Lee to Compton Abbas

After spending many a lesson in the circuit at Lee taking-off and landing, it was finally time to leave the circuit and do some actual flying. After the circuit comes navigation. There is lots to learn and put into practice.

As I’ve mentioned before my Dad is also learning to fly. But he is about 10 hours ahead of me! He had already done an away trip trip with some navigation. Our jaunt to Compton Abbas would be my first real navigation trip and his second.

We would be flying out to Compton Abbas in Dorset. Compton Abbas sits at 811ft in amongst rolling hills and green fields. I had been there once with my parents as a child so I was pretty excited about visiting again. My Dad would be flying the outward leg and I would fly the return leg after we had a cup of tea. The outward leg was going to be a bit more complicated than mine. It required some flight planning. We calculated our speed, heading and altitudes and did some manual work involving our flight computers.
The weather was excellent except for the haze on the horizon. This was caused by a temperature inversion. This is where the air gets warmer the higher you get; rather than colder. It makes for a spectacular view: decreased visibility and the illusion of a storm building on the horizon and below us.

After a planning session we headed out the the ever trusty Piper “Hotel Alpha” and fired her up. My Dad taxied out to runway 05 and off we went.

The first stop on our journey was at Cowes from there we pointed ourselves in the direction of Wareham, a small town to the west of Poole. I didn’t have much else to do in the back other than observe and enjoy the views.

We cruised past the Needles on the Isle of Wight and past the piers at Bournemouth and over Poole harbour.

Poole Harbour below the wing
Poole Harbour below the wing

We obtained clearance from Bournemouth just incase we encroached on their airspace. This was my first time hearing interactions with traffic controllers dealing with airspace like Bournemouth – I am going to need to increase my confidence on the radio!

Wareham is very distinctive as it is a town split by a river. It would be easy to mistake it as two separate towns. As we overflew we changed our heading to North and in the direction of Compton Abbas. In our previous leg we had the coast below us and a lot of great land marks to help us work out where we were. There wasn’t much of that on this leg. There were a number of small villages and roads but that was about it.

Haze on the horizon
Haze on the horizon

After we had been flying for the set time our instructor asked us if we could find the airfield – we couldn’t.

By luck I looked forward and starboard and out of nowhere it materialised directly below us; a green runway flanked with white markers and a row of small planes. On the very edge of the airfield there was a small forest that seemed to keep it well hidden to those pilots who didn’t know what they were looking for.

Compton Abbas below with a small forest above
Compton Abbas below with a small forest above

My Dad flew an overhead join and flew the circuit and made a smooth, well as smooth as it can be on grass, landing. We parked up and headed over to the cafe and seating area.

There was a variety of general aviation aircraft at the airfield. My favourite being a mighty Harvard painted up in a US Marines livery and kept in pristine condition.

A Harvard in a US Marines in livery with the runway and hills in the background
A Harvard in a US Marines in livery with the runway and hills in the background

After a cup of tea, a short debrief for my Dad and a briefing for me it was time to head back home. I started up the plane and taxied to the runway.

It was my first grass runway take-off and it was memorable to say the least. The runway was bumpy and sent me bouncing up and down before I actually got airborne.

We climbed and turned to the west heading into the hazy horizon. We made a practice emergency location request using 121.5 and then I was tasked with getting part of the way home using just a heading a landmarks I should expect to find.

My first landmark was looking for the River Avon; I was vary naive and for some reason was looking for a big blue streak across the fields below. I should have known different as I’ve been living in these parts for a while now. Eventually I spotted the what I would describe as the stream Avon and was able to work out where I was without a problem.

The next landmarks were the old disused aerodromes at Stoney Cross and Beaulieu. Whilst they are old and overgrown their runways are distinctive and easy to spot. They will be helpful landmarks I will be using in my future.

Once I crossed the coast I pointed us towards Cowes on the Isle of Wight for the end of our round trip. At this time of the day the sun was beginning to set and the Solent looked simply beautiful; sea fog rolling in and a cloudless sky above us.

I flew the approach and landed without any dramas. We taxied back to the apron and shut down.

It was very exciting flying further west than I had been before, seeing new lands and views that I hadn’t seen before. I can’t wait for next time.

Below is the route we flew, Red is my Dad and Blue is me.

The route we flew. Red was my Dad and Blue was me.
The route we flew. Red was my Dad and Blue was me.

Bad Weather and False Starts

Clouds at 2 o'clock
Clouds at 2 o’clock

The common foe of all pilots: bad weather. Stroll into a flying club on a foggy Saturday and you will find a squadron of pilots aimlessly wondering in circles. Even if there was a blizzard of “The Day After Tomorrow Standards” you would find pilots sat in the members club waiting for it to clear.

Commonly uttered phrases are “The TAF says it will clear up soon.”; “Oh, I can just make out the blue sky.”; “The sun will burn it off soon.” and “Well, it was lovely yesterday.”.

My short flying career has been plagued by painful weather delays; I had to wait for three painful weeks before I could fly after my first solo.

