After weeks of waiting, I was finally booked for my next navigation flight, and this was going to be a big one! The thought of entering controlled airspace in my little C172 was keeping me up at night and, after some soul searching and pep talks, I found a clear and ready head space the night before the big flight. My clip board was prepared and my flight bag was packed.
The alarm started beeping. 06:00 am. It’s nav day! I awoke early to jump on to the Airservices Australia website to get a snap shot of the day ahead. After logging into the National Aeronautical Information Processing Service (NAIPS), the outlook was grim.
Conditions at the Gold Coast (YBCG) were below Visual Flight Rules (VFR) minima’s so either holding fuel or an alternate airport were required. The trouble is, the chosen alternate can’t require an alternate and Archerfield (YBAF) (my chosen alternate) did. I could have opted for holding fuel, though with the forecast showing thunderstorms for much of the area that I would be flying in, I decided to pull the plug.
I phoned Robert at the flying school for advice. Robert had only just returned from a flight and had not yet looked at the forecast. It was a sunny day so there was no reason to suspect a severe deterioration of conditions was on the cards. I told Robert what I had observed on the forecast, my decision and asked for his opinion. Robert said, “Call back in 4 minutes. I’ll check.” Four minutes later I phoned the flying school again. Robert agreed! Had there been one or two areas of marginal weather, it probably would have been good practice for me to go and have a look and divert if necessary, though with so many areas of questionable weather, there was a very real possibility that we could get stuck somewhere.
The decision was confirmed, we weren’t flying on that day. Boy I’m glad we didn’t! At the time that we were scheduled to be flying in to Lismore, a large line of thunderstorms battered the coast. We most definitely would have been stuck. Whilst I was happy with my decision, I did have a feeling of disappointment after psyching myself up for this flight. I rebooked with Robert for the following week.
The new booking date loomed and the sleepless nights returned. It’s not that I’m not confident in my abilities, it’s just, with aviation, there is so much to learn and take in. I don’t think a life time would be long enough to read every book and know everything about the miracle of flight. Again I psyched myself up and again I felt the calm of readiness the night before my flight.
The alarm started beeping. 06:00 am. It’s nav day! (or groundhog day, I can’t be sure). I sprung out of bed; i.e. hit the snooze button 3 times and begrudgingly rolled out of bed, jumped on the computer and checked NAIPS.
Showers of rain predicted and winds variable, crap! I knew I would be flying today as the only airport requiring an alternate was Lismore and the showers were mainly about the coast with cloud bases of 3000 feet, the problem was I didn’t know how to plan for variable winds and the flying school doesn’t open until 08:00 am. My text books say to either not plan for winds or plan for all head wind to ensure you are accounting for the worst case scenario with fuel. I wasn’t sure of Roberts’ preference. I was due to take off at 09:30 am and it takes me a good hour or so to complete my flight plan. I had quite the conundrum.
08:02 am: I got on the blower to Robert as soon as Gil Layt’s Flying School was open for business. Robert confirmed what was written in the text book almost word for word. As we weren’t too concerned about fuel, we decided to use the tracks as the headings (not accounting for winds), and the true airspeed value for the calculated ground speed. I then entered the distances and calculated the predicted times and the fuel required for the journey. Luckily I had packed my flight bag the night before, so I grabbed it, said goodbye to the cat and ran out the door.
I arrived at Gil Layt’s Flying School flustered and concerned I would run out of time as I wasn’t there an hour before flight time as I would have liked. On arrival, I was greeted by Robert who said, “don’t rush, we have heaps of time”. Much to my relief, Robert didn’t have anyone else booked in for after my flight. I had time!
I took a deep breath, set out my flight plan and got Robert to check it over. We altered some details for ease of workload in the cockpit and started to lodge the flight plan. Initially we attempted to lodge the flight plan through the NAIPS app on the iPad, though we quickly learned that whilst it is a great way to view briefings, it is not suitable for lodging flight plans. The main reasons are that it doesn’t remember details from flight sector to flight sector and it only allow for three sectors. Totally useless for the trip we had planned. So, after wasting 10 minutes on that app, we moved to the flying school computer to lodge the plan through the Airservices Australia website, a much more user friendly and intuitive program.
As part of the flight plan, we nominated a SARTIME, SAR standing for Search and Rescue. Basically if you don’t land at a specified airport by a specified time and cancel the SARTIME, they will initiate search and rescue efforts. We gave ourselves about a half an hour of leeway from when we believed we would be back at Archerfield.
