Sunday 2 December 2012

The end of the beginning...

Firstly an apology for not updating this blog since July! It's been an extremely busy time and only now have I really come around to looking at what I've abandoned over the past few months.

Since my last post (which doesn't seem as long ago as it actually is!) my day to day life has changed completely.

Having passed the Instrument Rating flight test on a glorious Friday morning in July, I was in the airline's Exeter hotel on the Sunday afternoon ready to start my type rating the following day. It was such a close turnaround and without the help and swift action of a certain few people I'm sure I'd be sat here now still waiting to get my hands on the yoke of the Canadian Bombardier Dash 8 Q400.

As I said in the last post, some people wait months; years to get into the right hand seat of a commercial aircraft. I had less than 48 hours.

The actual type rating includes one week induction with the airline followed by two weeks of ground school covering everything from the structure of the aircraft to the day to day paperwork expected to be completed when on line. Following this we are sent back to base to jump seat four sectors to see what the world of a line pilot is. After picking my jaw up off of the ground I was quickly shipped off to Farnborough to jump in the simulator and finally get to learn how to fly this thing.

Post sim. training comes the 'base training' (explained below) and then finally they put you in the real thing, passengers in the back and a destination in the flight management system. A whirlwind three months. In fact this is the first time I have actually had time to think back and realise how much we have achieved in such a short space of time.

So, to that Friday in July. After the ninety minute flight test I was given the good news and it was full steam ahead to get home to unpack, repack and try to find some time to get some revision in before heading to the south coast.

Clothes washed and ironed, they were back in the suitcase and before I knew it we were over Bristol starting the decent into Exeter on an equally warm Sunday afternoon. Having only flown once before on the Dash it was great to see what was going on in the back before jumping in the front only a few weeks later.

Arriving at the hotel where I would be staying for the next three weeks I met up with my colleagues who I had spent the previous fourteen months with as we tried to plan out what to expect for the week ahead.

The following morning bright and early, after breakfast, we were dropped off at the airline's state of the art training centre. Currently housing two simulators and dozens of classrooms the building caters for both internal and external airline needs for carriers around the world. It was great to see such a professional image from the very beginning.

We spent the first day completing all the relevant paper work and being informed as to how the following three months would unfold and what was to follow that. It was great to finally get a detailed view of what was to come.

Days two to five were spent becoming familiar with the airline and the environment the company works in. We complete our first aid and water training, our security training and most importantly our CRM (crew resource management) course.

The latter is designed to coach people into dealing with colleagues in a professional and acceptable manner. We were able to look at a number of case studies where flight crew had had their 'differences' which had led to problems both on the ground and in the air.

With all the general company based training complete we were given the weekend off!

Again, bright and early on the Monday morning we were shipped back to the training centre from the hotel to start the aircraft systems course covering everything from the communication facilities to the two grossly over powered engines they've fitted to the thing. This lasted just over a week and, apart from the electrics (I've probably mentioned I'm not a fan of electrics...) it was all very interesting! Following CAA exams we were all then allowed to complete the final part of the ground school.

This was completed on the final week in Exeter taking all of three days. It covered flight plans to icing operations and everything in between. This, again, was followed by CAA exams before they could sign us off for the simulator.

The three and a half weeks in Devon were intense. It was a lot of information to take on in such a short time frame, and if I'm being honest I don't think half of it stuck. It wasn't until I got into the simulator where I could relate what we had been told to seeing it in operation could I come to terms with it's purpose. Having said that, it was no greater than the ATPL study. In fact, as much as I loathed the fourteen exams that we took at the end of 2011 and into the start of this year I do now feel it was good practice for what was to come during my time in Exeter, albeit on a smaller scale.

One note I would like to make about those short weeks 'down south' was my new appreciation for the work cabin crew do in the air. Before starting the course I was aware of the work that went on in the cabin but not to the extent that the authorities and indeed the airlines in the UK do. The amount they need to know is quite mind boggling. About their aircraft, first aid, emergency procedures, current commercial operations and at the end of it all how to keep a smile on their face after eight hours on their feet. Having been on line for a few weeks now it has only cemented my view of what a great job they do. They are arguably any airline's greatest asset and in my opinion should be rewarded by the general public with much more respect than they receive.

