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* The inbound turn for the NDB hold at Alderney' *
Having completed the first NDB overhead lesson last week it was time to move onto the first of five Instrument Rating routes flights. As I believe I've mentioned before, these five routes lessons are akin to a test routes you'd complete with your driving instructor prior to your driving test. They give you some pre-exposure to the situations you'd likely face and thus, we aim to fly and complete approaches at the four most common destinations. Many instructors give us cadets the choice of route for the final flight although the destinations we manage to get to throughout all five flights is of course entirely down to the weather and availability of slots with air traffic control. In an ideal world though we'd aim to fly to Alderney, Exeter, Cardiff and Oxford.
The day prior my instructor told me that I should plan a flight to Alderney with my buddy for the day being given Exeter. Having checked the weather, aircraft allocation, NOTAMs and completed the remainder of the prep work I was pleased to see it likely my flight would go ahead. For a British winter the weather was looking positive and it ended up being exactly as forecast which was a result in itself.
* Passing the Isle of Wight on our way back into Bournemouth *
My instructor said my departure from start up to the first turning en-route point was good. He particularly liked the pace of setting up the Garmin and highlighted how all the expected taxi, departure and take-off briefs were suitable. The leg from Bournemouth to the first turning point required point-to-point navigation so it was nice to be able to practice this again.
The en-route portion to Alderney was also strong although I was told I should begin to write all things given to me by ATC down such that the route could be re-created once back on the ground if need be. This is also said to promote good working practice ahead of future multi-crew work. I was told I could've thought about the top of descent a little sooner and taken into account the wind in order to gauge just how long it would take but other than that all the required checks were completed.
Sadly, whilst strong to this point the flight began to break down at Alderney itself. Unlike most approaches we fly during our instrument rating training, the Alderney approach has no reference to distance from the field and instead relies on the pilots ability to track time. Furthermore, with no such reference the top of descent point can not be determined for a standard 3° descent path and as such pilots must establish the aircraft on final before putting the gear down and descending all the way down to the minimum altitude + 50ft. Of course, I forgot the theory for this as I was flying it and got all muddled. In the words of my instructor, my technical skills are there but on this occasion my knowledge of flying a non-constant descent final approach was lacking which ultimately caused me to stuff it up. Thankfully, air traffic were kind to permit another attempt and it went much better after a bit of coaching from my instructor. This mess up just goes to show you could be the most competent pilot in the world in terms of hands-on flying, but a lack of understanding of the instrument flying procedures / regulations could put you into a tricky situation very quickly. I have to say, I was a little bit embarrassed by that hiccup but I'll certainly not make it again.
The way back to Bournemouth was essentially flown in a straight line by GPS with the usual engine failure after take off drill completed on the go-around from Alderney. Back at Bournemouth I flew a couple of low level asymmetric circuits as expected for the instrument rating test before coming in to land. One routes flight down, four to go. In my eyes i'm pleased to have made mistakes as it's simply impossible to be perfect with such little experience and thus every flight must be a learning experience. After an hour on the ground I then back-seated my coursemates night flight to Exeter and it was certainly insightful given it's the next route I'd fly. Having arrived at the training centre for 12.30pm and then not leaving until the conclusion of our debriefs at approx 11pm it was certainly a long day but one thing's for sure, it's great to be back in the aircraft!
My summarised instructor feedback was:
A varied first route flight George, with some good areas (enroute and recovery to BOH), then some not so good ie. approach at Alderney, the hold could've been tidier. You have the ability to take on board these points from today and learn from them. Thorough preparation is key - fly the approaches in your chair at home and bring questions to the pre-brief.
* My flight to Exeter and back as tracked by FlightRadar24.com *
With Alderney out the way and with a chance to backseat the Exeter flight the night before, it was now my turn to fly there. Before that though I back-seated my coursemates Alderney flight. It's amazing how much you can pick up when you're not the one stressing about actually flying the aircraft. My coursemate actually flew the route well and certainly didn't stuff up that approach as I had and I managed to learn a thing or two from the instructor along the way. On our return from Alderney we could see a rather significant band of weather to the West which i'd be likely to fly into a couple of hours later which raised doubts on whether my flight would actually go ahead or not. I'm pleased to say that following a check of the weather on the ground we found no evidence of weather to ground us and my instructor and I therefore decided to go. We both agreed though that if at any point any one of us felt uneasy that we would simply return to Bournemouth.
You might be thinking at this point "well if you're aircraft are equipped for instrument flight in cloud, why would you even need to consider coming back?" Well... the answer is simple: Icing. In days which are already quite cold on the ground it only takes a couple of thousand feet before temperatures outside are in the negative. During the Exeter flight we saw -12° on the temperature read out at one point so if you happened to run into any moisture in the form of a cloud you can almost certainly guarantee the build up of ice. Thankfully the Twinstar anti-ice system can handle icing but only to a certain extent and thus its accretion must be monitored closely. On a normal power setting we'd have enough fluid for a 2.30hr flight but any heavy buildup requiring a faster pump output would significantly reduce our supply. Fortunately for us then we were clear of cloud for the entire route which gave me a nice view of my hometown Yeovil on the left side of the aircraft as we passed it on our way to the airway north of Exeter.
