Tag: International


Desktop Flight Simulation and COVID: how it helps, how it hinders

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In Germany, where I live, the term Langzeitstudent or “longtime student,” refers to a student who takes way too long to finish their studies, take the exam, and finally stop living on the money of others—like parents, grants, or public funding for students paid by hard-working people’s taxes. And while I finished my academic studies many years ago, I guess you could still call me longtime student, at least when it comes to learning flying. I properly started my German ultralight training in 2018, passed the theoretical exam in 2019, have enough flight hours to go on to the practical exam—but I am still not done, because I did not feel ready so far.

That’s because interruptions force me to catch up with myself when I start again. Like every proper longtime student, I can name lots of external reasons for the delays: it started with my initial fear of flying and the first fifteen hours or so I had to use to overcome this fear (see my Air Facts article a few years ago). Later, job-related time constraints delayed my training several times. Finally, the coronavirus pandemic caused the flight school to close for several months and also imposed some funding issues on me. I am even at the point now where I have to repeat the theoretical exam, because it is more than three years since I passed it. However, whenever I go back to the cockpit, I feel right at home. I could compare it with riding a bicycle, which you also won’t forget, but I am also convinced that flight simulation on desktop computers helped me to keep in a mental state of preparedness.

In this article I want to point out in which aspects flight simulation helps me when I can’t take real flight lessons, but I also want to mention a few problems which arise when you are just in front of a desk instead of being in the real cockpit.

Desktop flight simulation

Microsoft Flight Simulator

The visuals on modern desktop simulators are almost indistinguishable from the real world, but that doesn’t mean the physics are real.

Flight simulation on desktop computers at home is not to be confused with certified training devices. Even though software developers like to say their products may be used in FAA-approved training devices, the software itself is just a part of said devices, and any certification refers to a special hardware and software combination. Microsoft Flight Simulator, X-Plane 11, or AeroflyFS 2 are always on the thin edge between video game and serious simulation, and if in doubt they lean more towards the gamey side of the user spectrum. Even Prepar3D, which is marketed to students and professionals and not available to gamers, is still based on old Microsoft Flight Simulator code.

The aircraft which come with such simulators are often visually impressive, but usually dumbed-down, to reduce development costs and make the planes more enjoyable to inexperienced gamers. Performance values are off, flight conditions like stall, slip, or spin are not properly simulated, and aircraft systems are simplified. The good thing, though, is that many flaws are fixed by flight simulation enthusiasts. These people often consist of real-world pilots, who either use simulators in parallel with their real flying, or who did fly in the past but stopped due to health or financial reasons. In addition, there exist commercial developers who try to simulate certain properties of a specific aircraft type as detailed as possible within the constraints of a desktop setup. Such developers often have flight experience in the simulated plane and often it is their honest love for the aircraft that makes them simulate it. And these kinds of models can indeed help you in the times of grounding.

Helping to stay in a mental state of flying

The biggest use desktop flight simulation has for me is to “keep in touch” with the aircraft even when I can’t use it in the real world—in terms of cockpit layout, instruments, and procedures. This works especially if you approach the simulator not as game, but fly as seriously as you would do in the real world, in a planned and structured manner.

Before I had access to a simulated model of my real world aircraft, whenever I returned to the cockpit after a break of some weeks or even months, I had to get used to it again. Sure, the Comco-Ikarus C42 ultralight is not a very complex aircraft and there was the checklist, but more than once I forgot stuff when I returned after being absent for a longer time—little things like switching the fuel pump off before magneto check and switching it on again afterwards, switching off the engine while the avionics were still running, or not using carburetor heat in cold and humid air. Nothing bad happened (except one time the engine had a little hiccup because I forgot the carb heat), but it was still wrong and could have had negative consequences. Or take my confusion about the correct power setting in downwind I had once: “why are we sinking?” I asked my flight instructor, and with his calm and dry manner he just pointed to the RPM gauge. Well, I had better get familiarized with the plane again before that flight lesson…


With a few add-ons, you can usually fly the same model airplane in the simulator that you fly in real life.

I am really not sure why I made these mistakes back then, because the checklist in my hands clearly told me what to do, but there was some disconnect between reading the checklist and executing the steps. Nowadays I am convinced that it was the faded “muscle memory;” if you don’t practice, you forget it, and if you don’t have time or funds to practice enough, well… maybe consider postponing your flight training to a period in your life when you do?

At least that was what I thought back then.

