There are many autobiographical accounts of learning to fly. One I read as a teenager was by T H White, author of ‘Sword in the Stone’ – King Arthur, Merlin and all – which is why I read it. It was, to my teenage taste, long, incomprehensible, and tediously detailed.
On the other hand, there was Richard Bach’s wonderful ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’. But this was about a seagull learning to fly, and not, I suspect, entirely autobiographical.
I note that in more recent times, Victoria Beckham has published an autobiography entitled ‘Learning to fly’. I haven’t read it, but I’m pretty sure it’s not actually about learning to fly proper.
But I am really going to learn to fly. I booked my first lesson today.
Initially I investigated a one-off joy-ride in a vintage Gypsy Moth bi-plane, just for fun, and very nearly booked one – except that I then noticed I could book a longer flight in a modern micro-light aeroplane for less, at an airfield just down the road, and that, should I wish to continue, it would count towards training hours for a pilot’s license . . .
Lesson 1 – Strictly speaking this was a ‘taster’, not a lesson. The aircraft was a two-seater Ikarus Cirrus C42, a single-engine top-wing micro-light monoplane. My pilot-instructor was Stuart. We taxied to the end of the airstrip and turned. One moment we were stationary, the next we were hurtling down the rapidly shortening strip. Another moment and we were airborne and climbing. There was a second or two of turbulence to put the wind up me, and then all was calm and smooth and I quite forgot the distance between ourselves and the ground. At 2000 feet or so I took control. We flew straight and level for a while, then climbed a bit, then descended, then turned a couple of times. After a while, just for fun, we made a landing approach to the former military runway on Thorney Island. No one shot at us. Then we turned for Portsmouth. There were clouds in the way. Fluffy clouds, with narrow gaps between them. The first one I flew over. The second two I flew between. The next I couldn’t avoid. No problem, said Stuart. We flew in. I was not happy. What if someone else is in this cloud too ? Where’s the horizon ? All bearings were invisible. I lost all sense of up and down and level. After a long half minute we emerged unscathed, if not quite level. I checked my flying book afterwards. It definitely says don’t fly into clouds. I agree.
Ikarus Cirrus C42
Lesson 2 – On my first lesson Stuart had been insistent on having me constantly check the instruments – the rudder bubble, the airspeed and climb/descent indicators, engine revs, temperature and oil pressure. I therefore decide to wear my glasses this time so that I could see them properly. I perched my glasses on the end of my nose so that I could check the instruments by looking down and the view by looking up. It was a disaster. I flew the whole lesson looking at the instruments with hardly a glance at the world outside. This was not entirely the fault of my glasses – Stuart was even more insistent on my attending to the instruments than before, but I decided I could see well enough without them and vowed not to wear them again.
Lesson 3 – We practised climbs, descents, trim and turns. It was still all about the instruments. Very frustrating. However, at a certain point both Stuart and I forgot about them all and flew straight and level as we watched a Spitfire pass below us.
Lesson 4 – It is my disposition to defer to whoever is trying to teach me something serious on the assumption that they know best what they’re doing. Nonetheless, I suggested on this occasion that we should go over what we’d done before rather than moving on. Stuart was happy with that and we proceeded to practice climbs and descents. Half way through, however, I rebelled. I wasn’t getting it right and I was totally confused about what it was I was supposed to be doing. (I also suggested it would be good to stop for a picnic while we were up there, and enjoy the view. Stuart was not convinced). Back on the ground, I resolved to insist on him briefing me before each manoeuvre and then talking me through it as I do it.
Lesson 5 – Cancelled. The morning was clear and bright with only the wispiest of clouds. A fine day for flying, I thought. Unfortunately my lesson was booked for the afternoon. By then the sky was a blanket of grey cloud at about 1000 feet. I had a chat with the boss instead and discovered that this was just his business, he didn’t actually know how to fly. He employed people like Stuart for that.
