The Ballards - Learning to Fly


As Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd would have it:
"can't keep my eyes from the circling skies"....

In 1968 I was a little boy in shorts and long socks with one of those stupid 'long and unkempt on top but shaved up the back' haircuts we all had in the 60s (well, except for Mick Jagger, obviously).
I was at Farnborough, holding my hands over my ears. Large silver things screamed across the field fast and low; noisily, or completely silently followed by a huge bang. Overland supersonic flying was still legal in those pre-Nanny state days, despite never-confirmed stories of broken windows and miscarrying cows.
The shock and awe of a BAC Lightning taking off on full reheat and going supersonic 250ft over the runway, pointing the nose vertical, and accelerating in to the blue..... not easily forgotten.

So, from a young age I was going to be a pilot. It was simply accepted and just a matter of time and A-levels.
The RAF taught me to glide in wooden gliders well enough for me to do several solo flights, taught me to shoot and parachute; and taught me the basics of powered flying in Chipmunks.
We would waddle out to the aircraft with parachutes hanging off our bottoms, then the RAF pilots would start the engines with shotgun cartridges, we'd zoom off in to the blue and they would delight in doing aerobatics and trying to make us throw up. I remember hanging out of the straps upside down at 5,000ft as bits of debris floated upwards to the canopy thinking this had to be the coolest thing you could possibly do; I amassed so many hours in the Chipmunks they started to teach me approaches and landings. One 30 minute session per term month was a very slow way to learn to fly, and I was promised more and better flying if I signed up for University and then a commission. I was hooked.... I didn't want to be a fighter pilot; either a helicopter or Hercules transport pilot would have suited me.

But Fate intervened in the form of childhood German measles that had affected my eyesight, requiring an operation and leaving me with a measurable but unnoticeable squint, one of the few red flag medical conditions unable to be corrected by glasses, thus permanently preventing enrollment in the RAF as a pilot.
"You could be a navigator" they said, but even in those days I knew moving-map GPS displays would one day supplant the human in the back seat. Who has navigators now?

This being March 1980 (fuel crisis, power cuts, IMF loans, Winter of Discontent, strikes, Maggie fighting the Unions, queues at the petrol pumps, constant drizzle, CND on the march, you get the picture...) no commercial pilot training slots were available. Anywhere.
At 17 I was washed up, unable to fulfil my most fondly held ambition.

Like most people, I got over it and got on with my life in different directions but deep down, that flying bug and the Biggles effect have never really gone away. Every time I hear a light aircraft droning over I've always looked up enviously. Even taking people to, or picking up people from airports and flying in the back of commercial aircraft as "Self Loading cargo" have always been a particular pleasure.

For 25 years the latent Biggles was held back by a lack of money caused by unappreciative employers, high mortgage rates, high taxes, wife, children and school fees. But in 2001 a business trip to California left me with a spare day and at the entrance to Sonoma County Airport near Santa Rosa. And I spied a flying school right next door.....
Inside 40 minutes the magnetic attraction of the aircraft had sucked me in and spat me out airside with a friendly instructor ready for a pre-flight, a refuel, a wobbly taxi around the apron, a less wobbly taxi to the holding point, a wonky take-off and a slow, rough climb to altitude in an old Cessna 152. Some nice 30° and 45° banks, working the throttle to achieve a 360° turn at the same altitude, some constant speed climbs and descents, some tinkering with the trim tabs, some compass work (and how it came back quickly, it had been a long time since I'd flown a plane) and a return to the field. Rau, my instructor, did the radio thing then left it to me and went to sleep in the right-hand seat until I cocked up the cross-wind leg on the approach and nearly took out an approaching water-bomber ("No, that's the runway you want; leave him alone"). Oops.
An hour later my brand new FAA Jeppesen logbook (later looked on with amusement by the CAA) was signed, updated and a copy of William K Kershner's Student Pilot's Flight Manual was in my hands. I was hooked.......
It would be another 5 years before the finances were anything like up to the strain of a PPL, and I was damned if I was going to start learning, then stop again because of a lack of money.
During a holiday in South Africa in the Spring of 2006 I visited Johannesburg Lanseria Airport and had a second trial lesson with an enthusiastic young Afrikaaner over the High Veldt. It was enough to convince me the time was right to push the button, and in June 2006, I walked into the PFT office at Kidlington and quoted the magic incantation:
"Will you teach me to fly?"

Lesson 1 The lure of the windswept airfield
To a rusty ex-glider pilot powered flying seems a logical progression: the control movements and a large proportion of the preflight routine are the same: the "Take up slack" and "All Out" messages you yell through the glider window are replaced by a "Clear Prop!" call, there are a few more instruments and you don't have to tap the altimeter on the way down, lest it stick!
And you have radios, which are a new experience, as well as the headsets, and the headsets are necessary - it's noisy in there.
First impression is that the engine sounds very rough: the technology of light aircraft flying is very conservative and has barely advanced beyond the 1930s. So carburettors, mechanical fuel pumps, large unstressed aircooled engines, mainly flat 4s to keep the front of the nose low so you can see to land.
Magnetos, didn't they go out with the Ark? But at this level they make sense: the simpler things are the more reliable they are and reliability is what keeps accident statistics down. If your car engine fails, you call the AA. If you aircraft engine fails, you may well crash, and the landing will be at best merely hair-raising...

So off down the taxiway and there's no steering wheel, you have toe-brakes on each wheel, which take a bit of getting used to. Lots of radio chat, some power checks then it's back to glider time: smooth acceleration then it's stick back and up you go. No cable release; it's just power out of the circuit and off into the wide blue yonder. Easy!

Airfields, like ports, are by definition wide open empty spaces and thus every bit of wind is evident: even though it seems a nice day there's a hell of a crosswind and a lot of thermals once in the air. Once airborne, it's just as bumpy and thermally as I remember glider flying to be. Basic rules are the same, but the engine takes a bit of getting used to. It's a bit wayward and keeps trying to take the airframe places you don't want it to go: like a puppy, it needs constant realigning to make it go where you want it to go.

This is merely a check ride, so we play about and within a few seconds (or that's how it seems) we're back in the circuit for a fairly exciting crosswind landing on tarmac (luxury, when I were young we 'ad grass and were thankful for it....) and a postflight dissection. I am pronounced "teachable". So off we go.....

Lesson 2 Not as easy as it seems
Wildly over-confident following last week's lesson and finding I know a lot of the theory in the first 8 chapters of both UK and US PPL Bibles, my instructor brings me back to earth by telling me all my answers to the secondary effects of controls are wrong. I slink sullenly out to the aircraft thinking "well at least I know how to drive it...".

Miss one of the wheel brakes and nearly taxi the aircraft into Michael Schumacher's private jet, then keep winding the trim wheel the wrong way whilst practising Recovery to Straight and Level Flight (Mr Cholmondeley-Warner....) and wondering why we're in a power-dive 1,000ft over Banbury. My instructor is long-suffering, let's hope the good folks of Banbury are too ("Oh my God, he's booked to fly again, quick... women and children first, head for the hills........")

It's harder than it looks, this powered stuff. There's a lot to think about, by the time you've got the wings level, the pitch correct, the power set to the correct revolutions, the fuel on the right tank, the turn and slip co-ordinated, the compasses matching and pointing in the right direction, and you're not about to fly in to anyone... And we haven't even looked at landing yet.

After a sweaty hour my poor instructor pops us back on the tarmac and we head for a well-deserved glass of cold water.

But it's not over... I have a new Air Law book to wade through as well.

I'll be less over-confident next week.

Lesson 3 Taking Control
After a two week hiatus and with a new pair of sunglasses to replace my Pete Townsends, I'm ready again.
The transfer from passenger to commander continues apace: now I can preflight the aircraft, start and taxy it and do the preflight checks.
But my take-off attempt veers towards the parked helicopters and we perform an undignified banana-shaped trajectory. The control tower rocks with laughter.

All I have learned begins to come together: I can climb, descend and hold a heading, but my internal compass must be skew-wiff because if I take my eye off the instruments we slowly swing to port and I have to keep correcting. My instructor blames the engine torque but I blame my brain....

It's a hot day and thermals off fields and roads make the ride bumpy, but that's normal. We do co-ordinated turns and when I do my normal "turn it on a sixpence to catch the thermal" bank my instructor thinks I am pushing it a bit. Apparently steep turns are later in the syllabus (but that wasn't steep.....)

I feel less of a passenger: the reflexes are coming back.

Medical aside
Oh, ha bloody ha....
It's off to the Doc for a Class II CAA medical. I get a trace of my own ticker (well, at least I know it's still going, if a liitle erratically on occasions), a sore finger where he took blood, and an accurate measurement of the infamous squint (which has managed to get better over the last 25 years). Apparently this is no longer a red flag medical condition to the RAF: if I was 18 and applied, it would no longer preclude me from flying.
I now hate the RAF and will be duly applying for all my PPL costs to be reimbursed by the War Department.
The Doc squints at my weird blood pressure readings but pronounces me Fit to Fly for the next 2 years.
Rock and Roll.......

And now I'm flying in my sleep... Power, Attitude, Trim, except at the top of a climb when it's Attitude, Power, Trim. And carb heat in descents. And roll out 10° before you achieve your desired heading. And bootfuls of rudder on take-off. And.... And.....

Lesson 4 A backward step?
Another two week weather-induced hiatus and my newly medically-assured status has me more confident in pre-flighting the aircraft. After starting the hot, reluctant engine (well this Cherokee is 30 years old) , I do the taxying neatly, the radio badly, all the take-off (bootfuls of rudder, bootfuls of rudder!) and climb to a useful height through the bumpy thermals, avoiding yesterday's Harrier crash site.
Serious Progress.

But today's instructor seems convinced we need to do the same lesson as last time: climbing and descending. I'm a bit bored with climbing and descending; I want to do exciting stuff like steep turns, stalls and spinning. It feels like a backward step, until we try descending with flaps, which feels like you're standing the aircraft on it's nose, and he tells me this is how we land. Ah hah, there was a point to this exercise after all...

Now he wants Turns. Well I can do bloody Turns, I do have a glider licence. So we go round and round (and round) for half an hour. There's a small village just outside Banbury that is now convinced we're spying on them. This is boring. Just for fun I flip it over to 70° and he finally gets the message.

He asks me to head for the circuit and I feel cheated (Stalls! Spinning! Fun!). And this time I do all the downwind leg, all the crosswind leg and all the final, plus an overshoot as the aircraft in front of us runs on to the grass and they have to check for mud, then a second circuit all the way down to a crosswindy 30ft or so where the instructor wakes up and decides he ought to earn his keep by preventing me from visiting the grass as well. Wheeeeeeee!!!!!!

Not a backward step after all. If it hadn't-a-been for the crosswind I'd have landed it as well. Cool bananas.

Lesson 5 It's a drug
Another 3-week holiday-induced delay and we're back in the cockpit. This particular Cherokee has a roof-mounted trim wheel like those handles you used to open your sunroof with, in the days before air-conditioning in cars.

Today we're doing slow flying, if we can get enough height under the humid clouds. 3,200ft we need so off we go in to the late afternoon haze, and this time, apart from veering off the centreline of the runway on take-off (again), I do the take-off and climb out OK. We brush the underside of the clouds as we search for a gap to climb into, and the world looks fantastic from up here with shafts of sunlight picking out individual fields.

We find a hole and climb in to it. 3,200ft, HASELL check (Crowds, Clouds, Cities, Controlled Airspace). A quick 360° check then power right back, carb heat on, stick all the way back. The controls are mushy and the stall warning light's flickering. Eventually, after a great deal of prodding, the poor old Cherokee reluctantly stalls. OK, the nose drops and we lose 400 ft, less with immediate power application. One to look out for, especially when turning at low level. Some circuit work (I'm getting better at setting these up) and I fly the approach the flare, almost. Not quite enough flare, a little instructor assistance and we're down.

Only after we land do I realise I'm sweating like crazy but apart from the last few feet of the landing I did it all myself. Apparently I only need one more lesson of stalls then I'm on to circuit-bashing which is where I get to embarrass myself in front of the control tower continually by messing up approaches and landings...
Progress indeed.

I've seen the future....
The day after the previous lesson is the Flying School Open Day. I only have an hour for domestic reasons but manage to snag a guy who has just bought $300,000 worth of brand-new Cirrus SR-20, and offers me a flight. How can I possibly refuse? The wife will kill me....
Imagine a 1965 Morris Minor Traveller: vinyl seats, chrome controls, carburettored underpowered A-Series engine, cross-ply tyres, drum brakes, half-timbered rear bodywork (thanks, Dame Edna Everage.....) and those hokey sticky-out Lucas electric indicator stalks that used to break down every few weeks (I'm allowed to make the Lucas jokes; I used to work for them...).
That's a Piper Cherokee.

