Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Cross Country Flying

As i'm just finishing up the hour building phase of my Commercial Pilot's License, I figured I'd write a bit about the most fun phase of your flight training. This is known as Cross country flying or Navs (short for Navigation exercises). This is the type of flying which is the most similar to that you'll do when you're being paid to fly. The exercise tests your ability to get yourself from point A to point B. Now this sounds ridiculously simple but believe me, it's not. I think I can best explain it by taking you along on one of the longer flights I have done. Port Elizabeth to Bloemfontein and back. 

The planning starts at least the day before. I draw a straight line between Port Elizabeth and Bloemfontein on a map. I then look for places I can't fly over on the map because of high terrain, restricted airspace etc. Then I look for landmarks I can follow. Even though we have GPS (Global Positioning system) in our aircraft, I find dead reckoning the safest bet. The flight from Port Elizabeth to Bloem will take me over some really sparse terrain with not a lot of towns to look at so what else can I use to help me find my way? Navigational beacons! In this case a VOR station named HMV and located just outside the town of Hofmeyer. VOR stands for Very High Frequency omni-directional radio range. I won't go into detail of how it works but basically you tune it's frequency when you're flying along and follow a heading until you get to the station. Now that i'm done with that, the straight line I started with has little kinks in it to the left and right to avoid certain places and whatnot. I then prepare a nav log. I use a compass to figure out which headings i must fly between waypoints, calculate how much time and fuel i'll use between waypoints and work out my total distance. 

Now the day of the flight has arrived. I've been given the plane all day so no need to get up early but you never know what may delay you in PE or Bloem. So i'm up at 05:15. I'm showered, out the door and have picked up my friend (passenger for today) and i'm at the airport at 06:10. The first stop is the weather office on the top floor of the terminal in Port Elizabeth international airport. I find talking to those guys in person much better than talking to them on the phone. I get a Domestic Flight folder which basically gives me all my winds and temperatures for the different altitudes as well as the weather for Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Kimberly and Grahamstown (just in case I need to divert). I then head over to the briefing room at Aptrac and sit for about an hour working out what groundspeeds i'll get for the winds at the level i'm flying, how much fuel i'll end up wasting or saving and what my compass heading will end up being. We always fill up the tanks before a navigational flight but believe it or not, this is NOT airline policy. It costs fuel to carry fuel so in the airline world, you take what you need only. So what do you need? Legally you need enough for the flight plus a missed approach at the destination airfield plus the fuel needed to get to the alternate airfield. On top of this, Airlines need an additional 30 minutes in the tank, we're required to have 45 minutes. It is illegal to use this last 30 minutes of fuel. We must land, park and shut down with at least this in the tanks to stay legal. Now that all my planning's done, I file a flight plan. Most people do it online or via fax but I just phone. It's the quickest, easiest way. I then head outside and perform the preflight. I check the outside of the aircraft, make sure nothing there or inside the cockpit or cabin is out of the ordinary, make sure I have some munchies for the flight and most importantly, go to the bathroom. There's no lavatory on a Piper Cherokee! I then take the plane to the fuel bay and get the tanks filled up for the flight. Full tanks on the Piper Cherokee will give us about 5 hours endurance but the flight will take under 3 hours. We're then set to go. I hop in the cockpit, brief my passenger (a Cherokee pilot himself but a briefing is the law), and call for start. "Port Elizabeth Clearance, good morning! India Echo Mike type Pappa Alpha two eight, two crew on board, five hours endurance, request clearance for a flight to Bloemfontein as per flight plan." The reply comes back "India Echo Mike, start is approved, runway 26 in use, QNH 1011, squawk 6035, contact tower on 118,1 when ready for taxi." I then contact tower and there is a very friendly controller on duty which gives the taxi instructions. "India Echo Mike! Very good morning to you sir! Taxi Alpha, cross threshold 17 to the holding point runway 26." I read it back to him and we're on our way.

Before takeoff, I do some more checks. Testing the flight controls and engine. Then I inform the tower i'm ready and they tell me to line up in turn to the British Airways 737. I comply and soon i'm facing down the runway. Fuel pump on, landing light on, transponder on 'Alt' mode and i'm ready to kick the tires and light the fires. A few seconds pass and then comes the awesome message "India Echo Mike! You are cleared for takeoff runway 26. After departure right hand turn out, not above 1500 feet, report abeam swartkops next." I read it back and i'm on my way. The cherokee eases away and at 500 feet above the ground, begins a turn to the right. We level off quickly at 500 feet and before I can report i'm abeam swartkops, the friendly controller comes on "India Echo Mike! Contact Port Elizabeth approach now on 120,4. Have a great flight!". I reply and soon i'm in the hands of the approach controllers. They climb me up to 9500 feet and as i'm nearing Somerset East, they hand me over to the Cape Town East controllers. Now we just cruise until we cross into the Johannesburg Flight Information Region near the Gareip dam. This is where pilots get lazy and end up getting lost because they didn't pay attention to where the are. Luckily I brought a friend to talk to so that will keep me entertained. I make a comment about some clouds to our right and look over to find him fast asleep. Great, now what? At least I can eat. Hold on, the bag with food is in the very back behind the second row of seats. I can't reach that. So I watch the roads and towns go by and think to myself "who in their right mind would live out here?!". After a while the silence is broken by a very boring voice telling me to change to Johannesburg frequency. I say goodbye and I swap frequencies. As I get on to the Joburg frequency, i'm immediately shocked by how busy it is. So many people speaking! I contact them and an extremely friendly and efficient lady (who is so obviously from the heart of Johannesburg), greets me and tells me to report ready for the descent. I pass over the only interesting thing on this flight, Gareip dam, and i'm still shocked at how big it is. After a little while longer I can see the buildings of Bloemfontein come into view and i'm ready for the descent. The extremely Afrikaaner controller tells me to head for some place with an extremely weird sounding name. I still have no idea where the hell that place is. I don't think he even knew. I just reported that I could already see the field and he told me to fly straight in. I set the plane up for landing. Fuel pump on, flaps down, carb heat on, landing light on. I made a smooth touchdown and taxied to the general aviation ramp. Parking right in front of a South African Airlink Jetstream. I shut down, paid landing fees and fueled the plane up for the return flight. It was around this time my passenger decided to wake up and join me for lunch in the terminal building. 

After an hour or two of fooling around on the ground, it was time to go back. The return flight was following the exact same flight path as we had come up with and was virtually the same in reverse. My passenger managed to fall asleep about 15 minutes after takeoff and woke up just before we landed in Port Elizabeth. There were headwinds on the way back so the flight was longer. About 3 hours and 15 minutes. We landed in Port Elizabeth at 16:30 local time logging a total flight time for the day of 6,2 hours. So is a nav easy? If you are careful, yes. If you cut corners, no. The ability to plan and be able to use your planning is not something that can be laughed off. At airlines, there are entire operation centers devoted to flight planning! So even though at an airline you won't be necessarily required to plan your own flight, it's still an amazing skill to have and you WILL need it during your bush flying or charter company years. I fill out the paperwork, take my passenger home and then head to my apartment. As I walk through the door, I get a call from my friend and he tells me to come to Barney's (my favorite bar on the Port Elizabeth beachfront). I phone my passenger and ask if he wants to come with and he tells me he's tired and needs to sleep! I call him a shmuck and hang up. I end the day with three of my friends at my favorite bar with my favorite beer. Not bad.