Lesson 6 – You cannot teach an old instructor new tricks it seems. I did much better – said Stuart – but I couldn’t get him to talk the manoeuvre through before I did it. Okay. I will talk me through it myself beforehand and let him correct me. Then I’ll do it. One thing I did learn is that as you correct your rudder you should also give it a little stick in the same direction.
Or, possibly, the opposite direction . . .
Lesson 7 – I talked myself through the manoeuvre first and I flew for the first time !
I also decided I’d like to side-slip – fly sideways – a little. This allows one to see where one is aiming at, instead of always having the nose in the way.
Stuart was happy. I was happy.
Lesson 8 – One step forward, one step back. Too much to do at once. Stuart requires me to be precise. I wish he’d let me throw the aeroplane about a bit and get the feel of it.
I have just now paid for twenty hours of flying lessons in advance. It seems to me that this is the time to stop describing my lessons one by one and only mention significant developments. The most recent significant development is that Stuart let me do the take-off. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. I checked with him afterwards – did he assist ? No, he says. After the first few yards the airplane just keeps itself straight, then leaves the ground and climbs, with just a touch of stick – amply clearing the scary line of pylon cables beyond the end of the runway.
Meanwhile the irony is that – as mentioned above – while one of my objects in wishing to fly is to enjoy the landscape below from above, I am so busy trying to follow Stuart’s perfectionist precision that I hardly have a moment to do so.
I found a copy of the T H White book I mentioned at the beginning on the internet, and ordered it for a very modest outlay – postage free. Not much in demand then. It is called ‘England have my bones’ and is mostly about huntin’ shootin’ ‘n fishin’ – except for one section which is an account of his learning to fly. This is the one I vaguely recall. I read it again.
I understand now why the book had bored me. I would have understood little or nothing. Apart from my teenage ignorance, White gives no quarter on the jargon front, tossing out terms which only the initiated could hope to know, or at least a reader of more knowledge and sophistication than I had then. He talks, for example, of shooting not only pheasants and hares, but also, more than once, a ‘Frenchman’. He means, I now understand, a red-legged or French partridge. Lord knows what I thought he meant then. He also talks repeatedly of his trouble in correctly adjusting the ‘cheescutter’ when coming in to land – he’s flying a Gypsy Moth biplane I think – but never deigns to explain what it is he’s referring to.
Mostly he complains about his instructor.
To be fair, I quite enjoyed my now older and more experienced reading of the book – even the huntin’ shootin’ ‘n fishin’ bits.
The only thing which troubled me was how soon he went solo. I don’t recall exactly how few his hours were, but they were far fewer than I will require. Not that the flying is a problem – except for Stuart’s insistence on precision. Nor is the take-off an issue – as I have discovered.
It’s the landing.
At one end of the runway we’ve got high voltage electricity wires; at the other, trees. You’ve got to line yourself up precisely before you touch down. There is no room for error. And it all happens in a moment.
I will need hours.
Meanwhile there was an interview with a couple of Air Transport Auxiliary ‘girls’ on the radio. They delivered aircraft from the factory to operational airfields during the Second World War. One of them had had just ten hours flying time before she started delivering Spitfires. She didn’t even have a driving license at the time.
Ten hours !
I had a new instructor today – Hughie. He wanted me off the instruments and looking at the nose in relation to the horizon, or, when descending, some fixed point on the ground. Only airspeed wanted checking with a glance (and looking around of course to see if anyone else was about). Very good. But he was still very particular about precision. I still feel I am not getting the feel of it.
My flying school (Solent Flight, by the way, at Lower Upham Airfield – I forgot to mention) and my instructors – as I have pointed out to them – are very definitely fair-weather flyers. As soon as there’s a touch of overcast, grey or precipitation, the lesson’s off. I was therefore surprised when Hughie took me up for a lesson when the weather was, I thought, decidedly dodgy.