Happy to have completed the ground school I was more excited at the following day's prospect. As part of the type rating every new First Officer or Captain on type gets to jump-seat for a number of sectors, depending on experience and basic license type. Having completed the 'traditional' frozen ATPL we were to sit on the middle seat for four sectors completed in one day.

Having never sat in the flight deck of a commercial aircraft during the critical stages of flight such as take-off and landing it was something I'd dreamed about doing as a kid and I'd finally got that opportunity. The whole crew were great and finally I got to jump into the third seat and see how it all goes down.

Checks done, push back complete, we were cleared to taxi to hold short of Runway 06 at Edinburgh. Destination Knock, Ireland.

"Jersey XXX" cleared for take-off Runway 06, winds 030, 5kts."

The captain added juice to the engines and they reveled in it, rushing up to 90% of their maximum power within seconds. We were rolling, and fast. The aircraft is known for the disgusting amount of extra power Pratt and Whitney have fitted to it and I must say, I'm enjoying using it!

"80kts both." The First Officer checks both speed tapes but they're moving so fast the numbers are simply a blur.

"V1....rotate...V2." The Captain pulls gently aft on the control column and the nose duly follows pointing towards the sky.

"Positive climb."

"Gear up." The gear begin to stow themselves for the hour flight across to the west coast of Ireland. I take a small glance out of the side window and see the ground disappearing at over 4,000ft a minute. This thing is a rocket.

The aircraft is quickly cleaned up and accelerating to it's 210kt climb speed. Air traffic control are kind and direct us straight towards Belfast.

During the cruise it was great to talk to the flight crew about what they like about the aircraft and more importantly what they don't like! They were also very informative about everything else I wanted to know during the four flights.

We were soon on the approach into Knock and we were cleared for the full VOR procedure to land on the easterly facing runway. Who said airline flying was all radar vectors?!

As well as being known for being over powered the aircraft is equally famous for being a 'hard lander.' I've heard it called more expletive things but I think that will do for now. Anyway, the Captain did a good job of "not breaking anything" as the First Officer called it and we were on stand on time.

Three similar sectors followed including a trip down to Norwich and soon enough we were back on terra firma in Edinburgh.

As sad as it sounds it was a day I had dreamed about for many years and it wetted the appetite even more!

Next stop - the simulator.

No rest for the wicked. We were soon shipped down to Farnborough, one of the world's busiest and well known business aviation airports. Every day we would pass through to the training centre and see dozens of jets sat in the Hampshire sunshine including a number of 737s and A319s, owned (obviously) by those from the middle east. A place where the recession clearly forgot.

We spent about two weeks in the simulator firstly becoming familiar with our surroundings then jumping into the emergencies and problems associated with the aircraft and trust me; there is enough of them!

These ranged from problems with the anti-icing systems to engine failures at the most critical point in any flight; take-off. We were taught to deal with dozens of different scenarios and before our check ride in the sim; I think we'd done more single-engine flying than two-engined!

The Line Standards Test (LST) which is taken over two days encompasses everything we had been practicing over the three weeks. It is a CAA conducted examination in the simulator which assesses our skills in operating the aircraft.

The two weeks in "the box" was arguably the biggest learning curve of my short career so far and I think we as student pilots underestimated what was expected of us. We were soon made aware, however!

Thankfully all went to plan in the machine and we were finally signed off to jump in that right hand seat. This was getting real.

Base training. Arguably the most enjoyable part of the whole Type Rating. Base training involves completing six landings in the aircraft with a specially qualified Captain. Doing 'circuits' is something I've done many many times in both single and multi-engine piston aircraft. Doing it in something with 10,000 horse power was a little bit different. Being extremely light it was indescribable as the nose pointed itself towards the stars. It was like something from the launch pad at NASA!

After departure from Manchester we headed over to Durham Tees Valley in the North East of England. The flight was short and we were soon in the pattern. Back to the Warrior days! Well...kind of.

While we were 'wizzing' around the circuit it wasn't until after the third landing that we heard there was another aircraft in the pattern making left turns as opposed to ours to the right. 

The Training Captain makes a comment "good to hear they're keeping the weekend flyers out of our way."

