I’m now just over half-way through the VFR stages of the multi-engine stage of the course, which basically involves learning how to fly the aircraft in readiness for moving on to the IFR flying. Happily, it’s all going really well so far. I think by the end of the single-engine phases, you’re ready for something a bit different and I know I certainly was.
I don’t think I could ever say I got bored of it – that would be the wrong word because I never get bored of flying (well, apart from as a passenger on 14 hour sectors from Manchester to Singapore, for example) but there’s only so many VFR navigation and CPL profile flights you can do before it starts to get repetitive. Towards the end, when you’re supposed to be feeling at your peak and ready to show an examiner what you can do, it’s probably not a good thing that you feel like you’re going through the motions but it does feel like that sometimes, particularly when you turn up and the Hamilton Airport fog magnet has been left switched on again. There’s only so many times you can fill in yet ANOTHER weight and balance sheet that was practically identical to your last one and go through the same drill on every flight before you want to move on. Don’t get me wrong, there are things I already miss about those flights – I don’t have any more solos in New Zealand, for example, which means I won’t get the chance to plan routes where I can get in a bit of sightseeing (I never did make it round Auckland city, though!) The next time I’ll be pilot-in-command will be ages away when I’m back in Bournemouth. But generally, I found my motivation starting to slip away slightly towards the end of the single-engine flying because it was so repetitive and silly mistakes started to creep in towards the end. When I passed the test it felt like a massive hurdle had been finally crossed and, now I’m on the Twin Star, the motivation and desire has jumped right back up again. When I come back from a flight in it, I just want to go straight back out on the next one, which is exactly how it should be.
So, the flights so far… well, I’ve done three flights and three simulator flights, plus one introductory session on the Part Task Trainer (PTT) which is basically a replica instrument panel without any external visual references like in a “real” sim. I’ve covered most normal and abnormal operating procedures in the simulator and then practised them for real on the first two flights, and today I had a flight doing circuits at Hamilton, where I learned to land it properly. A lot of it so far is just, as I mentioned, learning how to fly the aircraft in readiness for the IFR stuff and a lot of it is just old techniques being revisted and adapted to flying them in a bigger, heavier aircraft with more engines. There are three things here which are worth a mention here.
First – only a small one really, but we’re now officially allowed to use the autopilot. I tried it at the end of my second flight and it’s really useful, it helps you manage the workload a lot better, particularly when returning to the airport and you’ve got other things to do besides fly the aircraft such as getting weather information, talking to the tower and looking out for other traffic. The auto-pilot in the DA-42 isn’t an all-singing, all-dancing job like in an Airbus – it’ll do the basic stuff but we still have to operate the rudder, power levers (not throttles any more – always power levers!) and of course keep a good lookout. Some of the Cessnas we had on lease had autopilot fitted but I was never tempted to try it! So this was my first experience of it and I think I’ll be using it a fair bit more!
Second – the simulator. It’s a pretty awesome training tool, and it’s something that’s quite new to me. The cockpit is an exact replica of the real DA-42 (complete with raising and lowering canopy) without the anti-ice controls or seat belts, and it also has a “pause” button, which is very helpful for in-flight discussions about stuff with your instructor. The handling doesn’t feel too far away from the real thing – there are some differences, particularly noticeable when practising stalling and also the way it handles on the ground but, as far as I can see so far, it really prepares you well for getting in the aircraft and doing it for real. For anybody reading this and thinking the external views we see are photo-realistic replicating the outside world, forget it! Think back to something like Flight Sim 4 (before the Windows 95 version with the 737 came out) and you’ve pretty much got it. The “big” features of the landscape are all there – rivers, prominent mountains, etc, so you know you’re flying around the Hamilton area – but for those people who are expecting it to be a working version of Flight Simulator X but with a full cockpit and panoramic screen, forget it! (Although it does have a 180 degree panoramic screen which is great.)
Thirdly – landing. This is probably the part of flying the DA-42 that feels so much different than the Cessna. Obviously, it’s a bigger and heavier aircraft and the approach speeds are higher so everything feels like it’s happening that much faster, particularly on short finals and crossing the threshold of the runway. The actual technique for touching down is what feels most different though. In the Cessna, you’d have to pull the power to idle about 50ft above the threshold and hold the nose attitude until starting the flare to get the airspeed down and stop you floating along the runway for miles. In the DA-42, with landing gear down and full flap the amount of drag is much larger and the nose attitude on short finals is MUCH lower than in the Cessna. It took some getting used to because it felt like we were diving at the runway but after a few attempts you realise that actually, you’re not really descending any faster. You just have to keep flying it down to keep the airspeed up and flare slightly later than in the Cessna. You also don’t bring the power levers back until you’ve gone over the threshold and you’re about to touch down – again, do it where you would have done in the Cessna and you’ll probably smack it down pretty hard and have some explaining to do to the maintenance guys afterwards!
This evening I had my first lesson on asymmetric flight in the simulator (i.e. learning how to deal with one of the two engines failing.) It’s a very, very important part of learning to fly a multi-engine aircraft. If you have an engine failure on a single-engine aircraft, you’re going to have to stick it down in a field but at least you know it’s going to glide in a straight line without too much effort. On a multi, it’s very different – if an engine fails, you’ve still got the other one so you’ll still have some degree of performance and (barring a disaster) you’ll be able to make it to an airfield and land safely but if you don’t know how to control it, you’re stuffed. Because of the asymmetric lift, drag and thrust created by one engine being dead, if you sit and do nothing about it you’ll end up in a spiral dive (as I was shown in the sim.) Learning how to control it, therefore, and all the procedures associated with continuing to fly safely is absolutely vital, and this is what I’ll be doing over the next few flights. Overall, tonight’s sim was pretty good; a lot of it was just getting used to the asymmetric handling and getting to grips with all the checks, but I’ve been reliably informed that the next one is going to be pretty hard work.
To finish with, here’s a picture courtesy of Shaun – it’s me taxiing out off the apron for my circuits lesson today, in ZK-CTN. (This one, despite being such a new aircraft, has a very annoying habit of pulling to the left during taxiing and left me with a pretty sore right leg by the time I got to the run up bay from trying to keep it straight. If Shaun had taken this picture about 3 seconds earlier, he’d have caught me embarrassingly off the yellow line on the taxiway!)
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