Road to the PPL: navigation, emergency procedures, and more solo flying.

I think it is about time that I make another summary post on my PPL flight training (also to prove that this blog is not dead yet). Those who follow me on social media are well aware that I have been flying again since the end of the summer, but it might be still useful for some people to be able to find some information about the training flights here too. By now I have exactly 40 hours in my logbook (including 1h 18 minutes in the DA42 simulator for IFR introduction), and 108 landings (22 of which were done solo). I am getting more and more confident in the air – of course mainly because of the growing amount of flight time, but I am convinced that always re-watching and analysing my trainings plays a significant role too. Learning to fly is very much like learning to drive: at the beginning you need to pay attention to every small detail, and as time goes by, more and more tasks are being automatically handled by the brain – basic flying becomes a reflex -, and you have more time and ability to pay attention to specific details, for example to refine your crosswind landing technique.

The cockpit of the Sonaca 200 really became my happy place, and I am always looking forward to the next trainings. I just need roughly 1.5 hours of extra solo time, and a progress test navigation flight (both are basically formalities at this point), and then I will be allowed on my first solo navigation! With the looming typical bad winter weather it might be difficult to make that solo navigation before Christmas, but it won’t take to much time now. I still have also quite some theory to study, so I have plenty of things to do even if I can’t fly… Here is a list of my flights since my first solo back in 2020:

Flight 16: After a few weeks of no flying (mainly bad weather cancellations), my instructor decided that it was time to make a small jump and instead of continuing with touch and goes, do the first navigation flight. Actually a large part of this training was the pre-flight briefing itself, which included a long presentation about navigation, flight planning, weather, maps, calculations, the flight log, etc. Then we made the plan for the flight together, I got to use the classical analogue flight computer for the first time to calculate wind correction angles and ground speeds, and only after all of this did we go to the plane. It was a pretty straightforward route (literally), we flew almost directly South to the airport of Charleville-Mézières (LFQV), where I made two touch and goes (one normal and one flapless), then we flew back to Charleroi. I had zero issues with the navigation, mainly because 1) I love maps, 2) I have studied the route in advance in Google Maps, 3) I have flown the route in advance in X-Plane 11 with ortho scenery, so I had plenty of opportunities to find good visual references, 4) my instructor handled the radio outside of EBCI CTR so I would only need to concentrate on flying and navigating, and finally 5) the weather was really nice and clear (but quite windy), so it was really easy to find the reference points from far away.

Flight 17: After not flying for more than 10 months due to the second wave of Covid-19 (and me deciding that I would only go back when fully vaccinated), it was time to pick up flight training again. While grounded I could still practice the flows and checklists of the Sonaca 200, but I had no idea how my landings would be… This flight was mainly about this: touch and go landings one after the other at Charleroi. Unfortunately I had some technical issues so the audio did not get properly recorded (so I made some extra subtitles in the video to make it still somewhat more informative). If you don’t want any spoilers then stop reading here, otherwise I am very happy to say that my muscle memory only needed a very small amount of refreshing, and I was even approved for a solo pattern at the end of the training (only my second solo ever, and the first one at Charleroi).

Flight 18: I only planned a break of two weeks because of holidays, but then due to bad weather and airplane unavailability, a lot of my planned trainings got cancelled, so I had to wait until September to be able to fly again. For this flight, I decided to change my media setup, and record the intercom audio not directly with the GoPro, but separately, using a Zoom H1n recorder. The setup worked out quite well, except that I forgot to lock the keys on the device after starting the recording, and I managed to press some buttons with my elbow during the flight, ultimately accidentally stopping the recording 1.5 hours into the training… This way I can record not only the communications, but also the ambient sound (engine and cabin sounds with the GoPro), which I can mix together during the editorial work nicely, so you don’t get complete silence or some static noise when nobody is talking, but you get to hear the buzz of the engine (quietly) in the background. It is really worth listening to the video with a good headset on, then you more or less get the same audio as if you were sitting in the cockpit with me. It also means some extra editorial work (I use the free but very powerful DaVinci Resolve) because for example the sound level of the two mics in the intercom is not exactly the same, and when transmitting via the radio that audio level is much more quiet than the intercom levels, so I need to balance the volume based on who is talking and over which channel. Plus I also need to sync up the audio and video tracks. So unfortunately the best audio quality needs a bit more work than just plugging everything into the GoPro and hoping that it works out, but this is clearly the way to go.

