G'day! and welcome to my blog's new home. I'd like to say a big 'cheers mate' to Clay for building me such a fabulous new house.

Here you will find my articles and blogs from the sky documenting my aerial adventure across Australia, and sometimes - when I'm very lucky - around the world!

Lots of airyplanes, plenty of new shoes and hopefully many undiscovered places.

Blue skies,

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Allowed in Cloud

I have always been the first to admit I am not a 'natural' pilot. I have no pilot blood - not one aviator, or even enthusiast in the family; no technical prowess - my eBay name is Technobimbo; and the only one non-pilot friend who could identify a carburettor grew up on a farm dissembling motorbikes for fun. Each one of my friends goes blank when I launch into the acronymese that is aviation and few show more than a passing interest in even taking to the skies in a single engine aircraft built in a time when their parents were still wearing flares.

Thus, a girl like me can only be considered as having been bitten by a strange and incurable bug - known as the av-bug. Symptoms: a gripping desire to sell your perfectly viable business to fund more flying, despite the possibility of the job in the industry being remote. Further symptoms: wishing your car had rudders; knowing the names of all the clouds, and in fact having an obsessive/compulsive relationship with the weather; preferring the smell of avgas to Chanel No 5.

As I was updating my logbook this morning, I realised I have been learning to fly for five years now. And although my start was rocky - institutionalising a few instructors and stalking out of poorly managed schools in disgust - I write this with 528 hours in my logbook. Although these are baby hours compared to a lot of my av-pals, to me they are blood-sweat-and-tears hours. Almost every one of the first 100 involved tears. Hour 152 involved champagne (after the event, of course - my PPL flight test) before the tears began again (trying to land a 182; a tail wheel endorsement; 7 CPL exams, which, for me was a total of twelve exams, due mostly to the dastardly aerodynamics paper and my inability to 'bond' with graphs). And so it goes: failing, trying again, passing, gaining confidence; taking on something new; failing - rinse and repeat, ad inf. Mostly, they are small steps, but every once in a while, the gradient changes and you are left looking at a step which reaches your chin. There are several of these such steps - first solo, first solo nav, tail wheel, first simulated Commerical flight and the one I am looking at now: the IREX.

Legend has it, the IREX is so hard it has made military pilots weep into their moustaches. The course is sixty hours, spread over ten weeks. For one exam.

I had been quietly ignoring it for years. "I don't need an instrument rating. Or, if I do, I shall just do a PIFR" (a PIFR being a rating available for private pilots which is perfectly good for my needs, really, and does not require sitting the IREX). But then, I spent the day with an IFR pilot....

Andrew's new G750 touch screen
Andrew Andersen is the new president of AOPA - aircraft owners and pilots association for those who don't speak semi fluent acronymese. Last week, he invited me to join him on a trip to Canberra in his 182, IFR (instrument flight rules).

My job has led me to some interesting and amazing experiences - Tiger Moths, powered parachutes, microlights, twins and warbirds - but never before have I had the right hand seat to an IFR flight. And although to an observer like me the workload appeared immense, all I could really see was the extra dimension of freedom a pilot gains. Now, admittedly, we had a stunning day with barely a cloud in the sky, so it was rather hard to imagine applying that level of concentration to flying through heavy rain and dark cloud. But I was fascinated by the ritual and rules of instrument flight - you are constantly talking to air traffic control, aware of your position and other traffic. The approaches, whilst frighteningly alien to me, seemed calmingly absolute - you do this, follow this pattern and and everyone knows what you're doing and how and exactly where you are. It seems so much safer than a cluster of VFR pilots, approaching willy nilly from various points.

The level of organisation required seemed frighteningly high - I was never one of those girls with a neat pencil case and a colour coded time table, but then flying HAS changed me. At least to the extent that I always have a plan. And a pencil.

Andrew pointed out that once you are organised, the flying itself is then very easy. As long as you stay ahead of the aircraft, setting up arrivals and approaches well in advance and thinking ahead in the case of changes to the plan, and being prepared (as there is a lot of paper) then, declared Andrew, flying is easier and safer to boot.

Canberra is a horrible airport - it's impossible to spot the runways because of the hills - but Andrew handled it with a plan and it appeared a lot less stressful than going in there VFR (which I admit I have never really done, as on my flight test I was given radar vectors because I couldn't find the runway!)

On the way home, we encountered some cloud (Yaay!) but as Andrew flew in, all my sense screamed "no!!! No! Not allowed in cloud! Turn around! Go back!" My heart was beating like a small animal's, and I had to tell myself over and over again that it is alright. I am not in control. It is Andrew's flight.

