Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Like a homesick angel

Finally, after three months firmly planted on the ground I've managed to get back into the aircraft and put some hours on the metre.

Since the problems associated with PTC arose we have changed our training plan to try to accomodate the tight schedule we are working towards. With this change we completed the MCC/JOC as explained before finishing our Instrument Rating, something we were mostly through in Waterford only weeks ago.

So, after enjoying ourselves in Dublin for ten days we headed down to Cork. The weather over the past couple of weeks has been much improved and we have benefited massively from this during the flying stage here in the south west of the country.

The aircraft we have been using here in Cork is slightly different to that we have been used to up until now. It is the larger, more powerful brother of the Piper Seminole; the Piper Seneca. With it's increased power and turbochargers it allows the plane to climb to higher altitudes and therefore operate more efficiently. There is also significantly more room in the back which makes it much more comfortable for those observing!

With the new plane come new procedures, practices and numbers to learn and become familiar with. I must say the first flight was quite different compared to what I have been used to although the basic principles of the aircraft and instrumentation were the same.

The weather was perfect for IFR flying after three months stuck on the ground. The cloud was overcast at just 400ft above the ground and stopped just over 2000ft above our heads. After rotation and gear retraction we were deep in the water vapor climbing to the higher altitudes.

As expected, we burst out of the blanket of the white puffy good stuff around 2,500ft into glorious sunshine, something those on the ground could only dream about at the time. We could see for miles. The sun filled the cockpit with light. Time for the sunglasses.

After getting over the awe of seeing such a wondering sight as we partook in some cloud surfing; it was time to get to know the aircraft a little bit more. We completed some basic handling of the aeroplane and headed back towards Cork for an instrument approach with one engine.

In reversal of the departure the sun disappeared as we pointed our nose back towards the earth. Deep in cloud we discussed the approach and Cork Approach kindly vectored us onto the final flight path to Runway 35.

We continued descending along the glideslope, a fictitious line which controls the vertical flight path of an approaching airplane and experienced for the first time myself; the sight of popping out of the clouds only a few hundred feet high to see gleaming runway lights ahead. This stuff really does work! A sight I will never tire of. That feeling of not being able to see where you're going yet so precisely navigating your way down to that strip of tarmac a short distance ahead is one of the great wonders of aviation and something I don't think enough people appreciate. Certainly those living in climates such as ours where clouds are just part of the furniture! This technology is adopted in the most advanced aircraft flying today as well as our thirty five year old Seneca.

After the first flight the taste of flying had once again attached itself well and truly to the pallet. The following day we were back in the aircraft. Unfortunately for us (but I would imagine most would disagree) the weather was much more favorable for those on the ground wanting to enjoy a bit of sun. There were clouds scattered across the sky but mostly visual conditions. Because of this and the type of training we're undertaking we wear something called a 'hood' as seen below:

This is designed so that we cannot see outside yet our vision of the instrumentation in front of us is not affected. It's not the greatest solution in the world but in theory we only have the gauges in front of us, as well as our stomach to keep us straight and level and (generally!) heading in the right direction.

Again, we were familiarising ourselves to the aeroplane but bringing more laborious tasks for the floor. Finally we were becoming more comfortable with the machine. Adding another two hours to the log book was the aim and after some approaches around Cork we were safely back on the ground at the projected time.

After another flight in the local area where we cemented everything we weren't particularly happy with it was time to plan the first sortie to a different airport, and where better than where we had just come from!

Waterford is only a short hop east from Cork taking in some of the best sights that the Republic of Ireland has to offer. Since getting back into the air one stand out benefit of flying in this region is the views when the clouds are lacking. Not that I look from under my 'hood!'

Our journey across the south coast would take us direct between the two airport. The sun was setting and the sky was looking inviting. This was going to be a very enjoyable flight!

As always the Seneca rumbled down the runway eager to climb to the lower flight levels. Immediately after departure we turned right and headed on course. Climbing to FL70 (roughly 7000ft dependent on the weather) we sat comfortably in the cruise listening to Shannon ATC who were very helpful in advising us along our route.

Being such a short sector I was soon preparing for descent. Descent distances and approach calculated and verified we started to drop down to the designated altitude of 3,500ft. Runway 03 was active at the time which, following our approach profile would mean quite a rapid descent onto final.

