Becoming a Pilot: My PPL(A) Training
I never had any inclination of learning to fly. The thought had never really crossed my mind. I didn't know anyone 'into' aviation, let alone any pilots. I'd never heard of anyone learning to fly. Though of course, people must undergo some form of rigorous training before being allowed to fly my family and I abroad on holiday. If my SO reads this I'll no doubt be reminded that we rarely fly anywhere, let alone go on holiday. But I digress..
On the 24th of November 2017, I passed my PPL(A) Skill Test after ~55hrs flight training spread across twelve months. The legal minimum, for the PPL, is 45hrs under EASA (European) rules.
The training period might have been condensed had I not been working full-time and the airfield out of operation for winter. There were times I would beat myself up for not having prepared sufficiently for an upcoming lesson. I do not like to feel 'behind the curve' on anything and I did not want to disappoint my thoroughly professional instructor. A tutor with a great many interesting stories about flying the likes of Michael Douglas to meet Catherine Zeta Jones. I now had this guy teaching me how to become a pilot. We formed a great relationship, hit it off immediately and I enjoyed his determined approach to teaching. Some might not like that, but it worked well for me. If we were going to do this I wanted to be taught properly. If I was to become a pilot I wanted to be safe. I wasn't in it to be the next Maverick (despite Tom Cruise and I looking remarkably alike), I just wanted to know what should be done so that I could say that I did it. That I earned the right to be a pilot.
To me it seemed like a ridiculous objective. Become a pilot? A year prior I hadn't ever thought about such a possibility. Sure, I'd played a few flight games and tried my hand at some of the so-called simulators, but fly for real? It had never crossed my mind. That is until I changed jobs and started working for a company making a home entertainment flight simulator for desktop computers. I'd always wanted to make a flight simulator. I saw it as an opportunity to revive something that had stagnated, to an extent, for a number of years. I've been working in the games industry for twenty years. Perhaps I've made some games you've played. I'd achieved the things I wanted, and then the opportunity to make a flight simulator came up in conversation. A matter of weeks later I'd handed in my resignation and moved my family to another part of the UK to start the next adventure. This was where my real adventure began.
Where to start? The world of aviation seemed so... complex. Dare I say, confusing? The different rules and regulations. The complicated process of qualification, currency, ratings... differing regulations across borders. The alien radio communication, the vast expense of training. I looked at everything and anything. I read forums, subscribed to magazines, trawled the Internet for answers and sunk my eyes into hundreds of hours of YouTube footage. "Watching propellers again are we?" was a common slight thrown my way by my Fiancée.
I was hooked. What a wonderful, colourful and complex world this is. How can I possibly make sense of it in order to deliver a suitably authentic experience for my audience when it seems so confusing to those on the inside? The easiest way was to become an insider.
Among a company of over 100 employees we had just one private pilot. This chap, Tim, was part of the group entrusting me with their grand plan to enter the flight simulation market. We spoke at length about everything and anything to do with aviation but, at times, it was hard for me to appreciate the detail. If you are going to convey something to an audience you need to know your subject matter. If you want to know what to include and what to leave out, you need that detail. We went on a couple of local flights around the Kent area in a C172. I found the whole experience somewhat unsettling. I was not comfortable in a light aircraft. Heck, I even found flying on airliners as a passenger unnerving. We're in the air... flying... what if a wing falls off? The engine stops? We encounter severe turbulence? It's nothing like the world I've come from. I know cars, I get physics, I've raced them and I've walked (okay, crawled) away from some accidents. However flying was something else entirely, but I wanted to learn more.
I booked a trial lesson. The instructor was a jovial kind of guy, ex-RAF. No fear whatsoever, 'tally-ho' wouldn't be an unfair description. My fiancee came along as passenger in the back, recording videos on her phone. She was at ease, no concerns at all. I was pretty tense throughout the flight and had to hand back control when encouraged to try 60-degree banked turns. He allowed me to fly the approach to land and just when I thought he would take back control for landing or ask me to go-around I realised it was too late. I pretty much slammed us into the ground. I didn't flare for landing! The experience assured a worried feeling within (which I kept to myself) that this flight stuff was not in my blood. Too complicated, too scary!
But I needed to understand more. My company suggested flight training as a way to accelerate my knowledge in the space. I looked at whether to go for the LAPL (Light Aircraft Pilot License) or PPL (Private Pilot License) and thought why not go for the slightly more complex PPL? I might as well cover as much as possible.
