The Ballards - Syndicate year 2


Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, your captain for this flight is...
We have a chance to fly the British Airways Boeing 777 simulator at Heathrow tonight (it's quiet, being post-Christmas) and so the 4 of us who fly TG drive up late one evening to the deserted engineering sheds behind the airport where the £20 million full-motion hydraulic simulators are to be found. Despite the massive expense of these simulators they are the preferred method of airline line training and currency for two reasons: their per hour rate is 1%-2% of the cost of running an equivalent airliner, and you can simulate very realistically combinations of system failures it would be extremely dangerous to replicate in the air.
The simulator is a large box on jacks, but once seated at the controls and feeling the first expansion-joint bump of the taxyway this disappears: immersion is total and your senses are convinced you are in an aircraft.
First impressions are that the 777 is surprisingly sprightly in pitch and roll response, that the engines take a l o n g time to spool up but then produce a satisfactory thump in the back, and that the initial climb angle is steep; even steeper than the PA-32. 15° is normal, and whilst it takes a pull to get it to 10° it then tends to run away towards 20°, closing fast on the stall /AoA indicator in the Flight Director, the first time I've seen one of these (which surely should have shown the pilots of the Air France A340 that crashed in the mid-Atlantic that they were doing something wrong?).
We fly around for a while (heavy turbulence at 300ft over Newark, heading for the Statue of Liberty) and it's easy to fly using the Flight Director (a cross between an AH, a DI and an ILS: basically you aim to keep the white dot in the centre of the pink cross and you won't go far wrong: autothrottles attend to any power requirements), but if you try to fly it visually it can become disorientating due to the lack of feel.
Yaw is taken account of using a yaw damper, so you only really need the rudder for runway steering, and the dashboard works on the "dark display" methodology: if no lights are lit everything is OK.

We all find it very intense but no one crashes it; we all do a number of successful ILS approaches to big airfields and whilst our landings may have been heavier than one would expect in TG they were all on the runway and in the right place.
Of course, the question everyone asks is that given the highly unlikely scenario where both pilots are incapacitated but the airliner isn't, and the Stewardess asks if any of the passengers can fly a plane, could the PPL holder in seat 44D actually land a 777 safely?
I reckon, given a modicum of luck, there are sufficient automatics for an Instrument Rated PPL to get the thing on the ground. We were flying it manually, but the autopilot generally does a more efficient job and, if commanded, will actually land the aircraft using the radio altimeter and the ILS. So: a qualified "Yes".
We all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and will do it again if the opportunity presents itself.

It's New Year 2012 and Pete wants to rattle the water out of his Mooney, warm the engine and de-rust his (and my) piloting skills.
He's doing an FI course, so there are plenty of good tips to be picked up.
Most important for me is the chance to test a prospective purchase: a loaned Lightspeed Zulu ANR headset. My existing Sennheiser HME-100 has served me well, but this represents a serious step up.
ANR, or Automatic Noise Reduction, is one of those clever ideas that we never thought would emerge from the boffindom of the 1980s. It's a clever way of reducing ambient noise levels within headsets whilst allowing important noises through. In the case of aviation headsets, this means radio messages, which you can sometimes struggle to understand above the high noise floor of engine, aircraft ancillaries and airflow.
Instead of simply adding increased insulation and/or clamp pressure to the earpieces, thereby increasing weight and size, a microphone on the outside of each earpiece takes the ambient noise, delays it by exactly half a wavelength and plays it back through the earphone inside the earpiece. This cancels out a huge proportion of the ambient noise, as nobly demonstrated by William Woolard on Tomorrows World a very long time ago (that ages me...).
Clearly a case of "more is less".
Obviously noise comes in a mix of different frequencies, so a fixed delay won't work: presumably they have a sliding delay depending upon frequency (and thus wavelength).
As Pete starts the Mooney's engine I deliberately keep the ANR turned off (to simulate battery failure) and the noise level through the light, low clamp pressure earcups is about equivalent to my Sennheisers.
So far so good.
Then I turn on the ANR and an uncanny silence descends: I must be going deaf after all? Then Pete speaks and the strength of his audio above the noise floor is such that I have to turn the volume way down.
Apart from a bass rumble, that I suspect I am feeling rather than hearing, the engine sounds a long way away indeed. The only issue seems to be strange transients occasionally on movement of the jaw, either through momentary displacement of the earcup seal, or opening of the Eustachian tube allowing unfiltered noise up from the back of the nasal passages.
The difference between ANR ON and OFF is just massive: it really does work, and I can hear Pete and ATC a lot more clearly. The claims made that you can't hear the engine properly are simply untrue: in many ways you can hear the engine more clearly.
What I haven't appreciated until now is the fatiguing effect of high noise levels: with this ANR unit an hour's flight is not exhausting in the same way it is without. It's hard to describe the way in which the noise fatigues but it certainly does: after an hour's flight I feel fresher than I normally do.
I'm sold on the idea of ANR and on the headphones: anyone want a pair of HME-100s?

One thing has come up in discussion recently with Steve: the issue of checking the CO detector.
This is simply not in my normal list of things to check on a regular basis, and whilst the detector is checked at the 50hr service that's not really the point of the thing, which is to check on a minute-by minute basis that poisonous fumes are not being released from a leaky exhaust manifold in to the cabin.
The effects of CO poisoning are insidious: you can't see or smell it but in sufficient concentrations it can affect decision making and eventually cause unconsciousness.
So I think we should be FREDAC-ing every 15 mins or so (Fuel, Radio, Engine, DI, Altimeter, CO).

We fly out over Blenheim palace, then Gloucester, then I turn us North (I love the Mooney, it's all-pushrod and there's no wooliness about the controls whatsoever) for Evesham. A large hammerhead - shaped freezing rain cloud is lurking South West of Oxford but passes safely. We're not FIKI-equipped and IR or no IR Pete's not going in there and neither am I.
We finally recover back to Oxford from Banbury and I shoot the ILS from the right seat, which is interesting but stable despite a 20Kt crosswind until the wind veers at 1,000ft and I drift 1½ dots off to the right. As I am correcting Pete calls 800ft and we go visual, which goes to show that 1½ dots deviation is quite easily recoverable from: a quick left turn and there's plenty of time to "get it in from here". And we have 2 reds and 2 whites so the height was just peachy.....

Why can't I do ILSes?
My IMC needs revalidating before April or I lose it permanently (some daft EASA wonks in Europe, jealous of our ability to fly in clouds without 14 exams and the knowledge of exactly what the weather is like in the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone and detailed knowledge of how a jet engine works, has decided We Must Not Be Allowed To Fly On Cloudy Days - a likely story in the UK).
Some IMC rust removal is called for before I do my revalidation (plus I haven't flown for 2½ months), so I borrow Pete and we plan a complex and demanding All-IFR flight to Coventry for an ILS, a missed approach and an ILS back in to Oxford.

I know something will go wrong, me being rusty in all sorts of different ways, I just don't know what will go wrong....

We do a full pre-IFR A Check, then with foggles on we take-off and I turn on to my intercept course for a 315° Moreton Departure without cross-checking DI and Compass (mistake #1) so we end up drifting back over the airfield and in to the Beacon outbound procedure area, starting to impinge upon a business jet's approach comfort zone, so Pete vectors me back towards where I should be, we get the DI showing what the compass is showing and it all starts going better once more.
Apart from the old "blowing through the VOR track whilst concentrating on getting the NDB tracking right" trick things get better, except that my scan is all wrong and I'm expending way too much mental energy keeping straight and level. Rust!
We make Daventry without further ado and the vectors on to the ILS go just peachy, then as I start down the ILS I just can't seem to get it nailed: the descent rate is is OK but I can't seem to keep the bloody localiser. We drift left and right in larger arcs until we both know it's a mess and we throw it away at 1,500ft. I never even see the runway. We're in and out of bumpy cloud and I don't know whether Pete even sees it either.
The Missed Approach procedure is complicated by the fact that we have mistuned the radio so we are not getting anything from Coventry Tower, and the close proximity of the Birmingham Zone prevents us from climbing above 1,500ft, but we do it OK and re-establish on the correct DTY radial before sorting out the radio, departing Coventry and calming down as we swap back to Oxford, then hunt and establish the Honiley 151° radial for an ILS back.
I then miss the Localiser and have to swing back through to get established, which upsets my pre-landing checks and desire to get stabilised on 100Kts with 1 stage of flap before hitting the glideslope. It does come together eventually but then I'm swinging left and right of the Localiser again: I can do this normally, it is so frustrating.
At 1,000ft and at half-scale deflection we go visual: we're quite a long way off to one side of the runway. Pete suggests nicely that we may want to go Missed but actually I reckon we can get it on from here: 19 is very long for a determined C182 driver.
With some immediate and judicious juggling of throttle and flaps we get back over the runway at a sensible speed and a huge descent rate, flare nicely half way down and we're on really smoothly and gently.
"Oh, OK, maybe we didn't need to go Missed after all.... I wouldn't have got the Mooney in from there".
So I can do the easy stuff, just not the bloody ILS.
But rust firmly removed.

IMC Rust removal Part Deux
After lunch (and I feel so much less exhausted with this new ANR headset; wish I'd changed years ago) we go again: this time for some vectoring, plus some partial panel and unusual attitudes work.

After this morning's rust removal everything goes a great deal more swimmingly: my scan has got better and the whole thing feels less frenetic. Our Moreton departure works better now I am cross-checking the DI against the compass and I can hold height and heading with less mental effort (and less death grip on the yoke).
We do some vectoring, which is easy, and then some timed turns (helped by us now having a decent timer on the transponder box), then it's time for Recovery From Unusual Attitudes. It's weird that I have always found these the least scary part of IFR aviation, and whether full or partial panel have always been able to recover easily, so we whip through the rollercoaster ride and move on.
Now I've done IMC for a number of years the scariness is retreating: I could never go back to being "just a VFR pilot": clouds have lost their dread and I quite enjoy the challenge of relying on the instruments. OK, I'm not the worst best instrument pilot, largely because I don't fly enough IFR stuff, but I am confident I could, with all cylinders firing, do an Instrument let down for real. My Holds may be messy and my bumpy cloud work a bit inaccurate but it's just practise.

IMC comes in many forms
The February snow has finally relented and a bright blue sunny but freezing cold Saturday allows us to finalise the IMC rust removal.... if we can get the aircraft out and going. I need to get my ILS's better.

At first glance the aircraft appears to be parked behind a wall of compacted snow generated by the snow-clearance guys, but they have left us a way out.

However, the aircraft has been covered in snow which has melted and re-frozen, so the wings and tail surfaces are covered in solid, compacted, icy snow several inches thick.

We move the aircraft round in to the sun, but even with its help it takes Pete and I two hours to remove with a broom, scrapers and de-icer fluid, mindful of the fact that even sandpaper-textured ice stuck to the lift-generating surfaces can reduce lift by up to 30%, increase drag by 20-30% and, most importantly, raise the stall speed by 10Kts.
We also take pains to reduce any ice from control surfaces and hinges, then lower the flaps and work the ailerons and elevators to ensure the control runs are free and clear. Freezing level is "000-005" so anything left is going to freeze and could jam the controls if we're not careful.
This is the first time I've ever had to do this and it's a learning process, like much in aviation. Professional pilots and Instructors have long ago got this under their belts; it's handy to have a Mentor to learn more about the art of running an aircraft for yourself as opposed to just flying with a club. I have certainly learned more in the last 52 hours and calendar year than I learned in the previous 2 or 3 years.

After a spot of lunch and some planning (I now know the little chevrons against runways on the 1:500,000 chart means "Instrument approach available" not "ILS available") we try to start the poor, frozen beast, and whilst it kicks and runs feebly a few times the battery is too weak and soon it won't even turn the prop.
I learn something more about the Cessna 182: where the 12V ground charge socket is (just under the oil inspection hatch on the left side of the engine: needs a flathead screwdriver to undo). Hats off to the Fire Service guys who have a neat electric charger and have us going in a trice (to be fair, they have to start everyone else as well...).
And finally we're taxying out ready to go. We leave the cowl flaps only half open to accelerate warming the engine and by the time we have done our power checks the oil temperature is in the green.

We'll re-run the last session with the emphasis on the ILSes: one at Coventry, and a second one on our return to Oxford.
Off East to track the 070° radial to the Westcott NDB (check the DI matches the compass), which as the air is clear works perfectly except one instance of me reading the compass backwards and adjusting the DI by 10° in the wrong direction (that becomes quickly obvious). Get a good cut over WCO and turn North to pick up the 348° radial to the Daventry beacon. I manage to blow through the radial and as we're getting close have to do a radical 60° cut to recover the situation, but that's OK, and swap to Coventry Approach who vector us in to their ILS Localiser. On the descent towards the Localiser we slow down to 100Kts, stabilise and trim the aircraft to reduce workload. This works better.
Turning to capture the Localiser we are VMC on top of the haze but as we descend in to sun and haze it becomes obvious that no foggles are required: this is IMC for real. I'm not looking out at all, but the haze is so bad Pete can't even see the runway at 1,000ft. It's only at 800ft and Decision Height do we both look out and see the runway vaguely through the haze, enough to land off if necessary (and satisfyingly on track).
We go missed and climb out, climbing through the Missed Approach procedure (complex here, as you are below Birmingham International's Airspace and mustn't climb above 1499ft) back towards Daventry and can relax: it's a beautiful day and the country is covered in a flat white layer of haze around 2,000ft thick: no day for visual navigation or landings. In the distance we can see a lump in the haze that can only be Didcot power station.
We pick up the Honiley 151° radial and switch back to Oxford, then capture the Localiser and attain the glideslope. This feels better: get the aircraft slowed down and trimmed stable in to the landing configuration first, then get on the ILS. Concentrating hard on the ILS we drop down the approach and like Coventry the runway simply doesn't appear until virtually Decision Height. We go visual, drop flaps and flare on to the runway centreline.
Despite this being a nominally VFR, if a little cold, day this landing would simply would not have been possible visually: I was head down on the ILS but the haze was so thick Pete didn't see the runway until we both looked out at Decision Height: real IMC on a sunny day.

