Sunday, 17 June 2012

Countdown to the skies begins!

There isn't much to report this week actually! It's been quite productive in reducing the number of simulator sessions remaining but apart from that quite uneventful.

The football is obviously hotting up in Poland and the Ukraine and we've been lucky enough to see a few games including the second half of the England game the other day. A great forty five minutes which showed signs of what we can hopefully see in coming games! Just the small matter of finishing top of the group and avoiding Spain now! Having said that, with last night's results (Russia and Poland being eliminated) anything could happen!

Since the last post I've been in the simulator again and I now have two more to complete this coming week. The current stage of simulator training is based around flying flight planned routes between airports across the UK and Ireland. Today for example was a short hop from Guernsey to London Gatwick. Obviously, as ever, nothing went smoothly and with a number of failures (including an engine failure only a couple of hundred feet from the runway) I managed to put the plane down on Gatwick's long piece of tarmac in relatively one piece.

With the ground based training coming to an end and we can finally look back above us to the sky it's getting quite exciting. Initially during the first part of the course here in Ireland it was quite refreshing to be able to do something different. Experience different scenarios that only a computer can provide. However the fact that we've been on the ground for a couple of months it's starting to niggle away and will be liberating getting back into the plane once more.

Last week, as part of the course structure we spent a couple of hours looking around the aircraft here in Waterford and familiarising ourselves with the older and less 'computer based' Piper Seminoles they operate here in Ireland. They're all very similar yet I'm sure they all offer something very different. It was also a good opportunity to have a look around the maintenance facility they have here at PTC. There wasn't much work going on when we had a quick peek but it's clear by the state of the aircraft sat in the hanger that they're very well looked after.

I'm hoping I'll make it into the aircraft within the week and get underway with the five flights we have to complete before the all important check ride.

Finally, the weather over the past few days has been nothing short of appalling. The winds have been strong and the rainfall equally so. When flight planning a couple of days ago in the Planning Room we became aware that the based Aer Arann aircraft was due in from London Luton. With the weather being so horrible we thought it'd be pretty interesting to see the aircraft make it's approach and landing. We duly headed up to the top floor which overlooks the airfield.

Below is a video of the aircraft landing and I must compliment the flight crew who made it look extremely easy!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Never take your eye off the ball...or indeed the runway!

It's been a week of bits and bobs! Not much progress in the simulator but a few things happening outside of it to keep myself busy. The European championships are now in full swing which should hopefully take us through to the conclusion of our training here in Waterford. As well as that we've visited the tower on two separate occasions with things happening on both tours. There was also an interesting situation regarding a commercial flight doing a bit of 'off-roading!' I'll explain later on.

Firstly I managed to get in the simulator on Tuesday evening which was indeed quite challenging; as we come to reach the end of our time in the box. Since then I've observed one flight and had a ground lesson. Thankfully in the coming ten days or so we should really start to push to getting to the aircraft stage of the IR training. Having seen a couple of friends who have only just this week completed their course entirely it is time to start to come to terms with the fact that this part of our separate careers will shortly be coming to a close and we look to the future (which isn't too far in the distance!) where we begin training with the airline.

Having been told my base back towards the end of the ATPL period I have kept it quite low key (in fact hardly anyone knew until after we finished the exams - not wanting to tempt fate!) and in the same email we were given a start date for the commencement of our Type Rating which will be towards the end of July.

The Type Rating is the part of the training where we will be taught how to fly the exact type of aircraft we will be flying. This is done through ground school, simulator training and then finally taking to the right seat where we will be under supervision and scrutiny for a certain number of flights. I'll be sure to explain more how that works as the training continues.

So, with a short time until the commencement of our further training it's time to start to look at properties, cars, future plans etc. and try to build a life again after spending fourteen months cocooned in the world of PTC. It is going to be a weird feeling but one I am quite looking forward to!

But...before this takes place there are two final hurdles. The IR exam and the MCC/JOC (our final basic training course that I will also explain in a future post). 

During our ground lesson on Friday evening, we were given the opportunity to visit the control tower here at Waterford. The airport is not Heathrow by any means but does provide a valuable and in some cases is a critical necessity to the city. It was great to meet such an enthusiastic controller who is superb at his job. He was very kind in showing us a number of the systems they use in controlling and planning at such a small field. It was great to see him liaise between the main ATC head quarters of Ireland in Shannon as well as Aer Arann's operations department in Dublin simultaneously to make sure the aircraft rotation was completed efficiently and correctly.

What was interesting at the time of our visit was the potential problem facing the crew at the time. The winds had been terrible all day and had been the cause of two flights in the morning being cancelled. One to London Southend and the second to Manchester. The afternoon Luton flight had managed to depart and we had arrived just in time for their delayed arrival back from the north London airport.

Again the winds were causing a problem for the airport and inbound traffic. Throughout the approach the controller was talking to the flight deck of the Aer Arann plane giving him live (2 minute average) winds for the field. The aircraft, under orders from the company, would only be able to land if the winds were at or below 25kts crosswind. It was going to be close.

