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08 August 2014

The Day I Almost Flew a Tiger Moth Single-Handed

What’s it like flying a Tiger Moth? Absolutely AMAZING! I don’t think I can do the experience justice, but I have to try.

You can imagine my excitement when Into the Blue asked if I’d be interested in trying out one of their summer aircraft experiences and I saw Tiger Moth Flights – Classic Biplane and Tiger Moth Experiences. YES PLEASE!

I chose the Tiger Moth flight at Old Sarum Airfield. The Into the Blue flight experience is 30 minutes and offers a choice between a training flight or half an hour of aerobatics. The aerobatics offer was verrrry tempting, I have to admit. However, I was already jumping around about ME IN A TIGER MOTH, I decided that flying upside down might be more excitement than I could handle. I went for the training flight.

Signing up was simple. I booked it online but followed up by phone because I was just that excited I wanted to be sure of the details. GoFly at Old Sarum confirmed it was a REAL LIVE Tiger Moth and that yes, I really would be allowed to fly it. I told her I had my PPL but I didn’t mind if it was just a scenic flight. But no, I didn’t need to bring any paperwork but she confirmed that I would be going out with a qualified instructor who would tailor the flight to my experience level. So not just a joy ride! I chose a day at the end of July, hoping that the British summer would be kind to me.

It was: the day dawned bright and beautiful with brilliant blue skies and little puffy clouds floating past as if they were auditioning for a children’s picture book. I packed the essentials: log book, sun glasses, camera, hair band. There was a major sky-diving event at the airfield so the place was crawling with young people in red jumpsuits strapping on parachutes. I avoided them as best I could (“No, thank you very much, I’m here to fly not to fall.”) and was greeted at the GoFly office. There were two of us flying the Tiger Moth that day, me and an 80-year-old gentleman who if at all possible looked even more excited than I did. We were both almost an hour early for our flights. The gentleman had also trained to be a private pilot when he was 17… in 1951 in a Tiger Moth. I was enthralled. He was really looking forward to flying in one again and the time waiting for our instructor flew past as I listened to his stories of the aircraft he’d flown in the UK and the US.

We were both chattering excitedly as we were led inside for our briefing. He smiled and stepped to the side as we reached the training room, letting me go first. Our instructor was David Wood, a tall, dapper fellow who wouldn’t have looked out of place on a wartime poster posing with his bi-plane. The Tiger Moth, he told us, was G-ACDI, still the same registration as when built by de Havilland in 1933. “A year before me,” said my new gentleman friend with a grin.

He didn’t tell us the full history of G-ACDI but of course I looked it up. In 1940, it was taken over by the RAF where it was reregistered as BB742. A year later, the aircraft collided on the ground with another Tiger Moth – a bit of bad taxi-ing, that! – and had to be transported by road to be repaired: an indignity for any aircraft. It stayed in the RAF until November 1947 when it was flown to Little Rissington “for disposal,” which is not quite as final as it sounds. The aircraft was sold in 1948 and regained its civilian registration of G-ACDI. In 1954, the Tiger Moth suffered an engine failure and crashed on take-off.

The aeroplane was deemed beyond repair but someone collected all the parts and stored them in the corner a hangar for fifty years. It was 1995 before G-ACDI was rescued from the scrap heap, when it was restored at Old Sarum. David, our instructor, bought the Tiger Moth after the restoration and helps with the maintenance and care (under supervision) and it showed. I was quite intrigued by the bi-plane but David was clearly deeply in love.

“Here’s a list,” said David, “of all the things the Tiger Moth does not have.” It seemed to be quite a long list. The Tiger Moth has no starter, no nose wheel, no stall warners, no flaps, no roof, no brakes. I had vaguely understood that the Tiger Moth was a relatively simple plane but it was a bit disconcerting to see all those pieces of equipment that I relied on for flight to be missing. This was unlike any plane I’d flown before.

“This is why the Tiger Moth is one of the very finest basic trainers ever produced. It requires real skill to fly it well. It may seem ludicrously hands-on but as a trainer, it teaches skills not knowledge.” The gentleman next to me nodded. “Seat of the pants flying,” he said knowingly.

That was all fine but I’m not all that good at flying. I mean, no one has ever looked at my dumpling-shaped 5’0 frame and said “Hey, you are a natural pilot.” And here was an aircraft that was specifically designed to show me up.

On top of everything, I’d never flown a tail dragger: an aircraft which has what is confusingly called “conventional landing gear”. There’s no nose wheel, just the two main wheels under the wings and a skid at the back to keep the tail off the ground. Taxiing, take-off and landing were all very different and tail draggers were notoriously easy to tip over. I’d seen plenty of photographs of vintage aircraft with their noses digging into the grass as a result of bad handing.