Aircraft configured and clearance for the touch and go transmitted we continued towards the runway. I joked with the instructor that this would actually be the first time I would touchdown myself in Waterford, somewhere I had been training for two and half months.

One thing I have noticed about the Seneca is it's forgiveness when it comes to landing. I have found it quite easy to flare and touchdown compared to the Seminole.

Back in the air we entered the hold over Waterford. A 'hold' is a procedure that is used mainly at large airports and is notorious at Heathrow where traffic figures are at eye watering levels. Obviously anyone flying into Heathrow has technology I would dread to have to explain that would fly the perfect hold over any made up point. However, the basically principles of instrument flying dictate that we should manually be able to fly what is in essence a race track at a certain altitude. Sounds easy, but when taking into account the wind it can become a bit of a nightmare. Luckily we're taught how to execute these with surprising accuracy. A couple of trips around the hold and it was time for one more approach before heading back to Cork.

On approach back into Cork we were told by ATC that we would be number two for landing following an ATR aircraft behind us. A regional aircraft that carries up to 72 people. It is notorious for being extremely fuel efficient but equally for being extremely slow. This was our time to shine. Could we beat the turboprop into Cork and jump up to number one for landing? Power increased we set upon our destination with a new sense of purpose.

"GJO turn left heading 160, let me know when you have visual with the ATR passing overhead at your ten o'clock."

Crap. It wasn't until it came onto short final that we would have had a chance of keeping up pace and unfortunately we had well and truly run out of time. Maybe next time...

Landing back in Cork at night was again one of those 'pinch me' moments. The airport is built on the top of  a hill (I still want to know who's 'great' idea that was!) and the city sits below to the north east of the field. As we approached over the sea from the south we could see the metro fill the sky with light and colour. I've been fortunately to see many a city lit up a night but adding in the fantastic coastline here the distinction between absolute darkness and light really did paint a rewarding picture.

We continued as per ATC instruction. Soon we were cleared to follow the approach for Runway 35. The runway came into view. Similar to the first flight the airport was showing it's full glory with the most advanced landing lighting system on the market there to help guide us visually to the touchdown spot. Again, a sight I just know is going to take a long time to become the norm.

The appetite for route flying was enhanced and a little trick we had planned to eliminate the hours remaining was going to be more rewarding than we had expected.

The following morning we prepared our long day of flying. We had built an itinerary taking us to three different countries, three new airports and over many different cities and landmarks. Leaving Cork we were to head up over Dublin towards Belfast, complete a couple of approaches into the Northern Irish capital and then position to Blackpool in the north west of England, overflying the Isle of Man en route. Following a short lunch and fuel stop we would depart the seaside resort and head back across the sea to Dublin, down to Shannon on the west coast of the Republic before returning to home base.

With our flight plan filed for 09:30am and shortly afterwards our engines were running and we were rolling down Runway 17. Rotating towards the south we soon made a left turn to point the nose towards the capital city.

The weather was glorious, matched only by the in flight entertainment - the scenery. As we approached Dublin we were told to climb to FL100 and head direct to a reporting point on the Irish boarder cutting out quite a bit of time.

It was great to be listening to a busy ATC frequency dealing with a lot of local, European and transatlantic traffic; something we will certainly have to get used to when entering the role on a commercial basis.

Upon reaching the boarder we were passed over to Belfast Approach. Now we were in UK airspace. Serious stuff. The UK is known for it's extremely strict radio telephony. So much so most of the world have adopted their published document containing all the relevant terminology to be used over the airways! Being strict obviously doesn't have to mean they're not being friendly and sure enough the controllers were extremely accommodating in meeting all of our needs before we departed over the city towards England.

"GJO, contact Scottish Control; good day."

Scottish is the prefix for the majority of the ATC stations available in the north of the UK and into the accompanying seas. With Shanwick (based in Shannon, Ireland) they also control the eastern side of the north Atlantic, dealing with hundreds of flights crossing over the pond everyday. Since returning from the USA I have noticed how very professional controllers have been. They're very precise in what they want and how they want it done. 

When in Dublin undertaking the MCC/JOC course we were instructed by a couple of ex-Aer Lingus captains who had nothing but praise for UK ATC, especially those operating around the London area. One went as far as to say that the Heathrow controllers were "by far the best in the world at what they do." 

