The Ballards - Syndicate year 3


Welcome to 2013
The weather has been awful with snow and rain, and more rain for what seems like forever. My flying fund has been somewhat diminished by our France trip so I have laid off the aviation for a couple of months. But today it looks like the weather might play ball, the aircraft is free and all the jobs are done: time to play.
I love the smell of the aircraft when you peel the cover off and first open the door: that mixture of vinyl and cold AvGas, of potential adventure, and a frisson of "can I remember how to do this?"
The gentle reassuring rhythm of an unhurried pre-flight check, working calmly through the familiar checklist, the climb-in and strap-in, the pre-start checks, the look around, the "clear prop" and whirr of the starter that shatters the silence until the rumble of the engine is muted by the headphones and the noise-cancellation, that "I've gone deaf" moment. Then the click-hiss from switching on the radio and a random half of the current ATIS transmission: "...QNH 1022, on initial contact report QNH and information Mike received..." that is as reassuring as the Radio 4 shipping forecast.
Now: assemble thoughts for the Tower and initiate radio: by gum, they're busy today. For a seemingly quiet airfield there's a hell of a lot of traffic going on. Like driving, it's always good to have an idea of where everyone is and you can get a good idea from their radio calls, so you end up with a mental picture of quite a surprisingly large number of aircraft in the vicinity.
Once everything has warmed up a bit we move off and taxy for power-checks up to the 11/29 runway, which has a sufficiently dodgy surface at the moment to be closed for landings and take-offs. I wonder if they'll mend and reinstate it? I sometimes think the smaller planes are the only ones that use it as a runway as the larger ones and the jets don't have the same crosswind sensitivities. Maybe it will be permanently out of action, like the old 21/03 grass runway (good for grass learning if nothing else).
We wait for ages at the Hold for landing aircraft, a couple of which I think we could have nipped out in front of, but they are Duty bound to give priority to landing aircraft and I respect that. If I'd pulled out to take off then stalled or had a puncture they'd have had to go around and maybe they wouldn't have been able to.
Line up, SPLAT-check and open her up. She hasn't been flown for a couple of weeks so double-check Ts&Ps, ease her off the ground at 65Kts and mentally keep a note of where you're going if the engine falters: ....there.... over there..... up to 500ft when you can throttle back and wind the prop back for some noise abatement and to reduce the stress on the engine. Left turn and climb out of the circuit heading East for a gentle bimble.
We'll swap to Benson as we're going to be in their MATZ for a while, but Approach, Tower and Zone are unresponsive so we'll monitor Zone, avoid their ATZ and swing up to the Stokenchurch mast before heading South low along the edge of the Chilterns to take some pictures. It's always useful to cross-check the yellow terrain warning signals from the Garmin GPS against how low you actually are. Yellow means "you're OK but it's dodgy: don't go any lower". Red means "Climb. Now."
We photograph our friend's house South of Watlington and continue on South: I've never flown down here before. We can see Chalgrove and then Benson on our right and we keep a close eye out for helicopters just in case before turning near Wallingford and heading for Didcot and the massive cooling towers belching steam (and turbulence) into the atmosphere.
It's really smooth today and anywhere near a water course is flooded. The news may not show it but there are still plenty of houses flooded everywhere. I had no idea it was still this bad.
Passing Didcot we head for a friend's house for some photos: a couple of low passes should do it, whilst avoiding the Abingdon Grobs that turn over our house. Back North, a quick pass over the house to ensure it's still there (the new terrace looks nice) and we'll climb above the Grob circuit height to keep out of their way and head for the Brize zone corner and a rejoin for Oxford, who are massively busy for some reason. Barely able to get a word in edgeways we are asked to report at 4.0 miles which I think we can do.
Oxford glistens in the sunshine as we descend over the massively flooded Port Meadow for a Downwind Join for 19. The radio is hugely busy as they try to slot everyone in including a PFT PA28 whose engine has stalled on the taxyway and the pilots are pushing it off on to the apron.
Once established Downwind we're asked to report ready to turn Base as they are busy but we can't extend because Weston is Active so we may have to orbit, then we're no 2 to a C182 turning Final so we'll slow down and give him a bit of room, turn Final as he touches and goes and establish a stable approach. Winds are calm, it's smooth and I aim for a third of the way down the runway and round out for......a smooth landing. Ah, after 2 months I haven't lost the knack.
What a nice afternoon bimble. Now: Barcelona, anyone?

Spring is (finally) here
After a long cold and miserable winter, a nice Spring day finally appears and its time to take Alice's boyfriend Kieran for a spin.
We'll do a solo circuit first just for currency and to ensure the wind is not making the flight too bouncy. Having cancelled last week's trip because the winds were up to 35Kts albeit right down the runway, I'm keen we don't scare the passengers. Given what happens later, this now appears somewhat ironic....
This goes well, everything is settled and a nice landing ensues. Half tanks at the pumps for W&B, load up the passengers and off we go. We have about 4 hours endurance which should see us around the Isle of Wight and back via Compton Abbas.
We tour Oxford, Watlington and Henley before heading South, getting a MATZ Transit through Odiham, avoiding the gliders at Lasham and coasting out over Pompey, descending around some scattered clouds at 2,000ft and flying around the South Coast of the Isle of Wight at around 1,500ft up to The Needles. The weather is warmer down here and it's very smooth over the water as we swap to Bournemouth and head West for Sandbanks, around the edge of the Bournemouth Zone and up to Compton Abbas.
Compton Abbas are surprisingly close to the North side of Bournemouth's Zone and by the time we have swapped radios we are almost overhead. They are 26 RH, so we'll slow, give the approach plenty of room as it is quite critical we are down and the wing is not flying before the runway gets bumpy in the middle, come in nice and low over the trees then down on the non-bumpy section. It gets bumpy as we slow, but I've dumped the flaps now and we park up for a cup of tea. Nice place, Compton Abbas: very friendly.