I took a deep breath and we went over the emergency procedures. David asked each of us about our experience. The 80-year-old had vastly more hours than I did. Once he was finished, they both turned to me. “I’ve done about as many hours in total as he has in the Tiger Moth alone,” I admitted. “And I’ve never flown a vintage plane.” My gentleman co-student threw me a look and I considered that possibly referring to his trainer as “vintage” was not my most tactful comment of the day.

David just smiled. “So, who wants to go first?”

“I will,” said the gentleman who up until then had been very courteously stepping aside to let me go first. It appeared that first access to the Tiger Moth was a bit different. I grinned at his obvious excitement and walked out to the Tiger Moth to watch him get set up.

It was a beautiful aircraft — she, corrected David. And of course it was a she: glossy red lacquer with leather straps and brass rings. It seemed incredible that we were going to just hop in and fly this thing.

The gentleman beamed like it was Christmas day as they looked over the aircraft. “Can I sit in the back?”

David paused and then nodded. “I’ll just need you to do the radio.” The old man pulled on his helmet and started climbing in, leaving David rushing to the other side to steady him. I was disappointed to see that they were motor-cycle style helmets. I’d been hoping for leather ones with sheep’s wool earflaps and aviator goggles.

“I’ll sit in the front when it’s my turn,” I said. The front dashboard was not quite so well kitted out and was clearly the passenger seat. But no one heard me, they were intent on their flight. David swung the propeller around and the engine started with a roar.

The half-hour dragged, although I suspected it flew past (no pun intended) for the pair in the cockpit. It was a hot summer’s day and I only survived the wait at all because the GoFly operations guy brought out glasses of water (and friendly conversation). But finally, the aircraft returned home. It had barely stopped rolling before David waved at me to come on over. It was my turn.

I kept my sunglasses, as they’d be protected by the helmet, but David recommended that I leave the camera behind; advice I was grateful for when we turned upside-down. But that was later.

Physically getting into the cockpit was more complicated than I expected. I clambered onto the wing trying to remember all the places he had warned me not to touch the aircraft (“It’s all just wood and fabric, remember.”). Finally, I stood on the seat and slid into place. I was in. Now I had to try to make sense of the seatbelt/harness thing. There were four leather straps with brass rings and a pin and a metal triangle that looked like a children’s puzzle game.

The dash was a thin wooden panel like I’d expect to see in my grandfather’s old work room in the cellar. It didn’t look it should be on a real plane. The whole experience was somewhat unreal. I pinned the straps together and gave the harness a tug. It seemed safe enough.

“Hold back the stick while I start up the engine,” said David. “Otherwise the nose will tip forward.” I clenched that stick like my life depended on it and flipped the magneto switches up at his signal.

Finally, we were surrounded by the familiar sound of the Tiger Moth engine. He climbed in and we were moving.

I smiled and sat back. I was in a beautiful vintage plane about to take off and fly over the Salisbury plains in the sunshine. Could life get any better than this? David interrupted my day dreaming. “Now you too can experience the joy of taxiing a tail dragger. You have control.”

I choked and then rapidly grabbed the stick and looked for the rudder pedals. Memories of my first-ever training flight came back to me: I couldn’t reach the pedals. Weren’t they all a lot shorter in 1933? Clearly still not as short as me, though. David agreed to do the rudders. I increased the power and we trundled down the taxi-way.

“Here’s the thing,” said David. “We have no brakes. We’re following another aircraft. And we’re about to start rolling downhill.”

I twisted for a better look as the bi-plane picked up speed. We were coasting straight towards a small gyrocopter which was paused ready to enter the runway. How the heck was I supposed to taxi with no brakes?

“I think you should taxi,” I said. He laughed and pulled the power right back. “It’s all about thinking ahead.” David turned the aircraft right then left, zigzagging his way along the grass taxiway at a slow speed. I breathed a sigh of relief when the gyrocopter entered the runway.

Next it was our turn. David pulled us onto the runway. “You need to be very careful to ensure your nose doesn’t go forward on take-off,” David explained. “I’ll do this, but follow me through on the controls.”

I barely had time to find the controls before we were climbing away from the airfield. “That…. what did we need the runway for?”

He laughed. “I have a 400 metre farm strip at home. I’ve never even needed to use half of it.”

That’s not me in the aircraft but we looked just like that! Except it was louder and windier and a million times more awesome.

We flew. I remember it now with the wind blowing through my hair although of course I had the helmet on. But it felt like the wind blew through my hair and the sun shone on my face and I was out there, in an open top plane flying into the blue unknown.

We climbed and made a slow right turn. I was content to just watch, with the breeze flowing over us and the beautiful Wiltshire countryside green and languid below. But David wasn’t going to give me the easy way out. “Look out, see how the horizon is positioned here? That’s straight and level.” It didn’t look straight nor level to me but I didn’t get time to think about it. “You have control.”