We managed by keeping just below cloud level, at 1500 feet. Instead of climbs and descents we did level turns and mock-landing descents at height, including emergency landing-aborts-and-climb-aways (in case, for example, a deer should decide to run cross the runway – or a mole-hill suddenly emerge in the middle of the strip).
For the first time aloft (other than in Stuart’s cloud) I became completely disorientated as to where we were and in what direction we were headed. I am quite familiar with the geography of these parts. I have always known exactly what lay below: Hayling, Thorney, Pagham, Selsey; the new solar farm at Southwick,; my friend’s dad’s farm; the place I used to live. But now – again – I was so busy checking the instruments that I utterly lost my senses of both location and direction. I suspect that flying low to keep beneath the cloud-base contributed – too close to compare it with my mental map.
I was rather tired today and I really didn’t fancy the effort of a formal lesson. What I’d like to do, I said to Hughie, is take a trip up the Meon Valley and enjoy the landscape.
He agreed .
We not only flew the valley, but beyond, over a landscape of wonderfully irregular fields and woods; scattered farms and settlements; villages and market towns; hills, escarpments and valleys; chalk downs. The South Downs National Park in fact.
I took us off to the north-east on runway four zero (i.e. 40 degrees clockwise from due North. There is only one runway, or rather, grass strip, but it has two names depending on which way you’re using it. So if it’s not four zero it’s the compass opposite, two two – which is 220 degrees – not 22 degrees. Very odd. I must check that).
We soon reached the River Meon, at the villages of Corehampton and Meonstoke, and then came to the long ridge of Old Winchester Hill. Over and once round at a bank angle of 30 degrees (approximately) to properly enjoy the long oval earthworks of the prehistoric fort. Viewed from above the elevation and slopes of the Hill had to be mentally reconstructed. It was mid-morning, and without shadows slopes and heights were impossible to perceive. Beacon Hill too, on the farther side of the valley, and at an airborne angle of view, needed an effort of interpretation to identify it.
On to Hen Wood and over the village of East Meon, with the folly-spike spire of Privett Church directly ahead of us. More a mini cathedral than a rural parish church. The spire is prominent in the landscape at ground level for miles around. At 1500 feet it also provides a fine navigation point.
Before reaching Privett we took, at Hughie’s suggestion, a turn East towards Petersfield. We crossed the clear plummet of the wooded escarpment on the A 272 just before Langrish. We observed the pond on the South east edge of Petersfield – another useful waymark – then carried on to Midhurst, following the unnaturally straight line of the South Downs. The chalk hills rise smoothly from a wide plain on the Northern side, and fall steeply on the South – like a gathering wave solidified – and then run East to the horizon strictly parallel with the coast.
From Midhurst we headed North-west for Alton. After a little searching, I found the course of the Mid-Hants Railway to Alresford. There we looked down on the ancient pond and the complex of watercress beds downstream. From Alresford, back towards the coast, just short of Goodwood (whereabouts another light plane clearly didn’t see us until we were almost close enough to wave). Then West over the new solar farm at Southwick before turning North-West for Upham – passing by my old home at Soberton Heath and crossing the Meon at Mislingford. I wobbled us in towards the airstrip and Hughie took over for the landing. Having landed, Hughie handed control back to me to turn and taxi us back to the parking apron. As we backtracked the strip we couldn’t avoid noticing that of Solent Flight’s other aircraft was coming in to land towards us. Hughie wisely took back control and hurried us off.
I went up with James today. Second time. Last time he took me I up, a few weeks ago, I was so totally confused with trying to work out what I was supposed to be doing that my flying was utter rubbish. (Maybe that’s why I didn’t mention that lesson earlier . . . ). Good of him to take me up again I thought.
Today I was fine. James seemed to be well pleased with my manoeuvres, and I like to be banked – at an angle, one wing down, with a good view of below. Flying rather than just driving.
We did climbing turns and descending turns without flaps and with. Lesson 9b I believe. Meanwhile, I kept sneaking views of the landscape and identifying various villages below.
