31st March was my last flight before now – a 1-hour excursion around Cambridgeshire for my father-in-law’s birthday. Unfortunately, life got in the way and a few days later I was declaring myself medically unfit to fly. I had found myself in a different world – an acute mental health crisis had taken hold. My doctor told me I was suffering from an acute stress reaction, which made sense to me – I certainly didn’t feel like I had depression or an anxiety disorder.
The CAA have a process pilots must go through to regain fitness, so while sensible me had already said I wasn’t going to fly, it wasn’t long before that was made official and I was looking at working through the process. It’s ironic, in one sense, that the one thing I know would have helped my state of mind is the one thing I was categorically not allowed to do. Get in a plane and fly the thing.
Fast forward to now. Confirmed fit to fly. What is a pilot to do?
The “mini skills test”
No, this isn’t a new test that has been magically invented. I realised that 2 months out of the left seat left me not too far away from being outside of the EASA 90-day currency rule for carrying passengers. That is, you must do 3 take offs and landings within the last 90 days to be able to carry passengers. I also hadn’t practised procedures for a while either. So I plotted a short 38 nautical mile route departing Duxford, routing around the North of Cambridge and back. Halfway along the route, I did some general handling work, which amounted to a good proportion of the skills test work. I couldn’t be happier with what I did, either. Aced it.
- 3 stalls
- Practise forced landing
- Steep turns
- Climbing turns
I then continued on my route, overflying the archery range I shoot at, before returning to Duxford. That… is where things got interesting.
Dakota DC-3 Formation
Approaching Duxford, I knew things were busy so I elected to join Duxford’s circuit downwind, rather than take a straight in approach. It just gives more time to get a picture of what’s going on and get positioned. I knew there was a formation of 7 DC-3 aircraft due to depart around 14:00 local time, but it turns out they had been delayed. It was now around 14:30, with Duxford telling me they might have to hold me back until the formation had departed.
“No problems,” I thought. I still had some distance to travel to position correctly anyway.
I was 3,000ft up as I watched the DC-3s take off and fly underneath me – one after the other. I had asked my 8-year-old son in the right seat to keep an eye out for any planes for me. “Daddy there’s a plane! There’s two! And another!” Apparently he wants to be a private pilot… good start right there!
Eventually I was told I was ok to continue, so got a full side-slip on to get down to 1,000ft by the time I joined the circuit.
One touch and go – bam! Greased the plane onto the runway. Off we go.
Second one – even better!
Third one. “Golf Alpha Romeo, downwind two four left, this one will be to land.”
Tower: “Golf Alpha Romeo, roger, report final.”
Dancing with Spitfires
A Spitfire was on the “north” circuit – Duxford operate two circuits. One for warbirds, and the other for general aircraft. So as I was descending and turning for final approach to land, my ears pricked up when I heard, “turning right base” on the radio. My eyes immediately glanced to my 3-4 o’clock, looking for a plane that should be visible. Tower asked me if I could extend my downwind leg another 10-15 seconds, but I was already on final approach. “I can go around if that helps? Golf Alpha Romeo.”
Short pause. “Golf Alpha Romeo, report going around. Make an early left crosswind if you wish.” I needed to practise it, so this was helpful. Full power, carb heat off, climb and retract drag flap. “Going around, Golf Alpha Romeo.”
On the radio I hear the tower telling the Spitfire pilot they could now land, and the Spitfire pilot thanking me for my help. Good airmanship – another tick.
Coming back around, another great landing. More thanks from the tower on the radio, and time to park up.
Two months out, better than before
Today’s flight was pretty intensive. Talk about flying in the deep end! But what it also showed me was even though I’ve spent a good amount of time doubting myself and all of my abilities during the “episode” that stopped my flying, I really do have the skills and knowledge to do this flying thing – and to a pretty high standard. I felt totally safe, comfortable, relaxed and enjoying every second of it.