February 07, 2009

April–June 2008 – about time to catch up!

I’m starting to write this entry on the way home from France, on a quick trip home for four days off before I actually start flying again. It’s just under two weeks since I moved over to live on the French/Swiss/German border and to be honest I’m ready for a few days break. [Edit – it’s now over a week later and I’m only just finishing it…!]

It’s been a busy 24 hours, because as I start to write this (29 January), this time yesterday I was in the FSC Flight Simulator Centre in Amsterdam, undergoing by 6-monthly recurrent check which all airline transport pilots have to do. To the vast majority of pilots it’s a non-event, it’s just something you have to do every six months and you just get on with it. Without getting too technical, it’s basically to check that if anything goes wrong during flight we know what to do, in the safe confines of the simulator! It’s actually good fun because you get to practice things and come across new scenarios that you shouldn’t – and virtually never – come across in the aircraft, and there are numerous aspects that the trainers have to check us on; for example, do we understand the aircraft’s systems correctly? The A320 is a pretty complex piece of machinery, and it takes masses of experience to know every little detail in intricate detail. Also, are our CRM (crew resource management) skills up to scratch – i.e. can we work together well as a crew? Do we share the workload properly? And, in the unlikely (but possible) event of something like an engine exploding on takeoff, are our manual handling skills up to scratch? Then there are specific scenarios we have to train for; for example, flying into specific airports that are known to be complicated and require specific training – Mykonos and Ajaccio, in this case – and do we know exactly what to do if our Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) starts shouting at us and we have to perform an evasive manouever? It’s not something you can really practice for in the aircraft, for obvious reasons, so we need to know what to do, instantly, from memory.

I was a little apprehensive beforehand because I’ve never done simulator training with an experienced captain before, only trainees of similar experience to me, so I was expecting the CRM aspect to be a little different. The captain doing his check with me was one of the most experienced in the company and an examiner himself, so it was pretty much the other end of the scale to what I’m used to, but the whole point of the training we undergo is so that we can work well as a crew whatever the experience levels, and it does work. I’m pretty glad that I’ve got 6 months to wait until my next one, but overall it was good fun and a good learning experience. From here, I start flying again on Monday (a nice short Basel-Amsterdam and return) and then have to go to Geneva for a few days of line training flights before being released to the line again!

Anyway, as it’s been so long since I wrote anything proper on here, there is a big gap which needs filling for much of what I’ve written above to make sense. After I finished the AQC course which I wrote about some time early last year – the part of my training programme which taught us the basics of moving up to a passenger jet from a light aircraft, before moving on to the aircraft-specific type rating – I then had about 7 weeks off before actually starting on the type rating course. For this, after going to the company induction day at Luton, it meant another trip down to Southampton for another few weeks at CTC, where the course would be conducted. Familiar territory! (Apart from the accommodation, which, due to the company’s normal residence being full, meant being put up in a posh country hotel for a few days.)

Those of us on the type rating course (10 or 12 in total, I can’t quite remember) had received the welcome pack in the post a few weeks earlier and I’d been completely unable to fathom what on earth it was on about. A full-motion flight simulator session on day 2? Before we’d even learned anything about the aircraft?! And two more on consecutive days afterwards?! Surely not! But it turned out a few of us had been assigned to a new-style type rating course the CAA were trialling, the so-called FORCE (Flight Operations Research Centre of Excellence, or something) course. Rather than take the traditional approach of two weeks’ classroom study of the aircraft followed by 12 or so simulator sessions, the new approach was to throw us into the simulator on day 1 and then do the ground school half way through the course. The intention, I believe, was to introduce the automation in a different way to normal. The Airbus is a very clever aeroplane and the automatics can do all sorts of wonderful things to make your life easier that older aircraft can’t do, but if you don’t understand them then you’ll find yourself digging yourself very quickly into a big hole. So the idea I believe was to build us up gradually from fully manual operation (including manual thrust, which I’m ashamed to say I didn’t use in an entire six months on the line in summer) towards an intermediate level of automation to build up our understanding before finally letting us get the aircraft to look after certain things itself. It was hard work and those of us who’d done the AQC course on the A320 a couple of months earlier definitely felt like we had a bit of a head start over those (including some reasonably experienced guys) who’d never set foot in an Airbus before. It’s not really up to me to say whether I thought it was the right way to go about it, but suffice to say that the company only ran a few courses that way before dropping it a few months later and reverting to the traditional type!

The course I did consisted of six 4-hour flight simulator sessions, followed by 2 weeks’ ground school, followed a further six 4-hour sim sessions – these at Burgess Hill, just north of Brighton – of which two were devoted to the LST – Licence Skills Test, the bit you have to pass to have the A320 qualification printed in your licence. It’s pretty intense to get everything you have to do actually done in the time you have available; the course requires an intense amount of study to ensure that where there is a procedure for something, you have to know it off by heart and then be able to do it more or less first time in the simulator, before moving straight on to something else. There is a form about 4 pages long with all the different scenarios and exercises that must be covered before being put forward for the test and each one has to be signed off by an instructor to say it’s been covered. In the test itself, the examiner then has some specific things which must be tested and has a plethora of options to choose at random to throw at us. At this stage of the course you don’t want to have to be repeating stuff – it’s not like the early stages of basic training where if you messed up a few circuits you could just get back in a Cessna the next day and go and do them again; at this stage, you really need to be able to do everything first time (with training and guidance, obviously, otherwise there would be no point in actually training!) Fortunately I did pass everything first time, despite messing up quite a bit in the final session before the test and a few “errrrrrr…” moments during the test itself, but by the end of it I was pretty shattered! It was about six weeks long in total and I finished the test on 2nd May 2008. Despite finishing the test session at around midnight and not getting to bed until gone 1:30am, we’d been told to go back in the next morning (a Saturday) for another unrelated training session. By the time I got back from Burgess Hill on Saturday evening I was absolutely shattered, and just to temper the feeling of euphoria at passing a difficult test on something I first set out to do 18 months earlier, City went and lost 8-1 at Middlesbrough…!

