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.

- 3 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Congratulations!

    20 Jan 2008, 08:29

  2. Lucy Griffiths

    Yay! Well done Ben! That’s great news. xx

    20 Jan 2008, 11:19

  3. Ant

    Woo – good to see you back in the blog-sphere.

    20 Jan 2008, 12:04

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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.


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

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