In the last year I’ve spent over 54 hours in the air, countless hours of studying and revising, over 7 hours taking exams and more hours than I care to add up planning navigation flights. I’ve also spent around £12,000 in equipment, flight school membership, flight costs, exam fees and landing fees away from Cambridge. A lotta moolah!
However, just a couple of weeks ago it was totally worth it – as I finally got to fly my PPL skills test and PASSED!
For a PPL skills test in the UK there are a number of sections you have to complete including flight planning, navigation, in-flight diversion planning, general handling, emergency procedures and various methods of landing. I’d been given my route a few days before:
Cambridge > Framlingham > Shipdham > Cambridge
I spent the whole day before my test meticulously planning the flight. The route, the take-off and landing performance calculations, the alternate aerodrome considerations based on my ability to land and take off again (do I have enough runway to land and take off here?), weight and balance and potential weather issues. I’ve no idea if it’s more time than most people spend, but I wanted to make absolutely certain that I was as prepared as I could be. As it happened, there were some military exercises planned along the Shipdham to Cambridge leg – so I added another waypoint to avoid them and pointed that decision out to my examiner on the pre-flight brief.
Anyone who has done their homework will know that they will never get to the second waypoint – in this case Shipdham – as you are given a diversion to plan and fly on the second leg. And it seems sensible – you’ve already demonstrated on the first leg you can successfully fly to a point navigating solely using a paper map and nothing else, and you’ve demonstrated you know what to do to turn the aircraft. So why spend more time doing it again?
Planning an in-flight diversion the, ahem, “traditional” way, requires drawing a line on your map, working out what heading you’ll need to fly to reach your diversion, working out how much to alter that to account for wind drift, working out the distance and from that, working out the ETA. While you can change your heading and ETA at any point during your diversion leg (which I did), the actual arrival time should be +/- 3 minutes of your ETA. This exercise not only demonstrates that you can fly an unplanned diversion, but you also understand how to consider airspace, danger zones, other aerodromes and anything else that might affect your legality to fly the diversion.
In my case, my diversion took me directly overhead a CMATZ (combined military air zone) – Mildenhall and Lakenheath – and in this case overhead the Lakenheath airfield. This feels like a really good diversion test – it ensures you understand that you need zone transit clearance below 2,000ft, MATZ penetration approval 2,000ft – 3,000ft, and no required approval above that. I had planned my flight at 3,000ft so needed MATZ approval, however flew this part at around 2,800ft due to clouds.
Different airspace classes have different rules as well – much of the UK is “class G” which is completely uncontrolled. However, there’s a rule that can easily catch you out – 3000ft or below in class G you have to fly clear of cloud and in sight of the surface, with visibility at 5km or more. Above 3000ft, you must remain in sight of the surface with 5km visibility and clear of cloud 1500m horizontally and 1,000ft vertically. Above 10,000ft this changes again but you must have 8km visibility.
The clouds being at their level gave me a perfect opportunity to show my examiner that I was aware of this rule and applying decisions in-flight based on it. The clouds on the day were measured at 4,500ft at Cambridge, but they were lower at that point in the flight and I would probably estimate them at around 3,200ft. If I had flown above 3,000ft I would have busted the class G airspace rule and could technically have failed the test based on that.
Ironically, navigation is the one area of flying that I thought I’d seriously struggle with, but when I look back at my tracked flight I was really pleased with it. It was in fact the general handling where I started to fall apart – and I put that down to fatigue. The whole flight lasts about 2 – 2.5 hours, and at this stage in your flying career your flight endurance ability is most likely fairly short – never mind that this is a test and you’re doing a fair few things you wouldn’t normally do on a normal flight!
The first thing I was asked to do on general handling was to do a simulated 180 degree turn out of cloud using instruments only, so I put on some restrictive glasses I was given (they force you to look at the instruments). I stupidly did a 360 degree turn! Having explained what I did, I said, “can I repeat that?” with the examiner reminding me, “we’re still in cloud.” That’ll be a yes then! There were a few other silly errors like that I made, but luckily the ones that count were all good. Things like demonstrating you can set yourself up to land in a field if your engine dies, recovering from a stall or spin, dealing with engine fires, etc.
When you come back in to land you have to demonstrate you know how to re-join the airfield. I’ve become a dab hand at this so that was no trouble, making the appropriate radio calls I forgot it was a test and just got on with it. You then need to do a few circuits and show you can land without flaps (in case your flaps fail, for example), you can glide in (if your engine quits when you’re coming in to land) and you can land from a low level (bad weather circuit). Traffic in the area made this a bit more complex than it needed to be, but I got them all done.
Parked up and shut off the engine, pulled off my headset and let out a sigh of relief that it was all done. Expected a, “sorry to tell you that you’ve failed.”
“Congratulations, you’ve passed!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and remember asking if I’d heard correctly.
November 4th 2018 – 1 year and 3 days after officially starting flight training, and on the eve of the 16th anniversary of passing my driving test, I got my wings. I’ve already done my first solo flight as a qualified pilot and started training for my night qualification. I’m looking forward to getting my licence and being able to take passengers up!