Next on the agenda was fuel. As is the case most of the time, we were just filling the tanks. During training, were not interested in saving money by running lean (the lighter the plane, the less fuel you use. It’s a bit of a catch 22), we generally always fill the tanks to capacity before flying. At Archerfield, they have a few fuel services that come around in trucks to fill up planes as well as a self service station. At Gil Layt’s Flying School, we use Mobil. It so happened that on this day, the fuel services were having a training day and the delay to have a plane fuelled up would be a lot longer. When Robert radioed to them, they estimated 20 minutes or so. This wasn’t an issue, we weren’t in a hurry and it would give me a good chance to get my recording gear set up in the plane as well as take a few happy snaps for Instagram. As I walked out to the plane, the fuel truck was already there which was strange considering no more than 3 minutes ago, he gave us a response time of 20 minutes. Nevertheless, he started filling the tanks and I waited patiently for him to finish before jumping aboard to set up. When he was finished, I set up the cockpit and wandered back in to the flying school to grab Robert and head off.
Cessna 172, Hotel Whiskey Charlie, Eastern Apron for departure West, South of the Runway Centre Line, Received Charlie, Duel, Request Taxi. With the call made, we were ready to fly away in to the great unknown. As with every flight I’ve done, the taxi, run-ups and holding were uneventful. I’m not sure if it’s normal or not, though I still use my physical check lists every time. It’s not that I’m not able to commit it to memory; it’s that I don’t want to run the risk of forgetting a single item.
I lined up on Runway 10L, applied full throttle and but a moment later, the 100 horsepower radial up front fired into action. With the airspeed rising to 60 knots and the engine whining happily at 2500prm, a small amount of back pressure is all it took to send my little red and white rocket hurtling into the air. At 500 feet, I made a wide continuous right hand turn on to cross wind and then on to downwind. With the runway disappearing from the right hand side of the plane, we slid away to the left of Archerfield and continued on to intercept our first way point, the intersection of the Western Freeway and the Ipswich Motorway on a track of 248.
Throughout this trip, we would come across two military restricted zones, one at Amberley (just west of Ipswich) and one at Evans Heads (on the coast). The NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) for Amberley suggested that it was active though we could request clearance to pass through it. My first contact with a military controller came at our first way point. I made a call to Amberley Tower, to advise where I was and what my intensions were. I’m not sure what I was expecting, though it certainly wasn’t a friendly young voice happy for us to continue through his airspace. He advised that he had us on radar 1 nm south of Goodna and cleared us to continue to Stanthorpe at 3500 feet. This suited us perfectly as we were somewhat limited by cloud in any case.
On the flight plan I planned for a fairly unrealistic 6500 feet. I’m forever the optimist. This wasn’t going to happen because of the cloud base at around 5000 feet but I just adjusted altitudes during flight and tried to cruise at the highest altitude possible at the time. The last contact I had with Amberley was just after Boonah as he handed me over and I continued on my merry way. Much to my surprise, my travels through the Military restricted airspace were somewhat easy.
As we continued on, I realised that the conditions since leaving Archerfield were probably the best I had experienced on a nav to date. I was finding it very easy to hold an altitude and heading. After trimming and leaning, the aircraft remained in that state without too much input required. Arriving over Stanthorpe, the heading that I had flown was surprisingly accurate and led me directly to the airfield. I’d love to say that it was all me, though in reality, it was just due to the great conditions. It was really good for me to see that in perfect conditions, the plan is almost spot on and can get you to the destination within say 1 nm. Now, I’m aware that I should be able to do that even with wind, though at this stage, I’m still putting all the pieces of the puzzle together.
Joining the circuit at Stanthorpe was just as I had practised on the flight simulator at home and just as I had planned for in my documents on my clipboard. We arrived from the north-east and joined mid-field crosswind, which basically means I’m joining the circuit at the middle of the field and heading across the wind (i.e. not into it). After I crossed back and joined the downwind leg, I was, in hindsight, a little too distracted making my joining calls and not concentrating on my distance from the runway or my height in the circuit. Too mistakes I won’t make again! When I turned onto final, I found myself too high and too fast. I tried to recover as best I could, but the best I could muster was a flat, hard landing. After the flight I analysed my landing (ah the wonder of the GoPro) and I found that I turned onto the downwind leg far too early. I should have extended my crosswind leg by another 3 missicipies before turning. I should have definitely held my height above the airfield at 1000 feet and I shouldn’t have let the airspeed get away on me. My thoughts on why this happened; 1. I haven’t completed too many landings in this plane and am still getting used to it, 2. The CTAF radio calls aren’t what I’m used to at Archerfield and aren’t as yet embedded in my physie and, 3. The airfield elevation was a little of putting. I’ve never been to an airfield with an elevation greater than 100 feet AMSL, Stanthorpe however is at 2934 feet AMSL, which means that instead of descending from 1000 feet to approximately 30 feet, I was descending from 4000 feet to 3000 feet. Very confronting when you are seeing these numbers on the altimeter for the first time while landing. Enough with the excuses though, I’ve learnt and I’m moving on.
