Sunday, 3 March 2013

Flyin' Solo

This morning I headed up to the club nice and early, away from home at 6am with a 2 hour drive out to Cunderdin.  I was rostered on to fill in for another member as the day's logkeeper, a duty I really need to take on a bit more often as I've just filled the committee position of Club Logkeeper and will be responsible for making sure all of the club's logs are kept accurate and up to date for the GFA.  I also hoped that I'd be able to secure a couple of flights to extend on my last trip where I managed to finally go solo.  It turned out to be a fairly busy day, and I certainly got my opportunity.  Read on for more, including my first flying video!

I arrived at the airfield a bit after 8am to find the place pretty quiet.  The soaring conditions had been pretty poor the previous day and weren't forecast to be spectacular today either, nevertheless with thermals expected to go to about 6,000' a few members were about and talking up the possibility of fitting in a 300km  task in the afternoon.  We were expecting one AEF customer after lunch, so there was no hurry to get going today.  I took some time to make sure I had the logs set up correctly for the day, then went and helped out with derigging one of the member's gliders that needed some maintenance work done.  I had also brought my new action cam (an AEE Magicam SD-21, see here and here for my review!) out to try, I wanted to get some video footage of my flights so I checked with the instructor about the possibility of mounting the cam in the cockpit - no issues at all :)

During the daily briefing I made arrangements to get up for a checkflight with Swain Johnson, who was the instructor for the day.  I had only met Swain once before, and had not flown with him, but he has an excellent reputation for cross country flying, training and coaching.  After checking out my logbook, he was satisfied that I wouldn't need much of a check up and that I should expect to get out for at least one good flight on my own today.  The only other member requiring instruction was Jorge, who was looking to do a rear seat authorisation.  Jorge needed to get a couple of flights in early on before heading off.  One of the other instructors also decided that I needed to learn the process for daily inspections so I could work towards getting my DI certification, so off I went to help him go over the PW-6.

Quiet on the runway, Nimbus 3 and an Astir, Cu's in the distance
Just before heading out to the lineup I got a call from a couple who wanted to come out and see the club in action, they were in the area and wanted to see what gliding was like.  I welcomed them to come out and have a look, or even better - have a go themselves.  Then it was time to tow the hut and the Peewee out to the lineup on the active runway for the day, runway 32.  Setting up is a pretty simple process - get the hut out to the runway, put up the shade sail and get chairs out... that's it.  As soon as this was done, the towplane was pulling up out the front ready to go for the first flight and the day's cross country pilots were arriving with their gliders fully ballasted in hopes of good conditions.

Swain had me in the cockpit as soon I'd finished doing the preflight checks, and asked me to fully narrate everything that I was doing... Cockpit checks, takeoff, landing options on tow, circuit plan and landing checks.  We were on tow straight away and I talked through my options as soon as we were off the ground. The plan had been to tow to 2,000' and do a full flight, but Swain popped a surprise on me and pulled the release on me at 700'.  From our position and height the normal circuit was easily achievable so I made the required radio call and headed into downwind for landing.  Running through the checks, I realised we had plenty of height, and extended my planned downwind leg a bit to compensate.  Base turn and Final were soon upon me, and the airbrakes were out to get us down on the threshold.  I flared a little high and had to float down the runway a bit, but we were down gently enough and certainly safely so Swain informed me that he was happy for me to fly solo today when a chance presented itself.  Unfortunately, that was not going to be for a while...