I returned to Rochester (EGTO) to speak to about signing up for flight training. I knew the C152 was cheaper by the hour and was advised that its size meant you were a lot closer to raw flight. It looked a fair bit smaller than the 172 I'd been in a couple of times. One of the operations staff offered to take me up in a 152 for a short flight one evening. Conditions were great, it looked like a wonderful evening to go flying. I enjoyed the experience and thought I could actually go ahead and learn in the smaller aircraft. A short-while later I met an instructor and went through the usual initial and very in-depth briefing. All whilst feeling that whilst I knew a lot of this stuff from my rabid learning, I should shut-up and listen to his every word. This became a recurring theme throughout my training.
"The first 10-15hrs are all about learning to fly the aircraft"
The first five hours were, for me, all about overcoming my fear of flight without looking like a total wimp. The noise! The pitch attitude to climb during takeoff! The odd gust of wind! And the tiny, battered door between myself and the elements. Oh that door... it popped open on me twice whilst taking off.
But persevere I did and, after a couple more hours, I started to relax. I got into the swing of things and could spend a greater proportion of my mental capacity learning as opposed to inventing horrendous end-of-day scenarios. I quickly had a feel for the aircraft. It was not dissimilar from energy management concepts used in motor racing and I understood the obvious principles. Early flight training was carried out to a background of reading Air Law, one of the first exams you need pass before being allowed to fly solo. Whilst intolerably dry, it made me feel like I was a real student pilot, learning the insider’s secrets. This was when I felt things started to become serious.
After a few more lessons (hour 15) and with an Air Law pass in my pocket, I was let loose and allowed to go up for my initial solo. Everyone talks about it being a huge event, one you'll never forget. I think, because I was perhaps trained so well, it wasn't as impactful a feeling as some people have suggested it might feel. It's a personal one, I'm sure. But I was ready. Apprehensive, but at the same time very excited. It came out of the blue but I think I did okay. I got back in one piece. On greeting my instructor I don't think he cared much for my "I'm alive!" celebration. Not professional Steve, not professional...
After that, winter set-in and I didn't fly again for three months. It had been suggested I might reach solo standard by the time the bad weather reared its wet and windy head. When things started clearing up in March 2017 I returned to the cockpit and burnt a good three hours of lessons just trying to get back into the swing of landing again. The feel for the flare had deserted me (quite frustrating). But, get back into it I did and the lessons came thick and fast. Then work became incredibly busy. If I was able to find the time for a lesson I'd sometimes arrive feeling less than prepared. I'd kick myself for not being able to make the time to get the most from the lesson. It really bothered me, distracted me even.
I was trying to make progress on more complex subjects like navigation, handle all the radio communications and at the same time make headway on the increasingly complex exams.
"Should have studied and passed them during the winter break"
Yes, I should have. But things were busy at work and I'd left flying to fall to one side.
I remember, after one particularly stressful day of work having to study late into the night ahead of an exam the following day. At one point I launched the book across the room, cursing at it, thinking it nonsensical to continue flight training whilst holding down a busy job. I didn't have any time off, it was all getting too much. Maybe, at age 39, it was just difficult to get back into the frame of mind for study. Homework is never appealing, regardless of your age.
Dual land-away led to solo land-away let to my solo cross-country. I think, out of everything experienced, the solo XC was the most memorable. I was actually flying around, landing at other airports, all on my own! Practically a real pilot!
The navigation part I found difficult. Trying to read the map and connect it to what you can see sounds easy but it was something I struggled with. It was becoming my biggest fear (I would have probably bust Heathrow airspace on my way from Goodwood to Lydd if they hadn't called me up and asked me to course correct).
My work environment led to me questioning quite a few EASA flight training practices. Stopwatch, compass and map?! No modern navigation or situational awareness aids allowed in the aircraft. You can't even use the GPS if it's fitted to the aircraft. Whatever... I wasn't going to argue it, I was here to learn and at the same time achieve something. The achievement would get me through the difficulties.
The final few hours of training were both interesting and challenging. I experienced severe sickness when using the foggles, doubted my ability to navigate during the skill test without messing up and wondered how I could possibly perform to the required standard during what is, essentially, one of the worst days you are likely to face as a pilot. Multiple engine failures, navigating with basic instruments and a map and up to 2.5hrs of being 'scrutinised' by someone with considerably more experience than you. My mock skill test was poor. I found it difficult, felt unwell and generally came away feeling pretty depressed. To be honest I thought that was as far as I'd be able to go. It was time to leave and admit it wasn't for me. That I wouldn't attain the required standard. But the embarrassment of leaving it all behind, I couldn't have that. A couple of lessons later and we were talking about booking the proper skill test. That was bumped several times due to weather and, with practice flights being frowned on once a request to test is submitted, I arrived for my test feeling more than a little rusty.
