Monday, March 30, 2009

Spot the airfield: Southport, Queensland

On a flight from Sydney to Brisbane in a Qantas Boeing 737-800, I spotted Southport aerodrome (YSPT) as we were on descent into Brisbane International.

Southport (YSPT) is a private aerodrome run by the Southport Flying Club. Unless in an emergency, the approval of a club member is required for landing there. The runway is 01/19 and all circuits are on the west side of the runway, on the far side of the photo. This, I imagine, as a way to limit noise pollution over the nearby houses.

Prior to our descent into Brisbane, we made one turn in the hold above Gold Coast airport. This is how I got this nice shot of Cape Byron, the easternmost point on the Australian continent.

Earlier in the day, we took off on 34R at Sydney airport, right behind a Saab 340 from Rex which performed an intersection departure from taxiway T5 holding short of T4. Our airplane was on T6.

The departure to the north was glorious as usual, offering great views of the city.

My plan for my next flight to Brisbane is to spot Heck's Field, a small airfield just north of Southport. Thanks to Qantas online check-in, I know I will have a window seat on the left hand side that's not obstructed by the wing. I wonder though if I should bring baby wipes to clean the window beforehand.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Around Sydney we fly

Last Saturday I took Nina on a scenic flight around Sydney. This was our first time flying together since we moved from Queensland to New South Wales late last year. The plan was to follow the VFR route out of Bankstown northbound, fly the Victor 1 coastal route southbound, then head west to the Blue Mountains before going back to Bankstown. With a little surprise thrown in.

Early in the morning the area forecast mentioned broken stratus clouds at 1000ft near the coast, 1500ft over the slopes and 3000ft over the ranges, with thunderstorms coming in from the south later on in the day. The Sydney part of the trip was still do-able, but I wasn’t so sure about the part that involved climbing to 6500ft for flying over the mountains. The wind was blowing at 25 knots from the north-west, which translated into a planned ground speed of 89 knots on the slowest leg, with a direct headwind, and 140 knots on the fastest leg, with a near-direct tailwind.

By averaging the two values you get our airspeed, which was planned at 115 knots. The planned duration of the flight was about two hours in the Archer. But things rarely go according to plan in aviation.

At Schofields I signed in, hired two life jackets and one headset for Nina, and off we went to the grass parking area. One tank was filled up to the tab but the other one was slightly below the tab. I called the fuel truck, their phone number being in the ERSA, and asked them to come refuel VH-SFR with full tanks. Maybe this was being extra cautious since the fuel already onboard gave us an hour of endurance on top of what was required for the flight plus legal reserves. But as the aviation adage goes, fuel in the tanks is life insurance.

The red and yellow truck arrived shortly after and while he was filling up both tanks I added a bottle of oil to keep the engine happy since the dipstick was showing below 6 quarts. After the fuel truck had left, Nina noticed liquid dripping from under the left wing. I checked and it was fuel coming out of the overflow pipe for the now-full left tank, probably because the aircraft was parked on a slight slope. I knew I made the right choice when I married her.

We taxied, performed the pre take-off checks, took off on 11L and left the aerodrome on downwind, on climb to 1500ft. Tracking north we soon passed the Sydney Olympic Park, purposely built for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and crossed the Parramatta River. One thing I forgot though was to bring cushions for Nina, who ended up having to look at the views through the side windows only since her eyes couldn't see over the dashboard. Bad husband will keep little things like that in mind for next time.

At Parramatta I called Sydney Terminal with an estimate for Long Reef and requested a clearance into the CTR for a scenic flight. This was the surprise element of the flight. At that stage the controller simply asked me to stay outside of Class C airspace and standby. We kept flying north via Pennant Hills and soon had Cottage Point under our right wing. Cottage Point is not only a very pleasant place for spending a day near the water or on the water, it is also a seaplane base for those who fly in from Rose Bay for a lunch at the Cottage Point Inn.

The controller came back to us with a transponder code and Sydney QNH and asked us to contact Sydney Departure approaching Long Reef for clearance. He also asked us to "verify level", i.e. tell him which altitude we were cruising at (2100 ft was the answer) so that he could cross-check with the altitude reported by our transponder and displayed on his radar scope. At Patonga we turned right and tracked south-east to Long Reef, overflying Narrabeen.

