There's quite a bit of detail to this post so i've broken it up into smaller sections. Click/tap on a heading to expand it.
As frequent readers will know I've been waking up over the past few weeks to less than ideal weather so imagine my shock when the weather forecast said this single phrase: 'CAVOK'. For those unaware of this term it basically means 'Cloud Ceiling and Visibility OK' and in the case of the latter it exceeds 10km. With all of this taken into account you can imagine how fast-paced the early morning operation was as trainees scrambled to get in the air. Despite the lack of fog though we were treated with an overnight frost meaning many of our aircraft required de-icing. As the de-icer worked his way through the queue I became concerned I'd miss my airborne time and would have to cut my flight short but thankfully the operations team managed to move bookings around to accommodate me.
With everything looking positive the big question was which route to choose. Would it North to Great Barrier and Coromandel Peninsula or South to see some snowy peaks. I ended up choosing the latter and boy.. it didn't disappoint. Setting off to complete a touch and go at Taupo I then tracked towards the snowy peaks of the rather famous mountain ranges of Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings) and Mount Ruapehu. The views were truly out of this world and it's certainly a route I'd recommend to any future cadets based in New Zealand although it does require the best of weather days to gain the required altitude. The airspace surrounding the terrain permitted a climb to 11,500ft but I stopped shy at 10,000ft which happened to be more than enough to see the mountains as well as both the west and east coastlines. Mount Ruapehu was full of skiers hitting the slopes and it's peak is even home to a frozen lake which was simply stunning.
With it taking longer than planned to climb and take a look around the peaks I had to cut the final leg of this flight short so simply flew direct to Hamilton. It's just as well I did this as air traffic control delays related to inbound Air New Zealand flights and associated Wake Turbulence meant I landed with all of 3 minutes to spare. This flight certainly topped up my motivation tank as it'd pretty much been drained dry by the constant cancellations.
Having completed the morning flight I returned to Clearways for a spot of lunch and thought I'd found the perfect opportunity to crack on with the ever-growing washing/ironing pile. It wasn't to be, however, as I received a phone call from CTC completely out of the blue. When I saw "CTC" pop-up on my phone screen my immediate reaction was to panic thinking I'd perhaps breached airspace in my earlier flight or had done something drastically wrong. I've no idea why I felt that way but as flying involves so many different parties you may be totally unaware you've made a mistake until they catch up with you. This is particularly pertinent of airspace busts where an unintentional breach may not be talked about until some time later when the associated authority decide to chase it up - I guess you could say it's' similar to waiting for speeding fines in the post!
You'll be pleased to hear there was no reason for alarm and it happened to be an instructor asking if I fancied coming back in to fly for a second time. The instructor in question was night rated and, alongside his colleagues, was working some overtime in order to clear the night flight backlog. The issue with student night flights and the main reason for the backlog in the first place is down to the fact visual night flights require a clear route all the way to Auckland. So, while it may be perfect at Hamilton if the conditions and visibility further North hinder your ability to get to the city then you're unable to go. We rely on Auckland in this way as it's a well-lit and controlled aerodrome with guaranteed service levels outside of Hamilton Towers' working hours. For example, if there was a power cut at Hamilton knocking out the runway lights then we'd divert to Auckland. The same would apply in the event we had an emergency. Nevertheless, I was quick to take the instructor up on his offer as I'd been looking forward to night flying for some time.
This flight would be the first of three night flights in the foundation stage of training and acts as a way to familiarise us with the differences between day and night flight. With an off blocks time of 6pm we taxied out and got airborne. Interestingly we used a completely different departure procedure to during the daytime and once at circuit height turned to fly directly overhead the airfield and continued on a course to Auckland. On asking why we do this the answer was down to the fact you're unable to see the ground features required to carry out the typical departure procedures. Once out of the Hamilton Control Zone our first objective was to learn how to complete navigation by night. As the flight progressed as did our ability to perceive terrain what with the ground and sky merging together as one shade of black. With no reference to physical features we instead made use of illuminated areas beneath - more specifically their shape - in addition to areas of moonlit water. This was much tougher than it sounds to be honest and despite the beauty of man-made light I once again felt my capacity being pushed. My instructor was quick to demonstrate just how poor the human eye's perception of distance is at night by comparing the flashing strobe lights of an inbound Air New Zealand flight only a few miles ahead of us with the glow of a night time star millions of miles away. You had to really think about it as the aircraft and star were the exact same size and it's the eyes love to play tricks on you like that. What also became obvious was that charts were near impossible to use at night thanks to the human eye's' inability to process colour. It is for this reason among others that we are required to carry torches with us on night flights. Thankfully though the Cessna has overhead cabin lighting and under Yoke map lights to make this a bit easier. You have to mindful though as too much light will affect night vision, what with humans requiring as much as 30 minutes to adjust to night time compared with as little as 5 minutes for a fully lit environment.