It wasn’t over, however, because to actually fully qualify, six take-offs and landings are required in the real thing, so a day is spent on what’s called base training – where the airline will take an aircraft out of service and fly it round and round an airport all day training us newbies and check we know how to land properly; and before that, we had to spend two days back at Luton doing the airline’s safety and security courses. This is basically a much shortened, abridged version of the full cabin crew course which teaches us just what we as pilots need to know. One of the first things we did was the ‘wet drills’ where we learn how to use the lifejackets. Naturally, as this involves getting in a swimming pool with lots of lovely young trainee cabin crew, it’s a part that many of us looked forward to quite a lot! We also had got to practice jumping down the emergency slides (in a nice, calm, slow, health-and-safety conscious manner which doesn’t really reflect what having to use them for real would be like), put out fires using BCF extinguishers (well, replica ones containing water at the behest of the health and safety people), find people in a smoke-filled cabin, learn to operate the aircraft doors – all sorts of stuff really. Unfortunately the attempts of Skeelsy and myself to get chatting to some of the aforementioned cabin crew in the hotel bar were scuppered slightly by the fact they all had exams coming up, but it wasn’t for want of trying!

After that course I then had a week or so off before base training day. The day itself, when it arrived, involved a lot of travelling around as the departure point was Stansted. Annoyingly, at the time I was still officially based at Stansted so despite me not actually having started with the company, I wasn’t put up in a hotel so had to make do with a cheap-and-cheerful Travelodge type place while my colleagues were all enjoying the delights of the rather more flash Radisson SAS at Stansted. Anyway, I arrived late the evening before, having been stuck stationary on the M11 for an hour and a half and eventually resorting to putting my seat back and playing Champ Manager, while waiting for the remnants of someone’s crashed caravan (absolutely hate the damn things) to be removed from the road. I didn’t sleep too well but made it into the airport nice and early the next morning. As a new first officer, base training is the first time you get to wear your uniform and you do feel quite a sense of pride in doing so in public! After I’d met the other boys fresh from their posh Radisson full English breakfast with smoked salmon – a little more substantial than my apple and a cup of tea – we headed to the Stansted crew room and met the training captain running the day. We would be doing the circuits at East Midlands and I was to go in the second session, once we’d picked up a second training captain at East Midlands. There were six of us and we each had to do six take-offs and landings, so we were in for a long old day and were pleased to see the caterers had loaded us up with plenty of food! Most importantly we were shown how to work the brew-maker, probably the most used piece of equipment on the aeroplane all day.

I was number 4 out of the 6 to go, so the first in the ‘afternoon’ session. Sitting in the right hand seat of the real thing for the first time was a little bit daunting but the training captains were great – they took a lot of the pressure off. Once we’d started up and called for clearance we headed out for runway 09, and the first thing I noticed was that taxiing the aeroplane is a bit easier than doing it in the simulator! The sim is too responsive and sensitive to ground movements, and in trying to replicate cornering/braking forces and bumps can sometimes end up making you feel a bit sick if you have too long a taxi. The real thing is much smoother as long as you’re gentle with the nosewheel tiller! Anyway once we’d completed the before take-off procedures and checks, we were told to line up and cleared for take-off.

The circuits themselves passed fairly quickly, which was a shame as it was great fun! As it’s probably the only time in a pilot’s career that they get to do touch-and-goes in a jet aircraft, it’s really something you have to savour. It’s a little difficult to describe it fully without going into lots of technical detail but the A319 is a joy to fly and in the end, with a helpful and experienced instructor, it didn’t feel particularly difficult! Of course now, 9 months later on, any take-off feels just like any other really, but those first few were quite special – getting to fly a passenger jet, hands on, is what the entire course which I started 21 months earlier was training us for, so actually getting to do it for the first time really gets the adrenaline going. Likewise, any landing now is totally routine, but on that first day, as a newly-qualified novice, it was a good feeling getting off the aircraft later on, looking back up at the Airbus and thinking “wow, I just landed that!”

The next day we had to make our way back to Burgess Hill again, not for a simulator session this time but for a couple of days’ Line Training Ground School, i.e. classroom sessions on flying the aircraft ‘on the line’, in normal passenger service rather than in the set scenarios we’d become accustomed to in the simulator. During this time we were also supposed to get the Airbus rating added to our licences by the CAA but due to a series of admin balls-ups it wasn’t possible to do it that day, which meant spending an extra night down south and heading to the CAA building first thing the next morning. Fortunately my good friends living in Finsbury Park were more than accommodating but it still took about 2 hours to there from Gatwick (and an hour and half the following morning) and the drive across London, just like every time I visit, merely reinforced my opinion about how much I can’t stand the place and how I’m infinitely glad I’ve made my way into a career which doesn’t involve having to live there to go to work. By this point I’d already had confirmation that my transfer to East Midlands would be going ahead before I started my line training programme, so fortunately I could go back up north!