As the aircraft turned on to final the winds died down and the aircraft was cleared to land. It was certainly an interesting approach with mother nature giving all those on board a bit of a ride but the aircraft was soon safe on the ground after a firm arrival. A very good job by those at the controls.

Unfortunately their work wasn't done. They had passengers to disembark as well as board while the plane was fed fresh Jet A fuel for the ride back to London, this time to Southend. Again, we got to experience first hand the work involved by the tower in providing all the necessary information to the crew before departure. It was also pretty cool seeing the whole operation with an unobstructed view from above.

Following our first visit we again made arrangements to head on up to the highest point on the field on Saturday. This was to see the arrival and departure of the daily Flybe flight to Birmingham. This flight began only shortly before we began training here in Waterford and has since struggled with loads but with a revised summer timetable and a bit of advertisement and awareness this route will hopefully pick up.

We arrived in the tower and met two of the other controllers who we would be working with over the coming weeks when we get into the planes and begin to practice what we have learnt in the simulator. Both again seemed extremely competent in their roles and it's quite comforting to know we're in the hands of people who really know what they're doing and do so in a calm, concise and professional manner.

As we entered the room we heard the Flybe aircraft make it's first contact.

"Waterford Tower, Jersey 755 is 20DME, flight level 80."

"Jersey 755, good afternoon. QNH 1015, ILS runway 21 in use. You're cleared to descend at your discretion to 4000ft; report established on the arc."

The above gives the aircraft approach instructions as well as key information about the airfield at that time.

We could slowly start to see the aircraft approaching in the distance. 

"Jersey 755, report established on the localiser."

The aircraft continued it's approach until it received the correct information from the signal being sent from the far end of the runway.

"Jersey 755 is established on the localiser, 10DME."

This is the crew confirming that they're now established on final and reporting that they're approximately ten nautical miles from the airport.

"Jersey 755, roger, continue your approach."

As the aircraft became larger in view the time had come for the controller to issue the magic words.

"Jersey 755, you are cleared to land runway 21; winds are 250, 14 knots."

"Cleared to land runway 21, Jersey 755."

The aircraft arrived as smoothly as it is possible for a Bombardier Dash 8-Q400 and backtracked to park on stand. A quick change around and the flight deck requested it's departure clearances.

"Jersey 2FV, you are cleared to Birmingham and filed, route direct Strumble; initial flight level 130." 

These words basically give the crew their instructions for the motorways (or highways) in the skies. In the aviation world they're called 'airways.' It also clears the aircraft up to 13,000ft. Before reaching that altitude the pilot not flying will be talking to Shannon control who will indeed clear the aircraft to the higher realms of the clouds.

There was a bit going on at the time the aircraft was waiting to depart including the local coast guard, the flight school and general aviation all causing work for the busy controller.

Soon enough the other magic words of "you're cleared for take-off" were issued by the man next to us and the turboprop engines were both filled with that all important juice. The Q400 accelerated down the runway at frightening speed before coming airbourne within half of the runway length and indeed followed by point it's nose towards the heavens. That thing climbs like nothing I have ever seen before. The words 'homesick angel' are often overused but I think in this case they're very relevant.

The controller said that for the Aer Arann flights he would ask that the crew report passing through 4,000ft where he would duly request they contact their next frequency. He then went on to say he asked the same question of the Flybe flight to which the reply was "we're already at 5,500ft..." I am certainly looking forward to getting to work in that office in the near future!

Finally, when we were in the simulator last week we were informed quite early on that the Flybe flight in from Birmingham had slipped a wheel off of the runway while trying to turn around to depart. Quickly enough we headed upstairs to a meeting room where we saw from the window the stuck aircraft.

I wouldn't like to comment on what took place as the report hasn't been released but unfortunately it led to the airport being closed for the evening due to the aircraft being on the only runway available at the field.

So a lesson learned - 100% awareness is needed 100% of the time!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Home for the weekend

It's been a couple of weeks since I've updated the blog. I've actually managed to get quite a bit in! I've been up for the first time into the air in Waterford, completed a number of simulator sessions and returned to the UK for a great weekend enjoying the early summer.

The simulator is progressing slowly, a little slower than planned or wanted but all the same it's moving. I've now completed thirteen simulator sessions with another seven to go. In the past fourteen days or so we have progressed from the basics to working with single engine and more in depth and demanding approaches. It's also great to see the instructors adding in certain tricks. Last night being a prime example.

An ILS approach is something that is the norm for most major and smaller airports across the glove. It stands for 'Instrument Landing System' and is designed for the final approach to landing by giving a vertical and horizontal approach path. The system is quite basic in design but in today's larger more advanced aircraft it can be used to put the plane on the ground in zero visibility and bring it almost to a stop on the runway, all with the use of computers.