After travelling a few miles on our navigation leg we turned back to fly the reverse track before breaking off occasionally to perform various maneuvers. As a bit of added information here it is a legal requirement that pilots have completed a specified number of flying hours in reference to instruments and I can certainly see why as your horizon is completely gone. With no horizon the act of performing steep banking turns and remaining at the same altitude becomes that much more of a challenge and in my case the Garmin soon become my best friend. I was also shown how to request entry into controlled airspace in order to climb above the published limits which made a change from the usual air traffic control we speak to given you could overhear various Air New Zealand flights being vectored for their arrivals into Auckland.
To conclude the lesson we returned to Hamilton to re-join over the airfield before completing a few circuits. The night time circuit certainly hammers home visual illusions and truly highlights the importance of airport lighting. In fact, as the tower went off watch the entire aerodromes' lights switched off momentarily showing me just how vital they are as the runway went from being lit like a christmas tree to as black as the night sky. The instructor demonstrated a couple of circuits before allowing me to have a crack at it and it's certainly an odd sensation as unlike the daytime you lose all of reference to runway markings and must aim directly adjacent to the PAPI lights with the flare/roundout being made when the runway edge lights raise to be level with your hips. It's safe to say my first attempt produced a firmer touchdown than I'd have liked and even the takeoff roll was a challenge due to the lack of any centre line lighting at Hamilton.
For the final circuit of the night the instructor showed me an incredibly unsafe scenario whereby all of the PAPIs were illuminated red. During this approach we were no more than 600ft above the ground but as I was familiar with the area I knew for a fact there was nothing on the final approach path we'd hit at this height. However, should we had been landing somewhere new there'd be no such guarantees. There's a reason that that phrase goes "White on white check your height, White on Red you're alright, Red on Red and you're dead". To put this into perspective for you it was that low that you could make out the writing of vehicle number plates and the shape of individual lampposts! In a situation like this the L3 Operations Manual dictates to students you must no questions asked Go-Around.
Sunday was another beautiful day and in opting not to fly this route on Saturday I was excited at the chance to fly to Great Barrier Island via the Coromandel Peninsula. I was sure to be planned and ready to go bang on off blocks time to ensure I could beat the incoming cloud. Sadly, it wasn't meant to be as if it's not the weather getting in your way its' bound to be something else. On this occasion a screw was missing from the propeller spinner and being the weekend the maintenance team weren't in to replace the screws and at their request the plane was grounded. I held out hope another aircraft would be available but with such packed schedules I was sent home. Great - what a waste of the sunshine.
Or so i thought...!!
Two hours later I received a phone call from operations saying another trainee was unavailable due to sickness and that I had first priority on any cancellation. Whilst the booking wasn't large enough to fit a navigation flight in, I did get the chance to practice the several core techniques we're tested on and also made sure to complete a couple overhead joins at a local uncontrolled airfield. I'd also secured a 30 minute circuit slot with Hamilton ATC in order to practice general procedures and flapless landings. All in all it was very productive flight and will (hopefully) go a long way towards a positive result in the up and coming internal flight test - PT1.
Coh, what is this... we're truly being spoiled with sunshine, barely any cloud and above all else - NO FOG! That certainly makes waking up at the ungodly time of 5.30am all the more worth it knowing you stand the chance of flying. In having planned the Great Barrier route for Sunday I left it drawn on the chart and just recalculated everything else for todays winds. Thankfully my planning speed has increased of late which is just as well really given you're only permitted an hour to do so for PT1. What's more, in trying to be more efficient I knocked together a spreadsheet which now does all of the calculations i'd have otherwise completed manually. I'll share it on the blog at some point for any future trainees once i've had the chance to test drive it a little bit.
With all of my paperwork complete and having conducted a pre-flight walkaround I was rather expeditious in finalising everything in order to get airborne as whilst it wasn't foggy on arriving at the airport, the current temperature and dewpoint both matched at 4° and thus as the sun continued to rise the beginnings of surface fog could be seen along the runway. Thankfully I'd taxied and got airborne just escaping the somewhat temporary albeit flight grounding fog.
