According to recent research conducted by the University of Reading in the UK, many tonnes of fuel could be saved by airlines, (and therefore many tonnes of greenhouse gases) if they planned to always fly in favourable winds whilst crossing the Atlantic.
The study found that commercial flights between New York and London last winter could have used up to 16% less fuel if they had made better use of the fast-moving winds at altitude.
New satellites will soon allow transatlantic flights to be tracked more accurately while remaining a safe distance apart. This opportunity could allow aircraft to be more flexible in their flight paths, in order to more accurately follow favourable tailwinds and avoid headwinds, offering the aviation sector a cheaper and more immediate way of cutting emissions than through advances in technology.
The report stated: “Current transatlantic flight paths mean aircraft are burning more fuel and emitting more carbon dioxide than they need to”.
“Although winds are taken into account to some degree when planning routes, considerations such as reducing the total cost of operating the flight are currently given a higher priority than minimising the fuel burn and pollution.”
This needs to be put into context.
Way back in time, I used to create flight plans professionally. This was done by hand and was sometimes quite time consuming, and required careful study of aeronautical charts, upper air weather, including icing levels, and any forecast areas of turbulence.
The charts would also be checked to see the locations of forecast Jetstream activity.
A quick explanation here about Jetstreams. Jetstreams are caused by two factors. Firstly, solar heating, which causes massive air movements, combined with the effects of the earth’s rotation (The Coriolis Effect).
At lower levels, these air movements are known as Trade Winds, and two hundred years ago, clipper sailing ships used them very effectively to transport goods relatively quickly around the globe, hence the name.
Most weather phenomena is generated in the troposphere, which extends from the surface up to high altitude (30’000 feet at the poles, and 56,000 feet at the equator), and it is at these upper levels that we find the jetstreams.
Jetstreams are defined as winds with a minimum speed of more than 70 knots (80 mph), and often they may exceed 220 knots (250 mph) and so it makes economic sense to make use of them.
This has been recognised by the aviation airspace regulators, and specific routings that take advantage of the jetstreams have been in place for many years.
Each night, weather data for trans-oceanic flights is analysed, and tracks are optimised to use the flows sensibly.
Flights crossing the Atlantic use a system known as NATS (North Atlantic Track System). In simple terms, a number of tracks are generated for both easterly and westerly traffic that will enable aircraft to benefit from a tailwind, or at least a reduced headwind.
These tracks will move north and south over the Atlantic according to the weather and the predicted positions of jetstreams; sometimes tracks will start to the north of Scotland, and terminate in the far north east of Canada.
On other occasions tracks will run to the south of the UK, and cross the southern part of the north Atlantic joining the continental air route systems as far south as the Canadian/US Border.
So, flights across the Atlantic already have some basic fuel saving principles built in advance. The same system operates for flight crossing the Pacific Ocean, known as PACOT tracks. They run between the western seaboard of the USA and Japan and Asian destinations.
However, times move on, and grey-haired aviation expertise has been replaced in almost every arena with technology.
Modern computer-based flight planning systems are extremely sophisticated, and use some advanced algorithms to plan with even better accuracy.
Every nation has the right to charge a fee to every aircraft that uses its airspace. Airspace charges may be based on the time that the flight remains within that state’s territory.
So, modern flight planning systems will look at every aspect of the flight. It will perform calculations that compare fuel burn with overflight charges.
Sometimes, whilst flying in a Jetstream will burn less fuel, it may mean that the flight will pass through airspace with relatively expensive overflight charges. If the overflight charges amount to more than the cost of fuel, then the system will plan to use the cheaper route, and therefore save money overall.
Airlines also use a system known as Cost Index to further optimise the flight costs.
This is basically a system that compares the direct operating costs of the flight, with the cost of the fuel being used. If the direct operating costs (crew wages, navigation charges, cost of galleys and airframe hours – affecting the amount of maintenance required) are more than the cost of fuel, the system will plan to fly faster, burning more fuel in order to get on the ground faster. Conversely, if the fuel is more expensive than the direct operating costs it makes sense to fly slower, burning less fuel.
Airlines are extremely cost conscious, and low-cost carriers will do everything they can to reduce and eliminate costs wherever possible. For example, Ryanair removed paper safety cards as they wear out and need replacing. Now, their safety information is riveted to each seatback.
Some carriers do not serve peanuts, as if they drop into the seat mounting rails, they take time to remove, and time is money.
So, persuading airlines to always optimise their routes and use high speed Jetstreams to the fullest extent may take some time.
A few days ago, I decided to have a clear up of my home office. Not an especially huge task, as the office isn’t especially huge. Being a writer and pilot, my office has been filled over the years with books. Lots of books. There are many technical ones related to the science of aviation; books on meteorology, aerodynamics, instructional techniques, instrument flight, and aircraft systems. I also have books on human factors, crew resource management, psychology, and airline economics.
The shelves are further filled with books on aviation warfare, history, and fiction covering a wide variety of subjects from science fiction to comedy.
The tops of the overcrowded bookcases are laden with aviation related objects that have sentimental attachment for me, such as the very large model of an American Airlines 767, presented to me when I was Special Services Manager for the Company at Stansted airport.
There is the large-scale model of Concorde, which I bought when the Queen of the Skies was retired in October 2003. The vintage Sailplane barograph, the steam-punk top hat.
Steampunk top hat?
Yes, you did read that correctly. I’ve been involved in amateur dramatics for virtually all of my adult life, taking many roles from an Ugly Sister in the pantomime Cinderella, to Billy Liar, and more recently the Duke in Wyrd Sisters, Terry Pratchett’s adaption of Macbeth. The play was further adapted by our Producer, and all costumes were steam punk, hence, the steam punk top hat.
