All of our case studies to date have been very interesting to put together and read as they have given an insight into the life, career and training of some of our pilots and members that make Bristol & Wessex Aeroplane Club great.
Our latest case study is based on Alexander Dain one of our members who has flown a variety of aircraft to a variety of interesting destinations.
Since gaining his pilot’s licence, initially flying the Cessna 150, Alexander has gone on to fly the Jet Provost. We recently sent Alex some interview questions to find out more about his flying adventures and what advice he has for other student pilots.
What motivated you to learn to fly?
Not the usual story of childhood dreams of joining the RAF. In March 2008, my EasyJet holiday flight landed back at Bristol and I saw a PA28 holding at an intersection as we rolled out. I was wondering what to do that summer, so I gave Bristol & Wessex a ring and arranged a trial lesson. Then the weather was bad whenever I was free, but in May I got airborne with instructor Derek Philips. This was in G-BRTJ the Cessna 150 that Bristol & Wessex used to operate which must have been hundreds of pilots’ first GA experience. 10+ years on, I still remember that first take-off from runway 09 very clearly. I was completely hooked before we even turned off runway heading.
What did you find hardest when you were learning?
All the details that have to be learned for the book exams. The flying is the easy bit. But having recently started flying a very different aircraft, a mark 3 Jet Provost, I have had to learn a whole lot more details alongside running a business and many other commitments. The best way is to take it in bite-size pieces – fuel system, hydraulic systems, relight procedures, etc. – and after reading the relevant bit of the POH, leave it a couple of days then write down bullet-points to check you can explain not just what but also why. If all you can do is say what, you’re just regurgitating bits of a book you read, but if you can say why then you must have understood it and then it should stick in your head ok.
You’ve made some adventurous trips, which have stood out the most for you?
Charlotte and I have enjoyed dozens of trips round Europe and in America, all highly memorable but here are a few that really stand out. I hope people look at these and think “I should try that too”. Flying abroad can seem more difficult in the planning than it actually is on the day.
1. Malta. Flying a turbo Cessna 182 to Malta with the highly experienced Chris Puddy in 2009. The scenery was eye-opening as we crossed the Alps VFR at 15,500ft with oxygen masks on. We stopped at Les Eplatures, Bergamo and then Ajaccio (where this photo was taken) before the long over-water crossing to Malta.
2. Majorca. Three of us flew a Cessna 172 SP down to Majorca for a week with friends in Pollensa. We stopped in Alderney, La Rochelle and Carcassonne before crossing the east end of the Pyrenees and heading south to land at Son Bonet. It was a great relief when the island eventually appeared out of the gloom. Coming back, after a high-speed descent into Rennes, ATC gave us a 140kt speed limit on departure!
3. Antwerp. The highlight of this flight was Vulcan XH558 going underneath us in the opposite direction north of Bournemouth. Sadly not a photo any new pilots are going to be able to get.
4. Florida. Charlotte and I have done several great flying holidays around Florida based out of Pilots Paradise. It’s really friendly to GA, the weather is generally good November / December, and the airspace and procedures are straightforward. Highlights would be flying a PA28 low-level along the Miami shoreline and getting a clearance from NASA Tower for a low approach over the Kennedy Space Centre shuttle landing facility in a Cessna 320.
5. GAFOR routes through the Alps. Chris Puddy and I tried some of the low-level GAFOR routes through the Alps recently in a Turbo Arrow and the scenery is stunning. It does feel odd with the mountains towering either side of you as you wind your way along the valleys. You realise how small you are and how big the mountains are.
You’re now flying a Jet Provost, how does that compare to a PA28?
The Prov is a step up from a PA28 for sure. It has a turbojet engine, hydraulic systems and relatively high performance. I did wonder if flying an ex-RAF jet would be a bit beyond me, but after a few hours out with the group’s CFI Steve Hall it all feels very comfortable. Apart from understanding the systems and procedures, it’s all about energy management. The Prov is much heavier than a PA28, so it has a lot of momentum. But the engine takes a long time to give you meaningful power from idle – so if you find yourself slow on the approach you really can’t get the power on too early. Once the power is on, it climbs hard. Then, unlike a piston engine there is no shock-cooling to worry about, and chopping the power and deploying the very effective air brakes gives a dramatic descent. It glides surprisingly well (almost 2nm for 1,000ft at 120kts). The downside to the Prov is its fuel burn at low level – around 500 litres an hour. And it leaves a lot of noise behind it. Overall it’s a great pleasure to fly.