I had not told Nina about the scenic part of the flight since this was subject to a clearance which may or may not be granted depending on a number of things such as which runway was in use at Sydney International and how many other week-end flyers had the same brilliant idea. Approaching Long Reef the controller working Sydney Departure gave us a clearance for the Harbour Scenic One procedure. Yey! Clearance granted! And two big smiles in the cockpit. We tracked direct to the Harbour Bridge at 1500ft, overflying Manly Beach.

Spit Bridge was soon on our right, and we even had the pleasure of overflying our local beach.

Approaching the bridge I slowed the airplane down to 80 knots and extended one stage of flaps. The rule for the Harbour Scenic One procedure is to stay east of the bridge and north of the Opera House at all times, which we did. Left-hand orbits are required, which unfortunately does not give the passenger the best view, especially in a low-wing aircraft. Nina managed nevertheless to snap a few nice photos of the harbour.

The airspace below 1500ft is for seaplanes and helicopters, and we saw one of each kind fly right under us. I still find it amazing that a procedure such as the Harbour Scenic exists. We are very privileged in Australia to be able to fly that close to many of our iconic landmarks such as Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef or the Twelve Apostles.

After completing two orbits I requested a clearance to Sydney Heads for entering Victor 1. It all went just like the scenario explained in the Sydney Basin Visual Pilot Guide: the controller asked me to leave the controlled airspace on descent and call him back when established on Victor 1. We flew east over the water, headed south, descended to 500ft and broadcasted our position on the broadcast frequency for Victor 1, 120.8. Only one helicopter on the frequency, behind us and maintaining 200ft. I reported established to the controller, who asked us to squawk 1200 and approved the frequency change. Back into non-controlled airspace and trying to keep my eyes out of the cockpit as much as I could.

After the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House another iconic Sydney landmark appeared in front of us: Bondi Beach. Because of the proximity of Sydney control zone we couldn't overfly the beach but the view was breathtaking nevertheless. Flying south overwater we passed Coogee Beach, Maroubra Beach, the airport, Cronula, Marley Lagoon and crossed over to the land at Sea Cliff Bridge.

Less pictures of the rest of the flight I'm afraid because my favorite passenger felt asleep, which I interpreted as a sign of absolute trust in my superior flying skills. Or something approaching that. By then it was clear that the increasing layer of clouds wouldn't let us go to the Blue Mountains, so we headed back to Bankstown via Prospect Reservoir after overflying Camden aerodrome and the Warragamba Dam.

The photo above is Chipping Norton Lake, a couple of nautical miles from Bankstown airport. The facetious tower controllers at Bankstown had turned the airport around while we were away so we joined on a downwind for 29R and landed right behind a white Cessna and a red Robin. Total flying time 1.8 hours, and I have the suspicion I will get plenty of other occasions to fly that same scenic route in the future. Which I am very much looking forward to.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Piper Archer III Checkride

Second lesson in the Piper Archer III. Circuits on the menu today. When I say menu I should say wish list, because circuits at Bankstown are more of a privilege than a due as I learned near the end of the previous flight. As for any airport, there is an upper limit on the number of aircraft that can fit in the circuit for obvious reasons of separation between aircraft. In addition, Bankstown is currently suffering from a shortage of Air Traffic Controllers, which forced the tower manager to limit circuits during certain hours. Of course local flying training organisations are less than pleased but don't have any other choice than grin and bear it.

I pre-flighted the airplane, on my own this time. My instructor Olivia arrived with two brightly colored cushions, one for her back and the second one perpendicular to the first one. I started up, taxied for the run-up bay of 11R, which means a very very long taxi all the way around the airport, performed my pre-take-off checks and called ready at the holding point. The tower cleared us for circuits with an expedited take-off, and I left the transponder on standby since we'd stay in the circuit.

We did a number of circuits, about 6 or 7 in total. Two flapless. One go-around. One engine failure after take-off. Olivia pointed at a number of local landmarks I can use for different legs of the circuit. Point the nose at the big green building on downwind. Turn base before the racecourse. Watch out for those tall trees on final. There were only two other airplanes in the circuit, which was good.

This was actually my first time doing circuits at a controlled aerodrome, since all my training took place in a CTAF at Redcliffe. I had been in the circuit at Archerfield a few times, but only with the purpose of landing there. Nothing too weird about it though. We call downwind on downwind, and get cleared touch-and-go usually on final. Maintaining sufficient separation with the aircraft in front is not only the right thing to do for safety, it is also the smart thing to do if you don't want to be told to go around on short final because the aircraft in front is still on the runway.

