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Road to the PPL: all the way to my first solo!

It has been a while since my last update (here) on my PPL training, since fist I could not fly for months because of the lockdown (you know, Covid-19 and everything…), then after two flights in June (just enough to get back in the rhythm) the Sonaca 200 fleet was grounded for inspection, so I could actually only restart intensive flying in August. But since then I have flown once every week, which means 7 flights in the past 7 weeks, most of them pretty long (up to two hours) and intensive (with a lot of exercises, and even a progress test). This culminated in my fist solo flight (of 24 minutes, flying two circuits at Maubeuge, including a touch and go and a full stop landing) this Monday, which is obviously a huge milestone in the training program. Now I have 22 hours and 18 minutes of flight time, and a bit more than 60 landings.

Just before my first solo I also did the online test for the Sonaca 200 (successfully passed with a 96% result – thanks to the test being not too difficult, open book – although with a time limit of 90 minutes for the 90 questions -, and me studying way too much for it), and I finally got my badge to the airport (the GA area) too after a personal security briefing held only for me (since I don’t speak French and they very rarely give the briefing in English – as illustrated by the clear lack of demand for it), so now it will be easier for me to get in and prepare the plane for a flight without having to wait for my instructor to come and get me (which was not very practical when the instructor had a flight before my training, or it was the first flight of the day). Thanks to my videos (which have became a very useful post-flight briefing tool for me), I was asked to give an interview to Sonaca (the manufacturer of our planes) after my first solo, which was of course a nice experience.

Now there will be a few more flights with mostly touch and go training, always including some solo time, then we will start navigational flights! Below I will give a short summary of the past flights, and embed the videos I have made of them.

Flight 7: After three months of no flying due to Covid-19, I was finally back at EBCI (Charleroi) for the next flight of my PPL training. This time I managed to record the radio audio too, so the video is longer than usual (note: since then that became pretty standard…), because I left in parts which are interesting only for the dialogue, and not for the flying – since this is also an important (and interesting) part of the training. I also left parts in where I make mistakes, because this is how you learn during the training. Unfortunately something was not OK with the external power, so the GoPro was using its own battery, and after that ran out of juice the recording died after ~1 hour, so I don’t have footage of the (very good) approach and the (pretty bad) landing back to EBCI… (Actually the issue was that I started recording with the quick capture mode, and using that the GoPro never uses external power. So reminder: always properly turn the camera on, and start recording with the record button.) Besides a general repetition of flying skills, we covered mainly steep turns (45 degree and 60 degree) during this training.

Flight 8: For this flight we took off from EBCI and headed to Cerfontaine (EBCF) for some touch and go practice. This was my second touch and go session (after visiting Namur before Covid-19 closed the airspace), and my first experience with a grass runway. On the way there we did some slow flight (not in the video, we have seen enough of that for now), and after the first few touch and goes we did two engine failure simulations, when we set the power to idle at 2400 feet, right overhead the airfield, and then glided down to land without touching the throttle. The first one of this was a demonstration, but the second one I did on my own. Unfortunately the GoPro decided to not use the external power again (I only realised after this flight that the quick capture mode was to blame), so this was not captured anymore (nor the landing back at Charleroi)… It is a shame because this was a really nice exercise and the landing was also good. Just after leaving the control zone of EBCI we were ear-witnesses of OO-NCA suffering an engine failure right after take-off and making an emergency landing on the remaining runway. Both pilots and the aircraft made it back to the ground without suffering any injuries or damage. For this reason I decided to have the whole situation presented in this video, mainly because it illustrates that 1) we do the take-off briefings for a reason (to memorise what we need to do in the very exact situation), and 2) how ATC and other aircraft nearby react in an emergency situation. As safety is a top priority in the flight school, the Sonaca 200 fleet was grounded while the engine problems were investigated.

