Monday, 27 May 2013

A Pilatus amongst the Cu's

At my previous visit to the club I was given the all clear to advance into a single seater, the first step for pilots at GCWA out of a two seat trainer is our old Pilatus B4-PC11.  I was looking forward to giving this a go this weekend and starting to challenge myself with better thermalling as I prepare myself for heading out cross country after winter.  Read on for more...

I headed up to Cunderdin on Saturday evening this weekend.  The club was holding a General Meeting that night to discuss some future direction and given that I'm on the committee it would have been remiss of me not to attend.  Besides, it was also the club Curry Night, and a good opportunity for the drinking of beers with good friends and a general chin-wag.  I had a fair bit of work to do leading up to the meeting in preparing the presentation of a whole lot of past club activity data in a format that would be of use to the rest of the committee and to the general membership, and spent a fair bit of time that night discussing trends in membership activity over the past few years.

As expected, there was much merriment that evening, with the bulk of the attendees up until late and consuming what was probably far too much beer and wine :)  Fairly decent rain showers set in at about 9pm and continued through the evening, at least until I went to bed.  I managed to hit the sack at about midnight, but others were still going for a fair while after that.

Arising bright and early on Sunday morning, well refreshed after a good sleep and a bit shocked by how cold it was (I've become somewhat acclimatised to more tropical climes over the past few weeks...), A group of us got the coffee on and had a leisurely breakfast before starting up the activities for the day.  The daily briefing was a quiet affair, there were a few groggy heads after the previous night's festivities.  The weather forecast was looking pretty good, temps up to about 21°C would see thermals topping out at about 6,000' but with likely cumulus cloudbase at around 5,000'.  I was excited by this, as every single day that I've been up to the club to date has seen "blue" conditions - that is, conditions with no cumulus development to mark thermals.  At the briefing, Cu's could be seen a fair way off to the north, so there was a high level of confidence that as the day warmed up we would see them at the airfield too.

GIC, our Pilatus B4, in which I was to take my first single seat flight.
I had no duties to fulfil today - we had a full complement of our necessary ground crew - so my activity for the day was up to me.  As suggested a couple of weeks ago, I had been cleared to move into my first single seat aircraft, which at GCWA means jumping into the Pilatus B4, Golf India Charlie.  I'm still on daily checkflights though, so I would also need a flight in the PW-6 to start the day off.  We had a couple of air cadets who needed flying first up, there was no rush to get out to the lineup immediately, so I asked John Orton to run through the Daily Inspection for the Pilatus with me, continuing my training towards my DI certification; and we soon had GIC ready to go.

Arriving out on the lineup I caught up with the day's instructor, Dave Ellett, to have my checkflight.  We jumped straight into the PW-6 and were on tow immediately, Dave gave me free reign over the flight and stressed that he was just along for the ride.  I popped off tow at 1,000' and made a lazy circle - a bit of a mistake as there was a bit of sink and I was down below circuit height before I knew it.  I headed straight back to the airfield, and made a decision to drop down onto one of the crosswind runways rather than fly the full circuit.  I think I could have made the full circuit, but it's better to be safe than sorry.  As usual, landing the PeeWee was easy, and talking about the flight with Dave we elected to go straight up again from our landing point.  On the second flight Dave wanted to check out my understanding of safe landing options in the vicinity of the airfield, so once I was a few hundred feet off the ground he took the controls on tow and asked me to have a good look around and describe the various fields and salt pans on offer and why they'd be good/bad options for landing in.  It was a good activity for me, as conditions were nice and smooth and with my attention diverted from towing I could have a more thorough look at some of the different options than I had recently.  Dave handed the controls over to me and we released again at 1,000', this time flying a full normal circuit into runway 23.  Upon landing Dave told me he was more than happy to send me up in the Pilatus for whatever flying I wanted to do that day.

There was a fair bit of activity on the lineup after landing - we noticed that one of our towplanes appeared to have blown a tyre further up the runway.  Walking up to investigate, we found that as it was exiting the taxiway, it had in fact dropped one wheel into a patch of soft dirt turned to mud by the overnight rain.  Gathering a few volunteers together, we had to lift the old Auster out of the pothole and set it on firmer ground.  Once this minor drama was over I headed over to GIC and set myself up in the cockpit, getting the seat position adjusted properly for the main part.  Being one of the taller pilots at the club, it took a bit of playing around until I could achieve a position where my head was not pressed against the canopy.  I elected not to wear a parachute for my first couple of flights - I'll have to readjust my position next time to allow for that, as it will become necessary for me once I start going cross country.  Dave came over and gave me a full briefing on flying the Pilatus, making sure to point out differences in control layout and especially reminding me not to be alarmed by the amount of noise that the old aluminium glider would make up in the air.

Sitting and eating lunch after my briefing, I watched as Cu's began to form up first north of, and then right over the airfield, continuing a march southwards.  It was a beautiful sight, and given the lovely warm autumn weather and still air, I couldn't wait to get up amongst them.

Lining up for tow in GIC, I was a bit nervous I must admit.  Everything I'd been told about flying it pointed to it being a lot more responsive than the PW-6 and IS-28 that I had previously flown in, and also that the controls were a bit stiffer too; so I was going to have to be on top of things on tow.  I gave the groundcrew the all clear to launch and the towplane went to full throttle.  I swear that the glider was in the air only 2 or 3 seconds into the groundroll.  The light weight was immediately apparent, and so was the amount of influence that the control surfaces exhibited.  The rudder in particular was much more effective than the PW-6 and for the first few airborne seconds I struggled to get the yaw under control while the towplane accelerated to its own takeoff speed.  Soon enough we were both in the air and climbing, and I settled down somewhat.  The first couple of turns allowed me to get a feel for the aileron control, and I also found that the Pilatus trimmed really well.  Then the towpilot banked hard into a steep spiralling climb and I had to exert my will over the glider to keep it properly positioned on low tow.