We pop TG to bed with well-charged battery, wheel chocks and dried-out-on-the-fence-in-the-sun cover, double-check "Mags off, key out, Master off, brakes on, fuel off, lock door", recover broom and de-icer spray and go home.
A long day for 1 hour's flying....

Revalidated at last...
After a long delay due to examiner non-availability and some misty weather an appropriate Saturday appears and I arrive at Oxford in the pouring rain. This does not look promising: even my examiner thinks I've cancelled.
I chant the pilots' chant: "but it's forecast to clear....".
Doesn't look too much like it from here, although my first rule of "can I fly today?" is "look up at the clouds, if you can see uniform grey it's below 1,000ft and not flyable. If you can see features in the undersides of the clouds it's above 1,000ft and may be flyable". By this rule, features are appearing, so it's lifting. If it gets to 780ft and is above freezing to the tops and does not contain CBs, then it's IMC-legal.

They've moved us to front and centre of the apron, so we're very visible from the Tower. I think I preferred our little hideaway but this is less walking, it must be said.
Strip off the soaking cover, preflight and go back in to Ops to await my examiner. For once, the weather does more or less what it's forecast to do, and it becomes IMC-legal as we prepare.
Starting-up and taking-off, we climb to 3,000ft through the clouds. Once at cruise height and satisfied I can hold a height and heading in the murk he masks the DI and AH and we fly partial panel for a while, doing timed turns. Glad I did the de-rust: these actually work out remarkably well, despite me being a bit fumble-fingered with the timer on the transponder, and so we do some climbing turns and descents through the sometimes bumpy clouds.
Next he vectors me in for the ILS, so we slow the aircraft down, do pre-landing checks and establish on the Localiser for 19. My preflight guess at the wind-corrected heading to steer to retain the Localiser turns out to be very close and only 5° corrections either way are needed.
We slide in under the glideslope and we're almost there when another aircraft comes up behind us and we have to do an orbit for spacing, which gets a bit messy.
But part of this exam is not to panic, to be flexible, not to lose situational awareness and to get things back together again, so once the orbit is complete I re-construct the approach, re-establish the localiser and once more start to slide down the glideslope, trying for less than 1 blob error in all directions.
We have a large map and a cushion over the windscreen so I have no idea if we are in Oxfordshire or Cornwall, but at 780ft I declare visual, the obstruction is removed and there is runway 19. No need to touch anything, we just slide down towards it and flare.
Despite the gusty crosswind I am absolutely determined to give him the decent landing I should have given him on my PPL Skills test 5 years ago, and we land flapless with barely a quiver (just not on the bloody centreline; that's a work in progress), roll out and park.

He's happy, which means I'm ecstatic: I'm now IMC-legal for 2 years and a month and I've beaten EASA's new pilot licensing rules by a month or so.
What I do know is that I will use the IMC Rating in anger much more in the next 2 years than I have used it in the preceding 3. In a way, the increased number of hours and experience I have and our rust removal sessions have resolved many of the issues I had surrounding it.
I also discover the portable radio that's always been in the glove box is a transmitter as well as a receiver (and a pseudo-VOR), so my "total electrical failure" procedure can be amended to "use portable radio for calls", not "use mobile phone for calls".
It never ceases to amaze me just how well this aircraft is equipped.

Isle of Wight
One of my clients has a house on the Isle of Wight and needs assistance with the wireless I installed so on a cloudy, gloomy day we meet up, hop in his plane and take off. Bembridge is 25 minutes away and we climb up through the gloom until at 4,000ft we break free in to the beautiful spring sunshine. The fluffy mat of clouds spreads as far as the eye can see in all directions. It's just us up here, as good an excuse for an IMC as I can see. TCAS shows others grinding along just under the cloudbase: gloomy, bumpy stuff.
20 minutes later we drop back through the mat in to the gloom and he sets up for a low wind-check pass for 30 at Bembridge, cranks it round for the approach and scares a couple of cars passing the end of the runway by coming in very low, putting the wheels on the threshold (nice landing) and we rumble to a halt.

A couple of hours later, fresh IoW crab in hand, we fire up and take off again, accelerating into the murk mid-Solent and emerging once more in to the sunny upstairs for the run home.
The cloudbase at Oxford is below MSA so we will recover on the 19 ILS Procedure - but they're busy and need us to Hold. It's interesting to watch someone with many thousands of hours experience doing this. We agree a WCA and an outbound leg time and fly it, first at 4,500ft above the clouds, then at 3,500ft in the clouds, watching the TCAS showing the aircraft 1,000ft below us roughly paralleling us around the racetrack. As good situational awareness in a procedural stack as you'll ever get. Eventually we are released outbound and go visual at 2,300ft as we turn for the Localiser and I work as Safety pilot for a heads down ILS followed by a smooth landing. Good experience.

You make it look easy...
A prospective passenger needs a local flight to familiarise herself with the whole light aircraft thing before we take her to Scotland, so on a beautiful spring evening we book out and fire up. It's 5.45pm by the time we take off and the thermals have settled, the winds have dropped and the air is like silk.
We tour over central Oxford, watching the University lawns and gardens, then follow the river down to Abingdon. The light is so much more interesting at this time of day, as well as the smooth air. Across the inactive airfield and visit the house for a low pass followed by a low pass at a friend's house in Marcham before climbing up and away back towards Didcot, then on to Ickford for a promised low pass there and a climb out back in to the sunset.
We have a Seneca behind us for a left base join and stabilise on the approach, trim for 80Kts, turn Final at 1,000ft and float down, a few joggles as we cross the road in front of the threshold, then we're over the runway and settling. Float on, keep the nosewheel up as long as possible and roll out, taxy in and park. I manage to get it right this time and don't have to heave the aircraft around with the towing bar as I did before....
My passenger says I make it look easy. Sometimes, of course, it is easy!

"Nah mate, I'm from Sarfend, innit....!"
I'm off to France tomorrow for lunch, so the aircraft needs a little fuel and maybe some exercise. Flying one-up is dull, so I borrow a PPL student client and we opt to zip up to Wellesbourne for tea. We had planned to go to Membury, but no one answers the phone, so Wellesbourne it is.
It is murky and by the time we get going it's 4.00. Judging by the radio everyone has either gone home or never come out at all. The radio is dead quiet apart from us. Where is everyone?
I have never used 36 at Wellesbourne, so the approach feels weird: you come in over a quite considerable hill and, like Shoreham runway 20 you need to get what feels like very low over the high ground to not be trying to force the aircraft on to the ground half way down the runway. I do a half-reasonable effort with full flaps and taxy in.
Visiting the control tower to book in is interesting: apparently because I've flown in from Oxford I'm "posh" so the landing fee is "£167+VAT please, my good man?".
"Nah mate, I'm from Sarfend, innit bro...?".
I can be "down wiv da kids"; that raises a laugh and reduces the landing fee to a more sensible figure. Much jocularity in the Tower.... We can't take this Aviation thing too seriously!

Zen and The Art of Good Approaches
After a darned good piece of cake and some tea we line up to take-off again and this time I'll do a short field take-off: flaps to 20° as measured on the panel, not to the stop (I find this more accurate) then full beans, rotate at 60Kts and wheeeeee... it's helicopter time.
We do the required noise-abatement turn to 030° and climb back in to the circuit, then once we are assured of a positive rate of climb and trimmed for 80Kts we lose the flaps in stages and climb to 1500ft, heading out over Stratford upon Avon where we do a couple of orbits for photos.

Home is 20 minutes away so Ann flies us back and we cruise-descend for a crosswind join for 01. It's interesting watching her struggle with the mental picture of the circuit: I found the CAA-approved standard overhead join picture very helpful when learning and if in doubt I draw the circuit on the AFE book diagram: messy but helpful.
I am analysing my approaches at present: the old saying that "good landings come from good approaches" is very true, and whilst it is also true that bad landings come from good approaches (!), good landings rarely come from bad approaches, so I've got a bit "Zen" about approaches. Plus passengers like a smooth consistent approach, it's vital in IMC and reduces stress all round.
I would add: "a good approach is where you can fly down to the last 100ft hands off". You shouldn't, but it's a measure of whether you have the aircraft correctly trimmed, so at some point on the approach I usually go hands off for a second to check the trim. Also, I try to give a bit of extra back trim at about 100ft which reduces the flare loading: there are some strong springs back there in the tail.
So I've concluded my approaches are a bit high and am concentrating on knocking 200ft off the height I turn Final at for a more relaxed Final. That said, you could argue a high approach is more of an engine-out insurance. The argument begins here....
We taxy to the pumps, pump in plenty of AvGas and leave the aircraft with no cover and no tie-downs: I'll be using it in 12 hours.

Blackbushe at last
As usual I'm out of bed and checking weather, NOTAMs and flight plans at 6.30am. Over-excited, you see: sad, isn't it?
When I was learning to fly, apparently I was so excited every day I'd come back to the office on an absolute high with a huge smile, saying "it was brilliant, I was completely crap!". It's still fun...

Blackbushe is one of the few Southern England airfields I have not yet visited. Today's the day, and I'll be in there twice to boot!
Under a bright blue sky we're off pretty quickly via CPT. It's so hazy Blackbushe is invisible until we are virtually on top of it. Join crosswind LH for 25 and try to make a decent job of it: I am meeting not one but two people this morning...

Ian is a PPL student at Blackbushe - he flies Ikarus C42s which look a bit flimsy in a crosswind and I reckon are twitchier to fly than a C182. Hats off to him for mastering them: I struggled with a heavier and more docile PA28. I reckon if you can fly a C42 you can fly a C182 with your eyes closed. Go for it, Ian.

For some obscure reason AFPEx has failed to send Blackbushe our flight plan so we beg a terminal off the flying school reception and re-send it. I then ring the Tower and they confirm it has turned up. Bloody computers....

Simon is my oldest schoolfriend and a property developer in London. We don't see enough of each other, so this is an excuse to catch up. He's not been out before and knows me well enough to be worried about whether I know what I'm doing. This is an interesting phenomenon: I work with a man who won't fly with his (commercial pilot) brother because he remembers how irresponsible he was when he was small. So I'd better be professional!
Lifejackets on, full cross-Channel safety brief, we each take an EPIRB beacon and I ensure he knows he's in charge of the liferaft after we've er..... landed.
Then we hop in and Go.

Le Touquet
Left turn out, squawk 0433 for Farnborough, switch to Farnborough, whizz through their ATZ and settle down for Midhurst at 2300ft. At this point I can see another plane in front of us and he's obviously on the same route doing exactly the same speed at exactly the same height. If he were coming the other way we'd collide.
At Midhurst he continues and we turn for Seaford, then coast out and switch to Farnborough East as requested and climb through some light clouds to 4,500ft and VMC on top. Over the sea it's smooth and calm.

Change to London Info, then just before the FIR boundary (to stay legal) we descend through intermittent clouds and hug the base (I like to be high over water), changing to Le Touquet who offer us a left hand circuit for runway 32 which is weird as they normally do all circuits over the forest, not over the town. They also have traffic on a right hand circuit, which is a bit of a mistake as by the time me and the Dutchman in his PA28 are on Base leg we can see each other. We speed up, he slows down and I'll to expedite my runway vacation so he can land after me.
We get a bit of a wiggle over the dyke 200ft up, then we're over the threshold at 60Kts with full flap and flaring. Nice arrival, keep the speed up, then exit first left listening to the Dutchman dropping on behind us.
Simon is impressed by my professionalism, which is pleasant. You can fool some of the people some of the time!

Back to Blackbushe
I love Le Touquet: they are so laid-back. Within 90 seconds of walking in to the terminal we are out the other side with bicycles, which is part o the attraction of travelling by GA.
After a bicycle tour of Le Touquet, a walk along the beach and a damned good French lunch we cycle back to the terminal, drop the bikes, pay our very reasonable landing fee, file a flight plan via the quirky French PC (try getting a "_" out of a French keyboard... I have my laptop and my iPhone does a mean hotspot but everything's in the plane, so this is marginally easier...) and call for start.
Taxy out, wait for ages for a PA28 doing power checks and (I reckon) his make-up, watch a C172 on approach have a serious wiggle over the dyke, line up and take off straight out on runway 32. As we rise above the dyke we get a bit of wiggle: I reckon that would have been "sporty" in a C42!

Lydd is straight on, so we need do nothing but climb, change frequencies and stick the autopilot on. The clouds have cleared and it's smooth at 4,500ft.
Coasting in at Lydd we cruise-descend to slot in below the London TMA, divert slightly to avoid parachuting at Headcorn, then again to avoid Biggin Hill's ATZ, and follow the M25 West towards Blackbushe. It's quite bumpy and hazy at 2,300ft: I'd prefer to be higher but we can't here. Join deadside for 06 at Blackbushe and slide down the approach.
Typically, I choose today to flare a mite high and bang it on the runway with a bit of a bump. Bugger.
Still, Simon's happy and wants me to take his son, my Godson, out. So I didn't scare him stupid: phew...