Flight 9 arrived after more than a month of not flying (again – now due to the Sonaca 200 fleet being grounded). It was supposed to be a progress test, but the clouds were way too low for that (we would not have been able to climb high enough for safe stall demonstration). As Plan B we decided to stay at EBCI (Charleroi) for local touch and go training (also known as: to fly circuit patterns). Needless to say I was happy about the change of plans (I just knew that the progress test would have been rather boring, and touch and go training at a relatively busy international airport is just orders of magnitudes more exciting). It was also the inaugural flight of my new Bose A20 headset: I am very satisfied with the change from the original David Clark one, the voice clarity is incomparable (which I was definitely hoping for given the price difference). You might notice that I am flying without glasses now, but don’t worry, I am wearing my lenses – I always have so much trouble combining the glasses with wearing a mask in the cockpit…

It was a very straightforward training, we did multiple left hand patterns with touch and go landings in between, and one actual go around (so not as a training but as a real life situation). Like everyone else I also find it difficult to share bad landings and footage of me not flying perfectly, but I learn the best from re-watching my mistakes, so I decided to show almost the whole training today (only very small amount of idle time is cut out to make it less unbearably long). During the first landing I had a hard time feeling the feedback from the plane, so for the second one I just followed through the movements of the instructor. You can see it in this video, that this was extremely useful, and from there on the approaches and landings got better and better (with the penultimate landing being the best of the series). I think the video shows well how continuous input from an instructor helps improving one’s flying technique.

For the duration of the first circuit I have overlaid some explanatory drawings and text about what is happening and where we are in the circuit for those who are completely new to aviation.

Flight 10 was a progress test flight, we made a general repetition of all the manoeuvres, including stall recovery in all the possible configurations, steep turns, recovery from unusual attitudes, etc. It was a long and busy flight, much less boring than I expected it to be, and I passed the test without issues. Unfortunately I have no footage of this flight, because I accidentally put the GoPro in photo mode :D Since then, I always just make sure that the GoPro is rolling properly before putting the suction mount to the top of the canopy (because during the flight I am not dealing with the camera at all, it is a start and leave setup, so it does not take even a second of my focus away from flying during the training – with the external battery and a big memory card, there is no need to start/stop the recording to save battery power or storage space).

Flight 11: We took off from Charleroi (EBCI), and flew to France to practice circuits (with touch and go landings) at LFQJ. I should have asked my instructor in advance what his plans were, because in France you have to do the radio calls in the pattern (of an uncontrolled airport) in French, and I was totally not prepared to do that. You see, my French is – how to put it mildly – pretty merde… [Pardon my French.] So this stressed me quite a lot during the training flight, probably contributing to small mistakes here and there. It was also a long training, so by the end I could feel that I got tired. We did a few normal approaches, then also two flapless ones (one demonstration), before heading back to EBCI. The air was again quite turbulent here and there before the arriving thunderstorms, but nothing too bad.

Overall my circuits and approaches were pretty good, only the transition did not work out as it should: I was not smooth enough with reducing the power and raising the nose (which I was not raising enough either), and my yaw perception was also a bit off this time. Note: the approach speed was at one point misquoted. This can happen in a long and busy training, but for clarification, here are the standard approach speeds of a Sonaca 200 based on the SOP: 60 knots on final in normal configuration, 65 knots on final in flapless configuration. This is in calm conditions, without strong gusts.

Flight 12: This time the weather was not really on our side, so instead of a series of touch and goes at LFQJ, we had to make a full stop landing and wait a half hour while a rain front passed over the airfield, so I only made 3 landings this time (including a really nice one). Due to the weather conditions, this flight was also a bit of an introduction to weather avoidance, and low visibility / instrument flying (on the way back, inside the CTR of EBCI). We also made an engine failure exercise, and I made radio calls in French (so-so) again, this time feeling much less stressed, since the previous flight already prepared me for that. All-in-all, this was a very good training again, with a lot of things learned. After this training I would always remember to not round out a flapless landing as if I was doing a normal one…

Flight 13: This time the weather in the morning was not looking good at all: my instructor even proposed to cancel our training… Luckily I have a long history with numerical weather forecasts, and immediately had a look at my favourite high resolution weather model to see if things would improve in a few hours, then replied to him that based on what I could see, the conditions would most likely be perfectly fine by the time we were scheduled to be in the air. I managed to convince him, and just as forecast, we had perfect VFR conditions throughout the flight, with just the right amount of wind to make it a bot more challenging.