But enough of the technology, what about the flying? The special items of the day for this flight were 1) that RWY 06 was in use, which is relatively rare, and until this flight I have not even had footage recorded of a landing on RWY 06, 2) we did some emergency exercises, and 3) I got to fly solo at Namur, which is until now the shortest runway where I did a full stop landing. It was a good training, the only thing I was a bit sloppy about is the lookout before normal turns. I did prepare by learning and visualizing the memory items and the emergency flows, but even with such preparation, the first try for the forced landing exercise was all over the place in terms of flying the pattern. The second was much better, because then I managed to visualize the glidepath to the selected field much better and at a higher altitude, so I could fly a committed trajectory and did not need to worry about the flying as much, leaving time to go over the procedures while gliding to the selected field.

Then the solo at Namur was also very good, not only because of the technical and compact pattern, but also because I was never alone in the circuit so I had to listen out continuously and think about the other airplanes in the air, plus there were aircraft arriving and leaving the pattern too. It was definitely the most complex solo so far, but I enjoyed every moment of it, and as the footage shows, I think I also performed quite well. At the end we flew back to the CTR of Charleroi from the North side (I also never did this before), and landed in beautiful evening lights on RWY 06.

Flight 19: The second flight of the week almost did not happen, as originally I had a booking for the morning (who books training flights for an autumn morning in Belgium?!?), and the weather forecast the day before the training was for sure IMC for the early hours… Luckily (or miraculously) both my chosen instructor and the airplane had a free slot in the afternoon, so I re-booked in the last minute and ended up with all right conditions after all. As you can see it in the video the training was quite straightforward. Being a Saturday the military airfield of Florennes was not active, so we headed to the South for some exercises, including a visit to the grass field of Cerfontaine, where we did a precautionary landing and a forced landing, with two touch and goes in between. On the way back I practiced some steep turns, since it has been more than a year since I last did them. All in all a very good and practical training, with only a few points to pay attention to over the next flights. The audio setup from the last flight worked flawlessly. Now that I did not forget to lock the buttons on the Zoom H1n after starting the recording everything turned out great. So I declare the flight recording technology dialled in! (Only took a year and almost 30 hours in the air, but we made it…)

Flight 20: This was my third flight in 11 days! It was finally time for another navigation flight, and this being my second one already, now I prepared everything on my own. Unfortunately the weather was not fully cooperative as some patches of the morning fog did not dry up fully, and one of the last layers held on too long over the South of the Netherlands, so we could not make it all the way to our destination airport. Nevertheless it was a good exercise, especially with the unexpected 180 degree turn, and the change in leg timings as a result. Truth be told this is definitely not my most exciting video ever, but I am sure if you are a PPL student you will find it useful.

Flight 21: After driving to Charleroi just to be met with unexpected rain and low visibility two weeks earlier (which brought my total of very last minute weather cancellations to two), finally we got some good weather, and it was time to make another attempt at a navigation flight to Midden Zeeland. First I had to give a call to EHMZ to make sure that it was fine if we passed by, then I submitted the flight plan, and refuelled the plane. (And of course the day before I prepared the NAV LOG, drew the route on the chart, and in the morning I made all the calculations with the actual wind data for the flight…) You don’t see any of this in the video, but it is part of the training :)

A slight change compared to the previous flight was that this time I planned the route via the VOR of Affligem, so we could play around with VOR navigation basics too. Spoiler alert: we made it this time, so I could also make my first full stop landing (and then take off) at a soft field. There is definitely room for improvement there, especially the take off was not meeting my expectations. But OK, at least the navigation part went very nicely, and I really like the VOR instrument.

