Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Notes on Flying #5 - We have liftoff :)

And we have liftoff.

I flew an airplane for the first time ever today. A Cessna 172R NAV III airplane, Garmin G1000 glass cockpit equipped, tail number VT-CAH. Victor Tango-Charlie Alpha Hotel. It's not something I'll forget for a long long time, if ever.

The announcement came through yesterday afternoon, that our initial familiarization flight would be advanced and would happen today, in a bid to break the monotony of ground school. The moment the chief sardar uttered the magic words, i think i leapt outta my chair. it all seems like a blur now. we were asked to get our headsets along for the flight. the only unknown factor was weather. and having had a good spell with meteorology, i knew there was nothing we could do about it, so i asked friends who are the praying type to pray. i needed good weather today, no stone was to be left unturned.

Morning greeted us with clear skies. Visibility could've been better, but it was above the required minima. All in all, it looked like a great day for flying. I walked out of the guest house with a smile which was to remain pasted on my face for most of the day. I'd made a playlist for the commute, instead of the usual practise of listening to random songs, and was listening to five handpicked songs to go with the high spirits the day required. We were to fly right after breakfast, so I half heartedly dug at some cutlets and an omelette, willing time to move faster even though we were harldy half an hour away from flight. After breakfast, we waited in the classroom for the instructors to come brief us.

They walked in, and I've noticed they have this swagger about them when they walk in a group. They came in and quickly announced the agenda, which was that we weren't expected to learn anything from this flight and were to treat it as fun since this was a familiarization flight. They made it a point to remind us that from the next flight on, this will not hold true and that the fun ends here. They then announced who was flying with whom, and as luck would have it, I was to go first. And in a bit of extra luck, i was flying with the flight chief i described in the previous post.

We walked up to the airplane, and he asked me to sit in the left seat while he sat right. That was unexpected, since I thought I would be in the right seat for this flight, and thought that this would be little more than a demo. How wrong I was, i didn't have an inkling then. The chief ran through the startup checklist in haste, he seemed determined to outpace my ability to follow what he was doing. I was doggedly with him, making mental notes of everything he did. He startled me with his 'Props Clear' call to the ground staff, in what was to be a habit for the day. I had my headphones on, and five minutes later he startled me with the first radio check call to the tower. I didnt realize that these things come with the volume set to maximum, and i hastily reached for the volume knobs to spare my ears from permanent damage. We taxied out to the holding point short of the runway. The southerly runway was in use, and since there were taxiway entrances to the runway only at the southern end, we would have to backtrack down the runway to the north end and then turn around and take off.

H continued with the pre-takeoff checklist, and at one point set the heading bug to 171 degrees, which is more or less the runway heading, but read it out as 117. For a second I thought about asking him if there was a mistake. As part of work, I have read a lot of crash reports, and I was reminded of cases where a timid first offer failing to question the captains mistake led to a crash. Well, not on my watch, so I asked him if it was correct. He read it back correctly this time, and I was satisfied, so we asked the tower for line up clearance. Once we backtracked, turned around and lined up for a runway 17 departure, he radioed for clearance and we received clearance to take off, turn left and climb to 4500 feet. He did the take off checks, throttled up, and as we began rolling he said, 'The aircraft is yours now'.

I was stunned, and was wondering whether he had no instinct of self preservation at all in having asked a wet-behind-the-ears novice to handle the airplane so early. He must have sensed that, so he said just follow my instructions and you'll be fine. My mind was racing to adjust to the situation, and the engine noise and increasing speed did not help one bit. At 45 knots, he said to wait for 55 and pull back on the control column gently. I watched the numbers on the digital speed tape climb to 54 and at 55, gently pulled it towards me. What followed was probably the single most beautiful moment in my life so far. The Cessna 172 responded effortlessly and i knew we were off. Airborne, in a culmination of effort over so many years. I could not believe it, and I was hoping that the CFI didn't notice that I had slightly teared up with joy.