We had a great touch and go session of more than 1.5 hours (this was my longest flight until then) in a surprisingly busy airspace; we had to orbit / fly a short circuit / make a loop to the South quite a few times to give way to arriving / departing commercial traffic. I made 10 approaches (8 touch and go landings – including one in flapless configuration -, a planned go around exercise, and a full stop landing at the end). Often we were aiming behind the blocks (see notes in the video) to avoid wake turbulence. My landings improved a lot, paying more and more attention to rudder work (to de-crab during round out), keeping the aircraft better under control after the main wheels touched down (since the job is not done at that point just yet), and by the end of the training I had a much better feel of the speed and glide slope corrections on base and on final.

Flight 14: with two hours of flight (engine) time, again a record long training – but thanks to my editorial work, not even close to the longest video. Since there is a clear interest in radio communications based on my YouTube view count, I left most of that in, so we can see how different scenarios look like from the beginning to the end (exiting and entering a controlled airspace, calls in uncontrolled airspace, and checking in with Brussels Info for flight information services).

First we flew to LFQJ to do some pattern work: we did 6 touch and go landings, the first three in relatively strong and variable crosswinds, which calmed down considerably for the second half of the circuits. These first landings were definitely difficult cross wind training. I also had a relatively hard landing, concentrating too much on correcting for the wind, and not paying enough attention to still doing the round-out properly. It happens, and as always, I show the bad landing too, there is a lot to learn from it. After the pattern work we headed back to Belgium to do some spin avoidance training (stall recovery from incipient spin phase) high over the lakes, before flying back to EBCI for a full stop landing.

It was the fist time that I fuelled the aircraft, and it was also the first time that I flew with a kneeboard. Besides keeping my French cheat sheet on it, I also used it to note down the information from the ATIS while flying. As my flying skills improve, my workload can also increase. Except for checking in with Brussels Information, I did all the radio communications too.

Since my instructor actually tol me that if the weather had been calmer, he could have let me do my first solo, I used the next weekend to study for and pass the theory exam of the Sonaca 200, which is required by my flight school before going solo.

Flight 15 was my 7th flight in seven weeks, this time with a different instructor. Since I passed the online Sonaca 200 test of the flight school two days earlier, I was technically ready to go solo. I also added some French expressions to my cheat sheet to cover calls that were not needed during touch and goes, but which I would need should I be allowed solo (mostly ground movements, and full stop landing). I was a bit afraid, that flying with an instructor that I had not flown with for months would lower the chances of me flying solo, but I did not stress about it, even though I felt ready and I really wanted to go solo :)

After take off (perfect flows and checklists, trying to show the instructor how my progress was) and leaving the CTR, we did a new exercise: compass turns (he briefed me about this on the ground before departure already). Afterwards we flew to Maubeuge (LFQJ), and integrated to the right hand circuit for RWY 05. The previous times I always flew the other way around (RWY 23), so this was a bit new. Our first approach ended in a nicely called go-around, because somebody cut in front of us and did not vacate the runway in time, then I did three very nice and smooth landings (some of the credit is due to the very smooth atmosphere, with barely any wind that day), the third after a short circuit. This (already the first two) was enough for my instructor to decide to let me go on my first solo!

He got out, took a handheld radio with him, and I was on my own. I had to do two circuits, a touch and go and a full stop landing, before picking him up again for the flight back to Charleroi. The solo was a great experience, I was not nervous, but I was not fully at ease in the first minutes while getting into the rhythm on the ground, but after take-off everything went very smooth and I was very calm and concentrated. I made one bigger mistake only, deciding to take off using maximum continuous power instead of full power, but I was fully aware of this decision, and I knew that given the available runway length (1300 meters, or 1250 meters from the start of my take-off run), I would have no issues taking off with the slightly reduced take-off power. Still, this was a stupid mistake. (I have read so much about the time limit on full power per flight, and that we always use MCP during touch and goes, that I got confused in the heat of the moment, and I was convinced right there on the spot that this was the correct thing to do. Of course it was not, a take-off is always with full power. Both in the AFM and in the SOP.) But I will always remember it from now on.

I could have left all the mistakes out, but I decided to leave 100% of my solo flight in (with the quiet parts sped up considerably), and analyse every single moment of it, to point out even the smaller mistakes for you, so we can learn from it together. I hope some people will find this educational, because it sure is pretty hard for me to just put all my mistakes into the spotlight :) In any case, I am proud of my first solo flight, the patterns were perfect (except for a bit of ballooning here and there), the approaches and landings were by the book, and in general my flying, communication (except the French pronunciation, and mixing up some words when I am talking to myself :D), and situational awareness is very good. I just need to make sure that I don’t forget doing a proper flow before the call at the beginning of downwind.

