Monday, 12 September 2011

Notes on Flying #7 - Land Ahoy..

VT-CAD -Faithful steed so far..

"Victor Alpha Delta turning finals one seven"

That was the call for me to start running. It might as well have been the wail of an air raid siren, given the urgency with which I ran down the spiral staircase from the air traffic control tower. The tower is a favourite hangout of mine, I can spend hours sitting there helping the controllers, keeping a lookout for dogs with the binoculars, listening to the radio chatter.. I had gone up there early in the morning since I knew I was number two in the schedule for today, and I had time to kill. The chief, under whose tutelage I am, likes to have his pupils ready with the paperwork  by the time he walks into the hangar after parking his aircraft, so that the next sortie can begin with the minimum of delay. He rues the fact that the DGCA lets him fly only six hours a day, and I suspect he would fly at least double that if things were left to him. I take one last glance at the LCD screen with the weather displayed on it, making a mental note of the outside air temperature and the QNH (pressure), and hightail it out of there. 

I have a routine going. If I start the paperwork when he's on final approach, I can get it done by the time he parks. Today he's on a super short final, so I have to run. And I have to run faster because I left my headset in the classroom instead of bringing it to the hangar with me. I'm already using the temperature and pressure information to do the preflight calculations in my head as i run to fetch my headset. I haven't been using math much in the past many years, so I'm prone to mistakes, and these will be cross checked on a scientific calculator app on my android phone after I fill out the necessary dispatch forms. I run into a colleague on the way, there's no time for pleasantries, but i have to stop anyway. This throws off my calculations, and I start again as I start running. Ten minutes later, paperwork has been filled and signed, and I'm standing at the edge of the apron waiting to head to preflight. I've beaten him by about 30 seconds, and feel a bit smug about it. Maybe the student he was with was taxiing too slow. 

No words are exchanged as I'm waved off to do the preflight for my sortie on the very same aircraft that just landed, Alpha Delta. She's our regular bird, and I like her quite a bit. She's a bit of a drama queen and we've had our adventures, and i'd prefer a drama queen over a hangar queen any day. I take off across the apron towards her, not unlike a relay runner who's just been handed the baton. It's my way of putting the chief on notice : your break is short, man, I'm gonna get her flight ready before you can spell out her callsign. But today, that was not to be. As i walked around to the nose, i saw it was covered in blood and feathers. Same story with the propellers, as well as the air filter intake. I debated whether to call maintenance right away, or go ahead and preflight it before calling them. I chose the latter, since there didn't seem to be any damage (though maintenance would be the final authority on that) and the victim seemed to be a small bird, possibly a sparrow, judging from the feathers. 

I preflighted alpha delta, and then called the chief over and showed him the evidence. He had not even realized that they had struck a bird, and that further cemented my sparrow theory. Maintenance were called to take a look, and they opened up the engine cowling to confirm that there was no damage, nor were there any bird remnants inside. We were cleared to go, and ten minutes later, we were at 5000 feet cursing the clouds that were towering all around us. The lesson for today was stalls, and we could barely manage any thanks to deteriorating weather, and we soon called the tower to let them know we were returning. We reached overhead the airfield and were soon descending into the circuit pattern for approach. He was letting me do all the flying , and I was trying my best to keep her at 60-65 knots in a controlled descent with flaps down. 

At each turn in the pattern, I would make the appropriate radio call. Radios are wicked cool, and I love the way they make you sound. I wish i could travel faster than light (and therefore, radio waves) so that I can make a radio call and be at the other end to figure what i sound like (:P). or i could get someone to record it for me, but somehow that just won't cut it. back to the story, i was gliding down, all parameters within limits, and we were approaching the point where we turn for final approach. Usually when the weather packs up, I hand over controls before we commence approach, and he usually flies it down while i keep my hands on the control column to feel and understand whats going on . Today, despite the weather threatening a massive tantrum, i still had the controls. Turn finals, the command came. And i began the turn, fighting to keep everything nice and green, expecting him to take over soon. Call the tower, next command. This was even more unexpected, since he was usually in the habit of stepping in and helping with radio calls when i'm overloaded with the mere task of controlling the airplane. This was contrary to that, piling it on in a situation i didn't think i was on top of. I added the radio call to my already overflowing plate, and promptly began losing altitude, a fact i noticed only after the radio call. this, though, did not stop me from trying to sound as cool as possible on the radio, trying to emulate a veteran airline pilot on an instrument approach into a busy major airport. 

