Monday, June 29, 2009

Flying Competition at Warnervale

I recently participated in a flying competition organised by the club at Warnervale aerodrome. Another pilot had already put his hand up for ferrying the Warrior from Bankstown for the day, so I decided to drive instead, Warnervale being about an hour drive north of Sydney. And since the weather forecast was good and we had not explored that corner of New South Wales yet, Nina and I decided to make a day trip out of it.

We drove from Sydney and crossed the Hawkesbury River at Brooklyn Bridge. Not to be confused with the bridge of the same name in New York City. The area seems to have more than a coincidental relationship with the Big Apple since the bridge itself was built by American contractors, and the suburb across the river is called Long Island.

Brooklyn Bridge happens to be the entry point for the Bankstown GA Lane southbound. The lane is a north-south corridor of Class G airspace squeezed in-between the Richmond RAAF base to the west and the Sydney CTR to the east. The lane has an upper limit of 2500 ft.

Warnervale aerodrome is very easy too find, just a couple of kilometers off the motorway. It's one of those typical country aerodromes. What's also unfortunately typical about it is that it's soon going to be closed down under the pressure of property developers. A sign on the wall in the clubhouse seemed to indicate that the flying activities will be relocated to Aeropelican, about 15 nautical miles to the North-East.

Because there was a suspected problem with the starter motor on VH-IJK, we didn't stop the engine in-between competitors. Lindsay, the instructor, would stand on the wing while pilots swapped places. I have to say I love the idea of just sitting down in the airplane, fastening the seat belt and pushing the throttle forward. Feels just like driving a flying car.

We taxied to the run-up bay and then down a dirt track to the holding point where we decided to take-off immediately rather than wait for the aircraft on base to land. As I lined up I was shocked at how narrow the runway was. It really looked like we had taken the wrong turn down a local farmer's driveway. The irreplaceable Google Earth told me later that the runway is about 8 metres wide, compared to 18 at Redcliffe or 30 metres at Bankstown.

At 400 feet Lindsay took over while I put on the hood. Then she got me to do some climbing turns, straight climbs and straight and level flying under the hood. At the stage we were about 3000 feet. Lindsay briefly took over to put the aircraft into an unusual attitude (a spiral dive) from which I had to recover on instruments. Throttle back smoothly, wings level, pull the yoke back without stalling and recover.

Next was a simulated forced landing without power. Throttle to idle, carby heat, mixture, fuel, capture and trim for glide attitude. Finding where to land was not too hard since we were right overhead the aerodrome. I had plenty of altitude to expend before landing so I brought the flaps in early and we touched down not too far from the threshold. Full power and one more circuit, this time for a precision landing.

My precision landing was anything but precise. The only precise thing about it is the height above the runway I maintained while floating for a long long time. My approach was actually good, but soon after I turned final I got a bit spooked by the line of trees that seemed very close to the approach path. I added a bit of power and pulled the nose up to give myself more clearance over the trees, and as a consequence I ended up way too fast on short final, probably 10 or 15 knots too fast. All this energy had to go somewhere hence the long float. We taxied back on a muddy dirt taxiway this time, with one main wheel skidding in the mud.

I checked my score with John who was organising the whole event and realised that this time around I wouldn't make it into the top three. Last time was probably a fluke, cause by people not wanting to get up too early on a Sunday.

We then drove to Toukley and went for a walk on the local beach. We came across the cutest sand castle ever, played fetch with a local dog for a little while and enjoyed the end of the afternoon while a 152 was performing airwork above our heads.

Just round the corner we climbed up the stairs to the Norah Head lighthouse. According to this web site maintained by lighthouse nerds, this lighthouse shares a similar design with its two other NSW siblings at Cape Byron and Point Perpendicular (you have to love the name). Lighthouses tend themselves quite well to aerial photography, and the three of them could be covered in a day's flight... here's an idea for a Sunday flight with a difference.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

It's been a hard day's night flying session

Remember how I said in my previous post that I loved the idea of flying at night on weekdays because it freed me from having to take time off work or planning my week-ends around flying lessons? Well, I just came across a huge downside of this nice little theory: after a full day at work, it is very, very hard to empty your mind, restore energy levels and focus on the flying. As a result, my first night flying lesson was very, very messy and I was quite upset with that.