The downwind BUMFHH checklist works for the Piper the same way it works for the Cessna, except for the (F)uel item. On the Cessna, because fuel is fed to the engine by gravity, (F) consists only in checking that the fuel selector is on Both. In the Archer, this also means turning the electric fuel pump and landing lights on. The fuel pump is turned off with the after-take-off checklist passing 400ft. Carby heat is a small lever on the right-hand side of the throttle quadrant, turned on before descending on late downwind and off on short final to prepare for a potential go-around. The throttle quadrant unfortunately blocks the view, so I had to lean over to the right to double-check if off was up or down.

Where I learned to fly, we didn't turn the landing lights on and off with each touch-and-go. I think the reason it's done this way at Bankstown is to make our airplane easily visible to the controller in the tower. It's not a Cessna vs Piper thing. In a CTAF such as Redcliffe, there's no controller, and landing lights would not help other aircrafts see us better, that's the role of the rotating beacon, nav lights and strobes. Or maybe I was taught this way to avoid having to change expensive lightbulbs.

As can be seen on the picture above, the mag switches are guarded with a metal bar so that one cannot turn the magnetos off while trying to turn landing lights off. Of course the switch being turned off should always be positively identified, but this is an extra layer of safety.

Speaking about fuel earlier, safety is also built into the fuel selector: it can be simply rotated from one tank to the other, but rotating it all the way to "off" required depressing a little button on the selector.

All my landings were good, but all floated way too much. I need to take a few knots off my short final speed in the future. The ground effect provides long floats, but also makes most landings nice and soft, with ample time for the stall horn to go off.

On our last circuit Olivia asked for a full-stop on 11L to shorten taxi back to the clubhouse, which was denied. We landed on 11R, vacated the runway and waited for clearance to cross 11C and 11L. At Bankstown you do not ask for clearance to cross runways, you just wait for it in order to limit congestion on the frequency.

As we taxi back Olivia asks if I think I'm ready to go solo in that airplane. I say yes. She says she thinks so too. We park on the grass in front of the clubhouse and shut down. I meet Olivia inside a few minutes later and she stamps and signs my logbook with the mention "competent to fly solo by day in PA-28B". Awesome.

Looking at the stamp again later, I realise Olivia's ARN number is greater than mine, which means she started learning to fly after me. I started flying training two years ago, almost to the day, and after two years have a PPL and a CSU endorsement. In less time, Olivia progressed from zero to Grade 2 instructor. Not bad. I wonder how far I would have got without a full-time job. Probably not very far since I would have run out of money fairly soon!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

New airplane, new airport

One week after joining I was back at the Schofields Flying Club clubhouse for a dual flight with the objective of familiarising myself with both the Piper Archer III and Bankstown airport.

Prior to the lesson I had read the ERSA section about Bankstown, spent some time with the Visual Pilot Guide for the Sydney Basin and read through a POH for the Archer III that I found somewhere on the Web.

According to Airservices Australia, Bankstown was the busiest airport in Australia for 2008. With 362,206 movements, it is just ahead of Jandakot near Perth and Moorabbin near Melbourne. A movement is either a take-off or landing, i.e. one circuit counts as two movements. The tower being open from 7AM till 10PM, that's more than one movement per minute on average using three parallel 11/29 runways. Typically, the south runway (11R/29L) is used for circuits, the north runway (11L/29R) for arrivals and departures, and the center runway for arrivals and departures of larger aircraft since, with 1416 meters, it is the longest one of the three.

Olivia my instructor was there and we had a quick chat about my flying experience and what I was here for. I filled in the usual paperwork and headed to the airplane. She joined me soon after and we pre-flighted the airplane together since this was my first time doing the walk around a Piper.

Coming from Cessnas, a few things were unusual for me. Having to crawl under the wing to check flap and aileron hinges was one. The combined pitot tube with both a static and dynamic pressure ports was another one. The stall warning indicator is an electrically-activated vane rather than a suction-activated whistle. The control surface for pitch is an all-moving tailplane rather than an elevator on a fixed horizontal tail. All the rest is pretty much the same really. Not having to climb on top of the wing to check fuel is definitely a plus. Contrary to other aircraft of the Piper Cherokee family, the engine cowling on the Archer III cannot be opened to look inside.