Now compare it with a brand new BMW 3 series.
That's the Cirrus. And he lets me fly it.
All-composite airframe, stall-resistant wings, two doors, fuel-injected engine with oodles of power, dual GPS systems, spin parachute, comfy seats with proper 5-point harnesses and a glass cockpit so we have weather radar, collision avoidance radar, virtual VOR/DME navigation systems, electronic airfield maps on demand, a radar transponder and an autopilot. And it even makes the tea (well, not quite, but it's close)
Now this is an aircraft that you can use to actually go places rather than potter about. It takes about the advertised 3 seconds to get the hang of the side stick and I cruise all around Oxford at 160 Knots (that's 184mph) as smooth as silk then back to Kidlington in what feels like 30 seconds. He performs the smoothest landing I have ever felt in any aircraft and we taxy back in, both with huge smug smiles.
I want one.......
Actually, very good experience in that I've now flown:
- from the right hand seat
- a modern aircraft
- with a side stick
- with someone who has had their PPL only 3 years and is not an instructor

I'm late in and suffer serious domestic grief...... but it was Worth It!

Anyone for a GPS approach?

Lesson 6 flying round the clouds
Today we start the serious stuff. I've taken 8 weeks off work and am having two lessons a day every day in a desperate attempt to get my PPL before the next Ice Age.

We start with me finally sussing out how to get the bloody pilot's seat down, so I'm not banging my head on the roof every time we hit a patch of turbulence.
Today I'm doing all the checks, all the taxying, the radio and even the take-off (bit wiggly still, but improving) and climb-out, then onwards and upwards to try to find a 3,500ft-high hole in the clouds.
This involves some really cool flying around little fluffy bits of cloud, my instructor panicking every time we hit a thermal (it's only a bit of sink). He's far more nervous than I am.
We try stalls with wing drops. The Cherokee doesn't really wing-drop at the stall, so he's trying to induce one by kicking the rudder and I'm kicking it the other way to stop the wing from dropping, so we nearly come to blows.
The poor Cherokee really doesn't like stalling and it's response is very much "oh, well, if you must....", the nose dropping very half-heartedly. The standard response is "control column forward, full power" which I do to his satisfaction at last.

We re-enter the Circuit staring down a huge black cloud that threatens to put an end to our day's flying, and do a passable landing, then I taxy it back and shut down.

My ears really hurt: if I'm going to flying twice a day I'm going to need a good headset that doesn't squash my ears. Off to the flight shop for some serious lunchtime credit card bashing.

Lesson 7 It's not fun any more
This afternoon, with a brand-new headset of my own definitely not squashing my ears or passing infections to me, we're doing circuits.
Up until now, we've done one lesson for each flight, but learning the circuit is where it all comes together and gets really very scary, so you do circuits until you a)pass the Air Law exam and b)learn to land.
Many a trainee pilot has spent months doing circuits, I wonder how long it will take me to escape?

Up until now I've been flying the approaches with lots of assistance from my instructor and he's been doing the last 50ft.
Now he's letting me set up the approaches (which I'm doing all wrong) and do the landings (which I'm doing all wrong) then he's wresting control from me at 10ft just before I wreck the aircraft.
With the added complication of doing the radio the workload is high. By the time we have climbed to circuit height it is time to go down again. On the approach we are always too high / too low / too fast / too slow / off to one side. And my climb-outs are "inaccurate". But finally I get one approximately on the runway and bounce it back in to the air.
What the hell was that?
The next time round we actually get it on to the ground and it sticks there but I know he was helping. And so it goes on.... And my Instructor says I'm one of the better students. What are the others like?
The fun factor is definitely lacking this afternoon, plus we are getting rained on by the aforementioned big black cloud, and by the time we finish uncountable circuits I am drenched with sweat, but at least my ears don't hurt.
New acronym to learn today: BUMMFTCH (no, seriously....)

Lesson 8 Taxying practise
Keen to try out my new kneepad clipboard we slip in to the cockpit on a very cloudy morning for some circuits. Attempt #1 aborts just before engine start as the rain begins to hammer on the airframe and we beat a hasty retreat to the clubhouse.
Three hours later the weather relents sufficiently for Attempt #2 to get as far as the Holding point where my Instructor, despite being offered an immediate take-off slot, makes us Hold just long enough for the weather to close in again.
I would have flown and gained some bumpy circuit experience but for the moment at least, he is In Command, so we taxy back in and shut down. Frustration is the order of the day, so an immediate return for an afternoon with the Air Law book is in order.

Lesson 9 These aircraft have nosewheel steering
Another wet and showery day like yesterday, but a different Instructor, who is a bit more Go-oriented, to put it politely. As the rain clears through we start up and go out.
He's a little mystified by my inability to turn the aircraft sharply on the ground and I calmly explain to him that on my 1st lesson my instructor explained that this was because these aircraft have no nosewheel steering, just differential brakes.
No, he says, these aircraft do have nosewheel steering.......
Which goes to show you can't believe all your Instructor tells you. My taxying promptly improves beyond all measure.
More Circuits today. I do actually get the aircraft over the numbers at the end of the runway every time, which is an improvement. And we finally work out why I'm all over the runway once down and accelerating back in to the air. The moment the Instructor stops "helping" with the rudder pedals it all magically straightens out..... Hmmmmm.
But I'm too low or too high, too fast or too slow, and I'm bouncing on the flare. My Instructor is very patient.
We dodge the thunderstorms all morning before a particularly close bolt of lightning prompts "I think we'll do a full-stop after this approach" and in we go.

Lesson 10 Improvement
After lunch I hang around (and hit the Air Law books) until yet more rain clears through (when will they rescind the hosepipe ban?) then we grab our checklists and go out again. I like this instructor!
The first approach is a complete balls-up so we abort, but on subsequent circuits things start looking better. I'm trimming the aircraft properly at each point in the circuit so everything is less panicked and I feel I'm fighting the controls less.
I'm actually achieving the correct airspeed and position relative to the runway at all points except the turn to Final, but I can't seem to nail the speed on the climb-out or the approach. It feels less like the aircraft is about to fall off a cliff when I put the flaps down but I'm letting the speed and attitude drift during the turn to Final then having to correct like crazy in the last few hundred feet. But better, and the Instructor is making fewer suggestions as we go round, so maybe things are improving.
Again, a huge rain-cloud drifts in to the circuit and we scrape it's underside as we finish the last circuit.
Back to the Air Law books tonight. Nearly ready for the exam.

Lesson 12 Crosswind
The weather really isn't co-operating at all: we've had rain and wind all weekend and now Monday dawns and it still hasn't cleared properly.

9.30am prompt and It's time to take the CAA Air Law exam, having boned up over the weekend. Like all exams, none of the stuff I absorbed comes up, all the stuff I didn't absorb does, being multiple choice often none of the answers are correct, and they ask a question that simply isn't in the book or the syllabus. My Instructor and I agree afterwards that two of the answers are ridiculously ambivalent, but 88% garners a "Pass", so that's another hurdle crossed.

We take off late through a 15 knot crosswind (aircraft limit is 18 knots) and around 4-500ft it's pretty bumpy. There's conflicting sink and thermals but my bump-averse Instructor redeems himself by not scratching the mission.
I manage to tidy up my approaches (the secret is to trim the controls lots, so you're not fighting them all the time) to the point where, despite the crosswind and the bumps, we fly just over the numbers at the start of the runway every time with no drama.
I'm learning not to lift the nose from the ludicrously low position 2 stages of flap places it in for the approach (feels like we're falling off a cliff) and not to panic about running out of runway (there's enough there to land a small airliner on).
With the crosswind the flare is a little "exciting" for a novice but I think a lot of it is conflicting control movements from me and my Instructor.
We don't break the aircraft, but I have a great deal more respect for the landing oleos now. Still, crosswind approaches are a necessary skill, even if it is not necessary just yet.....

Second mission of the day is scrubbed as the wind is just too high for me to learn much. Maybe I do need to trust my Instructor.

Lesson 13 In the groove
Another day, better weather conditions. Winds very near to zero with a few thermals as it's a bit muggy today.
We're back in the aircraft with the roof-mounted trim lever, so I'm not hitting my Instructor in the elbow every time I want to alter the trim. I still keep expecting the sunroof to open, however! This aircraft is more powerful (or maybe I'm flying better) so we reach circuit height a lot faster, leaving more BUMMFTCH time.
With less crosswind, landings are much less exciting and easier to nail accurately. Apart from getting mixed up with the radio calls a bit, and getting undertaken by a fast-moving Seneca (now I know how the average driver feels when I whisk up behind and blast past...) my Instructor is keeping a lot quieter. He's also looking marginally less scared but still panics when we hit a bump.
We're still fighting each other on the controls at touchdown but I'm less scared of running out of runway now as I deliberately left one landing really late, and we easily took off before we'd used half the available remaining runway, so my flares are more relaxed. It's looking better.

Lesson 14 How to really land
After lunch we have another go. Speed control is better, circuit positioning is better, recovery from "a bit high" (less power) is better, recovery from "a bit low" (more power) is better.
After some experiments we extend the downwind leg a bit to give a bit more time on Final and that helps. We've had zero aborted approaches for two days so maybe we're improving.
My Instructor has abandoned the controls at touchdown, and once we nearly do a proper gentle flare and touch but the wind catches us and we thump a bit, but at last I feel I'm getting the hang of this bit.
Judging it right is really hard, everybody gets it a bit wrong sometimes.
Everything else looks good, however, so it's on to Emergency Procedures tomorrow, weather permitting.

Lesson 15 Emergency Engine Outs
With the rain threatening this morning we try some circuits. Different instructor today: I like changing Instructors because each of them has a slightly different take on the manoeuvres. No one is really wrong but I feel some do a thing a better way than others.
I've been drawing little circuit diagrams with radio calls and responses on to ensure I say the right thing at each point, although I still mess it up a lot.
The cloudbase hovers between 1000ft (too low) and 2000ft (OK) and we zip through some reasonable circuits, but the landings are always just that bit rough. I'm not happy.
I can now recover consistently from approaches that are too low, too high, too far right and too far left, so we try some simulated Engine out scenarios, which are scary as these aircraft don't glide very far without the engine.
Eventually a large shower defeats us by sweeping across the airfield and we run for the clubhouse and lunch. There is much discussion over lunch of crash-landing techniques and why we don't learn to sideslip. Mental note: learn to sideslip at earliest possible opportunity, not in Cessna.
My Instructor say my landings are "good enough" but I'm still frustrated by my inability to land smoothly. It's the last 10 feet I just can't seem to get. It's getting a bit depressing.

Lesson 16 Wiper blades please?
This very short lesson starts with my Instructor outlining "engine out in the circuit" procedures (truncated circuits). I remember these from gliding days, only they were called "cable break procedures" and they were a bit scary then.
We start out to do a normal circuit first, though, for comparison purposes: "keep it on the centreline, at 65 Knots pull her clear, nail the speed to 77.5 Knots and she'll climb,, just before the railway line, now we're at 1000ft so Attitude, Power, Trim, turn again to keep the airfield in sight, BUMMPFFITCHH, downwind radio call....".
Halfway round the rain comes across like a grey curtain and the world disappears. We'll land and go in.
My Instructor goes eerily silent as I turn on to what I can see of Base leg, drop the power off, put the Cartb Heat on and get the flaps down, nail the speed at 75 Knots and Trim for it, then turn late on to Final as I've let Base leg drift on. He's either very scared or very happy because he hasn't said anything.
I can still see very little through the rain. I can recover the Final from here, but I'm a smidge too low, so I add a bit of power and it looks better. And he's still silent.
Keep the numbers in the same place on the streaky windscreen, continue down.....down......down.... now back on the centreline, the threshold numbers pass just below and we have two red and two whites on the VASI so we must be close. Double-decker bus height so chop the power, flare gently.....back......back...... and the mains kiss the runway. Stick gently forward, compensate with the rudder and we're down and rolling. And no comments.
At Last, a landing I'm happy with. And in the pouring rain, too. Now I've just got to do that every time.
A relaxed roll-out, turn off on to the grass to vacate the runway and taxy home. So easy....
My Instructor is in a hurry to get home, so my brain turns to complete mush. Miss half the post-flight checks, miss the radio call, start doing the wrong checks, aaarrrgggghhhh...... Make mental note not to be rushed; next time will stop the Instructor and do things at my pace instead. And Properly.
Tomorrow is another day.

Lesson 17 Naked landings
It rains as I drive to the airfield but the forecast is for better conditions later, and indeed they arrive as I do. This morning the wind is a bit across the runway so this will make for tricky landings.
We are to do flapless ("naked") landings this morning. These are apparently meant to be "exciting" because flaps allow the aircraft to glide at a steeper angle and more slowly, so without the flaps you're flying faster at the touchdown point, but if the flaps fail in flight you need to know how to land the aircraft, so off we go.
A couple of conventional circuits with flaps first, which go OK-ish (really crappy landing on the first one), so we try one with no flaps. As we cross the wood about half a mile in front of the runway we can really feel the sink from the wet trees but adding a little power has become second nature by now and we make a low-stress landing, albeit a bit bumpy. My Instructor is a little peeved by this, so we go off to do another one, with similar results.
More circuit bashing for the rest of the lesson, and today I'm getting all the radio calls correct, for once.