Just like the first routes flight I managed the departure and en-route segments well and with a slightly late walk-out to the aircraft my instructor praised my awareness of our allocated departure time and a hastened Garmin setup as a result. With it being quite a quiet evening in terms of other traffic, air traffic controllers were kind enough to permit an early climb to 8,000ft but while my ability to remain well ahead of the aircraft during this time was positive, I completely forgot the controllers request to report level at 8,000ft which wasn't ideal.
* Exeter at night as seen from the RNAV approach *
The Exeter route is known to be quite a challenging one thanks to the workload involved in getting the aircraft down from the airway and onto the final approach. You literally enter the airway for all of a few seconds before Cardiff Radar hand you over to Exeter Radar controllers and from such point require a descent down to 2,400ft for the commencement of the GPS approach. To make things more interesting the distance available to achieve this descent is already pretty minimal and then Exeter go and practically halve it by requesting you cut the corner and proceed direct to the the first point of the approach. Whilst this is great for them as it means they would get us down on the ground quicker, it's not so great for us trainees and certainly pushes your workload. If I was to respond to the Exeter controller with "Unable" in order to provide additional milage for the descent it'd apparently be frowned upon. We commercial pilots are apparently to favour "commercially expeditious" routing and cutting corners achieves this. So... with that in mind back came those power levers to idle and down we went at around 1500ft per minute - 3x your typical cruise descent of 500 feet per minute. I did manage to get us down to 2,400ft in time though which was a positive although in doing this with the autopilot neglected to reduce the power setting accordingly and ended up going outside of test tolerances for speed management. Damn, i thought, but at least I now know to watch out for that again in future. The workload for Exeter really is high so no wonder I forgot it and apparently that's why examiners ask you to use the autopilot for this section of the route to see if you maintain situational awareness.
The remainder of the approach went well and I managed to keep the aircraft on the constant descent to the minimum altitude. I forgot a crucial call out for the GPS though so got a bit of a slapped wrist for that as said call out follows you checking your equipment is working correctly on the descent. Just to add to the mix, Exeter uses a 3.5° descent as opposed to the standard 3° at most airfields and I'm thankful to have not been caught out on that having looked over the plate earlier in the day. Apparently this is a common "gotcha" on flight tests into Exeter and one or two cadets have tripped up on that in the past.
After the approach we went around, completed the usual engine failure drills and then entered the hold at Exeter for a couple of laps to get more NDB hold practice. Frustratingly it was at this point I realised I hadn't configured my Navigational Aids correctly for Exeter's hold and in now rushing to do this accidentally tuned Exeter's ILS approach frequency into the wrong radio which, by design, automatically changed my instrument display to the final approach track of the runway. My instructor piped up to save the day here by highlighting the mistake as otherwise I'd have flown the holds incorrectly. This mistake just goes to show how easy it is for human error to inadvertently cause technology developed to make our lives easier to output erroneous information which if left unchecked could hinder a pilots ability to fly safely. Scary.
* Final approach into Bournemouth from the Procedural ILS approach *
After two laps of the hold we set a heading for Bournemouth and made our way back home. As the instrument rating test incorporates limited panel flying, compass turns and stalling we completed the former two exercises en-route. I have to say I really take the glass cockpit we have available during training for granted and reverting to 'steam gauges' for the limited panel exercises certainly gets the brain working when you have to maintain altitude within +/- 200ft in a turn. Sounds easy enough but you can easily drift without realising when your focusing on your compass turns. Thankfully everything was within limits though!
Our initial plan on returning to Bournemouth was to complete a vectored ILS. This would see air traffic control gives us a series of headings in order to intercept the final approach for runway 26. However, given it was about 8pm and the airspace was incredibly quiet the controllers were like "G-CTCB, any chance you could complete the vectored ILS approach so we can have our dinner?". This made my instructor and I laugh but given it'd give me a chance to fly a procedural ILS we were more than happy to oblige. I'm pleased to say the ILS went without a hitch down to minimums before we went around for a couple of low level asymmetric circuits prior to landing. To top off an all-round positive flight my final landing was one of the best I've made in the Twinstar to date.
Progress is good. I'm generally happy with how things are going, and my instructor agrees. His summarised feedback was:
A good solid all round performance George, with no major issues. This shows you are moving in the right direction, and getting a good feel for the route structure, and staying ahead of the game. Be sure to stay on top of ice/temp checks though as you made no mention of them out of Exeter until we were at 5,000ft. Well done.
My next flight will now be sometime next week and I'll most likely fly to either Cardiff or Oxford.
As mentioned in last weeks blog, applicants for a pilots licence in the UK are required to sit a Radiotelephony exam to prove a level of verbal competence in the way of expected radio calls. I had this test today and while feeling quite nervous initially, I soon got into the swing of things. Each candidate was given a brief on the expectations of the test and then allowed 15 minutes to read over the scenario and take relevant notes which could then be taken into the test.
The test lasted roughly an hour and I'm pleased to say I passed it with ICAO Level 6 English Language proficiency. Level 6 is the level attained when you are considered fluent in the language. A pass in this test now means that on licence issue I will legally be able to communicate on VHF and HF radio frequencies allocated for use in aviation. That's one more box with a tick in on the long road to a licence. Only a couple more ticks to go before I'm able to apply for jobs in the near future.