The post-Christmas high pressure cell that has been plaguing us since the 27th December is still around on the first weekend in January producing a kind of windless murk that defies description and the weather forecasters who breezily state that it is "broken at 2000ft" which it isn't: more like "OVC2000 and yuk".
Oxford is marked as "Marginal VFR" and I'm sure there is some complex rule which decides whether that is true but we'll go out and take a look. A Dunkeswell lunch is on the cards.
Ann needs more practise in the C182 before they'll sign her off to go off solo so that's what we'll supply, but there is only so much she can do from the right seat so we agree that whilst I will be officially P1 for both legs she will fly the outbound leg from the right hand seat then the inbound leg from the left seat. There's no wind at all so I can, if necessary, land it from the right hand seat.
We have had a discussion about "heat of the moment change of authority" and indeed in Florida had to do one so "I've got it" is the codeword: non-threatening and certainly not shouted.
The famous violinist Jascha Heifetzold is quoted as saying "If I don't practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it". I haven't flown since guiding N829FA on to the tarmac at Marco Island Executive in November (in shorts and Hawaii shirt!) so I know something will go awry, even if only I notice it.
The art of becoming comfortable with an aircraft begins with the pre-flight and Ann has finally got the hang of loosening the bloody ratchet straps we use to hold the wings down. We pre-flight together in comfortable harmony and completely manage to miss exercising the trimmer so as we roll for take-off I have to give a hell of a heave to get it off the ground as the trim is wound too far forward. Who the hell landed it like that?
It's pretty murky up here but up to 2,000ft the ground is visible, beyond that it's IMC. The temptation to get up on top in the sun is there but for today we'll stay down in the murk. At 2,000ft we're clear of any bits of granite and radio masts between here and Dunkeswell (The Mendip mast will be well off to our right).
At Wantage we swap to London Info as Bristol don't do LARS any more and wend our way smoothly South West with every possible light on for conspicuity. The radio is quiet today: in anything other than bright blazing sunshine no one ever flies. We do see a PA28 tracking West across the Somerset levels where some quite serious mist has settled in the hollows, but Dunkeswell is the highest public airfield in the UK so that's not going to be a problem.
Dunkeswell give us runway 22 as in use and from here we might as well go straight in. There is traffic but it's only just called Downwind so won't affect (or "No Factor" as the Americans might say). We don't actually see the airfield until about 3 miles away but the trusty GPS steers us in, we switch to their QFE and work off that for the approach angle. This was so much more difficult in the bad old analogue days: my old CFI would have shot me.
Descend over the parked aircraft on the undershoot, flare.... and nicely down, a bit long but there you are, a quick backtrack, exit on to 35 and down the link taxiway to park for lunch. Not too rusty.
It's weird to be in the right hand seat, trusting another pilot.
Ann starts up (struggling as I do with the starter springs and my big bunch of keys) and we taxy to the other side of the runway for power-checks, then roll on 22. NIcely done, we climb out and turn left for North East, climb to 2,000ft and swap to London. At this height we are struggling to hear London: they keep cutting out halfway through the squawk instructions so I reach right in to the bottom of my mental Garmin grab bag and push the on/off volume control to turn the squelch off. It's noisy but at least I can hear them properly when I ask for a radio check.
Ann struggles with slowing the aircraft down from the cruise configuration to the landing configuration, so as we fly back we do exactly that loads of times. I'm sure anyone watching us from below would think we were weird but it's good practise and after 4 or 5 goes she's pretty confident and as we clear the hills to the East fo Swindon she swaps to Oxford Radar and we cruise in over Oxford. She's got it down to 100Kts and 1500ft by Port Meadow and does the whole approach flawlessly; I dont know what she was worried about.
The landing is of course key and I do keep my hands and feet near the controls for a panicked grab but she lands it perfectly; couldn't have done it better myself. Worrying, really: my landings were just rubbish for the first 200hrs or more, but Ann has them nailed already at less than 100hrs....
Ice cream, by the seaside....in February?
's birthday usually coincides with some pretty rough weather (often snow) but weirdly we now have a huge high (QNH 1034) resulting in more hazy, misty weather and it's really warm. Indeed, it starts out too foggy to fly but by 11:00 it's breaking up at Oxford and Lee-on-Solent are reporting clear, so we'll go. Tom and Lucy will come with us, which makes for careful weight and balance calculations.
Annoyingly, the fuel bowser turns up before I have finished dipping the tanks and doing my calculations, so I have to slow him up a bit to ensure I do get it right. This is exactly the situation a pilot recently found himself in, got it wrong, crashed the aircraft and wound up in court stating "I forgot to add my own weight". So danger lies here....
Only aviation could have the tanks calibrated in US Gallons
and the bowser dispensing fuel in Litres. WHat could possibly go wrong?