Lesson 18 Dead stick
That box ticked, we try glide ("dead stick") approaches and these are a bit hairier. We're in a different aircraft this afternoon and the trim is in a different place: I keep reaching for the sunroof control instead of between the seats. And I don't care what anyone says: this aircraft does not have as much power as the others, and the radio is terrible.
We kill the power and glide down but starting from half way around the circuit, way off the runway centreline. My Instructor does the first one and misjudges it, so we nearly get a couple of hatchbacks on the A44 and need a blast of power to literally lift us over the last hedge to the runway. The next one I try and actually, once you have the aircraft trimmed to do 75 Knots the descent is OK but the first time you do it, turning on to the runway heading at the very last minute, it's pretty scary.
Landings today are rough due to the crosswind (but that's no excuse!) but I get it down OK each time. Nearly picked up a runway light one time, though.
Got the radio calls right every time except for transferring to the Ground frequency after the last touchdown. I'm less panicked but now have a stinking headache. Time to go home.

Lesson 19 False Dawn
The morning dawns bright and clear. The cloudbase is high, the wind low and in line with the Active runway. Thermals are small and tidy. The sinking forest on the approach has disappeared. Small animals bask in the sunshine. It's a Good Day for Flying.
My circuits are model examples of the art: good radio technique, correct handling on the taxiways and runway, good climbout, clean and co-ordinated turns, good positioning, correct height, correct downwind calls, correct downwind checks, correct Base leg turns, correct glideslope (bit far off to the left once or twice but easily recoverable and no worse than I've seen Instructors do).
The "speed too low on approach" issue is nailed, the "let's attack the runway lights" issue is nailed, the landings are crisp, on main wheels only followed by the nosewheel a few seconds later. Emergency procedures are followed flawlessly.
My Instructor is silent, it looks like some watershed has been reached.......
He suggests I land and we taxy flawlessly back to the parking area. This is the moment I've been training for....

"Well, they're coming along" he says, and gets out.
What? But I'm Ready To Solo...

He says my speed control on the approach isn't quite right, but it's been nailed at the appropriate level all morning. He's criticised me on this before and I've been especially concentrating on it.

I really should have gone home at that point.....

Lesson 20 How not to fly circuits
After lunch it shows that I'm not happy.
Despite my best efforts to be even better than this morning in a vain attempt to rescue the situation, my radio messages dry up, my approaches are all over the place.
My take-offs suddenly improve (handy tip: a good bootful of right rudder pushed in and held in as you take-off keeps you on the centreline) but everything else is sloppy no matter how hard I try..... I might as well have gone home.
I wouldn't have let me Solo...
Eventually we give up the unequal struggle and go in. I am absolutely drenched with the effort. You could wring out my shirt. The Instructor is unimpressed and frankly, so am I.

I have the Bank Holiday weekend to reflect but feel I have blown the best chance in ages to move on and escape the dreaded Circuits.

Lesson 21 The Crosswind King
The Bank Holiday weekend is over and I've had a chance to reflect on Friday. I've just got to be better!
Today we have gusting crosswinds of 10 Knots and above, so my Instructor says we will not be soloing today. Instead I can try again to master the demon crosswind. The last time was a disaster: we were being blown all over the place and I made not one successful landing. It's become a bit of a bogie in my mind.
We're in a different aircraft again today, so I will make sure I don't get the callsign confused. If in doubt, write it down.
So my memory doesn't fail me at awkward moments I write out on my kneeeboard cheatsheet the full callsign of the aircraft exactly as you would say it (in this case "Golf Alpha Tango"). It looks stupid but I'm beyond caring, if it works. It's one less thing to have to worry about.
Apart from forgetting to set the altimeter and getting confused over the taxy instructions (that'll teach me to learn at a proper commercial airfield where they have four runways) we get going OK and I concentrate on keeping my Instructor quiet i.e. doing everything flawlessly.
On Friday as part of my disaster during my downwind BUMMFITCH checks I nearly pulled the Mixture lever rather than the Carb heat lever (this would have stopped the engine) and I am at pains today to ensure this does not happen (ever more, ever again, slapped wrist....)
My approaches are better prepared today, despite the crosswind (I've been flying these in my sleep). I've finally conquered that feeling on the final turn that we are about to corkscrew in to the ground so reflexively pulling back on the stick.
Now as we turn to Final we are still on the correct speed so calling Final on the radio seems easy and relaxed:
"Golf Alpha Tango, Final"
"Golf Alpha Tango, Clear Touch and Go, Runway 19, Surface winds 10 Knots, 240° "
"Clear Touch and Go, Golf Alpha Tango"
When we get closer to the ground we just push more and more rudder in and fly more and more asymetrically.
It looks ridiculous from the cockpit, like a Jeremy Clarkson oversteer documentary; I can almost smell the tortured rubber.
At the very last moment, in the flare, we cancel the rudder and push just a touch of aileron in to lean towards the wind. Before the wind has a chance to push us on to the runway lights, we're down. Ha, that fooled it.
And yes, I can repeat it. Apart from being caught by a gust on one flare that we both agreed needed an Abort and Go Around, I managed to get it on the ground in the middle of the runway every time. Well Bloody Hell, it does work.
By the time we land and taxy in I'm exhausted but triumphant. That's one more bogie thoroughly dealt with.

Domestic arrangements have scratched Mission #2 today (and the weather is closing in), but the wind is forecast to be less tomorrow. Time to hit the Met. books this afternoon.

Lesson 22 Small Hope
Another sunny day, more small animals basking in the sunshine, heavenly choirs singing, you get the picture......
A rude awakening: coming in the back way (Headington roundabout bad again) a Police car is blocking the normal entrance. Someone has crashed one on the road. Apparently the engine failed on take off, he aborted and went through the hedge at the end of the runway. The nosewheel caught and they ended up upside down on the road. Amazingly, all 3 passengers got out OK. Ooo er...
The airport is closed for 2 hours. The moment it reopens we are in the air. My radio procedures are better than perfect, my circuits glow with precision and everything my Instructors have remarked upon is nailed securely down.
We have a gusty crosswind, so accurate landings are hard: once we land a little long and another time we land slightly off the centerline, both easily corrected.
We break for a short lunch. It looks Good. At last I may escape.

Lesson 23 Trapped
My Instructor asks all the right questions: have I flown the Emergency Procedures, how many hours have I flown etc.
Despite last Friday I see glimmerings of hope. Conventional circuits are now within my grasp, a test glide approach goes off well, an aborted landing is handled without drama, we land....
He says my landings are "inconsistent".
WHAT? NO THEY'RE "£$%^&* NOT !
Will I never escape the dreaded circuits?

I abuse the C roads between Kidlington and home in revenge. More scared Pensioners in Nissan Micras....


Weather Interlude (Wurlitzer organ rises from floor, cigarette girls populate the aisles, their little fairy lights dancing in the gloom.....)
As forecasted, the weather now decides it's been kind enough for long enough and goes windy, so no flying is possible.

Lesson 24 The mile wide smile
5 days since the disastrous Lesson 23 (will I remember anything?) and with a bad cold that has prevented me from sleeping most of the previous night, I'm ready for my Meteorological exam. The pass mark is 75% and my head is buzzing with Adiabatic Lapse Rates, cloud types and Cold Front characteristics.
A multiple choice hour later 80% garners a "Pass". 2 down, 4 to go.
My ears are blocked and I have to keep blowing my nose, I'm on Paracetamol; this is a stinker and my headache is coming back. No way should I be flying at all.
So we'll do it anyway. Mind over matter.

Different Instructor, phew. This one is taciturn but fair and less nervous. I try not to sniff too much. Bearing in mind my previous Instructor's complaints about inconsistent landings I get two "perfects" and a "slightly less than perfect". He says I'm ready to do one on my own and gets out, closing the door behind him. Suppress the nerves and.....

"Golf Alpha Tango, request taxy"
"Golf Alpha Tango, taxy to holding point Charlie 1, cross Runway 27, Enter 29"
Taxy holding point Charlie 1, cross 27, enter 29, Golf Alpha Tango"
"Golf Alpha Tango please confirm QNH 1024"
"Confirm QNH 1024, Golf Alpha Tango"
Let the brake off, a bit of oomph to get it going, mind the Cessna that's been crappily parked, over the bumpy grass, control column back to prevent the prop from hitting the grass as we cross on to the taxiway, a bit less oomph to go along the taxiway.
Along to the power test area, do the power tests, do the pre-take off checks, what am I going to do about the Seneca parked ahead of me awaiting Instrument clearance?
Ah, sod it, I'm not going to wait for him, I'll go past him.
Stop at the Give Way line. Engine to 1200rpm
"Golf Alpha Tango, Ready for Departure no. 1"
"Golf Alpha Tango, clear take off, surface winds 240, 5 Knots "
"Clear take off, Golf Alpha Tango", by which time I am moving and checking the approach path to make sure no one is on Finals. ATC may clear you to do almost anything but ultimately it's your responsibility not to hit people.
Turn on to the runway and give it some serious shit. Lots of right rudder, bit of right aileron as we have a crosswind, speed gets to 65 in no time at all, and pull it off the runway. For the first time since 1979, Ballard flies on his own....

The aircraft climbs a lot faster with just 1 PoB and I am at Circuit height before the downwind leg, giving loads of time to get the radio call in, adjust the height and make the Downwind checks. It's all very relaxed. The runway is parallel with the left wing and following the first line of rivets in from the end, so I know I'm in the right place.

Turn on to Base leg, drop the power, pull in the flaps, nail the speed at 75Kts, trim, little bit high as were lighter so a smidge less power, turn to Final at 900 feet, roll level...

"Golf Alpha Tango, Final"
"Golf Alpha Tango, clear to land, surface winds 240 at 5 Knots"
"Clear land, Golf Alpha Tango"

I'm a bit low, so a smidge more power, speed has decayed so nose down a bit, speed coming back, a bit more power, it's very slightly lower than I normally do with the Instructor but nothing to worry seriously about, so continue down...... down...... over the numbers, double-decker bus height so chop the power and flare, (but not too much, which is my normal trick). A little bit of into-wind aileron to counteract the crosswind and just hold it there......

The main wheels hit the tarmac gently and I'm down on the Centreline. A bit of power as I am a long way up the runway and it is good manners to vacate quickly, then brakes as we approach the turn off, the Tower gives permission to taxy back to the stand (and congratulates me for not giving their Fire Service an outing) and I'm on to the grass. Post-landing checks, taxy home around the bloody Cessna and park. Engine off, key out, door open and exit.

First solo at 23½ hours. That grin is going to be on my face for a while......

My cold has caught up with me: my ears ache, I can't hear properly, my headache is back with a vengeance and my nose is streaming. Best to call it A Day and fly another day

The mile wide smile

Lesson 25 A bit close
The cloudbase is too low to start overhead joins today and I need to improve my crosswind landings, so off we go. I can always get it on to the runway OK, but the actual landings can be harsh and are inconsistent. So we put in an hour's worth of dual to try and improve them.
Half way through we are behind the other Instructor in the circuit heading for Final. Following another aircraft round is nerve-wracking at best but he has an inexperienced pilot (at last, someone worse than me!) on board so is going slowly, and we overhaul him. As we get closer to the runway we are right on his tail: solo I would abort and go around at this point, and say so (sage nod from the Instructor), but he thinks we might get away with it. We abort at about 20 feet as we're far too close to the other aircraft (and the ground), then as we climb away a Seneca suddenly appears directly above us; again, very close. Seeing other aircraft in flight so close is unnerving.
The landings improve; any practise is always worthwhile. I'm flaring better and more consistently now and the landings are smoother.

Lesson 26 Low stress landings
After lunch, a second go. My Instructor says I can solo after a couple if I want: he is sufficiently happy that I can get them close enough, but actually I value his opinion on each landing, and we slowly improve them. At one point he does one to show me, and apart from being 5 Knots faster it's no better than mine! So I try them 5 Knots faster and they are better, more relaxed.
Landing requires absolute, total and utter concentration for the last 2 miles or so; more than anything else I've ever done. I'm confident now that if it goes badly wrong the reflexes are in place to abort safely and go around; there is no shame in that; everybody does it. So I can relax a bit and concentrate on consistency.
The trouble is that it requires hand-eye co-ordination; something I don't really have a lot of (you should see me try to catch a ball!), hence the huge amounts of practise required. No one is more amazed than I that I can do it at all, let alone repeatedly. But my Instructor and I are happy that it's been a useful session, and my landings have certainly improved.
As for the rest of the circuits; he just goes to sleep now, so I know I'm doing them right. Circuits can be Fun!