I nervously gripped the stick and the aircraft tilted. “You have to be gentle,” said David. “She’s in trim, just let her fly.”

I patted the Tiger Moth’s dashboard and hoped that it she knew what she was doing. I tried to make sense of the compass but it was horizontal and bouncing. Every gust of wind seemed to make the aircraft sway. I gripped the stick again and the aeroplane tilted again.

“Let’s climb. I’ll show you how to use the trim.”

Now you have to understand, my understanding of a trim is the electric buttons on my beloved Piper Saratoga. I vaguely remember using a trim wheel when I was training and I figured I would still be able to do that. But that’s not what this was. The cables and rods were disconcerting. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be this close to the inner workings of the aircraft. It seemed unbecoming, like looking at the innards of a loved one. David talked me through it as I pulled a knob towards me, slid it towards the rear and then locked it back into place.

Of course, while I was concentrating on that, I stopped paying any attention to the flight or even the stick. I wasn’t confident that I was tugging on the right bit and had visions of the entire aircraft unravelling like an over-worn cardigan. I eventually understood that I had to actually be flying the plane in the right configuration in order to set the trim, for some value of “setting a trim”. In theory, I know this to be true but other planes would let me set the trim despite myself. I wasn’t used to having to get it right.

On the fifth try, David took pity on me. “Are you looking out?”

Of course not; I was staring at my feet wondering if I’d ever get this trim thing into the right place. I gave up and looked out.

It was a stunningly beautiful day and we had the entire countryside unfolding below us. The Solent was a glittering ribbon of light in the distance. Beyond that, the dark smudge of the Isle of Wight.

But of course the moment I started sight-seeing, the aircraft tilted and swayed again. It seemed like the slightest breath would set it her off. I began to understand why the Tiger Moth has such a reputation as able to separate the good pilots from the great ones. It may not be too difficult to fly (David certainly made it look easy) but even the smallest deviations were immediately noticeable.

I was helplessly confused. I wanted to lean back and just take it all in. I also wanted to fly the plane, of course I did, but that took concentration and at the same time I didn’t want to miss a single second of this experience.

David sensed my change of mood, or maybe I just finally relaxed my grip on the stick. He took control and regained the height I had lost. “Would you like to try aerobatics?

Would I! “Oh my god yes.”

He grinned and stepped me through the HASELL check. I belatedly remembered that the sky was full of sky divers. I really wasn’t competent to do a look-out, could barely see beyond my own excitement. Everything about the flight was so amazing and interesting, it was impossible to concentrate.

“Watch the wingtip,” he told me. I was a bit surprised, I thought I would watch above and see Wiltshire come into view above me but I dutifully turned my head. I always imagined a roll would be like a loop on a roller coaster but it was much more intense than that. My jaw dropped open as the world turned sideways.

I laughed in excitement as the horizon swung around us. Then we were properly upside down and I looked down in horror at my harness. I mean, it seemed stable enough down on the ground but I hadn’t tested it for holding me into the plane as we flew upside down. Besides, it was just a bit of leather after all, and probably 80-year-old leather at that, depending on how obsessive the restoration was about keeping the original aircraft intact. But before I even had time to finish the thought we were straight and level again. I was still laughing.

“Was that all right?”

I squeaked in delight and tugged again at my harness. It was definitely still all connected.

“Was it? Want to try a barrel roll?”

I needed to regain the power of speech. “That was amazing! Yes, please!”

David took the Tiger Moth through its her paces. We climbed and fell and spun and recovered. “We’re going straight down now, ” he said as we dive bombed a flock of sheep, as if I couldn’t tell. It was somewhat reassuring to hear that he was doing this intentionally. David filled me in on the details. “That’s us hitting our own slipstream. Here’s where the rudder control becomes critical. Feel that adverse yaw? Here’s another roll. Not bad for a 81-year-old, huh?” Through out it all, I giggled like a mad woman.

All too soon, I saw the airfield in the distance. We were heading back. “Watch the nose as we come in. It’s a different viewpoint than what you are used to.” In a tail dragger, you typically land by touching down nose-high in what’s called a three point landing, with both main-wheels and the skid touching the ground at the same instant. This allows for a super-short landing distance. “There’s also a wheel landing where you keep the tail off the ground until the aircraft is slowed down,” said David. “It’s useful if you have a long taxi ahead of you. I’ll do this bit.”

I laughed; it hadn’t even occurred to me to try. I was not under any circumstances risking breaking this beautiful plane. We touched down like a feather and turned off the runway. I was pretty sure the skid on the back was probably still touching the numbers, the landing was so short.

“Not quite right,” David said. “But close. Close enough.”