My least favourite experience was spending the day down at the airfield and getting airborne once. I spent the morning waiting with my Dad and instructor but we had to call it a day by 11am as the fog was too thick. I had an aerobatics experience planned for later in the day. The weather didn’t look too promising but the guy taking me up seemed hopeful. We walked out to the plane: a Slingsby Firefly and got ready to head off. We peered up through the Firefly’s canopy we could just make out the blue sky.

As the engine roared to life aviators and ground crew around the airfield were awoken from their slumbers. They ran to windows and doors to get a look at the madmen who were trying to aviate.

As we taxied down the runway the blue streaks in the sky swiftly disappeared but suddenly we couldn’t see where we had just taxied from. As soon as we got to the end of the runway it was clear we were going to be turning back. Once again foiled by the weather.

Overcast skies

Going Solo

In my last post I spoke about my experience of the circuit with my instructor beside me and often with my Dad sat in the back. In this post I’m going to go over the same thing; except this time I am doing it on my own.

I think I have been in a slightly different position to other pilots as I have known my first solo was coming up soon. I know because my instructor has been constantly irate at me me for not having done my medical. To make matters worse the weather has tried its darned hardest to stop me from flying. March 4th looked like a different day; the sun was shining and the clouds were few and far between.

I showed up to the airfield ready and raring to go. I had checked the weather. I had checked the NOTAMs. I had my fluorescent jacket on. I had my headphones with me. I was ready. I walked out onto the apron towards G-BFBR and it had a puncture. Disaster! Every other Piper Warrior was booked or in for maintenance. It looked like I was going to be failed by a deflated tyre.

Feeling as deflated as the tyre I began to leave the airfield. When at the last moment a knight in captains attire entered: another instructor was carrying out an hour briefing with another student before they needed their plane. Phew!

So, we rushed out to the plane G-BOHA – my favourite – and we were flying over the Solent in no time. Now is a good time to mention that I hadn’t been flying for a good few weeks and diving into the circuit was quite intimidating. As evidenced by my first attempt at a landing. My instructor had to take control and power us out as I had flared too high over the runway. This was the first time this had happened to me and was a massive hit to my confidence.

I took back control on the climb out and regained my composure. The next approach was a bit too slow. The next two landings were also nice and safe but my approaches were, again, a too slow. I was struggling with pointing the nose to the ground to increase speed whilst I was so low to the ground.

On the fourth landing I declared final touch and go but as I landed my instructor told the tower it would be a full-stop and me that I was going to have a go at it on my own.

Once we were stopped on the apron my instructor and Dad jumped out, gave me a pat on the back and left me in the plane. Other than doing my walk around checks or starting up the plane I have never been sat in a plane like this on my own; it was weird.

As I taxied to the runway I didn’t feel as nervous as I thought I would; I felt excited and happy. I taxied to the hold point before the runway and went through my vital check list.

I was ready.

A deep breath later and I trundled out onto the runway, and pushed the throttle to full power and I was off. I left the ground at fifty-five knots and immediately thought: “Uh-oh, I’ve got to get this back on the ground now.”.

The plane climbed a lot of quicker than I was expecting; I am used to there being two other people in it – not just me!

On the downwind leg I had some time to really digest that I was up there on my own and for a couple of seconds I could feel my legs go to jelly, but they quickly decided to stop being a gelatine dessert and help me with landing.

After my earlier landings I was conscious of my descent speed but I kept it a seventy-five knots, applying power when it was needed to increase my height.

I crossed: the solar farm; the road; the perimeter fence; the bushes and the runway threshold. I waited until the right moment and and flared out quite nicely. Just as I was about to touch down I ballooned a couple of times, nothing too major that I couldn’t recover from. Then I was down, nice and smoothly.

 

My first solo landing! A little bit of a balloon at the end but it came down smoothly! #flying #aviation #solo

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Whilst I rolled along the runway I received a message from Lee Tower congratulating me on my first solo. With a smile from ear to ear I taxied back to the apron, parked up and shut down the plane. Almost instantly my instructor and Dad were on the wing congratulating me. We headed into the briefing room to put my first Pilot in Command hours into my log book. The room was full of students and instructors going about their business but they all took a moment to shake my hand and congratulate me. The number of friendly people in aviation is fantastic and I love meeting them.



Over a week later I am still smiling non-stop about going solo. It’s a feeling I will never forget.

 

A Circuit at Lee

View from the cockpit

Lee Tower has informed me that there is another plane in the circuit on its downwind leg. I give the base and final legs a good scan and I can see no one is there. I open the throttle and the PA-28 I’m sat in slowly trundles out onto runway two-three. I’m flying in G-BOHA – my favourite of Phoenix Aviation’s small fleet of Piper Warriors. Sat on my right is my flight instructor and in the back is my Dad – who is also learning to fly. I position Hotel Alpha onto the centre line and I roll over the big numbers two-three at the end of the runway. Happy with my positioning I take a deep breath and push forward the small black throttle.