Lesson 27 I scare myself
It's a beautiful September day and I'm starting early. My Instructor and I go off in to the circuit for the normal few circuits, just to ensure I've got my eye in.
After two uneventful circuits, one OK and one really slick landing he pronounces himself satisfied, hops out and says "bring the aircraft back by 10.30 please".
Now the fun really begins. Statistically I am now at my most dangerous.
Two circuits in I'm doing OK and humming Thomas Dolby tracks. I discover that carefully trimmed the aircraft will reach circuit height on the climb out, I've worked out how to make the ventilation work properly so I'm not cooking, my landings are getting more consistent, life is good.....
After take off it all starts going wrong. The engine sounds funny, it won't climb very well. I'm in the air and the speed is OK but we're very low. The picture is wrong, mental images of forced landings and bent undercarriages flash past. The obvious thing to check is that the Carb Heat is still on "hot" from the approach but no; and the flaps are up as well.
But the engine feels like it's only on half throttle. Ah, well that's probably because it is only on half throttle, you idiot....
With a roar the engine returns to normal climb setting, the aircraft climbs away and I reach circuit height as normal, but I've managed to scare myself stupid.
I'm still feeling weak at the knees three circuits later, but I will NEVER do that again!
I spend the next hour calming myself down and trying to unblock a recalcitrant ear.
Human Factors seems a relevant study subject at the moment.

Lesson 28 Bullet the Blue Sky
I manage to ace the landing on the first circuit (it's OK, all my other landings are crap) so my Instructor hops out and I've got the aircraft until 1.15. No half-throttle climb-outs this time, in fact it's all getting a bit relaxed flying-wise, which is just as well because the circuit is getting extremely busy. We have jets, fast Senecas on Instrument approaches, me and one other PA28 doing circuits plus a really slow EuroStar microlight doing circuits too. It's OK but the Tower is getting a bit testy with a few people (not me!). I keep my head down....
Confusingly, another "Alpha Tango" turns up on the radio. I'm really glad this didn't happen on my 1st solo as I have to use the full callsign for every call. I manage it OK but it's one more thing to think about.
Then I'm #1 to land but when I turn on to Final some idiot in a Seneca is still backtracking (going the wrong way) down it preparatory to taking off. There is no way he's going to clear in time so at 500ft I Go Around (my first solo Abort!). The tower grants me an "Early Turn" which for a moment eludes me but fortunately I did one of these with my Instructor a few days ago so I know where to go and do a very neat orbit back to the Downwind leg which I reach at exactly the right height - blimey! Couldn't do that again if I tried.
It's absolutely beautiful out here in the blue sky pottering about humming U2 tracks to myself. I could do it all day, but have to be back at 1.15. Time for a late lunch.

Lesson 29 Purple Haze
To move on to the next lessons (overhead joins, steep turns, forced landings) it transpires that I need 2 hours or more of "Solo consolidation" (what I've been doing). As I have been so exact in getting the aircraft back on time I now exactly 1.9 hours, so a third flight is discussed.
My poor Instructor is very harassed with Trial lessons so we all agree that it's easiest for me to just take an aircraft out and fly 0.1 hours solo. Yippee!
Well, you can't just fly 0.1 hours, that's only half a circuit, so I get to do some late afternoon circuits in the haze. Definitely time to hum some Jimi Hendrix.
Half way down the second approach at the most critical point my kneepad explodes and tries to visit the rudder pedals so I'm trying to fly the plane, work the radio and rescue it before it jams something. Bloody Velcro.
On the 3rd circuit I decide it's time to pack it in. It's busy and I'm #4 to land. In the haze I can see #1 (landing), #2 (my Instructor's aircraft wobbling about), but where's #3 (the Tobago)?
I can't really turn on to Base leg until I can see the aircraft I am meant to be following. So I bimble off downwind into the wild blue yonder, stay high and make a long, wide, sweeping turn on to Final, still looking for this bloody Tobago. I make clearing turns, I squint but I can't see him.
Eventually the Tower asks me where I am (the sarcastic answer would be "somewhere in Northamptonshire") but I tell them I am on Long Final and putter in gently. After landing, I'm just getting out of the aircraft when the bloody Tobago finally comes in. Where the hell he'd been I dread to think.
It's not until later that I remember a 10 Knot crosswind was blowing all day and I hadn't really noticed all my approaches were flown Jeremy Clarkson-style. Must just be getting used to it.

Lesson 30 Hooligan stuff
Solo consolidation accomplished, I finally escape the circuit and we head off in to the countryside for Steep Turns. It's cooler today and there are fewer bumps. It's windy on the ground but that doesn't necessarily translate into problems in the air, like rough water doesn't mean rough diving.
Up until now we have been relatively gentle with the aircraft, carefully turning and keeping the wings level; but today we take the trainer wheels off and throw the aircraft around.
The PA28 will turn very steeply indeed if you turn in then really pull back on the stick and add power. We practise going round and round and round in very tight turns indeed at full power directly over a certain North Oxfordshire stately home with which I have a certain business connection and who's owner I know will not mind! I bet it looked good from the ground.
Then we try spiral turn recovery, where the Instructor deliberately over-pulls the aircraft into a spiral dive (picture a shot-down Spitfire spiralling in to the ground) and you have to recover. Actually, recovery is easy: power-off, wings level, pull out and add power. Wheeeeeeee!!!!.
Interestingly, provided you always pull positive G you don't get disorientated or dizzy when doing turns like these. And of course it's great fun! Better than bloody circuits.
Home for lunch and we practise rejoining the circuit from altitude, which will take a little getting used to.

Lesson 31 buzzing the M40
If the engine quits whilst you are in the air you need to know how to select a field and land in it whilst doing the minimum amount of damage to yourself, the aircraft and the farmers crops, in that order.
So we find ourselves North of Bicester over open countryside, select a field, close the throttle and I spiral in, always keeping the field just behind the wingtip until we are at treetop height, before powering away back up to our normal cruising height. Flying close to the ground gives a much better impression of how fast you are really going: 75Knots is 86mph, so things happen fast. Very glad I've got the BMW to practise on...
This takes practise and the first couple of times I mess it up, but the third time we pick a nice big grass field right by the M40 and I successfully spiral in to treetop height from where I could easily have landed it. We were so low going over the M40 I could see the drivers looking up at us. Tee hee!
The time passes too quickly and before I know it we are headed home again. The wind has been across the runway and quite strong today so I will need to concentrate on the landing. But by the time we get back the wind has shifted directly down the runway, it's all very relaxed and I get "nice, a very smooth landing" from my Instructor. That felt better than the actual landing.

Lesson 32 Further afield
Today we start Navigation, so duly equipped with map, protractor, flight computer, marker pens and stopwatch we plan a triangular journey around Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. Ah, the heady aroma of Methylated Spirits!
Start with the known distance and calculated bearing between each waypoint and the known wind direction and strength interpolated from the current Met chart. Add in the aircraft's cruising speed of 95 Knots and the correct track and leg duration will drop out. Actually quite simple.
So after an hour we go out, I take off and climb out, get us to Charlbury (our planned start point), my Instructor flies the planned bearings and durations on my instructions, and bugger me if it doesn't work.
We fly exactly to each waypoint and apart from one waypoint coming up 1 minute early we are perfect. My Instructor says it's not meant to work like that, and we were meant to have errors that we would then correct for!
Flying at 3000ft above the countryside on a beautiful sunny September afternoon we can see for miles and miles; England is very tranquil from up here; each field is a different colour, watercourses sparkle, gliders appear below us circling in the thermals.
Hills you would notice in a car and definitely (!) on a bicycle are flattened; you notice how many people have swimming pools and what lovely houses there are out in the countryside where you never see them from the roads.
It also strikes home how rural England is: roads and habitation take up a tiny percentage of the total space: it's nearly all fields and woodland, but also how big the housing estates on the edges of towns are relative to the original size of the settlement. I can hear JJMcP's Geography lessons coming back now....
Home for an overhead join (I understand these a bit better now, but am still crap with the radio) then a sharp descent to circuit height, a slightly odd-shaped circuit, a lousy approach (too fast all the way down and too high) followed by a long but smooth landing.
I've got a lot to study over the weekend, and it will be fun....

Lesson 33 Smooth as silk
It's cool this morning but becomes very warm; one of those early September days I remember from school. We would go out in the afternoon and swelter in woollen Rugby tops and socks. Early September can be really hot.
Early in, to the surprise of all, as my flying slot was later today. But it's time for the Human Factors exam, for which the study was extremely interesting; it covers the human body, how it reacts to stress, survival in the event of a forced landing, and flight safety. 95% garners a "Pass" and it's on to the next exam: Comms, which should be interesting.
Next I spend an hour trying to duplicate the calculations required to plan a triangular Navigation course assigned by my Instructor. Not only must I get it right, but I must understand the process sufficiently to be able to duplicate it in future.
You start by drawing the track on the chart in felt-pen and measuring the compass-bearing off it to get an approximate heading for each leg. Then you find the forecast wind at the height you'll be flying at (this is available on a downloadable Met. Office sheet) and factor that in using the flight computer, which is a fancy name for a clever little manual plastic gadget like a rotary slide rule (remember them?), compensate for magnetic deviation and you have a real course to steer.
The gadget gives you true ground speed as well, so knowing the distance of each leg you can easily calculate how long it should take.
All this information gets put on a flight planning form that gets clipped to your kneeboard during flight for quick reference.
Once completed, we go and fly it: a smooth climbout to our starting point (which I manage to misidentify), then we begin.
I level out at 3,000ft, reset the Direction Indicator to match the compass, zero the trims, centre the Turn and Slip ball, turn on to the correct heading and as we pass over the start waypoint start the stopwatch and fly as accurately as I can. Our first leg is short and the air is as smooth as silk.
Over our next waypoint I perform a 270° turn (really an excuse to stand the aircraft on it's wingtip) to line up on to our next heading, start the stopwatch again and off we go for the first long leg.
This is the first time I've really flown in level flight outside the circuit for an extended period and with the aircraft properly trimmed it's relaxing. Every now and then I nudge the trims and correct the heading. The countryside flows by, warm in the September sun, and our next waypoint swims in to view 30 seconds early, which means the wind is a little stronger than I had calculated. We pick up a few thermal bumps but on the whole it's very smooth today.
Another 270° turn over the waypoint to ensure my Instructor is happy that we really are where I think we are (well that's my excuse), and we head for home on our final leg.
As the stopwatch reaches the halfway point we're 5° off track so I compensate 10° and by the time we are three-quarters of the way through we have the airfield in sight (at least I think it is, from up here it could be any airfield). We check-in with them for a "join", which is what a return to the circuit is called. This is a bit complex and involves a lot of radio and some 3-D mental gymnastics: you have to imagine a spiral above the circuit in just the right place, then fly it to join in to the circuit without hitting anyone.
I manage OK with the join but my circuit is too small, so my approach is rushed and the eventual landing is untidy and bumpy, and I know it. I'm very embarrassed: I know I can do better.

Weather Interlude (again)
The English weather takes over and for three days we're grounded. It makes me more and more certain that once I am qualified I need an Instrument rating of some sort. Otherwise this is a very fair-weather business.
The only bright spot on the horizon is that 80% on the Radio theory exam takes me one more step towards the end of Ground School.
On the fourth day the weather finally relents and the sun comes out. I am eager like a dog waiting for a walk but find, having hung around for 2 hours, that the flying school have failed to book me in to fly today! I checked these bookings a week ago and they were in there then, so someone has changed them since. Very strange......
So now I am condemned not to fly for another 3 days. Back to Ground school, this time Navigation theory.

Lesson 34 Read the f!"£$%^&*( flight plan
The weather, the booking system and work commitments relent at last. We're off navigating again, under a blue sky full of fluffy clouds. It's so beautiful, this is what flying is all about.
I navigate the first leg perfectly.... to Banbury.
We're early. Huh?
My Instructor asks why we aren't at Chipping Warden, which of course is the correct destination as marked and carefully calculated by me on my flight planner, had I bothered to look. Eeek!
Then I can't find the disused airfield at Chipping Warden, which only happens to be a mile wide and covered in cars. I can't see it because it's right under the aircraft. My Instructor tips the aircraft over, pulling what feels like 4G, to show me. Eeek squared!
This navigation is more difficult than it looks, especially when your Instructor makes you divert en route, which means doing the flight planning by mental arithmetic whilst flying the aircraft. Pressure or what?
Eventually we get back on track and manage to fly successfully to Moreton-in-the-Marsh and back to Kidlington. I get my first taste of flying through wisps of cloud: the first one is surprisingly turbulent, so the next one I find a hole in and fly through that instead, much to my Instructor's amusement.
A much-improved Standard Overhead Join gets us back in to the circuit and a slightly harsh gusty landing. Lunch time.

