Rain... Cloud... Fog... Low Visibility...
While the majority of readers have most likely enjoyed a spot of sunshine here and there - particularly my family whom are enjoying a break in Tenerife as I write this - the same cannot be said for us in Hamilton where winter is in full swing. The above forecast was taken at the time of writing and gives us a far from pleasant outlook for the week ahead and with this past week having brought similar conditions it's safe to say the flying program has almost ground to a halt. In fact, the majority of us are now averaging only one flight per week and the subsequent backlog of cadets has seen a few more standby flights popup on our schedules. We'll get there eventually, it's just getting frustrating planning the same flight umpteen times to only go and get cancelled.. again and again.
With that said though the 10th July brought a calmer spell and having not flown in a week my signout instructor and I were quick to grab ahold of the opportunity. The 10th also happened to be my brothers birthday and it's crazy to think he's now 21 and graduating university in a few months! It's a shame I can't be there for either of those events but I suppose I best get used to that given the nature of the industry.
Diversion here... Diversion there...
With my coursemate Ian and I in a similar situation in respect of not flying and wanting to take a chance on the clearer weather, we both head out to give it a shot. He was going North and I was to track East before turning South. On returning to Hamilton we made our sign out instructor laugh in both using the word 'interesting' to describe how our flights went. There were clouds everywhere!! Now this in itself isn't a problem so long as you remain clear and retain sight of the surface at all times but for the purpose of helping you visualise just how 'interesting' my flight was, I've pulled my route from the schools' flight tracking software. I've added a green line overlay which represents my intended route and the red line/markers represent the actual route flown. They vary quite considerably don't they!
Hamilton is located at the top left near the blue/white cross and in departing to the East it wasn't too long before I came across my first issue: the mountain ranges. It was this same navigation leg which caused me so much bother in an earlier flight and this time around it was no different. The Kaimai ranges were covered in blanket cloud as far as the eye could see. As students it isn't legal to climb up over cloud like this but having tried for days on end to complete this navigation flight I simply wasn't prepared to throw the towel in. It was a similar story for Ian with his flight to North. I mean, we'd already flown this far so why not divert our intended routes to look for clear patches first... and that's exactly what we did. Planning/flying a southerly diversion to a town called Tokoroa I came across a gap in both terrain and cloud and while it's only something small, it felt like such an achievement to finally beat mother nature and continue on with a flight! Once through the ranges I used taught techniques to regain my original track to Rotorua where wasn't a single cloud in sight! Given how quiet it was Rotorua Tower allowed me to complete a couple of glide-approach circuits before then continuing on to Taupo.
The departure from Rotorua provided the perfect opportunity to practice a steeper climb in order to gain the required altitude for terrain clearance. This is called a Vx (Best Angle) climb and provides quite a steep ascent at a slower speed. In other words, the most altitude gained in the shortest amount of ground distance. Once clear of terrain I head for Taupo. The wind was slightly stronger than planned on this leg which explains the fact the line on the map is far from straight. I attempted to make a few corrections for this but eventually gained visual with Taupo and continued with what we call 'See-It-Fly-To-It'. In essence I scrapped any planned heading and instead flew directly towards the airport. Due to heavy sky diving activity at Taupo I was warned by instructors to be on the look out for both sky divers / parachutists and somewhat "reckless skydive pilots". While I didn't spot any of the former I did have to slow my approach down as despite my position reports - of which I made many - a pilot to which I had thankfully spotted dived to intercepted the final approach a mile or two ahead of me. Now, I was told they're often in a hurry to get down on the ground in order to greet the sky divers but that's the first time i've seen something like that, although I'm sure it won't be the last time either. Once on the ground he was then far from expeditious with leaving the runway but thankfully got out of the way just in time for me to cross the threshold.
Departing Taupo required me to cross quite a large body of water where the only concern is "do I have enough altitude to safely glide back to land if I lose my engine". This is especially critical when you're pushing your engine to its max in order to gain that altitude in the first place! In taking the narrowest route I practically hugged the waterfront to afford the best opportunity of a safe landing should anything have happened but, as expected, nothing did. The next diversion from track you'll see is perfectly ordinary and is simply an effort to maintain altitude and not smash into the high terrain located at Eastern boundary of Pureora Forest Park. To do that you turn right 45°, start the timer and fly clear of terrain before then turning back 90°, restarting the timer and intercepting your original track in the same amount of time. Nothing out of the ordinary to report from that bit really apart from the odd bump of turbulence as you fly through the odd patch of moisture.
Once around the terrain I completed a standard cruise check looking at fuel and ETAs etc and noticed that with the remaining time I'd fail to make it back to Hamilton on schedule should I continue with the planned route to Te Kuiti. The initial diversion on my way to Rotorua, the two circuits and the earlier terrain avoidance had added additional time to an already tight flight and so I took the decision to plan a diversion. In the midst of this though I spotted something a bit more critical - the large band of cloud surrounding me on all sides and thus the only option for my new 'commercially expeditious' route (as airlines like us to be) would have me fly straight at yet more terrain. The plan was to climb up and over it but nothing's ever simple as though is it as even that was covered in cloud! I'd say it was at this point the flight became 'interesting' in what can only be described as a cloud slalom. While the cloud was patchy it was thick enough to the point I couldn't see through it and thus I had to avoid it. At times I found myself in a climbing/descending turn around clouds in order to maintain sight of the surface. I'll stress here that my visibility wasn't restricted to the point it became illegal and all meteorological minimums were met as best as I was able. I became quite thankful of the Garmin's GPS terrain display at this point as the hills to my right couldn't be seen through the cloud and they provided me that additional safety net for terrain avoidance. In already flying at a rather slow ground speed due to the headwind I pushed the aircraft a bit harder than you normally would for cruise in order to get clear of passing cloud. When reading this you might think "well why couldn't you have just avoided all the cloud long before you got to it?". The answer to that is should the national park hills have been lower I'd have been able to have seen it and planned a route around it much earlier. Nevertheless, it was a great experience - albeit bumpy - and certainly got the adrenaline pumping.
Once clear of the cloud and terrain the remainder of the diversion went without a hitch. In needing to be on the ground at 11.45, Air Traffic Control spacing on entry back into Hamilton's airspace meant I arrived 10 minutes late. Despite the challenges created by cloud I thoroughly enjoy that flight and I'm pleased to see the back of 'Nav 8-Solo' written on my daily schedule.
After a few days of cancellations and endless hours sat wasted on Facebook I happened to come across an advert for a laser light show this Friday evening in Tauranga. Having chatted to a few of the group we decided to take the hour and a half trip. This event was described as a laser light show through jets of water and it was certainly impressive with silhouettes of people dancing to songs such as Mambo No 5. I filmed a bit of a it so will try and knock something together when I get a chance. The group also indulged in what I can only describe as music festival priced burgers, although they were very tasty!!
I'm planned for two navigation flights this weekend so fingers crossed they go ahead as i'd quite like to kickstart some progression but I'm not holding out hope. A few of my coursemates also have their qualifying cross-country flights which involves them taking an aircraft for the entire day in order to complete a series of navigation flights. With any luck I'll follow them not long after but i've a few other flights to complete first. I'll be back with another post next week!
All the best,