Monday, December 10, 2007

Day 7 – Solo!

A new instructor on duty today – Colin McGrath. I tell him my story and explain where I think I’m getting stuck and why. It’s a beautiful day today, blue, clear and hot, but it’s also a Sunday and I worry a little that it will be a busy day for public air experience flights and I might not be able to garner enough flight time to get myself over the line. It’s the last day of my week and I have to leave the next day to head home to Australia. My main instructor to date, Gordon, tells me on Saturday that if I don’t solo today, he will come out early on Monday to give me a couple of flights. It’s a great offer, but I have already accepted that I don’t have to solo in a week. If my time on the course finishes and I haven’t soloed, then I’ll simply continue my training in Australia and elsewhere, having learnt so much at Taupo. I don’t want to pressure myself, because I figure that’s when mistakes might happen – aiming for an arbitrary target and being tempted to try to solo before I’m really ready. I’m not going to fall into that trap.

There’s a slight easterly crosswind today that builds through the day to about 5-10 knots – enough to have to really take into account in working out approach speed. After pulling out the tow plane and gliders, and giving them a thorough DI, we start flying about 11.00 am.

Soon enough, club members (including some private owners) arrive to fly or tinker with their aircraft and members of the public arrive for air experience flights. The old K13, Golf Sierra, is pulled out of the hangar and prepped, so we have three two-seaters flying, as well as two of the club’s single-seat PW5s. A private owner pulls out his gloriously restored K6 as well. After a couple of circuits with Colin, I’m then kept busy fuelling the tow plane, helping with air experience flights (mainly advising front seat passengers not to put their cameras between the control column and their lap, taking their thongs and making sure canopy and brakes are locked before waving them off), as well as recording flights, retrieving gliders when they land long, towing them back to takeoff location behind cars and lots of other chores.

Not much flying time for me it seems and at one point after lunch, the tow plane’s rear tire blows after a landing. At that point I resign myself to the day’s flying being over, but a spare wheel is quickly fitted and we are back in business.

It’s a blue day, meaning no clouds to mark thermals and there’s not much consistent activity. A couple of clouds try to form over paddocks to the west, but they never really develop – too dry I guess. There are some thermals further west to be had from tows over 4,000 feet, but there’s as much sink around as lift. At one point in an air experience flight, Tom A found himself in sink of around 10 knots and thought he’d have to land out! However, he managed to find some lift and got back in business. He also took up a youngish guy who seemed keen for an aerobatics flight (he’d been given a gift voucher), but after his first loop discovered it didn’t suit him at all and wanted to come straight down!

There weren’t too many long flights being taken, there just wasn’t enough lift around. I had an interesting experience when waving off a flight, that taught me a lesson. I’d been careful and thorough in my waving off, making sure I had a good look around to spot approaching aircraft before giving the towplane the signals to take in slack and to go all-out. We were operating off runway two-two, which has a right-hand circuit. Gliders would do their downwind leg on the west side of the field. On this occasion, I had a good look around, gave the signal to take up slack, then all-out, ran the wing, and then noticed the privately-owned K6 on the end of a downwind leg on the east side of the field – doing a left-hand circuit instead of a right-hand one. There was no conflict with the glider taking off, but a couple of minutes later and he might have been on final. I make a mental note to always look more closely at all possible approaches.

Finally, late in the afternoon, when things had quietened down a bit, it’s my turn to fly again. This time, things come together nicely, though I had a nervous start when the crosswind cause a bit of weathercocking on landing. I’d been holding some rudder on final, but on the ground wasn’t quick enough to reverse it on the ground and we veered around a bit – no dramas, but a bit of a confidence shaker at first. The main complication is there’s a bit of sink on the downwind leg and I find myself having to turn to base earlier than normal. I talk Colin through my actions and tell him that because of the slight crosswind/headwind at 10 knots or so, I intend to land at 60 knots instead of the 55 knots normal for this aircraft in the still conditions.

I had been hammering into myself the need to watch the aim point on final and this starts to work as it should. I’m not getting fixated on the boundary fence and I’m more consistent. I find I can see the aimpoint moving, and keep it in the right spot with brakes and stick, while also maintaining a reasonably steady approach speed.

