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.