Saturday, January 17, 2009

PPL Test Part 2: from Maroochydore to Gayndah

After taking-off on 18 at Maroochydore, I wrote down our departure time and made a right-hand turn onto the heading which, given the forecasted winds, would take us in a straight line to Gayndah, about 100 nautical miles to the north-west, on the second leg of the PPL in-flight test.

This leg was pure dead reckoning, so no use of radio-navigation aids or GPS. That’s a pity because Maroochydore has a VOR which I would have loved to use to establish myself on track. Instead I had to look over my shoulder to make sure the outbound track pointed somehow to the airport. I must have done a decent enough job because we soon had Mount Ninderry on our left and a few miles later we flew right over the top of Mount Eerwah, which matched the line I had drawn with a black pencil on my map. So far so good.

I was feeling pretty happy with myself at that stage. I knew from another student who was once failed by the same examiner that if he decided to fail me he would ask me to turn around and fly back home right away. Which meant I was still in the race. I mentally warned myself against relaxing and becoming complacent.

Another thing I knew was that the examiner does not normally fail you in the PPL test if you make a mistake, realise quickly this is a mistake and take the appropriate corrective action. This is the difference with the CPL test where everything needs to be done right the first time and every other time after that.

I called the tower to report clear of controlled airspace and they approved a change to the center frequency. The weather wasn’t too bad and I climbed to 4500ft. A Caribou military transport aircraft had departed Maroochydore right behind us and overtook us on the right on its way to Gympie. With a cruise speed of 160kt it’s not that much faster than our Cessna 172SP and its 115kt. But the comparison stops here. They have two engines and an MTOW over 14 tons, 40% of which can be cargo. Compare that with a single-engine, 1.3 ton MTOW and 4-seater-configuration-only-if-you-don’t-take-baggages-and-not-full-fuel for the 172.

I gave a call to the Gympie CTAF after receiving a friendly nudge from the examiner (“just as an information, there may be an aerodrome within 10 nautical miles”). We crossed the Wide Bay Highway later than I expected. This was our half-way point to Gayndah, so I revised my estimate accordingly. We crossed a few more ridges and valleys, some with roads in them, some not. Of course I couldn’t use the Gayndah NDB navaid. I kept aligning compass and DG, flying the heading, maintaining altitude and dutifully performing my CLEAROFF checks.

The examiner took a sandwich out of his flight bag and asked if it was OK if he ate it now. Sure I said. He unwrapped the homemade delicacy and the smell of egg started to fill the cabin. He finished the sandwich quickly, so I thought hey, at least the smell will go away now. Wrong. Even though the descent was well planned and the corresponding increase in pressure so gradual I never had to pop my ears once, the examiner managed to belch all the way down to ground level.

After clearing the last hill I could see Gayndah, Queensland’s Citrus Fruit capital. During flight planning at home I had realised on Google Earth that the airfield was in a bend of the river, with the bend pointing toward me and the town on my left. Thankfully everything turned out to be where it was supposed to be and I joined the circuit for YGAY, the unlicensed aerodrome of Gayndah with its 1265m long paved runway and elevation of 369ft.

The plan here was to perform a so-called precautionary search before landing, in this case simply overflying the runway at 200ft to check if it was suitable for landing, then do a normal circuit and land. My circuit join manoeuvre was acceptable. I ended up high and fast on final so had to use a lot of flaps to slow myself down for the overfly at 80kt and 200ft above ground. The runway looked in good condition with no obstacles on it or nearby so I went around and climbed back up to circuit height. That’s when I made a mistake that would have meant the end of the test had I been attempting the CPL test.

To understand the mistake, remember I did all my flying training at Redcliffe, elevation 7ft. With an altimeter set to read zero at sea level, there is no practical difference between the altitude over mean sea level (i.e with the altimeter set to the local QNH) and the altitude over the reference altitude of the aerodrome. 7 feet is less than the thickness of the altimeter needle.

Gayndah and its elevation of 369ft was a different story. Of course I knew that I had to join the circuit overhead at about 1900ft and that circuit altitude was about 1400ft. I even had all those numbers written on my knee board.

What happened was that I happily kept climbing above circuit altitude after my go-around. I realized I was doing something wrong when I found myself still climbing mid-downwind. The picture of the airport on my left hand-side was wrong too. I reacted quickly: chopped power down and pushed the nose down to recapture circuit altitude.

Of course by the time I levelled off at circuit height I was on late downwind and too fast, so once again I flew the entire base and final leg with the engine on idle and a fair amount of flaps down. What made matters even worse was that I was supposed to demonstrate a short field landing, which means a lower approach speed on short final. I all worked OK in the end, we landed ,taxied to the apron and shut down.

In stark contrast with the stench of the egg sandwich he had subjected me to while airborne, the instructor now commented on how the air on the ground was filled with the smell of citrus fruit blossom. Readers from the Northern Hemisphere, remember means October means the start of Spring in Australia. The air was still and warm but this is not always the case around here: I could see a piece of corrugated iron, probably torn off a nearby roof or shed, sitting high in the branches of a tall gum tree.

I wish I had pictures to illustrate this post, but I had made a conscious decision not to take my camera on that day, not wanting to give the “tourist” impression to the examiner. I got back into the airplane, re-folded my maps and prepared myself for the third and final leg of the PPL test.

