Towards the RA-Aus Pilot Certificate: @ruralflyingdoc
21st March 2012, Port Pirie
So it was at 0430 AEDST that I awoke in Canberra after 4 days of a General Practice conference ready for the early flight back to Port Lincoln via Adelaide. Getting to Canberra International Airport took only 15 mins with my cab driver who had got his java buzz on early. I wondered if Qantas would let me have some early hands on flying in the Boeing 737. A friend on Facebook suggested I try the long dark coat and sunglasses look and simply ask. Perhaps next time? Met up with Dr. Scott who was my flightbag and headset mule, getting them through Adelaide Airport security and meeting me in the terminal. He got chosen for bomb residue testing for his trouble (and yes an early start, very impressed). So for 5 mins, the entire medical team from Wudinna (the two of us!) walked and talked down to Gate 50 for my connecting flight to Lincoln. Now at least if I asked for ‘a go at the controls’ on the Dash-8 that was to fly us the small hop, I had a headset and a flightbag to augment the look/argument.
Then a tedious five hour drive around the Spencer Gulf to get to Port Pirie. As I got closer and closer to Pirie, I started to feel my stomach getting antsy. Was it first flight lesson nerves or the dodgy Chiko roll from Port Augusta, who can be sure? I certainly did notice the wind buffeting the car as I closed on the destination. It was moving a station wagon with four wheels firmly on the ground. How would a plane with no connection with the ground fare? Cue further stomach turns, thankfully sans Chiko re-presentation. Driving past Pirie towards the aerodrome I surveyed the skyline I’d seen many times, but with fresh eyes this occasion. That huge bloody lead smelter chimney looked newly menacing. Never thought that I would be flying through the air within 3 nautical miles of that thing!
When I arrived, my car pulled up nicely next to the Spencer Gulf Flight Training facility (essentially half a small portable classroom!) Earl the chief flying intstructor, I guessed ‘chief’ as he is the only one, greeted me inside and we got down to business. Flightbag: check. Headset: check. Logbook? No? Here you go. No stuffing about and straight over to the hangar. There were an assortment of Jabirus, Cessnas 182/172s and some ungainly homebuilts in there, possibly seven or eight in total. My ride was front and centre peering out of the hangar to the outside world. It looked like some sort of marsupial scoping out the environment wondering if was too dangerous to head out or not. In my peripheral vision I saw the windsock flailing about like a drunk on the Woolshed mechanical bull and wondered the same as my little wombat-esque plane. The aircraft itself was a Jabiru 160-D (affectionately named “Jabba” by me) an Australian designed and made light sport plane. More information on this plane here.
One of the local pilots/ambo Col took me for a walk around and pre-flight inspection. We checked the engine (it was there), propeller, quality and presence(!) of fuel, hinges and bolts, removed coverings and checked the undercarriage. I had a strange urge to kick the tires…thanks Independence Day. It was time to pull the plane out of the hangar and leave it sitting facing into the wind, which at this stage was a 20-30 knot southerly. Earl and I hopped in and ran through the instruments and checklist. Today I was going to practice taxiing and get a feel of flying the plane. Memorising radio calls and checklists would come later.
Taxiing. Gosh! I remember reading online that having driven a car for any amount of time is a massive hindrance when it comes to mastering how to drive a plane on the ground. Whoever wrote that is a damn genius. Learning how to taxi was the singularly most frustrating thing about my first lesson and yet we had only been at it for 10 mins and I hadn’t even left terra firma! The problem boils down to – the parts of your body that control speed and direction are swapped. In a car we use our feet for acceleration and braking; hands for steering. In a plane, yup, you guessed it, opposite. Hands for speed, feet for left and right. So many times in the early stages when I wanted to slow down, I jammed my left foot down on the left rudder (not the brake!) and the plane lurched that direction and vice-versa. Pretty soon though Earl had me weaving in and out of the runway centre line markings with some accuracy. The additional difficulty factor was that with the strong wind, medium to bloody huge sized tumbleweeds would flit across the runway. It was like some perverse aviation themed Frogger/Highway Crossing Frog game. At one point Earl suggested that we not only look out for circuit traffic when crossing runways, but also John Wayne. Maybe I’ll work on my accent for when radio calls start? “Howdy ma’am, joinin’ crosswind for runway 23, if its all right by you pardner?”
We had backtracked our way down runway 17 when Earl got me to turn the plane (using my feet…feet, feet, FEET! Remember dammit) to face into the wind. Then 15 degrees of flaps and using a simple count of 1,2,3,4, I pushed the throttle to the hilt and Jabba lurched forward. Even though Earl had his hands right near his controls, I’d be safe to say I was s**t scared! When we reached 55 knots, just a small amount of back pressure and the plane wanted to fly. Things became a lot less scary as the ground slid away below. Though my grip on the control was no less vice-like (the knuckles are still slowly losing the white hue). What followed was about 40 mins of running through the primary and secondary effects of the controls. Thanks to Scott I had already been given a crash course? No..…introduction..ah better, to these characteristics. Earl talked me through a quick circuit to land Runway 21 with a very pleasing roll out onto short final. Selecting full flaps meant leaning forward reaching across with my left hand while trying to peer over the cockpit and watch the airspeed. Once the flaps came down though, the view improved magically. With such a high headwind, the windscreen was all ground and the plane descended nicely. I managed to track down straight and was told to pull off the power at the right moment. Earl helped me ease into a nice flare as the ground effect kicked in (for non-aviation people: that little sensation of quiet floating just before touch down). We taxied back much more sedately to the hangar and enjoyed a quiet beer (West End, I know! I know!) and filled in the first 0.9 hours on my logbook.
It was a long day, but a very memorable one. Driving back from the aerodrome I wondered whether the Subaru would be all over the road given my updated opposite hand/foot co-ordination. Luckily 12 years of driving came back instantly. But it was very nice to only worry about steering the car in one axis and not three at once!! Day two planned to start bright and early at 0730, easily time for a few drinks tonight settle the nerves. Update: Red wine at Port Germein has done just the trick!
If you enjoyed reading this, keep an eye out as I update this blog as the flying training progresses. Apologies for errors in tense and spelling 🙂 Thanks for your time and interest!