After the solo we flew back directly to EBCI, and I ended the day with a nice flapless landing, before having a small interview with Sonaca about my flying :)

The next flights will be probably similar, always one or two new exercise leading towards navigational flying, then some solo flying to build solo time (there is a minimum of 10 solo hours needed by the end of the PPL training). I am very much looking forward to the next flights!

Chasing Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) around Belgium

I was not yet that much into astronomy when Comet Hale-Bopp passed by in 1997, so I have never seen a bright naked-eye comet until recently. There were a few smaller comets in the past decade(s) which became borderline visible, e.g., Pan-STARRS (C/2011 L4) in 2011, or comets that were big and bright but only observable from the Southern hemisphere, such as C/2006 P1 (McNaught). This finally changed with the arrival of C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) this month.

In the first days it was only visible before sunrise, so I had to get outside very early to catch it in the twilight, thus it made more sense (to me) to simply stay up all night and go to the nearby abbey to take pictures at half past three… I took the first picture on the 11th of July at 03:53 local time (5 sec, ISO 400, Fujilim X-T3 + Fujilim XF 50mm f/2 @ f2.8). The comet was extremely bright, when I arrived to the shore of the lakes next to the abbey it was unmistakeable, even though the sky was already getting brighter.

On the 12th I got up early again (or more precisely: stayed up late again…) to drive to a nearby village hoping to take some pictures under less light polluted skies, but by the time I arrived clouds rolled in and I only got a few pictures that showed at least part of the comet through gaps in the cloud layer – none of which is worthy enough to be shown here.

On the 13th the visibility on the evening sky finally became better than on the morning sky (as the comet travelled further Northwest), but given there were some high clouds, I choose to stay in Leuven, and we simply walked to the Arenberg castle with Clio to have a look from there. While visually the comet was a nice sight hanging over the castle, the photos turned out to be not so special (mostly because of the dull, grey sky). Still, it was pretty amazing that from a quite bright spot inside the city we could see multiple degrees of the comet’s tail with our naked eyes.

After a few cloudy days, the 17th finally brought some clear skies again, so I drove 15 km to the South (parked along a dirt road just SW of the military airport of Beauvechain) to take a series of pictures. There were still some clouds near the horizon, but the view was definitely much better than from Leuven. I could even see the Milky Way above me! I processed the pictures with Astro Pixel Processor (APP). The image below is a result of processing 55 images (taken around local midnight) of the comet (30 sec, ISO 800, Fujilim X-T3 + Fujilim XF 50mm f/2 @ f2.8), and a set of calibration images (20 dark, 10 flat, and 10 darkflat). The (thin blue) ion tail is visible for over 17 degrees (34 times the apparent size of the full Moon)! This image has the same field of view as the first picture with the abbey tower above. With the naked eye, the tails were visible for around 5 degrees from the coma (the head of the comet).

Finally, when I thought I had enough of the comet, I made a last minute decision on the 21st and drove almost one and a half hour to the highest point of Belgium, and set up my camera there for another set of pictures. The sky was as good as it gets from Belgium, so even though the comet had noticeably lost from its brightness during the previous few days, it still looked very nice even with the unaided eye (sowing at least 5 degrees of tail easily). Unlike on the 17th in Beauvechain, this time there were no clouds near the horizon, only a bot of light pollution from the cities further away. I took multiple sets of images, the one below is created from processing 80 exposures (15 sec, ISO 1600, Fujilim X-T3 + Fujilim XF 50mm f/2 @ f2.8) taken around midnight local time (and also using 20 dark, 20 flat, and 20 darkflat calibration frames). The three bright stars in the top third of the image are the rightmost stars of the Big Dipper, and the ion tail on the image is more than 20 degrees long (at least, as it ends outside of the frame).

It took me hours (or rather days) to process these images to get the most detail out of them without blowing up the noise, but I am more or less happy with the end result now. (In the last picture even the bands of airglow are visible – if you know what to look for –  parallel with the horizon, slightly tilted across the image.)

