Sunday, 5 May 2013

Steadily advancing; and a lesson learned

Well, after making steady progress since going solo I had to take and enforced break from flying for the past six weeks.  Due to work commitments I've been spending a lot of time shuttling back and forth between WA and QLD, and also managed to squeeze in a week's holiday in Melbourne with my lovely wife to treat her for her birthday :)  So, most of my flying for the past couple of months has been from the comfort of a window seat of an A340 heading across the country.  Despite having only returned from my latest trip over to Mackay at midnight on Friday, I was determined to get out to the club today and get some practice in.  Read more after the break...

A beautiful view, but I'd rather be gliding!!
I headed out from home at 0630 after packing some lunch and filling up my water bottles and my new Camelbak.  The forecast was for 28°C at the airfield, which from the sounding should have yielded thermals of around 5,000'-6,000'.  Driving over the hills I began to doubt that we'd get anything like that.  There were thick bands of stratus blowing overhead once I reached Northam, and while they looked to be clearing it was apparent that there was also a lot of cirrus up high, maybe 80% coverage.  It was definitely warming up, but that high cirrus was going to reduce the thermal activity.

Reaching the club at about 0840 I found the hangar already open and a few members milling around beginning the daily tasks.  After a nice hot coffee and a bit of a chin-wag it was time to get the briefing underway.  The met conditions announced were as above - expected thermals possibly up to 6,000' but the cloud cover would determine how the day went.  A couple of members decided to try a task anyway, with a plan to do Wyalkatchem >Kellerberrin >Cunderdin and others happy to fly locally.  It turned out that our rostered logkeeper and duty pilot were no-shows and the duty instructor - Rod Carter, and tow pilot - Knut von Hentig, were going to be late with a 1030 arrival.  As it was not shaping up to be a busy day, with no AEF's to worry about, Alis and I decided to share the log keeping duties for the day so we could both also get some time aloft.

As I'm working towards getting my Daily Inspector's certification, I aided John Orton with doing the DI on my usual glider; the PW-6U, Romeo Bravo.  John took extra time going over it, explaining every step and showing me lots of little pointers of things to look for.  It was quite an educational experience, and I actually learned a fair bit about the internal working of the glider from John's instruction.  Finishing that up, it was off to help out Ray with doing the DI on one of the Jantar's and then filling in some time with housekeeping duties until everyone was ready to head out to the lineup.

Arriving out on the runway, we got the launch point hut set up for the day.  Anticipating a busy hour ahead with solo flight launches, Rod had me jump straight into the front seat of RB (after doing my checks of course!) and we were hooked up on tow immediately.  He advised that he was just a passenger for this checkflight, and that I was to undertake whatever flight I liked.  Launching into a very light headwind on Runway 05, he gave me the usual quiz on what my decisions would be if we were to have a launch emergency at various points along our tow pattern.  There was very little thermal activity while on tow so I planned to pull the release at 1,000' and head in for the circuit.

Preparing to head off for a daily checkflight in the PW-6U
Just on release height I felt the first little bubbles of upwards surge, so released into some weak lift.  The thermal was very narrow with reasonable strength in the core but very weak outside.  It was impossible to centre, the core was just too narrow for the turning circle to remain within, and after about 6 turns I'd only gained 100'.  It was still early in the day, only 1130, and rather than just stay up I decided to head for the circuit entry.  A few more little bumps were felt as we headed into downwind, but not enough to bother with.  Circuit entry was completely normal and, as I've been pressing myself to arrive in the circuit lower, I was able to fly a nice tight circuit with no need to extend the downwind leg at all.  Turning onto final I was no higher than 350' and subsequently only needed the desired half spoiler deployment to remain on the landing profile.  I rounded just a little hard and the PW-6 ballooned somewhat, but I had it right back under control with some forward stick and a little more spoiler.  Touchdown was good, with a nice high nose attitude, so I was happy with that.  I made comment to Rod that I was disappointed with my flare but he advised that while I made the mistake, I corrected it immediately and appropriately and he was happy with that.