As I relaxed, I allowed myself a smile - my instincts were well trained, reacting as they did when we flew into cloud.

Inside the cloud, it was amazing - a totally new experience. Andrew warned of the danger of icing and the importance of knowing the freezing level. The seriousness of his tone made me take note. Here is the one place where pilots often come unstuck.

I was hooked. I knew this was something I would need to learn to do - the precision, the safety and the freedom to fly through cloud, through weather. Andrew had made it quite clear, in his actions as much as in anything he actually said, that instrument flight is rewarding, fulfilling and much much safer. But, as in all good things, with reward comes responsibility.

And an exam so hard it causes student pilots to wake in the night, screaming.

Here's to ten weeks of interrupted sleep....

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In the Nick of Time

It was a dark cloud - the kind a pilot never, ever wants to be under; a dark a cloud of my own making. Not a scary, impenetrable cumulus, forcing me to land on a foreign strip, unprepared; rather a nagging, out of proportion, self induced cloud of despair. Created by me, over a year ago when I sat my last CPL exam, failed and never bothered to rebook.

The Marquis de CASA (distant relative of de Sade, but much, much crueller) decided, some time in the seventies when they planned their exam procedures, that the student of the seven CPL exams has three years in which they must pass all seven exams. In the seventies, when people had time. When they stopped to smell the roses, possessed one telephone between five people and still used typewriters. When Angry Birds, the BBC iPlayer and PPRuNe were in the space aged future. When three years would have felt like three years.

I can't believe a whole year had passed since I sat the last one.

I had passed six. Six in two years, three hundred and sixty three days. If you fail to pass all seven within the three year slot, you lose ALL seven exams and have to start at the beginning again, assuming of course you still possess the will to live.

The last exam - aerodynamics - had become a towering cumulus. Having already failed it three times, it mocked me now. Each failure had been a thumb in the nose: the pass mark is 70 and I repeatedly scored 68.

Five days before the exam, I started cramming. I practiced the test papers with obsessive compulsive verve. The coefficient of lift appeared in my dreams.

I told myself it didn't matter if I failed; that the CPL experience was just that - an experience, to learn more about the theory of aviation. That I never wanted to be a professional pilot anyway.

And then, on the morning of the exam, I had to pull over on the M5 to vomit in a service station toilet. I was convinced I knew nothing; that the coefficient of lift monster had stolen all my revision overnight. I contemplated not going in at all, staying on the M5 westbound, until maybe, days later, I would hole up in a country town, where I could change my identity and pretend I wasn't a sad failure of an exam every CPL student before me could pass.

At the exam centre, there was a delay. To prevent me from digging into the revision notes and replacing whatever had stuck with a jumble of nonsensical notes, I began talking to another student. Fessing up that this would be my last attempt,he looked horrified, exclaiming "I've heard of people like you, leaving the last exam til the last day, but I've never actually met one."

I felt like Rimmer in Red Dwarf, when attempting to take his astronavigatiom exam - he writes 'I am a fish' a hundred times and then passes out.

Finally, we went in. I greeted the adjudicator like a long lost friend (a year ago we saw each other so often, I believe I knew her star sign and favourite food). We went through the usual procedure and I pressed 'load exam'
After that, I remember nothing.

The only thing I did differently from the other three attempts, I did on the advice of an old hand flying
instructor: I wrote the questions down, and answered them with my own answer, before looking at the Marquis de Casa's choices and selecting one.

An hour and fifteen minutes later, I pressed submit. "Are you sure you want to submit?" it asked me. "No, actually, I don't. I want to be lying on a Balinese island, with a cocktail in my hand and a CPL pass mark in my logbook. Actually"

Sadly, that one wasn't multiple choice. I hit yes. Time stopped. Babies were born, people died, proposals were made and countries invaded. And then the screen went blank. A nano second later the result screen loaded (they use Pcs).

It said

You answered 32 out of forty questions correctly.
Your pass mark is 80%.
Well done, speccy, you earned this one.

I performed a little chair-jig and the adjucdicator gave me a sharp look. Printing out my KDRs, she smiled a bit and said "phew! That was close" while I boogied out of the room for the very last time ever.

Realising I have never wanted a full set of anything as much as these exams - not even the full Louis Viutton luggage set, or complete collection of Shirley Bassey albums - I gave thanks to the imaginary god of exams (St Swottus) and drove home.

Then I set fire to my revision notes and got very very drunk.