G-BOHA, my trusty steed

The engine roars, the plane vibrates and the tyres rumble over concrete and we’re moving. The speed begins to tick along. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty knots. I give the rudder a quick kick to keep myself on the centreline. Another glance at the speed I’m at fifty-five knots; I pull the yoke back and the plane responds, laboriously at first. I can hear my instructor in my ear: “It will fly!”. He isn’t wrong. In seconds we are up in the air.

Up, up and away: the hangars outside shrink; the planes turn to miniature and ground is falling away. I make some corrections to the plane and peer over the cowling to make sure I am flying along the runway. On either side there are flats and houses that don’t appreciate being buzzed early on a Saturday morning – that’s a quick and easy route to an angry noise complaint. Soon I am crossing the beach and over the Solent. Now I am aloft I am climbing through two hundred feet and I have trimmed myself to climb at eighty knots. I do a quick after take-off check: flaps are up; engine temperature and pressures are green; carb heat is off. Another look at my altimeter and I am almost at four hundred feet.

At five hundred feet I turn to the crosswind leg. But before turning I survey the sky. To my left I can see Portsmouth Harbour and the sun rising above it, the solent forts are black smudges on the sea. Through the whirring propeller I see the Isle of Wight, Cowes is shrouded in an early morning mist but the green hills are rising above it. To my right I can see clouds forming from the tip of the chimney at Fawley power station. Beyond that and through a light haze Southampton and its harbour sprawls out into the distance. And above all of this there isn’t another plane in the sky. I begin a smooth climbing turn to my right.

As I fly along Lee-On-Solent and Hill Head beaches my height closes in on one thousand feet. At nine hundred and fifty feet I make preparations to bring the plane level: I push the nose forward and watch the vertical speed bleed to zero; my airspeed rises to one hundred and ten knots and I throttle back to two thousand four hundred RPM; I trim to maintain my pitch and speed. Damn! I over shot one thousand feet by another fifty! It’s not the end of the world, but I need to get better at that.

Below me and to the right is the mouth of the River Meon. Marked by a harbour and a small navy of boats the river thins and stretches into the distance. Alongside the river and a bit further inland sits a small triangular forest of trees; a helpful landmark; I rotate the plane and fly towards it. Now I’m flying parallel to the runway and skirting Stubbington village – if I get too close that’s another easy way to get a noise complaint. With the wind behind me things start to happen quickly.

The Solent with the River Meon in the bottom right
The Solent with the River Meon in the bottom right

In seconds I am abeam of the numbers zero-five on the runway and I make a call to Lee Radio: “Golf Hotel Alpha, downwind” an instant later I hear back “Golf Hotel Alpha, Roger”. After the brief exchange I am now a quarter of the way down the runway and I need to get on with my downwind checks.

The downwind checks can be shortened to this very memorable acronym: BUMFICHH. I was being sarcastic, but it does actually roll off the tongue. So, I start working my way through my checks: Brakes, off; Undercarriage, down; Mixture, rich; Fuel, both tanks look similar so we’re good here; Instruments, engine temperatures and pressures are good; Carb Heat, hot for 5 seconds; Harnesses, everyone is strapped in tightly; Hatches, all closed and locked. In no time I am above a group of green houses used as a turning landmark. After a sweep of the skies to check for traffic I turn my plane and point towards the Spinnaker tower in Portsmouth Harbour.

Now time is even more precious and I need to start on the landing configuration: Carb Heat to hot; RPM down to fifteen hundred RPM; two stages of flap; I wait for the speed to fall to seventy-five knots and drop the nose whilst maintaining the speed. Very quickly I fall through nine hundred, eight hundred and then seven hundred feet. I roll the yoke to the right and turn over the solar farm and the light dances over each panel below us. As I’m turning I make a call on the radio: “Golf Hotel Alpha, final for touch and go”. Almost instantly I hear “Golf Hotel Alpha, final for touch and go surface wind seven knots at two three zero” and I acknowledge the message “Golf Hotel Alpha”.

The view on base leg

I’m lined up with the runway but a bit too high. I bring down the third, and final, stage of flaps and I increase my rate of descent. Keeping at seventy-five knots. I seem to be getting a bit low now so I give the throttle a quick push and the plane rises a tad. I cross the road joining Stubbington and Peel Common passing over cars below. I can’t count the number of times I have walked along that road with my Dad and watched the planes fly over us, now we’re the people in those planes and it makes me excited.

I’ve crossed the boundary to the airfield and over the big clump of bushes. I’m high enough to make it to the runway without any throttle so I cut it and glide the final distance across the threshold and the big twenty-three.

This is is the tricky part, as I descend to twenty feet I’m supposed to bring the nose up and fly along the runway and gracefully touch down on my main wheels and then bring the front nose down. What happens next doesn’t quite match that. I misjudge twenty feet by about fifteen feet and carry on down the runway whilst nosing up. My speed is disappearing but my height not so much. The stall warning kicks in and starts to whine away, next thing I know I am down with a thud. Still counts! Once again I’m trundling along the runway. With a kick of rudder I put myself back on the centre line, retract the flaps and push the throttle to open and around I go again.