Amongst the variegated items of aviation clutter, I came across a small figurine, a dumpy little effigy of a schoolmaster, complete with a mortar board and cane.
I smiled, as I was instantly catapulted back about 25 years, back to the time in which I was lecturing in Aviation Studies at East Surrey College, in Redhill, UK.
The little figurine had been shyly presented to me by a member of my class, on the final lecture prior to the end of course exams – in this case the City and Guilds technical examinations in Flight Operations and Despatch, which included modules on fuel planning, flight planning, aircraft performance and load and balance.
The students in my class that year were an eclectic bunch. Two cabin attendants, Jo and Abby, three check in agents, one aircraft engineer, a ticketing agent, a flight operations agent from a ground handling agent, all in their early thirties.
Then there was Bill.
Bill must have been in his late fifties, and collected baggage trolleys at Gatwick airport, a job that he had done for years.
Due to the relatively intense and practical nature of the course, student numbers were limited to ten, so prior to the course, I would go through the student application forms and weed out those that didn’t have the academic qualifications or vocational experience to do the course. I made a point of having a private chat with every student, to discover their motivations, aspirations, and prior experience. Almost every one of them were doing it for promotional or career advancement.
Bill quietly explained to me that he woke up one morning, and realised that he had done nothing with his life, was in a dead-end job, and at his age had no hope of doing anything better. He loved aeroplanes, and when he saw the course advertised, he applied.
He looked me in the eye, and said “I know I’m probably not good enough to get through the course, Mister Charlwood, but I would like to give it a go, if you would be willing to accept me onto the course.”
When I reviewed the applications earlier, I had read his submission, and his simple request to “give it a go”.
I had already decided that I would enrol him into my class, and would review his progress at the end of the first term.
“OK Bill,” I smiled, “Let’s see how you get on. You’re in!”
He gave me a weak smile, and thanked me profusely.
So, there we were, a few weeks later, on the first session of the 32-week course. and the room was filled with the happy buzz of expectant chatter. I looked round the class. Nine. I only had nine students. Everyone was present except Bill.
I was filled with disappointment. He had seemed so keen, but had obviously got cold feet, and decided not to attend.
I was just commencing the introduction to the course, when the door opened, and Bill appeared.
“I am so sorry I’m Late Mr. Charlwood, I got held up leaving work”
“Not a problem, Bill, take a seat, you’ve missed nothing so far. And it’s Mark, not Mr. Charlwood”
He quietly made his way to the back seats, sitting as far away as possible from the other members of the class, and pulled a notebook from a battered rucksack.
I continued with my introduction, and it wasn’t long before we were exploring the fundamentals of Flight Operations, and the basics of the multitude of things that must be done correctly and efficiently in order for just one aeroplane to take flight.
Over the weeks, I came to know and respect my class, and to enjoy their company. They came to enjoy my bad jokes and my irreverent approach to academia.
Judy, the flight operations agent was a real live wire, and having a lot of practical knowledge had already started the course with an advantage. Curious, and with a blunt approach and a sharp sense of humour, she was already showing a good understanding, but sometimes had trouble combining academic requirements with the practical exercises.
Airline flight planning and despatch was conducted predominantly with computers and there was little requirement for manually planning a flight, and I think she found learning the secrets of what the computer did in the background a bit challenging.
On the other hand, she would often ask deep questions related to why her company’s flight planning and despatch system did not precisely follow the ICAO rules or CAA requirements. This sometimes led to me doing significant amounts of digging and the calling in of numerous favours from friends and contacts across the airline.
My course required that students could completely plan a flight without the use of a computer, so I was teaching the manual way of doing everything, and this did cause a few problems for all of the class from time to time.
The weeks flew past, and everyone was making good progress, and seemed to be enjoying themselves (as I was) and nobody had dropped out. I hadn’t had to flunk anyone either, so a win-win all round. I considered this a good sign.
On the final lecture of the first term, I had set a mock exam, which was very similar to the final exam. Everyone trooped in, and there was a glum atmosphere. None of the usual light-hearted banter.
I placed a paper on each student’s desk, and gave them their instructions. I had given them an hour to complete the paper, and then they could go a grab a coffee from the cafeteria, and I would quickly mark the papers, and give them their marks and a feedback session in the second hour. I would also give them some reading to do over the half term break, and brief them on the subjects to be covered in the next term.
The room fell totally silent, and I reclined my chair, and propped my feet up on the up-turned waste bin, observing the bent heads, listening to the scratching of pencils on paper.
Jo was chewing the end of her pencil as a dog would gnaw on a bone, and Abby was writing rapidly, silently dictating her words as she wrote. Everyone was concentrating and I wondered how they would get on. One of the guys from check-in was gazing at the ceiling with rapt attention, and the other was staring out of the window. Bill was head down, writing. The aircraft engineer had phoned in sick, and the reservations agent was on a late shift. These guys could do the paper at home, and send it back to me for marking.
It was no surprise to me that Judy finished first, with fifteen minutes to go. She dropped her paper on my desk, blew me a kiss, and made her way silently from the room.
“Fifteen minutes left” I announced, and picked up her paper to review it.
I swiftly marked it. 85%. Not a bad mark, but silly mistakes. Failing to read the question is a common problem. Also, maybe a bit of rushing involved? Inaccuracies in interpreting a meteorological forecast may seem minor at college, but in real-world operations, lack of attention to detail in such things could lead to a flight encountering dangerous conditions.