And home...
After a cup of tea I say goodbye to Simon, fire up once more and trundle off home. The bumps have smoothed out as they always do after 4.00pm (useful tip that: if you're faced with a runway out of crosswind limit wait till after 4.00pm to tackle it - the wind will have dropped a lot) and it's but a short hop over Reading and Greenham Common back to CPT and Didcot power station where I swap from Farnborough, get the ATIS from Oxford and request a Right Base join VFR for 01, keep the speed up at 130Kts all the way to the Pear Tree roundabout, then throttle back, slow the plane and slide down Right Base then Final, round out and land neatly, taxy in and shut down.
It's time to really clear out the plane, empty the bins, tie it down and pop the cover on.
What a nice day out.

Two days later, and somewhat unexpectedly, I need to go to Shoreham to visit a client. This is becoming a milk run and familiarity breeds contempt so we need to be wary. The old story about aviation not being inherently dangerous but very unforgiving of mistakes comes to mind.
Today we have clouds at 3,000-3,500ft so will need to potter through the occasional one, which will be good practice. We will navigate down by VOR to CPT, GWD then on to Shoreham NDB.
It's a bit bumpy in the odd cloud as normal but smoother as we approach the coast. It's going to rain later so the pressure is dropping.
Between VORs I get a chance to ogle road layouts. I used to look forward to Geography lessons at school just to do map reading. I have always loved UK Ordnance Survey maps, and know of no other country that is so assiduously and bautifully mapped as the UK. Roads and railways have a beauty when observed from above by map or aerial photography they lose when observed from the driver's or rail passenger's perspective. This, for example, is Basingstoke.

Turning East at Goodwood I check in with Shoreham, who tell me Shoreham now requires landing permission (PPR). This is news to me, but apparently it has been NOTAM'd. My SkyDemon flight planning tool manages not to include this information which just goes to prove I should have done a NATS narrow route brief prior to flight... tut tut.
Flight planning has been revolutionised by the coming of the computer, cheap GPS units and the Internet. When I started flying, flight plans needed faxing, weather info was "watch the evening news" and plogging was done on paper with time and distance. Like the driving test (who actually drives with two hands on the wheel all the time? This is a pre-power steering anachronism from when the wheel could kick back and brute force was required to steer, especially at low speeds) the PPL syllabus is littered with anachronisms like learning VFR navigation with whizz-wheel and stopwatch. I know of no pilot who uses this method in anger now: they all use VORs/NDBs or, mainly, GPS. It's more accurate and easier.
Even the CAA have subsidised the Aware box to reduce controlled airspace busts.

I know of one Instructor who thinks GPS units are the work of the Devil because it encourages laziness, and I can see her point, but in practice Time/Distance measurement alone, like NDBs, is simply inaccurate: the winds are never as forecast, track and time errors creep in and you could be inside that Control Zone even though your plog says you're outside.
That's not to say Situational Awareness is not paramount: anyone who swans around just following a line on a GPS is asking for trouble. VFR you always need to do gross Nav checks with towns/railway lines/motorway junctions, and IFR you need to be up to speed with VORs, DMEs and NDBs as well as your GPS. But the sooner the PPL syllabus includes using GPS the better. At least they don't make you keep both hands on the yoke!
VFR nav by feature-crawling almost works in the UK but in France the distances are greater, the towns fewer and more homogeneous and it simply fails. So get used to VORs and GPS.

Descending, I join crosswind LH for 20, descend low over the hill above the Adur valley and sink gently on to the tarmac for a satisfyingly smooth arrival. It's warmer and sunnier in Shoreham!

Getting wet
Late afternoon, and I line up for 20. As this is a relatively short runway I'll do a short field take off with 20° flap and noise-abate at 500ft still over the runway, which should be more pleasant to the local residents.
We have a gusty crosswind which I reckon is 15-20Kts and as we accelerate the aircraft surges momentarily. It feels like we had a slap in the back, or the flaps haven't finished going down, or the engine encountered something it didn't like for a moment. I just don't know, but it's disconcerting and I'm ready to abort at the first sign of a repeat, but everything proceeds smoothly and at 60Kts we rotate and climb out steeply, mentally identifying fields for a landing if it all goes quiet. We cross the end of the runway at 500ft so we throttle back and turn along the beach (that's landable), climbing away until I breathe again at 1500ft and pop the flaps away, then steer for the GWD VOR.
The promised showers have arrived and before long I am in one which is a bit turbulent for a while.
Turning at GWD we head North West, descending to stay out of the turbulent rainshower clouds, which then requires an Odiham MATZ transit before swapping back to Oxford, a downwind join for a wet 19 and taxy in.

Strong Wind Warning
Oxford, like many airfields, has an ATIS service: a semi-automated weather briefing radio frequency that is a looping 30 second announcement of runway direction, wind, clouds, rain etc. It's available to all and sundry on 136.22MHz but the transmitter is pointed at the sky as its intended audience is aircraft, so reception is only good within a funnel where the pointy end is at the airfield, thus not as good on the ground.
As I live a good few miles from the airfield I need to have a big FM aerial mounted vertically (aviation FM radio uses vertical polarisation) on the side of the house so I can check the weather before going flying.
Strictly I should have lopped a bit off the end of each of the aerial cross poles to compensate for the increased frequency over the domestic FM signal it was intended for (98-108MHz) but in practice it works perfectly hooked up to a cheap airband radio.

Today the ATIS includes a "Strong Wind Warning".
Received wisdom has it that this means "don't go flying". But actually this isn't true: careful perusal of the wind direction and you and your aircraft's personal minima may mean that it's flyable, albeit a little bumpy.
The wind today is 29017G23 so we will have gusts of 23 Knots. Oxford has a 29 runway and Turweston is 27 so the maximum crosswind component at Oxford is 0Kts and at Turweston ¼x23Kts or 6Kts. So that's a "Go", provided Oxford are happy for us to use runway 29 (the alternative of using runway 19 would mean a) a slight tailwind and b) 100% of a 23Kt crosswind component).
The maximum demonstrated crosswind for a C182 is 15Kts and I've landed it in 20Kts but gusting crosswinds are horrible so we won't go there today.

The aircraft hasn't flown for a month because the weather has been just so awful, which means a sluggish starter (but it does actually start OK first go) and the AH takes a very long time to become "erect" as they call it, which indicates a dodgy vacuum pump, partially blocked pipe or decaying AH.
We taxy out and request runway 29: taxying straight is hard with a huge crosswind, it's not just me drunk again!. We hold for power-checks at the runway 29 holding point then enter the Active rolling for what turns out to be an extremely short take-off roll: we are off 100m before the 19 intersection which comes up at 350m. So that's 250m flapless with 3 up and nearly full tanks: not bad.
I'll keep the nose down, trading height for speed as I know it's choppy and at about 300ft we hit some strong windshear: real stop-to-stop yoke movements with the stall warner cheeping intermittently. Ah, I've done this before, and it's nothing the aircraft and I can't cope with. The stall warner is a bit over-active in gusty conditions and it is in fact nothing to worry about. It calms down as we climb through 800ft and we climb out North, avoiding D129 and heading for Brackley.
Willie is doing the radio for me, which is very relaxing as I only have to go where he points me and monitor the aircraft: I do like this multi-crew experience.
Turweston have an oversized, 1300ft circuit to the North of the airfield and we go what seems like a very long way North of the field before descending to 1300ft and 100Kts, get blown along the downwind leg then have to slow for traffic landing on the runway ahead.
Whilst it looks OK to me, Willie reckons we're low. Well, actually the land slopes downwards to the threshold here so you need to be a bit low, but I have let it decay a bit much, so a bit of power to stabilise and we float down through the windshear, keeping 80Kts for controllability, and as usual it calms down as we approach the threshold, so flare and hold...... hold......, kick off the crab a little too late and we touch down still slightly offset, but under the circumstances not a bad arrival.

We all use GPS for navigation, but our various GPS units (Garmin 196 and 296) are what they call "uncertified": in other words you may not legally use them for navigating published IFR GPS (for some reason they call them RNAV) approaches.
This is for several actually very good reasons: they aren't physically attached to the aircraft so could well fall off the coaming during a bumpy approach, which could be a little disconcerting to say the least; they don't actually have the published approaches loaded on to them (you could do a DIY job, but would you bet your life you had done it right?); they don't have RAIM (a self-check diagnostics system for GPS kit) and they don't offer vertical guidance in a useable fashion (so they don't drive a VOR/CDI gauge you can follow down the approach). There are other more technical reasons but these are the reasons that matter.
For real-world GPS approaches (rare in the UK, ubiquitous in the US, officially unsuable for us mere mortals in Europe) you have to have built-in "Certified" GPS kit that offers all of the above. This is, inevitably in aviation where paperwork, needless triplication of regulatory regimes and the common misbelief that all pilots are wealthy and IFR pilots massively wealthy, more expensive....

Garmin are the kings of the GPS navigation world. 15 years ago, while other avionics manufacturers desperately tried to catch up, Garmin simply took over the avionics world. Their integrated 430 and 530 Nav/Comm suites truly revolutionised aviation navigation, especially IFR "in cloud" navigation, where they allow you to see where you really are, not where you think you are. Given the availability of this kit, quite why even commercial aviation is still using NDB-derived published approaches eludes me.
The irony is that Oxford, because it trains commercial pilots who may be asked to work in places like Africa where NDBs are common, is likely to be one of the last airfields in the UK to dispose of its NDB.
But Oxford is getting radar in the next few months and we are likely to see a shake-up in the approaches available as a result; the likelihood is that some sort of RNAV approach is in the offing and we need to respond to that change. Hence our desire to look at a Cessna 177 (think "172 with retractable undercarriage and a slightly bigger engine") that has a Garmin 530W and slaved Sandell EHSI.

The 530W is awesome (see the review) and the Sandell is an electronic DI-replacement that looks like a normal round gauge, but at the touch of a button transforms itself in to a GPS-derived HSI (I dreamed of an HSI when I was doing my IMC), CDI or various other displays. It has the disadvantage of being not very visible from the right hand seat, which could theoretically be an issue, but it's not an AH so I'm not sure it's a show-stopper.
But the cost installed is liable to around £12,000 (phew!). For what is, in essence, a satellite radio with the same innards as my £700 Garmin 296. Time to start saving, I think....
The IMC course includes no RNAV instruction whatsoever, so we will have to learn how to do this ourselves. Should be fun!

Willie flies us home again and I learn something new: apparently when taxying with a tailwind, which we must do to backtrack Turweston's runway, you should keep the yoke fully-forward. Here's why.
Returning to runway 29 at Oxford the view is beautiful: as a pilot it's really nice to sit in the back occasionally (the back of a C182 is extremely comfortable) and enjoy the view.

Getting the short field right
Our previous house was close to Oakley airfield: this is an abandoned ex-RAF airfield with a pair of huge concrete runways that have been allowed to deteriorate. On closer inspection the actual concrete is in amazing condition: it's a pity about the joints which are weed-infested.
Despite rumours to the contrary the airfield is in fact home to an enterprising microlight club, based in the huge Intervention grain store at the Western end of runway 11/29. This is where John keeps his Tecnam. I would visit, but 100m of cleared runway simply isn't anything like enough for a C182.

They hold an Annual Open Day and this year they have cleared more runway using a length of rail pulled behind a tractor. John has invited me and I am inclined to visit. If I do, I suspect I will be the only Group A (non-microlight) aircraft there, so I may use the callsign "Golf Tango Golf Heavy"......
It is wise in these situations to inspect the arrangements so on a surprisingly cold May afternoon we take the car up on to the field and walk the runway, finding that runway 02/20 is 250m plus a good 125m overrun at either end, and 11/29 is 450m. OK, we can do this.

It's a beautiful warm Sunday after all the awful May weather we've had, and I pre-flight and attempt to start. The battery, however, has other ideas: I suspect we need a new one as it only just has enough oomph to turn the engine over just enough to start it, after having been left only a few days. However, start it does and after a cautious circuit at Oxford to ensure I can remember exactly how to spot land I head off the 12 miles or so to Oakley.

The frequency is busy and I'm on a left base for 02: another aircraft is right base, so I'll orbit for spacing, then head down. It looks short....
The PoH says it's OK and mentally I've got 500m so I can stop panicking about running out of runway. I approach over the heads of the spectators with a brisk 8Kt crosswind from the East, flare on the 02 numbers with stall warner whistling, and touch. The concrete is surprisingly smooth and with little braking we're down to taxy speed before the opposite numbers. Turn round to park on the other side of the runway, shut down, and the Marshall says "you didn't use much runway....". Well, there's a compliment....
Down in 250m: I am the STOL King. It's all down to speed control and flare accuracy.

The microlight rally is fascinating: loads of aircraft of all different shapes and sizes, steam engines, old cars, barbeque and so on. What I like is that everyone can wander around the aircraft and chat to the pilots. We are by some considerable degree the heaviest aircraft there, and some of the arrivals look a little flimsy for my liking.