I met my instructor Ben in the clubhouse and we started with a quick whiteboard briefing about taxiway and runway lighting and how night circuits are flown differently from daytime circuits.

Because I had forgotten my torchlight at home, I had to borrow Ben's for preflighting the aircraft. The pre-flight visit is essentially the same as in daylight, with the addition of landing and navigation lights. I noticed that the landing light was not working. That's the light right at the front of the aircraft, below the engine air intake, the one that's used for lighting up the runway on take-off and landing at night. Can't really go without it at night. Ben said we could use the other landing light instead, the one situated near the middle of the leading edge of the right wing. Problem solved.

The aircraft on that night was VH-IJK, the oldest Warrior in the club's fleet. It could definitely do with a new interior trim, but that didn't bother me much in the dark. Before startup, Ben showed me how to use the panel lighting. Unfortunately, the row of switches is not lit up, and I had to be extra careful not to switch the electrical master off when going for the fuel pump switch.

We taxied to 11C and Ben reminded me to perform taxi checks when turning. Keeping the nose wheel on the taxiway centerline was quite hard because the light was coming from the side and not all yellow taxi lines at Bankstown have green lights down the middle. Ben explained that one common mistake is to taxi too fast at night because the pilot has less cues in his field of vision for gauging speed. The trick is to look in the general direction of the wingtip to get a better idea of how fast we are going.

The circuit was already full, with five or six aircraft practicing night circuits. The tower told us to expect a delay and that we would not be cleared before an airplane currently in the circuit makes a full-stop landing. We shut down everything and agreed with the tower controller that he would shine a torchlight at us when he wanted us to start up and talk to him again. The light eventually came and we lined up for a session of about 7 or 8 circuits.

Maintaining the runway centerline on take-off is hard without a front landing light, so I concentrated instead on keeping the picture drawn by the runway side lights and the distant threshold symmetrical while accelerating to take-off speed. The upwind section of the climb is done on instruments up to 500 feet. Wings level, maintain best rate of climb speed with the airspeed indicator and maintain runway heading with the DG. And keep that instrument scan going.

On crosswind when the opposite threshold is about 45 degrees behind us I turn downwind, make my downwind call, BUMFHH checks and try to maintain the runway about one third of the way down from the wingtip. Same story with the other threshold before turning base. Ben explained that the trick for knowing when to turn final is to watch for when the first runway side light on the near side aligns with the third light on the far side. This worked quite well, but I always ended up too high on final. Ben identified the source of the problem as me not flying a square base, but rather having the base leg point toward the threshold, thereby giving myself less time for descending.

A few times when I ended up too high on the glideslope I managed to recapture the correct approach profile (2 red lights and 2 white lights on the PAPI), only to go too high again on late final. Ben insisted that I do not push the nose down below 300 feet to recapture the perfect glideslope otherwise I'll end up touching nose wheel first: if it's too high, just accept it and fly it. 300 feet is also the magical number for the altitude where I more often than not forgot to turn carby heat off. Not good.

On one circuit Ben asked the tower to switch the PAPI lights off, which lead to a good landing actually. Flare and touchdown require a bit of a leap of faith at night though. We tried without the landing light, which worked well too. Having the lights off forces the pilot to concentrate on the picture of the whole runway rather than the beam of light from the landing light.

On one circuit we had a rescue helicopter join the circuit on final from Prospect when we were on downwind. That's because, as per the ERSA, helicopters at Bankstown must use fixed-wing procedures at night. The tower advised us of possible wake turbulence and I extended downwind to allow more time for the turbulence to dissipate. Not that it helped anyway. I was on short final when the aircraft suddenly rolled to the left. Very similar story to what happened to Chris recently. Right rudder, full power and we went around. I forgot to retract the flaps though and it took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to find out why I wasn't climbing as well as in the previous circuits. That and leaving carby heat on are really the kind of beginner's mistakes that make me very upset with myself. Power up, nose up, clean up and speak up. It's not that hard.