He pointed out a hill ahead and said there's a temple there that we could go check out. En route the hill, he pointed out the various military establishments scattered around Sagar town, and then asked me to make a gentle right turn. This was followed by instructions to turn left, and as I banked for the turn, he pointed out the temple constructed on top of the hill, and wondered how they constructed it and who visits it since there was no pathway visible leading up to it. For most of the ride, he was more tour guide than instructor, unobtrusively helping out with things like fuel mixture which I haven't yet been taught how to handle. He told me i could relax a bit and let go of one hand from the column, and that's when it really hit me that I was indeed flying. This was no game, this was no book, this was no simulator, it was the real damn deal. I could feel what the airplane was doing, and its responses to the minutest of my inputs. We were still climbing. At 4500, he said i could go a bit further if i want since there was no traffic above us, only two other academy cessnas with my wide eyed colleagues below.

We leveled off at 4800 on a northerly heading, and he pointed out the airfield below to my left and said we should head there. I did as told, and soon we were vertically above the airfield. He asked me to do a tight circle, and while we banked, i could see the layout of the airfield looking out from the window to my left. Coupla circles later, it was time to head north again, and we flew 5 nautical miles north of the airfield parallel to the very same highway we used to commute to the airfield that morning. Seeing the sights that we see on the ride from above was incredible. We even saw the guest house where we stay at, and all of Sagar town was visible in the distance. Huge herds of cattle grazing below made my day. I had once seen cattle from above when i went parasailing, but this was something else entirely. We were encouraged not to take photographs and focus on flying since it is the first time, else I would've clicked it. Later, maybe.

Once the sightseeing was done, I was asked to turn and line up for approach. He pointed to the moving map display that would guide me for it. I lined up pretty well even if i say so myself, and once I confirmed that I had the airfield in sight, he let me continue with the approach. About midway through it, i started questioning his self preservation instinct again, now that it looked like he was gonna let me land the damn kite. I nervously continued the approach, making small corrections to stay on centre, when somewhere between 100 and 50 feet above ground level, i felt inputs from the right side controls. Never once having asked me to relinquish the controls, he made corrective inputs to my flying and led us in to a smooth landing, perfectly timing the deceleration so that we made the first turnout without having to backtrack.

I was amazed at the level of confidence he placed in me, and was in a daze and don't remember one bit of the checklists at the end. I had flown for the first time ever, and in my mind i could now justifiably call myself a pilot, kinda, the license is a matter of legal endorsement :P It's probably the happiest day in my life. As we exited the airplane after signing the flight log, the flight chief told me "Isn't this so much better than driving? There you have all the bloody traffic and cows and you have to keep honking your horn.. " I nodded in agreement, wondering what it would have been like if the Cessna had a horn. The chief has a habit of honking like mad to get cattle to move from the road; i imagine he would honk at the clouds if the cessna were equipped for it.

There was a flurry of phone calls to be made, and after one of the conversation in which a friend asked what i planned to do now since my dream has more or less come true, I was a bit stumped. I guess its a fleeting thing, now that i've caught one, more will show themselves ahead. When I had started working in aviation, friends had told me I got my dream job. At that point, I was in a state where I was so close to the dream, yet so far. With characteristic flight geekiness, I had explained it away using the space shuttle as a metaphor. It was like the shuttle approaching the international space station. When I started this line of work, I was in the vicinity. From the earth, it would look like the shuttle had docked. But docking was a process that required effort and fine tuning to close the gap between the shuttle and the station with utmost precision. I guess that's what i've been doing all this while. Today, it's closed in a bit more. There is so much more distance left, though.

There are so many people I have to thank for putting up with this nonsense of mine over the years :)

Monday, 22 August 2011

Notes on Flying #4 - Crew Profiles and Scuttlebutt..