Upon landing and filling out the logs for the next few launches, I got a call from the booked AEF customer letting me know he'd be there at 1pm.  Shortly afterwards, the two visitors who called arrived and after watching activites for a while decided that they liked what they saw and wanted to do an AEF as well.  Things only got busier when another couple called up and said they'd be out at 1pm for a pair of AEF flights as well... we'd gone from 1 AEF for the day to 5 within a matter of minutes.  Swain was up in the air with Jorge for a while doing his rear seat endorsement so I had a bit of time to run ground operations for the three guys launching for their cross country task.  Iain Russell, John Orton and Russell Brierly were all ready and waiting for launch, their gliders heavy with water ballast, so one by one we got them hooked up and off into the wild blue yonder... almost.  While Iain got away with little trouble, John Orton was dumping ballast minutes after releasing from tow and looking like he was going to be landing.  He doggedly stayed with a weak thermal right over the airfield and eventually climbed away much lighter than he started and headed off on task.  Russell wasn't so lucky and after dumping his water was heading in for a landing close behind the Peewee.  So, only two out of the three got away on task for the day, and despite some promising early cumulus clouds popping overhead, conditions were pretty ordinary.  Oh well, a good day for the AEF's anyway.

Noon saw Swain heading up with the first of the day's AEF's, our visitor Eugeny.  He and his wife were from Russia, and expressed an interest in taking up the sport in the near future.  Once he was up in the air, the other customers began to arrive so I was pretty busy getting them sorted out for the next couple of hours.  Swain finished off the first joyflight with an awesome high speed low pass over the airfield, showing off to the waiting passengers who were thrilled with the amazing sound of a glider passing mere metres overhead at over 100kts.  The second AEF up was Robert, a former Cunderdin local who was going up for a flight as a birthday present from his wife.  As Robert launched our next pair of customers arrived - a young couple who  also expressed interest in joining up and learning how to soar.  Soon enough it was time to get them in the air,  Amanda went up first but stuck with just some gentle gliding around the airfield as the lumpy conditions were beginning to make her a bit queasy.  Stuart on the other hand had a false start, Swain was unable to get into a decent thermal off tow and they landed after only 15 minutes.  Of course, Swain immediately offered to take off again for a second flight and had much better success the second time, showing Stuart some great thermalling, a bit of aerobatic fun in the form of loops and wing-overs, and finally an even faster, lower high energy finish than he had pulled off earlier in the day.  Stuart left a very happy camper, I expect we'll see him back really soon.

Finally, it was time for me to get up and have some fun!  The logs were all set up for the remainder of the day so I was free to take up the Peewee for some solo practise.  I hooked up for launch at about 4:20pm with the breeze down to only a couple of knots and the temperature slowly dropping.  I had little hope of having a really long flight - reports from the other pilots had indicated only moderate and irregular lift.  Indeed, this was actually the case.  The tow to 2,000' seemed to take forever, there just seemed to be no decent thermals for the towplane to utilise or for me to release into.  I eventually pulled the release just shy of 2,000'AGL in what seemed like a decent bit of lift, but despite several broadening circles I was unable to locate a core strong enough to give any real climb.  A quick search of the area, two more aborted thermal entries and I was down below 1,500' and having to decide on whether to land.  My mind got made up for me when I flew right into a big hole in the air and the resulting sink had me down to 1,100' and just in reach of the normal circuit entry point.  Disappointed, I headed into downwind and am happy to say I pulled off a textbook circuit and landing.  Swain scored me 9/10 for it :)