Inside, I struggled a bit to understand how the parking brake worked but got the hang of it eventually. I went through the checklist and started the engine. One cool feature of the Archer III, compared to earlier versions, is the row of overhead switches for anything engine-related and lights. It's a bit gimmicky, but it gives the cockpit a bit of an airliner feel. I guess that's what the marketing people at Piper were going for, forcing the electrical engineers to re-route a bunch of cables from the front panel to the roof.

I wrote down the ATIS and started taxiing, with the airport diagram on my lap. Bankstown being very busy, radio calls are limited to the strict minimum. We don't even check in with the grounds controller before taxiing as was the rule at Archerfield. We taxied to the run-up bay for 11L, went through the pre take-off checks, called ready at the holding point for a downwind departure and were cleared for a rolling take-off with a request from the tower to "expedite take-off". Which we did. Full throttle, check RPM, check engine needles in the green, check airspeed alive and maintain the nose wheel on the centerline.

The Archer accelerates really well thanks to the 180 HP engine. I takes quite a bit of back pressure to rotate though. I had the trim on neutral, next time I'll try to have it a little bit down to see if it helps. I kept climbing throughout a left turn onto downwind then headed left of Prospect Reservoir, staying clear of inbound traffic. We headed west for the training area and I climbed to 3500ft under the CTA steps for Sydney airport. Olivia pointed at features on the ground that match the boundaries of section of airspace. When tracking north-west the second set of railway tracks we cross means we're out of the control zone. Further out the tadpole-shaped pond with a little island in the middle means we're within the training area and beyond the 2500ft step.

The training area doesn't have a radio frequency as in Redcliffe, and the practice is to not request traffic from Radar as is the rule at Archerfield, so it's entirely see and avoid.

I ran the HASELL checklist then we did stalls, in the clean and landing configuration. Nothing too spectacular here. The nose does not drop much, which makes it even difficult to realise the stall happened. There's no wing drop on stall, even with full flaps down. Olivia commented that I should push the nose down a lot more to un-stall the wings. Speaking of flaps, they are actuated using a Johnson bar on the floor, which looks very similar to the parking brake handle on cars. The trim wheel and trim indicator are right below the flap handle on the photo.

Between each series of stalls we did a clearing turn. Which proved very necessary, since on each turn I ended up spotting other aircrafts in the area. Keep your eyes out. The Archer turns so much more nicely than a Cessna, and the view is a lot nicer since the inside wing is not obstructing it as is the case with high-wing aircraft.

Then Olivia asked for a forced landing. I pulled the power back and went through the usual drill. Capture and trim for best glide speed. Carby heat on, mixture full rich, fuel pump on and change tanks. Pick a field. Plan the approach. There was a field to the north, right in-between a timbered area and a lake. I made a large turn to lose altitude, sideslipped a bit and turned onto final. Of course I was too high, so I extended full flaps. I didn't forget my passenger brief but I did forget the FMOST restart checklist. I guess that's better than forgetting to fly the airplane, so I got away with it. Olivia asked me to describe exactly which field I was aiming for. She confirmed she thought we would make it, and we went around and back to Bankstown via Prospect Reservoir.

I took the ATIS and called inbound at Prospect with a request for three circuits on arrival. The controller asked me to report three mile final. We aimed for the racetrack and reported three mile final crossing the rail tracks. Our request for circuits was unfortunately denied and we were cleared to land on 11L. The landing was great by my standards. Because of the low wings the ground effect is much more pronounced in the Archer than on the 172, and we floated for what seems like a very very long time. The stall horn went off for a couple of seconds before we touched down.

I exited the runway and before Olivia could stop me I made a call "Sierra Foxtrot Romeo clear runway 11L" which the tower acknowledged, with a hint of surprise in their voice. Olivia explained we do not need to do that here since the tower can see we've vacated the runway, and that would unnecessarily clutter the frequency. We taxied back to the club, I shut down and tied the aircraft down. Olivia said I flew very well and that I would need one more lesson for circuits. I booked a lesson for the next week-end.

Hopefully the weather will hold and I'll end up the day with a new stamp in my logbook that welcomes me to the Piper, and Bankstown, families.