Flight Chief

Quite apart from the ex Air Force crowd of instructors is the flight chief. There's an air of enigma around him, and we've not heard a consistent one-line description of him. The only common thread in the descriptions we've heard is that he's a kind and gentle chap with a sense of humour. Tall, lanky and with this intense professorial look, he has a knack of putting students at ease just by his behaviour, yet speaks the bare minimum.

His driving, though, put us at distinct unease.

Today was the first time we interacted with him proper, since he shared transport with us back to the guest house. He drove and gave the driver time off, while we piled on in the remaining seats on the Innova. The mental picture I had of him all but shattered when he started driving, as my colleague and I were bumping about in the back seat, holding on for dear life. For a while, I wondered if his driving indicated anything about his piloting. Maybe he considered it tedious, the drive at the end of a day spent flying around. Yet he did seem to be at ease behind the wheel, doing things the way he pleased, passengers be damned. I quit my analysis of him, though, when i suddenly remembered that my mom was once so scared that she jumped off a moped i was driving, and has never sat behind me on a two wheeler in the eleven odd years since then. Oh well, at least we have one thing in common, passengers wondering if they'll ever make it through the ride.

The Boss

I've already introduced him in a previous post, he is the top dog around the place. So much so that the place has collectively breathed a sigh of relief and let things go haywire for a bit now that he's gone on a five day holiday. Prototypically ex air force and a wonderful motivator, and always full of stories. Quite often the classes are stories and you wonder what the point of the stories are, until he cuts to the chase and you realize that the stories were all sequenced to serve a purpose, either to explain a concept to our thick heads or to motivate us in a certain direction. The first time he flew a civil aircraft on a simulator post his air force career, he had a tail strike apparently. He was used to fighter jet reaction times, and the two seconds it took for the Fokker he was flying to respond to his rotate command was too slow and he overcooked it. And burst out laughing. Apparently, further humiliation came when he was flying in malaysia, and the cars on the highway were moving faster than the tiny Piper he was flying. "oye yaar what a shame yaar, the bloody cars are faster than us" in a Punjabi accent made our day. He has very specifically asked me not to answer any of his questions in class, in a bid to curb my 'Me, me me pick me sir, I know the answer' habit.

The comedian

Never in my life did i think i would end up in an aerodynamics lecture. As much as I admire the subject, the actual classes can be mind numbingly boring. Enter, the comedian. I think its fairly admirable when a teacher knows exactly how boring his subject can be, and how difficult it is to keep his pupils engaged, and does everything he can to fight it. Our guy has chosen comedy. His lectures are dotted with jokes, anecdotes and improbable examples. His rationale is that we will remember these jokes, and by association, the concepts he was explaining. I remember dad using a similar tactic to help me with history, a subject I hated as a kid (but am absolutely in love with, now). In any case, I managed to stay awake throughout his lecture, and am now re-familiarized with some of the physics I forgot after 12th standard. Which is funny, because I used to love physics, and my parents and physics tuition teacher (an inspirational man who was working on submarine to submarine communications, and who is no more, unfortunately) had to get together to dissuade me from thinking that physics was a viable career option and that i should go to NID instead.


I'm the wide eyed overgrown kid in the middle. There's this feeling of being home each time i walk into the hangar. I'm still fascinated by airplanes long since science demystified them for me, and my ears still prick up at the sound of a takeoff in a place where takeoff are a dime a dozen. I love the stripe on my shoulder, and keep checking it out from the corner of my eye, and can barely wait to fly solo which will earn me a pair of wings to pin up on my chest. I was never ashamed to be the airplane geek who would drop everything and run to the window at the sound of a plane, and now I'm certainly very proud to be the airplane geek amongst a bunch of airplane geeks. Its unlikely I will ever fly for a living, and I might not get much more flying done that what's required to keep my license, assuming I clear the exams and get it. But for just this once, I wont be worrying about anything in the future other than the 10-12 days from now when flying is scheduled to start. Over the years, I've wondered whether it was the right thing to do, chasing what is essentially a boyhood dream. I can't tell you how glad I am that I did.