This is what we practise for...
Depart Compton Abbas over the bumpy taxyway, quick mental recheck of the fuel state: 2½hrs left and it's 40 mins home, so that's OK. We're the last plane out before they close, so we enter the runway and give it 10deg flaps, bounce along the bumpy bit which keeps bouncing us in to the air, accept the final bounce and we climb away over the sudden drop at the end before turning North, cleaning up the flap and heading home.
We head North around the Salisbury Plain Danger Zone, past Lyneham and Swindon then head for Faringdon at 2,500ft VFR. And this is where the trouble starts.....
I have previously noticed occasional in-flight engine surges and when it does so I am not overly concerned, but it gets worse so I apply carb heat, then richen the mixture and finally bring up the prop to try to restore full power, but it's clearly unhappy about something.
A Left to Right check goes: Mags (OK, try L and R but no change), fuel (try Both, Left and Right), carb heat, prop, mixture.
No. And we're losing height.
So just like doing a PFL, we tell Oxford we have an engine failure, tell them where we are going to land and how many people on board, then shut up and find a field. They are convinced we can make it back to Oxford, but that isn't going to happen, not from this height.
Several fields look OK, we turn downwind then come round for an approach in to what looks like a good into-wind long field. But I am still a bit high and out of my right window I can see just a tad further away a field that's not into wind but is invitingly long, so a careful turn, allowing the aircraft to descend in to the turn so as not to stall it, don't stretch the glide, then I've got acres of field in front of me, we're over the road and the last hedge, the speed is 60Kts so let it come down nice and gently, yoke back, look at the end of the field, yoke right back, squeeze as much speed as possible off, just before we touch the stall warner blasts and we touch.... touch.... and roll. No need for brakes, we'll stop soon enough, this is a ploughed field, keep the yoke all the way back to keep the load off the nosewheel, then we're slowing and..... we roll to a stop.
"Everyone out. Now."
We repair to a safe distance but nothing is alight, the aircraft is fine and it looks just as though we've popped in for a picnic.
So I go back, turn off the fuel and everything else I should have turned off before the landing (doh!), remember I should have used some flaps (too late now), and ring Oxford Tower to tell them we're OK.
Well: Thank You PFT for some damned good training.
The Fire Brigade turns up mob-handed 10 minutes later: we get 10 vehicles, which is impressive. They are a little disappointed we are the right way up and not smouldering, but in a nice way, and help us get out of the field. We even get the Police helicopter, who later send us some great aerial shots of our landing roll.

...and after the storm, the calm...
It has been exactly 2 months since my visit to the field, and during that time the aircraft has been inspected in the field (we had had an engine fire), towed out by the farmer, stripped of its wings by AirMed and carried ingloriously back to Oxford on the back of a low-loader, had the carburettor repaired, a major Cessna wing spar inspection and a prop inspection resulting in 3 new prop blades. It is now repaired and polished, sitting on the grass and ready to fly once more.
Yes, I'm nervous, but I need to get back on the horse. Pete will come with me and we will go for a local flight together.
After a very thorough A check, especially of the fuel system (!) we start up. The serviced prop hub and new prop blades have been freshly balanced and the whole system feels smoother and quieter immediately. We backtrack 01, turn round and take off. I'm watching the ground for likely fields if anything happens but the engine is reassuringly smooth and powerful and before long we are heading North West for a quiet bimble around the countryside. This does feel OK after all.
After 40 minutes we head back and get a straight in approach for 19: we're a bit high and my approach is a little untidy but by the time we're fighting the lumps and bumps from the crosswind over the trees on Final we're in the right place and I drop it gently on with no drama and we roll out for a cold, well deserved beer.
I do now feel I have put the forced landing behind me, but it has been a salutary experience. We could all have died: in flames or by drowning. The old saying "there are old pilots and bold pilots but no old, bold pilots" is very true, and I shall certainly take even more care in future to ensure increased margins of error. I am beginning to understand incident pits.

RIAT diversions
We want to go to Dunkeswell for lunch, but the direct route is blocked by the most ridiculously huge Restricted Area caused by the International Air Tattoo at Fairford, which is happening this weekend but not, please note, today. So a few military planes will be arriving and taking off, but this apparently means a huge circular No Go Zone covering most of Oxfordshire and Wiltshire. Ludicrous.
We work out we have enough fuel, start up and depart South heading for Compton, climbing out over Oxford for 3,00ft and within a few minutes change to Brize to make absolutely sure they (as controlling Radio for Fairford) know where we are and where we're headed. We are not busting any Zones today.
Overhead Compton, as the DME drops to less than 1 mile and the needle starts to swing, we turn for Trowbridge and watch the DME start to climb again. Good practise.
Swap to Boscombe Down, then turn at Trowbridge, report abeam Frome and Boscombe swap us to Yeovilton who in turn swap us to Dunkeswell as we descend in to their circuit. At which point I have a brainstorm and misread their "08 right hand circuit" for a left hand circuit and go the wrong way around, whcih is pretty dumb, but I then compound it by fluffing the flare and bouncing sufficiently high to warrant a go-around, which may look like an intentional touch and go from the ground but isn't.... Come on Ballard, sort yourself out!
Eventually we settle in to a proper approach, a decent flare and a smooth arrival, but I haven't done that for a very long time. Need more practise, I think!

And home...
After a beautiful Brie baguette (you always get a good lunch at Dunkeswell) we re-dip the tanks (I'm paranoid about fuel) and the left tank is completely empty, so we know the dreaded Cessna 182 cross-feed issue still exists and taxy, leading the parachutists' aircraft out and backtracking short to allow them to pass - they need all the runway but we need about a third of it. One short-field take off later we're at 500ft before the end of the runway and climbing out straight ahead for Frome.

I never tire of looking at the patterns of human habitation on the ground from the air. You can tell a lot about an area from the air - mines, housing estates and railway junctions just look a lot more exciting from above.

Returning via Trowbridge Boscombe query us on our route back as there are many gilders on our planned route, and having explained our detour via Compton for RIAT reasons the helpful controller liaises with Brize to try to get us a more direct route back. He swaps us to Brize who unfortunately fail to pick up the ball to give us a route through the RA(T).
They simply advise us of multiple gliding contacts in our vicinity near Compton, but we only see one who is a fair way away.
Before long we are descending over the now de-commisioned cooling towers at Didcot and liaising with Oxford for a VFR recovery. They are too busy to take us so we have a bimble around Oxford at 2,000ft for a while then join right base for 01 and a considerably better approach and landing than at Dunkeswell.