Rolling RB off the runway to make way for the launches to follow I got a very nice surprise indeed.  The other cross country pilots had been urging me on to get into a single seater and start working towards my cross country endorsements.  I'm still well short of the flight number requirements for this, but I'm going to get to make one crucial step - Rod announced that since he was perfectly satisfied that I was controlling all stages of flight safely on my own, and making appropriate decisions when required with no input from the instructor, he would endorse my logbook to move onto a single-seater!!  I'm really quite surprised and very proud of this, as it normally requires ten or more solo flights in the two-seat trainer before this endorsement is given.  I'd only had five solo flights under my belt to this point along with three pilot-in-command checkflights, so I wasn't expecting to have this option available to me for another visit or two.  This means I can really start working on my solo soaring skills in preparation for heading cross country and gives me a little head start on being fully certified before the next soaring season!

First off for the day was John in his SZD-55, launching more or less as soon as I'd cleared the runway and helped him line up.  Ray was up next in ZS, one of the club's Jantar Std 2's.  It looked for a while as if conditions were building as we began to observe a regular periodic development of Cu's not far north of the airfield, conditions which had been similar the day before.  Watching John and Ray circling nearby, however, showed that any lift that was around was very marginal and quite inconsistent.  Kevin decided to launch in his Pik-20 in the hope that conditions were beginning to improve, but no sooner was he climbing out from the runway than John was calling up to announce that he was on downwind for landing.  So conditions weren't suitable for a cross country flight after all.  Ray was still aloft and working marginal thermals, so I elected to hold off for a while and head up for a short flight myself early in the afternoon.  Rod gave me the all clear to head up in the club's older Pilatus B4 as my first foray into single seater flying but this would have entailed going back to the hanger, pulling it out and DI'ing it before towing it out to the runway.  I considered this to be a waste of effort as it was unlikely that I'd get much airtime, so I chose just to stick with the PW-6 for the day.

VH-GFU, a Super Ximango motorglider

Once I'd made my choice and didn't need Rod any more he headed off to fly with Sid, who's currently learning to fly a Ximango - a lovely Brazilian motorglider in which he has a share.  Commercial traffic overhead was picking up, with a number of aircraft practicing NDB holds and approaches, doing plenty of touch-and-goes and missed approaches to keep us on our toes.  I got my video camera mounted in the cockpit of RB and spent a bit of time reviewing some of the recent log entries (I'm the club's Log Keeper) to ensure they matched up properly.  When it came time for me to have a flight we dragged RB out onto the runway... only to have to drag it straight back off again as a Beech Baron called in on downwind for landing. I could have got off the ground before he arrived on final, but it's not very courteous and would cause a go-around for the plane if I had a launch problem.  So after the Baron has done his touch-and-go, we push the PeeWee back onto the runway and now I'm ready to go.

Takeoff was routine and at 1,000' I started to feel some lift.  Given how weak it had been I elected to tow to 2,000' to ensure I had some reasonable airtime.  Ray called in to announce he was landing, and Kevin was off to the East nearby still struggling to climb.  On release I headed for a likely patch of ground and was rewarded with a weak bit of lift.  Enough to maintain altitude and nothing more.  Five or six minutes of flying from bubble to bubble, slowly losing altitude and I was back down to circuit height.  Once again, I deliberately pushed myself a little lower than I was accustomed to before calling up and entering downwind.  I'm now quite comfortable in making circuits at the airfield from a relatively low height compared to that at which I had started to learn.  The circuit was good, with there not being much wind everything seemed nice and smooth and balanced; final approach was nice and short with only half spoiler again, and I made up for my earlier mis-flare with a textbook flare and hold-off.  Touching down was good but the landing roll was marred somewhat by the PeeWee's tendency to veer right when there is no headwind - it wasn't enough to be a problem, but it is annoying when you want to put the glider on the left side of the runway after landing.

Ray had vacated the Jantar by this time and Alis was geared up and ready to go for her flight, so we got her into the lineup next.  As with my flight, we got her lined up and then had to vacate the runway again as a powered aircraft called in on long final.  Once Alis was airborne, I advised Knut that I was going up once more and that would be the last tow of the day - everyone who wanted to be up was up at that point, and I only wanted the one more flight.

Launching on what may be my last solo flight in the PW-6U for the time being

My final flight for the day was a bit better.  Once off tow I headed West from the airfield to an area I know produces reliable thermals.  Looking at my last video posted you can see it while I'm circling to the right - the camera is pointing out the right side of the canopy and there is a patch of rocky ground sparsely populated with trees around which the view is rotating.  I've found good thermals there a few times now so I thought if anywhere was working today it would be there.  Sure enough, I was rewarded with 3-4kt of lift over the rocks and managed to make a difficult climb to a whopping 3,500'.  Funnily enough, this was the highest climb of the day - Alis being the only other pilot to make 3,000'.  Although not great soaring weather, the air was crystal clear with fantastic visibility all the way to the horizon which made for fantastic views.  The thermal shut off suddenly at the top, searching around the area let me recontact it a bit lower but with the same result - shut off at 3,500'.  Well, at least I had a bit of height to play with.