After landing, we continued the roll to the taxi-way situated basically at the other end of the runway. The runway itself has quite an incline and looks a bit daunting at first. After exiting the runway, we parked for a moment so I could get my clipboard paperwork together than headed back out to the runway with a few strange looks from the workmen on the side of the runway. We joked they must have thought we had forgotten something… (you really had to be there). After making our CTAF calls and entering the runway, we backtracked to the node at the end of the runway. Node is just a fancy way of saying ‘area at the end of the runway to turn around on’. We made the turn to the left to allow for vision of the active runway at all times, the straightened up on the centre runway. After a few checks and Hail Marys, I pushed the throttle to full and again powered off down the runway. Immediately I noticed a change in the performance due to being at a higher altitude. It’s no different to what I experience in the training area at 3000 feet, though it’s quite noticeable when you’re trying to get 1000 kilos of aircraft off the ground. As we plundered down the runway, I checked the aircraft vital signs, pulled back on the stick and off we went again. The climb was very slow and it felt like an eternity before we reached the magic 500 feet to begin our turn. A few more calls later and I had established us on a steady climb to our cruise altitude of 5500 feet. The weather on this leg was beautiful as well, a few clouds though nothing that would ruin the day. Just as I was getting comfortable, settling in to my CLEAR checks and planning my 10 nm check points Robert announced that we are no longer heading to Grafton and that we need to divert. Great!
Out comes the trusty checklist to guide me as for what to do next. First things first, mark my position and time. Right, I could see a large town out one side of the plane, and, with a little bit of investigative map work, I deduced that it was Tenterfield. Too far away to estimate a distance (about 15nm away), though I knew that 10 nm prior, I was on track and Tenterfield was now directly off my right wing tip. I marked where I was on the map and the time. Next, I decided rather than stuffing around, it would be best to fly straight to my next destination, Lismore. With a bit of help from my trusty plotter, I found the required track then calculated my new heading, ground speed and estimated time of arrival. It was then time to contact Brisbane Centre to advise them that I had changed my flight plan. The only part of the message that they were concerned with was that there was no change to my SARTIME.
As we continued toward this coast and our next destination Lismore, the weather started to deteriorate slightly as the cloud started to move in. This wasn’t an issue for us as our leg along the coast would only be at 3500 feet in any case. As we moved toward Casino, we were monitoring the local frequency for any activity around the airport that we may need to be on the lookout for and, whilst cruising at 3500 feet, heard a pilot advising that he was in a Diamond DA20 and heading toward Casino (in the opposite direction to us). I hadn’t experience this before and it was good to be in a situation where I had to negotiate with another pilot to avoid a mid-air collision. The other pilots English wasn’t the best, though with a bit of back and forth chatter, we decided that I would maintain 3500 feet and he would pass below me at 2500 feet. This worked well and a few minutes later while passing over Casino, the little DA20 whizzed by 100 feet below us. There was some other traffic in the circuit at Casino, though flying at 3500 feet, we didn’t bother them.
As we arrived overhead Lismore, the airfield quickly came in to view. I again joined midfield crosswind, made the relevant calls and landed on runway 15. After exiting the runway we started the long and bumpy ride down the dirt taxiway to the parking apron. We shut down the plane and had a 10 minute rest before starting the journey into the Gold Coast. Whilst we were parked at Lismore, Robert took me through the process for refuelling from a manual bowser. It’s very similar to refuelling a car and works by using a credit card or a pre-paid fuel card that the flying school has. After a few happy snaps and some time to calm my thoughts, we got back in the aircraft, set up and fired the old girl up.
Leaving Lismore we tracked straight up the coast toward the Gold Coast. The scenery was beautiful with flowing green hills to the left and the ocean to the right. As we approached the Nimbin TV towers we made our first call to Gold Coast approach. The guy on the other side of the radio was quite nice and advised that he had us on radar and to continue to the Gold Coast at 3500 feet. While tracking at 3500, Robert started to brief me on what was going to happen as we got closer. My heart rate started to increase when I realized that we were actually about to fly into an international airport and use the main runway. The same runway used by B737’s and A320’s all day long. As the controller vectored us in, I became more and more nervous. He instructed us to fly via Murwillumbah but didn’t provide us with any further instructions for what to do once we arrived there. In the interest of obeying the controllers command, I pointed the nose toward Murwillumbah and awaited further instruction. Sure enough, just after hitting the centre of the town, Gold Coast approach cleared us to continue to the Gold Coast at 2500 feet. As we headed toward the coast, my heart rate continued to rise. We had a few more conversations with ATC and had some very strict restrictions imposed, for instance remaining clear of water at all times. As the airport came in to view, Robert pointed out the direction of the runway and where we would be entering the pattern. Whilst I know that airport well from the ground, at 2500 feet it was hard to recognise what side of the airport we were coming in on.