At my five-minute call, the rest of the class quietly placed their completed papers on my desk, and left the room.
All except Bill, who was still head down, writing.
“Times Up” I called softly, and Bill handed me his paper, and he too silently left the room.
Opening my thermos, I poured myself a large coffee, and steadily marked the papers. I was pleased, as everyone had hit at least 80%.
Bill had scored 100% in his first test.
Fifteen minutes later, the class filed back in, this time chatting animatedly, flushed with post-test relief.
I leaned back in my chair, and informed them that they could all congratulate themselves, as everyone had achieved far more than the required 75%, and read them their marks.
I think that Judy was a little shocked that she had been beaten into second place – but not as shocked as Bill was, when he realised that he was the top of the class.
At the end of the class, I wished them all well, and told them to go away and enjoy the half term – a fortnight of not having to listen to me drone on about the black arts of meteorology or the selection of cruising flight levels. I warned them that the next term would be equally challenging, as we would be happily delving into the joys of fuel planning.
I was touched that each one of them came by my desk, and thanked me.
He was still slowly packing his books into his rucksack. I strolled over to his desk.
I grinned, and said “So, Bill, it looks like you have done very well this term. I trust that I will see you in a fortnight?”
“Mr. Charlwood” He began.
“You will always be Mr. Charlwood to me” he said quietly. “I can’t believe that I am still here. I never dreamt that I could do this. It’s been so fascinating. I will be back”
He diffidently proffered his hand, which I shook warmly.
Over the following terms, every individual confronted their own impenetrable problems. Abby had a blind spot about load and balance, Jo finally understood the difference between track and heading, and Judy had really struggled with calculating some aspects of aircraft performance.
Over the years, I have always tried to create an environment where students feel encouraged to challenge, question and share their own experiences. Within the first two classes, the ice had been broken and the students had become a group of friends, who would happily ask questions, and get involved.
Bill had developed slowly over the course. Initially, he rarely put his hand up, either to ask a question, or to answer one. By the middle of the third term he was a regular contributor to the course, and showed that he had good understanding of the topics.
In the last four weeks before the exam, I had conducted revision sessions, with some mock exams, and I was happy to see that all of the class had a reasonably good chance of passing the exam, and most would get at least 80% and be awarded a pass with credit.
Bill’s marks were excellent. He had made virtually a clean sweep in my mock exams with an average mark of 96% – enough for a Distinction.
So, provided that none of them had a serious problem, I calculated that my class would get 2 Distinctions, 6 Credits and 2 Passes. Not a bad score.
I gave the class their marks, together with some individual feedback on how they could improve, and told them that the next time I would see them would be on the day of the exam.
We then mutually decided that a trip to the Flying Scud would be in order, and the end of term celebration was a happy occasion.
Exam day finally arrived, a bright, sunny June morning, so wishing them good luck, I watched them troop into the exam room, and then wandered out to sit on the bench outside to catch up on my book, and enjoy a coffee.
One by one they came out, each one looking relieved. I asked every one of them how they felt they did, and did they feel that they were adequately prepared. I felt very relieved when they all said yes to my last question!
8 weeks later, I dropped by the college in order to open the securely sealed envelope containing their marks. I would have the pleasure of calling each one of them before sending the slips out.
It seemed that my prediction was wrong. 8 Credits and 2 Distinctions!
After making the phone calls, I smiled to myself.
I had got my students through a pretty tough course; sometimes gritting my teeth in frustration as they stumbled through the science of meteorology, or the witchcraft known as scheduled performance. The look on a confused face when understanding was finally achieved.
I was proud of all of my class. They had all done very well, and would make good progress in their chosen careers.
Except for Bill.
I regarded Bill as my true success story. He was the hero of my class, as he came onto the course with virtually no hope, and had already consigned himself to the scrap heap. I still have the hand-written letter that he sent me, thanking me for getting him through the course, and telling me that I had inspired him!
If only he knew.
It was Bill that presented me with that little figurine of a portly, moustachioed teacher – nothing like me I assure you. I heard from Bill a few years later, and he had got himself a job in Flight Operations and had reinvented himself completely.
Oh, and in the two years that I worked with him, I never did manage to break him of the habit of calling me Mister Charlwood.
So, now, I had better get back to the original task of tidying the office, which I interrupted to write this.
Aviation is fixated, quite correctly, on in-flight safety. From the humblest sailplane or microlight to the mightiest 747, safety procedures have to be completed, to ensure that aircraft don’t drop out of the skies like confetti.
Before any aircraft takes flight, it’s crew must conduct a thorough inspection to make sure that it is in a fit state to fly. Cabin attendants will check every door and overhead locker, and ensure that all of their required safety equipment is in place.
Their pilot colleagues will also be checking all flight systems thoroughly. There are two elements to this – the internal cockpit checks, and what is known in the trade, as the “walk-around” or the exterior preflight inspection.
Each item to be inspected is laid out in the Flight Crew Operating Manual, or FCOM, and follows a carefully planned and logical sequence so that no item is left unchecked.
As an instructor, strict adherence to procedures is part of my everyday working life.
Here is my lighthearted look at the external walk-around procedure for the Boeing B747-400.
I think it’s a little better than writing about the procedure I follow on my own, much smaller aeroplane.