Lesson 35 Previously, on "Lost".....
I have a new Instructor this afternoon, who is absolutely brilliant and has a good sense of humour (he'll need it...).
I fail to start the aircraft by missing out setting the Mixture control to "Rich" on the startup checklist. Doh!
The first navigation leg starts, as usual, over Cornbury Park (my favoured turning point). This time I fail to start the stopwatch until 3 minutes after we leave, which means that when get to Shipston-on-Stour it's not there. Or rather there are 50 villages around the aircraft, all of which could be Shipston-on-bloody-Stour. They all look the same from up here. So I guess at the largest one.
"No, that's Stratford-upon-Avon"
Oh shit. I'm lost.
We go through the standard "finding yourself" procedure, backtrack a few miles and Shipston-on-Stour appears, much to my relief. A scary few minutes, though, and good experience. Glad I wasn't alone.
The next leg is to North Leach roundabout. I know this area pretty well so I cheat a bit and we find it easily.
I'm beginning to get a feel for how this works. Everything looks very flat; hills don't really stand out at all from 3,000ft. The landscape looks very little like the map and you can see a hell of a long way.
My Instructor shows me a few neat tricks: we ask Oxford for a compass bearing to steer based on a bearing from our radio signal. This is known as a QDM (or "Quick Dial Mummy", as he puts it).
We also try the Nuclear Option: changing the radio to 121.5 (the Emergency frequency), and asking for a position fix.
Both of these work perfectly; I feel a great deal less concerned about running out of fuel whilst trying to work out where I am, but I have to say that a portable GPS device will be an early purchase! It's great to know how to do it "properly", and obviously I need to know it for the PPL, but in real life I'll have a GPS as a backup (or even a Primary!)
My Instructor can make no sense whatsoever of my overhead join procedure when I try to explain it to him, but we fly it and he agrees it works just fine. It's very crosswindy, and for some unknown reason I fly the worst approach I've ever done but rescue it in the last 150 yards and touch down barely perceptibly, which garners a complement. I used more aileron than ever before to counteract the crosswind and it really does seem to work: effectively you're flying in to the wind along the ground sideways one way as fast as the wind is blowing you sideways across the ground in the opposite direction.
I'm beginning to realise that the secret of a smooth landing is to land really slowly: much slower than you're taught, but still well above the actual stall speed of the aircraft. Will work on that.
Home for more Navigation study: I feel my brain's full at the moment. There's an awful lot of it to learn.

Lesson 36 Air speed record
The tail end of a tropical storm has descended upon the British Isles and the winds are "lively", which is not conducive to smooth, educational flying. After a frustrating day of unsuccessfully waiting for the wind to drop I arrive at PFT early on a beautifully warm, sunny but windy morning.
My head is full of Navigation exam cramming (DoT over DiGx60=track error, altitude-to-FL high-to-low down-you-go, etc) and first I tackle the Navigational theory paper, which turns out to be OK, but requiring extremely accurate map plotting to get the right answers. Anyway, I get 2 questions wrong out of 25, but 92% garners a "Pass". Only two more exams to go.
We decide this is not the best day to do Solo navigation as the crosswind component on the landing will be very close to the operating limits of the aircraft.....
So we decide to do a "Zone transit". This is where I navigate us through the Brize Norton Military Control Zone, and we get to talk to the military Air Traffic Controllers on the way. I just hope we don't get shot down or hit by a TriStar.
The take-off is "interesting". The wind tries extremely hard to flip the aircraft over from 30 Knots onwards and I have to steer in to it just to get the aircraft to take-off speed. Having done that, take-off is smooth and despite some gusts and turbulence we climb out over Oxford, which glistens in the sunlight. Lazy navigation means "follow the A34" to our denoted starting point and whilst climbing there we emerge into smooth, glassy air.
A quick orbit around my chosen roundabout as an excuse to chuck the aircraft about a bit, then I line up properly on my waypoint start line and this time I get the stopwatch to start at the right place. Half way through the leg we change radios and talk to Brize Norton who, when they are not talking to us, are directing a landing at Boscombe Down which is a hell of a long way from here, showing just how far VHF radio works when you are 3,000ft up. They accept our plans, sounding surprisingly un-military (I expected "right, you 'orrible little man, you want to fly your scruffy little aeroplane across our pristine military turf do you? Well get your 'air cut, for a start, and call me sir!") and we proceed. They advise us of various helicopters flying near us, and advise the helicopters of our presence. A Merlin (think "big helicopter") gets quite close at one point.
I manage to keep the aircraft on track and on height all the way, and my dead reckoning navigation, as taught, brings us straight to the mast at Membury Services. Spot-on. That's how it should work.
A nice steep orbit around the mast (just to check it's there, honest.......) and we roll out on to our new heading. We now have a 35 Knot tailwind and our groundspeed becomes 130 Knots, or 150mph. Cool!
It feels pretty relaxed (and there are no speed cameras up here!) but the villages below zoom by and before we know it we're ready to enter the armed enclosure. I kind of expect barbed wire in the sky or something, but actually apart from asking us to fly at a particular height (around which I wobble) it's all a bit of an anti-climax, apart from the fab view of the apron at Brize Norton covered in TriStars and foreign-owned Airbus private jets as we fly over.
This time I find Shipston-on-bloody-Stour without error and circle it steeply a couple of times just to make absolutely sure it's really there before setting off for home, now directly in to the wind.
It's all a bit slow flying this way but Enstone comes up eventually and from there I can see Cornbury Park and the airfield. So it's goodbye helpful Brize and back to Oxford Approach who allow us back in.
Once in the circuit we turn to Final and start our approach. It's obvious from the start this is going to be scary but I'll fly it anyway. I do OK until we flare then the crosswind picks up a wing and we drift across the runway. My Instructor grabs it and we plop down neatly on the centreline. Glad I wasn't Solo.
Mental note: learn to sideslip properly.

Lesson 37 Land away
It's a beautiful day (thanks, U2, now I have something to hum all day...).
First job: Principles of Flight exam. I'm a Mechanical Engineer so the entire book has been common sense and I haven't had to do much revising. Easist exam yet. One more and I'm finished with Ground school.
I'm now apparently cleared to navigate solo, but the cloudbase is insufficiently high for me to navigate at my planned 3000 feet, so we do something different instead: a dual land away. This involves flying to a different airfield and is what touring flying is all about.
We are to go to Wellesbourne Mountford near Straftord-on-Avon (past Shipston-on-bloody-Stour, so we'll ensure we identify it on the way up......).
We plan the route and I fly it. I make a point of identifying Shipston-on-bloody-Stour, and we arrive at Wellesbourne on time and on bearing, so my nav must be improving.
This is my first time in an alien circuit: my Instructor lets me do a standard overhead join, which I make a bit of a mess of and have to do a quick orbit to lose height (noses on the windscreen as we spiral down....). Mental note: leave more room next time.
Then into the circuit behind another guy, round on to Final and a smooth approach to the runway. Do it just like at Kidlington, flare, and land on the numbers as smooth as silk. Gosh, that was easy. I expected to muck it up in one way or another....
We pay our landing fee and have a coffee. I'm learning to chat like a pilot (this means I am becoming a bore, so I limit myself to boring only other pilots....) and before we know it, it's time to go home.
Leaving is just like arriving: very easy, and I've already plotted the return leg (Instructor impressed) so we cruise home. Charlbury arrives over the starboard bow on time, we kink around Enstone airfield and perform a "straight in" circuit join, which basically means you just fly straight in to the Final. Concentrate on a smooth landing and we taxi in. My Instructor has stopped commenting on my landings so I must be doing them right. Next stops: Solo Nav then Solo land away.

Despite today's jaunt, cumulative weather problems have now delayed me to the point where getting my PPL before I return to work is in serious doubt, so I negotiate with a South African flying school concerning spending 2 weeks over there where it is Spring and the sun is bright, and finishing my PPL (plus having a bit of fun.....). Unfortunately the administrative issues put the kybosh on that one..... I'm stuck with the UK weather.

Extended weather interlude
Not content with earlier protrusions in to my flying shedule we now get day after day of low cloud, showers, wind and rain. Time after time I arrive, plan a journey and the weather prevents us from flying it.
I finish my Ground school: Flight Planning turns out to be easier than advertised and I only have to fly now.
Different Instructors' attitudes to flight planning emerge, and I evolve my own style of planning, taking what I hope are the best bits of each style.

Lesson 38 Scud running
The weather breaks: it's the most beautiful but cold morning; the first day of Autumn. The heating is on in the office, there isn't a cloud in the sky and I'm early. I have my flight planned, map drawn out, wind drift calculated and leg times estimated.
As I'm still a Student (how much longer must I hear this?) they want an Instructor to do a couple of circuits with me to ensure I haven't forgotten how to land (which is fair enough; any practise is good by me); but the Instructor has to wait for his student to complete his flight plan (which he has barely started and takes him 20 minutes), then go out with him before he can come back and snooze around a couple of circuits with me. He could have circuited me first then hopped out of my aircraft in to the students' pre-flighted aircraft; I've seen this done before. So instead I get to be bored for 90 minutes, by which time clouds are peeping over the horizon. Uh Oh.
I complete two circuits satisfactorily, despite a crosswind landing I wasn't very proud of, and before anyone can say "but the cloudbase has come down...." I'm off.
Actually, by the time I get aloft, the weather is pretty marginal, and I resort to scud running, whereby you fly as high as you can (but not at the height you had planned) just under the cloudbase. Students are not allowed to do this, of course, (yawn yawn...), but I'm out of the circuit solo for the first time at last, so I'm not bloody going home.
I find my stately-home-near-Charlbury start point, do a couple of yeehah orbits, roll out on to my planned heading and start the stopwatch. I keep flying through bits of cloud and rain (definitely not within my licence limits, this, but then as I haven't got a licence, it doesn't matter!). Actually, it's less dangerous than it sounds, and I can see enough to ensure I don't get lost and don't hit anyone. I can't fly any higher than 2,700ft, which coincidentally is the safe altitude for this area.
Moreton-in-the-Marsh comes up on schedule and I orbit the fire training school a couple of times whilst I wrestle with my stopwatch before heading out in to the murk again. It really is awful up here, and very rough. Shipston-on-bloody Stour appears then disappears.
A large white conurbation appears ahead of me after a few minutes, which momentarily confuses me until I realise that it is fact exactly where I am headed: Banbury. The clouds get lower and I'm forced down to 2,300ft, which coincidentally is the safe altitude for this area, so that's OK.
Over Banbury on time, I turn over the motorway junction that's much easier to pinpoint exactly than the centre of Banbury and head for home.
The cloudbase relents towards Kidlington; I pick up the airfield and climb back to where I should have been all along, then perform my first solo overhead join flawlessly (yes!) and spiral down in to the circuit. Call Downwind, do downwind checks then turn to Base Leg then Final, call Final, get cleared to land, and trundle down the approach. The landing is a little exciting: the crosswind is sufficiently gusty that I run out of rudder authority i.e I've got full rudder on and it's not enough to stop me sliding across the runway. I have crabbed aileron on in to the wind but evidently not enough. The stall warner flashes and we're down but we're way off the centreline. This is a bit hairy. I get it back on to the centreline, roll out and taxi home.
We all agree the wind has got up a bit too much for another jaunt today, but had I not been forced to wait 90 minutes I would have got another flight in before the clouds appeared.....
But still, that's a major hurdle passed. I now know I can successfully fly out somewhere and get back under my own steam with no scary moments.

Lesson 39 Impromptu Short field technique course
A new day, a new challenge. Today I get to land away, at Wellesbourne, all by myself.
The weather is fabulous but forecast to be showers by mid-afternoon. A quick circuit with my Instructor shows I'm still capable of landing without breaking the aircraft, so he hops out and off I go in to the wild blue yonder, solo once more. I head for Charlbury and this time roll out North for Wellesbourne, and start the stopwatch. Halfway there I radio them and ask for joining instructions, at which point they spring the surprise du jour on me, that the runway has changed and I will be landing on a different, much shorter, runway. I haven't done short-field landing techniques in practise, so this could be entertaining. If I get this even slightly wrong, I'll overrun and put the aircraft through a hedge....
I join overhead without too much excitement but I'm still too high when emerging back over the live side of the airfield and have to quickly dump 100ft before turning in to the circuit, and I cut someone up. Sorry!
My first approach to this extremely short little sorry excuse for a runway is an exploratory exercise and I decide to go around at 500ft.
By the second approach I have the angles all sorted out: there's a displaced threshold with a market on it right in front of the runway landing area and I really don't want to land in it. Landing at this field is "at your discretion" but it's very busy and the previous landing aircraft has not quite cleared the runway by the time decision height arrives, so I abandon at 200ft.
On the third approach I land slow, softly and on the numbers at the end of the runway, apply loads of brake and stop with half the runway left. So what was the big panic?
I taxi in and stop, climb out to pay my landing fee, and notice my hands are shaking and my legs are rubbery. That is the single most nerve-wracking thing I've ever done, without exception.
I sit and quiver in the café for a while before starting up and heading out on to the runway to go home. I backtrack all the way to the end and stand on the brakes to get the best take-off. The end of the runway seems to be coming up very, very fast; no room for error or half-throttle here. I rotate as we hit 65 Knots, the aircraft leaps off the runway with 150 yards to spare, and I stay low to build up speed before climbing away. Phew!
The return to Kidlington is uneventful, I know how to get there now. A slick overhead join and a nice landing (on the luxurious mile-long runway!), and it's lunchtime. My Instructor is impressed I coped with the short runway by doing a couple of exploratory expeditions first, so I suppose I must be doing things right, but it takes me an hour to stop shaking.
Learning to fly is definitely not for the nervous.

