13 September 2012

Flying the Airvan

The most expensive conversion I’ve done so far, not just because of the cost of hiring the aircraft, but because it also involved a flight to Port Elizabeth, where the aircraft in question is based. Before I talk about the Airvan, I’m going to waffle on about my trip to PE.

Flying with SA Express, I did the online check-in thing for the first time in my life. This meant that when I arrived at the airport, all it took was 12 minutes for me to drop off my luggage, go through security (where I set off the metal detector thing for the first time ever, oops), make my way downstairs, and sit at the gate.

Pure bliss. The only long wait was while standing on the bus waiting to be driven to the aircraft, a De Havilland Dash-8, Q-400. This is the first time I’d be flying on one of these, so I was quite excited (there were a lot of firsts on this trip).

Seated by the window, and just in front of the propeller, I had a great view. The aircraft itself is very nice, and the only complaint I have is that it vibrates a lot, and because there’s a lot of plastic trim, it rattles and gets annoying.

But, luckily for me, I didn’t have to sit in the cabin for the whole flight. During the standard greeting by the co-pilot before departure, I realised that I actually know the co-pilot. So after the food and drinks had been served, I asked the airhostess to please tell the co-pilot that I say hello. Next thing I know I’d been invited into the cockpit. And once in the cockpit, I was asked if I wanted to sit in the jumpseat for the descent and landing.

Of course I said “I’d love to stay here!”, so I got comfortable on my little seat, and allowed my eyes to roam around the cockpit. The Q-400 is on my very short list of “big” aircraft that I would love to fly one day, and being able to sit in the pointy end made me think “Yeah, I can see myself here in a few years.”

After arriving in PE, I met my instructor and was whisked away to Sheltam Aviation. Here I was greeted by the very friendly staff, and asked to hand over my logbook and licence so that they could open up a training file for me. While they were busy with that, my instructor, D, and I had a chat about the Airvan and its “Systems”. I say “systems” because this aircraft is incredibly basic.

After that, we went out the aircraft so D could show me the pre-flight. One’s first impression of the Gippsland Aeronautics GA8 Airvan is that it’s a box with wings and wheels. Apparently it looks very much like the box fish (I’ve just Googled the box fish, and yeah, I can see the similarities). It’s certainly not the prettiest aircraft, but it does have a certain beauty about it.

Once at the aircraft, it’s easy to see that the Australians have built a no-nonsense, no-fuss, rugged, built-for-the-job aircraft. There are no frills, and no fancy gizmo’s. It is designed to be simple and efficient. From the door latches right through to the fuel system.

The pre-flight is a simple affair, and quite enjoyable too; there’s no crawling on the ground to inspect the various bits and pieces. Because the aircraft is actually quite big, you hardly need to bend down to check anything; the horizontal stabiliser stands almost as high as I do (1.7m).

Latching the doors is simple, unlike something like the Piper Cherokee which requires the finesse of a ballet dancer to close it in a certain way, and the strength of a weightlifter to latch shut. Climbing in doesn’t require the skills of contortionist; just grab the handle above the door, put your foot on the step, and lift yourself in. Once seated, you find yourself with a great view over the nose. The seats are comfortable, and have a four-point harness. The only thing I didn’t like was that, due to the curvature of the window, if you look out to the co-pilots side, there’s some distortion. But it’s easy enough to get used to.

The cockpit, like the exterior, is plain and laid out in a logical manner. Fuel valves and instruments are on the left, and within clear view and easy reach. It includes a simple push-pull handle to shut the fuel on or off, two fuel gauges, and 4 fuel warnings lights (the more that come on, the more the pilot starts to stress).

The centre console comprises of the throttle, pitch and mixture levers. A manual trim wheel is on the left side centre console(it reminded me of a 737), and the simplest park brake I’ve ever seen sits on top. Like a plunger, all you need to do is pull it up and it activates. No pulling towards you while twisting it 93.45⁰, then pushing it slightly and wiggling it around and invariably breaking the stupid thing (I’ve done that with a C172).

Something I’m not used to is the overhead panel. This comprises of the Master switches, various switches for lights and other equipment, and the circuit breakers. The switch for the fuel pump is also up here, which meant that I kept forgetting to switch it on for take-off and landing (“Out of sight, out of mind”).

Starting up is simple. Flick the Master Bus 1 & 2 switches to the ON position, pitch FINE, throttle OPEN just a touch, mixture RICH, prime for a few seconds (using a nice button, no worrying about yanking the primer in and out), and fire away. After-start checks are standard, and you can let the Lycoming purr away at 1000rpm.

Taxiing required a bit of thinking ahead due to the fact that the brakes aren’t excellent. Don’t let the aircraft’s inertia get the better of you. Checking your wing clearance is vital as the last 30cm of the wingtips can’t be seen from the cockpit because they slant upwards.

Taking off... Standard checks apply. One notch of flaps (manual flaps), fuel pump on, and gooi gas. The yaw isn’t nearly as bad as the C206, but it’s still noticeable. It also doesn’t have the ‘boost’ that the C206 seemed to have as you passed about half throttle. Power delivery is smooth, with the characteristic “Whaarr” of the propeller as the CSU catches up with the increase in power.