On the other hand my radio calls were not as good as usual (I need to take some time to collect my thoughts next time before transmitting, and I need to articulate better), and I definitely had to do a review of the descent and approach checklists after the flight. I also recorded the screen of SkyDemon this time, I will try to make this a regular thing for navigation flights at least, but I will have to refine the settings a bit in the future (map scale, warnings, and disable notifications).

I spent a long time at the airport even after the flight, as I had to refuel again, and clean the plane before tucking it in nicely in the hangar. On the way back home Waze froze and I missed my exit on the R0 (this being the first time that I was driving in the dark, so it was not so suspicious until I saw the office buildings of the airport on my right), so I also had to drive around Brussels Airport slightly annoyed and wanting dinner :D

Flight 22: I dare to say that navigation is not really a challenge anymore! At the end of this flight my instructor said that I was basically ready for solo navigation (but still need some solo hours before I am actually allowed to do it). Wind on the other hand, can be quite a challenge. But let’s not jump forward too much…

As the weather was way too good to not do a NAV flight, and the wind was way too strong to do a soft field session at Cerfontaine (where we would have had exact cross wind), I decided to prepare a navigation flight to Genk – Zwartberg (EBZW), hoping that I could still do some solo flying there, thanks to the runway heading being basically the best suited in the country for the forecast wind direction. The specials of the day were flying through a Danger Area where I had to request Radar Information Services from EBBE Approach (which turns out is actually only mandatory for OAT not GAT), and of course the gusty wind conditions, which made my solo a very humbling and educational experience.

You will see the details in the video, but let me just say, that now I know how a bounced landing feels, and that I can now proudly say that I made a solo go-around (following said bounced landing). I tried to analyse my four solo approaches to the tiniest detail possible, to discover what went wrong with two of the approaches, and to make sure I avoid the uncovered mistakes in the future. At the end I show some radio communications from the way back to Charleroi, and the most crazy windy approach I have ever had at EBCI, which ended up with my instructor taking over after we encountered some serious downdraft on short final.

Flight 23: I need five solo hours to be allowed on a solo navigation flight (plus a navigation progress test flight, but that is just a formality), which means that I needed three more hours of solo before this flight. Full of self confidence from the past week (the gusty roller coaster), my plan was clear: I would do two times 1.5 hours of solo during the next two trainings (as I book slots of 3 hours lately), somewhere close to Charleroi (e.g., Namur, Cerfontaine, Maubeuge, etc.).

This flight is the first one of these solo time-building flights. The plan worked perfectly, I did 1 hours and 24 minutes of solo, during 13 patterns at EBNM. I feel like I also managed to correct some of the remaining issues of my landing technique, by keeping the plane longer off the runway in the flare, with more back pressure, and not immediately relaxing that pressure after touch-down (hence protecting the nose wheel better, and making the initial roll out less bumpy). The weather was not technically challenging this time, so it was easy to concentrate on the details. I had a lot of fun during this flight, I wish I could have stayed longer, but we had to be back in time. Looking forward to the next one!

My next trainings are booked for the first Friday and Sunday of December, and I also accepted an invitation for that Saturday to visit the Sonaca 200 assembly line in Namur, and give a short talk on my flight training videos there for the other visitors (other PPL students, aviation enthusiasts, etc.). If the weather looks good for that weekend, I might just book a hotel in Namur last minute instead of driving there and back every day :D

The next time I have a bit more time with the aircraft I will also try to make a video about how I set up my GoPro and the audio recording system in the cockpit, which might make an interesting video too, maybe together with some footage from the Sonaca visit. Until then, Fly Safe!

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