This flight started at Hamilton (the blue 'x' on the above map) and saw me track North and overhead Thames & Coromandel airfields. The plan at this point was to then climb to 5,500ft in order to have enough altitude to cross over to Great Barrier Island. Sadly the cloud was sitting at around 5,500ft and legal minimums require 2000ft horizontal separation from cloud at all times. Continuing the flight to Great Barrier would not only have been illegal but also incredibly dangerous as a the freezing level was 5,000ft meaning that a buildup of ice on the wings would have been incredibly likely. To avoid playing a game with death I cut that part of the route out and diverted to my next point. Tracking South down the coast provided some gorgeous views as the sun continued to rise into the sky!
Everything was going smoothly, that is, until I busted airspace on my arrival into Tauranga. If you take a metaphorically large wedding cake and turn it upside down so to place its' smallest tier over the top of an airport you'd notice somewhat of an overhang of the higher layers in an outwards direction. This is exactly how airspace works at most airports and each tier of the cake has an upper and lower boundary above sea level. In my case I failed to recognise that one of the layers closest to the airfield required me to be no higher than 1500 ft unless I had a clearance from the appropriate controller!
The above graphic is taken from New Zealand's charts and you can see Tauranga airfield slap bang in the middle. Notice how it's surrounded by the first layer of this 'cake' with the lower limit as 'SFC' meaning surface and the upper being 1500ft. The next layer outside of this then starts at 1500ft and tops off at 2500ft. The next one 2500ft and 9500ft etc etc. In my case it was my first approach into Tauranga from the North and I unfortunately failed to notice the inner 1500ft airspace. I've represented my route on the graphic above for you to see with the green line representing where I'm all okay and red line the total time I remained in breach of airspace. I ended up breaching it by 1000ft which, frustratingly, is a considerable margin and the tower were sure to tell me of such when I eventually called them for joining instructions.
My confidence was knocked a bit after this but once out of Tauranga's airspace the rest of the flight went without a hitch. Thankfully L3/CTC have a very open safety culture when it comes to things like this and I reported myself for the breach as soon as I'd got back to Hamilton. I'd much rather I be the one to flag it than the school receive a report from air traffic control down the line causing a headache for all involved. My report triggered a meeting with the the foundation phase training co-ordinator and we walked through each of my actions step by step to fully understand how it happened. To my relief it was deemed a genuine mistake - which it honestly was! - and as such not trainee complacency which made me feel a lot better. Our training co-ordinator then went on to say i'd not been the first to bust that same block of airspace over the past few days and that many people have done it since the airspace was changed a few months back. Nevertheless, I was signed back to the line almost immediately and I'm certainly not planning on breaching airspace again anytime soon. Sadly it's so easily done and you really do need to remain situationally aware at all times.
Instrument Flight 6 marks the final lesson of the foundation phase and as such the final flight with the guidance of my primary instructor. The next time I get the opportunity to fly with her will be for my mock progress test in approximately 6 - 7 flights time - eeeek!! That's quite a daunting thought really. It's also hard to think I now have 73 flight hours to my name, 15 of which solo. They soon add up that's for sure!
This lesson acted as revision for all things instrument flight. It is also the final opportunity for us to renew soon to expire essential exercises and therefore carry on flying solo between this flight and that aforementioned progress test. As we're allowed backseat passengers during dual flights and my coursemate Chris had the day off he tagged along. He took some great in-action photos/videos so thanks for those mate - if you're even reading - and i'll be sure to keep them as memories in the years to come.
In this flight I got the chance to practice, among other things:
It wasn't without its frustrations though and that common feedback item "Don't Rush" came back to haunt me again this time. There's something about being told "Divert me from here to there" which gets me all flustered. Not only am I having to plan that diversion, I'm also having to do so whilst maintaining both straight and level flight under the hood. The hood is your worst enemy in this situation because it blocks all peripheral vision meaning you can't rely on it to help you spot a slowly developing spiral descent. In this situation you may be perfectly straight and level take a moment to look down and the slightest bit of wind can push your plane off track. Arg!! It's something I really need to work on. The eventual heading I came up with was nowhere near standard and off by about 20°. God knows how that happened. It was something I could correct for in the standard diversion work cycle, but it's still a massive blow to the confidence. For my next solo navigation flight I've been told to not even plan a route and simply fill the time with diversion after diversion in order to improve this vital skill. Here's hoping that works out okay!