Nervous probably doesn’t quite sum up how I was feeling that morning. It’s not that I doubted my abilities, it’s just the thought of leaving the safety net of Archerfield and my instructor scared me a little. It’s like when going circuit solo for the first time, you can’t be sure just how much you do or don’t rely on your instructor until that right-hand seat is empty.
The preflight pep talk to myself went something like this: ‘Chris, do you want to be a commercial pilot? Yes. Then man up and fly the f#c^ing plane!’
And so would be my first solo navigation flight.
I’ve become known for planning each of my flights to the nth degree and this flight would be no different. A week or so prior, I started scoping out the flight path, destinations, alternates, etc. using OzRunways, Google Earth, WACs and any other tool I had at my disposal. I even flew the entire flight a few times on the sim in different weather and configurations just to be sure I knew what I was doing. I know during commercial training I won’t be afforded such luxuries, though while I’m able to I’ll always make sure I have every ‘what if’ taken into consideration.
Chris, do you want to be a commercial pilot? Yes. Then man up and fly the f#c^ing plane!
The night before the flight, I had my flight bag packed. All the maps I would need were folded as ergonomically as possible and the GoPros were charging. I had as much of the flight plan completed as I could and I’d said my prayers to the weather gods. At this point I was feeling confident and strangely excited.
On waking, the forecast didn’t look great; lots of cloud and the possibility of rain. Great! I’d already delayed this flight once before, holding out for good weather. I didn’t really want to put it off again. However, I always tell myself that no matter what the situation, if I don’t feel comfortable, I won’t fly. Regardless, I completed my flight plan based on the forecast winds and headed out to the flying school.
I arrived at Gil Layt’s about an hour and a half before my scheduled departure time. That would give me time to lodge my flight plan, get the aircraft ready and relax a little bit. At the flying school, I checked the forecast against my flight track and it actually wasn’t looking too bad. The cloud was at 4000 which at some points could be a little close, though I knew, worst case scenario, I could fly to Dayboro and from there get a look at the clearance over the mountains. I lodged the flight plan on the flight school computer and headed out to the plane. Within about 30 minutes I had the pre-flights done and the cameras mounted. The plane needed fuel so I called the fuel truck to top her up. After finally getting through to them, they stated a 30 minute or so delay due to fuelling up a jet.
It had been raining the night before so the fuel truck couldn’t drive on the grass. I started the plane and taxied it out to the bitumen to allow access to the fuel truck. And then I waited. And waited some more. I was ready and raring to go. Finally, after about 35 minutes, the fuel truck arrived and gave HWC a good drink. At last, I was ready to go.
I had already gone through this in my head a million times. While waiting for the fuel, I’d listened to the ATIS and knew which runway to expect. I briefed myself on the departure procedure and exactly what I needed for at least 10 minutes after take-off to alleviate a bit of cockpit workload. There’s a saying in aviation that I adhere to strictly: ‘Never let an airplane take you somewhere your brain didn’t get to five minutes earlier’.
I made my call to Archer Ground and taxied out to the run up bay for runway 10L. At this point, it still hadn’t hit me how big of an event this flight was. After the usual run-ups, I made my way to the runway and held short. Instructions from the tower were to line up. Out on to the runway I went and stopped on the threshold. It was now that it hit me. As I stared down the big strip of black runway, I realised what was happening. My clearance came through and I was off. No turning back now. As I rocketed down the runway, a sense of calm swept across me. I was ready!
Everything went precisely to plan. I flew to the Indooroopilly bridge at 1000 feet, switched frequencies to Brisbane, changed my transponder code to 1200 and climbed to 1500. Once clear of Mt Coot-tha, I tracked toward Dayboro. I have a bad habit of flying this leg visually because I know it so well. You can basically see Dayboro from Mount Coot-tha. So it’s hard not to just look where you need to go and fly it.
Arriving over Dayboro, this is where my planning really comes in to effect. I told myself from the start that I would plan the headings and speeds well and stick to it. So I did. I locked the plane at 310 and flew it as accurate as possible. I knew I’d get a good indication at Kilcoy if the heading was working. It was! I had the airfield off to the left and the township off the right wingtip. Perfect! It was too early for a ground speed check because of all the climbing, but at least I knew my heading was working for the time being.