It's all about confidence
There is no doubt that having to land the aircraft in the field has affected my confidence: it has left lingering doubts concerning my ability to fly safely longer-term. But more specifically it has affected my desire to fly at all, so I need to do something about it. The whole "confidence in your ability to fly safely" thing is very important.
We have a long-standing appointment to fly to Scotland this weekend and I'm dreading it - I keep thinking of things that could go wrong, especially visions of over-running the runway at Kingsmuir. Some medicine in the form of a really well-run trip is in order.
Wellesbourne do an "all you can eat" circuits landing fee during the week, so I will take advantage of that and bash some circuits specifically on my own so I can say that any mistakes I make are mine and mine alone.
Taking-off from Oxford is easy, but this is summer and as the thermals make the aircraft surge I am, for the first time in a very long time, a little frightened. What happens if the engine dies again? Or the wings fall off? I do need to work this through, most definitely...
Descending dead-side for Wellesbourne I join overhead the take-off numbers on 36 at a bumpy 1,000ft and turn in to the circuit, descend on Final and manage to use up almost the entire runway to land in. Is my eye not in or what? I'm ashamed of my landings, not for the first time.
Up to the tower to pay my "Super-size Me / all you can eat" landing fee, grab a couple of bottles of water as it's a hot day, and go circuit-bashing.
There is very little wind at all, and I think part of the problem is the aircraft floating in the flare. It just won't land where I want it to, and when I do touch it skips before settling. Adding power to take off we swerve about because I don't put enough rudder in, then manage to dump all the flaps at 300ft leaving me fighting to keep the aircraft in the air at all. Ugh, this is a mess, and why I came out on my own and to a foreign airfield so no one can see me.
After a couple of improving touch-and-go's and a long glug of water I decide to try some short-field landings with all the flap down instead and immediately it's better: I have more time on the approach, the aircraft will sink properly without huge manipulations of the throttle and it's flaring better. I actually do a couple of decent landings on the numbers (one actually on the run-up strip with the stall-warner blaring: wheee!) and handle the climb-out properly, so try going even lower and slower which works even better. Now I can reliably flare over the numbers, touch better (eyes DOWN the runway!) and roll out more smoothly. And most importantly, I am starting to enjoy it.
And indeed, by the last touch and go I am humming to myself again, we've beaten the beast in to submission once more and my confidence is back. I climb out, say goodbye to Wellesbourne, ride the bumpy thermals I now don't care about and turn for home where, because it's after 4.00pm everything is quieter and I can get a straight-in for 19 which I can do quite happily on the ILS at 120Kts as Oxford Radar will handle any opposing traffic. Steer left, steer left, cut the corner as it's coming-in, fly through it just a touch so come back on it, catch the glideslope from below, push a touch to follow the slope then trim, follow the ball down, report 4d and look up at 1,000ft.... ooh look, there's the runway with 2 whites and 2 reds. Change nothing, that's the rule if you're on course.
Flip the flaps all the way down, slow the aircraft to 65Kts, fight the thermals on the way down, flare on the numbers and arrive gently, kill the lift by flicking the flaps up, keep the speed up as there is another aircraft behind me and vacate at the end.
Well, that's much better. A trouble-free trip, I did nothing stupid and I am confident I can handle the various strips involved in the Scotland itinerary.

Blackpool Tower
A few months ago we had a weekend in Blackpool and went up the famous tower. At the time I wondered what the tower would look like from the air, so today we will find out.
I'm keen to make everything in the aircraft work properly: I have rewired my GPS charger lead to stop it blowing the fag-lighter fuse, and at last it does work properly, but just at the point we think everything is perfect, the EGT gauge fails. Oh well, I'll just have to lean by ear, then.
There are a number of ways up to Scotland from Oxford that fall in to 3 categories: East coast, West coast, and today's choice of "up the middle". Most people don't go this way because there is a stupid little bit of low level Airway over The Penines between Leeds and Manchester left over from when airliners took an age to climb out from airports. A performance-based review of the climb out profiles of all airliners currently in use (currently in progress under the CAA's Future Airspace Project) should raise the floors of all these Airways drastically, but I digress.... it's a nice day, so we'll slip beneath it, or failing that get a Zone Transit through it. Going over may be a struggle in a C182, it goes up to FL195....
This works well (everywhere is deathly quiet, it being a Friday in August) and we get a close-up vew of the Manchester/Liverpool water storage project that is The Penines. Every valley is dammed (damned?) and some are looking a little empty. Liverpudlians, lay off the baths!

Before long we cross the M62, then suddenly we are North of the Manchester Zone and turning West for Warton. A little negotiation with Warton and then with Blackpool Approach, who need to coordinate the arrival of a BAE146, gets us clearance to proceed to the Pleasure beach at 1000ft, then down the front at 500ft. The tower is 518ft tall and as long as we stay 1000ft away we can quite legally (and safely: engine failure means we just land on the beach...) trundle up the front at 90Kts below the top of the tower.

Climb out and accelerate away over Fleetwood humming the bass line from "The Chain" (Fleetwood Mac, you see. Well, you need to be a child of the '70s....), then North over Morecambe Bay and follow the M6 up to Tebay, where a relative builds European-spec Airstream caravans, for some photos.
I'd like to see what the Lake District looks like from the air, so we turn West and head for Keswick, where the hills are big (and have their heads in the cloud) and the lakes are picturesque. It doesn't look it, but North West Cumbria is one of the most economically-deprived areas in the UK.

Heading North East London Info swap us to Scottish Info, who monitor us as we climb up to Galashiels and round the corner of the Edinburgh Zone for North Berwick. The sky is empty but for us and a Spitfire, and as we head East the weather brightens until we are in sunshine as we near the coast, swap to Leuchars for a LARS service over the Forth, coast out over North Berwick, and begin our descent.
As we have been in to Kingsmuir before I think we can get away without a low pass, so we'll join left base and drop down over the fields, slow it down and flare over the boundary, hold it off, touch... and bloody well bounce before it settles and we stop having used less than half of the grass runway.
Backtrack and park up, and that's Scotland.

The Great Glen
One of the reasons for this Scottish trip was to do some exploring in the Highlands, but I am very aware that this is potentially dangerous in terms of us flying in to a mountainside, so have spent a lot of time researching how to do this safely. The considered opinion seems to be:
- You must remain VMC (but see below)
- You must retain 1000ft horizontal and 500ft vertical clearance
- Take a terrain-aware GPS and use it
- Fly on one side of the valley to allow yourself room to turn around if you have to
- Fly slowly to reduce the turn radius, and don't be afraid to drop a stage of flap to reduce the stall speed for added safety
- In the event of the weather worsening to the point where you are liable to go IMC, turn to a heading where the ground is descending and perform a max rate IMC climb to above MSA, then reconsider.