#1 - MP. All that people seem to do here is shit. Every morning, there's lines of people sitting by the roadside, lotas by the side. sometimes in the evening too. It's almost as if they wait for us to commute to the airfield. The other day, we noticed a man in a t-shirt that said 'Lota', which was obviously a Lotto rip-off, carrying a lota, walking to a field. Bizzare coincidence.

#2 - Weather. Rather strangely, I have been doing well at meteorology of all things. I have read up on a lot of aspects of aviation over the years, but not this particular subject. I was expecting to be hopeless and it, and the class is indeed boring, but I loved what i was taught about clouds. It's nice to be able to look up at the sky and make sense of the clouds. The sky is a classroom every day.

#3 - Epiphany. All the introspection I've been doing has led me to one. While it was never a stated aim to fly (eventually building planes was the original dream), I realized that consciously or unconsciously, I've been collecting skills and knowledge that would be of use to a pilot. And now I'm on my way to hopefully becoming one. Maybe there is such a thing as fate, after all.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Bike and seek..

This might get lost in between the flight training posts, but it's been kicking around for a while, so i thought i'd post it anyway..

Afternoons were a source of trouble and stories when we were children, but this one is from the evening. Given that we had a year-round capability to get into trouble, it was hardly surprising that every now and then there was a rush to the hospital even during school days when we had a mere two hours to get into trouble. Efficient that we were, these two hour playtimes led to stitches, fractures, casts.. all trophies of our heydays. This particular story is about a fracture.

My brother was lucky, he once broke his arm. He was trying something on the gymnastic high bar at school and fell down on his hand, fracturing his wrist (if i remember correctly). This established two things : my brother was a lousy gymnast, and our physician was a lousy doctor. The doc sent him off after checking his xray, saying that he had no fracture. That weekend, my brother fell from a tree and the doctor who checked him this time round, looked at his old xray and said there was a clear fracture. History is witness that my brother then broke the same wrist a few more times just as it was about to heal, and each time in increasingly bizarre ways. Everyone scribbled on his cast, and he used the cast as a weapon against me when we fought. I wanted a cast, but unfortunately never broke any bones, at least when those things mattered.

Hide and seek was a favourite pastime of ours, and we played hide and seek way beyond the age when it was supposed to become embarrassing. The gang in the colony were isolated from other kids for the most part, and we all went to different schools. It wasn't embarrassing to us, though i doubt few ever told people outside that we played hide and seek every evening after an hour of football or cricket at school. There were very strict rules regarding where we could hide and couldnt, owing mostly to irate neighbours who didn't want us running about looking for hiding places on their property. So the hiding zones were restricted to our yard, a neighbours yard, and a few roads nearby. Wooded areas were vetoed thanks to safety concerns from parents, and that left us with very few options. Yet we continued to innovate on where we could hide, so that the game wouldn't get reduced to a running race where the fastest to get back to base would win.

One such innovation involved the use of bicycles, and was played for a grand total of one day. And I'll tell you why. One of the limitations on the size of our hiding zones was the fact that we were kids of varying ages. The smaller ones wouldn't be able to keep up if we were allowed to hide in vast areas, so there were self imposed area regulations. You could go down the road to Rosey auntie's house for instance, but only as far as the tree opposite, not all the way to the end of her property. Some wise guy came up with the brilliant idea that we should play hide and seek on bicycles. The rules were simple, since we had bicycles, we could hide all over the colony, but had to hide the bicycles too. The guy who came to seek us out would also be on a bicycle, and when spotted, we had to try and beat him back to the gate of my house (which was the base) in order to win. Everyone agreed excitedly, and wondered why we hadn't thought of this before. The game was on.