At my next fix, I came up approx. 4nm right of track. Something had changed and I needed to adjust what I was doing. First, a 1 in 60 was in order. It was quite a simple one if I’m honest so I fixed up my heading and started working out my ground speed. My speed seemed quite fast over the ground and it came out to a solid 100 knots. This was a little slower than I’d planned but still not too damaging to my times. I adjusted my arrival time and 10 nm marker times and continued on my merry way.
Before long Bjelke Petersen Dam came into view and I knew I was on the final stretch into Wondai. This flight was quite literally flying by. After passing the dams I was on the lookout for the airfield. I had a good idea of what I was looking for based on what I’d seen on Google Earth and I knew my track in was accurate as I was exactly where I should have been when passing the dam. However, for the life of me, I couldn’t see the airfield. I saw a strip of grass hidden by trees and thought there it is and started flying toward midfield. Luckily I was keeping a keen eye outside the aircraft because all of a sudden the actual airfield appeared at my 3 o’clock. It wasn’t where I was aiming at all. With the real airfield in sight, I planned my approach and joined the circuit for runway 36.
Being an all grass runway, it was a little hard to work out when to turn because the threshold isn’t marked very well. To make sure my approach was good, I extended the downwind a little more than usual to give myself time to set the plane up for landing. My long final approach was good, albeit a little low over the trees, and the landing touchdown was good considering this was really the first time I had landed on a grass runway. I didn’t trust the runway surface so held a lot of back pressure to prevent damaging the nose wheel. I turned around and taxied back to the main airport sheds. Thankfully there is a little bit of bitumen at the parking area which is a very pleasant change from the rough grass / dirt runway. I found a nice spot to park in front of the main building and shut her down to get out and stretch the old legs.
I took advantage of the stop at Wondai and had a little walk around the buildings, got a few photos and did the obligatory first solo signing of the visitors’ book. Jumping back in the plane, I set myself up for the return leg which was simply the first leg in reverse. The wind was definitely favouring runway 36, which was good because it meant I didn’t have a lot of back tracking to do on the terrible runway. After starting the engine, I taxied out to an area just before the runway to do my run-ups to avoid blowing rocks up on the other planes parked there. I then taxied out on to the runway, back tracked 15 meters or so, turned around and lined up on the runway. As the runway has a less than ideal surface, to save the nose wheel a little, I decided it would be a good opportunity to practice a soft field takeoff. Luckily, I remembered the procedure well and it went off without a hitch. Once airborne I departed the circuit on downwind to rejoin my planned track. Initially I had a little bit of confusion with my track which caused a bit of a dog leg track to start off, but I soon worked it out and had myself back on track before reaching the dam.
On the way home I practised searching for landing spots should anything go a rye and again tried to fly as accurate a heading as possible. After checking my ground speed it was evident I had a fairly decent head wind as I was only achieving 90 knots. I think I must have been a lot more relaxed on the trip home as I started to get a little nervous over the mountains when I realised there was next to nowhere to land in case of an emergency. I started to listen to every little change in the engine noise and my heart would drop a little every time the pitch altered. In reality, there was nothing wrong with the engine, I was just getting buffeted with a strong head wind which made the engine struggle a little now and then. But I tell you what, it was a relief when I cleared the mountains and could see the lovely sparse land around Dayboro.
Again, after hitting Dayboro, I found myself navigating by sight only and had the VTC out only to check the steps and to make sure I stayed outside the controlled airspace. I could easily see Mt Coot-tha and knew exactly where I needed to go.
I made my call abeam the TV towers and again at the Centenary bridge. I had some faster traffic following me so ATC asked if I could slow my approach to allow them to pass. I obliged and the other aircraft (a large twin) zoomed past above and to my right. It wasn’t until I’d landed that it really sunk in that I just completed my first solo nav. Wow, what an achievement. The next flight will be the same again except I add Kingaroy in as well. Can’t wait!