One day when I'm too old and grey to fly Group A I will fly microlights but something a little more substantial than these, I hope

I meet up with old friends Wendy and Nigel plus Sue who turns out to be an ex-aerobatics pilot and I offer them a local flight.
We're 4-up with half tanks, thus close to MAUW. We have dry smooth concrete, but it's a warm day. How much runway do we need? This sounds like one of those PPL exam questions, but like many of those apparently damned fool questions, you really do need to know how to extract the correct answer for your aircraft and flight.
Taking book values and adding 20% for a worn engine plus 1.3x for Public Transport (these are not all pilots) we need 420m, which we have on 11 if we backtrack a bit. There's a muck heap at the end of the runway, then it's all standing crops, so nothing big to hit.
Backtrack, turn around, call "rolling 11" and roll. I need 55Kts to climb with 20deg flap and 30Kts comes up at my mental half way point, so we're OK. At 55Kts the controls go light and need holding down, at 58Kts we rotate firmly and with a whistle from the stall warner we're away and climbing without getting the wheels dirty. Hold the nose down to gain 70Kts, then gently climb away before raising the flaps in stages, then throttle back and coarsen the prop for cruise. it's a hot day so the cowl flaps can stay open.

Some idiot has routed a line of those big 30,000Volt pylons across the East section of the 11/29 runway. Taking off on 11 is fine (you can even backtrack to under the pylons if you're feeling keen), but landing on 11 would require a low, slow and steep turn from Base Leg to Final. Looking at it from 1,000ft it looks tight, and tight is not good with 4 up.
Steep turns raise the load on the aircraft and also raise the stall speed, neither of which are good at that point in the flight: there's a reason they call the turn from Base Leg to Final "Coffin Corner".
So we opt for the crosswind-affected 02 and get a nice long smooth, well-judged Final approach instead. Big crab with the 12Kt crosswind, a spot of wing-down and we're flaring just before the numbers again, the stall warner screeching and the wheels plopping gently on. We're down, but with 4 up can we stop?
It takes lots more brake pressure to lose the momentum and we seem to go on for ever, but by the time we reach taxy speed we are only just on the other threshold, so we've stopped in 250m: pretty much book value.

In the afternoon we are treated to a flying display by The Twisters, who are based in Long Crendon, just down the road. They are quite stunning and knowing what aerobatics feels like from the cockpit I have huge respect for the strength of their stomachs.

Since learning to fly I have become quite spectacularly uninterested in going to airshows to watch other people fly: we live in an "Area of Intense Aerial Activity" where the RAF practises displays for a number of engagements, motor-gliders throttle back on climb out over our front gate, military helicopters swoop past our poplars at hedgerow height, business jets and helicopters dodge the Brize zone on approach in to Oxford, fellow-GA travellers cruise overhead and visible to the South is Airway L9 out from Heathrow with (according to FlightRadar 24 Pro) large numbers of intercontinental high level traffic - We don't need to go to airshows.
But these guys are worth making an exception for.

Flying back to Oxford at 2,000ft I request a right base join for 01 and am asked for distance. Ummm, not sure: quickly retune, flip and read the DME in about 2 seconds: 8.6d. Following a Cirrus in who is at 5d we recover VFR for 01, again a big crab for the crosswind and for the first time today we don't need to worry about the runway length: how relaxing.
Kick off the crab as we flare and we're down nicely, roll in and unhurriedly put the aircraft away. I'm sunburned and exhausted, but perhaps now as I approach 100 hours on-type I am nearly ready for one of those Southern Africa fly yourself safaris... They sound like a hell of a lot of fun.

Avoiding Lasham...
Ann has asked me, as a Birthday treat, to take her and her friend Evelyn to Bembridge where they have a flat. The weather is not fantastic but we can plod along at 2,000ft. It's a bit hazy, so Strobes to ON.
Lasham has a major gliding competition on so we will adjust our planned route to take account of this, which means a dogleg almost to the Solent Zone.
I'll park them in the Executive Lounge at Oxford with a bottle of iced champagne and two glasses while I pre-flight. Then with two happy ladies on board I cross my fingers and try the start, which is fine if a little hesitant, taxy out and we take off in to a 1500ft cloudbase. The forecast has the clouds going up to 8,000ft and we are limited on the way down by assorted Airways, hangovers from a bygone age when propeller airliners exiting Heathrow took until Compton to make 5,000ft. Nowadays of course they're at more like 15,000ft by that point so it is all 50 years overdue for a massive review. Like many things in Aviation, this never happens, so we have huge blocks of empty unused controlled airspace between about 5,000ft and about 20,000ft that could all be uncontrolled. There is an old saying that rules are mostly only made, rarely are they unmade.....
Ann has a go at flying it once we are in the cruise and I have to explain about "Airliner" mode. "Pilot" mode is when you only have pilots on board and you can chuck the plane about with gay abandon; "Airliner" mode is for when you have passengers and you fly mainly on autopilot, straight and level with Rate 0.5 turns.

Soon we are doglegged around Lasham and heading for Portsmouth so wave goodbye to Farnborough and make blind calls for a downwind join for 12. Since Britten Norman had a row with the owner of Bembridge running of the field has been taken over by the local Gliding club and if you ask nicely you can still go in there although the Café is closed. But they don't man the tower and they are never there when you need to pay your landing fee, so you leave the money in an envelope posted through their door.
It's blustery and we fight the bumps coming down the approach all the way to the threshold, then flare and I think we're fully down so start braking and the aircraft starts to skip about. The runway drops away here and I don't think we've got enough weight on the wheels yet. A gust catches us as well and it's a bit untidy for a second or so before the flaps come up and dump the lift, we regain the centreline and I can get on the brakes properly. Yuk: I hate it when that happens.

With passengers dropped and landing fee posted we're away again: backtrack 12 then roll. With 20° flap we're off in way less than half the runway and well clear of the rising ground. Ts&Ps are good and we're soon within engine failure range of the beach over the hill so can relax, noise-abate and start a gentle turn to the North over the sea before levelling out and confirming a positive rate of climb before folding the flaps away and retrimming. Flip the autopilot on and watch the towns rolling by.
We keep a close eye out for gliders as we cruise North, say goodbye to Farnborough Radar once more, pick up the Oxford ATIS and cruise-descend for a Right Base join for 01. All very smooth and controlled but I think we may have a grabbing left brake caliper as it squeaks a little on the roll out when I brake.
Some sod has parked in our space, so we have to park 3 spaces over. Again, roll check the tyres for flat spots (never again on my watch!), cover goes on, tie down ratchets set, final pre-lock cabin check: Master OFF, brakes ON, fuel OFF, cowl flaps CLOSED and we can go home.

Get there early
The Queen's Jubilee has been wet indeed, but a window in the weather allows a return to the Isle of Wight to pick our guests up. I'll get to Oxford early and put some fuel in the plane, then have a nice relaxed journey down to get there early and pay the landing fee.
The kind fuel bowser man fills her up with AvGas and we dice with the dodgy battery once more (it's only dodgy when it's been left for a few days, so we're OK until we land away for a few days somewhere remote: as we're due to go to Scotland in July I think I'll push for a new battery before then!). It starts (eventually) and once more we head South.
I'm experimenting with a GoPro Hero 2 HD video camera which I have used in the cockpit briefly before the battery flattened itself. That is now sorted and during the flight down I experiment with various placements: it's strapped to a bean bag that came with my Garmin 296 and so sits comfortably anywhere reasonably flat. I have experimented with placing it on the coaming looking out through the propeller, but the video quality is not great through the perspex and the propellor makes banana shapes on the picture. It works better pointing inwards at the cockpit or on the seat looking at the instruments.
The resulting video is its uncut state is, of course, very boring, but I think if I edit it I can get some decent highlights.

Overhead Portsmouth we say goodbye to Farnborough and make the traditional blind call to Bembridge, but this time they're alive..... they have just got their radio licence and are keen to respond with wind direction and runway: very professional.
Position for a downwind join RH for 30, turn over the sea and we'll do it non-short field this time as there's a bit of a crosswind. As the land slopes down over some houses towards the threshold I just can't bring myself to get low enough to really bang the wheels on the numbers, so we use a fair amount of runway to stop. I think we have a grabbing left brake that's affecting our ability to brake in a straight line, but it could just be my crap landings....
Backtrack and hop off to parking, pay my landing fee at the very nice Portakabin to the South of the runway and shoot the breeze with the Gliding Club guys who tell me all about Britten Norman's latest run in with the landowner at Sandown, involving them demanding landing fees from him and him parking his aircraft in the middle of the runway and walking off with the keys. The really interesting things never get reported in the papers...
They also tell me about the RAF jump-starting a Hercules with a failed starter motor by parking another Hercules in front and running the engines. Now that would have been worth seeing...

You're on Candid Camera

They're packing up to go home so I wander back and my guests arrive; we load up the luggage and fire up.
We're full tanks minus 40 minutes (say 12 USG) plus 3 adults plus luggage, so that's comfortably within MAUW but we'll short-field the take off anyway, so flaps go DOWN, check for symmetric deployment, line up, call "rolling 30" and roll. We're off by the intersection, at 500ft we noise-abate the power, roll gently North and lose the flap in stages. At 2,000ft over Pompey I let Ann fly it and switch to Farnborough for the flight North.
I've told them the video camera is a "navigational device" to get some unforced footage but eventually I have to admit it's a video camera, which causes amusement all round.

We say goodbye to Farnborough at Compton and cruise-descend for a Right Base join for 01: there's someone else approaching the circuit from the West and doing a real old-fashioned Overhead Join which seems like a lot of faff, looking back. Join crosswind yes, Right or Left Base, even straight-in, but Overhead is a bit much unless you really are unsure of what's going on. But a useful fallback nonetheless.
To stay well ahead of him as there is no one else to conflict we will keep the speed up: we enter Right Base doing nearly 140Kts before pitching up, slowing to 100Kts and dropping the flaps, rolling on to Final and floating down at 80Kts. He's still on Base leg by the time we're flaring and we keep the speed up so he can get a land after, roll in and park.
Some sod's parked in our space again!

Downhill at Elstree
We have a challenging day booked: I am picking up Simon at Elstree then going on to a strip at Ipswich Monewden for a day with his father before returning via Elstree. We have already cancelled once because of the weather so I'm keen to go today, but cautious of personal minima and not frightening the passenger.
We have had problems getting PPR for the strip because it has changed hands, strong winds are forecast for later in the day and I am starting late because I manage to forget my wallet and have to go home again to get it. However, flying has taught me to compartmentalise my worries: when flying you simply cannot think of any other stuff at all until you are safely back on the ground.
I haven't been to Elstree before: one of two as-yet unvisited London airfields (the other is Biggin Hill, but I'm planning a trip there).
The battery is definitely deteriorating: there isn't even enough juice to drive the radio to call for start. But it does start and I know it will be OK for the rest of the day once I've got it going. It is charging OK but just won't hold its charge over night.
Departing Oxford and steering north of the Benson Zone the VOR is aimed for Bovingdon and overhead Thame we change to Farnborough North who are off the air: staffing problems, apparently. So I put in a call to a call to Luton who are helpful and unstressed, and probably more appropriate being closer to their airspace anyway.
Elstree's runway 08 slopes downhill and noise abatement dictates a monster circuit all the way around Watford for 08 via the canal turn (Ah, I know where that is) and the University (huh? well I guess it's that building in its own grounds there). A wind check request suggests a bit of a crosswind so we'll use 20° flaps, not the barn doors. I concentrate so much on the crosswind that I flare just a little too late, which on a downwind runway is not good and the runway starts to drop away. I just have to let it keep coming down, but it's late by the time we are solidly down and I have to brake heavily: even then I overshoot the exit and have to backtrack. Messy: I feel a prat....

Ipswich Monewden
Simon has never been in a light aircraft before, so I must treat him gently and try to give him as much of the "airliner" experience as possible.
Because we are running a bit late we jump straight in, hook up seatbelts and headsets, and go. No one else is flying today, which is actually typical of many airfields but also because bad weather is on its way. Backtrack, roll 08 and we're off with a turn to the left for noise abatement. London Info seem like the appropriate people to talk to in the absence of Farnborough North and before long we are at 2,000ft under the London TMA heading for Colchester. It's a bit bumpy but Simon is used to small boats, so he is OK (he knows where the sick bags are...).
Ipswich Monewden is not especially short, but it's certainly out of the way and quiet: nestled in the Suffolk countryside I'm not quite sure why anyone would want to visit it. However it happens to be close to where we need to go today, so let's explore.
Surprisingly, once past Ipswich it is surprisingly easy to find so we switch from Wattisham and descend for a look-see. Surprisingly, given the weather forecast, the wind is not from the South East but from the East according to the windsock (never trust the weatherman...), so we opt for 08 and set up a left hand circuit. The noise abatement blurb asks us to avoid all the houses but there aren't many, so that's easy.
It's a downhill runway and I am determined not to repeat the Elstree experience so I get in nice and low over the last hedge and touch softly at the start of the unmarked runway. The earth here is heavy clay, it's been raining and the grass is long: the moment I lower the nose we decelerate rapidly, and turning up the taxyway requires a lot of throttle to get up the hill in search of parking.

As an aside, you can learn a lot from Google Earth about the layout of an airfield, allowing you to taxy with confidence to where you know the parking is, even if the field is not in any of the common airfield guides.
I absolutely love the AFE UK Airfield Guide: its spiral-bound heaviness full of unexplored airfields with exotic names and symbols: Barra (EGPR) with its yellow runway (well, it's the beach); Castle Kennedy; Papa Westray and so on.
Good bathtime reading: I might go there next week, or there. Glenforsa on the Isle of Mull looks promising: we're up there in a few weeks.