Unfortunately for us our aircraft aren't capable of doing that and neither will our licenses be when we leave here from PTC. We are however trained to fly, solely by the use of the instruments, to follow the ILS down to 200ft above the aerodrome. Having yet to experience it in a real situation, the simulator can create something like what we can expect in the air. It is quite an amazing sight and satisfying feeling to pop out of the clouds only 200ft above the surface with lights glaring at you from the terrain.

Anyway, I digress. We were situated at Blackpool airport in the 'sim', a local airport in the UK where in the real world a small number of airlines use. We departed and headed towards the larger and more well known Manchester airport just 40 miles away. On approach we were giving our approach procedure. We were told to fly over the airfield and track a radial (track over the ground - I'll explain in a future post) to a certain distance from the airport. We would then make a series of turns to in effect make a 180 degree change of direction to follow the approach path to Manchester Airport runway 23R.

To follow the ILS we need to insert a frequency into the aircraft computers which in turn create the vertical and horizontal profiles on our dials in front of us. Frequencies obtained and entered in to the system we began the final approach. 

To confirm that we indeed have the correct signal we are required to 'ident.' This will give us a Morse Code to confirm we are receiving the correct signal from the correct station. They're usually identifiable by three letters. Manchester, being quite a large airport, has more than one ILS station (in fact it has three!) so there is the chance (well, in the simulator there is...) of there being an incorrect signal being received from a different runway which uses that same frequency.

It's all very complicated I know but the general gist of the story is that we had not correctly identified the signal and therefore were following a signal desired for the other end of the runway. Our confusion intensified as we continued on our intercepting heading for a far greater time than would be required. 

If this were to happen in real life and we did indeed overshoot and end up somewhere we really weren't supposed to be, especially in such busy airspace as the north west of England (I dread to even think about the south east near London!) then it could all get just a little bit messy...

Obviously the likelihood of this happening in real life is slim to none with the safety factors put in to such equipment and the procedures in place to make sure that only the correct signals are being sent on the correct frequencies. However, having experienced it in a simulator, it's certainly not something I plan to experience in real life any time soon!

Alongside the simulator I have also managed to jump in the back of one flight around the local area here in Waterford. The weather after arriving hadn't been spectacular but this particular afternoon the weatherman was on our side and I headed up in to the Irish sky for the first time. 

It was such a change from what we have experienced over in the US. First and foremost the radio telephony is far more strict and advanced here in Europe and the there was no doubt from the tower of what he wanted us to do that afternoon. It's very impressive to hear the crisp, professional and efficient radio calls being used. It's something I think I am going to like.

Anyway, we headed out to the south Irish sea and performed a number of approaches in to Waterford. It's great to actually see them being performed in the aircraft as opposed to just in the simulator - it's also seems much easier as well! The flight was quite short at just over ninety minutes and soon enough we were back down on the ground.

The whole operation with regards to the flying stage over here is a complete contrast from that in Melbourne, Florida. 

With over forty aircraft, state of the art ground facilities and hundreds of students, the FIT facilities at Melbourne International; as I have referred to before, are some of the best you can experience anywhere in the world. The size of the operation makes everything much more affordable and accommodating.

Here in Waterford, where the operation is on a much smaller scale the facilities are there to mirror that. For example, in the States the majority of aircraft parking spots were 'drive through' style where one could park and then the following student simply taxi the aircraft forward and back onto an active taxiway. This worked very well and meant there was no need to push the aircraft. 

Here the process is a little different. The aircraft is parked near the hangars and pointed in the direction easiest for the re-fueler. It is then the duty of the instructor and student to push the aircraft back in to a suitable position for start up and taxi.

All in all the flying when airbourne is very similar. I'm not saying the facilities here are any worse than those in Florida, just that they shouldn't be compared for obvious reasons.

In the simulator last week, both myself and my simulator partner were unfortunate enough to have three sessions cancelled between us due to the simulator having technical faults - we still say that it wasn't our faults! This was something that was quite frustrating but obviously there is nothing we could do! 

Fortunately, after the final cancellation I was able to jump on a plane from Dublin back to the UK for the weekend. It was great to get home and enjoy the fantastic weather that we seemed to be missing down here in the south east of the Republic. 

Having enjoyed the great weather at home hopped back over the Irish Sea early Monday morning to head straight back in to the simulator in the afternoon. Upon our arrival back here we were told the weather hadn't much improved and they had only had one day of sunshine - this made the trip home sound even more rewarding!

The arrival of the remainder of our class two weeks ago from the US has added a little bit more life in to the place with the downside now being that there are a lot more students to use the facilities here. We have received our schedules for the up coming two weeks and thankfully we should be getting a significant number of 'events' but there is still a lot of downtime to play with. 

With a completion date now set to be at the start of July here in Waterford we'll head up to Dublin for a week to complete our MCC/JOC in the larger, more sophisticated simulators. This will realistically leave us with about two weeks before starting the the Type Rating in England.

This will be a very short space of time to sort out housing and transport etc (I love car shopping!) but we are some of the very fortunate so it's something we're just going to have to put up with...