Because of our late start we were alone in the circuit when the tower shut down and the control zone reverted to a CTAF. We did one more circuit and taxied back to the club house. We had a debrief where we went through the list of things that could have been done better. Ben gave me a copy of the Night Rating syllabus so that I know what's coming up. We booked two circuits sessions for next week, any one of which can be converted to a simulator session should the weather be less than ideal.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Very attractive the dark side of flying is

A month ago I took advantage of a social event organised by the club to go flying at night for the first time. Three pilots and one instructor in a Warrior, $100 for three circuits, a great way to discover how vastly different things are at night. Not only different, but also exciting, challenging, and ultimately rewarding. Which pretty much sums up why I fly.

I took me an hour to drive to Bankstown from work through Friday afternoon traffic, only to run into airspace congestion once airborne. And that's with us starting quickly, hoping to beat the "Bank Runners", i.e. the swarm of aircraft, most of them cargo, landing and taking-off at YSBK when night falls.

We were only half-successful at that: I was in my second circuit when the tower requested we make the next landing a full stop. Danial, our instructor and the club's Deputy CFI, quickly came up with a Plan B: we swapped pilots on the ground and departed for Camden to give the other two pilots an opportunity to fly. So I only flew two circuits instead of three, but on the other hand I could experience a short cross-country flight at night, albeit from the back seat.

Saying that things are very different at night is a big understatement. Take-off attitude, for example, is set using the Artificial Horizon (about 10 degrees of pitch) rather than using familiar references outside the cockpit, such as where the horizon intersects the nose cowling. It's an interesting mix of visual flying and instrument flying techniques.

In the circuit, I realised that all the familiar reference points on the ground are gone. No more big green shed, railway tracks, racecourse or farm. Positioning in the circuit is done by reference to the runway, which thankfully is very well lit up. This is of course the way flying a circuit should always be done, even during the day, since it makes life a lot easier when visiting unfamiliar airfields. But we are only humans, and humans like creating cognitive shortcuts in familiar environments. So I was a bit lost, and consequently very thankful for Danial's guidance.

We were using runway 11C, which is the default runway at night. The photo above was taken as we were waiting at the holding point for the aircraft that looks like a white and red worm to land. Apologies for the quality of the photos by the way. Taken with a five-year-old point-and-shoot camera from the back seat at night in a vibrating airplane, I didn't stand much chance of a sharp shot. The big bright rectangle in the other two photos is the screen of the Garmin 430 GPS unit.

Each time we turned final, the PAPI lights would help us establish the correct angle of descent. Judging height over the runway at night is hard, so we flare by putting the nose on the horizon and then wait for things to happen. Which works amazingly well. My two landings were very good, much to my amazement and delight. Must be beginner's luck.

One thing that really threw me off was identifying gauges on the panel. I didn't expect that. This may be due to my lack of familiarity with the Warrior, having only a dozen hours in the type. The 6-pack of instruments didn't pose a problem, but it's really with the engine instruments that I struggled. Which one is oil temp, which one is oil pressure? Is the needle really in the green? Green at night is not the same as daylight green. Sloppy daylight flying habits sure come out at night to bite you!

One funny thing about this night is that a couple of weeks later I stumbled upon Chris's blog and found a post about that very same night flying session. Chris also flies at Schofields and went flying on that same night but in a different airplane and probably at a different time, which is why we didn't meet then. I left a comment on the post and Chris reciprocated. Hopefully we'll manage to catch up at the club one of those days, or even go flying together if my blog posts have not managed to scare him.

In conclusion, everything is harder at night, which translates into more demanding flying, which is good. I can officially say now that I am hooked, and my goal is to complete a Night Rating before Daylight Saving Time kicks back in on October 4th. On October 3rd last light will be 6:24PM, which fits perfectly with the 6:30PM - 8:30PM flying slot. But on October 4th though last light will be 7:25PM, which is getting late, especially for the night cross-country flights or the final flight test.

First lesson planned for tomorrow with Ben. And I won't even have to take time off or fly on week-ends: just like me Ben has a day job, and weekday evenings seem to suit him best. That will also be my first time using a simulator for training since the 4 hours that relate to navaids and instrument flying are done in the club's Elite AT-21 Airtrainer. One more thing to look forward to! In addition to experiencing the power of the dark side of course.