The Crosswind envelope
After a long day we need to go home, and the wind is forecast to rise so we must get going. The winds always drop somewhat after 4.00pm, however, so we should be OK.
As we start up our host waves at us from the ground that there is a helicopter above us. We look up and can see an Apache hovering directly above us at about 100ft. Now I have NOTAM'd the route carefully, and there is Queen's Birthday flypast practice activity North of our location today, but this is a bit worrying..... However, he drifts off to the South and we slowly and noisily taxy up the draggy grass to the threshold.
The trick to getting flying speed on wet long grass is to raise the nose, so once rolling and s l o w l y accelerating I go full back on the yoke and we suddenly surge forward. Simon whoops as we climb almost vertically over the trees and bank gently for noise abatement.
Changing to Wattisham they don't mention the Apache, so I guess he was just practising something: he drifts away as we head for Ipswich.
Follow the M25 back to the West of Watford, round the canal turn and we are cleared to land on 08 with an 18Kt wind at 140°. The maths says that's 60° off the runway heading so we assume that's all crosswind. This is not the first time I have faced an 18Kt crosswind but I don't want to scare Simon so will need to come in with only 20° flap, plenty of speed and concentrate very hard on ensuring I keep the into-wind wing down after landing, something I am prone to forgetting. Big crab, bit of wing down, some rotor off the trees and it's rough on the approach but this time I'm right down and flaring on the 08 threshold and we're rolling. Keep the ailerons over to stop the wing lifting; flaps up to dump the lift and we're off at the intersection with no drama at all, just like I should have done this morning...

And the rain rain rain came down down down
With Simon dropped, three old computers loaded and landing fees paid, rain is scheduled so we need to get going. A blustery climbout and we're North then East back towards the M25/A41 junction, heading West. Luton are massively busy with EasyJet flights but they do accommodate me as well and suddenly, passing over Bovingdon we run in to a wall of rain.

We're marginal VFR at 2,000ft but I can see well enough to continue visually. At Thame I finally switch from Luton having managed to get a word in edgeways and continue with Oxford for a Left Base join for 19. I can't actually see Oxford at all but it's just me and an Army Puma wanting a transit through the overhead: no one else wants to be out in this....
As we drop down the Base leg the runway appears and I'm also visual with the Puma at 1,000ft. A wind check reveals 140° at 11Kts so that should be easy, but as I touch on the soaking runway I make the classic error of centralising the ailerons, a gust catches the starboard wing and we head for the side of the runway. Big aileron down and opposite rudder catches it, but it feels messy and we slide all over the place before I get it back under control. I seem to have a mental block about crosswinds coming from the left: I can cope with them coming from the right but left hand ones just seem to fool me. Must get better at it!
And finally the "lovely" job of putting the cover on in the pouring rain and a howling gale - at least with a high-winged aircraft there is somewhere to shelter....

Private strip
Our friends live South of Yeovilton in deepest darkest Somerset. Getting there by road is a miserable affair beset by inadequate transport investment, the Local Plod with their speed cameras, pensionable drivers and caravans.
We have been asked to bring their daughter Maddie back to Oxford and given the potential round road trip time of 5 hours, not including traffic jams, aviation may just be the solution. It turns out their neighbour has a top-of-the-line private strip ½ a mile away on the top of a hill, and we have permission to land there..... 40 mins by air.
Preparations for flying to these undocumented strips are always time-consuming: it's important to discuss with the owner arrivals and departures co-ordination, approach aids (if any), PPR, lights, hours of use, landing fees, circuit directions and heights, radio frequencies and procedures, windsocks, noise abatement procedures, access by road, parking, drainage, runway conditions, agreed lengths and directions, whether any livestock need moving and, most importantly, weight and balance / runway length calculations. Grass, especially damp grass, is really draggy, which is great for landing but can make take-offs problematic. I tend to print up an aerial shot with marked-up directions, circuit directions and heights, noise abatement rules etc and of course laminate it (like everything else: I'd laminate my wife if she'd let me...).
So after a long discussion with the owner, several hours on Google Earth and an hour with the POH I reckon we're clear in with 3 up, clear out with 4 up provided we're only half tanks and we back right up to the fence for the take off roll.

Steve has flown the aircraft the previous night and left it with just over half tanks, so that's perfect. He's left the cover and tie-down straps off so we should be away in no time.
I never trust the fuel gauges, the fuel not to run out of the tanks overnight or someone not to steal the AvGas, so I alway dip the tanks, write the contents on to my Tech log and stand there for just a moment quietly ensuring I am happy with the endurance. Like all pilots I have a little echoing Air Accident Investigation Board (AAIB) voice in my head writing the accident report as I go along: "the pilot elected to take off without dipping the tanks on the verbal report of another pilot that he had filled the tanks. Subsequent investigation of the wreckage discovered no fuel in either tank or in the fuel system...." In other words "Accident Cause: Pilot was an Idiot".
We have sufficient fuel today and apart from a left tyre that I can't help thinking is just that little bit less pumped-up than the right tyre we're good to go, so we fire up and take off, head South and swap to Brize Zone who are uninterested as we are heading away from them. They are noticeably busier now than when I learned to fly, mainly because of Afghanistan traffic and the ex-Lyneham Hercules, so unless I'm going into/over/through their zone I tend to leave them alone.
With Lyneham closed, heading South West from Oxford means the next bit of airspace you'll encounter is Bristol so overhead Swindon we swap to them and cruise down to Melksham, turn and head for Yeovil/Yeovilton.
The big military installation with the radar is Yeovilton, the smaller grass strip (been in there!) is Yeovil, known on the radio as "Westland" to avoid confusion. We're at 4,000ft above the top of their MATZ so a Basic Service is all we need and once clear of the MATZ we descend to 3,000ft to have look for the strip. It's a bit of a bugger to find, being nestled in the folds of the Somerset hills, but a couple of circuits around and it snaps in to focus. We descend to look at the windsock, which is (of course) standing straight out directly across the runway about 2/3 of the way to fully extended, so that's 10Kts across.
We can land 04 or 22 and as we happen to be heading 04 we'll drop in to a left hand circuit for 04 at 1,000ft above the terrain, avoid any houses we see (not many here: it's pretty rural), BUMPFTCHH, 2 stages of flap, trim for 80Kts, turn Base leg and then Final, flip out the barn doors and slow to 65Kts. It's bumpy over the trees, then it smooths out as we descend below the tree line. Flare over the last hedge (it feels like we're going to brush the hedge with the main gear, which is always a good sign), try to fly it down the runway and in a second it brushes the grass and we're down and rolling. Grass is a good retarder and we're slowing pretty quickly so edge off towards the edge of the runway and turn for backtrack, taxy back and park up by the trees.
This is a really posh strip, with a small concrete apron and a neat new green hangar with a Jet A1 fuel pump outside (wow! This guy has a serious aircraft...). Very nice.

Bouncy bouncy bouncy
After a good lunch we all jump in for the return journey and start up. We're 4 up so we'll taxy as far as possible back against the fence. The grass is very long here and we need a lot of throttle to make it move, especially in the turn. We're finally ready, so power-checks, hatches and harnesses and we'll roll.
Annoyingly the runway undulates so the poor aircraft keeps trying to take off on the humps and failing. As we're heavy we aren't accelerating as fast as I'd like, but by half way down we're at 40Kts so we're OK..... at 55Kts I haul her off, accelerate in ground effect and we climb out with room to spare. It's hard to know how I could have improved it: maybe more yoke back at the start to get the nosewheel off?
We circle the strip and then climb out North East. We'll be too low to get over the Yeovil MATZ so we swap straight to them and request a MATZ transit at 2,500ft. It's close, but we do get approval before entering their MATZ and we've clawed our way to 2,500ft by then, so level out and accelerate across the MATZ stub then cruise climb back to 4,000ft, swapping to Bristol as we do.
Bristol suggest we change to Brize, but we'll opt for a change en route straight back to Oxford Approach. Soon we can see Swindon, the M4, the white horse at Uffington, then Grove and Didcot. Descend over Port Meadow for a downwind join for 19 and manage a little bounce on landing: a touch of power to stabilise then let it sink back. I think I managed to not look at the end of the runway while flaring. Must stop doing that!

And that's me crossing the threshold of 300 hours.

A common cause of aviation accidents is "Controlled Flight Into Terrain". This is where the aircraft is in control but the pilot is either asleep, distracted, or can't see where he is going and flies in to the side of a hill or a power line. This is often the result of scud running, where a pilot will try to slide in VMC under the clouds but the ground rises and/or the clouds lower. You end up in the jaws of a nasty trap. We need to avoid this...
Today we need to take Maddie home, and although the weather is perfect now the forecast for Somerset is a front coming through at 10Kts SW-NE that will bring scattered low clouds, then a period of "Fog" (actually low cloud), then the cloud will lift to 1500ft behind the front.
So the plan is to try and fly through the front if it is mild (a bit of rain never hurt anyone) visually, or if the clouds get too thick we'll climb on top and get back down the other side. A lot depends upon where the front is in relation to the strip when we get there. Weather forecast tend to be very good at describing what is coming but not so good at when it's coming.
Fill up with fuel for half tanks (I have enough but without much reserve, you can't have too much fuel except when you're on fire or heavily laden in to a short wet strip...), queue for ages at Charlie waiting for a land rover to scare a flock of birds away from the runway, then line up and take off, heading South West.

It's very smooth today: the high cloud is suppressing the thermal activity and we can concentrate on the "Airliner" experience. Around Swindon we start to encounter scattered clouds beneath us and as it accumulates we drop down to below it. We may be able to get through visually, but I'm reluctant to go over the top as you can never descend in cloud to below the Minimum Safe Altitude or MSA, calculated to be 1000ft clear of anything below you. MSA for Yeovil is 2300ft QNH and the cloudbase will be 1500ft, so we'd need to find a hole or a published procedure to descend upon.
Soon the clouds are descending and we're getting close to the scenery: up ahead the ground is rising and I can see the cloud lying across it. My GPS confirms it by showing yellow ahead with crosses showing peaks: it's time to climb. All three levers go fully forward, trim for 80Kts and climb. At 3,500ft we pop out in to the sunshine, surrounded on all sides by ice cream.
If I can't find a hole we will need to go elsewhere, land and sit it out, except that all our alternates are fogbound. Still, we have enough fuel to return to Oxford if necessary.
Ahead the cloud tops descend behind the front and a few minutes later, directly over our strip we find a small hole. I tip it on a wing and descend visually, spiralling down through, pulling a bit of G to my passengers' amusement and we emerge in to the gloom 2 miles East and ready to set up for the approach. The strip takes a bit of finding but they've mowed it and suddenly it's there so line up, pre-landing checks and full flap, drop down, big sink in the valley before the hill then drop it over the hedge and in. Concentrate really hard on the other end of the runway, don't look down, and we'll fly it power off just above the grass... ooh we've landed, that was nice.

Back to the maelstrom
After coffee we fire up for the return. The strip is once more bouncy, making take off hard and the stall warner squeaks as we lift off finally. At 1500ft we go IMC and don't emerge until we're at 4,500ft and well on the way home. This is much easier and smoother than messing around under the clouds.
We route around Yeovil's MATZ stub as they have jet traffic coming in, get back on our course to Melksham, swap to Bristol then to Oxford as we approach Swindon.
One thing that amazes me about aviation is how quickly things can go from being quiet and gentle with little workload to hugely busy and frantic: you simply have to be prepared.

As we approach Oxford and descend in to light rain for a visual recovery we quickly realise that the airspace around the field is choc a bloc full of arriving aircraft. The ATC lady is managing but the number of spinning plates she has going is incredible. I count at least 16 aircraft in various stages of taxying out, taking off, IFR Hold, IFR or VFR approach or landings, and she is reeling off instructions to all and sundry. We need to do exactly as she says and to the letter or we risk flying in to someone.
We introduce ourselves and are immediately told to perform a Standard Overhead Join at 2300ft. I've not done one of these for a while but I've been trained here and can do one accurately blindfolded, so we report overhead at exactly 2300ft over the landing numbers, descend and cross the takeoff numbers at exactly 1500ft, report downwind no 3 behind a PA-32 for which we have to slow. He is slowing to get a "land after" behind the Cessna 182 in front of him so we're down to 80Kts to get a "land after" behind him, which we all manage. Behind us there's another aircraft which gets a land after behind us..... It's very busy: Oxford now have radar and whilst it's not officially in use they can cope more accurately with the workload making them less stressed because they can see where we all are.

Next stop Scotland!