That’s probably quite enough for one entry, because it’s going to take forever to finish. I know all this probably doesn’t quite explain how I’ve ended up living in France and working abroad; that’ll come in a separate entry which I’ll start writing soon! There’s a lot to catch up on yet with all the flying I did out of East Midlands between June and November so what’s above is only really half of the story, but at least it’s a start having not written anything for so long.


January 25, 2009

It's been a long time…

For anybody who still checks this blog occasionally, which I suspect might be a grand total of 0 these days; as promised, it will reappear over the next few weeks, and I’ll try to update anybody interested on what I’ve been up to over the last year since I qualified. There’s quite a lot to tell.

My career took an unexpected turn in December and has taken me to Switzerland. It can get pretty quiet out here at times in the little French village where I live, therefore I forsee lots of blogging time.

I’m currently studying for my 6-monthly LPC/OPC (basically a 6-monthly check we have to pass to be allowed to keep flying). Once I’ve got that out of the way and I’ve briefly popped back to England next week, I’ll get on with it.


January 20, 2008

Finally – officially a Commercial Pilot!

As I’ve got a few hours free, here’s the next update of how things are going, which I promised in my previous entry. When I started this I was on the train on the way down to Southampton to start the intermediate phase of training, so I had a couple of hours to collect my thoughts and think back to November to remember what I was doing! As ever when I write entries of this length, 2 hours wasn’t enough so it’s now six days later and I’m sat finishing it off in my hotel room having finished the first week of the Airline Qualification Course (AQC).

Unfortunately (for me anyway) in the last couple of weeks of November, the south of England had a very large high pressure weather system over it which just wouldn’t go away. This meant about three weeks of very nice weather. For me, having passed my 170A assessment before the Instrument Rating Test (IRT), this wasn’t good news because it meant the guys waiting for their CPL tests got priority with the exam booking slots. Ironically, having only just finished the course in time for AQC after being delayed by bad weather, it was good weather that put me about two weeks behind in November! Eventually, after a frustrating wait, I did take the IRT on November 21st. I can remember being pretty nervous about it beforehand – the IRT is apparently known to be one of the hardest flight tests to do. Once I was round at the exam centre and getting on with the planning, however, the nerves started to wane a bit. There was one slight moment of panic when I realised I’d forgotten to take my CRP-5 planning computer round to the exam centre with me and therefore would have no way of planning an accurate heading compensating for wind, so thanks are due to Shane for nipping it round to me within about 5 minutes of my frantic phone call to base. My route was a fairly simple one – northwest out of Bournemouth, along a radial from the Southampton VOR to the reporting point EXMOR, south along the N866 airway towards Exeter, radar-vectored ILS approach to Exeter and then back to Bournemouth for the NDB hold and approach. As I was climbing out of Bournemouth and tracking the NDB out to intercept the SAM radial, things started to look like they were going a bit wrong – the Bournemouth NDB was giving a completely useless reading, constantly swinging through about 30 degrees and going nowhere near the actual bearing I was flying on. This threw me a little bit, and it took a bit of dead-reckoning, a few glances at the GPS track read-out (which the examiner said I could use) and a lot of luck to end up right over where I was meant to be. The examiner had quite rightly disabled the moving map display on the instrument panel so I didn’t have the GPS map display to help me out.

Anyway I ended up in the right place at the right time, and in the end the leg along the SAM radial was quite relaxing – use of the autopilot was allowed and I had over 35 miles to go before joining the airway at EXMOR. Of course there was a fair bit to do in the meantime but it did put me in a relaxed frame of mind. ATC predictably left it right until the last minute to issue my clearance into their controlled airspace but in the end there were no problems. Everything after that went OK, my ILS approach wasn’t the best in the world but it was within limits so still passable and all the general handling went pretty well. It was as I was attempting to get my clearance back into Bournemouth for the hold and approach that things started going a bit pear-shaped – the ADF, which had worked fine when tracking the Exeter NDB, was still playing up when tuned into Bournemouth. After watching it for about five minutes, the examiner decided that it was nowhere near good enough to use for a hold and approach so, frustratingly, he terminated the test at that point and it was left incomplete. We instead got another radar-vectored ILS to land and this time, not being on test, I was able to relax a bit more and also fly it with the screens down. This is something I personally feel should be allowed a bit more during training (if the weather is bad.) Obviously if the conditions are fine then the screens are necessary for training on the ILS, but it is possible to go all the way through an instrument rating course flying every single ILS approach behind white screens and only being given any visual references just before decision altitude – the first “real world” ILS could be when you’re flying an airliner. Of course most of my attention was still on the instrument panel but I was quite surprised at how it looked from in the clouds, it felt very different to suddenly having the screens yanked down 200ft above the runway.