Lunar occultation of Venus

Last Friday morning the Moon passed in front of Venus. This is not a super rare even (unlike, e.g., a total solar eclipse), but it also does not happen very often; the next Venus occultation (visible from Belgium) will take place on the 9th of November in 2023, but that will be much less spectacular. What makes last week’s event so special, is that it happened only two weeks after the inferior conjunction of Venus (when Venus passes – more or less – between the Earth and the Sun). Around this date Venus shines as a very thin crescent, and the apparent size of the planet is much larger than usual (since it is closest to Earth in space at inferior conjunction). The next time the occultation will happen in a similar configuration will only be in 2028.

Just 45 minutes before Venus was about to disappear I set up my equipment in the shadow of a strategically chosen taller building on the university campus (to block out the Sun), then used my binoculars to find Venus and the Moon. Venus was much brighter, without it finding the dim crescent of the Moon would have been much more difficult on the bright daylight sky. Having established their location relative to the nearby building, I managed to find Venus with the naked eye too. Then I could proceed with aiming the 1000 mm “objective” at the target using a red dot sight that I installed on my camera and aligned with the lens earlier. Manual focus is always a bit of a trial and error, but I got fully ready well in time as the crescent Moon got closer and closer to Venus. From a series of photograph, the nicest one is probably the one where a few clouds also got into the field of view just as the two crescents touched. I did not stay for the exit phase, as more and more clouds began to form…

Thanks to my twitter connections, this picture also made it to the evening news (actually the weather segment) of the VRT (the flemish national radio and television). [Single exposure of 1/340 seconds at ISO 160 with a Fujilim X-T3, using a 1000 mm f/10 Maksutov telescope (from TS-Optics), on a Sky-Watcher Sky Adventurer mount]

Spring in the time of Covid-19

This spring (and summer) turned out to be very different than planned, due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Just a few days after my last flight lesson, Belgium went into lockdown, working from home became the new norm, and social distancing undoubtedly established itself as the word of 2020 in an instant. Luckily (or rather thanks to the hard work of scientists, health care personnel, and the willingness of politicians to listen to these groups) we managed to flatten the curve before the health system got overwhelmed, and we are basically done with the measures as even bars and restaurants reopened two weeks ago, and since last Monday international travel is also allowed again. As the virus is still present, and there is no vaccine yet, it seems like life will have to go on in a quite different way compared to how things were used to be before Covid-19, with face masks and keeping a safe distance whenever possible.

While we had no physiological or financial issues (I can work as well – if not better – from home as from the office, and there is enough work to do), mentally these weeks (especially early on) were really not easy. In the beginning my hypochondria was messing with my head way too much, causing large swings in my mood and productivity, which got better only by limiting my news intake, and when hospitalisation numbers finally started going down. Initially I could not even fully enjoy my occasional bike rides outside because of my bad mental state. Luckily individual cycling (and running) was always allowed (and even encouraged), because I am pretty sure I would have gone really crazy without that… But holiday plans (including the so thoroughly planned and booked Trans Pyrenees ride) had to be cancelled (and everything is was too uncertain to start making new ones), we could not go to restaurants, there were no flight training, Liverpool FC was halted on the way to their first Premier League trophy, and I was not even allowed to drive to the Ardennes for a ride :( Mainly 1st world problems, but still, a big negative change in everyday lifestyle is difficult no matter the baseline.

After the initial shock, we slowly got used to the new situation. The exceptionally dry and warm weather (average temperature of my rides in April was 20.2°C, which is several degrees over the historical average, and this April-May was the driest April-May in Belgium since the beginning of measurements) definitely helped by creating plenty of opportunities for biking (and since I work 4/5th as of February, I have more free time in general in any case).