Alarums and Excursions
After cancelling our trip to Scotland in May because of the frankly awful weather we have finally rescheduled all parties concerned, planned the weather to death, popped Nessa's Aunt in the back of the plane and we're off. The weather is forecast to be scattered showers in a weak front half way up the country so we'll be IMC for a bit and then it will improve.
Departing with the new "Oxford Radar" we laugh at the traffic jams on the M40, climb to 4,000ft and head for Daventry, then turn North and climb overhead Melton Mowbray. The front appears as forecast, we are briefly solid IMC then we pop out and start to descend to our planned 4,500ft for a bit of sightseeing.
Switching to Humberside Radar we are just passing through a few scattered clouds when both the “High Voltage” light and the “low Voltage” light illuminate, and the ammeter swings to register a slight discharge. Well, the voltage clearly can't be "high" and "Low" at the same time, but the meaning is clear: we've lost the alternator and we're running on the battery. Not good.
My immediate thoughts are "electrical fire" but nothing is smoking and there are no nasty smells, none of the breakers have popped so it's not immediately life-threatening. Unlike a car engine, the engine runs on magnetos that are independent of the battery (I do remember my PPL "Airframe Technology" lessons!).
I am about to pull some precautionary carb heat anyway as we are in cloud, and as the engine reduces in RPM with the carb heat, both lights go out - maybe we're OK.
But no: 5 minutes later they both come back on again: we have a problem.
It's a leap of faith to turn the Master switch off in flight, but I've done this before and all that happens is that the radios go dead. So we cycle the Alternator and Battery switches, but no: it's dead.
We tell Humberside Radar and ask for a precautionary diversion to get on the ground and take a closer look. They agree and give us vectors to a visual approach for 02 - we pop out of the clouds at 4,000ft in to some grimy VFR and join Left Base for 02. The Fire service have turned out, which is exciting. A smooth approach and landing is followed by a taxy to their "Holding Pen": the South apron, where we shut down with a Fire Service foam nozzle trained at the aircraft, which is comforting.
This is a relief: problems take on a different perspective when you're on the ground and out of the aircraft, with time to think.
An hour spent trundling around Humberside Airport (an efficiently-run, if airline-oriented and hugely-underused facility) reveals no one with any light aircraft maintenance abilities and my calls to Coopers Aviation at nearby Wickenby only get an answering machine. Well: it's 4.00pm on a Friday afternoon....
The decision needs to be made: do we go on or go home? The aircraft still has plenty of electrical power, it will start and the radio will work. But where we're going is a grass strip with no battery carts, no support of any kind. We can divert to Fife down the road and they will have a battery cart, but on a Saturday or Sunday they aren't going to be able to fix it. And we need to be back on Sunday night.
I decide to depart Humberside based upon the available facts and a chat with the maintenance guys at Wycombe: none of us want to be stuck at Humberside.
If the light stays off we'll go to Kingsmuir, if it comes on again we will return to Oxford, using the hand-held radio if the battery failed or going non-radio if necessary (we'll ask Waddington to co-ordinate with East Midlands and Oxford). We're not going near the Olympic Atlas restricted Area so this isn’t going to be a problem.
The aircraft starts OK, with oodles of power, the light stays out at idle but comes on when we increase power to taxy. We'll go home.
Backtrack and depart runway 02 and head South West and then South. The weather is marginal VFR with the odd cloud until Daventry at which point we break out in to bright sunshine. We warn all the various radio units we speak to that we may suddenly go non-radio but in fact the radio and transponder (usually the first to feel the effects of low voltage) continue to work: there is even enough electrical power remaining to drop the flaps for the straight-in approach for 19 at Oxford, and to put them away again once we have landed.
I smell a rat: I think it is charging, and the lights are lying to us. Given that we have flown probably 1hr20mins with apparently no charging and the electrics have continued to work normally it's the warning lights that are faulty, but I am not prepared to risk being stranded at Kingsmuir.
So a very disappointing day, and an unscheduled weekend at home instead of whizzing around Scotland, but we'll reschedule for September.

"Every flight's a training flight"
It's been 6 weeks since our Humberside near disaster and the aircraft has taken up semi-permanent residence at the menders (no names, no pack drill, they know who they are...) until now. Apparently, it was ready yesterday, so Steve picked it up and half way back to Oxford... the same light came on.
So today we need to fly it back to Wycombe to be mended... again.
I've used garages like this before. They only get the one chance, mind you....

So we'll practice ADF tracking at Westcott on the way: this gets us clear of Benson and gives us a bit of training. Lots of symmetric flap deployment testing (we have a new flap following the discovery of skin cracks) and a really good controls sense check (wise after any disassembly - crossed controls will kill you very quickly) before starting, then fill up with AvGas and take off on a sunny afternoon for a cruise to Westcott.
That's it... push the head for a 060 inbound track to Westcott, and we get a pretty good cut as we pass overhead. Swing out and pull the tail for a 140 outbound track, then switch to Wycombe and descend for their weird "overhead" join (join overhead the landing numbers, turn on to the runway heading, then half way down the runway turn out on to the downwind leg and descend to circuit height. Weird: but they need to as gliders use the other side so there is no dead side). Turn over West Wycombe for Base, pop the flaps and see if we can remember how to land.
I've landed on enough short strips now never to waste any tarmac, so we're flaring at 75Kts before the numbers. I reckon all my landing issues over the years have been due to me not concentrating on the far end of the runway whilst flaring. I am a bit Zen about this now, and it does give a great landing every time. So all you Students out there, this is the key to "happy passengers" landings.
Backtrack on the bumpy grass and shut down on the apron - we've not seen any of the electrical failure lights today and the aircraft seems as good as new, but we'll let them have a (hopefully non-protracted) look at it before we pay the bill.

Flying to where the weather is rubbish
At last: some September sun and a working aircraft: time for our delayed Guernsey lunch trip.
Every month the company has a Board meeting where the two Directors look at each other, announce they are both bored and have a decent tax-free lunch. This month we will have it at St Peters Port in Guernsey.
At Oxford the weather is picture-perfect as we take off but the TAFs look really dodgy for the Channel Islands. For some long ago-buried reason neither normal UK aviation rules nor French aviation rules apply in the Channel Islands: you must file a flight plan (why?) and request "Special VFR", which is basically a promise that you'll stay VMC (in other words out of cloud and within sight of the sea/ground) despite having an IMC and (in my experience at least) in conditions that nearly always resemble a goldfish bowl, requiring mastery of IMC skills even in what would normally pass for "a nice day" over the sea. So basically everyone lies, because they can't prove you were ever in cloud and provided you're above 1,000ft (MSA over the sea) you're not really in any great danger.
Tango Golf still has reported issues with slow lining-up of the Artificial Horizon and a pulsing Low Voltage light but neither are show-stoppers so we will watch out for them as we fly.
We pop a bit more fuel in there as there is only 16USG available following Steve's trip to Guernsey the previous day, then take-off in to a beautifully calm, slightly hazy blue-sky day, climb to 3,000ft and track the CPT beacon in then out. It is possible to draw a line straight from CPT to Guernsey through the Bournemouth zone so we put the autopilot on and relax. We coast out South of Bournemouth and climb to 4,000ft once clear of their zone. Amazingly, CPT is still quite happy directing us over the Channel, which implies quite a hefty radio at Compton Norris.
I'm experimenting with SkyDemon on the iPad at the moment in addition to the normal Garmins 296 and Aware boxes. I have struggled with finding anywhere to put the iPad that allows it to gain a satellite signal, but the compass error card, a small card in a metal frame that was attached to the compass by Blu-tack has come adrift and someone has stuck it to the top of the coaming instead, where it now makes an excellent stop for the bottom edge of the iPad when it is wedged against the windscreen. Now we can have 3 GPSes, two with our course plotted, plus the VOR. 4 independent nav devices.

Soon we spot clouds which thicken below us as we proceed. Strictly "Special VFR" means "no VMC on top" and certainly no messing around in the white stuff but both us and the aircraft behind us assure the Channel Islands Zone absolutely that we are VMC and in sight of the surface, even as we descend through the cloud layer to 1100ft to be able to actually see anything (it's a little lie everyone colludes in, they can't prove we're IMC, we "manage to find a hole..."). Even there viz is about 1 mile (ish...). It's pretty yucky, actually, but what are you going to hit at 1100ft over the channel?
Eventually Guernsey hoves in to sight but we can't actually see the field until we're 2 miles away and on Final, and there's a gusty 15Kt crosswind as well, so the approach is lumpy. Even as we flare we're still being kicked about and some fancy footwork and lots of into-wind aileron is required - even then we use a good chunk of the runway width up. Yuk, but still, it's a smooth arrival and we trundle in for a marshalled park-up outside the double-deck hangar (how cool is that?).

ASG are absolutely brilliant: we are whisked through, nothing is too much trouble and they will fill it up for us. 5 minutes later we are on a £1 bus to St Peter Port. Now that's efficiency. What I don't understand is that if we didn't wait for more than 5 minutes for a rural bus on a Sunday at either St Peter Port or at the airport why can't central Oxford, with all it's huge investment in Park and Ride buses, manage to get a bus out to the Botley Park 'n Ride more frequently than every 30-40 mins? Tragic.

After a damned good lunch and a couple of interesting bus rides (how they get those huge buses down those tiny roads amazes me - I've never before ridden a bus that regularly drives on the pavement...) we return to pick up our Duty Free fags 'n booze at the Tower, then back to pay our (very reasonable) landing fee and our (also very reasonable, being Duty Free) fuel. We fire up and taxy out to the main apron past all the FlyAirs and RyanBes (I love this bit), power-check at A2 and roll on to the main runway. I don't think we'll need a backtrack, somehow. The cloudbase has risen and the sun is trying to come out, so we climb out Northbound to 2,000ft.
At this point the AH starts playing-up. It was fine all the way down but now it won't erect and keeps rolling drunkenly over to the left. As the normal mid-Channel goldfish-bowl effect settles in we lose all external references, and now we have no AH, so we're partial-panel. We'll try the autopilot, but that hunts left, right, then tries quite hard to turn us over in to the sea, so we will need to continue partial-panel. The air at this height is very unstable (we have a 40Kt quartering tailwind) so we're working on the DI, turn 'n slip and the altimeter in bumpy haze: lovely.....
It's OK, just hard work and requires concentration, making sure the ball is centred and maintaining a good scan. Again, whilst technically "VMC" a VFR-only pilot would seriously struggle here, which fuels my argument that a) the Channel Islands Zone needs scrapping so we can legally use our IMCs here and b) you need an IMC to fly out here anyway.
Eventually we reach the edge of the CI Zone and they release us to climb to our normal Bournemouth-radio-reaching height of 4,000ft. Of course starting the climb brings its own case of the leans so it's a question of setting climb power, trimming for attitude then keeping the DI stable. Eventually we climb out of the haze and rough air and regain a horizon and some sunshine, which reduces the workload, CPT comes back on line and we contact Bournemouth for a Zone Transit. We are VMC on top at this point and a glance at the GPS shows 168Kts ground speed for a 130Kt airspeed: we have a 38Kt tailwind and are doing 198mph over the ground. That's better.
The cloud persists all the way North to Compton and I'm just getting the Oxford plates out of the bag for an ILS recovery when the clouds thin and then part, revealing Didcot power station so we can recover visually. Oxford's ATIS gives winds of 18Kts at 240° which may be interesting.
There is no other traffic to affect so we maintain a cruise descent at an indicated 140Kts all the way to the Downwind leg, then reduce power to idle, pull up sharply and at 95Kts pop the flaps for that satisfying "nose on the windscreen" deceleration and re-trim, pop the second stage as we turn over Deddington and settle in to a stable 80Kt descent as we turn Final. Oxford is briefing a jet pilot as we turn but "Break Break..." gives us clearance to land just as we hit the windshear and mush coming up from the trees and hedgerows, throwing us around. It settles down to about 12Kts as we flare and settle gently, passing a bizjet at the Charlie Hold and concentrating on the far end of the runway. Roll out, flaps away and we're on the taxyway, back to the apron and tie down in the surprisingly strong wind. But we've mastered the cover now and it won't get away from us in the wind....
A challenging day with the worst weather in the British Isles today. And we may need to go back to Guernsey in a couple of weeks.

Practice Forced Landings and Stalls
It's time to do my Biennial SEP "Hour with an Instructor" to ensure I haven't got in to any bad habits over the last two years.
This isn't a test: it's just a requirement that someone somewhere knows you aren't doing anything really dumb. I fly with Pete a fair amount and he keeps an eye on me, dispensing sage advice without treating me like a Student, which I appreciate, but this is an official recognition of that fact.
It is possible to argue that my IMC Renewal earlier in the year counts, but I have been led in the past to understand that the Examiner in that hour is acting in an Examining capacity, not an Instructional capacity, therefore it doesn't count, however this is an interpretation of some rather over-complex rules and may not be true. To be on the safe side, Pete and I will go out and practice some forced landings and tinker with the stall as we have some queries over the stall warner. He'll then sign my book and we're all Definitely Legal.
Practice Forced landings are a perennial good thing to practice in case the donkey stops kicking. And the stall warner appears not to be coming on soon enough, although some airframe noise precedes the stall giving a pretty adequate warning. This needs investigating.
We pre-flight (we have a warm pitot head for once), start up and leave with a right turn out over Blenheim Palace's gardens. Heading for the area between Charlbury and Little Rissington for "general handling" Oxford Radar give us a squawk: there's a first.
The AH droops towards the left, pretty useless for IMC but as we're VFR today we're not too fussed. It does need fixing, however.
So: PFL's. Trim for 75Kts (five big swings back on the trim wheel), turn in to wind and pick an into-wind field in the triangle between the nose and the wingtip. I have always favoured a constant aspect PFL approach but Pete suggests the addition of a downwind-to-base marker point of 1,000 AGL, which works better. All our PFLs bar one are survivable and at no point do we near the "coffin corner" base-to-final too-low-on-speed-and-pulling-too-hard area, so eventually, having annoyed several tractor drivers and a few remote houses we climb back up to 3,000ft just below the cloudbase for some stalls.
The Cessna 182 is a hard beast to really stall: you have to pull back so hard and get so slow that the ASI nearly hits the bottom stop: and that's without any flaps out. With 20° flap the ASI runs out of indication before we actually stall, and with 40° it's unmeasurable. The stall is massively benign: no wing drop, just some buffet, a lot of airframe whistling and finally the stall warner. A brief push forward to break the stall and we can recover with only 100ft-odd of height loss. So the stall warner is working OK, even if it is acting more as a stall indicator not a warner.
Overhead Charlbury Pete does one final PFL "to show how it's done" in a field near Cornbury Park and with flaps and some sideslip we're good to go in a particularly small field.
It's interesting how these things look so much smoother when an Instructor demonstrates: I can well remember their "on rails" approaches I strove to emulate when learning, whereas my approaches consisted of increasingly desperate lunges for something I might be able to land from....
However he underestimates the up-slope and trees beyond as we climb away and we end up roaring across the B4437 and Wychwood Forest uncomfortably close to the tops of the trees, hoping the engine doesn't stop for real...... I would have turned back down the hill to give myself more height.
Back at 3,000ft we position for a right base join, descend and float gently down "on rails" for a nice smooth arrival (always look at the end of the runway), roll out and park up.
Pete believes we should park so that the nose wheel is on the blob at the end of the centreline parking mark, whereas we have been parking a foot or so further back so the wing tiedowns line up with holes in the tarmac. I'm not sure which is right.