Annoyingly, I had to wait another six days before I could go up and do the re-test but fortunately managed to get the Saturday off to go home for my birthday and go and watch the City v Reading match. Celebrating Stephen Ireland’s injury-time winning goal then turning round to find myself being photographed at close range by a Thai photographer was a bit weird considering the action was on the pitch, but winning 2-1 courtesy of a brilliant goal with the last kick of the game is always welcome. I went back down to Bournemouth on the Sunday afternoon, a journey which didn’t go smoothly thanks to some idiot activating the emergency alarm on the train to St Pancras, making me miss my connection at Waterloo and then having to deal with an extremely arsey South West Trains customer “service” staff member when trying to get my ticket changed. It took me about 7 hours in the end. The following Tuesday – the 27th – I went back to the exam centre with the aircraft to complete the IRT (incidentally, the aircraft had flown over the weekend and experienced no problems whatsoever with the ADF.) The NDB hold didn’t go particularly smoothly but it was within limits, and the approach was OK until right at the last second. Once again, the screens came down right at the last second but this time a big bank of cloud had settled right over the threshold for runway 26, a few hundred feet below minimum for the NDB approach. That meant we couldn’t land so still the test carried on! After the asymmetric go-around the examiner, needing to see only an asymmetric landing now, took control and got us an ILS approach instead, giving me back control at about 300ft when we finally did break cloud. Finally we got on the ground and the feeling of relief when he told me he was happy with it and I’d passed was immense.

Of course, from being ahead to going two weeks behind, there was no rest the next day – it was straight into the CPL phase and flying visually for the first time since the last time I flew the 172 in NZ last May. Going back to flying VFR and having to get back to grips with visual navigation, after spending the last six months focussed on the Twin Star’s big screens, felt a bit weird at first. It took me a while to get fully comfortable with the navigation side because a couple of flights had to be cut short due to bad weather, but generally it didn’t go too badly. Time pressures meant our course became a priority on the schedule, and it makes a marked difference being able to fly for 4 or 5 days on the trot. It does get tiring when the standards demanded are so high that every flight feels like a mini-test, but it’s well worth it for the improvements it makes to your confidence. The CPL flying generally went well; of course there were certain issues that cropped up as there always are, but the navigation element, in my opinion, is much easier in the UK than in NZ. There are some more complicated aspects, such as the much more complex airspace layouts and boundaries and the fact that the south of England is some of the busiest airspace in the world, but the task was made a whole lot easier by one thing. In New Zealand, when your instructor points to a place labelled on a map and says “take me there”, the place in question which looks like a small village on the chart invariably turns out to be a couple of sheds and a barn hidden in the middle of a bunch of trees and hills which, even if you fly right over it, can be very hard to see. In the UK, the VFR maps are far better and when you’re told to fly to a point, that point is far easier to spot and positively identify. That, of course, frees up your capacity to do other things. Unfortunately, I got to my F170A flight a couple of weeks before Christmas and was confronted, as we all were, by two weeks of low cloud and shocking visibility. One of the most frustrating things was taking the decision on one day to cancel a flight because of low cloud, both forecast and actually over the airfield at the time; half an hour later, after the aircraft had already gone on an IR training flight with a different cadet, the sky was absolutely clear. To make matters worse I caught that horrible cold bug that was going round before Christmas and ended up spending a few days feeling horrible and sorry for myself. Aside from the fact it’s difficult to concentrate and fly properly when you’re not well, it’s not clever to go flying in a confined space like the DA-42 and pass on your germs to an instructor especially just before Christmas, so after cancelling the flight about 5 days on the trot – three for weather, two for illness – I was told I wouldn’t get it in before Christmas and would have to wait. This was annoying, because I was relying on having a couple of weeks break after Christmas before the AQC started on January 14th.

So, after trekking all the way back down to Bournemouth and enjoying a very fun New Year’s Eve party in Ferndown, I got back to flying on 2nd January and promptly made a complete hash of the 170A. Fortunately, because of the lack of currency and because I had to come back early due to not feeling too well, I was given another crack at it the next day and the navigation was absolutely spot on apart from some dodgy altitude keeping. Once again, however, poor weather was hampering attempts to get people pushed through the tests and, having originally hoped I’d get mine done on 4th January, I eventually got a slot on Wednesday 9th. Someone up there somewhere was being very kind to me because having had even more crap weather for nearly a whole solid week, Wednesday was suddenly beautiful, with great visibility and hardly any cloud. I was given a nice route for my navigation by the examiner – directly up to Sedgemoor Services on the M5 just south of Bristol. During the flight I was given a diversion from overhead Glastonbury over to a little place called Bampton in Devon, a route which was massively assisted by flying right between the unmissable and relatively massive (from the air) towns of Bridgwater and Taunton. It really couldn’t have gone better and that set me up for a reasonably good flight from then on. As it happened, the navigation ended up being the best element, the circuits were pretty good and the general handling wasn’t a problem as it hadn’t been all the way through the course. After landing, unlike on the IR the examiner didn’t tell me whether I’d passed or not until we were back in the briefing room, leading me to presume I’d failed on something until he actually said “that was a pass”. As it happened, I had passed but still received a slight bollocking for being a bit slow in reacting to various emergencies and not showing enough urgency to get back in to Bournemouth despite having had a simulated engine fire and shutdown. Still, a pass is a pass and I’d finally completed basic training.