After a flight of only 20 minutes with no good lift I was a bit deflated, having been so excited to get some solo time.  Swain advised I hook back up straight away and go for another flight, at least to get some more practise in.  So after a quick gulp of water, I hooked back up for another planned tow to 2,000'.  It turned out to be a great decision!  This time the tow went much more easily, if still climbing slower than I was used to.  The vario started singing at about 1,000'AGL with an indicated 8-10kts up but after my previous flight I was reluctant to release that low and face having to land immediately if I couldn't centre the thermal properly.  So I continued on tow, through another 4-5kt thermal at 1,500' and finally into a decent 6kt bit of lift at 1,800'AGL.  I quickly checked my airspace to the left and right, then pulled back on the stick to load up the towline a bit and pulled the release.  Banking immediately to the right I managed to stay inside the thermal and began the process of centring the core over the first few turns.  Not a great thermal, but it took me up to 6,500' over the next 8 or 9 minutes - higher than any of the other pilots had reported all day, so I was feeling a bit chuffed.  Just to make the climb all that more special (it was, after all, my first real thermal since going solo!) at about 4,000' I saw a black shape streak in about 50' below my right wingtip and then seemingly stop - it was a Wedge-tailed Eagle, coming to join me in the thermal.  He stayed circling in the core of the thermal a bit below me for 4 or 5 turns before I lost sight of him, I was thrilled to have seen such a spectacle and honoured that such a master of soaring had joined me in my flight.
YCUN from the air, late afternoon
The lift petered out at the top of the thermal, and as I had no real plan and was only local soaring I made a few big lazy turns at a low speed to view my surroundings.  I decided to head back to the east of the airfield, I figured if that was the only decent thermal out there that afternoon then at least I'd squeezed everything out of it.  Then I stumbled into a really strong surge, the vario headed past 10kts as I went through the core, so I banked hard to the left and nailed it.  I took this thermal right up to 7,500' and the highest climb of the day, in lift of around 6-8kts.  I now had 5,500' of air to play with before even needing to think about landing, so I embarked off on a bit of a local tour, first heading towards Meckering for a few kilometres before crossing to the south of Great Eastern Highway and heading back to Cunderdin.  This excursion barely used up 2,000' so I decided to practise some stalls.  Quick run through of my HASLL checklist then stick back smoothly to bleed off speed, hear the noise drop right off - absolute silence - then the buffet and nose drop.  Stick forward to recover then level out.  A couple of repetitions and I was satisfied that I could recover pretty much automatically.  Still plenty of height so I flew over to the town and around the Cunderdin Silo before returning to the airfield.

Yeah, feeling pretty good about this flight...
The sun was getting closer to the horizon now, and everything had taken on that wonderful late afternoon golden hue so characteristic of the wheatbelt.  I flew a few laps of the airfield to take a couple of photos and also (more importantly) to check the windsock for any potential wind change.  I was still a bit high for a circuit entry, but decided to land anyway - I'd been up for just on an hour at this point and I could see that everyone had packed up for the day, the hut was towed back to the clubhouse and my car was the only one left on the fringe of the runway.  I ran through my landing checks early before calling up to notify my intention to land on runway 32.  Still high, I flew a pretty lazy downwind with plenty of distance between me and the strip.  Turning base it was apparent that I was going to need brakes out all the way down to landing, so I cracked them as soon as I turned final and ripped them right out as soon as I could see myself in a positive overshoot.  Brakes out, dropping fast, I was very happy to note that I was keeping the airspeed steady with no effort - so much better than a mere couple of months previously where I'd been chasing the airspeed indicator all the way down to the round.  Approach was spot on and smooth, flared perfectly after bringing the brakes into half, and the glider settled itself down onto its main wheel gently.  Stick right back to hold the nose up a little, then the nose drops of its own accord onto the nosewheel as the glider slows.  I was very happy with this landing, even before Swain came over to comment on how good it had looked.

The best thing about this flight?  I got it all on video.  I took around 1hr20min of footage on this flight, with the only problem being that I hadn't secured the suction mount well, resulting in the camera falling off the inside of the canopy in the second thermal.  I reattached it after topping out and ensuring I could safely divert my attention for a few seconds.  I've edited a quick cut of the footage which can be seen below :)

Comments, feedback, critique of my flight are most welcome - I am after all only 3 solo flights in.  I incorrectly labelled the video as my second solo flight, it was actually the second of the day, and my third solo all counted.

After landing, it was time to pack up and sit down for a cold beer with the other guys, I also had to fulfill my logkeeping duties and close out the days logs properly, ensuring all the tallies were correct.  All too soon it was time to start the drive back to Perth - the great thing being that with it being a long weekend, there was hardly any traffic on the highway which made for a most pleasant drive home.

More to come real soon!!