The chief drew my attention to my altitude, and the smugness of having made a decent radio call evaporated, and I was soon fighting to regain height. The current path would see me landing in the trees outside the runway fence, and we certainly did not want that. At this point, it struck me that he had no intentions of taking over controls. I looked at him enquiringly, and he waved for me to keep going. The inquisitive look away from the instruments cost me airspeed, so further corrections were in order. I completed the turn, and ended up nice and straight and level, about 80 feet left of the runway. The chief turned with a look that said 'what do you think you're doing?', and i immediately started wrestling the Cessna to the right to align with the runway in the very short time we had left. Kill power, the command came, and i pulled out the throttle. we were gliding down for the runway, it was looming up faster than i'd imagined it would, but then theory lessons came back in a rush when i felt the plane float in ground effect. I kicked the rudder for some last minute corrections, and heard 'good' from the right seat, since I had anticipated correctly. The wheels came down with a sound that was halfway between a thud and a crunch, and we were down, for a millisecond. We bounced back into the air, and must've travelled 30-50 feet down the runway by my estimation. The call came from the right to pull back on the controls, but i did not respond quickly enough, so the chief took over and brought us down a second time, and handed over to me to roll out and taxi. None of this would be reflected in the taxi clearance radio call, for which i would assume my airline pilot impression once again, giving no indication of the excitement i had just been through. 

There was something I had omitted in the story so far, it was the chief's birthday today. As we were going through the pre startup checks, he got a phone call, and I initially thought he was talking to me, not having seen the phone tucked under his headset. His son had called to wish him from back home. I was told that he wanted to spend his birthday with the family, but couldn't because too many students were waiting to be cleared. My respect for his job (as well as those of the assistant flight instructors) increases by the day. I have been fortunate to have a lot of amazing teachers in my life, but these guys are a level apart. While not discounting the others, it has to be said that it takes a lot of guts to get into the cockpit day after day, hour after hour, placing their confidence and perhaps even lives in the hands of novice after novice putting the plane through their stupidities. And that realization alone is enough for me to put in all the effort i possibly can. 

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Notes on Flying #6 - Unscheduled Operations

I woke up on time, walked out to the balcony to wait for my roommate to leave the bathroom so I could start my day. It was pouring, like yesterday. My heart sank, I could barely believe that the weather would be this foul two days in a row. Cats and dogs. I deliberately slowed down my pace, knowing fully well I would be late when the cab starts honking its horn. I was fifteen minutes late. The chief was already in the cab, and as soon as i closed the door, he turned to me with a grin and asked if i'd overslept. I did not offer an explanation. 

There was just enough light when we reached the airfield. Miraculously, the rain had stopped in the course of our twenty odd minute commute, and there was even a break in the clouds. The chief turned to me and asked me to get alpha delta (tail number) flight ready asap. I looked in disbelief, then i ran before he could repeat himself. Checklists, sunglasses, headset, notebook and map in hand, i flew through the corridors, out the door, into the apron. Engineering department scrambled after me, they were to clear the airplane before i could pre-flight it. we did our checks in parallel. me on one side, engineering on the other. fuel was drained and checked, wings were clambered on, oil was wiped off on trouser legs, alpha delta was ready. 

While we were doing the startup checks, alpha mike started up and left for the runway. We followed behind, stopping behind them on the taxiway. I was still not fully familiar with taxiing, chief was handling the plane on the ground through the tricky parts. He was assisting with the checks as well, and handled radios himself. once alpha mike departed, we started our checks. stood on the brakes and throttled up to full power to conduct magneto tests, and once all was clear, we lined up. from here on, the aircraft was mine. i peeled my eyes for 55 knots on the display, while struggling to keep her on runway centreline. at 55 knots, she started the climb without much help from my side. alpha delta was in a hurry to get things going. we were soon on course for training area juliet. we were hoping for area bravo, which is easier to get to, but alpha mike beat us to it. 