Even better today. Stalls and recoveries. Power down to idle; stick back to hold nose up. Keep holding, with increasing pull-back on the stick, until there’s no more lift to be had and the nose just plummets. Immediately push stick forward to increase speed (and therefore lift) and at the same time add power to climb away. Hughie wanted me to add the power immediately so as to minimise our loss of height. Very sensible as an exercise – in case a stall occurs close to the ground. But I was happy to plummet for a second or so before roaring up and away. Flying not driving. I just kept doing it – although I did then put the power on sooner, just to keep Hughie happy.
Today I went up with Paul, Solent Flight’s visiting Chief Flying Instructor. He is also their Examiner and Aircraft Inspector – having been a test pilot for the C42. The idea was that getting to know him now would make it less stressful for me when it comes to my final flying tests. Of course there was also the risk that he might ground me forthwith as a hopeless case. He didn’t. I flew quite well and he seemed well (enough) pleased with me. He even let me stay on the controls while he landed us.
Paul is very laid-back. He remains calm and supportive at all times. He even fails to take control when I’m about to tip the aircraft into a thoroughly irregular manoeuvre.
We did more stalls and recoveries. But then we moved on to stalls and recoveries in the turn. A stall on the turn causes not just the nose but also the lower wing to drop. The key to recovery is to power up and pull up before getting your wings level. Otherwise you may spin. I managed to get it right, if a little rough, each time.
We selected rural parts over which to conduct these exercises – as required by the rules – but I was still concerned that the inhabitants of the farms and cottages below might be fully fed-up of light aeroplane learners disturbing their peace on a regular basis. There is, in practice, only a limited area where we and others can do our learning owing to the presence of controlled airspaces all around. This why we are always up over the South Downs National Park between Butser Hill and Kingley Vale, or South over Chichester Harbour and Selsey Bill. Even then, there’s Goodwood to worry about on the edge of our playground (play-air ?) and a ceiling of 3000 feet.
Up with Paul again. It turns out that the pylon wires at one end of our strip and the trees at the other really are too difficult for a beginner. This means that we went over to Sandown airfield on the Isle of Wight to practice our airfield circuits and touch-and-go-landings.
A Chinook passed beneath us as we made our way out to the island.
Sandown is another grass strip, but with clear approaches at either end – you just have to avoid flying over a campsite. Which mostly I did. Once I turned short and overflew it as I came in, but no one fired their catapults or banged their billy-cans at us.
The first task on arriving at any airfield is to discover The Dead Side. This is aviation-speak for the side of the strip from which you must not approach – so-called, presumably, because if you do and others correctly don’t, you may find yourself, and them, dead.
You then have to check which way the wind is blowing to know your direction of approach and landing – always into the wind. Now you are ready to descend and join the circuit, in the appropriate direction, at 1000 feet. A circuit is a rectangular flight path around the airfield, with the long sides parallel to the strip. The appropriate direction depends on which way the wind is blowing and therefore which end of the strip you need to land on. We joined the circuit, going downwind, then crossed crosswind, then descended into the wind long and slow – and very nearly touched down before roaring away again.
And then again, and again . . .
By the way, if you are thinking of executing this manoeuvre yourself, please consult your pilot’s training manual or your instructor first. I may well have got it completely wrong.
Next lesson, same again – except that this time we actually touched down before climbing away. I did some pretty good approaches, and only bounced a little on landing. My instructor – Hughie – was – in the heat of the moment – critical of my repeated failure to judge the height of the flare properly, and then the hold-off – which finally brings you down. On the other hand, as we headed back to home he almost complimented me on my overall performance.
I decided to keep quiet about all the practice I’d had landing a Spitfire on my computer flight simulator (which is cheating of course as there’s no rudder to worry about).