I found a rather nice place to hide, and since it was a fairly big place, i soon had everyone piling up their bicycles next to mine. We sat there waiting for the seeker to come, and after twenty minutes or so, he finally came and spotted us. The hiding place was in one of the farther reaches of the colony, and what followed next was an epic cycle race, with the seeker in front and all of us trying to catch up so we wont lose. Since everyone had piled their bicycles on to mine, I was the last to leave since extricating my Hercules MTB from the pile took time and effort. But I wasn't unduly worried; the rest were all on small BSA champ type bikes, and i could easily overhaul them with my large set of wheels. The ride back would take about three to four minutes, and i slowly started getting to the front of the pack. Soon enough, my trusty Hercules overtook pretty much everyone, and only my brother and the seeker were ahead. As I pulled alongside to overtake my brother with about twenty yards left to go, he did the sort of dumb thing that younger siblings are prone to do. He popped a wheelie.

I have tried many times since to rationalize his thought process. At a moment when he's ahead of the pack, with only one guy to overtake, and with time running out, when all he should be thinking about was overtaking and winning, what the hell would prompt him to pop a wheelie? And that wasn't the worst part, he didn't even know how to pop a wheelie. The front wheel rose in the air, tilted to the right, and fell down in front of me as I was passing him at high speed. I was thrown forward, and I'm told the cycle did a beautiful airborne spin before landing behind me. The number of spins it did grew each time the story was told, reaching as high as 3 or 4 before we realized it was ridiculous. It took a coupla seconds for the pain to kick in, and I realized something was wrong with my tooth. It wasn't the first time, and it certainly wasn't the last time, my tooth had taken the brunt of impact. Top left incisor partially ground off by asphalt. We never played this brand of hide and seek again.

There was a rush to a dentist, some vague talk of surgery, medications, and finally a cap was fitted to cover up the gap in my smile. An Xray of my tooth was taken, and I was given the tiny postal stamp size film of it which showed two fractures. For me, that was the silver lining. This was no wrist or leg, but two fractures in something that tiny oughta count! Despite the pain, I was elated by the whole Xray affair, and walked into school next day with the postage stamp film that carried precious evidence of glory.

Five minutes later, I was deflated when someone pointed out to those poring over the xray that the fractures on my tooth formed the shape of an underwear.


Monday, 8 August 2011

Notes on Flying #3 - Ground checks..


Madhya Pradesh is stunningly, achingly beautiful in the rains. There is a coat of low grass of an intense light green colour covering the ground evenly as far as the eye can see, and this lawn is punctuated by darker trees and shrubs and streams. Hills rise up seemingly in an effort to break the light green sheath of grass, but the grass has covered them all over, refusing to give up. The only place where there is a break in the colour is where man has intervened with his pickaxes and steam shovels, revealing the dark, almost black, soil underneath. Yet even those man made scars on the earth seem to fit in well with the overall palette of greens on the ground, and greys in the sky. It's all very, very beautiful. And y'know what? I hate it.

I have seen a grand total of one take-off from our pokey little airstrip in the eight days i have spent here. The weather's so miserable for flying that even the birds are taking shelter. We have a paper on the notice board that borrows a line from a US Air Force base whose name I forget, and it says 'There is no justification for flying through a storm in peacetime'. So the planes stay put, and everyone's miserable, itching for the clouds to clear away. And judging by the relentlessness of the weather every single day, we're slowly becoming more and more apprehensive about whether the skies will all clear up by september when we're scheduled to take to the skies.


Normally, post-school kids take 6 months to complete their PPL course. Working on the assumption that executives like us have better knowledge and lesser time, this timeframe has been compressed to 3 months for us. And things are whooshing by, while we make feeble attempts at comprehension. The initial pride and cockiness has all but vanished, and there is a crystal clear appreciation of the task at hand, and our handicaps in achieving the same. Everyone is reacting differently to this, and I can't speak for everyone else, but my approach/mantra is to avoid panic. I am a bit of a worrier, and this will be a tough call, but I figure if i put in more time with the books while I'm away from class, I should have things under control. The biggest potential handicap for me, that of not being an engineer, has been a non-factor so far, and I'm kinda happy to report that even after a break of 9 years, technical concepts come fairly easy. It does help that i spent 9 years reading up a lot, though.