Approaching 2,000' I scanned the surrounding area and pulled the release, Dennis in the towplane immediately entered a steep dive and cleared the airspace for me - he had me perfectly lined up with the nearest Cu to the airfield and it was a simple matter of pulling up the undercarriage, pushing the nose forward and accelerating to 70kts to make the short crossing to it.  The clouds were still pretty flat and drifting slowly SE so I headed for the NW end of the Cu and was rewarded with some lift - pretty weak but it was there and enough to climb in.  I got several hundred feet out of it before it weakened and spat me out.  By now I had a fairly good understanding of the control responses and decided to head back towards the circuit area and just practice handling the aircraft.  Slowly sinking down to 1,000' I had plenty of time to get myself acquainted with the Pilatus, so I prepared for landing.  First thing - deploy the undercarriage.  I remembered that just fine... I'd been worried that it might slip my mind as I was so used to landing the fixed gear PW-6.  The circuit was nice and relaxed, with a steady approach at only half spoiler.  On round out I quickly discovered that you need a LOT of spoiler out, as I quickly ballooned back into the air.  Correcting it instantly with forward stick, the glider slowly settled onto the runway.  Not a bad landing per se, but it wasn't very pretty.

A fine autumn day at 4,000' and surrounded by lovely fluffy Cu's
Dave came over to congratulate me on my first single seat flight and to check if I was happy with my flight.  I told him I was unhappy with my tow and my landing, and that I had to spend more time getting used to the controls.  The PW-6 had just launched again and the Cu's were building up rapidly, so I elected to go straight back up again - this time with the intention of spending some quality time up in the air practising thermalling in the Pilatus.  Dave hooked me up as soon as the tug landed, and I was off again!

The second tow was much much better.  Having gotten more used to the controls I managed to stay nicely in place behind the tug without any wild excursions off track due to yaw control or pilot-induced-oscillations.  Dennis went a bit easier on me on this tow, and kept the banking a bit shallower as we approached a likely bit of lift.  I pulled the release a bit below my planned 2,000' straight into a reasonable (for the day) thermal.  3-4kt lift indicated, it took some effort to centre as it was quite uneven.  Nevertheless, I got an extra 1,000' out of it and pointed the nose north, heading towards the nearest of the really nice fluffy looking Cu's beginning to form up.  A few minutes later I pulled into the thermal beneath the cloud, and was rewarded with 4kt of lift that was fairly even once centred.  As this was my first real effort at thermalling under a Cumulus cloud, I decided to take it as far up as it would go, regardless of the strength of the thermal.  At about 4,400' the lift began to taper off a bit, but there still looked to be about 400-500' to cloudbase.  I kept with it and had now well and truly moved into the shadow of the cloud, the temperature on the ground was only about 20-21°C and with the extra altitude plus the shade things started to get a bit chilly!  Being cold is not a problem I've yet had to deal with while gliding - the hot West Australian summers present the opposite situation.  At 4,800' cloudbase was still a bit above me but the canopy began to fog up - I opened the vent (I'd closed it because of the cold!) to clear it and headed off to the east.

With reliable lift dotted around the nearby landscape, and well marked by Cu's, I could afford to test out some high speed flight between thermals.  Pushing the nose down I hit 100kts and trimmed to suit - much faster than I'd been flying in the PW-6 and to be honest much faster than the available thermals warranted - but I wasn't racing and wanted to get a feel for the handling at speed.  This formed the pattern for the rest of the flight - race between cumulus clouds and thermal my way back up to cloudbase.  I spent a bit over an hour playing around like this, heading south to the town of Cunderdin, then back west for a bit, then back to the airfield to join the PW-6 in a thermal for a while.  Entering the circuit area much higher than needed I practised some side slipping and tested out the spoilers a bit to get a feel for high approach angles, then turned into downwind at 1,000'AGL.  I'm happy to say I executed the landing much better than last time, but still could use more spoilers out - probably actually need full spoilers on the round out at 55kts.  Dave was much happier with my approach and landing anyway.

A quick stop for some food and water and then it was up again for my last flight of the day.  An easy tow to 2,000' followed by half an hour of similar activity to my previous flight.  I began to have some trouble with the vario's in the Pilatus after about 15 minutes and had to fly seat-of-the-pants for a while before entering the circuit.  The landing was pretty good this time, I think I've gotten the hang of it now.  Checking with John on the ground, he identified that the vario problems were due to low battery power.

My landing marked the end of activities for the day, there were no more launches planned and the PW-6 that was still up was due to land in a few minutes.  So, it was time to pack up and start stowing gliders.  Followed, of course, by a nice leisurely beer at the clubhouse, before it was time to head home.  I'd had a great weekend - a fun social night at the club followed by a beautiful day of casual flying.  Kevin's encouraged me to submit my application for my A and B certificates based on my flight times and ability, and to start thinking about getting my outlanding endorsement early in preparation for lots of cross country practice after winter.  Lots to do between now and then, but I'm progressing far faster than I ever planned - and am very lucky that I've got such good mentors and coaches at the club.

Till next time :D