I flew around for the next ten minutes or so, just cruising around.  I tried to pick up another weak thermal to no good effect then headed back towards the northern side of the airfield with an intent to wander into the circuit and make a relaxed landing - and this is where I made a mistake and learned a valuable lesson.  I was almost at my chosen entry point to the circuit and still at about 800' above the ground when I stumbled into a thermal which seemed nice enough to climb out in.  I had not yet made a call to enter the circuit so I chose to take the thermal - this was my first mistake.  It was uneven and on average pretty weak.  At first it was keeping me level so I stuck with it for a couple of turns hoping to centre it better.  While I was playing around in this totally not worth it bubble of lift, a powered aircraft called in to enter downwind for 05 and a touch-and-go.  He noted me circling nearby and asked my intentions, to which I answered that I was in a thermal and to go ahead - this was my second mistake.  By the time the other plane was on downwind, I'd realised I was in fact losing altitude slowly and was at my circuit height.  I had no choice from this point on - I had to land.  Heading for the downwind entry I made the call on the radio, noting that the powered plane was abeam of me and heading downwind also, at about 80kt compared to my 55kt.  I considered his path and judged that he would complete his circuit before me - mistake number three.  The other plane extended downwind well beyond what I would have considered normal and when he called his base turn I was just about to arrive at my base turn.

Now, I know my rules of the air, and in normal circumstances the glider I was in always has right of way in the circuit over powered aircraft.  That didn't lessen the embarrassment I felt as I called up that I was also turning base and couldn't avoid landing.  The other pilot was extremely accommodating and asked if I'd like him to go around at that point, which of course I acknowledged.  Approach and landing were perfectly normal but I was very disappointed in the mistakes I'd made.  Talking about them afterwards with another instructor made me feel a bit better about it when he pointed out that gliders always have right of way and I did the right thing in asserting my position in the circuit.  What I was most disappointed in was the series of choices I made leading up to that - I had options at all points to prevent any conflict in the circuit whatsoever.  Being a professional incident investigator forces me to review things from that viewpoint and the sequence of events was clear to me on review.  I must stress that at no point was there a dangerous situation - I didn't let myself get too low to make the circuit and I never let the aircraft come into a potential conflict - but it was still embarrassing to have to "push in" in the pattern to land.  So, my lessons learned.

  1. When near the airfield and near circuit height - just go into the circuit and land.  Don't be tempted to take last minute thermals.
  2. Don't stick with marginal thermals - if no lift straight away then move on.  Don't fool myself that the thermal is going to improve when in fact I'm losing height.
  3. Modify the landing plan when necessary - I had the option of landing on Runway 14, there was no wind to speak of and it would have prevented any potential conflict whatsoever.
  4. Communicate early - when entering downwind I could have asked the powered plane to stand off and make another circuit.  Instead I let the situation develop under a false assumption that the plane would finish his circuit before me.
I'll take these lessons onboard as I progress further - learning from them can only make me a better pilot.  For now, I'm happy that nothing serious happened, and more so that my progress is coming along well enough for me to be moving into a single seater on my next outing.

I wound up the day with the usual packing up routine but also took the opportunity to get Kevin to give me a quick briefing on the Pilatus B4, the glider that I'll be flying next week.  There are many differences that I'll have to make myself comfortable with before taking her up - retractable gear for one thing.  The PW-6 has fixed gear so I'll have to pay particular attention to that part of the pre-landing checklist to make sure I deploy and lock the undercart.  I've already flown in our IS-28 two-seater which has retractable gear so I know the routine and will just have to apply it properly.  The Pilatus also has more comprehensive instrumentation to learn and a slightly different control configuration with the trim being on the right rather than the left.  But that's a problem for next week...

Oh, I recorded a fair bit of video today but hadn't aligned the camera properly and had it pointing much too high - the footage is ok but looks a bit odd with so much sky showing, so no new stuff to post on YouTube this week.  Maybe next week after my first single seater flight!!