The lessons went by, one after the other. climb, descend, turn, level. I remembered the chiefs words about level flight being the toughest. I was determined to keep the airplane +/- 50 feet and +/- 5 degrees of specified altitude and heading. I was not successful initially, but managed fairly well by the end of the sortie. I heard the distinctly tamilian accent of my roommate, left seat in alpha mike, making baby steps in radio phraseology. he did a radio check call. chief suddenly got the same idea, and asked me to do the next call. it was time for us to return, and i said into the radio
"Victor Alpha Delta, inbound from Juliet, request rejoin runway three five"
"Victor Alpha Delta, descend to three thousand, report overhead", tower responded. 
"Overhead three thousand, alpha delta", I acknowledged. Chief wasn't expecting me to do that. He did not know that I've had practice. He gave me an emphatic thumbs up indicating his approval. Perhaps a bit too emphatic for the cramped confines of our Cessna. Approach was uneventful, and this time he started helping me only at about twenty feet above ground. My own landing is a while away, though I can wait. 

I hung around the hangar, since a second flight was tentative. I sat in the ATC tower listening to calls being made by airborne colleagues, wondering if the weather will pack up before i got airborne again. Three o clock seemed a long time away. I decided to check with the chief, and went and poked my head into his office. He wasn't there, but he had seen me when standing below in the hangar, and was making comical hailing gestures to get my attention. I walked over and he said to be ready in an hour, we were going again. What exactly we were flying for, I had no idea, since we weren't briefed on the next lesson. Did I care? No, I was gonna fly. I hung around the place with my flight paraphernalia, and as soon as he landed again, started with my paperwork. Pre-flight was quicker, i noted with joy, and having verified that we had just about enough fuel for two and a half hours, we set off on another hours sortie. This time there were fewer words from the right seat. I was handling radios right from the start. 

In fact, there was hardly any help coming from the right seat. I soon had the propellers turning, and found out that I will be taxiing as well. Once I was done with the rather thrilling experience of the full throttle and magneto tests, I found out that I was to be backtracking and lining up as well. It takes a lot to place confidence in a rookie to do a differential braking 180 degree turn, and i did my best not to bungle it. With some wrestling, we were lined up and ready for departure. Clearances were acquired, and we were rolling. This sortie was to be something else entirely. As soon as we were airborne, we were buffeted by winds. Cloud base was low, and winds were gusting, and to make things worse, I was in too steep a climb. There was a nonstop stream of instructions from the right seat that i struggled to follow, though never once was control taken away.

As we climbed, we passed about twenty feet under an eagle. A beautiful, majestic, magnificent bird, every detail of it etched in my mind. Seeing the bird pass by so close scared the living daylights out of me, and I saw the bird in slow motion, drinking in the details which triggered off a series of thoughts in my head that are best left for another post. Chief did not seem overly perturbed, so we continued with the program. We headed to the assigned training area, only to find that it had started raining there. It was amazing, flying in the rain. I could not see a damn thing out the window that would help me fly the plane, but unlike inside a cloud, you could still see vague shapes and colours which was a bit reassuring. I later went through the even whiteness inside a cloud, and that was a little weird since you have no visual cues whatsoever. The clouds were everywhere, and we had to weave between them. 

ATC assigned us a different area, and we headed there only to find the same story. It was raining there as well, though slightly less. We decided to make the best of the situation, and I learnt about climbing turns, level turns and descending turns while turning to avoid nasty clouds. Doing all of this while being buffeted about in our tiny cessna, and making radio calls all the while, was testing to say the least. I kept missing out little things, though I suppose there's enough time to perfect all of that. The second half of the flight was almost wordless, with the chief making only hand gestures when he wanted me to do something, and occasionally saying 'good, excellent' when i anticipated something he wanted me to do. which, of course, i obviously got a kick out of. lessons complete, we headed back for the airfield. i botched the approach this time, though, and turned in too high. chief took over at this point and flew her down, since we wouldve had to go around if i had continued flying, and with weather threatening to pack up, none of us were too keen on spending more time in the air. we came in for a bouncy landing, and i was given the job of taxiing alpha delta back to the apron. the debrief was short and positive, so after helping push the airplane into position on the ramp and completing the post flight paperwork, we went our separate ways for lunch. 

I found out that the chief sardar was looking for me, since I apparently wasn't scheduled to fly. the rest of my colleagues had been rounded up and sent to a lecture while i was darting in and out of clouds. I was drained from the flying, but i my grin widened a few millimeters when i found out that not only was i the only one to fly, everyone else was stuck in a boring lecture. It was a good day, and the flight story continues..