Whilst our Jumbo’s on the ground, Before each flight, we must walk round, And carefully check so many things, Are engines fixed, likewise the wings, Are panels shut, are windows clean, Do nav lights work, do lenses gleam, And as a safety-conscious fellow, Be sure to wear your vest of yellow, To help you check before night flight, Be sure to use your bright flashlight, Do just what the FCOM says, Check the tyres, and gear door bays, Check the cowls, and drain mast pipes, Inspect the engine pylon stripes, Look at the fin, and check the slats, The lightning wicks, and Fowler flaps, For safety’s sake – what could be worse? Than looking forwards whilst in reverse! Check the brakes and steering too, The vacuum outlet for the loo, The outflow valve, the pitot head, Oh boy – you should have stayed in bed, Cos whilst you check in pouring rain, The captains in the warm – AGAIN!
I met up with my friend Greg in the Cafe in the flying club. It was 0830 on a slightly overcast summer morning.
Sitting down with mugs of tea, and an egg and bacon sandwich each, we reviewed my proposed route.
We would be flying from my home base of Redhill Aerodrome in Surrey (about 4.0 nautical miles NNE of London’s Gatwick Airport (EGKK), and about 20nm SE of Heathrow Airport EGLL) to Newquay Airport (EGHQ) to meet up with Neil, a fellow pilot and an Air Traffic Control Officer.
We finished our breakfast and pulled out the charts and the NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) and a meteorological forecast. There was nothing in the NOTAMs to affect our flight, but a check of the Met showed scattered rain showers along our route, blowing in from the south west.
Knowing that Greg had far more hours than me, I asked his opinion, and he remarked that he would go, and see what it was like enroute, and if it looked to be deteriorating, then we could return – adding that as I was the aircraft commander (and the owner!) it was my decision.
I decided that we would go, making the Surrey city of Guildford my Go/No-Go waypoint. If it was poor weather by the time I got to Guildford, some twenty miles west of the field, I would make turn back.
We wandered out to Betty Boo, and did a quick yet thorough pre-flight inspection.
I swiftly started the engine, called the tower for a radio check and traffic information, and was given permission to taxi for runway 26 Right. the shorter of the two grass runways.
It was a quick taxy. There was nothing to hold us up – a midweek morning, and all the school aircraft were already either thrashing round the circuit, or had disappeared into the local area. I weaved my way across the grass, and joined Taxiway A to hold short at A2.
Swinging the Super Cub into the wind, I conducted the vital actions checks, and completed a run up. Waggling the flight controls reassured me that everything was correctly attached, and after conducting a pre-departure briefing, I called the tower “Betty Boo ready for departure” Very unofficial RT procedures, but, hey, it was very quiet and the controller said it first!
“Betty Boo, cleared for take off Runway 26 Right, surface wind 250 at 5 kts”
I made the acknowledgment, and said to Greg “Ready to go mate?”
“Go for it” came back through my headset.
I eased the throttle open, and gently taxied onto the threshold, marked out on the grass with white paint.
“Betty Boo Rolling” I called, and received a terse “Roger” from the tower.
I held the stick forward, applied the power smoothly, correcting the swing with rudder. The tail came up quickly, and within a few seconds we were making the magical transition from ugly duckling to elegant swan, the engine purring smoothly as we climbed away.
Clearing the Aerodrome, I was directed to depart via west Reigate, and the Buckland Visual Reporting Point.
As we climbed to 1500 feet, and looked west, I must admit, that it didn’t look too promising; hazy with a light grey gauze draped across my intended route.
I had a plan, and I was going to stick to it, so we continued westwards, to pass to the south of Guildford.
The weather goblins had other ideas.
East of Guildford, I got the first lashings of rain, the water droplets hitting the windscreen, and then being bullied by the slipstream to rush in rivulets round the sides of the canopy.
I applied carburettor heat, and immediately made a 180 degree turn, saying to Greg “This is a fabric winged aircraft, I am recovering back to Redhill”
“Sound decision” came his nonchalant response.
I called Redhill, and explained that we were returning, to be told that a heavy shower was passing through, overhead the field, and that I should aim to re-join for runway 26 Left via the motorway junction.
Winding the airfield pressure into the altimeter, I ran through the descent checks, and suggested to Greg that we do a few circuits as it would be good practice.
He thought that was a good idea as well, so I called the tower and requested that we do a missed approach, followed by a touch and go, and then maybe some non-standard landings.
The tower quickly approved this, saying that there were no other aircraft currently in the circuit, and to call on final approach.
I brought the power back, and trimmed us for a nice steady 60 mph, planning to reduce to 50 mph on short final. I pegged the altimeter on 1300 feet as I didn’t want to run the risk of infringing class A airspace as I was flying in.
It all seemed to be working out. I was flying through clear air, but although the rain had stopped, looking west, it was still coming in. I calculated that I had about half an hour in the circuit – maybe three turns round the field.
The motorway junction was on the nose, and as I crossed it, I rolled South, roughly paralleling the M23 London to Brighton motorway.
A few minutes later, I banked right, bringing Betty Boo into line with the runway, calling on the radio that I was on final approach for a missed approach.
Having received my clearance, I continued to descend, and at 200 feet, turned off the carburettor heat, and applied full power, climbing away back into the circuit. I progressively cleaned the airframe up, moving the flap lever in easy stages, and retrimming for straight and level.
The downwind leg was uneventful, and I called the tower, requesting a touch and go.
“Call Finals” was the response from ATC, and so I started descending, putting on carburettor heat, and taking the flaps as before. At 200 feet, carburettor heat cold, ready for the go around.
I had nailed the airspeed at 55 mph, and came across the threshold at the correct height.
Bleeding off the power, I gently pitched back into a three-point attitude, and she sank onto the grass.
