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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!

Road to the PPL: Up into the sky and back down to Earth

During February and March I had four more flight training sessions at EBCI (Charleroi), bringing up my total flight time to 7 hours and 36 minutes (after 6 flights). (This sounds so little like this, it’s basically the amount of time I have to work on a single day, wow. No offence to my work, but I remember these hours slightly more vividly.) It happens that I flew with all the four different Sonaca 200 planes my flight school has, including the brand new OO-NCD (or for my non aviation inclined readers, this is pronounced as Oscar Oscar November Charlie Delta, which had only 22 hours of air time when I sat in it; unfortunately I can not report the presence of a new-plane-smell anymore). I also flew with three different instructors, which definitely helps in getting feedback from people with slightly different approaches (and yes, I have my favourites already, but in general I am very happy with everyone I have flown with so far).

There is way too much stuff in my flight bag already, so I am not carrying my Fujifilm X-T3 with me anymore (even though I would love to take better pictures here and there, but there is simply not enough space or time for it), but I have installed a GoPro camera in the cockpit for these flights. For Flight 3, I had my old GoPro 4 Silver as a test, to see how useful or interesting having a recording of my training is, but then I bought a new GoPro 8, which – thanks to the amazing image stabilisation features – provides a perfectly vibration-free result (in 4K – I don’t even own a 4K screen, but this is 2020, people). By Flight 6 I also had the tech to record the radio communication too, but I messed up the settings so instead of having the recording of me talking to the air traffic controllers of an international airport or listening to the great comments of my flight instructor, I got one and a half hour of video without sound. Anyway, I think I know where I made the mistake, and it should be all good the next time (whenever it will be – thanks Obama Covid-19!).

I have posted the most interesting parts of the flights online (edited in DaVinci Resolve 16) on my YouTube “Channel”, with timestamps and more detailed comments in the descriptions, so I will not go over everything here, just have a summary of what I learned (click to the videos for more). Flight 3 started with my first unassisted take-off, then we did climbing and descending turns.

During Flight 4 we did high-power low-speed climbing turns and low-power descending turns (to feel the different rudder input necessary for a balanced flight in these situations), then we experienced slow flight (flying at and around the speed associated with minimum drag). I had my first transmissions on the radio (talking to Ground and Tower until the take-off point as a start). [You can compare the quality of the first two videos, amazing how stable the new GoPro is, right?]

Flight 5 was mainly power-off stalls in various flap configurations (first clean, then take-off, and landing). At the end I finally got to make a full approach and landing on my own, it was great. Now I did all the radio communication except for the phase between returning to the CTR (the control zone of Charleroi) and landing.

Flight 6 was the best training so far. We headed over to EBNM (Namur) for my first circuits and touch-and-gos (meaning that a landing is immediately followed by a take-off, without stopping). EBNM has a 690 meter long and 25 m wide asphalt runway, which felt very different to the huge runway at EBCI (2405 m x 45 m), but it was a very good exercise. I did 7 landings and 2 (planned) go-arounds, so 9 circuits (or patterns), before heading back to EBCI where I had my 8th landing of the day. Here and there the wind was a bit gusty, and there was a light, but variable crosswind too, so some approaches were more challenging than others.

I did all the radio communication until the start of the touch-and-gos, but from then on I had enough to do with flying and navigating (so my instructor took over the radio there, until we were back on the ground at EBCI). This is completely normal at this point during the training. It was an extremely rewarding training with a very steep learning curve, and I managed some very good landings in the second half of it. By now I am also familiar with all the visual reference points that lie to the South of the runway (since we have never went to the North so far). It was also the most tiring flight of my training so far, not only because it was very long (almost two hours), but also because it was very active, there was barely any straight and level flying, there was always something to do. I loved it. (On a side note, EBNM was the first airport I modelled in detail for X-Plane 11, so it was great to finally visit it in real life too!)

Unfortunately Covid-19 screwed up everything, so no flying in the foreseeable future :( Normally I would have had my security briefing at Charleroi today to get a badge to the airport, and I had training flights booked for every week until the first Sunday of April… Time to proceed with studying the theory and flying in the simulator I guess.

Road to the PPL: The first flights of my training

Last month I had the first two flights of my PPL training at Charleroi (EBCI). I was supposed to have a third one too, but that was unfortunately cancelled due to Belgium being under a think layer of fog for almost a week… Currently I have three more flights booked for February, but of course winter weather can often be unsuitable for VFR (flying by visual flight rules), so having just two of these go through would probably be a big success already. I hope during the summer it will be easier to book lessons (with longer days, better instructor availability, and better weather chances).

Before the first flight I still had to buy some basic equipment, such as a headset, checklists, a VFR map of Belgium, and a kneeboard (and later I still got a nicer headset case, a fuel tester, a plotter, an E6-B flight computer, and a Leatherman multitool to complete my flight bag). And of course as a data-geek I also got a flight-planner/tracker app for my iPhone (SkyDemon) so I have a log of all my future flights at the same place.

Even though the first flight itself was more of a familiarisation flight (procedures, checklists, all the pre-flight paperwork, primary and secondary effects of the controls, important visual navigation points around Charleroi, straight and level flight, use of the trim), I went very well prepared (I studied all the relevant theory modules), so we did some basic manoeuvres too (a few turns, nothing special), and I had no problem maintaining course and altitude. Of course the landing, take-off, and radio communication was done by my instructor, as a demonstration.

I fly a Sonaca 200, a low-wing cantilever monoplane made from aluminium alloy (in Belgium). It has an enclosed cabin with two side-by-side seats, it is powered by a 115 hp Rotax 914 engine (a turbo-charged, four-stroke, four-cylinder, horizontally opposed aircraft engine with air-cooled cylinders and water-cooled cylinder heads), and has a fixed tricycle landing gear. It has a propeller made out of three composite blades and a cruise speed of 213 km/h. Air Academy New CAG has currently three of them (with one more coming soon), OO-NCA, OO-NCB, and OO-NCC. They have an analogue instrument panel except for the digital engine monitoring system (EMS) display. All in all a very basic, but reliable, safe, and comfortable general aviation (training) plane.

After the first flight I have made a Google Sheet for the weight and balance calculations, so I just need to pick the aircraft, fill in the fuel, passenger and luggage weights, and I get all the values (plus load limit checks) that need to be filled into the pre-flight documents. (In the example below input fields are marked with a blue background, there is a red warning that the take-off mass and moment combination would be outside of the safety limits – in this case the centre of gravity would be just a bit too forward and moving the luggage to the rear bag area would solve the issue -, and a green confirmation that the baggage is within the limits.) Nice and convenient. I also added each aircraft to the database of SkyDemon, with not only weight and balance, but proper flight performance data too, so I could also use that for the weight and balance calculations and flight planning in the future (when we get to the point of cross-country and navigation flights).

The second flight (see log on the map below) was much more proactive, I did the full pre-flight checklist (including external checks), taxiing (movement on the ground), and even the take-off by myself. Then I did again some straight and level flying out of the control zone, followed by climbing and descending (attitude-power-trim and power-attitude-trim procedure) sandwiched between various turn exercises. The landing was still 50% demonstration, but my instructor said that next time I would have full control, since I am doing so well :)

I wanted to install a GoPro for the third flight, but winter got in the way, so this will have to wait, but soon I will give some insight to the cockpit too. Looking forward to my next flights!