Lesson 41 Playing with the big boys and their big toys
The afternoon showers have failed to materialise; in fact the weather is even better than this morning, so we're off to Gloucester.
By road, Gloucester is well over an hour away; via the A40 speed cameras, doddering pensioners, lumbering artics and central Cheltenham, the city-most-in-need-of-an-outer-ring-road in Britain.
By air, 20 minutes.
I deal with the unfamiliar radio procedures OK, but it's not until I land (badly, I misjudge the flare because the runway is downsloping) on the huge runway (one of three) and have to taxy all round the airfield to the apron that I realise the scale of this airport. It's bloody huge.
I park on the vast apron between a Cessna business jet and an Army Puma helicopter. The Reception area has x-ray machines, Customs notices and Arrivals/Departures doors. We're playing with the big boys here......
After a cup of tea we head out again. I even have to adhere to noise abatement procedures on the climb out.
As I climb to 3,000ft the vista opens up: we can see South to the evening sun glinting off the Severn Estuary and the suspension bridges; East we can see the steam rising off Didcot power station and North we can see Birmingham. The journey home is uneventful, smooth and 15 minutes long. We land smoothly and taxi in. After the solo to Wellesbourne, this was low-stress flying. But next I get to do this solo.......

Lesson 42 Chasing the needle
Autumn brings wind and rain. Wind and rain mean days of not flying, which is frustrating. But finally the wind drops enough for a dual navigation session using a VHF Omnidirectional Range system, or VOR. This is the basis of Instrument flying, which allows flight in cloud, above cloud or in the dark. The PPL syllabus does not cover large amounts of instrument flying: just enough to have an appreciation of what a VOR is and how to home on a VOR beacon. But when I do an Instrument Rating I'll be seeing a lot more of Mr VOR.
We take off and head down the A34 towards the M4 and Membury (lazy man's navigation....). The late afternoon is hazy and seeing West is near impossible, so we ask for a Radar Information Service from Brize Norton (I'm getting the hang of the radio to ask for that) which will tell us when other aircraft are about so we don't worry about flying into them.
Then we turn our attention to the VOR in the cockpit, and spend an hour chasing the swinging needle to arrive over a radar in a remote field deep in the Berkshire countryside. There's a surprising amount of light aircraft doing the same thing over the radar at 2,500ft and airliners at 30,000ft using the same beacon far above.
It's a complex process and not entirely intuitive, but after a few runs back and forth between the Membury mast and the remote field I get the hang of it and we head home. A smooth overhead join with less panicky height loss, although I'm still not quite entering the downwind leg in the right place, making the rest of the circuit a bit rushed. A messy Base leg turn that I sort out and a slightly bumpy landing and we're home.

Lesson 43 Octopus and string bag
It's an unseasonably warm, calm day in early October and today my Instructor and I are going to Peterborough, then Gloucester, then back to Oxford as practise for my Dual Land Away: the biggest, most complex demonstration of my flying skills prior to my PPL exam.
I plan the journey, we saddle up and head North East towards Peterborough. This takes 2 hours by road but despite a little ad hoc diversion around Turweston airfield we arrive overhead Conington airfield outside Peterborough 28 minutes later. Bugger me.....
Like all low hour pilots, I find it very hard to keep everything under control on a cross-country trip: I've just got the heading and the altitude under control when the navigation goes to pot, I get the radio calls and the heading correct then the altitude drifts out. It's like trying to stuff an octopus in to a string bag.
I let down on the Dead side to circuit height and join the circuit; get a bit low and fail to recover it properly so my approach is a bit cack-handed, and we have a crosswind so my landing is hard (gotta get better at these...), but we are down OK .
One Landing Fee and 2 coffees later we head out once more towards Gloucester. As there are no obvious visual reference points West of the the airfield to start my navigation run I have opted to climb East then turn back and start overhead the airfield. Unfortunately, to save time as my Instructor is in a hurry I slave the Direction Heading Indicator to the compass whilst still climbing and without realising it introduce a 30° error in to our heading.
We head "West", only it is more like South West, and I soon realise my error as we are obviously too far South. I correct by using external landmarks to get us back on track and reset the DI, but going from landscape to map is evidently a no-no; my Instructor is unimpressed. Damn...
The wind has shifted round a bit and we're getting blown consistently South of our heading. I keep having to turn in to the wind to correct, but with no planned methodology for getting us back on track I have to rely on external reference points. By Banbury he loses patience with this and decides we should head home for a brainstorm on track errors, so we abandon the navigation and divert to Oxford. I start an overhead join but he abandons it and demands a right hand orbit (in a left hand circuit!) to lose height on the Dead Side (which I am sure is very dangerous and not a manoeuvre I intend to perform when solo!). He complains I started the join too high, which is true for the type of join he made me do but not for the type of join I was intending, but there you are. I am beyond arguing with Mr Grumpy....
We join the circuit and an OK approach is followed by a too-flat landing caused by insufficient flare; quite the opposite of my problem the last time.
A brainstorming session in the Briefing room and some revision in the Nav book results in some additional and very necessary flight planning procedures: in other words additional lines on the map. But in future I should be able to recover from Nav errors in a more orderly manner and with more certainty. And I will not be browbeaten into hurrying my navigation setup again.
I feel chastised: we both know I can do better. We'll try again tomorrow, weather permitting, to put the octopus in the bag. Got to do better!

Cessna interlude
The early-October weather is persistently hazy and my return to work looms. Depression sets in, but a fellow-pilot, like me, is desperate to fly somewhere.... anywhere... so although the Instructors are reluctant to fly he offers me a spin in his Reims-Cessna 150, built in 1966. This is the smallest possible Cessna there is and just getting in is a gymnastic feat. Once in, however, it's very comfortable. It feels like a 1960s car, all soft red vinyl.
He does his pre-flight checks from memory (such confidence!) and off we go to get some petrol then do some circuits. This Cessna has a tiny wee engine that struggles to get the two of us airborne and struggles to gain height once airborne. The haze is actually really bad and we lose sight of the runway at one point whilst on the downwind leg. He flies for a while then I fly for a while; it's actually quite nice to be a passenger for a bit. The approach is a bit different, but I think after a few goes I could master it. After half an hour the haze intensifies as the sun drops and so we give up and go in, but our flying lusts have been sated for now.
He thinks I could do worse than buy one of these, but I think I need something with a bigger engine!

And with that my 2-month Sabbatical ends.... with a whimper, not a bang. I have failed to do enough flying to get my licence and am now reduced to flying at weekends only. The next Ice Age will most definitely arrive before my licence.....

...or will it?

Lesson 44 A marked improvement
It's been two weeks since the end of my Sabbatical and three weeks since my last flight. The weekend weather has been as abominable and unflyable as only equinox weather can be. Only now, in the middle of the week, does it turn ice cold but sunny and calm. I stare out of the office windows down here and wish I was up there.
I crack... I book a half day's holiday and beg for a slot. And, staggeringly, an aircraft and Instructor are available for a re-run of the dual cross-country. Yes! But will I be able to keep all the octopus tentacles in the bag? And more importantly, will I remember how to land?
We take off in to the cold sunshine, with cockpit heater on full blast, full tanks and a determination to get everything absolutely bloody right.
I do the radio right; I do the navigation right; I do the compass/DI checks right; I hold the height and heading; I check for other aircraft, and I get us to Conington. So far, so good. The crosswind at Conington is beyond the aircraft limits so instead of landing we turn overhead the airfield and head for Gloucester, in to haze.
Can't see a damned thing, and this is where it went wrong last time. But this time I know when I'm off-course, I correct and by the end of the first leg we are spot on.
Half way along the second leg to Gloucester the landmarks disappear in to the haze. I'm sure we're on course but neither of us has a clue exactly where we are, so he shows me a nifty trick. As we have asked Brize radar for a Radar Information Service we are squawking and we simply ask them where we are.
"4 miles North of Moreton Morrell" comes back the disembodied answer. Cool. We could have used NDB or VOR navigational aids, but this is a great fallback to know about.
We don't see Gloucester until we're virtually over it, but then it suddenly springs in to focus. Turn for home, keep the tentacles firmly in the bag.
Farmoor reservoir appears, followed by the airfield, and I elect to do an abbreviated (or "lazy man's") overhead join, where you simply descend towards the dead side of the airfield until you cross the take-off numbers at circuit height and just slot in downwind.
This circuit stuff seems so easy: why did I struggle so with it only a couple of short months ago? I do my Downwind checks then assess the end of the downwind leg by looking over my shoulder at the runway, not by looking down at Yarnton. Radio calls and responses come automatically, flaps are down and speed is nailed at 75-80Kt. We slide down the final approach. My Instructor reckons I'm a bit low, so I add a bit of power, but I'm not convinced... had I been on my own I would have come in a bit lower and landed on the numbers, not 100 yards downstream as we did. Double decker bus height, so flare....... flare.... do NOT release the back-pressure.... and we kiss the runway. I did remember!
All in all, we agree it was a marked improvement, even after a 3 week hiatus. The things he pulls me up on now are not fundamental flaws but small things the examiner in the Skills test will be looking for. Progress indeed.
So several bogies comprehensively squashed: I can correct for my Nav errors, I can hold a heading, and I can remember how to land, and not on the aircraft's nosewheel.
Next stop: Qualifying solo cross-country.....

Lesson 45 Empty skies
The amazing winter weather has settled in. I dial in pressure figures I've never seen before, like 1035, and there's no wind whatsoever. It can't last.
As it's the weekend and they're busy I can only get a double slot, not the triple slot necessary to do the Qualifying cross-country. Bugger....
So instead I am to go solo to Gloucester for lunch to build up my solo hours.
The flight office is pandemonium and they're running late. Aircraft are all over the place and nothing is where it should be. The aircraft I am booked to fly goes off with someone else so I am in Golf Oscar with the sunroof trim wheel.
On the phone to Gloucester to tell them I'm coming, then preflight and off with one of my favourite instructors for a circuit check. I used to really resent these; I felt they didn't trust me, until it was explained to me that when you solo you fly on the Instructor's license, so he needs to ensure you are all prepared and can still fly. So I don't mind any more.
The lack of wind flatters my flying and the approach is smooth as silk. A slight balloon on the flare but I hold it off... hold it off... and the tyres kiss the tarmac with a satisfying squeak.
Instructor satisfied, I now need to fill up with fuel. Being a student I am of course not allowed to do this and the Instructor has lost his fuel key, so more delay whilst he goes off to find it, then another guy comes back with it who could be anyone. We fill up, he grabs the Instructor's things and departs without a word.
I'm on my own.
My previous solo land-away was so nerve-wracking I am determined to be more professional this time. Taxy, power checks, take-off, head to Charlbury, start the stopwatch, change to Brize radar who are very professional, and relax..... the sun shines, the haze has cleared a bit and the air is dead still. I trim the aircraft straight and level at 3,000ft and fly hands off for a while. It's very beautiful up here. I can understand why people prefer to fly in the winter; it's so smooth and no one is up here.
In a few minutes the land climbs towards the hills bordering Gloucester and I fly directly over the masts on the edge of the hill. How's that for accurate Nav?
Change to Gloucester Approach, descend gently towards the airfield, cross over the Active runway at 2,000ft, then descend to circuit height over the dead side, slot in to an empty circuit (huh? Where is everyone?) and the whole thing feels like it's on rails. Smooth approach, slightly too fast on the flare again (today I will be mostly ballooning), but a smooth landing.
A 5-mile taxy later I arrive at the huge and very professional-looking terminal building and shut down. I climb out and my knees are not trembling! Maybe, just maybe, I'm getting the hang of this....
I pay my landing fee to the nice lady and pop over the road to the café for some lunch and coffee watching the comings and goings at the airport, then it's time to go home.
I'm running a bit late so following the world's briefest preflight (Has it got fuel? Has it got oil? Are the tyres inflated?) I start up, taxy, check power, then take-off following the recommended noise abatement procedure. In 5 minutes Gloucester is behind me and I'm over the hills again. Somehow this all seems easier without an Instructor in the other seat haranguing me.
The DI has not quite slaved properly to the compass so I spend 5 minutes flying 10° North of where I should be flying before I notice, plan and execute a correction. Glad my Instructor harangued me over that one.....
15 minutes later I can see Farmoor Reservoir and the airfield so perform clearing turns then start a descent, request an overhead join and slot in to the empty circuit (where is everyone today?). Downwind checks, Base leg, then Final. The controller is so busy chatting to another aircraft I can't call Final until it's nearly too late but finally he stops and I'm able to call Final. He's on the ball, immediately clears me to land (it's illegal to land without clearance) and within a few seconds I'm on the ground (no balloon this time), taxying back and shutting down, only 5 minutes late.
The office is still pandemonium: someone's been sick in the aerobatics aircraft and she looks very green; but more worryingly someone doing a solo land-away is lost around Gloucester. Gloucester has tried to vector them back to the airfield but they are getting increasingly concerned. I have to pinch myself that it's not me, but in that situation I'd swap to Brize radar, get a squawk and ask for a position fix, but they either haven't been shown this or are panicking too much to remember it. It's always worth squirreling this sort of trivia away......
In the pandemonium nobody really notices that I've made it back safely, booked the aircraft in, tidied up and had a cup of tea. And that my legs aren't trembling.
And that makes exactly 50.0 hours in the logbook.