A couple of rumbles and some gentle bumping, holding her straight with rudder, I smoothly applied full power, and pitched back up into a best rate of climb attitude as required by the airfield regulations.
I had reached about 150 feet when the engine stuttered, popping and juddering, and the RPM was dropping rapidly backwards round the gauge!
I instantly shoved the nose forwards, my hands making the checks unbidden – Magnetos, Mixture, Fuel, Primer, Carb Heat. Everything was correctly configured and where it should be.
The engine was now winding back, giving virtually no power, but I managed to ease another 100 feet out of her.
I slammed away the landing flap, and gently rolled right, hearing the controllers calm voice saying:
“Betty Boo, the field is yours, land wherever, Cessna Golf Charlie Whiskey hold in your current position, I’ll call you back”
My throat was dry, and I concentrated on not stalling, descending in a gentle right-hand turn. Airspeed…. must keep airspeed… I couldn’t risk looking at the Air Speed Indicator – I was doing this by feel and sound. Thank god for all the sailplane experience.
The runway was under the nose, so I rolled wings level, and deadsticked about halfway down the grass, leaving me another 400 metres if I had needed it.
I allowed the speed to wash off, not touching the brakes, and vacated off the runway so that it could still be used.
“Good landing mate”
I jumped. I had almost forgotten that Greg was sitting there in the back cockpit.
“Thanks” I responded. “Not quite how I saw today playing out, but I’m glad we are in one piece.”
We exited the cockpit, and waited for the Ops car to arrive.
The airfield manager duly arrived, and having reassured himself that we were safe, and that the aeroplane and airfield were undamaged, he asked us to push the aircraft further from the runway and secure it and park it and he would arrange for it to be towed to the hangar when the airfield closed.
He kindly gave us both a lift to the hangar.
The aftermath of this, is that I submitted a full report, with my conclusion – that I had been the victim of carburettor icing.
I subsequently discussed this with a very experienced Cub instructor pilot, and he suggested that the Continental engines fitted to this type were highly susceptible to icing. When he heard that a rain shower had passed through about half an hour prior to my touch and go, he was convinced that the short ground roll had ingested enough water to cause icing in the carburettor leading to loss of power and subsequent engine failure.
Now, I learned a BIG lesson from this.
When I was taught to fly, all of my instructors emphasised that carburettor heat should be selected during the approach to land, and should be switched to cold as part of the after landing checks.
They also said that if a landing was baulked – a touch and go, the carburettor heat should be selected COLD, so as to ensure full power availability for the climb out.
This is what I had done in the Super Cub. As soon as I had touched down, I selected COLD, and as a result, there was no warm air running through they system to protect me from the ice caused by the water ingestion.
As this happened a while ago, I decided to review my various checklists. They all state that the Carburettor Heat is selected HOT for the approach, and moved to cold for a baulked landing.
So – my first ever MAYDAY. A sphincter-clenching moment, but one that made me do a lot of introspection. Did I do the right thing?
Looking back, maybe I made the wrong decision to risk a long-distance flight in a fabric-covered aircraft when rain and maybe marginal VFR was forecast? Had I decided not to fly, then I would have never placed myself and my aeroplane into a risk situation – albeit a risk that I had not foreseen or even fully understood.
My aircraft handling skills were not wanting, and the drills that I had practiced so many times were virtually automatic.
The aeroplane was undamaged. The crew were safe and uninjured. A successful outcome.
The following day I discovered that the engineers wanted to be absolutely sure there were no technical issues that could have caused the engine failure. They therefore stripped down the entire fuel system. They only found some minor contamination, so the verdict was that I had encountered engine icing.
What did I learn?
I learnt that an engine can ingest sufficient water from wet grass in a landing roll of 180 metres to fail the engine less than a minute later.
Flying is a serious addiction. It needs feeding, and a sufferer will need to get a regular fix if he or she is to remain happy. Denying any aviator their flying fix will result in massive mood swings, irritability, loss of sense of humour, and a restlessness that is impossible to shift.
Having passed my written examinations for my ATPL in the UK, I needed to build my flying experience, and amass a considerable number of hours in a relatively short time.
Working in Flight Operations for a major British Airline, meant that I had access to heavily discounted airfares, and in some cases free tickets and as flying light aircraft in the USA was half the price of flying in the UK, it made sense to go to America.
Readers of my previous posts will know that I learned to fly in Fort Worth near Dallas, however, I wanted to do my hours building in an area where I could partake of other leisure activities when not flying.
This left me with two choices; Florida or California. I did a lot of research on the two states, and their flying schools, and decided to go to Southern California, initially to Fullerton Municipal (KFUL) and then to Long Beach (KLGB).
As I had friends in Southern California, I frequently combined flying with chilling out in either Rancho Santa Margarita or Dana Point. This naturally involved drinking beer, shooting the breeze, and in some cases, shooting firearms on a friends ranch.
Which brings me to the point of this article. There is always one person that you will meet in aviation who is a true professional and leaves a lasting and indelible impression upon you, stamping their ethos onto your soul.
I met that man in February 2002, at Long Beach Airport.
I had landed at LAX the previous afternoon and planned my stay in such a way as to maximise my flying time. I booked a hotel near Long Beach Airport and drove there from LAX so that I could be at the flying club first thing the next day.
Walking into the flying club, I chatted with the ops desk clerk and told him that I wanted to book an aeroplane and an instructor. I had decided that I would use the hours building opportunity to do the differences training onto a new aeroplane type, and I was offered a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. I was told that Harry was available and that they would ring him for me to discuss times with him.