Colin suggests taking some higher tows to be less rushed in the circuit, which helps, though I still find I need to turn in a bit earlier than on previous days.

Finally, Colin says “you didn’t even scare me on that landing” and I know I’ve made some progress.

When Colin then says, “do one more like that and I’ll let you do one by yourself”, I find I’m not dreading the solo flight any more. I do a consistent landing and then Colin climbs out, secures the rear harness and canopy and sends me away by myself. All week I’d felt entirely unready to go solo and even that morning the thought of a solo had frightened me. But now, as I sat behind the tow plane, with no-one behind me, I felt a calm certainty that I could do this.

An amazing feeling came over me as the cable tightened and I began to be pulled along behind the towplane on that flight – the only option open to me now was to fly the plane and land it, myself. I couldn’t bail out, or decide not to go, I had to take control and do the things I’d been trained to do, with nobody to rescue me. However, I knew I could do it!

That flight is still incredibly fresh for me. The glider felt much lighter and moved around more on the tow – it was more lively and more affected by the crosswind. The tuggy wished me luck on the radio and told me when he was beginning his turn. I found the tow fine and I even had time to let out great shouts and whoops of joy and excitement. I was flying this thing by myself – I was doing what I’d come here to do!

I pulled the bung at 2600 feet, called “glider release” and made my immediate climbing turn to the right. Relieved of weight in the rear, I found I had to trim nose back to maintain 55 knots. There was quite a bit of sink on downwind and I tried to hold near 60 knots to try to lose as little height as possible, while doing my downwind checks. I was definitely going to have to turn in early. I judged my turn to base and then almost immediately to final, pulling a little brake out on base and then going to half brake on final. A perfect approach and a nice, short landing. I did it! I pop the canopy, but before I can climb out, Colin is running over with the tow rope. “Have another one” he says and before I know what’s happening, I’ve done my cockpit checks and I’m off again.

This time there’s even more sink on downwind (I release at 2,600 feet again) and I have to turn to base seemingly just past the boundary fence. This is a noticeably shallower approach because I’m lower, and I find I have to put away most of the brake to make my aiming point, going to half brake quite late in the landing. On landing, Gordon is there and tells me he didn’t like that landing too much – shallow. But I’d recognised it and done things about it – however, not having much brake out certainly limits you options.

For a third time I’m hooked up and away, and this time I tell the tuggy I want to go to 2,900 to give myself more time on downwind and take into account the effects of sink. However, after I bung off and start to make a turn towards downwind leg, I find I’m in strong lift off Fletcher’s Mill. “What the hell” I think, and start thermalling. Very soon I’m at 3,000 feet, so I turn to downwind and make a few turns to lose height. Only trouble is, where previously there’d been plenty of sink, now all I find is more lift and halfway down the downwind leg (after a couple of lazy 360s), I’m still at the same height! I actually have to use some brakes downwind to manage my height! I have more room this time turning to base leg and this is a textbook approach. Good angle, half brakes out all the way down and bang on the mark!

At this I’ve had enough for the day. I pop the canopy and climb out elated. Colin and Gordon congratulate me and I fell like I could do anything. It’s an astounding sensation, having flown a plane three times b y myself and here I am standing safe on the deck with a glider in one piece. I’ve done it.

I elect to walk the wing the 800 metres or so back to the hangars and this calms me down a bit. Trudging along I reflect on what I’ve managed and I know I can now become a glider pilot.

Back at the clubhouse, after the usual chores of putting away aircraft and locking hangars, I buy the traditional round of drinks for the bar. Being a Sunday there’s a lot of folk there, but I don’t begrudge a single drink. To my surprise, I’m presented with my A Certificate and badge, which, by completing three safe solo flights, I had qualified for! What a day – I’d known that club rules said that after first solo, the next 6 solo flights had to be preceded by a check flight, so I had expected a fairly long slog from first solo to making my A certificate – but here I’d been able to crack two achievements in the same day!

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