The kindness of others
I need to go to Witnesham, just North of Ipswich for the funeral of my Best Man's father. It's awful when the older generation moves on: it means our generation are going to be the next to die, but also these are people we knew and respected.
Getting to Ipswich is 150 miles of speed cameras, idiots and pensioners, and getting back at 5.00pm will be worse. Plus it's forecast to rain, so dark + rain + rush hour = M25 gridlock, you can be sure.
However, a straight line drawn between Oxford and Ipswich Monewden, where I've been before, shows 40 minutes each way. I can get a taxi to take me the 3 miles to Witnesham (I might get a folding bike to put in the plane in future) and back, so that's sorted.
But when I call the owner of Monewden for PPR he says the field is flooded and suggest now is not a good time. Oh dear, back to the traffic jams.
But a call to Ipswich Crowfield is more productive. They are under planning restrictions concerning noise, but we discuss our large Carlos Fandango exhaust and agree that this makes it acceptable, especially considering it's a wet Tuesday in November, and no one is going to be around. So in the end I won't have to sit on the M25 and what's more we discuss taxis and he offers to lend me his 4x4 to get to and from Witnesham. Now that's care Above and Beyond The Call of Duty.
It's sunny at Oxford but bitingly cold when I turn up in a suit and black tie, book out and pre-flight, then start-up and turn the cabin heater on to thaw my hands out. Oh, that is better.....
Up to runway 29 which has subsidence cracks on it's South side so will be closed as an Active runway for the rest of the year, then cleared for take-off and climb out Eastwards. It's smooth as we level off at 3,000ft and track to the South of Cranfield.
There is satisfaction in getting the height exactly right, the track exactly right, the compass, AH and both GPS's all exactly aligned, the radio pre-tuned to your next frequency, the towns and roads positively identified (I am eternally grateful to The Duke of Edinburgh for DofE navigation exercises teaching me to read OS maps: I wonder, being a pilot himself, whether he had this use in mind when creating the exercises...), and diversion airfields all in your mind, FREDA checks done and recent PFL exercises in mind. Time for a happy hum-along, I think.
The radio is quiet as we approach Wattisham and change to them to request a MATZ transit: they have traffic on their ILS so ask us to transit through their ATZ at 3,000ft and then descend for Crowfield. I watch what is probably Prince Harry in an Apache descending whilst looking for a small strip in a series of fields. One useful tip for these small fields is YouTube: there are videos on there showing approaches and landings at most airfields, and once seen you have a pretty good idea of what to look for.
Released from height constraints by Wattisham I can spot the field so we descend in a wide left hand circuit for a long straight in, get a bit of rotor off the trees, come neatly over the last hedgerow and touch just after the displaced 31 numbers for a gentle roll-out. Being wet grass I will let the aircraft slow by itself, then taxy left up the little hill and park outside the main hangar. The loan 4x4 is waiting, so I can pop off and get some lunch in good time.

They didn't teach me this when I did my PPL
Funeral over, it's started to rain (as forecast, but it will remain light) and the light is failing as I return the 4x4 to the airfield owner, pre-flight, fire up and taxy out. The wet grass is now slippery and we have to taxy with care. Turn and power-check at the 31 numbers, then contact Wattisham who are happy for me to take-off and remain under 1,000ft on their QFE (which puts me 35ft underground where I'm sitting, as I'm on a hill and they're in a valley...) as they have ILS (Harry again, I'm sure) traffic.
So: 20° flaps, full chat and rotate at 58Kts, noise abate at 300ft and we are way above those looming power lines, visual with Harry in his AH-64 and climbing out through the rain. At 3,000ft we're in the clouds, so as they are above MSA we will descend to 2,800ft and remain visual. But satisfyingly the AH and autopilot are now working, although the cigarette lighter isn't. Can't light up, then.....
We're in and out of the clouds most of the way home before the weather clearing nearer Oxford (again, as forecast). The Low Voltage light is throbbing in time with the strobes, but the Ammeter shows positive charge at all times, and I'm less concerned with the electrics now I know what happens when they fail. I have concluded the electrical problems on this aircraft are water ingress-related as we only seem to have problems following extensive flight in rain. If the ammeter continues to show a positive charge we can continue and if the battery gives out we have a portable radio.
Switch to Cambridge and as befits a gloomy, wet Tuesday afternoon in November, I am the only person on frequency. Cranfield are busier (mainly with Oxford Senecas) and of course Oxford is pandemonium.
As it's now almost official Night I'd like to revalidate my passenger-carrying-at-night facility, which I believe involves 3 night landings to a full stop (I have since learned it only requires 1, which is ironic considering what happens next...). So I circle Bicester until official Night, then head in for a Left Base join and this time remember to put the landing light on. Descend Left base, pop the flaps and slide down the approach, flare and land gently, a shade too fast but on the centreline and roll out to the end, vacate and taxy round to the apron.
Cleared back to the B1 Hold for power checks, we then line up and take off for a circuit which is fine (Kidlington is very pretty at night), turn Final once more and flare, and I'm just thinking this is easy when...
"Golf Tango Golf, Expedite runway vacate" (we have a big jet IFR at 4 miles on the approach behind me)
"Er, negative Expedite. We have a blown tyre...".
Half way down the runway the ride starts getting rough. As a bicycle rider I know this deflating feeling. There is no pull, so I know it's the nosehweel. I can't keep it going, so eventually we roll to a stop right in the middle of the Active runway.
At night.
In the rain.

I'll leave all the lights on so I don't get a jet up my backside, but meanwhile the Tower is redirecting incoming flights, closing the runway and redirecting the poor jet up and back in to the Hold while and organising a tug to come out and get me.

The Fire service are brilliant: the tug comes and I hold the tail down while they pop the shovel under the nosewheel, then we tie the nosewheel on and trundle off down the runway at 15mph, finally clearing it and down the taxyway to the maintenance area.
There is very little I can do as it's dark: our maintenance guys will investigate tomorrow. But this is definitely a failure not covered in the PPL syllabus, except for the general advice to keep calm, fly the aeroplane and deal with the problems as they arrive.
It wasn't dangerous and was great experience: no one got hurt and tyres are replaceable. As they say, the flight's not over until the aircraft is tucked up and you've left the field.....

Postscript: It turns out that it wasn't mud in the spat. The maintenance guys have changed the wheel and the interior of the nosewheel spat was clean. So it was something else that caused the puncture.

And the jet I held up contained the owners of the airfield...

How big an adventure can you imagine?
My 50th birthday is in early December, and the Management comes up with a Birthday celebration idea: she was at school with Jo Fleming who now runs Chateau Unang in Provence. Why don't we fly down and stay in a luxury Chateau hotel nearby, see something of her and of Provence and celebrate my 50th? It's either that or have a big party here and watch everyone drink my booze.
Nah, no contest...

Frantic weather planning ensues and we end up with a neat two stage journey, passing North of London and breaking in Troyes in North East France for lunch, then flying down the Rhone valley to Carpentras where there is a small local airfield within 3 miles of our destination.

French airfields work on a completely different assumption to UK airfields: in the UK an airfield is only open during published hours and you often have to ask permission to land there (known as PPR or "Prior Permission Required"). In France the opposite is true: and airfield is assumed to be open all the time unless NOTAM'd otherwise. There may be no one in the Tower to help you but the airfield is still open, and if they can't be bothered to be there to collect your tax d'atterisage (Landing Fee) well, that's their fault.
However Carpentras have no lights and being December the days are short, so we may run out of light and have to divert to Avignon nearby: not a problem coming back to Oxford which has lights and is open until 10.30pm, though.
We have a route, a destination and a timeframe: 6 days in the first quarter of December. Weather will play a big part in the execution of the flight: no one wants to be flying in icy clouds and the UK IMC is invalid in France. However, French rules allow Visual flying "on top" of the clouds (and actually ATC can't see whether you're in cloud or not: they're usually 50 miles away in a warm office with coffee....).
So we do have a fair amount of leeway, and also if we have to delay it's not a big issue: this is a holiday, not a scheduled airline after all.

Surprisingly, as the departure date nears, the winter weather begins to play ball: we have a front half way down France we can fly over and the remainder is scattered or broken with light winds.
By the night before departure all is planned and ready...

We wake up early to radio reports of snow, snow everywhere: the outside lane of the M40 is blocked by snow; every METAR East of Oxford is awful and Troyes is forecast to be snow all day.
We're stuck.

However, a quick call to my weather guru suggests the weather may be better down the West side of France via Limoges and Carcassone. We have to visit a Customs airfield in France on entry (and exit) and these have been recvently pruned by the French Government, but once in France we are free to go wherever we like, so we plan a route to Dinard at the base of the Cherbourg peninsula near St Malo, then we will feel our way across France.

I love this moment at the start of each flight: you know the day will test you in ways you cannot even imagine, but therein lies the challenge: to be flexible, safety-conscious and assertive but not bold.

At the airfield there is, surprisingly, bright blue skies and no snow; we file a flight plan via AFPex (which goes immediately in to the system) to Dinard, pop our lifejackets on and leave.
Immediately two minor niggles appear: the cigar lighter socket doesn't work, so all the GPS units are running on batteries which won't last for ever; and the batteries on my ANR headset are dead (but we have spares).
By Kingsclere clouds are appearing and by Portsmouth, as we route around the Solent Zone, we are VMC on top at 4,000ft.
There is a preferred cross-channel VFR route leading from the Southern tip of the Isle of Wight straight across to Cherbourg. The CAA would prefer us to fly this route so if we ditch they know where to look for us, however in a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, this route takes you slap bang through a Military Firing Range: very clever....
The protocol is that you request the status of the marked Danger Area and it is either "Inactive" and you just carry on through, "Active" and you contact Plymouth Military and request a Danger Area Crossing Service, or "Active and in use" in which case you don't cross unless you want a Naval shell through the wings. Not ideal....
In this case it's Active but Plymouth Military are happy to provide a crossing service and we never even see the channel as we cruise along, warm and happy at 4,000ft.
As the French coast approaches we cross the International Boundary and change to Brest ATC who pass us to Cherbourg who allow us a Transit through their zone, then as we go feet-dry the clouds break and we cruise down the Cherbourg peninsula in clearing weather.

Dinard report showers and strong winds in their vicinity; as we approach we can see a nasty squall crossing the field, so we orbit a couple of times in the sunshine then head in as the squall passes. The wind is straight down runway 35 and we flare for what must be the smoothest landing I have ever made in the middle of the huge runway, and taxy in for fuel.

Dinard is completely deserted and the pumps require the assistance of the Fire personnel who are in a shed at the opposite end of the apron, so we get the key from them and trundle back while Nessa goes in search of a loo in the terminal.
The pump instructions are only in French (quelle surprise!) so I bless my school French teachers who bashed just enough French in to me at school to understand the instructions. For reference, the secret is to zero the pump counter, then the motor starts.
A large amount of fuel later Nessa still hasn't appeared but as I walk back past the terminal a pair of arms is waving at me from inside. On closer inspection it's Nessa who has become trapped in the terminal by the security lady who won't let her out unless I can confirm she is my wife and is meant to be on board the aircraft with me.
Tempting, but in the end I have to relent and they let her out, we pay for the fuel and the Tax d'aterissage, and decide to head directly for Carcassone, which is at the South end of the Massif Centrale, the range of hills crossing France from NE to South. The plan is to slip under the weather there and head round to Avignon. If we struggle we will still have fuel to overnight in Carcassone or come back to Limoges.
The weather is broken clouds and very smooth as we head South, being passed between relaxed French controllers who all speak English. An hour later the weather is so good we decide to try for Avignon instead, so replot on the GPS and turn more South East.

In the UK you can rarely fly above 5,000ft as there are so many Airways above that and we don't think in terms of climbing above weather: this is a mindset that does not apply in France where VMC on top for everyone, not just those with Instrument Ratings, is allowed and the country is sparsely populated.
As the country rises around Aubusson we climb to 4,000ft and then we see the clouds thickening and becoming overcast. We may have to divert to Carcassone after all.
Near Aubusson we are finally facing a solid wall of icy cloud topping out at what looks like 6,500ft. At this point we are under a 4,200ft height restriction under an Active Restricted Zone, so we turn back for a little thought. Some map perusal discloses a route 20 miles to the South where we can climb to FL85 and soon after even higher, so we notify ATC and divert around the edge of the Restricted Zones remaining VMC as the scattered clouds tower above us. 10 minutes later we can turn sharp left and climb to FL85 - suddenly we are on top of an unbroken layer and it's very smooth. We're only 20 miles off course so can reconverge on our original Avignon course.