As soon as you get moving you can tell the aircraft just wants to fly. Your hands and feet must spring into action to keep her going straight and prevent her from hopping from one wheel to another. Rotate at 60kts and keep those hands and feet moving! Set the climb power 25-25 (25in. Manifold pressure and 2500rpm), clean it up, and it will happily climb at 70kts or 85 kts.

Trim her out (which takes a while as you need to move the trim wheel a lot before there’s any effect), and you can sit back, relax, and watch the world go by (the huge windows offer a great view).

The rudder is very responsive, and because there isn’t a rudder trim, you need to make sure your feet stay awake and keep the ball in the middle. The ailerons aren’t as responsive as the rudder, but steep turns were still a breeze. She handled 60⁰ angle of bank with no worries, and even started to climb in the turn even though I’d hardly increased the power. In terms of control heaviness, the Airvan is similar to the C206, with the C72R (Cutlass) being the heaviest of the three.

Stalls were a non-event. The stall warning peeps at you and the aircraft just sits there. Squeeze in some power and she’ll recover with barely any other input from you. The only time we had a bit of a wing-drop was when stalling with one notch of flaps. As for stalling with full flaps, meh.

On to the circuits... We operated at Uitenhage airfield, which has a number of grass runways. ‘Chopping’ the power overhead the field, I set her up for the glide. Full aft trim was required, and even then she didn’t stay at the best glide speed, so I needed to keep some backpressure on the control column to nail the 78kt glide speed. She glides very well.

My first landing was a x-wind one, and I came in just a bit too fast and ended up floating halfway down the runway. Not happy, I went around. Again, the power delivery is smooth and she just flies. Repositioning for the into-wind runway, landing this aircraft is as simple as getting the speed, flying it down to the ground, then flare it, hold it, and watch as she settles down gently, even on the uneven grass.

X-wind landings are handled well, as long as you get the speed right. I forgot to retract the flaps to the take-off setting, so after each landing she leapt back into the air at about 55kts. It’s easy to see why she’s fast becoming one of the best aircraft for operating from short, rough strips.

After that, it was back to PE International. Not used to controlled airspace, D made me do most of the radio work for the return trip. PE isn’t very busy, so it was easy and actually quite pleasurable talking to ATC (yes, I’m one of those people who have this stupid fear of talking to ATC).

Joining left base for runway 08, we were told to keep it tight. Keeping the power on to keep the speed up, as we got to within about 45 degrees of the threshold, I closed the throttle, raised the nose to get the speed down, selected first notch of flaps, and started my turn onto final approach. Second notch of flaps and I aimed for the numbers (completely forgot about those little lights called PAPI’s). Checking the speed, I just flew her down. After landing D even said “That was a good approach”. I was chuffed to say the least.

After a stretch of the legs and some water, we climbed back into the aircraft, but this time I was sitting in the right seat. Another short trip to the GF and back, and I’d been signed out as an instructor. It was as simple as that.

After tucking the aircraft in for the night, it was time to do all the paperwork, which was already set out for me by the staff of Sheltam. Very professional service, I was quite impressed. Within 4 hours of arriving in PE, my training was done.

I spent the night at 5 Third Avenue Guesthouse, which looks as good in real life as it does on the website. A restaurant is conveniently located right next door, so you don’t need to worry about getting to a shop to get food.

On Wednesday morning it was back to Sheltam (the guest house provides a shuttle service), where I was met with a smile. As my flight back to Cape Town was only that night, the staff of Sheltam kindly let me take over their waiting area. Coffee was available, and they even offered to give me a lift to the shops and beach. I can see myself using Sheltam in the future.

The area around Sheltam is cut-off from the active side of the airport by a fence, but there’s nothing stopping you from taking a walk to the fence and watching the Boeing’s and MD’s taxi past, and take-off and land. It’s a nice change from the restrictiveness found at Cape Town.

Come lunch time I was bored out of my mind, so I decided to take a walk to the restaurant just down the road. Less than 10 minutes away, The Hangar is an aviation-themed restaurant that serves some really great food at a good price. It’s easy to spot due to the Impala on the roof, and propellers flank the entrance. Inside, the arrangement of tables and chairs give a very welcoming feel, with aircraft photos adorning the walls (from WWI-era aircraft to the Blue Angels). And above the bar you’ll see the wing of a Harvard (but don’t shoot me if I’m wrong).

Sheltam closed at 5pm, so one of their staff dropped me off at the main terminal. I spent a while in Wimpy, was ‘conned’ into having something to drink in Primi, and basically sat around twiddling my thumbs for hours and hours. The aircraft only arrived just before 8pm (we were supposed to start boarding at 8pm), but we still left on time.

The flight back was pleasant. This time I had a seat that was roughly in-line with the wing. This allowed me to get a look at the landing gear (which retracts really fast). This time I tuned out the annoying buzzing vibration with some tunes.

I don’t know if the captain or co-pilot did the landing, but it was a hard one and I think it woke all of the passengers up (the lady sitting next to me got such a fright, and I’m sure she would’ve jumped out of her seat if her seat belt hadn’t been restraining her). Of course we parked on the other side of Cape Town, but we were on our way to the terminal within minutes of boarding the bus. I even got to have a quick look at the South African Air Force BBJ (Boeing Business Jet).

Now at home, I’m missing PE. It was a really great trip and I’m keen to visit again!

A number of flights schools can be found at PE International.

Sheltam's Caravan

Airvan cockpit. Plain and simple.