So far so good I thought, but I came uncomfortably close to failing. On the menu for the next leg: engine failure after take-off, navaids work, instrument flying, lost procedure, diversion, forced landing without power, low level flying and a flapless landing at Redcliffe.

Friday, January 2, 2009

PPL Test Part 1: from Redcliffe to Maroochydore

So the big day of the final PPL test finally came to pass, 582 days after my first flying lesson. And it was a... success! I’m happy to report that I am now the proud holder of an Australian Private Pilot Licence for fixed-wing aeroplanes.

Sorry by the way for the delay in posting the news. I passed the test more than two months ago but have since been very busy with starting a new job and moving to a new city, which left no time for blogging, let alone flying.

A few days before the test, Rob, the CASA Testing Officer who would be conducting both the ground and air-based parts of the test, called to give me the itinerary I would fly on the day. It all sounded reasonably straightforward with three legs: from Redcliffe to Maroochydore, then to Gayndah and finally back to Redcliffe via the Maleny VOR navaid. The only bit of controlled airspace was around Maroochydore airport. Of course there would be diversions, lost procedures, simulated engine failure and system failures thrown in.

As usual, everything that could be planned beforehand was planned beforehand. Twice this time. I even spent a fair amount of time reading the WAC and VTC charts and making mental notes of ground features that I could use to get un-lost when Rob would get me lost. I double-checked all the figures, prepared the flight notification form and annotated my WAC chart with frequencies and half-way points. I read about the three topics on which I gave wrong answers on the theory test: hypoxia, effect of power on stall speed and oil system. And I showed up on time at 8AM.

I got the weather forecast and all the relevant NOTAMs. Nothing too flash. Acceptable in the morning, then getting increasingly worse in the afternoon with a TEMPO for thunderstorms at Brisbane airport, just around the time when we would be coming back to Redcliffe. I computed headings and fuel plan. Because of the probability of thunderstoms at Redcliffe on the way back I had to plan extra fuel for 60 minutes holding , which brought within a few litres of the legal limit, but on the right side of it.

I discussed the plan with Rob and he proposed to swap the in-flight and ground-based parts of the test so that we would do the flying first thing while the weather was still OK, then come back and go through the oral examination. I was happy with that, the last thing I wanted was to postpone the test, knowing it would probably mean a delay of a couple of months at least.

I pre-flighted and refuelled VH-SPP, a Cessna 172SP, then came back into the clubhouse for a pre-flight briefing. Rob explained what would happen on the flight. I would not use the Maroochydore VOR out of Maroochydore because that leg was about testing my dead reckoning navigation skills. At Gaydah I would do a short-field full-stop landing. After take-off there I’ll have a simulated engine failure. On the way to Maleny I will have to do a bit of instrument flying, then perform a diversion and a simulated forced landing. On the way back to Redcliffe there’ll be some low-level flying following the roads, and the landing at Redcliffe will be a flapless. I was surprised by how detailed the briefing was. I didn’t expect him to tell me when and where things would happen. It came as a bonus in a way.

We took off on 07 and tracked to Bribie Island via Beachmere in order to remain within gliding distance of the land. I re-captured my track at Godwin Beach and turned onto a direct heading to Moffat Head, the VFR reporting point for Maroochydore. I was nearly finished with the turn when I realised this was not going to work.

There was a forest fire on Bribie Island right where I wanted to go. The wind coming from the East was blowing the smoke plume to the west, so I dog-legged my way to the east of the fire. Rob sounded pleased with my decision. With the smoke now behind me, I didn’t bother trying to re-capture my track and tracked direct for Moffat Head, which was clearly visible from where I was.

I gave a call to the Caloundra CTAF, took down the ATIS for Maroochydore and made my inbound call to Maroochy Tower. I got cleared direct Maroochydore via Point Cartwright at 1000ft. Tower asked if I wouldn’t prefer runway 12 instead of 18 because of the smaller crosswind component. I decided for runway 18 because I felt quite confident in my ability to demonstrate a good crosswind landing, and I had landed on 18 twice in the last months, while my last time landing on 12 was more than six months ago, and not very good by any standards.

We were the only aircraft on the frequency, which probably explains why we got cleared to land as soon as I joined downwind. I turned base a bit too early, which got me high and fast for the turn to final since the easterly wind really shortened the base leg. I pulled power off, lowered full flaps and performed a decent landing despite a long float. A powered approach and less flaps would have been better though.

Once on the ground Rob asked if I would be OK with departing straight away or if I wanted a break. Clearly he wanted to get back as soon as possible to beat the bad weather. I thought about it for a half-second and opted for a five-minute break on the ground. I wanted the time to prepare for the next leg, re-fold my maps, have a quick bite at a cereal bar and something to drink. No-one can fail you for taking a break. But flying a leg with underoptimal cockpit organisation and low blood sugar level can lead to mistakes that you can be failed on.

So we re-started, taxied back to the holding point of runway 18, did the run-ups, and I called ready requesting an intersection departure. We got cleared to land with a right-hand turn and a climb to 2500ft. I made my departure report and reported again leaving controlled airspace. “Frequency change approved” came back and I switched to a listening watch on the center frequency for the long leg to Gayndah.