On the ground again, I found I’d gained a new respect for this crochety old Tiger Moth. I thought she was interesting before, but now she was beautiful. David let me have another look around. I discovered all kinds of bits and pieces to the plane that I was just too distracted to notice in the sky. I ran a finger down her fuselage. The glossy red finish and quaint brass fixtures were not just for show. She might not be high-tech but every piece of the Tiger Moth was beautiful and efficient and utterly complicated.

It’s one hell of an aircraft, it really is. The truth is, I don’t think I’d want to fly one full time. I’m distractable enough as it is without the poor visibility and special handling that a little aeroplane like that requires. I would want a bit more range and I’d like to feel secure that when I went someplace, my plane could handle it.

But if wishes were horses, I’d love a Tiger Moth for hopping around the UK in – visiting friends and attending every air show in the country. I certainly would be more than happy to recommend to anyone who loves planes, especially vintage planes, regardless of their skill level and experience.

A huge thank you to Into the Blue for providing me with a unique experience and a special day out.

08 February 2013

Instruments and Visuals

Flying with non-pilots always brings up interesting questions. Tony isn’t all that interested in planes; however he was quick to notice after only a few flights that there was some important difference between my licence and Cliff’s. He’s right: Cliff is instrument rated and I am not, I can only fly in visual conditions.

Cliff’s gone through additional training to fly using instruments for reference. I have a simple PPL which means that I require visual contact with the horizon and the ground in order to fly safely. Imagine driving your car with all the windows blacked out, so you could only drive with reference to the dashboard gauges (for example the speedometer and compass) and a GPS. It could work, but it wouldn’t be easy and there’d be a pretty big risk of an accident. That’s a pretty simplistic analogy but it comes down to this: Cliff has gone through extensive training so he doesn’t have to look out the window except on take-off and landing. If I can’t see out the window, I have to land.

Most of my blog posts about accidents involve instrument rated pilots. That’s not because instrument rated pilots are less safe. It’s simply that they offer more for discussion and learning.

So many fatal PPL accidents start with non-instrument rated pilots flying into instrument conditions that it’s depressing. In 2003, 69% of fatal weather-related accidents were the result of pilots without instrument ratings flying into instrument conditions. Spatial disorientation occurs when you can’t see out the window. 91% of spatial disorientation accidents between 1994 and 2013 were fatal. It is one of the biggest killers of General Aviation pilots. And the lesson to be learned is simple: do not fly into cloud or low visibility conditions unless you have your instrument rating.

The practical benefit of having an instrument rating is straight-forward: Cliff can fly in marginal or bad weather. I am limited to sunny days.

That’s the main aspect that I expected Tony to notice after a few flights across Europe. If the weather is not clear, I grumble a bit and then explain that Cliff will be flying instead of me, once again. It turns out that Tony’s picked up on a lot more than just that.

He says that it’s obvious who is going to fly the plane a few days before the flight. Our flight planning processes are very different.

Cliff sits down with a laptop and loads up Flitestar, looking at the airways. IFR planning always strikes me as a bit of a dot-to-dot game, where you are looking for the best route to get to your location. I could plan my VFR flights using the same software if I wanted to.

But I don’t feel like I get a strong enough understanding of my route doing that. I have big laminated maps with 1:500,000 views of Europe. I plot on the map, drawing red lines and planning a route so far around airspace that Cliff scowls in frustration when he sees my maps. He’ll always plot the straight-through route and presume he’ll be given permission to cross. After years of VFR in Spain, I presume they’ll tell me to go away and make me go miles out of my way.

My flight planning is a much longer process but it takes the stress away during the flight, which is critical for a VFR flight when you need to be able to react quickly. This process forces me to focus on the route and the surrounding area while I’m on the ground. That means I have much better spatial awareness when I’m in the air than I would if I let the software simply offer me a proposed route from A to B.

I also have a full list of radio frequencies that I expect to occur en route so I know who to talk to as I go. On an IFR flight, you are constantly told who to talk to. It’s pretty common to be handed off VFR as well, especially in the UK. Still, I’ve had my share of controllers end our friendship with “Free call next station” with not even a hint as to who I should speak to next.

If I already know the frequencies on my route this all becomes trivial. It also means I can key in the stations from my flight planning in advance. This way, if a controller tells me where to go next, I am not scribbling down numbers and then entering them every time. Mostly, I’m just verifying that the frequency I’ve been given matches the frequency I’ve already keyed into the radio.

“Sylvia can’t fly through cloud” is the other aspect that Tony has picked up on. Cliff plans flights at 10,000 feet so the first thing he generally does is take us straight through the clouds to get to his sweet spot in the sky. This gives us max speed and fuel efficiency and of course, he isn’t worried about getting trapped above the clouds. Meanwhile, I see a single fluffy cloud on the horizon and start talking about what I’m going to do to avoid it.