When the call connected, I explained to Harry what I wanted to do, that I wanted to convert onto a new type and to undertake my biennial flight review.
“Sure,” he said, “The airplane is booked at 1500, for a two-hour slot. So, meet me at the club at 1430, we’ll go through the paperwork, and briefing. Then we will go and sit in the airplane for an hour, going through the drills and talking about the performance. You gotta pay for my time whatever, but you only pay for the airplane once the engine is running, so better to do the classroom stuff on the ground, then we can concentrate on having fun and flying”
Putting down the ‘phone, I smiled. Harry sounded a nice bloke. He’d saved me a good few dollars, so I decided to invest in a new checklist, a chart, and other bits and bobs in the pilot shop.
When I say bits and bobs, I mean a new Noise Cancelling Headset and a RAM mount for my GPS navigation unit.
I read the club rules, signed the books, and reviewed the departure procedures and any long term NOTAMs that would affect me the next day. I decided that I would leave the route plan up to Harry, and just see what happened.
The next morning was gloomy and foggy, typical LA Basin weather, but if it was true to form it would have burnt off by about 1400, so happy days.
I grabbed a quick hotel breakfast, and glugged back a mug of coffee, and then drove to the airport.
Parking up, I walked up the stairs to the club, grabbed another coffee, and went and sat on the balcony overlooking the ramp. On the far side of the airport, the Sheriff Department’s helicopter sat forlornly on the parking, and I could see a C-17 being towed into the McDonnell-Douglas (now Boeing) hangar.
I killed the time reading the Pilots Operating Handbook for the Cessna C172 SP Skyhawk and chatting with the other students and club pilots. After a relaxed lunch of a grilled sandwich washed down with Sprite, I went back into the ops room to meet Harry.
Harry wandered in at 1430, carrying his clipboard, headset, chart and a small case. About my height, but with at least ten years seniority on me. He had a luxuriant moustache, which emphasised his happy smile.
We shook hands, and after a few pleasantries, went down to the aircraft, where he patiently went through the controls with me, paying special attention to the fact that this was an injected engine – different to the normally aspirated models that I had flown previously.
He conducted a brief questions and answers session with me, then briefed for the departure out of Long Beach. It was as I remembered, straight out, a left turn at the Los Angeles River, and down to the Queen Mary, where we would turn south.
The route was down to San Diego via Mount Palomar. Cool. I swiftly drew lines on the chart, and calculated times and headings, corrected with a quick call to 1-800-WX-BRIEF for an en-route weather briefing.
Then it was back to the aircraft.
Harry leaned back in the right-hand seat, looked across at me, and said, “OK, It’s your airplane, I’m just here for the ride.”
So saying, he looked out of the window, as I called Long Beach ground for taxi clearance, and requested a squawk for SOCAL approach Southbound to San Diego.
I frantically scribbled the clearance down, together with the Squawk; I was surely not used to the machine-gun-fast radio in the US.
We taxied out, number two to a Douglas DC-3, and stopped at the holding point to do the vital actions and pre-flight checks.
Once the DC-3 had departed, I lined up and asked Harry if he was happy and good to go.
“I’m good” was his laconic response, and I eased the throttle to the stop, and we accelerated down the tarmac, lifting off cleanly, and climbing away into the bright sunlight.
I smiled to myself. My prediction was correct – the maritime layer had burnt off nicely, and the sky was bright blue.
I changed frequencies to SOCAL approach, and they immediately had me identified on radar and cleared me to the south as filed. Crossing the LA River – which flows through a concreted canal, I rolled into a left turn and then left again to parallel the coast, gently climbing to my planned cruise altitude.
Interestingly, the Los Angeles River has been used in several movies, with probably the most famous ones being Grease, Terminator 2 and The Dark Knight Rises.
I could see Emmy and Eva the two oil platforms out ahead near the shoreline and some large cargo ships entering the Port of Los Angeles at Long Beach.
Harry seemed quite happy with my performance so far and once I had the aircraft trimmed out for straight and level flight, Harry came to life, as if energised by a switch in the cockpit.
He asked me to demonstrate several manoeuvres and spotted a number of areas where he thought I could improve my flying. Climbing a little higher, he had me stalling in every configuration, steep turns, timed turns, slow flight and practice engine failures.
At the end of each feedback session, he would get me to repeat the manoeuvre, and if I did it to his satisfaction, he would murmur “There ya go” If not, it was more practice required.
Having performed all of this he asked me to plan a diversion to Los Alamitos Army Air Base.
This made me work hard. The grilled cheese and ham sandwich and can of Sprite I scoffed earlier was conspiring against me, aided and abetted by the turbulence. I had to be head down in order to plan the divert (No Sky Demon moving maps then!), and I was grateful that the planning didn’t take too long, as I really didn’t want to toss my cookies in the aeroplane.
I rolled the aircraft onto my calculated heading and guessed at a wind correction, and we flew inland towards Los Al, descending at a pedestrian 500 feet per minute.
Harry leaned over and stared hard at my chart and the planned diversion, and then peered at the Direction Indicator. “That oughta work,” he said softly. After a few flights with Harry, I came to recognise this as high praise.
He leaned back into his seat, idly tapping his fingers on the glareshield.
“Hey, Y’know what would be good here… You done a talkdown before?”
I had never undertaken any Precision Approach Radar approaches, even during my instrument training, so this was going to be good.
Harry then said that he would take the radios and that I should concentrate on flying the aircraft.
I continued to descend, and Harry took control briefly and told me to put the hood on.