Lesson 46 Gusty solo circuits
It's Saturday, and the weather omens and tea-leaves say it's going to be increasingly windy, to the point that a severe weather warming has been issued. Qualifying Cross Country is the eventual goal, but perhaps not today. Maybe I can do some Instrument flying or Practise Forced Landings.
Two out of three Instructors are off sick so the third is flat out. No Instruction today, but to my amazement they decide I can go off and do some solo circuits instead, something I've been desperate to do ever since my solo consolidation. I feel my landings have deteriorated since those warm August days....
Starting the aircraft from cold is always a trial: I'm very glad my BMW isn't this hard to start on a cold morning! Once started, I request taxy for circuits from the tower and toddle off across the empty airfield (I'm now convinced no one flies from October to March). The wind is gusting across the runway and I'm hoping I can make a better job of crosswind landings on to a wet runway than I have done before.
Once I take-off the effects of the gusts are far more apparent. It's impossible to keep the aircraft straight, but this is great practise! I get blown about all round the circuit but crosswinds and gusts are something you have to take in your stride. I turn Base, trim for 75-80Kt, turn Final a long way into wind because I'll be blown across during the Final, fly the approach Jeremy Clarkson-style and keep a wing low in to the wind.
And it's all very low-stress: I remember my Instructor showing me how to do approaches and it felt like this; like you were on rails and the numbers on the end of the runway were just coming towards you inexorably. Sure, it's bumpy and gusty but the aircraft is trimmed and the less I fight it the smoother it is.
I'm aiming for the upwind edge of the runway as an experiment, as if I'm going to land on that, knowing that as I flare and straighten out I will drift across to the centreline. And that's exacty what happens and now I'm not panicking because the aircraft is headed for the grass on the downwind edge of the runway. So a proper, controlled flare and I touch on the centreline pointed straight down the runway. A satisfyingly quiet squeak from the tyres and I'm rolling. Let's see if we can do a few of these consistently.
Carb heat and flaps away, throttle and right rudder, wing down hard in to wind and at 65 I lift off and trim for best climb out.
On the third circuit I'm turning Base and can hear the Tower talking to another aircraft who asks for a straight-in approach to Final. The Tower says he's number 2 to land (I'm no 1), he agrees then promptly cuts me up by flying right across in front of me. I'm not too fussed; I just do an orbit (good low level turn practise) and follow him down at a safe distance, but it was a bit naughty.
As I progress the wind gets up and by end of an hour my bladder and the crosswind component are telling me it's probably time to call it a day. A last landing (this has been great practise: I feel a lot happier about crosswind landings) and I taxy off to the pumps where I am met by the flying school owner who tells me that my Instructor was flying the aircraft that cut me up, and he got a right telling-off from the Tower afterwards.
So it's not just me that makes a mess of things!

Lesson 47 Communications breakdown
Another early Sunday morning start. I hate these: I never feel sufficiently prepared or awake. Note to self: following attainment of PPL, no early-mornng weekend flying!
It may just be good enough to do my Qualifying (solo) Cross-Country, known as the QXC (don't you love this jargon?).
Obtain signature, fly from Oxford to Conington, land, obtain signature, fly from Conington to Gloucester, land, obtain signature, fly from Gloucester to Oxford, land, obtain signature. Without getting lost......
A lack of NOTAM preparation and the inevitable paperwork delays departure until past 11am. I shall need to get on to get back before dark.....
Pack up the aircraft with a spare headset and spare oil, start up and leave (they seem to have abandoned check circuits). The air is cold and the aircraft leaps in to the air. Within 100 feet I realise it's going to be hazy: navigation is going to be a challenge today.
First waypoint is Beckley mast, directly in front of the crosswind leg on climb out.... except that today I can't see it in the haze. Question: should I abandon, or wing it? Oh, sod it, I know where it is, fingers crossed.
Cross Oxford and head for where I know the mast is. Can't see it, must be below. Yup, there it is, roll out and start the stopwatch. I can see below but not much else. Ooo er....
Ten minutes later I switch radio to Cranfield but they can't hear me properly, and even I know there's something up with the radio: it's all distorted in my headset. Reseat the headset connectors, turn the radio off and on again, thump it, check the frequency, wait a bit until I am closer, try again.... just as bad. Huh?
I decide it's them (and they are hugely busy, too busy to provide an effective Flight Information Service anyway) so abandon any attempt to contact them and decide to wait until I am closer to Conington.
Twenty minutes later my navigation gets me near Conington (cool!) and I attempt to contact them. They struggle to hear me (on either headset) until I am almost in the overhead, then suddenly everything is OK again. They've changed to a right-hand circuit which fools me for a moment: shake the mental Etch-a-Sketch then the image reforms: descend here, turn this way, land here. I'm already on the Dead Side and can descend. Clearing turns, carburettor heat and chop the throttle. Descend to 1000ft and cross to the Live side for the circuit. Neatly round, turns in the right places and I'm on Final, set up and trimmed. No crosswind to speak of, so I land neatly and backtrack.
On the packed and tiny apron a baton man waves me to stop, then having shown him the key so he knows I'm shut down, he reverses me in to a parking space with a pushrod. Valet parking: do I tip him?
Jump out (it's cold in Peterborough) and enter the packed, warm clubhouse. I love coming here: they are very friendly and welcoming. Signature and landing fee; grab an energy bar and call Kidlington. The radio has apparently played up before but maintenance can find nothing definitively wrong with it (now they tell me!). So I'll carry on. It was OK near the airfield so maybe it's just weak. Anyway, it's a long walk back to Oxford......
Back to the apron; check oil and fuel, start up, and go. Climb in the overhead to 2000ft then head West. I can't climb above 2,500ft because that's where the clouds are. Hmmm, it's OK here but this won't get me over the top to Gloucester.
The clouds lift but now the sun is in my eyes and I can't see a bloody thing so the Landing Light goes On. Fortunately my navigation is accurate and everything comes up on the numbers. I swap radio to Sywell but they can't hear me properly either, so I dogleg around them a bit and press on. I probably should abandon and go back to Oxford but quite frankly having come this far I'll press on. Even if I have to descend in the overhead at Gloucester I know the radio will eventually function.
The cloudbase lowers dramatically as I cross the M1 near Daventry and I'm forced down below 2,000ft. This will need to lift if I'm to pop over the hills to Gloucester.
West of Gaydon it's a navigational desert; all I have to go on are the hills looming ahead, so I keep going and up pops Evesham, right on schedule. Even cooler! Deep breath and try to talk to Gloucester Approach.
Their response comes back loud and clear: I'm saved. The clouds relent and I pop through a gap in the hills near Bishops Cleeve. A final wall of cloud is between me and sun-kissed Cheltenham. I'm forced down to 1,800ft as I pop under it, and the hills are looking a trifle close (that hillwalker just ducked), but I'm through and I can see Cheltenham, then the airfield. A drama-free approach is followed by a lousy landing: I seem to float for ever as the runway is downhill but eventually the wheels touch and we're down. Gentle braking as the runway is wet and backtrack.
Park up next to a very smart Scottish ATP propjet airliner and jump out feeling scruffy. It's warmer in Gloucester. In through the extremely smart Arrivals hall (Nothing to Declare!) to pay my landing fee and glean my signature. Off to the café for a drink amongst the non-flyers watching the aircraft moving around on the apron. Half of them have binoculars and notepads. I feel some watershed has been crossed: I used to be one of them; now I'm one of the people they watch.
Kidlington is having showers, they are worried about me getting back and landing in the rain, but I set off anyway as the clouds have lifted just enough for me to pop over the hills scraping the base. I now have a tailwind and it seems that the moment I breast the hills I can see Little Rissington airfield: my half-way home point.
Change to Brize Radar who are quiet and bored and can hear me perfectly, and within 10 minutes I can see Farmoor reservoir and the airfield, so I thank Brize and change to Oxford, who can hear me fine. A gentle descent past Charlbury and Blenheim and I drop in to the empty circuit.
Like yesterday, it's a bit crosswindy so I offset the approach, drop a wing into the wind, and aim for the upwind side of the runway. The runway is very wet and the landing is interesting: I feel the wheels aquaplane for a while as they spin up before biting and pulling the aircraft straight. Not dangerous, just interesting.
No taxying on the grass, so I let the aircraft roll all the way down the runway before gently easing in brakes at the far end. Taxy in, shut down and breathe a sigh of relief.
A final signature and it's In The Bag. Everyone wants to shake my hand. I'm nearly a Grown-up Pilot. And the radio is to be replaced.

Lesson 48 PFL Hell
Pre-skills-test revision is the order of the day. Flying conditions are perfect, so off we go for some local area work. We're going to scare the residents of some little villages near Banbury again.
We start with steep turns, so after a HASELL check we go round and round and round.... Apart from forgetting to feed the power in as we pass 30° of bank the first time I'm OK.
Next on to stalls. We're taught to fly pretty conservatively with respect to stalls: the aircraft actually stalls at about 50Kt clean and about 40-45Kt with 2 stages of flap, but we're taught to fly the approach at 75Kts so we're miles away from the stall at all times even in the turn to Final. So it seems strange and abusive to keep on pulling the stick back until the aircraft wallows. Finally it reluctantly tries to drop a wing and we recover. Not hard and there's plenty of warning.
So on to Practice Forced landings. I'm rusty on these, fail to make the proper post-engine-failure-checks, fail to trim for 75Kt (actually a good rule is that 4 quick flicks back on the trim wheel and you're approximately there), fail to make a simulated Mayday call, fail to identify a suitable field, fail to then make that field, and generally just screw it all up.
Second time around is marginally better: at least I'm doing the right things in the cockpit this time, but we still miss the field by miles. Third time it's still all over the place. Fourth time it's still not good: I keep misjudging, either too high or too low and and we're running out of time. More thought and practise is clearly needed here.
We recover back to the field for a straight-in approach with lots of balloon on the landing, my nerve is so shot. Will I ever be able to get everything right?

Lesson 49 Visiting the muddy field
Following yesterday's depressing realisation that I really didn't know how to plan, let alone execute, a PFL, I've spent a day reading up on techniques and we have thoroughly pre-flighted. Today the weather is even better: nil wind, very cold but beautifully bright and no haze. We will be doing nothing but PFLs.
We start off by cutting the engine at 3,000ft and seeing how far the aircraft will go in a straight line before hitting the ground. That's a good start to judge distances (and it's not very far.....).
Then we practice curved approaches from various heights. Like many things in flying, it's one thing to read the book, another entirely different thing to actually fly it. Also, it's best to work out a simple system that works for you rather than try to use someone else's method. After some experimentation, we conclude that upon engine failure it's best to immediately turn downwind, find a field under the left wing and perform a long U-shaped left turn in to it, keeping it in sight at all times and aiming to land approximately in to wind. Too low? Tighten the turn. Too high? Expand the turn or use flaps, but remember that height lost cannot be clawed back. Of course, in strong wind conditions the Final approach needs to be shortened, but if you build a bit of extra height in and expect to use flaps then the strong wind will just mean you don't have to use flaps, rather than you hitting the trees.
All the fields we choose are muddy as hell: I suspect that in the event of a real engine failure I'd turn the aircraft over on landing, but at least the Master switch would be off and the speed would be low.
We practice down to very low levels: you can't really tell whether your approach is going to work until you're virtually flaring. We only do one approach and climb away per field, so as not to upset the neighbours! Strictly, this has to be illegal, as you're not allowed to fly lower than 500ft, but I decided my Instructor's licence was less important than my learning......
This becomes great fun and my confidence improves hugely as I do survivable PFL after survivable PFL. The weather is fantastic and this is real flying: popping about the countryside and seeing the sights. We wander all over Warwickshire, up and down. I'm pleased to find that even without a map I am not lost: I can pick up the main landmarks and I know where we are most of the time.
We finally pop up near Enstone and fly a Right Base approach. I haven't done one of these before, but they are very easy, and I set up a nice long Final for a reasonable flare, then make the old mistake of landing on the mains and the nosewheel together: a very bad habit indeed. Still, a nice smooth landing.
This has been a very useful exercise and I feel a great deal happier about engine failures now, although the real thing has to be pretty buttock-clenching! But at least I now have a plan. I will aim to practice these regularly on solo flights.