Unfortunately, due to a slight cock-up in NZ I was still short of 1.1hrs pilot-in-command time for the issue of my licence so I had to go round to a local flying club on the airfield and go up to do just over an hour in an old Robin 200. Again it felt quite strange going back to single-engine flying on what we DA-42 pilots like to refer to as “steam driven” instruments but actually it was great just going up and being able to enjoy flying without the pressure being on. I eventually got the flight done when we got a break in the weather on Friday (which had gone bad again on Thursday morning) and, being the first solo flight I’d done since mid-May, it was great fun. The Robin, despite its age, was actually quite nice to fly; there were things to think about like mixture leaning, carburettor heat and a wandering direction indicator, things which are all taken care of for you when you’re flying the Twin Star, but overall it handled really nicely and was much easier to land properly than the Robin aircraft in NZ due to the lack of a massive strake under the rear of the fuselage. Eventually I got finished with all the paperwork about 6pm, by which time I was earlier hoping I’d have been home, and set off back up north.

Two days later and I was on the way back to the south coast for the AQC, the intermediate stage of training which has to be passed before going on to the airline. At the moment, things are looking good. The first week has been all classroom based. Despite being a multi-crew co-operation course designed to teach us how to work in a multi-pilot environment rather than a type-rating course as such, the second week is still carried out in a jet simulator – the Airbus A320 in our case – so we spent the first two days learning about the technical and operational aspects of the A320 we’d need to be able to fly it properly. For the purposes of the course it’s a generic jet, but of course it’s so complex that you need to be able to operate it properly to succeed in it.

On Monday and Tuesday evenings, after we’d finished the ground school at about 4pm, we did go in to the A320 simulator to familiarise ourselves with it. It was a great feeling, stepping into it and sitting down at the controls – the sheer size of it compared to something like the Twin Star, and the size and relative complexity of the panel, really makes you feel like you’re taking another massive step forwards towards where you want to be. Getting in it for the first time is a real morale-booster. On the Tuesday we all had a quick go at flying it, just a couple of turns with and without the Flight Director indicators, to get a feel for how it handles before we go into the first 4-hour session on Monday. I obviously wasn’t able to get a true feel for it in five minutes but even so, the sheer amount that it can do is amazing. Even the average Joe Bloggs might know the A320 series is fly-by-wire and that it has six big screens instead of the older style array of instruments, but when you actually study what it can do and what’s available to you it makes you realise just how great it is. I’ll be able to say more about it when I’ve had a week of sim sessions next weekend, but I’m really looking forward to getting to grips with it.

Speaking of the Airbus, I got a bit of good news through this week. I don’t want to make a big thing of it at the moment because things can and do change, particularly dates, but I have now finally got a provisional date for starting type rating on the A319 (a slightly shorter version of the A320, for those who aren’t familiar) with a well-known, predominantly orange airline that flies a lot of them. I’ve got to pass the assessments on the AQC first, obviously, but assuming it all goes fine then it’s onwards and upwards! Also, I’m now in possession of my CPL/IR – I was quite surprised at the CAA managing to have it back to me 4 days after posting off the application, but manage they did and the coveted little blue book is sat right beside me on the desk here! So, there we go – I’ll try and get another entry in next week once I’ve had some time in the simulator, and if not then in two weeks when I’ve finished here and gone home. I’ve got some good photos to put up both here and on Facebook as well, but I’m struggling to get them off my phone. Annoyingly, I left my USB cable at home, I can’t get Kev’s USB Bluetooth adaptor to work, and I did try transferring stuff via the infra-red port but gave up on that pretty quickly after discovering it’d be faster to walk the 500 mile round trip home and get the USB cable than wait for the infra-red transfer. So they’ll probably be up in a couple of weeks.


January 13, 2008

Still here

I know a few people have asked me what’s happened to the blog of late… no, it hasn’t died a death and I am still here. The houses provided for us in Bournemouth generally don’t have internet access and that, coupled with the stress of flight tests, has meant blogging has had to take a back seat for a while. I am happy to report, however, that I passed the IR on November 27th and the CPL last week and have finished flying the Twin Star. Later today I’ll be heading back down to the south coast for the next stage, three weeks of multi-crew training and jet handling skills in the A320 simulator. I’ve been assured by the course ahead that it’s really interesting and good fun. The hotel down there does have net access so I’ll endeavour to get a proper entry about the Bournemouth phase of training sorted out soon.

PS. I just noticed this is my first entry of 2008 – a belated happy new year to everyone!

PPS. I’ve just noticed it’s also my 300th blog post. A milestone I would have passed ages ago if I’d had more regular internet access…!


November 20, 2007

Waiting

I’m still here, honestly. Entries are a bit few and far between at the moment because I was going to wait until after my Instrument Rating Test (IRT) before writing another one; unfortunately it’s being dragged out and further out. I was ready to take it just over a week ago but got delayed because the course ahead needed to get their CPL flights and exams done while the weather was good, as they needed to be out of their houses to allow the next lot to move in. Unfortunately that’s meant sitting around doing nothing very much for a week. Then the IRT was scheduled for today, and of course we have the worst weather we’ve seen for months. Unfortunately we’re not allowed to fly the Twin Star when thunderstorm activity is forecast, so today’s test was reluctantly cancelled. Hopefully it’ll be tomorrow but the weather is still looking pretty bad – a big trough of bad weather is going to be sat off the south coast, so I don’t know whether I’ll be going yet. It’s just getting so frustrating, having it dragged out for so long.