Tony’s also noticed that I tend to chug along between 4,000 and 5,000 feet, even in clear blue sky, despite the loss of efficiency. I always claim I have to do this so that I don’t have to worry about changing cloud above/below me as we go. But I’ll tell you honestly, it’s really because I like the better view of the countryside. Just don’t tell Cliff that, as he’s the one who pays the fuel bill.

01 June 2012

Pat Flannigan Looks at Manoeuvring Speed

Pat Flannigan over at Aviation Chatter has created an interesting series of posts on manoeuvring speed and weight.

Why Does Maneuvering Speed Increase With Weight?

Aircraft maneuvering speed, increases as the airplane gets heavier. It’s a simple fact that most pilots are either blissfully unaware or simply take for granted, and I’ve honestly never given it much thought. But then one AskACFI user posed the question – why does maneuvering speed increase with weight?

Patrick diagrams the problem to help us understand how many G’s we could load before stalling the airplane:

I recommend reading the full article but the summary is killer:

Now think about the question: Why does maneuvering speed increase with weight? Recall that stall speed increases with weight. Since maneuvering speed is really just a stall speed at a higher G load, then maneuvering speed will also increase with weight!

Got that? Good, because there’s more. That post inspired Pat to research and write more on the subject.

A Closer Look at Maneuvering Speed

Last week’s piece on maneuvering speed inspired me to dig a little deeper into the topic of VA. It really is an interesting topic that forces pilots to delve into aerodynamic theory. This week, let’s take a closer look at maneuvering speed.

I won’t give away spoilers but we end up in close quarters with Aerodynamics for Naval Aviators and yet a third post which brings it all together.

The Myth of Maneuvering Speed

Most pilots and flight instructors understand VA as the maximum speed at which the airplane will stall prior to structural damage, and that full deflection of the flight controls at or below this speed poses no risk to the airplane. This is a dangerous assumption and it is simply untrue.

Guilty as charged. And although I am really not very good at aerodynamics, I now feel that I understand a little bit better about the mechanics of the plane.

If you are a pilot (and especially if you are an instructor) then I recommend reading all three pieces on Aviation Chatter:

01 April 2011

The Stories of an Adventurer

I “met” Joe Colletto through my aunt. He was a pilot, a sailor, a Marine during World War II and an excellent story teller. She worked with him for 25 years and loved to hear about his adventures. When I started posting essays about flying, she told him about Fear of Landing. He said that unfortunately, in his 80s he was relegated to “Hanger Flying” but he loved to share his memories. He had neuropathy in his hands but he didn’t let that stop him: he slowly typed out emails with two pencils.

Two years ago, he allowed me to post A Mexican Adventure, which quickly became one of the most popular stories on my website:

I knew we might have some trouble. There is no VFR night flying in Mexican airspace and we were running late. I was flying a single engine airplane and although the sky was still bright, the sun had officially set. I confirmed to the controller that I intended to continue inbound to Mazatlan.

Mazatlan: Zero 8 Quebec report downwind
Pilot: Zero 8 Quebec turning downwind.

The runway was clear in the dusk but as we turned downwind, every light in the airport – it seemed like every light for miles around – flashed on. My passengers recoiled from the window as I continued the circuit, confirming to the controller that I required fuel upon our arrival.

Mazatlan: Zero 8 Quebec you are cleared to land.

As we touched down, he gave me further instructions.

Mazatlan: Exit your passengers at the administration building, have them wait for the guards, then proceed to the gas pit and they will direct you to parking.
Pilot: Roger, will debark passengers at the administration building and proceed to the gas pit.

I stopped the plane in front of the building where we were surrounded by rifle-bearing troops. The two couples were escorted to a small, stuffy room and told that they must stay there. After fueling up and parking, I was marched into a dusty little office in the main building.

A severe-looking mustached administrator sitting at a dented metal desk asked me for every piece of paper that he could think of: passport, clearance into Mexico, proof of ownership of the plane. He stared at my license for a few moments and then cleared his throat.

He handed me my paperwork piece by piece as he spoke. “Señor, the lights, they is very expensive.”

I breathed a sigh of relief now that I knew what was going to happen. “The least I could do is to help to pay for them,” I told him with a smile.

The man nodded. “Señor, more or less 2,500 pesos for the lights,” about U.S. $10 at the time. He paused and then spoke again. “And the guards, Señor, they must be paid also.”

“How much for the guards,” I said, pulling out my wallet.

“2,500 pesos. But also, Señor, the man upstairs. He is tough guy.” He pointed straight up. Did I need to bribe God as well? Or perhaps he just meant the controller.

I tried to look stern. “OK, how much for the guy upstairs?”

“Señor, 2,500 pesos.”

I peeled off the required amount and handed to the man who nodded seriously as he counted it. I grinned at him and he smiled back; we were friends now. “And for you, Señor,” I asked him. “How much for all your help?”