What is the biggest thing you’ve learned about flying since getting your PPL?
“Always be ready for something to happen that you’re not expecting.” Probably most pilots will think about engine failures and engine fires when they read that, but there are many other ways to get caught out, for example:
- Delays in departure. If your departure gets delayed, will that mean that your arrival at the other end will be in the dark? Have you got a night rating / instrument lighting in the plane / a torch to use on the ground? Does the destination airfield have lighting?
- Delays in flight. Have you got enough fuel?
- Icing. If you encounter icing along your route, can you get out of the icing conditions? It can build up thick and fast. Where is the cloud, where is the freezing level, and where is the ground?
- Turbulence. Are belts tight and bags shut (so the contents don’t tip out) and is the GPS properly mounted (or will the sucker mount fail with a bit of turbulence)?
- Change of route. Have you got a plan B route if the plan A route has to change mid-flight (for example, if you find a large CB directly in your way)?
- Destination airfield shuts after you take off. It does happen. Where are you going to go?
- ATC downs tools – the tower controller goes outside for a smoke and all circuit calls are suddenly in French.
- Instrument failure. Can you cope with your GPS unit packing up mid-flight? Will you recognise a vacuum pump failure before the artificial horizon falls sideways? No big deal in VMC, but potentially more problematic in IMC.
- Passenger being unwell. Have you got a sick bag? And some bottled water?
These are not hypothetical – they are all things that have happened to me. But nothing to worry about if you’re not taken completely by surprise.
What advice would you have to others who are early on in their training?
Here’s a ‘top 10’ list:
- Take your time on the ground. Think about the items on the checklist. Taxi slowly. Don’t be the pilot that rushes and forgets to drain water from the fuel / taxies with the tie-downs still attached / takes off with the pitot cover still on.
- Get an IR(R). It makes GA flying much safer and greatly increases the number of days when you can get in/out of the airport reliably. Flying an accurate approach in IMC is really satisfying. The weather can change very quickly and being able to get through a bit of murk along your route removes a lot of uncertainty.
- Use a GPS. It makes flying more relaxing and definitely reduces the risk of infringements. Ideally get some kit that shows other traffic – but still keep looking out of the window.
- Currency and variety. Keep current with regular varied flying – try different types; visit some farm strips; do an overnight trip abroad; go out when the weather isn’t perfect.
- Fuel – think about it. Make sure you have a comfortable allowance for headwinds / a delay to rejoin / the airfield suddenly closing to arrivals (it does happen). But don’t waste climb performance refuelling to 7 hours’ endurance if you’re only going out for half an hour. Check that fuel is available at the destination – and, if abroad, that it can be paid for by credit card / cash and a fuel card isn’t needed. Make sure that fuel load, passengers and baggage don’t take you over MTOW. A C172 might cope with it but a 140hp PA28 won’t get off the ground.
- Have all the charts – including for diversion airports. Make sure they’re up-to-date and show the local reporting points. A ground chart and a stands chart is essential at larger airports.
- Fly high. Unless headwinds or airspace prevent it, cruise at a high altitude. There is generally less traffic, radio reception is better, tailwinds are stronger, glide time is longer, and you get to the destination quicker with a well-planned high speed descent.
- During flight, plan ahead. Get the ATIS. Retune the radio. Plan the descent. Have the ground chart to hand. Ask for a handover if your workload is high. If you want fuel on arrival, make the request so you get the right taxi instructions.
- Have a phone or iPad with internet – it makes life much easier for filing flight plans, getting phone numbers, requesting PPR online (e.g. Biggin Hill), getting the current weather, filing GARs, emailing a handling agent to advise delays, etc.
- Don’t forget to put the gear down. Teach yourself every time you turn onto final to check (actually look at the lights) – is the gear down? You, the flying club, other hirers and the airport authorities are all going to be really hacked off by a gear-up landing.