The cloud tops slowly climb up to meet us until we are occasionally scudding through bits of cloud, which ice up our windscreen and stiffen up the trims. We don't want to stay in there. A bit of left and right around some of the taller stacks gets us finally to the end of the Restricted Zone and we can climb to the limits of the aircraft.
We climb to FL95 then FL100 which is where the climb performance of the aircraft becomes a little restricted, but the clouds are now well below us. This is a much better way of coping with weather. I wouldn't want to stay much above FL100 without oxygen, but it's not like we're running marathons up here: more like sitting in a warm cabin eating Alpen bars because the restaurant at Dinard was closed. Occasional holes in the clouds reveal high, snowy, rocky ground below: not a good engine failure scenario.

We have a 50Kt tailwind so we're seeing ground speeds of 165-170Kts and the clouds ahead are slowly going down so we should be OK, although we are starting to see the sun sinking and as Carpentras have no lights we may divert in to Avignon, who do have lights.

70 miles from Avignon the clouds suddenly stop and we're flying over clear ground, taking to Orange control who clear us to descend direct to Avignon. Frustratingly, if we had gone direct from Dinard it would have shaved half an hour off the journey and we would have had more light to play with - as it is I make the "non bold" decision to land at Avignon. We join Downwind left hand for runway 35, turn over the river and drop gently on to the windless runway, turn off and park up.
We've arrived. And our drinking bottles are all squished up with the pressure.

In fact there is plenty of light and we could have gone to Carpentras but just occasionally discretion is the better part of valour. We can always move it tomorrow.

So that's a few records broken: longest flight (3hrs 40 mins), first internal French flight and highest flight (by a very long way). It's all good envelope-stretching stuff.

It's 24 hours later and the Mistral has been blowing at 60Kts all day (there's a good reason all the runways in Provence are oriented North-South) but the guys at Carpentras reckon it will calm down around 4.00pm so we borrow a Carpentras resident who is an Alouette helicopter pilot with 3100hrs and not a single word of English to give us a hand and head off for Avignon airport once more in our rented diesel Twingo.
He smooths the way through the procedures at Avignon (€34 for landing and a night's parking) until we meet an officious woman Security officer at the main gate who demands passport, pilot's licence etc etc before simply abandoning us to the entire apron. Oh well, she's only doing her job.
The Mistral has not budged Tango Golf despite having nothing to tie it down to the previous night, so we pre-flight and start up. There is still 20 Gallons on board and Carpentras is 10 mins away so we'll be OK for fuel.
With the mad Frenchman talking nineteen to the dozen from the other side of the cabin plus badly-accented ATC the intercom is all pandemonium. Plus he is making random stabs at the rudder as we taxy, drawing flap retraction diagrams on a pad of paper and trying to get me to do power-checks on the stand in front of a non-tied down Partenavia P68 who I'm sure would really enjoy being blown about....
Trying not to get too distracted I taxy, power check and line-up. Take off is smooth until we hit 500ft at which point it gets a bit rough, and we head off for Carpentras which hoves in to view 5 minutes later. We join Downwind ("vent arrière") for 31, turn base ("Base") then Final ("Finale") and yes, the wind has dropped so we can drop on fast with only 10° flap and roll out, backtrack, exit the runway ("Piste dégagée") and taxy in to park behind the trees for some wind protection.
That wasn't so hard.

More VMC on top
We've had 5 days of wonderful food, great wine, sightseeing and comfortable hotels, but now, sadly, we must return home.

There is a weather system over central France clearing slowly to the South, very similar to last week's weather, so we'll do broadly the same journey in reverse but this time we will stop in Limoges where they have a better restaurant.

There is a big French military exercise using all the restricted Zones over the Massif Central so we have to go South towards Carcassone to stay clear then loop around to head North West, which is OK but now we have a punishing headwind. We can drop down the other side at Limoges, Poitiers or if it's really bad, at La Rochelle.

It's beautifully clear and wind-free as we extract TG from the trees, push it over to the pumps and fuel-up: we'll need all that Avgas.
Today there is no Mistral: it's quiet, early and very cold. We scrape the ice off the wings (the 50L of de-icer I have bought is sitting waiting for me at home having arrived too late for this trip!), pack the Christmas shopping bags and us in, and take off, flying around to Chateau Unang first for pictures (where it's very gusty), then departing West in bright sunshine. We can see the Med glinting off to our left.
Orange clear us to 6,500ft and the bank of cloud that is the front slowly nears us. At 6,500ft we are only just above the clouds and with a ground speed now of only 86Kts it takes ages to reach the end of the Restricted Zone at which point we can finally climb to FL85, well above the weather and in the blue sky again.
We have to divert 20 miles to the South West to avoid a big NOTAM'd Restricted Zone due to the military exercise. As we finish skirting around the edge and rejoin our original course the controller calls us to tell us the exercise is now over. Typical! I laugh out loud and forget that the transmit switch is still pressed, which elicits a curt response: "well, Tango Golf, I'm glad you found 'zat amusing".
The temptation to quote " 'Allo 'Allo " and say "I will say 'zis only once" is very strong.....

As we plug NW we discuss whether Limoges or Poitiers is the best lunch stop, and when Rodez control passes us on to Limoges we ask for a weather check. At present they continue to be fogged-in, so we decide "Poitiers" but a few minutes later their cloud begins to break and they tell us they are now marginal VFR.
I can see the ground through a hole, so we spiral all the way down to 1,000ft and point towards the field, at which point we are visual with the ground but not with the airport, until it suddenly appears and we call 4 mile Final for 03 and plop on to the long, wet runway in clearing weather for lunch and fuel.
Of course this being France everyone is at lunch, so we join in and head for the terminal where we are shepherded through Security and the waiting RyanAir queue to the office where we have to pay.... all of €5.13 Landing Fee.
I like flying in France.
A couple of differences are evident, compared with flying in the UK:
The Transition Altitude (where you change from flying on an often incorrect barometric pressure relative to either the local ground: QFE; or the Mean Sea Level: QNH, to an International Standard of 1013.25 HectoPascals [29.92" of Mercury in America]) is 5,000ft, whereas in the UK it was 3,000ft and is now 6,000ft. From my researches it seems to be 5,000ft all over Europe, so typically the UK is once more out of step (also see electrical plugs, which side of the road to drive on, and digital radio standards, but I digress).
In the UK a request to ATC for a "Basic" or "Flight Information" service usually meets with an immediate request to "pass your message" or "tell them about yourselves" at which point there is a standard list of information you pass. However in France the request is usually answered with a squawk setting and only once they know where you are do they ask for your details, which is easier becasue they already know where you are, how high you are and in what direction you are heading, so you don't have to woffle on about it. Aircraft type, PoB, source and destination are all they need, which reduces the time spent on the radio drastically. A Wise Idea.

Take the Long Way Home
Having fuelled both ourselves and the aircraft, filed a flightplan in the Aero Club and checked the weather (CAVOK all the way to Oxford) and (we discover much later) leave my iPhone on the bar, we start up and ask for taxy.

The controller has had too much lunch: he warns us first of the Military exercise which is a) South of us and b) over, according to Rodez, then he has no record of our flight plan (which I know I filed 20 mins before).
So we shut down and wait.
And wait.
At length we ask Tower if they have our Flight Plan: Oh yes, they have. They just haven't bothered to tell us.

So we start up, taxy to the end of the runway and depart, climbing to 3,000ft in the afternoon sunshine. France is beautiful to fly over: villages, fields and rivers pass slowly: ah, we still have a headwind. Although we are now at least making 115Kts over the ground France is a big country and it will take us 3½hrs to get home.

Eventually a layer of broken clouds appear and we climb to 5,000ft on top where it is smoother (I've got in to the swing of being on top now) and grind North towards the Channel.
By the time we finally do reach the coast the light is fading, so all the lights go On. At this point we have had issues with the Low Voltage light coming on but no, it's fine, and the ammeter is charging.
We ask for the status of Danger Area D036 once more, but the French Controllers want us to speak to London Info, who promptly tell us that the Danger Area is Active with Live Firing to 23,000ft.
"London Info, Wait One"....

We have three options: request a Special VFR Transit of the Airway to the West of the DZ, drop to below 3,500ft and fly below the Airway, or there is a narrow corridor to the West between the DZ and the Airway. That works for us.

So now we're about to cross the Channel at night, in December, in a single-engined aircraft, off the main VFR route. This is somewhat outside even my comfort zone, even if there is a ferry we can ditch in front of and at 5,000ft can glide quite a long way.

It's nail-biting time as we head out over the dark water, first North West then North East as we clear the edge of the DZ. Engine T's & P's get a lot of checking, but slowly the lights of Southampton appear and before long we are within gliding distance of something solid, so swap to Solent and ask for a SAM Transit. Phew....
Solent ask us if we can accept an IFR Transit: well, yes we damned well can now we're back in Good Old Blighty. Re-check the VOR ID, ensure we are absolutely spot on 5000ft and fly in.
Solent spit us out heading for Compton, we descend to 4000ft and we can see Oxford in the distance. Just got to get home now.
Join Right Base for 01, turn Final and turn the landing light on, which does trigger the Low Voltage Light (well I don't care now...), descend and flare, touch down with a bit of a bump, and we've Done It.

We have proven that flying to the South of France in a Cessna 182 is not hard, but needs careful planning and a smattering of French.
I reckon I have used just about every bit of training I have had (well done Oxford!) and it has, as I expected, tested me in ways I couldn't have imagined when first planning it.
We certainly did use the free WiFi in the hotel to massive advantage and the Green/amber/red VFR/marginal/IFR lights in SkyDemon, both on the PC and on the Ipad are fantastic, the iPad is a really good back-up GPS and the battery lasts a long time if you turn the brightness down.
Meteo France is very good weather site and the French AIP gives daily AZBA (low level route) maps.
But what will I do differently the next time?

The flight down, with tailwind but also with a Southerly kink, took 5hrs 40 mins.
The flight back, with headwind and a more Southerly kink, took 7hrs 5 mins.

We should have planned a more direct route: Oxford to Avignon is 4hrs 15 with a bit of tailwind which is just within the fuel range of the aircraft but leaves no reserves, so realistically you want to break it in the middle at around Orleans or similar.
Knowing the weather was bad over the centre of the country we should simply have planned to fly over the top of it at FL100 or even higher, which with a bit of careful planning is entirely possible: you just need to plan your half way point to be "VFR" for the approach, kind of....
This trip has revolutionised my flight planning thinking: in Europe it is possible to get on top of the weather and although it does make the journey less interesting at elast you actually get there...

Fuel consumption turned out to be 13 US Gallons per hour, which is spot-on book value. The aircraft has 74 usable US Gallons of fuel on board, so has a range of 5.69hrs: more than my bladder.

A word on navigation equipment. We used 3 separate GPS units:
- A Garmin 296 with external aerial attached to the windscreen (it won't work any more with the stub aerial and is temperamental about starting up now it's a few years old)
- An iPad running SkyDemon software, using the iPad's internal GPS aerial
- An Aware box with French maps loaded
We had a 1:100,000 French paper map with our route on it as well. We had VORs marked on the chart and did a cross-check every 50-100 miles. We could have VOR-crawled but frankly life is too short and this is 2012: GPS tools are simply better. We could have got home on VORs alone if necessary had all the GPS boxes failed, but actually (don't shout too loud) they're not that accurate....
Visual nav: map and stopwatch? All French towns look the same: some have rivers and some don't; we were VMC on top a lot of the time so couldn't see, and turn-time-distance with a 50Kt quartering tailwind that varied with height? We could have been in Germany, Italy or Spain for all we would have known...
SkyDemon on the iPad was undoubtedly the star of the show: we generated routes and vertical profiles in SkyDemon on the PC, saved them "to cloud" and loaded them "from cloud" on the iPad. Ensuring we had already "found plates" on the iPad before departure via WiFi allowed us to access the plates en route. We had all the expected airfield plates printed out but Poitiers we only had on the iPad.
Skydemon features are here.
Being tight, we "generated" the flight plan in SkyDemon then copied and pasted the route in to AFPex, which we preloaded and stored before needing to file. We filed at Oxford via my laptop and Ops' WiFi and at Limoges via the Aero Club PC. AFPex is free, whereas SkyDemon charge for flight plans.
We also had an iPhone with data roaming turned on and Hot Spot mode available for if there was no WiFi for AFPex or the SIM-less iPad.
We found it was simplest to check the weather via SkyDemon on the iPad, because it gave you a simple green/amber/red airfield-by-airfield weather report that could be drilled down in to, and also for height planning it shows the traffic zones (green for anything not requiring a IR) and Restricted Zones (red). This makes flight-planning accurate and easy.
We then loaded the routes "to cloud", opened them "from cloud" on the laptop then exported them to the Garmin via USB.
You then press the "Go Flying" button and for £80 a year it does everything the £850 Garmin 296 does, but with a bigger screen. The iPad will also go literally all day on its internal battery provided you turn the brightness down a fair amount (it's still very readable).
It will even, staggeringly, provide georeferenced airfield plates and the compass rose at the bottom pulls out to be a working HSI. Tea-making facilities are promised in the next release and shaking the iPad I am convinced produces a faint but distinct sound of rattling Kitchen Sink...
The only issue we had was that SkyDemon runs on Zulu time whereas the clock on the top of the iPad shows local time. This confused me for a while on the return journey until I realised.
I have had issues before with the internal GPS aerial dropping out but this time it worked absolutely flawlessly the entire time.
Considering Tim Dawson was dead against writing SkyDemon for the iPad at one point (when we exchanged e-mails he was set on a bespoke tablet) they have made a damned good job of it.

The Aware box worked well but has limited route planning ability and the battery lasts only an hour or so. Still: it's a great backup.

And so that's the end of 2012.