We have a plan that has involved a lot of drawing of lines on my big CAA Scottish map: we'll do some photography over St Andrews, go to Fife for petrol, head West through the glens to Oban, turn right and go up the Great Glen over Loch Lochy and Loch Ness towards Inverness, then left up in to The Highlands and across to the isle of Skye, then down the coast to Mull for lunch at the Glenforsa Hotel. Should be fun...
I have some concerns about the weather: the West coast weather can be very different from the East coast, and although the forecast is for light scattered showers, I know this can change. If we are going to go genuine IMC in rain I don't want to be below MSA: there are big lumps of Cumulus Graniticus out there that can ruin your entire day.

Scotland is windy and today is no exception. The windsock at Kingsmuir is out straight and the winds at Fife are forecast 18G25Kts, but straight down the runway. We phone Leuchars and ask for permission to enter their ATZ and wing around St Andrews for a while: the last time we came up they were too busy but this morning they are happy for us to intrude, so we load up with 4 adults, power-check in the parking slot, swing out on to the runway and accelerate in to wind.
To say we use half the runway to take-off would be an exaggeration: we are off the ground in probably 200m with 20° flap, way above the trees and within seconds can see the whole of the East Neuk of Fife and St Andrews, so we level out at 500ft, contact Leuchars and swing in to St Andrews, covering the distance that takes 20 minutes by car in 2-3 minutes.
The world looks so small from 1000ft: what can take 30 minutes by country road can be seen immediately and flown to in 5 minutes. It quite distorts your mental view of the country.

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews glistens in the morning sunshine and everyone looks up as we circle at 1,000ft.
Then we depart Westbound for Fife, who state "Strict PPR" on their airfield information because you can't do a straight-in approach over Glenrothes for their runway 25: instead the most fun approach in the world is a curved approach over the golf course. Hard to judge well and it's bumpy but for once the Landing Gods favour us and I drop it on the numbers and roll out, barely having to backtrack for the exit to the pumps.
Just as well, because the owner of a beautiful Tiger Moth is also at the pumps watching. He has flown it to Australia in the past and has just brought it back from Sebastopol and is going flying (if they have any AvGas left after filling up a very thirsty C182). While the kind pumpmeister fills TG up we watch a PA28 float all the way down the runway, only touching down in the last third before heavy braking and backtracking. We've all done it....

We watch The Moth depart with a little jealousy, but a C182 is a more capable beast for where we're going. He's impressed we're off up The Great Glen, and reckons it should be fun.
A heavy bit of Visa card-bending later we're lined-up. Nessa reckons it looks short, but although we are 4-up with full-tanks and thus a few lbs over MAUW we have a 25Kt headwind and we're off by half-way down the runway and at 300ft by the end of he tarmac, climbing out over the wind farm and Loch Leven.
As we head West the landscape becomes wilder and greener, and soon we are weaving in and out of the glens. The valleys narrow as we head for Oban and we climb to maintain terrain clearance, then pop over the top and down Loch Awe and Loch Etive for Oban, the weather worsening as we go until we are in rain showers as we pass through Oban's ATZ and turn North for Loch Linhe and Fort William.
We descend to 1,000ft over the water, and the weather improves as we pass over the Caledonian Canal, which is surprisingly big, and up in to Loch Lochy, then further up to Loch Ness. This is worth seeing, and there is no other traffic at all.
There are boats on the Lochs and slow caravans and coaches wending their way along the undeveloped roads; we are definitely having the best experience.

As we approach Inverness we climb out of the trough and head North, then West for The Highlands, losing radio coverage from Scottish Info as we do so. The ground gets higher and more remote, the hills bigger and the glens bigger, which makes flying easier. We fly over increasingly rugged terrain and the weather worsens as the valley widens down towards Skye until we are intermittently IMC in showers.
At one point we go the wrong way up a valley and have to turn around, so I get right over to one side, then slow to 90Kts and go round gently, resisting the urge to tighten the turn as the valley walls loom up, but we're round with miles to spare.

As we coast out past the Skye bridge and Plockton airfield the weather goes really yuck and we decide to go South, but that's completely IMC so we'll go for max climb and check, check, check the map and the terrain clearance on the GPS until we absolutely know we are once more over the sea and drop back down through a hole. From there it is rain showers and sunshine all the way down the coast to Tobermory for a right base join for Glenforsa, where we touch smoothly down on the grass just 10 minutes late for lunch.
And the lunch at The Glenforsa Hotel is worth flying in for!

The kind man who runs the strip at Glenforsa has parked us on a slight nose-down slope and when I dip the oil before starting for home instead of reading 9 Quarts it reads....6. The question is: has it used 3 Quarts of oil in 2hrs? If it has, we have a Big Problem.
A call to the maintainers is no use: they are closed for the weekend. A call to the Chief Engineer at Cumbernauld, however, confirms my suspicions that if we park it on the flat and leave it for 30 mins it will return to normal, so we do, and we also add a can of W80 oil for good measure. He has some spare cans and won't take any money for them: now that's real service.

We take-off and swing around the East end of Mull to photograph Lochbuie where friends of Nessa's uncle live. I'm watching the oil pressure gauge like a hawk: if it drops appreciably below the half way mark I can still glide back in to Glenforsa from here or put it on the beach at Lochbuie. But no, it's OK.
The weather has closed in now and a VFR run back up to Oban is looking increasingly uncertain so we'll take the IMC option and punch up through to fly back on top, so point the aircraft out to sea and pull up for a maximum rate climb in to the clouds.
Once we are above MSA we turn Rate 1 back inland and head East; we don't clear the clouds until 8,000ft then climb to 8,500ft to stay VMC on top. Freezing level is FL90 or above today, so this is not a problem and before long we start seeing holes in the cover so we find a large enough one and drop back down towards the Firth of Forth and home.
Join downind for 24 at Kingsmuir and concentrate on coming in slow and cautious, but we still bounce a bit on the grass, damn it!

