25 July 2011

Solo Night Nav

One of the requirements for a CPL is 5hrs solo night flying. Included in that must be a night x-country of at least 150nm. So it’s quite similar to getting a night rating, the only difference being that you must fly solo.

I had hoped to do this nav last week when we had a full moon, but unfortunately I discovered that one of the aircraft’s nav lights wasn’t working, and I had to cancel the flight. I wasn’t too impressed because it was a perfect evening.

But then I had the bright idea of doing the nav on Saturday morning, at about 5am. This meant waking up at 0330. I’m not a morning person, but all I can say is that the early wake up was worth it! At about 0330 I got up and called the weather office. I tried my best to sound awake, but I don’t think it worked. There wasn’t any fog or clouds, but the wind was strong; 160 degrees, 15kts gusting 35kts.

It was dark, and while the wind was blowing in Cape Town, the airfield was still, calm and quiet. Until I fired up POV, a trusty 152. Taking off into the night sky was wonderful, and I turned west to route to Cape Town. This was the first time I’d be flying in controlled airspace by myself, and I was nervous.

But I picked the right time to fly, and soon after making contact I was “Cleared left base runway 19. You’re number one.” I somehow managed to remember my squawk code and I got my read backs correct. Seeing the array of lights at Cape Town is always amazing, but it can also be confusing (last time I flew there at night I thought I was aiming for the runway, but it was actually a fence with lights on), but I got it right this time, and I enjoyed having PAPI’s.

After my touch-and-go I was told to route to the old cooling towers (which no longer exist). I wasn’t entirely sure where they were, so I just followed the N2. Once I thought I was near where the towers used to be, I routed north. The Controller jokingly said “Wow, I’ve never seen a 152 go that fast before!” I couldn’t help but laugh. (I had about a 30kt tailwind)

I was told to broadcast TIBA and continue on my merry way. Flying around Cape Town is extremely pleasant when it’s quiet, and I’ve found that the controllers have been very accommodating.

After that I routed to Saldanha. It was turbulent around Table View, but once I passed Atlantis it was smooth sailing. There was only a light breeze at Saldanha. I flew directly overhead the field without realising it. I then managed to put myself on right downwind for runway 20. That’s what happens when you don’t pay attention.

I then routed to Saron, a little town about 50nm from Saldahna, and just north of Porterville. I don’t know how, but I had a bit of a tailwind going there. I was about halfway to Saron when the sun started to rise, the mountains silhouetted against the sky. By the time I got to Saron there was an orange glow on the horizon.

It was when I was routing back to Stellenbosch that the sky was orange, yellow, light blue and dark blue, and my camera died. The wind was strong in the Tulbagh area, but I still had a tailwind, and I’m not sure how that worked out. But I’m not complaining.

As I passed Klapmuts, the wind died down completely. The weather in this area is quite amazing. By the time I had landed and put the aircraft back in the hanger, the sun was rising above the mountains, warming everything up and I just stood there and defrosted.

So despite the early wake up, and the fear of flying into controlled airspace by myself, the flight went well. I think that everyone should do at least one early morning flight because seeing the sunrise while sitting at 3500ft is an amazing experience.

13 July 2011

The Middle of Nowhere

Saturday, 6 July

In order to get one’s commercial license, you have to complete a 300nm x-country. So a month or two ago I started planning, and I decided that I would go to Tanqua and Clanwilliam. A friend was keen on the trip, so he joined me and flew along in a Cessna 152 (I was in the Cubby, of course).

We’ve been having a lot of good weather, so we decided that Saturday would be the day. We plotted and planned, and I went over a few ‘worst case’ scenarios; our fuel planning had to be perfect. I calculated that we would both make it from FASH to Tanqua to Clanwilliam if we only had a groundspeed of 65kts (Cubby normally cruises at about 75kts).

We planned to leave at 0800. I took my time and we only took off at 0820. Despite my careful planning, I forgot that we would be flying directly into sun. I won’t make that mistake again. It was 6degrees on the ground, put there was an inversion at 2000ft, and it was 25degrees (so I didn’t freeze, for once).

