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An Hour In My Tiny World

Another day, another job interview, and another bag full of documentation and proof of who I am, what I was, and why I think I could be. For a moment my trusty old CAA pilots license passed through my hand. I hadn't seen it for some time as no-one had ever asked to view it, and as for flying, I haven't been at the controls of an aeroplane since 2002, which at my age means to exercise the full privileges of licensing means another round of costly dual instruction and expensive medicals. Not really a practical lifestyle choice at the moment, not with my career wading through the mud.


I happen to be one of the last Britons on the old UK CAA lifetime PPL's. These days a pilot can either get a UK recreational license, restricted to British airspace, or the full European JAA five year license. I wonder what will happen now that Britain has voted for Brexit?


Those were the days. I would come out of work early on a Friday afternoon, glance up at the sly as I walk across the car park, and decide whether to pop down to the airfield. Looks like a lovely day. Let's go!


After an hours blast across southern England in my trusty old Toyota sports car I arrive at the field. There's no fuss or nonsense getting in, and I park up to visit the flying club office, where I ask about availability (always a formality, they had enough aeroplanes to go around) and sign out my choice of aircraft. Then it's up to the tower to look through the NOTAMS (Notices To Airmen) to make sure I don't do something stupid, ignorant, or just plain illegal.. Check the weather report. All looks good.


Today I'll be flying one of the Piper Tomahawks parked out on the grass. The PA38 is not exactly exotic, just a simple two seat American trainer, and good enough for an hours flying to keep my hours up. The metal airframe is hot to the touch under the summer sunshine, even with white paint, and the moment I open the cabin door I feel the heat inside - it's like a cooker in there. So, leaving the cockpit to ventilate and hopefully cool down a tad, I leave the door open, stow my bag, and wander around on my preflight check. You really need to do these habitually. You cannot assume an airframe is ready and safe to fly.


After testing this and pushing that, I conclude this aeroplane is okay to fly. The cockpit is still uncomfortably hot, but I expected that, and put up with it. A few more checks, then the business of starting up can begin. These aircraft are not sophisticated. Their design, both airframe and engine, dates from 1930's technology and that means I have to do some jiggery-pokery with the plumbing to persuade that lumpy four cylinder engine to turn. Not like a car at all. Even with an electrical starter like this installation, there still needs to be a number of controls set just right. I push the primer pump a couple of times, set the mixture, set the throttle, shout "Clear prop!" to prevent anyone lurking under my Tomahawk from being minced by the propeller, and try the starter.


The engine doesn't like being woken up. It turns over with a click and whirr, the innards doing everything except firing. Woah! There it goes, bursting into noisy life. Immediately I reset the throttle, check the readings on the instruments, and prepare for movement. Call the tower and tell what I intend to do today. They reply with the usual terse permissions and advice, so now it's just me, releasing the brakes and letting the Tomahawk trundle forward. On the grass it waddles and rocks about, so go careful, because if that propeller hits the ground my flight is over before it begins.


Now I arrive at the end of the runway. A last minute check that the controls are working as expected, that the engine temperatures and pressures are within safe limits, and run the power up briefly so I know the engine is working properly. I have to know that - take off is the most dangerous part of the flight, the moment when the engine is under the greatest strain and the aeroplane at the slowest speed. One last call to the tower and they confirm the runway is mine.


Lining up on the runway is quite an experience, no matter how many times I do it. The width of the tarmac, the knowledge of what the strip is for, and the anticipation of a sudden burst of speed and power to get this aeroplane into the air. With everything ready to go there's no more delay. The throttle lever is pushed steadily forward, the engine bellows loudly, and the little Piper starts to accelerate. Unlike a Cessna which almost flies itself, the Tomahawk is a reluctant flyer and needs persuasion to lift off. A pull on the yoke at around 50 knots and with a slight unsteadiness, I start to leave the world behind me.


For a short while I'm in a tiny little world of my own, a metal can suspended half a mile in the air, growling loudly around the sky. Occaisionally a voice over the radio interrupts, sometimes quick orderly exchanges with air traffic control, or simply someone else talking on the same frequency that doesn't involve me at all.


As usual, the air is a little hazy, and although I steer clear of the white cumulus tufts as the law and commonsense dictates, I can't really see that far, just a dozen miles or so, and the various thermals and gusts of wind make the aeroplane wobble and jolt. I see another light aircraft flying a little way off. A military helicopter blasts past below at an impressive speed. A couple of gliders in the distance wheel about looking for the same thermals I'm trying to avoid. Maybe you might spot a car on a road down there. For the most part, my little world is a solitary place, the world outside strangely empty and silent.


Sooner or later I either run short of fuel or money, so the flight has to end, thus I head back to the airfield and call them to announce my imminent arrival. They reply with instructions on which approach to use, and it's up to me to guide my aeroplane correctly. The runway looks ridiculously small from there. Getting down accurately is a skill that requires practice, one I enjoy completing successfully, and it is a necessary part of flying. What goes up must come down.


I adjust the power to my rate of descent. I adjust the aeroplanes attitude to control my speed. A little counter-intuitive perhaps, but that's how flying works, and I've done it often enough not to have to think about it. With a few more adjustments the aeroplane settles into an approach I'm happy with. The runway gets larger, and closes on me ever quicker. Start to ease off the speed and descent, trying to judge it so the aeroplane is hardly descending when... There's a hesitant whine from the stall warner. A quick screech and bump as the tires touch the tarmac. All power is off and I'm down, keen to get off the runway and open the cockpit before it starts cooking me.


Finally I arrive at the parking place. On with the brake, shut of the fuel and electrics, letting the engine stop itself, and finally, a chance to get that door open and breathe fresh air. My ears are buzzing in the odd silence that follows a flight. There's a stiffness in the legs after having to push rudder pedals for the last hour. All I do now is finish off putting everything back where it belongs and close the door behind me, then back to the office to sign off the airframe. That was a good flight. I enjoyed that.