Big winds
Sunday dawns bright and clear, with little fluffy white clouds scudding across the sky. Huh, scudding? Yes, Scottish winds are once again forecast to be 18G25Kt at Fife.
Once more, no one is about as we say our goodbyes and take off in to the stiff headwind, with just 2 up we are off in 100m.
I have the video camera working at last (I have had persistent battery problems) hanging from the windscreen, so I hope to do a decent landing. Descending on to the curved approach at Fife we are getting really chucked about by the wind but we just bring it in with 20° flap, get it low and slow and the pre-stall airframe whistle begins as we flare over the numbers and touch with no tremble and no squeak, and without any brakes the headwind slows us so we can easily turn off on to the taxyway 1/3rd of the way down the runway. I have surprised even myself. The nice fuel man is even surprised: they are having a jumble sale in aid of a local charity and many, many people are watching, they all expected fun and games in the wind but were disappointed.

Going home
We have plotted the shortest possible route home as we don't want to hang about, so take off and head out over the Firth of Forth Southbound, climbing over the smooth water to 4,000ft. There is a slight fuel smell but I am hoping this is just because some of the fuel got spilled over the wings in the high winds at Fife, and indeed it does calm down as we head South over Newcastle, Durham Tees Valley and Doncaster to Melton Mowbray and Daventry, then descend East of Oxford to avoid gliders at Bicester and parachutists at Weston on the Green and join downwind for 01RH, slide down the approach and flare. Just as we sink a gust catches the left wing and makes it all look untidy, which is a shame as it was all going so well! You're only as good as your last landing.
We have been followed all the way down by G-ELDR, the Cherokee Six, who has been to Dundee, and I'm a little surprised he didn't overtake us, as he can cruise at 140Kts, but maybe he was just bumbling down at 125Kts like us.

So what did we learn from flying in the Highlands?
Scottish Info radio coverage is patchy and you will be out of their area for long periods: keep them updated when you can of your position and intentions; don't wait for them to ask you.
You need an IMC or you will get stranded if the weather changes.
The weather can be very different on the two coasts, which are not very far apart, and is usually not as forecast.
Even professional pilots fly in to mountainsides in bad weather.
The remoteness, patchy radio coverage, weather and terrain makes for danger, so plan carefully and don't be afraid to turn around. But don't let that prevent you from going - the scenery is worth it.

Family Flying Day (1)
There are many staff at Oxford (and indeed at all airfields) who have to work all day and every day seeing lucky people like us jump in to the very aircraft they have serviced, performed Fire cover for, spoken to on the radio from the Tower, mowed the grass for or driven baggage to, and jet off to sunnier climes or even just over the horizon.
Every day they have wondered what it would be like to actually be in one of those aircraft looking down at the airport from above, and once a year us pilots with aircraft based at Oxford get the chance to thank them by giving them a joyride.
This is an event that has been consistently cancelled because of weather, but this year the weather Gods have smiled upon us and it's a beautiful, if blustery, day in August, with a barbecue; happy, excited families and genial pilots showing-off.
My first couple (David and Amanda) are keen as mustard so I don the Hi-Viz of Authority and load them up. It's important to do the "Captain Speaking" bit, sound and act confident, and ensure they have sick bags to hand. I'll explain what I'm doing and be up front about the "this will turn like a motorbike, not like a car" issue, so they don't scream the first time I drop a wing.
We depart South for Oxford, climb to 2,000ft and head for Abingdon, then Didcot. They ask if it's OK to take pictures.
OK? No, it's obligatory!

Before long we recover back to Oxford, getting very visual with a departing PA-28 climbing out on a reciprocal to us, and as they live in Kidlington I want them to see their house, but they live too close to the airport to stretch my Downwind leg to, although we get pretty close, then it's turn on to Final and fight the lumpy thermals all the way down to the runway. Flare, and even with crab and a bit of wing-down it's a bit untidy. Roll out, back to the apron, and they've had a great time and are keen to go again, so that's OK.

Family Flying Day (2)
It never ceases to amaze me how the airport can be quiet one minute, then absolute pandemonium the next. There are 4 of us ferrying families around and this time I have a frightened 10-year old boy in the P2 seat who has been persuaded to come by his uncle, who is in the back with his Grandfather.
We get up to the Hold and have to wait first for a departing business jet with a posey callsign of "ThunderCat 6" or something....
I'm going to dream up a callsign like that: I'll be "ScaredyPilot 1", I think....
Then a business jet comes down the ILS and at 4 miles a PPL in a PFT PA-28-180 jumps in front of him and calls Final. The Tower gets more irate than I've heard them before (quite understandably) and tells him in no uncertain terms to get lost, so they go around right over our heads. Honestly, amateurs...
After the (normal callsign, no personalised plates and furry dice) business jet lands we get to line-up. I want to do a right turn out but the controller is getting irate about the number of aircraft making non-standard joins over Blenheim Palace, so we'll go out the other way East of Weston-On-The-Green as these guys live West of Banbury.
Departing the melange we climb over Bicester, avoiding the glider launching, and head North. Henry gets a chance to fly the plane, which concentrates his mind on something other than being sick, and he's pretty good; soon we are climbing and descending and his smile is getting broader. One for PFT in a few years, then...
We go in search of their village, which happens to be close to Shennington, where half the word's entire supply of GRP sailplanes have been launched in to our path. We're bigger, but they have right of way, so we stay as clear as we can and soon I can tip it over on to a wingtip to circle their house. Even this doesn't faze Henry, so I get him to fly us back to Banbury and line us up for the ILS. The runway is visible easily from here, so we call in, expecting circuitous routing, but it turns out we are the only traffic in their entire zone at present. Where did everyone go?
More fighting the thermals, right down to the fence, but I'm wise to its tricks now and keep a bit more wing-down right in to the flare, arriving gently and even on the centre-line. Roll out and park up, ready for Steve to take the next family. Apparently Henry's Mother isn't allowed to know he's been up, but I suspect seeing the smile on his face and the number of photos they took, this isn't a secret that is going to be kept that way for long.

Evening sunlight over Oxford
Oxford is one of the most beautiful cities to fly over, partially because it's so small and partly because the University has mandated a homogeneity of style and materials that dominates the look of the city from the air.
Our dear friend Stephanie has come to stay, and we can surprise her with an evening jaunt over the city. One of the (many) advantages of a shared aircraft is the freedom to fly at very short notice: we suggest the flight at 6.00pm (she didn't even know I knew how to fly) and are down at the airport, covers off, "A"- checked, started up and taxying within the hour.
At this time of night the airfield and the sky are deserted: most airfields shut at 5.30pm or 6.00pm so there are few places to fly to, but Oxford staying open until 10.30pm is a huge bonus: we could fly to Wales and back tonight. Also, being evening, there are few thermals and the air feels like smooth water. there are definitely parallels between the way aircraft and boats move through their own medium, and at this time of night it's like rowing a boat down a smooth stream, the hiss of the airflow changing with every control variation. Quite mesmerising, actually.