October 02, 2007

Exams and Bournemouth

Yes I know it’s been a while… a combination of factors (tons of exam revision, spending time with Naomi and not having internet at my house in Bournemouth being the main ones) have resulted in a lack of blogging activity over the past month and a bit, but I’ve managed to get on for a short while so here’s an update about how things are going at the moment. It appears that the last time I wrote anything, disregarding my quick rant about hippies camping out at Heathrow, was just before I left New Zealand! Doesn’t time fly… hopefully people haven’t got bored and are still checking this blog in the vague hope that an update might one day appear!

I managed to get out of New Zealand two days early, or 12 days late depending on which way you look at things. Being 12 days past my original departure date meant I was home just a day too late to make it to London for Naomi’s birthday trip to see The Lion King, which was extremely annoying. Still, stepping on the 747 in Auckland was a moment to savour as I had expected it to be – by the time I left I couldn’t wait to get out of NZ and back to family and friends. Not that NZ isn’t a beautiful country, but the best part of a year out there is enough for me, particularly in Hamilton (which, I’ve discovered, doesn’t even appear on a load of tourist maps, it’s simply missed out. Draw your own conclusions.) The flight to Singapore passed pretty quickly as for once I wasn’t sitting next to someone fat, old and annoying (and I don’t mean that in a fattist way, I just think that people who have an arse the size of two seats should be made to buy two seats) but instead I got put next to a nice girl who was also flying to Manchester. Chatting to her and getting a bit of banter going made the 9 and a half hours to Singapore go much quicker than previously. At Singapore I met up with Shaun, who’d been to see relatives in Brisbane and happened to be connecting on to the same flight as me to Manchester.

I managed to see a fair bit of Naomi over the next few weeks, which was really nice – she came up to mine for a week and we had some nice days out at Lyme Park (apparently famous because of a bloke called Mr Darcy in some trashy period drama novel by Jane somebody) and York. The following two weeks were spent down in Bristol for the exam revision course, with Bristol Ground School being their usual excellent selves in getting us ready for the dreaded ATPLs round 2, then I had a couple of weeks off in which to cram the question bank. At the time I thought they all went OK apart from Principles of Flight, which I felt like I’d struggled a bit with – disappointing really as I’d spent the longest revising that out of any of the subjects we were doing. Still, it went reasonably quickly and then I had one week left in which to enjoy dossing about before moving to Bournemouth for the last stage of basic training.

So far I’m at the beginning of the third week here. After the induction and a few briefs, we have 11 or 12 simulator flights before going back into the aircraft. The two biggest changes for me are in RT (radio telephony) and the airspace. Things are done a little bit differently in NZ – most of it is the same or similar, but there are lots of subtle differences that must be learned, and we also each need to have a separate radio licence over here for which I have an exam sometime towards the end of this month. Not only are a few of the radio calls different, but the airspace over here is so much more crowded – and there is a lot more of it. A VFR map of New Zealand looks like a blank piece of paper when you compare it to one of the UK. This and the increased volume of traffic means that the radio gets very busy – we’ve been warned that it’s possible to fly for miles trying to get a call in on the radio and being totally unable to get a word in edgeways, so that’ll be something a bit new. The busiest I’ve had to cope with is a couple of trips up to Ardmore in NZ where the circuit is always pretty busy, but that was only locally to the airfield – in the UK, it’s busy everywhere.

I’ve done 7 sim flights so far and they’re not going too badly. It took me a few flights to get back into it again, having all that time off and taking your mind off things to give 100% attention to exams doesn’t half make you feel rusty when you come back again. I was really ready for a weekend after the second and third ones and, to put it in diplomatic terms, the somewhat stern debriefs (OK, bollockings) that came with them but since then the rest of them have been alright, I’ve been reasonably happy. I won’t bore anyone with the minute details of what actually is going on, but suffice to say at the moment we’re practising instrument flying from A to B with increasing amounts of rubbish weather and malfunctions thrown in. After that, we’ll basically be practising for the widely-feared Instrument Rating test, flying IRT profiles until we’re 100% ready to take the test.

Oh, I also found out the other week that I passed all my ATPL exams – managed to pull my average up to just below 92%. Principles of Flight was my lowest score (80%) as expected, but I always said I’d be happy with all first time passes and a 90%+ average. I’m just very glad that I don’t have to go back to Gatwick to do any again.


August 06, 2007

I would just love…

...to find out where the ringleaders of Plane Stupid or some of these other hygienically-challenged climate loonies are based, hire a Cessna (or even better, something loud like an old WW2 warbird) and go practising PFLs into their back garden all day.

I hope the injunction that’s served up on the hippy brigade stops them getting too near any bits of Heathrow where they can disrupt the airport or the people using it too much. I’ve no objection to people protesting peacefully and non-disruptively; if all they want to do is pitch a few tents, wave a couple of banners and generally create a scene for everyone else to ignore (and hopefully get drowned out by the incessant taking off and landing of aircraft) then that’s their problem. If, however, they try to do what they did at East Midlands, i.e. break on to the airfield and hold a protest in the middle of a taxiway, there’s nothing I’d love more than to taxi an Airbus or Boeing out, point the engine exhausts at them, go to full power and blow them, their tents, their scruffy dogs and their supply of lentils and vegetables into the middle of Wales. How satisfying would that be…


July 21, 2007

Finished!