Once I was wearing the hood, he relinquished the controls. “She’s all yours” he grinned.
For the non-flying types that may be reading this, the “hood” is a smoked plastic visor designed to prevent a pilot from looking out of the windows, thus forcing them to fly using the flight instruments as their sole source of reference to navigate and control the aircraft safely.
I was now working at the extreme boundary of my performance envelope if I am honest. I was jet-lagged, and mentally tired, bearing in mind that this was my first flight for about a month.
Listening intently to the stream of instructions from the Radar Approach controller, I was constantly adjusting the power, rate of descent and heading. We were also getting lower and lower until finally the controller called “Radar Service Terminated”
Harry flipped my visor up, and there ahead of me was the main runway of Los Alamitos right under the nose.
“Will ya look at that! That came together nicely. Now, Go Around, and take me back to Long Beach, and we will have a coffee and a chat about what we should do tomorrow.”
The rest of the flight was almost routine, and I made a standard approach to Rwy 30 and an uneventful landing.
Switching to Long Beach Ground, we were cleared back to the flying club parking and as we taxied sedately back, Harry was giving me more feedback.
Pulling onto a vacant pan, I slowed the aircraft to a halt and performed the shutdown checks.
As the propellor jerked to a stop, the cabin became almost silent. I say almost, because the whine of the gyros spooling down and the ticking of the engine cooling reminded me that I still needed to secure the aeroplane.
We both got out, unplugging our headsets, and chatting amiably in the early evening sunshine.
Popping the control locks in, and removing the key, I made a final check that the master switch was off, before slamming the door and locking it.
I swiftly snapped the tie-down chains onto the lugs under the wings and walked around the aircraft tail to help Harry.
As I approached him, he held out something to me in his hand.
I took the item; it was a C90 cassette. I must have looked at him blankly, because he clapped me on the back, saying “Its an audio cassette, feller”
He reached back into the rear seat area and pulled out a small tape recorder. He had plugged it into the intercom jack in the rear cabin, so I had a complete record of the entire flight; his training, my responses, and the Air Traffic conversations.
He did this for every student that he took on an instructional flight. He made no charge for this. Not only was he an excellent instructor, from whom I learnt so much, but he was generous of spirit, and we flew many subsequent flights, where I was to enjoy his skilled instructing and excellent sense of humour.
His comedic muscle was well-developed. I remember that a few months later, I emailed him from England before my next arrival saying I wanted to do some interesting, longer navigation exercises, and he sent me a reply by email with a number of airfields to visit, together with web-links.
The suggestions were:
Las Vegas Muni, Santa Barbara, and the Chicken Ranch in Nevada…
I duly checked the links, to discover the Chicken Ranch was a brothel with its own airstrip.
I called him from the UK to explain that I didn’t think that SWMBO would be too enamoured of me visiting the Chicken Ranch.
He was roaring with laughter, as he said that he was thankful that I didn’t want to go there because his wife would be equally unhappy.
So, we went to Santa Barbara, but that’s another story.
Sadly, my mentor, instructor and friend died when his parachute failed to open at Perris Field in Southern California in October 2008.
After all these years, I still have four of Harry’s C90 cassettes, which I need to get digitised. I am sure there is still information that I can learn from.
Blue Skies Harry.
See you at the bar in the Big Flying Club in the Sky.
In September 2005 I decided that I needed a new flying challenge. I was stale. I completed my Instrument Rating a few years prior, together with my Multi Engine Rating, and Night Rating. I needed to rejuvenate my flying mojo. To do that I required a new challenge.
I was fortunate that I had been able to put some of the more interesting types of aeroplane into my logbook since getting my licence in 1989.
Through both training schools and friends, I had been privileged to sample the delights of many different aeroplanes. Reviewing my logbooks, I see many different types, from 1930s biplanes to Modern Hot ships.
Whilst I had flown a good number of tailwheel aircraft, and had handled them, I hadn’t completed formalised differences training which is required in the United Kingdom to fly one.
The necessary training was a short course consisting of a minimum of 5 hours flying time. Naturally, this was open-ended, and the number of hours required to complete the training is dependent upon flying ability and aptitude.
I flogged round the circuit at Redhill Airfield in G-BMKB, a Piper PA-18 Super Cub under the guidance of my instructor, Jim. Jim was a highly experienced tailwheel pilot, despite him being in his early twenties.
My general handling abilites seemed to be fine. Take offs were, shall we say, interesting in the early days, but with practice I could get the tail up and correct the swing nicely.
Landings however, were a different matter. My early attempt saw the little aeroplane leap back into the air like a startled Kangaroo, or slalom left and right as I wrestled with the rudder pedals to stop it chasing its own tail.
Jim normally sorted things out, and it wasn’t long before I could land the aircraft nicely in a three point attitude. I didn’t like wheeler landings – and still don’t, but I regarded them as a necessary evil.
I see that I completed my training in the minimum hours required, and have a nice sticker in my logbook proclaiming that I was comptent to fly more interesting types.
Towards the end of August in 2007, I decided that I would invest in a group-owned aircraft. A colleague at British Airways said that he wanted to get rid of his share in a Super Cub based at Redhill, and the price was right.
On a Sunny Saturday, I arranged to meet him and he would let me fly it prior to the sale.
I arrived at Redhill to find the aircraft sitting on the ramp outside the hangar.
I was walking towards the aircraft when I received a text message telling me that the seller was delayed by half an hour and that I should “Have a poke about and see what you think”
I did just that.
I opened the window and door, and had a good nose round the cockpit, which looked well kept, clean and tidy. It also had a radio and a VOR. Luxury!