Stephanie has a little glider experience but no powered aircraft experience, and studied at Oxford, so the view of the Oxford colleges from 1,000ft brings back memories: the evening sunlight glints on the limestone. But then, many cities look better from above: even Newcastle (which Simon Evans refers to as "well, rubble is rubble...") looks appealing from the air.
We head out over Abingdon and circle the house, then circle our friends' house and get them to come out and wave to us before heading over the (soon to be destroyed) Didcot power station cooling towers for a look, then back to Oxford.
Another Tango Golf is asking for a Transit through the overhead, so it's full call-signs as we settle in to a Downwind Join for 19, pop the flaps and turn Final, get a bit of twitch over the fence, then settle for a slightly springy arrival (what is it with landing on long runways at the moment? I keep doing a little bounce whenever I land. Short-field stuff is OK, though. Very annoying).

Shoreham, and don't spare the horses!
We will take our friends James and Annabel down to a party near Worthing today: it's a lot quicker than driving, and far more fun.
It is forecast to be sunny all day, but as I drive down the Cumnor bypass to get the plane ready I can see the whole of Oxford is swathed in thick, white fog. This will eventually clear, but by when?
When I arrive at Kidlington you can't see the runway at all, and I am the only one (idiot?) there. I'd like to do a quick circuit but in reality I'll be lucky to get out on time, let alone have the luxury of a circuit.
So a really good A check, then taxy to the pumps (which the Tower misconstrues as a request to depart. Come on guys, not even I would do that...) for fuel, and by the time I've taxyed back to the main apron and picked up my pax it is clearing and we can depart South, seeing diminishing pools of mist below us as the sun dries it up. It is due to come back tonight, but not until 9.00pm or later. I don't believe this, so I've got an extra 1hr of fuel on board for a couple of missed approaches and a last resort divert to Brize. Well, you never know.
It's really smooth up here, but we're a bit late so we'll take the most direct route possible: CPT - MID - Shoreham. This is virtually a straight line but we must go through Odiham's MATZ and under the London TMA, so must be accurate in navigation and height holding. Annabel is also a first time flyer, so The Full Airliner Experience is required, sick bag and all.
We approach Shoreham and descend for a crosswind join for 20, where we descend almost to the level of the hills before the ground drops away and you have to fight to descend in time for the runway. We arrive at the threshold on speed and in the right place, but bounce it a little on arrival. I thnk I've worked out what's going on: I am not keeping my concentration on the end of the runway, but allowing it to come back to the runway just in front of the aircraft during the flare, and losing my reference point.
Roll out, taxy in, park up and leap out to pick up our lift: we're late, so we'll do the Landing Fee later.

Smoke on the land
A damned good 21st party later we're on the way home. Pay the landing fee and dip the fuel tanks. And what have we here? A fuel cap off and a-dangling? How long has that been like that, then? Did I not quite tighten it when I fuelled? Or did I simply leave it off? Ouch.
The sun is low in the sky as we taxy out following a slow and cautious Cirrus that takes ages to power-check. Unlike Oxford where the power check areas allow overtaking, here everything is narrow and we must wait.
This runway always looks short to me. We're heavy: close to MAUW, and it's warm. But we are at sea level +6ft. I think a short-field take-off is required, so 20° flap and we're away having used only 1/3rd of the runway. What was I worried about? Right turn out over the sea, fly along the coast for a bit, swap back to Farnborough Radar and concentrate on maintaining 2300ft under the London TMA. Farnborough seem quite worried about this; they didn't care at all on the way down, but now they keep questioning it. Weird.
Another Odiham MATZ Transit, avoid the ATZ and pop out over Aldermaston heading for Compton. And the sun is descending, leaving the land dark. A quirk of the dewpoint has any bonfire or chimney smoke rising, then following the ground in long, ghostly trails in the direction of the wind at what seems like ground level and must be very low. Quite beautiful, and a phenomenon I have never seen before.

Back to Oxford Radar overhead Didcot and a long, slow descent to circuit height over Kidlington, report Downwind and no2 to a DA40 who I just can't seem to see until he turns Final and looks a bit too close for comfort. I'll slow down a bit and get a land after. There is so little wind that if I can't do a perfect landing this time I should probably give up. So really concentrate on the end of the runway and squeeze that last little bit of vertical speed out of the last foot.
And that's the way you do it: an imperceptible arrival.
Taxy in, and pack the aircraft away as the sun goes down. Annabel says she loved it, so it can't have been all that bad...

The empty sky
The Met Office has generated a strong wind warning, but is for wind straight down the runway, so whilst it might be rough on climb out and approach we can land it back OK. I want to take Alice's boyfriend Kieran out as the last time I flew him we ended up in a field with a dead engine, and Lucy's new boyfriend wants to have a go at flying. A Saturday morning weather window has the clouds clearing and a couple of hours before the strong wind swings round, so we'll go out.

Having a share-o-plane has to be the most convenient way of doing light aviation, as we can fly or not fly at a moment's Notice, and the costs are under control, but I never lose sight of the fact that it is a tremendous privilege to be able to fly literally anywhere pretty much on a whim, really. Yes, there is a fair amount of responsibility involved, but carefully planned it need not be overly dangerous or costly.
My friend Simon has an iPad Mini with Airbox Panda on it (a souped-up version of Airbox Runway HD) and it's even better than SkyDemon: it has proper CAA charts. I can feel my head beginning to turn.... All it needs is geo-referenced IFR appoach charts and it would be a serious contender.
The strong wind warning has emptied the skies this morning, so when we depart the radio is dead but for us. It's very bright but a bit rough as we swing across North Oxford, then down past the Kassam Stadium and across to Abingdon, where the little Abingdon planes are flying (they are keen, these boys!), watching one of them land crabbed like crazy (I'll bet that was interesting: these are tailwheel Grobs), round their ATZ for a low flypast round the house, over to Wantage for some photos, then climb past the little fluffy clouds for some smoother air over Didcot.
3,500ft sees us in smooth-as-silk air so Tom can fly it for a while, which he is very good at (maybe I can persuade him to do this, rather than football....), and then we return back North towards Oxford, descend through a few fluffy cloudlets and roll out Downwind for 19, which with a 30Kt tailwind is a blur of BUMMFTCH then turn before we fly in to Weston's Active Danger Area, slow and pop the flaps, roll Final and battle the lumps 'n bumps down to flare height, then concentrate on focusing on the end of the runway, which results in a very smooth and short arrival in a 19Kt headwind. Mmmmmm.... Nice.