Just a short entry, but a happy one to say that yesterday I passed my end-of-New Zealand-phases flight test and am coming home next week! The flight itself went really well, it’s the first time I’ve come back from a flight test feeling really good about it. There were one or two little points which could be improved upon, but generally I was really happy – it was pretty relaxed and everything went really smoothly. If there was one thing I could be a little bit annoyed about it was making too big heading corrections on the final stages of the NDB approach right at the end of the flight, but I was told the flight overall was really nice and I was obviously feeling really relaxed and enjoying IFR – which I am!

So that’s it, no more flying in NZ for me – from here it’s onwards to Bristol for 2 weeks of hardcore studying (again), a week of exams further down the line and then after that it’s on to finishing the course and getting the CPL/IR at Bournemouth.

On Thursday night we did the night flight up to Auckland. I’ve uploaded some pictures to Facebook but for readers who don’t have access to them, here’s a few of my favourite ones. Photo and video credits to Shaun who came along in the back seat.

Night take-off at Hamilton
You can’t see a great deal on this video because it’s dark, but the view of the runway mid-way through is pretty cool, as is the view of the airport terminal down to the right hand side once airborne.

Night landing at Hamilton
Turning on to final approach for runway 36. We’d just done an NDB approach down to MDA and then circled left. Having not flown at night for ages I misjudged how high we were above the runway, flared too high and dumped the aircraft down a bit hard but it wasn’t too bad.

Me about to get in CTL for the flight

Ice lights – these are fitted to the outboard sides of the engine cowlings and shine on the wings so we can check for ice at night.

Turning – under radar vectors for the ILS 05R approach at Auckland. The back-to-front cap has a flap on the front that folds down and stops me seeing outside, thus simulating IMC. The screen up in front of my face serves the same purpose.

Auckland International at night

Arriving back – my favourite picture, I love the light on this one. Taxiing back on to stand after refuelling.


July 18, 2007

Nearly there!

Well, I know I said I’d hopefully write another entry last week, but I never got round to it (again!) I know the blog has been a bit neglected lately, but since I’ve now arrived at my penultimate week in New Zealand and with two flights (and no more sims, I had the last one yesterday) to go before my flight as a passenger back to Manchester, I thought I’d better write about all that’s been happening over the past couple of months.

The main thing, obviously, is that early in June I finally finished with my VFR flying in NZ and moved on to the world of IFR (Instrument Flight Rules.) This is the type of flying I’ll be doing in whichever airline I end up with and, although obviously the physical handling and flying of the aircraft is the same, the procedures we follow are different. As the name suggests, for people that aren’t familiar, the major difference is that where as in VFR flight your primary reference is what you can see outside; in IFR you are flying according to what’s happening on your instrument panel, even if you can see outside. This of course means that the vast majority of IFR flight is under the guidance of Air Traffic Control – no more wandering about looking for ridiculous little “villages” (i.e. a barn) in uncontrolled airspace, in IFR you can’t rely on seeing outside (you might be able to, of course, but you have to assume you won’t be able to) and you navigate using radio aids and operate in controlled airspace. For most of the IFR training we assume we’re in IMC (instrument meteorological conditions, i.e. when you can’t see outside) and we trainees operate with screens up in front of us so we can’t see through the windscreen. It would take too long, and be deathly boring for most people, if I started to try and explain all the difference procedures we do, and it isn’t the place of this blog to do that – if you really want to know, Google is your friend! To cut a long story short, the IFR training I’ve done here consists of:

*Tracking – basically, how to know where you are and where you’re going using your instruments;
*Holds – how to fly a hold using a radio beacon (VOR or NDB);
*Approaches – non-precision (VOR and NDB) and precision (ILS) approaches
*Airways – how to transition from an instrument departure to an en-route cruise to an arrival, landing or missed approach and re-entry into the hold.

There’s other little bits and bobs, like variations on certain approaches, but that covers most of it. Once we’ve learned to do all that and passed a progress check, we then re-visit asymmetric flight and learn how to cope with an engine failure and other emergencies in IMC. This is the stage I was up to yesterday; I had my final sim, where I had a fair few emergencies (engine fire on departure, major instrument failures, pressure instrument failure, etc) thrown at me. Today’s flight was a flight up to Whenuapai (see below) following the end-of-phase check profile.

When starting out on IFR we have 6 lessons in simulators first, using both the proper ‘FNPT II’ DA-42 simulator and also the ‘Part Task Trainer’ (PTT), which is a basic representation of the DA-42 instrument panel (with the Garmin 1000 equipment), a control column, rudder pedals and power levers and a real-world navigation database like in the proper simulator so we can actually fly it – obviously there’s no ‘windscreen’. I’ll try and get a photo of it sometime this week so it’s more obvious what I’m talking about! Anyway, in these lessons I learned how to do basic tracking of VOR and NDB radio aids and how to compensate for wind blowing me off track; also, how to do instrument “point to point” navigation, for example flying from a point a given distance and direction from a radio beacon to another point a different distance and direction from the same beacon. After that, I learned how to do holds, which is when you have to circle a radio beacon or fix (the actual shape you fly is known as a ‘racetrack pattern’) and then we went up in the aircraft and practised them for real over the Hamilton VOR and NDB aids.