I unclipped the cowling, and took a dekko at the engine, and whilst I was peering intently into the void I heard a voice say “Good Morning, are you interested in buying a share in Betty Boo?”
He looking meaningfully at the registration – G-BTBU
“She’s known by everyone on the field as Betty Boo”
I guess he was in his early sixties, with a mop of grey hair, and oil on his hands.
After a bit of general chit chat, he finally cut to the chase, and asked me about my flying background.
“Are you a shareholder in the group?” I asked. I wasn’t about to give my background without good reason.
“Yes” he replied, “I am. Been in the group for years”
“Well, if you must know, I learned to fly as an Air Cadet about six miles from here at RAF Kenley, back in the seventies”
He fixed me with a steady look, saying “I used to instruct at Kenley in the seventies.”
“What’s your name?” I asked
“I’m Stewart Rhodes.”
“Bloody Hell!” I exclaimed. “Dusty Rhodes! You sent me solo in 1976”
I shook his hand, but I could see that he was not convinced.
Anyway, I ended up buying a share in Betty Boo, and enjoyed flying her, after I had been checked out by Dusty Rhodes.
How weird. Small world?
Yes. The same man taught me in 1976 in a Kirby Cadet MkIII glider, and then sent me off again 31 years later in my own aeroplane.
Stellenbosch Airfield sits 414 feet above sea leavel, just to the South West of the small town of Stellenbosch, in South Africa.
Whilst Stellenbosch may be regarded as a medium-sized town, it does have a population in excess of 77,000 and has its own University.
Stellenbosch is also located squarely in the Cape Winelands, sharing this beautiful area with the towns of Paarl and Franschoek.
We had decided that we wanted to get to know more about South African wines, and what better place to discover the finer points than to tour some of the one hundred and fifty-odd vineyards and wineries along the Stellenbosch Wine Route.
Needless to say, we allowed for a full day of just cruising around the different venues, sampling the wine, and enjoying the Cape Dutch architecture, which I think has a timeless elegance.
So, having had a full day of cruising some lovely countryside, and meeting some really nice people, we drove back to our Bed and Breakfast accommodation to shower and change, and then we hit the town and found a place to eat.
The next day, I had cunningly (or not so cunningly, as SWMBO knew all about it) booked an aeroplane at the Stellenbosch Flying Club. The aircraft was booked for 1400, so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and then had a wander around the town.
Arriving at the Flying Club, I could see that the distant mountains were wreathed in clouds, but it was still VFR, and therefore still flyable.
I was flying with an instructor, as I wanted to see the local area, and after the swift obligatory checks of my licence, ratings and medical, we walked out to ZS-BFC, a Piper PA28-180 Warrior.
A quick preflight inspection and we started up, taxied out, and then we were off, climbing out to the north-west.
Our flight was to route via the Franschhoek Pass, and head south-east down the valley, and then once out of the constraints of the mountains we would turn back northeast, and head up to the small airport of Worcester.
You can tell that this area has been historically influenced by its colonists; Most of the town names were either Dutch-Boer or English – hence Stellenbosch and Paarl, Worcester and Robinson.
In fact, Stellenbosch was actually a British military garrison town during the Boer War (1899-1902).
The climb out was quite turbulent, as there was a reasonable amount of rotor and turbulence rolling off the mountains, and with three onboard, the aircraft was a bit of a handful.
Dirk, the instructor was happy to let me pole the aircraft around, and sat there pointing out landmarks, and giving me headings to steer to enable me to safely enter the Franschhoek Pass. By this time, we were flying quite high, and I was playfully stroking the cumulus with the wingtips, whilst ensuring that I kept in the middle of the valley.
It was alll updrafts and downdrafts, but great fun, and a real experience,
The most thrilling aspect of this for me was that I had never been true mountain flying before. A few years previously, whilst hours building in Southern California, I took training to get checked out to fly in to Big Bear (L35) which sits at an elevation of 6,752 feet.
Part of my lesson back then was to appreciate that even in a turbo-powered Piper Arrow with retractable gear, the rate of climb at 12,000 feet was negligible.
Once over the mountains, dropping down to Big Bear City was fairly simple, but decelerating on touchdown seemed longer. Take off was different too, having to lean the engine before I even lined up, and boy, I used up a hell of a lot of the 1783m of tarmac before I dragged the reluctant aeroplane into the air.
This flight was positively ethereal, creeping down narrow canyons, with the peaks rising majestically either side (and above!), and the dunn browns and ochres of the flatlands slowly morphing into flint greys and olive greens of the mountain passes.
At Dirk’s behest, I rolled the aircraft gently to the right, and the pass we entered almost immediately opened out into a vast valley, illuminated as if it were a religious painting by bright, golden sunlight that bathed the countless vineyards in a golden glow. This highlighted the variegated colours – deep reds, violets, yellows and shades in between.
I imagine that this is the South African version of New England in the fall.
We continued to fly, eventually dipping down into Worcester, where we quickly gained clearance for a touch and go, and thence onwards to the smaller airfield of Robinson, to the east.
Another touch and go, and then we routed back to Stellenbosch using a more northerly routing, returning back via Duiwelskloof Pass, to the east of Paarl, and then back to recover at Stellenbosch.
After landing, and putting the aircraft to bed, we enjoyed a slow meander back into Stellenbosch, to enjoy a great supper washed down with some of the best wines in the world.
I look forward to my next trip abroad.
Maybe I should consider South America? Perhaps Argentina. They should have a few Cessnas and Pipers that I could lay hands on for a potter.