"Jersey 22T, the aircraft making opposite patterns will be completing two circuits for every one of yours. Expect long downwinds." Hold on a minute...what on earth was coming in?! "Jersey 22T, do you have the Eurofighter in sight?"

Through the morning's mist we could see a small figure moving at great pace through the lower altitudes. We're happily sat at 1,500ft scooting on along at approximately 200mph and watching the approaching fighter. The plane approached the threshold and suddenly pointed its nose to the heavens and just by watching you could feel the heat increasing on the deck as the Royal Air Force commander injected huge amounts of Jet A1. The most advanced aircraft on any frequency was climbing fast, and that really is an understatement.

It swings to the left before joining us on an opposite downwind yet gladly overtaking us with ridiculous ease. He made a similar approach as we turned onto the final before being told to maintain runway heading.

Unfortunately due to commercial problems we were called back to base early and in turn I wasn't able to complete my required six circuits to add the aircraft to my new license. Due to that I again had to return to Durham later in the week to finish the landings and then head down to the airline's HQ followed by a trip to the Civil Aviation Authority at London Gatwick airport to collect my new EASA license. As Europe becomes more integrated the new Flight Crew license is new to everyone and over the coming months every pilot flying for a European airline will need to be in possession of one of these books. I'm quite proud to say I am one of the first to be carrying one of these around with me every day!

So that was that. I'm now qualified to sit in the right hand seat of one of these aircraft. To say that at Easter I was flying around in a single engine piston aircraft and now I'm busy working in one of the most over powered aircraft in the sky it's quite humbling to think what responsibility the airline are willing to put on us and for ourselves, where I for one am amazed how much we have learnt and come to understand over the past eighteen months. 

Obviously giving us the license and then letting us loose on the aeroplane isn't as straight forward as it sounds. For a certain number of sectors running over around three weeks we're seated next to a Training Captain. Someone who is trained to a very high standard to instruct on 'the line' and familiarise us flying day to day with passengers and cabin crew sat behind us. 

This is designed so that at the end of the three weeks we can take a line check ride with a 'normal' captain where the training captain sits on the jump seat and assesses whether I am fit and able to operate to company standard. Thankfully the day went to plan and I was "released to the line."

I'm a very lucky person. I have a fantastic job, some fantastic friends and most of all a fantastic family. Without so many of them I wouldn't have been able to achieve what I have. Their support has been amazing. To think, two years ago around now I applied to attend an assessment day and this evening I'm sat in my hotel room having completed my first six monthly line check yesterday is truly unbelievable. 

I've experienced something amazing, too many high points to mention and thankfully only a small number of low points to brush over. Having said that; for those who have followed this blog for a long time will know, there was one major low point that when the company that were tasked with training us went into administration it put a lot of strain on hundreds of students and their families. I was one of the very fortunate ones and although in the long term it has added pressures being blessed with support from an airline the initial burden was managed so swiftly and professionally by those here in Exeter. The fight for those who have lost so much continues and I wish them all the very best of luck with their legal challenge and their continued training.

In my time in the United States, Ireland and the UK I have come across some indescribable people. Some I know I'll be in touch with for many many years to come. I have met characters from quite literally every corner of the globe. From America to Australia, from Sweden to Colombia and many other places in between. Not to mention some of the more 'exotic' destinations such as Kazakhstan! 

Now imagine mixing those people with experiences such as watching the sun rise over the Atlantic every morning from 8,000ft. Being raised to 25,000ft in a decompression chamber; doing barrel rolls in an Extra 300, flying across Ireland and into the UK in a Seneca and then finally taking the seat of a commercial aircraft are things I just can't put into words. 

I used to roll out of my pit at 8am and it was the hardest task in the world. I now wake at 4am and have no problems in getting out of bed. How many other people can say that? When we grow up we all change our mind in what we want to do to pay the bills. Everyone wants to be a fireman or a nurse, a policeman or a doctor. I never had that. I always knew what I wanted to do. It seems now that as people approach my ripe old age of twenty one years they have exhausted every career path in their minds and are simply lost in how to move forward. I, again, am fortunate to have had one direction since I was a small boy and I am now proud and blessed to be able to say I can enjoy my life as a pilot.

Thank you for reading over the past twenty months.

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...