Suspended in space
As the nights are drawing in and we may go to France soon Steve, Willie and I all need Night Currency.
The rules state that you can fly yourself, or another PPL at night quite happily without having performed a night landing to a full stop within the last 90 days, but for taking passengers you must have P1 a night landing to a full stop under your belt in the last 90 days. Fair enough: it's a physical skill that deteriorates like any other.

It's a beautiful cold, still November evening as we start up. I'm sitting in the back warm and cocooned amongst cushions and flight bags, Steve will fly a Night 100 Procedure and Steve will do the radio. This goes fine, except for a small confusion about levels and heights which is a normal part of rust removal and why we do these flights, but it's interesting to watch Steve use the ADF: he's an ex-BA pilot with an IR so what he doesn't know about ADF's isn't worth knowing. He never touches the ADF dial: he just flies his compass accurately and pushes the head/pulls the tail by eye. Nice, and worth emulating. What is apparent is that the wet compass drifts around aimlessly, the DI drifts badly and the only compass worth using is the GPS compass. But then you may as well draw the OBS line on the GPS and fly that, which in real life you would do.
From here I can see fire engines convergnig on what must be a house fire in Kidlington. We could orbit overhead and report for Radio Oxford: "Just here in The Flying Eye, and I can see some congestion on Kidlington Road..."
It's 6.30pm but Oxford Approach/Tower is shatteringly busy with business jets, OAA props, IFR and VFR traffic, helicopters and us all trying to gain our share of the ATCO's time for take-off, landing or runway inspections. That's a sign of a healthy, thriving airport.
After a low-level circuit with some surprising drift at 800ft Steve does a passable night landing and we taxy in. What quickly becomes apparent is that you really need both Taxy and landing light on to see adequately, so we alter our SOPs to this. Much better.

Now I will do the radio, Steve will sit in the back and Willie will fly us VFR for a while. But as he rotates he starts to drift left. At first I think it is intentional, but it turns out he lost spatial orientation at that moment, quite common at night: I tend to do the first 100ft on the AH instead until the lights below re-appear. A night IMC take-off would be interesting, but we're not going there tonight...
We fly out over Banbury and it's so smooth it feels like we are suspended by a string from the heavens. The ANR headphones help, but the lack of thermals give an unreal feel, like we're in a flight sim and actually sitting at a desk, not blatting along at 125Kts. Very soothing.
We return via a VFR Downwind join, and Willie lets the height decay until we are less then 800ft QNH (so 600ft AGL), which at night is not ideal. We all know each other well enough to know that helpful suggestions have no hidden agenda, so a quiet suggestion gets him back to 900ft by the time we turn Base, which we're all happier with. Again that surprising drift on Final, then he drops it in on one wheel; I think we caught a gust, a lot of nosewheel shimmy and we're vacating the runway.

One crew change later, Steve has retired with a bad back and it's me for a Night Currency with Willie doing the radio. We depart to the South over Oxford and go looking for our house (which we fail to find in the dark...), loop back for a right base join, which I manage to fly too high (still, better to err on the non-hard ground side), pull the power right off to correct, then slot back in to the "I can land it from here" approach cone. And a reasonable night landing ensues, but it's not until we vacate that I remember we hadn't turned on the landing or taxy lights. Goes to show they aren't necessary, anyway... Your focus should be on the end of the runway during the flare, but I suppose if something was on the runway right in front of you, you wouldn't see it. I probably wouldn't see it anyway: too busy concentrating...
Willie whizzes off to a dinner appointment and I put Tango Golf to bed. I quite enjoy tucking the aircraft up at night when there's no howling gale to fight. A final check: Power OFF, Fuel OFF, Brakes OFF and it's time to wander in out of the increasingly cold evening.

Alice's boyfriend Kieran's parents have a chateau near Nantes. This sounds grand, but in fact they rent it out and they live in Oxford, so it needs more garden maintenance than it actually gets. We have offered to go and deliver a strimmer, attack the overgrown gardens with that and a chainsaw, and do some DIY at the same time.
You aren't going to get on a commercial flight with a chainsaw and a strimmer, but flying privately means circumventing a lot of the pettiness of commercial aviation (and all the waiting around!), so in early December with the weather bright and sunny we load up the plane at Oxford with tools, gardening clothes, chainsaw and strimmer, which only just fits in the baggage door. We do get some strange looks at Ops as we march through, though... Lifejackets and PLBs on, liferaft at the ready and we're good to go.
The bowser loads us up with full fuel as the sun rises and we take off to the South. The world is beautiful this morning, the rush hour traffic snarls up satisfactorily beneath us on the A34 but we have a tailwind and 30 minutes and a Solent Zone Transit later we're over the Channel and it's cloudless and smooth.
In a reversal of the norm, the French Coast at Cherbourg is cloudy, and we both remark that it is strange we think of them as "French" clouds, given that they were probably over England yesterday.
Coasting in for the Mike Papa beacon we are suddenly bumpy VMC on top and never even see the Cherbourg peninsula until we have turned South East for Caen and the clouds break again over the sea. We descend through a gap so we are below the now-scattered clouds and approach Caen for a downwind join for 31. As we descend on Final we get some gusts from somewhere and it all goes a bit weird at about 100ft before settling down. Still, my unbreakable Zen concentration on the end of the runway results in a barely detectable arrival, so this must be the way forward. A fast taxy on to a stand in the middle of the huge, nearly empty apron and we can shut down. 1hr 15 mins from Oxford: Not bad.
This stop is nominally for Immigration purposes (not that the French care) so we can pay our €4.80 in the nice, warm, friendly office and get immediately off again, but the Tower seems to think we need a Flight Plan. This is an internal French flight for which we do not need a Flight Plan adnd he eventually relents, but I think he is more used to English people flying to Caen then turning round and going home again. Even with this delay, we are still back in the air in 30 mins - we will use Caen again.

