Getting Serious

7:10am, Saturday October 2nd 2004. The day had finally arrived. I pushed myself out from under the duvet and peered through the bedroom curtains. Broken overcast, a hint of sunshine and some very occasional patches of blue sky greeted my bleary eyes. Satisfied, I jumped back into bed and went back to sleep for a while.

My first ‘proper’ flying lesson in far too many years was booked for 1:00pm and I’d been like a kid waiting for christmas for the past fortnight. The weather over the past few days had been looking none too promising, with lots of rain and high winds to herald the end of the summer.

I got out of bed for real when the kids woke up at 8:30 – to my horror, it was now very windy and had obviously been raining. As we went through the usual family rituals over the course of the morning, the weather improved again and I felt quite hopeful as noon rolled around. I had no need to take anything with me apart from my kneeboard and a pair of sunglasses. I had put said items in a safe place together with the car keys as soon as I’d finished breakfast, but couldn’t stop myself from checking every half hour to make sure they were still there. The clock watching was getting silly, and by 12:05 I’d had enough and announced that I was going to the airport. It’s only a 20 minute drive away, but I didn’t want to risk being late, or getting stuck in traffic, or having a puncture…you get the picture, I’m sure.

I almost burst into tears when, 5 minutes after pulling away from the house, the thickest, blackest, most meanest-looking bit of clag I’ve ever seen came rolling in from the west and began to dump it’s contents all over the surrounding countryside. I was pretty much convinced that there’d be no flying for me that day, but I decided I’d go to the airport anyway and see what was happening. As it turned out, the rain was fairly short lived and was followed by some sunshine and scattered marshmallow style clouds in amongst some lovely blue sky.

Upon arriving at my chosen flying school, I was introduced to Adrian who was to be my flying instructor. We retired to one of the offices and went through my previous flying experience. Some of the questions Adrian asked me left me with the feeling that maybe I didn’t know quite so much about aviating as I thought I did. The main objective of todays lesson was to be climbing and descending both with and without power.

Briefing over, Adrian found me a dog-eared PA-38 checklist out of the lost property cupboard and we walked out to the aircraft, G-BYMD, a lovely little green and white Tomahawk.

We spent quite a long time on the pre-flight inspection and Adrian made it clear that I needed to pay attention, as he’d be expecting me to do it myself after todays lesson. Everything seemed fairly straightforward, except that I slipped on the wet grass and fell flat on my back as I tried to duck out from under the wing after checking the port landing gear.

We climbed into the cockpit and latched the doors shut. After sorting out the knot that the previous student had left the harness in and adjusting accordingly, Adrian helped me go through the prestart checks. At last, we were ready to go. Three squirts on the primer, throttle cracked open just a tad, then a twist of the key and the engine burst into life. So that’s one new achievement – the first time I’ve started an aeroplane myself.

Adrian copied down the ATIS while we waited for the T’s & P’s to settle down. He called ATC for our taxy clearance and manouvered us away from the other parked aircraft and onto the taxyway, then called out ‘You have control’. First thing learned about the Tomahawk – it’s a bit more skittish to taxy in wind than a Warrior. Despite doing my best to follow the yellow line, I was all over the place. I’d love to have been able to hear what was being said in the tower as they watched our progress to the holding point…

Once up in the air, we recapped on primary and secondary effects of controls and trimming for straight and level flight. We then started on the exercises that Adrian had briefed in the office earlier. Adrians first comment to me was to become a mantra for the rest of the lesson – “Keep your eyes off the instruments and out of the cockpit!”. The view over the nose was considerably different to Keefs Arrer and even to the Warrior I’d been in on my birthday, and it was making the attitude hard to judge. I ended up trying to compensate by chasing the ASI and AI, which meant leaving the altimeter to it’s own devices. Eventually I’d find I’d dropped or gained a few hundred feet, so I’d try to fix that by pushing the nose down, which meant losing the airspeed, so I’d get that back, only to find we were now wing down or 20 degrees off heading, so the altimeter got ignored again while I chased the power setting, ASI and AI all over again. In short, I spent a good 15 to 20 minutes just mushing up, down and around between 2,000 and 3,500 feet, at any random heading between 180 and 350 degrees.

I ended up so rattled at my seeming inability to keep the aeroplane under control that when I turned in my seat to check behind and below, I inadvertently pitched us up and simultaneously rolled us to the left by a considerable number of degrees about each axis, the first time I’ve ever been so ham-fisted with the controls of an aeroplane, and also the first time I’ve actually frightened myself in the air.

Adrian told me to bring us around so that the nose of the aircraft was pointing at Hayling Island, then he briefly took the controls to get us trimmed up at 3,000 feet. His next challenge was to have me descend to 2,000 feet and attempt to maintain a 500 fpm rate of descent at 70 knots IAS. This didn’t get off to a good start as I forgot to flip the carb heat on – luckily, I realised what I’d done immediately and corrected it before Adrian had time to say anything. With the inlet ahead of us as a reference point, my standard of flying seemed a little better and we ended up at something like 2040 feet with 75 knots on the ASI. I adjusted power with a concious effort to listen to the engine note instead of eyeballing the RPM guage and we settled back into the cruise on heading and at the right altitude.

As the last treat of the day, Adrian had me playing with the flaps in straight and level, climbing and descending flight. I was still finding it hard to judge the attitude properly without looking at the panel, so my descents in particular went west once more as I began another battle with “instrument panel-itis” and started playing “chase the ASI” again. I think the final straw was when I took 2 stages of flap straight off after a descent without getting the airspeed and attitude under control first. I think we both realized that my brain had got to the ‘overload’ setting and would probably start dribbling out of my ear if we carried on. We called Shoreham ATC for rejoin and Adrian took the controls back for the circuit and landing, which turned out to be less of a drama than we had expected, considering the crosswinds.

We shut down and made our way back to the office and had a fairly lengthy chat about how the lesson had went. I’m booked for another hour on October 16th, and by then I need to have got my own PA38 checklist and read up on a few chapters in Thom Vol 1, so that we can cover climbing and descending turns and perhaps stalling if the weather is okay.