He gave me a shocked look and threw out his chest. “For me is nothing, Señor! Is my job!”

He ordered us a taxi and led me to the tiny waiting room where my passengers waited nervously, surrounded by the guards still clutching their rifles. I leant in close and whispered to the two couples that we were in serious trouble. I told them that I had failed to contact the American embassy and that we were probably going to have to spend the night in jail.

“They’ve arranged for a taxi to take us to the hotel, to pick up our personal belongings in case that we don’t get out tomorrow.” We drove to the hotel in silence, where I asked them to pack their cases and meet me in the bar in 20 minutes to wait for the taxi driver to pick us up and take us to the jail.

Once at the bar, I ordered a variety of snacks and a pitcher of margaritas: a final fling. The passengers returned from the rooms one by one, pale-faced and unhappy, and bolted down their margaritas. One of the women had tears in her eyes.

The taxi driver walked up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Ready to go?”

The woman burst into sobs: “I don’t want to go to jail!”

The taxi driver looked stunned. “Jail? Oh no! Mr Joe fix everything good. You no going to jail, you going to dinner.”

That was the final straw: I started laughing and could not stop. No one else in my party seemed to think it was quite so funny.

Here’s something of a learning experience that he wrote out last year:

I had a few really blessed events …blessings from above.

I was flying to Mexico with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Squadron. It was a 4:30am departure from Fresno in the light rain. We were heading south. Bakerfield reported 7,500 feet overcast, LAX reported 13,000 overcast, so heading south looked good.

50 miles from Bakersfield, we entered the overcast. I thought I might try to get between the layers of clouds but there was no in between.

By Porteville at 6,500 feet I was in trouble. I ran into a thunderhead building up and it tumbled me to 16,000 feet. I hit hail in the center of that thunderhead, it chipped paint off all the leading edges of the wings and the engine cowl.

The Bonanza is such a clean airplane, if I ended up pointing down the airspeed could have built up and torn the wings straight off. I remember trying to put down the wheels and flaps, but with the centrifical forces, I couldn’t reach the flaps or gear switches.

After about 30-40 seconds of tumbling, I was tossed out of the cloud build-up … into crystal clear, smooth air at 16,000 feet.

That’s as close as I ever wanted to become a statistic.

Joe Colleto passed away peacefully on the 20th of March at the age of 84. I wanted to say something about this man whom I only knew from afar but in the end, his own words from one of the emails was more appropriate than anything I could add:

I am not a particularly religious person, however every flight returning safely from the “wild-blue-yonder,” includes skill, knowledge, understanding, an appreciation of what could happen, and a bit of God’s intervention (Sometimes way…more than others). When you see an aircraft engine taken apart for overhaul laid out on a table, and realize all of the pieces and parts your staying aloft is dependent upon, and which you have absolutely no control over – especially at IFR, night or flying over the mountains – when you do the final tie down, you have to simply look skyward and say “THANKS”….

Thanks for letting me share your stories, Joe, and I hope that you’re watching out for us now.

Joseph Colletto’s Obituary by Marin Independent Journal

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04 June 2010

N666EX – Sold

Dear November 666 Echo X-ray,

This past year has not been good for flying, for either of us. If I’m honest, the past two years have been pretty grim. Keeping up-to-date and flying takes a lot of time and both Cliff and I have been so busy, it’s difficult to make time for you. And then when I’ve wanted to fly, you’ve invariably been in the wrong place: sunning yourself at Málaga airport when we had a weekend free in Scotland, passing the time at North Weald when we were sitting in Málaga and so on and so forth. I’m not trying to put the blame on you, but from a logistical point of view, it’s been a bit of a nightmare.

I haven’t actually flown at all in 2010. Twice this year, I managed to align the stars such that you and I were in the same country at the same time with spare time to go on a trip and both times, the weather has been such that you didn’t want to go. Sure, I could have put in the time to get my instrument licence but I didn’t want to complicate things. Anyway, it’s not just about the weather.

Meanwhile, you started to act starved for attention, insisting on regular maintenance even though we weren’t flying – or even wanting extra maintenance because we weren’t flying. You’ve not made a big secret of it. Engineers who I barely know have told me that you need to go flying more, that you are feeling neglected. It has been clear for a while now that our relationship isn’t fulfilling your needs.

Sometimes it is difficult to make a change. I’ve felt for a while like I was stuck in a rut but it was just too much effort to do something about it. Sometimes people stay in a relationship not because it’s good but because it’s convenient.

After all these years together, I was used to you and your quirks. I loved taking you to new airfields, showing you off. Every pilot was jealous that you were with me, it was a buzz. But in the end, we weren’t going anywhere, we weren’t doing anything. Our relationship was based on nostalgia, not passion.