Everything was happening so quickly on the approach. Talking to ATC while setting the aircraft up to land, I forgot for a moment where I was. It wasn’t until I turned onto final that it really hit me, it was at this point that I had an almost out of body ‘moment’. I was lined up to fly over the spot where for as long as I could remember, my family and I would stand waiting for the rush of aircraft flying overhead. I believe it was these family outings that originally sparked my passion for aviation. As the Betty Diamond Sporting Complex came into view, the flying became second nature and my mind was filled with nostalgia and emotion. Images of the family running across the field as fast as our legs would carry us as a 737 turned on to final, arriving at the fence with seconds to spare as the jet raged overhead at 300 feet. Packing up and walking back to the car only to see another jet on the horizon and without even discussing it, all family members would race back to the fence to await its arrival. These fond memories almost had me overcome as I crossed over the car park where we would walk through the squeaky gate. Over the skate park where we’d get strange looks from the locals and across the field where we ran like crazy people. It wasn’t until I crossed the fence however that I got the shivers up my back at the thought that, after all these years, I was finally on the other side of the fence that I would press up against hoping for a glimpse of a big jet taxiing out. The huge runway made me feel like a midget in my little Cessna. The runway centre line seemed to absorb the plane as I flared for touchdown. The feeling of safety was unbelievable. I could safely float for kilometres on this runway without incident with the width being just as generous.
After touching down softly, we took the first exit off the runway. I radioed for taxi clearance and headed toward the GA apron. After turning on to the taxiway, the rush of emotion subsided and it felt like I was back at any other airport. The big airport feel was gone. The taxiways weren’t that much different to Archerfield and the hangers added a real industrial feel. The commercial terminal was nowhere in sight and I no longer felt like an intruder. The buzz of other aircraft filled the air as we taxied past the Care Flight sheds and helicopter parking area. The CareFlight Learjet looked amazing as did the other ridiculously expensive aircraft that we passed. Due to a lack of parking space available, we just pulled up out of the way and left the engines running as I prepared my map and clip board for our next leg. Before moving anywhere, we asked for clearance from the tower. A friendly voice on the other side cleared us to taxi with the most confusing set of instructions I have ever heard. I mustered up all of my memory and common sense and read back the instructions.
We taxied toward the runway and held short. Tower said we were waiting for a 737. All of a sudden, a massive Virgin Australia 737 came in to view. It was so strange sitting in my Cessna while a 737 passed 50 meters in front. Giving the big bird a very wide berth, we taxied behind her and waited for about 10 minutes while other aircraft landed before the 737 turned on to the runway and took off. With the call of ‘Hotel Whiskey Charlie, line up’, I turned back on to the huge runway and sat on the threshold markings waiting for permission to take off. After being cleared, I applied full throttle and started my take-off roll. It wasn’t long before we were airborne and had only used a tiny amount of runway. It felt like an eternity before the runway finally disappeared from under us. As per instructions from the tower, we turned left and headed toward the ocean, after hitting water, we turned left again on to the downwind leg. Flying over the water was amazing, straight ahead we had great views of the Surfers Paradise skyline and the beaches all the way along the coast.
This final leg would return us back to Archerfield via Park Ridge. The days flying left me emotionally drained and the navigation on the way back wasn’t as precise as it should have been. It was a little more point the nose where I want to go rather than sticking to an exact heading. Again, in hindsight, I’ve learnt that when I’m in the cockpit, I need to be 100% focused and not let my mind get cloudy. It was an uneventful trip back to Archerfield and, once we landed safely, Robert debriefed me on what I did well and what needs some work.
All in all, I’m starting to feel a lot more comfortable on the navs. Flying is very much an animal of repetition, and whilst it’s not possible to absorb everything right away, with time most of it will become second nature allowing for a less stressful experience in the cockpit. I’ve been through this before when learning to fly and am now somewhat on the other side so I’m not worrying myself over the little things that I’m forgetting or could be doing better. In the meantime, I’ve got comprehensive checklists and guides to prompt me and ultimately even if I was to forget everything (highly unlikely), the most important aspect is already second nature; flying the plane. This alone gives me confidence that I can overcome any issues I may come up against. As they say aviate, navigate, communicate.
My next flight will be huge and exciting, can’t wait to share it with you.