The run from Caen LFRK to Cholet LFOU is a straight line and should take 1hr, so we climb to 3,000ft, talk to Deauville who suggest Brest who suggest Rennes, but we can't raise Rennes for 20 minutes or so until we are over some low hills and into racehorse country. Rennes pass us eventually to Nantes and after getting rained on for a couple of minutes the skies clear and we start our descent over the Loire for Cholet.

At this point we decide to depart from our course to take some pictures of the chateau, but on turning to where we think it is we can't see it. It turns out it is further West than we originally tbought, so loop around for a few minutes before finding it.... slap bang under one of the AZBA low level routes. Ah, but I thought that might happen so this morning I checked the AZBA website and during this period no fast jets are using it, so we are OK.

Once we have taken some low-level shots we return to the airfield where the Tower guys have now gone home as it's lunchtime (and in France lunch is taken very seriously indeed). I have a laminated set of French language circuit calls and call vent-arriere (downwind), turn Base then Finale (Final) what seems very low over Cholet, drop down for a smooth arrival, then Piste degagee (runway vacated) before guessing at a parking place and shutting down in the bright warm sunshine for lunch.
Whilst having lunch at the excellent restaurant overlooking the runway (why on earth do airfields like Oxford and Denham have restaurants where you cant see the planes?) we watch a PA28-180 doing circuits: he spends an awful long time on the runway and his climb out rate is embarrassingly low. I think we can do a better take-off....

Cholet have pilot-operated lights, so at some point we will have to try this. Apparently it's 3 clicks for On (15 minutes) and 7 clicks for Off. Next time....

4 days later we are ready to go home: the plane has been de-iced via our handy new pump-up de-ice sprayer, fuelled, packed with Christmas booze and presents but no strimmer: that's been left at the chateau.
The weather is once more bright sunshine so we start up, taxy out to Bravo, backtrack and treat the restaurant guests to a Cessna 182 short-field take-off: 20° flap, rotate at 58Kts and we're at 500ft before the end of the runway. That's how to do it!

We turn North and climb to 3,000ft, swap to Nantes, then Rennes (2 separate frequencies for some reason), then Brest and finally Caen where they ask us to expedite our descent as they have aerobatics above 2,000ft. I can do that: Prop up, power back, nose down and we have a descent rate of 1700ft per minute before turning Downwind right hand for 13, turning Final and trying a new experiment. I want to see how long I can keep the nosewheel off the ground for after landing. We land smoothly and I just keep pulling, the nose staying in the air down to about 40Kts before we let it down gently, slow and backtrack. Interesting.
We taxy in and shut down on the completely empty apron before asking the Tower if they have our Flight Plan for 30 minutes hence (which they have). It can take 60-90 minutes for a UK AFPEx-generated Flight Plan to arrive in France, so my 8.00am raising prevented any problems.
Our miniscule landing fee paid, we strap on lifejackets and start up. Despite starting a little early we actually roll down the runway exactly on our Flight Plan time which is very satisfying, depart North East and climb with Deauville to 4,000ft for the run to the Mike Papa beacon at Cherbourg, flying over the remains of the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches. Once there we turn North, coast out and switch to London Info who are uninterested as we need a DACS for the mid-Channel Ranges.
Last time we came this way we had to go around but this time the ranges are quiescent so a very helpful and perky Plymouth Military shepherd us across. It's so clear we can see both the White Cliffs at the end of the Isle of Wight in front of us and the French coast behind. It really is not that far, but far enough when considering engine failure. I'm glad we're doing this in the daylight, and any coughing or weird noises will see me heading for a mid-sized ship and a landing half a mile ahead in plain sight!
But no, soon we are over the Isle of Wight as the sun sinks and then a VFR transit over Southampton while watching an Embraer jet turning to capture the Localiser for 20, then head for Compton, turn for Oxford, swap to Oxford and cruise-descend for a visual join for 19.
A BeechJet is behind us and as we line up for downwind, even at 140Kts in the descent he overhauls us easily as we orbit for spacing then remember to turn the landing light on (there's a first, then...), drop down the approach, flare and touch smoothly 2 minutes in to Official Night. Wheel all our Chritsmas shopping out through Ops on one of their trolleys, and give them a huge box of Christmas choccies: they've been brilliantly helpful this year.

Early December can be a lovely time to fly: it's often cold but bright and France is just too convenient to ignore for Christmas shopping.
What did we do wrong? Well, apart from failing (on reflection, after our return) to carry plates for the alternate airfields quoted on our flight plans (doh!), not a lot. Everything went as planned, nothing broke and a good time was had by all. Oh, and we proved that carrying a strimmer by air is easier than it might appear.

The last but one movement for 2013
New Years Eve: can we fit just one more flight in to 2013?
We have been washing and reproofing the cover so need to put it back on. The weather has been pretty awful, but while we're there the wind drops, the sun comes out and it looks so nice we might as well just go out for an hour and photograph Kieran's uncle's house near Reading. Too good a chance to miss.
Fill up with half-tanks fuel, depart SE down the M40 and follow the Chiltern Hills South towards Henley and Reading. Benson are inactive so we'll swap to Farnborough West who are virtually empty instead. Playhatch is hard to find, even with a GPS, and it takes us a couple of goes around to find it, but eventually we do and they come out to wave.
We'll go home the same way and climb out North, watching the sun sinking in to the hills. Down on the ground it's already set, but up here it's still bright and warm for just a couple of minutes.
Coming back up the M40 there's a little mist just starting to form, so I'm quite glad we'll be back on the ground in a few minutes. Back to Oxford, request and get a left base join for 19 and descend gently towards Base leg. No thermals, no wind so it's really smooth and we get a nice stable approach set up, aim for a third of the way down the runway and flare. A nice smooth arrival, keep the nosewheel in the air for a few seconds then roll on down to the end and park as the light fades.
Oxford closes at 6.00pm and we're down at 4.15pm. It transpires we're their second-to-last movement of the year, a helicopter is due in at 5.45pm. Oh well, we were close.

So 2013 was the year when maybe I finally learned to land properly, the year I did a forced landing and survived, the year I buzzed Blackpool Tower, flew up The Great Glen and landed on the Isle of Mull.