There’s no easy way to say this. I think it’s for the best if we don’t see each other any more.

It’s not someone else – no one could ever replace you! I will enjoy being without a commitment, I think. It’ll be nice to be able to try out a number of different planes, a few lessons here, a few hours there. A lot more convenient and a lot less pressure. I’ll be hanging out at the clubs to see what I think, maybe have a fling with an aerobatic plane. But you probably don’t want to hear about that.

It’s not you, it’s me. I know you want a commitment, someone who wants to fly you all the time. And that’s not right for me, not right now. Maybe someday.

So, it seems like this is goodbye. I’ve loved being with you, don’t you ever forget that. Do you remember the time the autopilot broke right as we were flying over the Alps with my mother in the back-seat trying to work out what was happening? Or how about when I took a wrong turn and you ended up half a foot deep in mud? And then that time when I missed the runway and we took out a landing light at Oxford. Yeah, good times. We had a lot of good times.

Well, I guess this is it. I’m sure you’ll be really happy with your new pilot. He seems a nice bloke, down to earth. He’s really crazy about you.

You take care of yourself, OK? And if you find yourself at a loose end, give me a call. I’d love to get together for a quick circuit or two, find out how you are doing.

I’ve got to go. I just, I got a bit of dust in my eye. I’ll be fine. You go on, get flying. You’ve been on the ground too long.


* Sylvia *

After much discussion, Cliff and I have decided to sell the Saratoga II TC. The plane was snapped up by a Dutch pilot who was looking for a cruiser and loves Pipers and I’m sure he’ll be very happy with the Saratoga. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to exploring different options and hopefully spending more time flying and less time worrying about maintenance and paperwork issues.

07 May 2010

November 666 Echo X-ray, Do You Read?

(Something from the archives: a 2008 post about Air Traffic Service Units in the UK and my native ability to talk too much. I’ll be back with fresh content next week.)

Air/Ground Radio Airfields with A/G Radio offer an information service with a radio operator who are not licensed and not under close CAA supervision. They identify themselves by saying the airfield name followed by the word radio. It could just be a guy on a mobile radio with no other support. They will offer a basic information service and report known traffic to you.

“Enstone, this is November 666 Echo X-ray.”

No response. I frowned.

“Enstone Radio, this is November 666 Echo X-ray, radio check.”

It had been a chaotic day and we were late leaving. And now that finally everyone was bundled up into the plane and ready to go, the youngster on the radio wasn’t responding. Technically, I didn’t have to request permission to start but it’s generally the polite thing to do. The last time I flew from this airfield, the chap called me just as I was entering the runway to let my know my son had left his bookbag in the cafeteria. Service like that is invaluable and so I didn’t like to risk upsetting anyone but it was frustrating to be sitting here waiting on someone who’d walked away from the mike.

I called a third time, no response. Had he gone for a cup of tea or what? Cliff frowned at me and I shrugged. I decided to try once more. This fourth call elicited a response: a confused voice came back over the radio.

“Are you talking to me?”

I winced. Who was playing with the radio, for god’s sake? That’s when Cliff’s mum piped up from the backseat.

“I don’t understand why you are saying Enstone Radio,” she said.

I started to snap back an answer when it sunk in. We were at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. I’d been flying in and out of Enstone the previous week and we’d be landing there today but right now? We weren’t talking to them.

“Bembridge, this is November 666 Echo X-ray, request, uh … geography check.”

I could hear the relieved laughter as he responded. “November 666 Echo X-ray, confirmed, you are parked just outside of my window.”

“Thanks for that. Request start.”

“Nothing to affect,” he told me and we were finally on our way.

Flight Information Service Airfields with FIS are an information air traffic support unit staffed by licensed Flight Information Service Officers. They identify themselves by saying the airfield name followed by the word Information. Their function is to assist pilots to operate safely by offering a traffice service and helping with information regarding weather and aerodrome details.

The tricky thing about Information stations is how they let you know what you should be doing without ever actually telling you what to do.

“Shobdon, this is November 666 Echo X-ray, inbound to you.”

“November 666 Echo X-ray, this is Shobdon Information, go ahead.”

“November 666 Echo X-ray is a PA32 inbound to you, I’m looking to join the circuit downwind for runway 09, right hand.”

The response was immediate. “November 666 Echo X-ray we have three in the circuit, recommend an overhead join.”

I had already descended to 1,300 feet, too low for the manoeuvre that he was referring to, flying over the runway and then descending on the dead side. I also couldn’t see the point, I was perfectly set up to simply turn right and join the circuit in another mile.

He repeated the call. “November 666 Echo X-ray, recommend an overhead join.”

As I continued towards the airfield, I felt frustrated and confused: the advice that the Officer was giving me didn’t make sense. I didn’t like to argue with him, however, and I had to admit it wouldn’t make that much difference to me.