Being in the safe hands of Scottish Control we continued past the Isle of Man, famous for a number of reasons, most notably the TT racing. 

On approaching Blackpool we had a bit of time still to burn off. It was either fly to the airport and hold above it or do something a bit more interesting. Being a 'local boy' to the north west we decided to cancel our IFR flight plan and head for a bit of VFR flying. North of Blackpool is the Lake District, for me one of the most picturesque regions I have ever visited. I'm very fortunate to have lived within an hours drive for my entire life. Heading into Morecambe Bay, with the Lake District on our left and Lancaster and Morecambe on our right we turned south bound to pass over 'home.' I had never flown over the city I know so well so it was refreshing to see the region from such a different perspective. Needless to say the camera was being exhausted as we did a couple of circuits above!

Soon enough, after the sight-seeing was complete it was time to head further south to Blackpool. The airport is very familiar to me having done a number of hours there a few years ago in the Piper Warrior. I've also flown as a passenger from the field on numerous occasions as well as completing two weeks work experience there when I was in school.

"GJO good afternoon, you are cleared to land Runway 28."

Many sports fans amongst you will know that the golf has been taking place this weekend just passed and fewer of you will know that Blackpool is the local terminal where many of the world famous golfers have parked their toys for the days they have been spending in the country. 

Upon landing we were able to see Tiger Wood's aircraft parked up as well as many other large corporate jets all in to see the one of the sports flagship events. While we were in the city we saw a constant stream of jets and helicopters arriving from across the globe - I reassured both colleagues that this wasn't the norm!

After parking up, it was time for a spot of lunch. With a limited turn around time due to our filed flight plan for the flight back to Ireland it was short and sweet. Soon enough we were back in the plane getting ready to spend another few hours in the air.

Before leaving however, we were extremely fortunate to see one of the greatest and most iconic aircraft ever built in pristine condition coming in to fuel up. The Spitfire. Once the greatest fighters ever to be built, it featured predominantly in the second world war.

I was surprised by how large the aircraft was. An amazing piece of engineering coupled with spectacular piloting skills that helped decide the outlook of the modern western world.

"BJO, cleared take-off Runway 28, winds are zero four knots and two three zero."

As we have come to learn about this aeroplane she doesn't like to spend long on the ground and soon enough we were soaring over Blackpool beach. Once the hot spot for British holidaymakers it is now a very different picture.

The return journey was much less eventful with ATC being very helpful in providing us with an almost direct routing to Shannon. A couple of approaches and it was time to head back to Cork.

It had been an amazing day. We'd experienced something that isn't really the norm when training for the instrument rating. We were very fortunate that the weather had been so forgiving and we'd managed to see some of the amazing sights that the UK and Ireland have to offer.

So, hours complete it was time to prepare for the flight exam which was to be on Monday. As always, nothing is ever straight forward.

Overnight the weather deteriorated rapidly and left two colleagues who were due to take their flight tests on Sunday afternoon in a terrible position. Since Sunday morning we have seen no improvement in the weather and still we sit here waiting for the weather to lift so we can complete what we hope will be the final flight on this long road to obtaining the Air Transport Pilot's License.

Time is now getting extremely tight. We have five days to complete the training to meet the start of our Type Rating. Some wait months; some wait years to start that first job. We may just have a matter of hours...


  1. What airline is sponsoring you? Great Blog!!

  2. Thanks! Europe's largest regional airline...

  3. Fantastic blog post! Sounded extremely scenic and quite frankly the word beautiful comes into play. I agree one hundred percent on the comments of UK and Irish ATC. You definitely realise after flying here in the states!

    Best of luck for the check-ride, am sure you'll do great!


  4. Thanks, really enjoyed the flying and yes, the UK ATC is fantastic, certainly compared to our western cousins!

    Thanks, hopefully! :-)

  5. Very interesting. I am hoping to read your more posts too. I had a pilot friend, though i couldn't spent much time with him, but the job that looks apparently very glamorous is much hectic too some times. But still i would say that i love this profession :)

    I want to follow your blog.
    Best Regards and stay blessed.

  6. i love this profession,,,I want to be a pilot,, but my parents do not allow.......anyway,,,,,i love this blog,enjoy.....thanks for all