

Near the center, right next to the "bomb bay" lever is the "wing folding" lever. It operates the hydraulic system which folds and unfolds the wings automatically, without any external help required. A very very cool training video explains the basics of piloting an F4U Corsair, including spreading the wings. A D-handle in the cockpit is used to lock the wings in place, it may be the same mechanism in the Avenger, I didn't check. The last few seconds of the video show the Corsair taxiing with the wings folded over the top. The Corsair was the fighter aircraft used by Pappy Boyington's squadron in WWII, made famous by the Baa Baa Black Sheep TV series.

I have to admit it is still a bit of a mystery to me how a folding wing can be structurally strong without a main spar going through the wing from the wing box all the way to the wingtip. We are talking about airplanes with no limitations on aerobatics and that can pull out of a dive with a load factor of 7G. All the load seems to be placed on the hinge pins that lock into place when the wing is completely unfolded. But then again, I studied software engineering, not mechanical engineering, so my knowledge is quite modest in that department.

On the photo below, the hydraulics on the right-hand side which control the wing folding mechanism, the ones on the left hand side operate the retractable landing gear, whose leg can be seen at the bottom of the picture.

Here again we have a radial engine, a Wright R-2600-20, but this time it's actually two engines rolled into one: two rows of seven cylinders each acting on the same crankshaft. The two rows are back-to-back, which makes cooling less effective on the back row since it gets less air than the front row.

I found a beautifully nerdy article about how Pratt & Whitney engineers managed to solve the torsional vibration problem caused by having two engines hammer the same crankshaft at a different position. The article relates to a similar engine, the R-2800 Double Wasp. More information that you would ever want to know, but you have to admire the dedication of the engineers who solved such a problem by trial and error, without any computer for simulating vibration modes.

All radial engines leak oil because not all of the bottom cylinders have their valves closed, and oil may also leak from other engine components such as push rods and rocker arms. I suspect the drip tray on the ground comes straight from your regular 4-burner gas barbecue. In the photo above the bomb bay and the cowl flaps are in the open position.

The Albatros flight may be expensive, but in comparison $1500 for 25 minutes in the T-28 sounds almost like a good deal. Too bad my wedding was last month, I would have happily added this item to the wedding registry. Anyway, I'm already very lucky to be able to fly smaller airplanes such as the Archer, so I'll stop here. But a loop, a slow roll or even a take-off in the T-28 must really be something special.

I should never have walked into that hangar. I should never have sat in that cockpit.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I can't drink I'm flying

This felt so weird and so good at the same time. Sorry, I won't be tasting wine because, you see, I'm the pilot and, well, you know, eight hours from bottle to throttle and all that kind of things. Yes, small airplane, we flew in from Sydney. Beautiful day for flying indeed. My passengers wouldn't mind tasting the Semillon though. And we'll take a couple of bottles back with us, thank you very much. Yes, we walked from the airport. No, walking alongside the highway is not terribly pleasant.

That scene played out at a winery in the Hunter Valley on a beautiful early spring Sunday a couple of weeks ago. Susanne and Ingo had joined me as passengers and plane spotters on a day trip to the wine growing region north of Sydney. And they even brought lunch with them. You may remember Ingo from the $100 burger in Wollongong episode. With his better half around lunch was a lot healthier than the famous Aviator Burger.

We left Bankstown in Piper Archer VH-SFR and proceeded up the GA lane through Sydney's northern suburbs. Approaching Warnervale Ingo spotted a couple of ultralights about to cut across our route, so I made an early right turn to Norah Head lighthouse. We drew a couple of orbits at 1500ft. I could have flown lower orbits at 1000ft or even 500ft but since we didn't have life jackets with us I preferred to stay within safe gliding distance of the mainland.

We then tracked to Swansea, weaving our way around low dark cumulus clouds. Since we were below 3000ft we only had to remain clear of clouds, with no minimum distance from clouds required either vertically or horizontally. So this was all legal. Being legal does not however automatically imply being safe (that'd be too easy), so I kept my eyes out and steered our craft away from the fluffy stuff.

It's in situations like that that I realise how easy it would be to enter clouds inadvertently. I remember sitting at home earlier on reading reports about VFR flights into IMC and thinking "come on, how can you not realise you're about to enter a cloud?" Well, spend only five seconds with your head down in the cockpit looking up a frequency in the ERSA, finding a landmark on the map or twidling the GPS buttons and you've already covered 300m. In the photo above, five seconds would have put me rather close to that big opaque flying collection of water droplets.

Approaching Newcastle we tracked inland and the scenery changed quickly from waves, rocks and beaches to hills, pastures and trees. The skyscape also changed to more friendly-looking fair weather cumulus clouds.

As we were only a couple of miles away from Cessnock aerodrome a Twin Comanche overtook us on our right at the same level The manoeuvre was definitely safe but the pilot lost karma points on this one. A radio call on the CTAF frequency would have been a nice display of airmanship. I followed him to the dead side and we both joined crosswind for a left-hand circuit to runway 17.

We taxied and parked our little Archer III not too far from a hangar full of warbirds available for joyrides, hoping that the Piper would learn a trick or two over lunchtime. We took a very informative tour of the hangar, the best part of course being sitting in the cockpit of an L-39 Albatros, a T-28 Trojan and an Avenger. Photos and details in a future post if I don't forget.

After lunch, which was delicious but way too healthy for an aviation-themed day out, we walked to the Hunter Valley visitor center, very conveniently located a few hundred meters from the aerodrome, and from there to the De Bortoli winery. Not that we had ever heard about it before, but it happened to be within walking distance from the airport. As can be seen in the photo below, patches of wineyards can be found right up to the airport fence, in-between the runway and the highway so to speak.

Wine connoisseurs would certainly tell you that this very unique terroir, right on the extended centerline of runway 35, is responsible for the wine's unique bouquet, a delicate balance of wild strawberries, citrus fruits, fumes of unleaded mogas from the road and unburned avgas sprinkled by 152s doing circuits with the mixture on full rich.

People who already shared a bottle or two with me know that one of my pet peeves is the overly lyrical labels found on the back of rather ordinary wines. I like to think good wine sells itself. And don't get me started on wines bottles featuring a dozen gold medals from obscure competitions held in unknown places.

After replacing burnt aviation fuel in the tanks with bottles of wine in the baggage compartment, we took off again and headed further west up the Hunter Valley. From Cessnock we tracked to the Singleton NDB to make sure we didn't infringe on the Dochra restricted area and then west to Lake Liddell and back the same way.

It's difficult to tell vineyards from other crops from altitude, but there is one thing that cannot be mistaken for anything else in this part of the world: open-sky mines.

We flew back via Cessnock, Warnervale, Calga NDB and Brooklyn Bridge. Good thing I made a number of inbound calls before overflying Cessnock since another aircraft on the frequency was about to drop skydivers over the area. He waited for me to report overhead Cessnock before dropping what pilots affectionately refer to as meat bombs.

The trip back to Bankstown was uneventful, which is good, except for a very, very ordinary landing with some crosswind which saw me float and drift way too far from the centreline.

The great thing with flying with passengers, in addition to making the whole day more enjoyable, eating a healthy lunch and sharing costs, is that they take videos during take-offs and landings. I tried to compress three hours of flying into about 2 minutes of video, result below.

We finished the day at home with a beautiful coq au vin that Nina had prepared while we were away, which of course we washed down with one of the bottles that had survived my landing at Bankstown. Thinking about it, we could call this type of flying trip the $100 wine bottle.