“November 666 Echo X-ray is climbing to 2,300 feet for overhead join.”

A moment later, it suddenly clicked. I was saying Runway 09 but I had been heading for the join for Runway 27, that is, the same runway going the opposite direction. I couldn’t possibly join downwind from my present position which is why he wanted me up and out of the way of his traffic.

I went overhead and joined downwind from a sensible position, much to the relief of Shobdon Information.

Air Traffic Control Airfields with an ATC service have an active control tower staffed by air traffic controllers and are under close CAA supervision. Only ATC are authorised to issue clearances. They identify themselves by saying the airfield name followed by their function (Ground, Tower, Approach, Director, Radar). They offer a variety of services including control, flight information and traffic.

The flight from Guernsey to Alderney was only notable in its simplicity: it took longer to get everyone into the plane than it did to make the journey. Only as we landed did it get hectic.

“Backtrack and exit at Alpha.”

I always feel a faint Top Gun thrill at phrases like that which sound so complicated but I now know are simple. “Wilco” I said with a knowing nod.

Except that having spun the plane around, I couldn’t find Alpha. There was a bit of a turn-in on my right but it disappeared into grass and with the wet weather I was worried about taking a wrong turn and getting stuck in the mud. I grabbed for my plate with a map of the airfield.

“Turn right,” said an impatient voice on the radio. “And expedite, I’ve got another one coming in.” Two planes at the airfield at once, this must be a veritable traffic jam by Alderney standards. I bit my lip and turned the plane right onto the grass and paused.

“Carry on,” said the voice again. “Straight ahead, between the two markers. I take it you’ve never been here before?”

“Affirm,” I said in my best professional pilot voice. Followed by “Sorry,” blowing away any semblance of radio competence.

“Just carry on straight. And expedite!”

Finally the map and the ground in front of me clicked into place, I wondered if the air traffic controller could see the small light bulb appearing over the cockpit as I made my way to the parking area. I had just chosen a nice easy spot to park when the voice came back.

“Pull forward to the blue markers, then face south and then west.”

I frowned as I pulled forward, was he trying to make it difficult?

“Which way is south,” I hissed at Cliff as I fumbled to get the map out again.

“Turn left,” he said. I turned then tried to picture a map in my head. If I am facing south then I’m looking towards Texas. California is west and on my right. Got it! I opened my eyes and looked around. “So west is to the right now, right?”

Cliff sighed at me. “Just use the Directional Indicator?”

I blushed and turned the plane until the DI pointed west.

“Just park there,” said the voice. The other plane had landed and radio silence descended. It would probably be at least an hour before they see any further traffic. I shut the engine down.

Military Air Traffic Zones It goes without saying that you should be unfailingly polite to any controller who has fighter jets to back him up. In the UK, the pilot should contact the controller either 15 nautical miles or 5 minutes flying time from a military boundary, whichever is sooner, requesting penetration. To enter the central area (Aerodrome Traffic Zone) you must receive permission and comply with the controller’s instructions.

My first run-in with the military was actually in France.

We had landed at an airfield for refuelling but they were having technical difficulties and informed us that they would not be able to offer fuel for the rest of the day. A quick glance at book showed us another airfield on route that listed AVGAS 100L and so we jumped into the plane and went straight there, plotting the route as we went.

“Cognac, this is November 666 Echo X-ray.”

“November 666 Echo X-ray, pass your message.”

“November 666 Echo X-ray is a PA32 inbound to you, currently 20 miles to your NW at 4,000 feet, request airfield information and joining instructions.”

There was a brief pause.

“November 666 Echo X-ray can you state your intentions.”

“We’re inbound to you for refuelling.”

“November 666 Echo X-ray are you aware that this is a military airfield?”

“Oh. Uh, no. Negative. I was not aware.”

“November 666 Echo X-ray I say again, can you state your intentions?”

I bit my lip but silence seemed likely to get a missile aimed in my direction.

“Er, I intend to ask your advice on where we could go for refuelling in the local area?”

The controller was perfectly friendly about it, verifying that I was not in an emergency before recommending that I fly direct to Angouleme and even offering me a heading and a flight information service directly to the airfield. Anything, I guess, to keep me out of his zone.

Using the radio professionally has become an essential requirement in the modern aviation environment. Radio provides the interface between you and others, especially the Air Traffic Service Unit (ATSU) whose frequency you are using. You will make life more comfortable for yourself (and others) if you can use the radio efficiently.

The Air Pilot’s Manual: Radiotelephony for the Private Pilot’s Licence

When I first started my PPL, I was told that I had a real knack for using the radio. Getting my radio licence was the easiest part of the entire training. Little did I know that in the meantime, I would manage to mess up speaking to every different type of Air Traffic Service Unit in existence.