So while my big sportive goal for 2020 suddenly disappeared, I still continued with the training that I started at the beginning of this year (wanting to get my earlier cycling fitness back, and simply wanting to do something else besides sitting in front of the computer). I tried to keep my rides interesting by always picking a different route (while avoiding the busy paths along the waterways), and by participating in small challenges on a few selected road segments. After my burnout last year, I really enjoyed being on the bike again, and I tried biking without looking at the numbers most of the time (so biking for the good feeling, and not to achieve a given amount of kilometers a week or month). Even though I try to not not concentrate on the plain numbers anymore, having completed all main monthly Strava challenges (bike more than 1250 km, with more than 7500 m elevation gain, and including at least one 100 km ride) in April and May, and even getting a few KOMs (back) is something I am happy about (plus it seems like my cycling fitness level has just reached its all time high too). I have also visited some new places, like the spiral bike path looping through the trees and the bike path crossing a lake (in a way that the road is under the water level while your eyes are in line with it) in Limburg, or the geographical middle point of Belgium, and the West side of Brussels. The open road (or gravel path) was also the only place where I could meet up with a few friends when it was already safe to do so, and some of the best rides were these social evening spins just before sunset. I expect that now that flight training is restarting I will bike a bit less, but as we are allowed to take the car to ride somewhere else since last week, I hope to get back to the Ardennes and bike further away from Leuven more often in the coming months (which already started with a nice outing to Luxembourg on Sunday).

I have been riding with my beautiful steel bike too a lot (already more than over the whole past year), not only because it is a very nice bike, but also because I had to miss my Endurace for two weeks… The reason: the frame broke under me (where the front derailleur hanger is screwed onto the seat tube), just 500 m from home, but luckily without me crashing. Fortunately it cost me only 120 EUR to get a brand new replacement frame (instead of 2600 EUR which is the actual price of a new frame), as the bike was still covered by the 6 year guarantee of Canyon.

Work went also quite well the past months, as while coding gets boring sometimes, we have been in the news a lot (among others in the VRT, in De Tijd, in De Standaard, in the Knack, and for example with an article in the Verkeersspecialist) thanks to the traffic monitor that I set up using Telraam data, comparing the measured cars, heavy vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians to the pre-Covid-19 baseline on a daily and weekly basis. I think one of my biggest achievements is getting uncertainty intervals into the national media :) [As this is the wet dream of any data scientist, isn’t it?]

I think it is safe to say that our numbers became the standard when referring to traffic beyond the highways network. I could write a full paper about this, but I will spare you of the boring technical details (here). It’s enough to say that we tracked the initial fall and the slow and long return of traffic on the streets, and we have also seen how strongly leisure oriented cycling correlates with temperature and the absence of rain. Nothing fundamentally surprising, but scientifically sound, precise measurements of our everyday lives and habits, on a level (geographical extent, various modes, temporal resolution, and precision) that has not been done before.

My PhD student (whom I co-supervised the past years, even when I was not working at the university anymore) has defended her thesis, and while for the internal examination we could still meet up with the whole jury in person (followed by a nice dinner), her “public” defense was the first virtual defense at the department (and also the first PhD defense at the Institute of Astronomy of the KU Leuven that is now on YouTube). It went really well (of course), and having a sip of champagne and a piece of chocolate together with her (and my former) supervisor was a nice moment afterwards, even though nobody else could be present. As illustration of a perfect supervisor-student relationship, we both got each other a LEGO to build (and – unrelated – Clio also got me a really nice set to cheer me up when I was feeling really down, which we build up together on a less sunny weekend).

While I could not fly in real life, I spent quite some time (and that is a clear understatement) to create a very precise model of the airport of Charleroi for the flight simulator (X-Plane 11). Instead of listing all the features here (but it has a hand-crafted terrain model, extremely precise markings and lights, taxiway signs, and even some custom 3D models – which took me back to SketchUp after quite some years -, including the iconic first floor facade of the passenger terminal), I will just link the download page of the scenery for the curious readers. It has been very popular among fellow simmers, it is currently within the 20 most popular scenery downloads of the last month. It feels pretty much like the real thing, it is a shame that I can not fly with a Sonaca 200 in the simulator (and making a plane is a bit more complex than making an airport, so no thank you), that would really help in practising some flows and procedures. Sometimes I really hate my perfectionism, because I keep finding things to improve upon, which on one hand is something I like to do, but on the other hand it takes time away from actually just using the scenery.

Finally, for the rest of the lockdown news, we have seen the “train” of Starlink satellites on the evening sky (and even recorded the view), and also managed to find a game on PlayStation that we can sometimes play together (Minecraft Dungeons). Two weeks ago on Friday I was finally back in the air (then last Saturday too), so expect some flight training related posts in the near future (since I can barely think of anything else than flying since then).