Homework, Tests

Homework has been an alien concept for years now. It is a different matter that I often take office work home, but that is usually a matter of convenience more than compulsion. Homework, tests, uniform.. they all add up to a strange sort of deja vu. It is a lot like school, yet there are significant differences. I actually don't mind the homework, I'm proud of the uniform and look forward to wearing it daily, and tests are seen not as a pass/fail monster but as genuine evaluations of progress. Today the navigation prof threw us a surprise test, and i found old ghosts from school haunting me. I used to have a habit of doggedly sticking with solving a problem while sacrificing potential mark-scoring questions ahead simply because I refused to give up on the one that was bogging me down. I missed out on an entire page of the question paper today that was full of sitters, and was kicking myself afterwards. Errors due to carelessness in basic mathematics is another old ghost from school days that I have to fight yet again. There is a lot of progress to be made ahead.

To be continued..

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Notes on Flying #2 - Powering Up..


Notwithstanding my earlier post about birthdays, and in fact rather reinforcing it, I had an amazing birthday. As if the mere fact that by the happiest of coincidences my flight training started on the very same day wasn't enough, I won a watch in an in-flight raffle of sorts, had two ATR flights which are things I look forward to, and once I got here, the academy folks threw me a surprise party. There is no way I can hope to beat this birthday in the years to come, so I guess it's all downhill from here. I was a bit unhappy that I wouldn't get to celebrate with friends on the exact day (even though we had a good pre birthday party before i left), but the surprise made up for it. There was a cake, and some of it was smeared on my face before the rest was dispatched. The fact that all the faculties in the academy came down made it even better, since we had a good ice breaker session where we got to know each other before classes started full swing.

The Boss, The School.

His voice was dripping with sarcasm as he mentioned the battle with the 'so called West Pakistan'. It was an indicator of his pride in having participated in the war that made the 'West' in West Pakistan redundant. It was a pleasant surprise that the classes started with a lecture on the poetic side of aviation. We were all given a copy of 'Jonathan Livingstone Seagull' wherein the Boss had inscribed,

"I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things" - Antoine de Saint Exupery.

He went on to describe how the mind can become detached when flying, and how that is a time when amazing and beautiful thoughts strike you. This is the fourth time I have been gifted a copy of that book, and it's been a great read every single time. We started off with navigation, and that evening, with the navigation instructor (also e air force) in tow, lost our way back to the hostel. Of course, some of these updates are already on my facebook page, but bear with me anyway.

A friend asked me if I'm sitting at the back of the class. Somehow it seems easy to assume that, I'm told. Unfortunately, I'm a front bencher, and also the annoying geek of the class who goes "Me me me sir, I know the answer, pick me!". Well, almost. These are the most exciting classes I will probably ever attend, so I dont care, I'm gonna enjoy myself.

The highlight so far has been the uniform and the starter kit. We were given uniform shirts and tie, as well as a pilot bag with books, charts, CDs, manuals, noise cancelling headset, and an E6B flight computer. The bag falls into the insanely cool category. I have seen pilots carry those around, but never ever thought I would own one someday. Not even when I got into this course, because I'm headed to be a lowly PPL holder, while the bag is definitely airline pilot territory. Needless to say, we're inseparable.

The place, pilots.

Once the initial romantic picture of rainswept plains lifted, I got a better idea of the place. There is hardly anything around, and this is truly rural India. Not surprisingly, there is a rather feudal mindset amongst the upper class people I've met here, and I'm not entirely sure how comfortable I am with that.

Speaking of uncomfortable things, I have always known that pilots are a vain bunch, and that I myself have had the trait despite not being a pilot (yet), but the extent of that vanity among the kids who are here for their license course is sometimes a bit off-putting. Though, I do like the pilot sense of humour and it feels nice to be among people of that wavelength.

To be continued..