We routed via Wellington to Ceres, and then followed some roads before routing directly to Tanqua. The green fields stopped, and the rocky brown ground began. It looked a bit like the surface of some desolate planet. It was boring, and I’m glad I had company; we chatted happily all the way there. Our groundspeed was 55-60kts. About three quarters of the way to Tanqua we started debating whether or not we should just route directly to Clanwilliam (it would save us a couple of miles). Eventually we decided that we would continue as per our plan, and land at Tanqua for a cooldrink.

The airfield is situated within the Tanqua Nature Reserve. It’s to the west of a dam, and to the east of some white/light brown sand. There are a couple of buildings near the runways, and that’s it. I didn’t see the runways until I was directly overhead, and I couldn’t find a windsock. I descended and did a runway inspection. That was when I saw the “windsock” (it didn’t look like one) for the first time, and I almost flew into it.


Right, we have a rough idea of where the wind is coming from, and the runway surface looks flat and clear of debris. We both landed safely, and jumped out to stretch our legs and admire the scenery. It was a vast expanse of absolutely nothing. You don’t want to get stranded out there.

After (literally) kicking some stones around, we returned to our trusty machines. We would have a tailwind going to Clanwilliam, which was a blessing; we both burned more fuel than we should have. It just goes to show you that you shouldn’t believe the manual!

We climbed to flight level 065 and followed the Tanqua River towards the Cederberg. The valley’s looked both stunning and menacing, and I kept my eyes open for decent landing spots. Just in case. Apart from a couple of bumps, the flight was smooth, and we decided to fly over a lower part of the Cederberg, descend over Clanwilliam, and route south along the river to Nooitgedacht (a private strip where we could get some fuel and have lunch).

Once we began our descent the wind hit us. Hard. I came close to inadvertently rolling the Cubby a number of times. Thoughts of accidents where planes had been ripped apart came to mind, and I forced myself to stay calm and just ride the bumps. That helped, but it was still scary. All thoughts of a scenic flight along the dam had disappeared.

Routing overhead the field, I was so focused on what the wind was doing that I forgot to descend. But perhaps that was a good thing; I didn’t want to be too close to the ground when I hit a downdraught. My downwind and base legs were shocking, but I made sure that my approach was stable. Nooitgedacht sits on a slope, so I flew a flatter approach. There’s a house and tree on Final, and I quite enjoyed dodging them.

I somehow managed a beautiful landing on the upsloping runway. It was the first time I’d ever been there, and the first time I’ve landed on such a slope. After rehydrating the planes with a decent amount of AvGas, we wandered around the field and admired the scenery and aircraft. The valley is beautiful, and we even went to look at some rock paintings (some are over 6000 years old).

The wind seemed to have died down a bit, and we got ready to leave. We would take off downhill, turn right, and then route south back to Stellenbosch. We were hoping to stay fairly low, but soon we were climbing to F065. The turbulence was still horrible, even up there. We decided to route slightly west and get out of the valley once we got past Citrusdal.

Routing over the mountains was fine, but on the other side we encountered severe downdraughts; despite full power and a nose up attitude, the Cubby and Cessna continued to descend at 500fpm. The Cubby had a 100kt groundspeed a few times. We descended after Porterville. The turbulence wasn’t bad, and I was back in familiar territory. Routing south at 2500ft, I admired the green fields and clear blue sky.

A cropsprayer was doing his thing, and the D69 (Stellenbosch General Flying Area) was quiet. With a strong tailwind, we made it back to Stellenbosch in no time. My landing was less than great, but I was happy.

That sort of flying is ‘real’. You can plan as much as you like, but you will still have to make tough decisions along the way. Those decisions can be the difference between a successful, safe flight, or being forced to land in the middle of nowhere. Even though it is very serious and very real, it’s also great fun. You learn new things, and you build confidence in your own abilities, as well as your machine. And it’s even better if friends fly with you.

Now I can happily say that I’ve got that x-country out of the way, and logged another 4.9hrs. My legs are still stiff, and I’m still tired, but that trip was definitely worth sitting in that cramped little cockpit!