The examiner, a very experienced and friendly character, quickly put me at ease. He'd marked all my test papers and I felt we had a good relationship. He was my choice for my examiner despite people warning me he was particularly thorough and likely to keep me in the air for well over 2hrs. If I was going to pass it should be because I'm safe. This guy would confirm that, and to be fair my instructor would not have recommended me for the test if I were not ready - would he?
I passed the ground portion of the skill test after a few hiccups. I found the occasion pressured and struggled to do some very basic calculations. The plan for the day ended as the weather was turning bad. We'd have to end it there and pickup from that point on another date. At least it hadn't been a complete waste. I was part way there... the end was in sight.
Day after day passed, multiple cancellations. Then, when I'd become accustomed to phone calls telling me it wasn't going to happen it was on... I was heading to the airfield for the skill test.
I set about checking the aircraft documentation, checked out the aircraft. The weather didn't look great but I decided we'd go for it anyway. Took off, climbing through 1,000ft circuit height and we look at each, as if synchronised, and shook our heads. It was rubbish up here and I made the call to turn back to land. This was fast becoming a joke. I can see why some people go abroad for training. The UK climate is predictably unpredictable at best.
More time passed until another opportunity arrived. I felt hurried on the day as the examiner told me he had to be somewhere at a certain time, that he hoped we'd be able to get through everything on the day. That added extra pressure to my shoulders, which had already accumulated enough over countless cancellations. I was still worried about the navigation portion of the test but I'd invested time in practicing at home on the simulator, reading from the map and navigating potential routes. In addition, Google Earth was an excellent source of learning. I'd prepared some 2,000ft A-B flights and got a feel for what I could see along the way. Of everything, I'd say the home practice helped the map reading 'click' for me.
During the flight I was absolutely bang on the money during the departure leg but the wind was dramatically different from those reported and therefore part of my PLOG calculations. I was aware the examiner expected use of the 1-in-60 rule should I need to correct my course. He wanted to know what my plans were ahead of course correcting but, knowing where I was and where I needed to be, I just let the aircraft drift off heading a little or turn with light rudder input until I was where I wanted to be. My new-found confidence in navigation allowed me to control the situation, bending it in my favour.
We arrived overhead Brighton Marina exactly when I said we would, a major confidence booster. The examiner announced the navigation portion of the test was over (the relief!) and we proceeded to move back in-land for some steep-turns, practice forced landing then foggles on to an unknown location which I had to identify with VOR's and then navigate from to his selected waypoint of Brands Hatch (the racing circuit).
From here it was back to base via antiquated NDB for some circuits and touch-and-go. On climbing out after one particular touch-and-go he unexpectedly pulled the power on me at low altitude and asked where we were going to land. This caught me by complete surprise. By this point I was pretty tired, we'd been in the air well over 2hrs and I thought we'd successfully concluded the forced landing earlier. I wasn't ready for the unexpected. Maintaining control of the aircraft all the way to the ground/or moment of impact was are the forefront of my racing mind, I quickly selected a field directly ahead of us... despite it being a football field which could have people enjoying it, not expecting a light aircraft to come storming in from the sky above.
"Why wouldn't you turn left and head for the lower ground where there are plenty of better fields?"
I was the rabbit caught in the headlights. Lesson ingrained - look around before picking your field. Oh, and always be ready for an engine failure. They don't tend to come when you expect them.
Now we were climbing away he was busy explaining the final part of the test. I found it difficult to take in all of the instructions after being caught out with the practice engine failure. Wait until I'm straight and level in the circuit I thought. I was asked to perform a flapless landing and then one more landing without power (glide). If I could do both at the same time, he said, and land safely we'd conclude the test. But if I couldn't manage that we'd do them one at a time. I pulled the power towards base leg and aimed for the centre of the runway, correcting my course onto a more traditional approach as I was confident I'd make the runway without the need for power. But we were high and carrying a too much speed. I decided to aggressively slip the aircraft, having flown such a configuration many times... in Flight Sim World, and landed sweetly before rolling to the taxi-way. We were done. My examiner stated his surprise at my ability to get the aircraft in and complete both tests in the one landing. Thank you FSW.
The familiar voice in the tower came on the radio to ask how I'd done and the examiner said the words that I thought I'd never hear upon starting out...
"Yeah... he's passed"