Eventually an additional
carefully-calculated 90 Litres puts us at MAUW, I re-dip the tanks twice to make absolutely sure I've not done anything daft and do a little... pause for reflection with the numbers. Have I been stupid? No.
Flying is a series of evolutionary experiments, advancing by small increments. I've been reading John Farley's "A view from the hover" and whillst you might ask "what could you in your spamcan possibly learn from a Harrier test pilot?" he actually does have some quite relevant thoughts to GA. He's definitely the thinking man's pilot and some of the book is worth reading a couple of times (it's all worth reading at least once).
So when I was in Florida (Ha! Sounds posh...) my checkout on the later C182 had us using 10deg flap habitually on take off, something I don't normally do back here in the grubby UK. This seemed to work better so I'm going to try it today. I'm expecting a crisper response on rotate so we'll line up, advance the throttle, give it compensating right rudder and check Ts & Ps plus speed. At 60Kts it goes light, and just unsticks without any of the normal pre-stall airframe whistle I get when flapless. Well, that was easy. Climb out nailed at 82Kts, lose the flaps at 800ft and push for 90Kts, trim and swap to Oxford Radar. Of course no one is out today, it is quite hazy and we lose sight of the ground by 2,000ft and climb on top at 2,500ft. I'd prefer to be up here where it's smoother and clearer for maximum conspicuity.
Swap to Farnborough over the M4 and get a MATZ Transit for Odiham, then descend to 2,000ft to slip under the Solent Zone on a listening squawk via New Alresford and Wickham VRPs, then swap to Lee-on-Solent radio and join downwind for runway 05.
On turning Final we do seem to be crabbing a lot
- there is more of a crosswind than at Oxford. It calms down as we descend then as we flare it picks up as we clear the hangars and the landing is untidy, shall we say. Can't have this! Nothing dangerous but certainly not perfect.
On my previous visit we went all the way to the end
and on to the taxiway but now that's closed and we exit mid-runway.... which I've just gone past.
Slow down, turn round, backtrack and exit then pass the end of the runway and park on the grass.
Lee-on-Solent is a very cool GA airfield and deserves our support as they rescued what was about to be yet another bloody housing estate and created a really nice, friendly GA airfield. The runway is immaculate, landing fees are reasonable, the loos are clean..... and the beach is 200 yards away. They have a cafe and a keen pack of spotters, who post some really nice shots of us landing (fortunately without the messing around on touchdown!).
After lunch and an ice cream on the beach we return to the airfield, start up and taxy out behind a PA28. Good manners says I wait for him to power-check, but he thinks he's a 747 and takes ages before he finally pulls on to the runway and departs. As he is obviously a 747 maybe I should give him some wake turbulence separation?
Again, 10deg flaps gives a cleaner take-off and we climb out behind the 747, banking to avoid Fleetlands ATZ then Tom takes over and flies us back North. He's funny: he heaves it on to course then the moment he's got there he rests his right hand on the yoke and gently drags us off to the right before realising, swinging us back 30deg on course, then doing the same thing again. I reckon it's because he's not resting his elbow on the door handle. Or something.
Farnborough are, as they often are, completely overloaded with GA
who have come out now the haze has receded, so it's not even worth talking to them. Listening squawk, turn on all the lights, climb over the Odiham MATZ stub and keep a good lookout. We do see a couple of planes but as always the skies look empty until suddenly there's an aircraft about to fly in to you.... Electronic conspicuity is just around the corner and it can't come too soon.
Swap back to Oxford Radar near the M4, then as we pass Didcot they have jet traffic departing South so we'll descend to remain below them. Weirdly, as we start our descent they ask us to descend to which I'm happy to reply that we've already started and they are surprised that we're thinking that far ahead. That's what an IMC will do for you: think ahead.
Tom would like to fly us around Oxford so does a very neat orbit of the ring road, performing a near-perfect circle
on the GPS log before we head back to the circuit. At 4 miles, as requested, we tell Radar and they release us to Tower, who haven't heard anything about us at all and suggest we speak to Approach. I think she'd been in the loo. Time for Best CAP413: "Golf Papa Oscar Whisky Lima, with you from Approach for a downwind visual join for runway 19, with Victor and QNH 1033". That puts her in her place....
Less wind here, slow down and get down, turn Final and get the flare right, just a tiny squeak and we're rolling. Vacate, get marshalled in to a spare slot and shut down. Lovely.
And we've got the plane back in time for Ann
who plans to go out with her instructor, but he cancels claiming "it's too hazy". So I send her a picture showing crystal clear skies, what was he thinking? She needs to get clear of these instructors and get to making her own decisions, today was lovely and perfectly doable for her.