I should say at this point how grateful I am to be learning all this in the Twin Star rather than something more traditional like the Seminole or Duchess. The IFR stage, when the workload is quite high, makes you much more appreciative of how much the aircraft does for you – for example, only having one power lever for each engine (no separate propeller RPM lever, it’s all controlled by the FADEC system), having the direction indicator stay aligned automatically instead of keep having to synchronise it with the compass, and of course everything that the wonderful G1000 system does. Being able to display all the navigation aids on the Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI) rather than having separate instruments for the Course Direction Indicator (CDI) and Radio Magnetic Indicators (RMI – yes, flying is a world of acronyms and ‘initialisms’!) makes NDB tracking in particular much easier than it would be if they were displayed separately. The instrument scan, i.e. the pattern in which the pilot scans across the various instruments to make sure the aircraft is doing exactly what he/she wants it to do, is made so much easier by having everything on one big screen rather than having to go to different instruments.

Anyway, after that, over the next ten flights (or ‘events’ as we call them now, as time spent in the simulator isn’t technically flying in the true physical sense of the word!) I learned how to fly the various types of approaches – VOR, NDB (the flight for which I annoyingly stuffed up and had to do again) and ILS. For the ILS approaches we fly over to an RNZAF base, Whenuapai (just north of Auckland), or if it’s outside of their operating hours, Auckland International itself. On my first flight up to Whenuapai I didn’t see it because I had screens up in front of the windscreen as I usually do now, but Mr. Power (who was enjoying a back-seat ride at the time) assured me we had both a fantastic view of Auckland city and also a cracking view of a Thai A340-600 that flew right over the top of us on approach into Auckland. The conditions during the flight were pretty bumpy but generally it wasn’t bad and the ILS approach into Whenuapai went pretty well. The next event after that was the IFR techniques progress check, which tested everything I’d learned so far. I was a bit nervous about that because it was the first ‘test’ I’d done since making a royal hash of the end of single-engine phase check, but it actually went very well – probably the best ‘flight’ (it was a sim) I’ve done on the multi-engine course!

So after that it was back into the sim to re-visit engine failures and asymmetric flight, only this time with them happening in IMC. We worked on it in there and then went up and did a few asymmetric NDB approaches and they all went pretty well; since then, we’ve done a couple of events on DME arcs (something which apparently isn’t in widespread use, but involves tracking around an imaginary circular arc a given distance from a radio beacon) and did the sim I mentioned earlier where I have a few emergencies thrown at me. When the attitude reference and pressure systems fail as they did for me, you’re left with virtually nothing useful on the Primary Flight Display so you have to fly on the standby instruments, which took me a minute or so to get used to. I also had no navigation aids (and wasn’t allowed to use the GPS!). One thing I’m finding a little bit difficult at the moment is compass turns in the Twin Star; I never had much of a problem with them in the 172, but in the Twin Star the magnetic compass isn’t great and it’s taking me a bit of getting used to. I tried practising them in the PTT today after the flight but the computer-generated magnetic compass on there is even worse, so I think I’ll be working on them a bit more in tomorrow’s flight!

Tomorrow is my last flight before my end-of-NZ-phases test, and I’m doing the flight at night. I sat in the back of Shaun’s flight the other night when he did the same one, and it was brilliant – I might not ever get to see a night ILS approach into Auckland International ever again and it was pretty amazing! Unfortunately the pictures didn’t come out too well because I wasn’t able to use the flash. There’s just something, however, about flying up there in the dark and through the clouds and rain that makes you feel that much closer to airline flying – it feels like ‘proper’ stuff! Shaun said it was pretty hard work doing the flying but from where I was sat it was very enjoyable! I’m guessing the roles are going to be reversed tomorrow night when he sits in the back of my flight – I’m sure it’ll be enjoyable, but not for the same reasons (I won’t get much opportunity to admire New Zealand from 7000ft at night, because I won’t be allowed to look outside very much!) I’ll also take this opportunity to extend congratulations to Shaun, who passed his test today and has finished the NZ course.

I’m a bit hesitant to say anything more about expected finishing date because after my failing of the single engine phase test I don’t want to put a massive jinx on my test this time round! Suffice to say, hopefully I’ll be doing it on Friday and then will be able to relax over the weekend – we’ll just see how it goes over the next couple of days and take it from there. I’m sure I’ll be writing something on here about it one way or the other – let’s just hope it’s goes a bit better than last time!


July 07, 2007

Lack of updates

Sorry for the lack of bloggage recently, I know it’s been a long time. It’s been pretty busy of late, I’ve been getting 5 flights a week and there’s plenty to do associated with them all. The IFR flying so far has been really enjoyable, though – a big entry will be on the way about all that soon (hopefully tomorrow.)

Meanwhile, here’s a couple of videos of me in the Twin Star – the first one taking off, and the second doing a touch-and-go (in a bit of a crosswind.). Video credits to Craig, who was back-seating at the time.

Take off:

Touch-and-go:


WELCOME TO MY BLOG

For anyone still remotely interested, it’s back online. I’ll start updating it again soon-ish. For those of you who haven’t visited before and have found your way here via Google – and I know there will be some, because of the e-mails I’ve received in the past – I hope the entries about my flight training course are useful and informative. Over the next few weeks I will bring it up to date with what’s actually happened since I gained my CPL/IR in January 2008 and qualified on the Airbus the following May.

Enjoy reading.

Disclaimer

Any views expressed anywhere in this blog are those of mine, and mine alone.

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