Solent Flight is mostly a congregation of chaps, and the banter runs accordingly. Andy – the Boss – is particularly rude to all of us – in the nicest possible way of course. He has a sign above his desk announcing that he is a ‘grumpy old sod’ – which of course he isn’t. Well, mostly. He rags Hughie as ‘Grandad’ at every available opportunity. Hughie is the soul of calm in response. Andy defers to Stuart because Stuart knows how to fix the aeroplanes, but he still can’t resist having a poke at him.
On the other hand, there are also some female customers. Andy then attempts a more gentlemanly mode. Towards the ladies that is. He continues to subject his (male) instructors – and male customers, such as myself – to his customary sarcastic commentary.
I noticed recently that, following a refurbishment of the office, a mock Exchange and Mart involving adverts for the exchange of wives, had disappeared.
Andy has a son, Matt – late teens – who runs the show when Andy is absent. Of course most young persons are half-incomprehensible, but in Matt’s case I refer only to his mastery of the official aviatory radio jargon. He has the techno-patter down to a perfect T, not only with the Solent Flight aircraft as they depart and return but also to the grown-ups at Air Traffic Control proper. Indeed he plans to join them. Odd hours, but very well paid I believe. Sounds like a good idea – once he’s old enough for the terrible responsibility . . . He plans to take a year out travelling first. That’s another good idea. Meanwhile he’s that competent at running the show – without a whiff of sarcasm to either instructors or customers – that I don’t know why his Dad doesn’t just stay at home really.
Graham is another important member of the team – but I’m not sure exactly how. He’s not an instructor, or a mechanic as such, but he answers the radio when necessary and inspects the aircraft in a general sort of way. He peers over his glasses and smiles a lot, a gentle and supportive presence.
Stuart was back from his customary winter escape to Spain and was good enough to take me over to Sandown again. After half a dozen rounds we even landed and had a cup of coffee in the airfield ’caf’. Perhaps he needed the break. My approaches were okay but then my final line-ups, flares and hold-offs were a total mess. Quite how we didn’t prang is a mystery.
However, I had an excuse. The wind was blowing mightily cross-wise and I have yet to get the feel of quite how to use the rudder in such challenging circumstances.
We’d only been up a couple of minutes – still climbing away from home – when the oil pressure gauge shot to maximum and stuck there. Stuart took over at once and brought us round and down again with a mighty side-slip in order to lose height rapidly. It turned out to be a sender fault mostly – and a couple of dodgy radiator brackets. Stuart and Andy soon had the necessary repairs completed and we were off again without further trouble. Over to Sandown, where Stuart was soon so exasperated at my general incompetence on the whole circuit that he actually took over the controls in order to demonstrate how it should be done. Ah, such precision ! He also waggled the rudder mightily as we climbed away after one particularly ragged touch-down on my part in order to demonstrate just how much rudder is required to keep the aircraft pointing in the right direction on landing. My final touch and go was at least good enough for him to be able to say something vaguely encouraging as we headed for home.
On the subject of Stuart I must be fair and point out that all my other instructors are equally preoccupied with precision. Given their unanimity on the matter I have concluded that it must be important in some way.
Sandown again. With Hughie. I was just turning downwind on our umpteenth circuit when the engine went into a spasm, running rough and vibrational and refusing to rev either up or down. ‘I have control’ said Hughie in a hurry and steered us round and down again at a rapid rate of descent. The moment we touched ground the engine returned to smooth running. We stopped at the end of the taxi-way and phoned home. Hughie was not happy, as apparently there had been a vibrational problem earlier. However, we didn’t fancy having to take the ferry home so we started her up again and, all running well, we took to the air once more. We flew high and fast over the Solent so that if necessary we could make Daedalus Airfield (Lee-on-Solent) on the mainland. We stayed as high as airspace would allow and then descended precipitously into Lower Upham. There we were met with serious looks of concern – regarding the state of the aircraft, not for Hughie and me, everyone being chaps you understand.
Should I have been worried ? I’ve no idea. I just took the opportunity to enjoy the view while Hughie flew. Marvellous !