Lesson 50 No! Not that one! I need it to fly by....
Arriving early on a glorious December afternoon we are treated to an impromptu display of aerobatics over the airfield by an ex-RAF aerobatic Instructor. He does things with an aircraft even I didn't think were actually possible (like inverted negative G outside horizontal circles...) for about 20 minutes before retiring to the circuit, presumably out of fuel!
The last thing you get to learn before your PPL exam (and they do it last because you need to learn to fly properly first....) is Instrument flying so that if, on your travels, you happen to wander in to a cloud, you have a reasonable certainty of being able to turn the aircraft 180° and get in to clear air again without spiralling in to the ground.
This lesson happens in glorious December VFR 9999 NoSig conditions so we need Foggles: goggles that stop you being able to see outside but still allow you to see the instruments.
We start by learning to fly straight and level on just the instruments, which is surprisingly difficult and requires a lot of concentration. Then we move on to climbs and descents (easy) and finally to 180° turns to an opposite compass bearing. Actually, whilst keeping the height steady is a bit of a challenge this is not too difficult, but the trick is to trust absolutely the instruments, regardless what your lying little inner ear tells you.
Having done several of these and got reasonably proficient at them my confidence is growing.... until my kind Instructor reaches over and plasters a piece of sticky white paper over the Artificial Horizon.
"Partial Panel failure" he says. "And I want you to descend to 2,000ft and fly a heading of 210°
Now how the hell am I going to fly this? Well, using the vertical speed indicator, Direction Indicator, airspeed indicator, turn and bank and altimeter. That's how.
A fair amount of inference later I mange to comply.... until he reaches over and blanks the DI as well.
"Oh dear, that seems to have failed as well....."
So we use the compass instead, letting it settle after each manoeuvre. Then he blanks the airspeed indicator, so I have to use the rev counter and the vertical speed indicator. By this time I'm sweating a bit.
I also notice it's beginning to get very gloomy indeed around the aircraft. We continue with turns and descents for some time until he finally asks me to remove the foggles and lo and behold, there's the runway, all lit up like a Christmas tree.
"Now land it"
"What, with no airspeed indicator?"
"I'll bet you never look at it anyway; you go by sound and feel"
And he's right, and we do a pretty reasonable night approach. He follows through on the flare as first-time night landers tend to misjudge this, and we're down between the paths of light for post-landing checks and some petrol.
What fun...... my first partial panel failure night landing.

Now it's on to Revision.

Lesson 51 Everyone has bad days
It's another late December afternoon, cold and bright. We start late, so the sun is already going down. Today we will revise circuits.
The aircraft is warm and has just flown (we virtually kick the previous occupants out) so starts easily. We taxy out and take-off. I'm careful to keep everything shipshape, keep a good look-out, be accurate with heights and distances and make like I know what I'm doing with the radio.
On the first approach I'm a bit high turning Final, so I come off the power early and perform virtually a glide approach. I try too hard to be flaring as we cross the numbers but have too much energy. I underflare, the aircraft doesn't properly arrest its rate of descent and we thump down hard.
"Well, that'll have the examiner on the edge of his seat"
Carb heat and flaps away, throttle and right rudder, back in to the air. This one Will Be Better.
Second time around and I'm better set up on the approach, lower and more in control, and I do a landing that is more representative of my normal skills.
I do some pretty reasonable landings several more times until it gets dark and we decide to land off the last one. Just as I'm flaring, for some unfathomable reason I release the back pressure a bit too much and the aircraft lurches. I just catch it and we plop on to the runway .
"What the hell was that about?"
Gulp again.
The conclusion is that my landings are a little "inconsistent", which to be fair is an accurate representation of what just happened. Landings are definitely my weak point and always have been. When I'm good, I'm good, but when I'm not, it's rough. And I never quite know whether this one's going to be a rough one. More practice required, definitely, although he thinks the rest of my circuits are fab.
As the skills test looms closer, unlike the first solo I think they are keener than I for me to take it. I don't feel ready in a few areas, yet. Getting very nervous.....

Lesson 53 - Breaking the Jinx
The weather over Christmas been appalling, the airfield has been closed and I’ve had a stinking cold, so there’s been no flying for 3 weeks.
But the gales have finally abated, the sun has come out and it’s a perfect flying day; apparently only the second day of 2007 they’ve managed to get anyone in to the air.
Over Christmas I’ve been honing my pre-flight planning and practising VOR captures on MS Flight Simulator, so I feel more confident about that side of it.
But today it’s skills test revision, and let’s hope I can make a better job of the landings. So it’s out through the squeaky gate and across the wet grass for the first flight of 2007…..
My Instructor is treating this as a mock test so apart from a suggestion that we do upper air work somewhere SW of Banbury he’s very quiet. Let’s see if I can remember how to get the aircraft from an inert lump to 3,500ft SW of Banbury or thereabouts…..
Ten minutes later we’re SW of Banbury at 3,500ft without further comment so he must be happy. We’ve avoided a glider out from Shennington (how the hell did he get up this far?) and it’s a bit hazy so we’re keeping a good look out.
HASELL checks and we’re ready.
Steep turns first, left and right. Wheeeeee!!! I could do that all day.
Stalls, with and without flaps: no more than 100 ft loss.
PFL from 3,500ft: carb heat, fuel pump, switch tank… no effect, so turn downwind, pick a field, simulated Mayday, and a long left hand spiral in to the nice big welcoming field. At 50ft we throw it away and he’s happy. We do a second PFL from 1500ft and it’s a bit tight, but we would have made it in OK. Realistically, from 1500ft you haven’t got time for a Mayday, you need to get it down safely.
Back to Kidlington for some circuits, and the first time around we get tangled up with a Cessna 172 doing the world’s slowest circuit (I'll swear the pilot was wearing a pork-pie hat and driving gloves), so we go around, get an early turn (let’s beat up the tower!) and have another go.
This time we get tangled up with an Oxford Aviation twin doing an IFR approach and elect to go around again. Early turn, strafe the tower and set up again.
This time, get the approach right, get the flare right, and…… kiss the runway. OK, let’s go for repeatable. Around again, and repeat to order? I float a bit this time, but we’ve got plenty of runway, so we hold…. hold…. and kiss the runway.
My Instructor says I’d pass on that, so we go in. He’s happy, so I’m happy.
I've worked out what I was doing wrong before: at the flare when I thought I was too far from the ground I was edging the stick forward to recommence a normal descent, which was wrong: what I should have been doing (and am now trying to ensure I NEVER forget again) is stopping the backward stick motion then *waiting* until descent recommences then easing it further back again to cushion the descent. It's an asymptotic curve: you never quite reach full stick-back position but you ease slower and slower towards it as you approach it, and then the wheels touch very gently. Oh, and also I must stop trying to land on the numbers and if it really is crappy I've got to throw it away!
We book a test for next weekend and I float home on air.

Lesson 54 - Skills Exam
After three days of sheer frustration looking at beautiful but windy skies and flying the route using MS Flight Simulator the wind drops and it's exam time.
I've planned the flight: Oxford to Devizes, Devizes to White Waltham, White Waltham to Oxford. No landings.
The examiner tries his best to make small talk as we start out but I'm SO nervous....
Off we go and the first thing to go wrong is that the planned altitude is covered in cloud, so I elect to fly at 2,500ft rather than the planned 3,000ft. We're brushing the bottoms of the clouds and it's rough. I am determined not to let my height wander as I am crap at this normally.
Fly to Abingdon Bridge then start the stopwatch and trust the plan. Keep the height, do the radio.... Oxford Approach to Brize Norton radar, read back and set the requested squawk, do a FREDA check, half-way to Membury and we're on course. Where the hell is Membury mast?
Keep the height, bit of turbulence over the hills, ah hah! There's Membury Mast, and we're headed right for it. Good, write the ETA and ATA in the log, turn to the Devizes leg, stop and restart the stopwatch. He's very quiet. Maybe I've failed already?
Change to Lyneham Approach, get the call right, there's no bloody landmarks on this leg and we're very close to the Lyneham zone. Marlborough on the left comes up correctly, but where the hell is Avebury? Lyneham get cross with somebody else who obviously doesn't know where they are. Wrong callsign, it can't be me, but I am beginning to panic. This is where it went horribly wrong in Flight Simulator: I stopped the sim and it told me I was in the Lyneham zone....
Eventually decide we must be in France somewhere as the end of the leg comes up because I cannot see anything remotely resembling Devizes.... ah, no, there it is. No white horse of course, but a town resembling Devizes. Look confident, turn over said town on to the next leg and hope he doesn't say "how do you know this is Devizes?".
Stop and start the stopwatch; more silence from the right hand seat. Ooh er....
Half way to Newbury now, and I'm not convinced that what I'm seeing is actually Hungerford. No, it's Paris, we really are lost.... No, hang, on, it's got two rivers it must be Hungerford. And there, at last, is the M4, so.... that over there must be Newbury.
At that exact moment he wakes up and asks where we are. And with confidence I can reply "over Hungerford, there's Newbury and there's the M4". Had he asked 5 minutes earlier my lack of confidence may have betrayed me.
Once we hit the A34/M4 junction (that you can see from space) he tells me that was a "pretty nifty piece of navigation, you obviously know what you're doing" and we move on. He tells me to divert to Oxford which I plan with military precision and off we go.
Over Didcot (miss the cooling tower steam and associated turbulence) and the clouds have thinned out. We climb to 3,000ft and practise steep turns. I do one and he gets bored and yanks the throttle closed.
PFL. Oh Shit.
Spiral down, do all the restart drills, pick a field, do a simulated Mayday, elect to overshoot and pick the field behind (which you could get a jumbo jet in to) and at 500ft he says "OK, throw it away" and we climb out.
Back to Oxford, and do a straight-in approach. I struggle with the approach (I've never done a straight-in approach to this runway before) but we get to the right place, flare, catch a gust and I over-rotate. The nose goes up, and he elects to go around.
So round we go and back to the same place. This time I elect to head for the upwind side of the runway and aim to drift over with the wind, but this ends up just looking messy because we fail to get the gust and land well off the centreline. It's a bit rough and ready but we're down safely.
"OK, we'll stay down".
Oh, fuck, now I'm in trouble.
He taxies it back, and says "well, it's a Pass, but your landings need a bit of work" which is fair enough comment on the landings he's witnessed.
Hang on. He said the word "Pass".
I've ony gone and bloody well passed. I'm a 65 hour PPL.

It takes a while to settle in as we do the paperwork, and everybody shakes my hand. I'm their first 2007 PPL. I don't feel like a licenced pilot yet, but the last 6 months seem to have gone so quickly, it will take a few solo flights for me to really be happy with my flying (or maybe never...). For now, I'm happy.

Lesson 55 - R/T Practical
Ten days after my Skills test and I'm at Turweston for my R/T Practical, after some rushing around the countryside chasing bits of paper...... I'm to sit in a room with headphones on and be the pilot and Tom is to be the ATCs I talk to during my "flight". We brief, and start.
I'm very nervous (when am I not?) but frankly I've done all this before in the air and within a few minutes I settle down and everything (including relaying a received Mayday call) goes swimmingly. I "Land" and he comes out and tells me I've Passed.
Last Hurdle; I'm now a PPL.
Back to Kidlington, fill in yet another form and it's going off to the CAA tonight.

I've noticed a subtle change in the way I'm treated at the Flying School. I think it's partly because I now have things in common with the other people I meet, and partly because they've all seen me struggle with the weather and my exams and know I've completed the course they've all had to complete as well. I do feel I've joined the Club.

What have I learned?
- To get your PPL you do need to be determined and a bit bloody-minded about it. The weather (and sometimes the Instructors or the flight school organisation......) will get you down. Buy your partner flowers, or new tools (depending on gender). A lot.
- You never really get perfect at it: every flight, every circuit teaches you something new. You can never do too may circuits, despite what you may sometimes think...... My landings are stil not perfect: some days they are great, some days they aren't. They will get more consistent.
- You need to be develop a positive approach: things go wrong when flying and you can't just sit there and let them happen; you have to deal with them. Experience and mental practise is everything.
- The radio is something you get used to. I practise radio calls whilst early-morning cycling (in my head usually, but occasionally out loud, the foxes around here think I'm bonkers.....) and I frequently hear pilots a lot worse than me. Every flight I make I'm better on the radio.
- You do need to get the ground school out of the way early. The information you learn will read across to your flying
- Buy MS Flight Simulator and some photo-realistic scenery. It may make the difference between getting lost and not. And it does very good VOR captures.
- If they taught driving as comprehensively and professionally as they teach flying, and the rules were as driven by common-sense, not political non-sense, our roads would be hugely safer.

Next steps are here