On the subject of Hughie, he is the only one of my instructors who requires not only precision but also contortionism. He does not trust the fuel gauge. He gets me to reach round behind, pull aside the cover and peer into the fuselage to see if there really is any fuel in the tank. Meanwhile I am still strapped tightly into my seat and I am supposed to be flying the aeroplane. I see his point of course, but it hurts !
I was disappointed to find that while the dodgy aeroplane had now been fixed, I was going to be flying in the other one today. This meant I couldn’t express my pre-planned indignation at the very idea of going up in that one again and then demand a suitable replacement – a Gypsy Moth or a Spitfire for example. It’s always disappointing when an opportunity for amusement is missed – not to mention a flight in a suitable replacement.
A confession. I decided some lessons ago that I have no desire to get my Private Pilot’s License, or to fly solo. Another pair of eyes on the lookout is vital. It’s amazing how another aircraft can appear and then not notice our presence until the penultimate moment . . .
And then all the stuff on the radio – and the airspace heights – and the airstrip compass directions – the correct airspeed and revs for this manoeuvre or that. Precision. Absolutely important, but quite beyond my over-stressed and befuddled brain to remember.
More to the point, despite Solent Flight’s very reasonable rates, flying costs dosh. I just calculated my hours aloft. They are somewhat in advance of what I’ve actually paid for . . . and my budget.
This is a problem. I need to have a chat with Andy.
My learning-to-fly is over. Sorry Andy, I said, my budget is overdone. Anyway, I need to buy a new car – as he knows.
It was a race between me and my wallet. My wallet won.
I had been hoping at least to learn to land reliably before quitting – a necessary skill for a pilot I feel – but it is not to be. Only occasional joy rides from now on. As and when. Never to attempt to land again . . .
(Well, at least it will be a relief to Stuart and Hughie).
So if I haven’t quite learned to fly, what have I learnt ?
When I first met Andy he asked me why I wanted to learn. To enjoy the landscape from above I replied, maybe to visit a friend who happens to have an airstrip, just for fun. Good, he said, some customers come looking for a convenient way to fly themselves and their families to their holiday homes in Spain or the South of France. It’s actually far more sensible to take a scheduled flight with a good baggage allowance.
I didn’t mention that I’d prefer to fly in an old Gypsy Moth bi-plane than a modern top-wing microlight – but I’d compared the costs and knew my place.
And of course he didn’t mention that he would have taken my money whatever my reasons !
I learnt that you can’t both be busy flying an aeroplane and enjoying the landscape below. There’s far too much to worry about when you are in charge – airspace, altitude, radio; engine temperatures and pressures (T’s & P’s); throttle and fuel; attitude and rudder-ball. En route there are FREDA checks: Fuel, Radio, T’s & P’s, Direction, Altitude. Before coming in to land there is FASTBLA : Fuel pump, Altitude, Security (seat belts and hatches), T’s & P’s, Brakes, Landing lights, Activity (i.e. other aircraft on or around the airfield). And all these while communicating by radio with the airfield so’s they know where you are and what you’re about to do.
Of course you can always fly straight and level and so reduce your busyness a tad – and then you do have moments to glance at the landscape. But I also learnt that straight and level is very dull. I found I wanted to fly the aeroplane, not just drive it. I particularly enjoyed the side-slip – foot hard down on the rudder so that the aircraft flies half-sideways and you can see where you’re going without the nose in the way. And the tight turn, banked over so steeply that the ground seems almost vertically below. Or the deliberate stall with the wonderful drop of the nose and the roaring recovery. I would also have gone for a four-point barrel roll or a loop and roll-out, but I’m not sure the C42 is allowed to perform such manoeuvres. I’m certain I wasn’t.
Back to the Flight Simulator and my Spitfire then.
Except that : once you’ve slipped the surly bonds and flown the footless halls – well, got airborne and avoided some clouds anyway – what’s in a simulation ?
Kevan Bundell 2017