But then I got the chance to help with the creation of a simulated model of the C42 for the X-Plane simulator. I took photos, made measurements, made test flights, and helped an audio engineer with recording aircraft sounds. In the end I had a simulation of “my” aircraft. I made sure that the instruments, the panel layout, the bicycle-like flaps lever above your head—even the pre-flight check—was re-created in a nearly realistic way, and that the flight dynamics were made plausible enough to help me with my training. Other developers have created other aircraft in a similar manner, and for many well-known general aviation planes you can buy a proper simulation model nowadays, as add-on to the simulator.

Whenever I cannot fly in the real world, I fly at least with “my” simulated plane. I make sure that I use the real-world checklist in the calm environment of my home, reading aloud each step and performing each step in the simulation, having visual, audible, and performance feedback. The simulated airplane does not induce the same feel as the real one (well, no feel at all, because my desktop chair does not move), but it assures me on my interaction with the plane. This is somewhat similar to the “mental” flying from the armchair, where you visualize certain situations and procedures, but the difference is that you actually do the steps. I noticed that this helps me tremendously to keep in the mental loop.

Planning and navigation practice

One area in which desktop flight simulations really shine is the possibility to practice navigation procedures. By this I don’t mean preparing an actual flight you want to conduct afterwards, but to understand and practice the typical steps of planning. So even though the navigational data in the simulator may be outdated or incomplete, or even though not every real-world landmark may exist in the simulator, you can still learn how to navigate by streets, railroad tracks, power lines, lakes, rivers, forests and towns. You can learn to read sectionals and approach plates.

Cockpit simulator

The instruments are realistic enough that you can practice navigation and approaches.

You can practice VOR navigation, GPS usage, ILS, and RNAV approaches. You can get accustomed to coping with airspace structures in huge urban areas, like San Francisco or Berlin. And if you fly online, you can even do this with actual human air traffic control, which sometimes may be even more strict and less forgiving than their real-world counterpart. All of this creates a learning environment which is not only a great addition to theory classes, but an easy way to practice seldom-used procedures every once in a while, even if not flying during that time.

Negative effects of desktop flight simulation

Despite the mentioned advantages, one should always be aware that, as realistic a modern simulation may look like, it is still just an entertainment product which was not created to be a learning tool. Even the most detailed airplane models for simulations, which sometimes can be more expensive than the simulation software itself, can have errors or misbehaviors in comparison to the real airplane.

Other differences are rooted in the simulation environment, especially the controls. Even if you use a high-quality joystick or yoke, rudder pedals, and separate throttle, the movements you make with these controls and the feeling of moving them, without actual feedback, differ a lot from the real aircraft. You can move typical desktop controls only over a very small range, so even small movements of a stick, throttle lever, or pedal can yield strong effects in the simulated airplane. Even if you calibrated the controls as carefully as possible, you will never have the fine control of “pitch and power” or the rudder as you have in the real aircraft. As a bad consequence, arising from your goal to make the simulated plane behave as you want it to, you may get a bit “shy” in moving the controls or develop a tendency for over-correction.

I noticed this problem after I was simulating a lot and then returning to the real cockpit. In my first two or three traffic patterns after returning, I had to adjust to the movement range of both the real throttle lever and real stick, and to un-learn the tiny movements I used in the simulator. This proved especially critical when making rudder inputs in turns, and while flaring during landing. In the real C42, the stick is in the center console (so just one stick for both crew members) and you can pull it backwards really far. You pull it not just with your hand, you also use your upper arm muscles for holding the stick in the pulled position. On the desktop, that requires much less effort and you must be aware of that once you get back to the real aircraft again.


We are in the second year of the COVID pandemic already and at least in Germany there is a slight hope that the locked-down lives can become more normal soon, at least in the summer. This will allow me to go flying again. Just today I planned the next months with my flight instructor, so I can hopefully make the practical exam in a foreseeable time. A few years ago, I would have felt as if I need to re-learn everything after such a long break, but thanks to some structured simulator sessions, I know at least my way around the plane, the cockpit, my typical flying area, and basic maneuvers. Despite the negatives, the simulator sessions still give me confidence and a certain calmness, which will also help me with my real flying.

Latest posts by Mario Donick (see all)

Witnessing an earthquake from the air

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Chile is a long and narrow country in South America, some 4500 km long and only 450 km at its maximum width. This peculiar geographical feature is just one aspect of the very special situation in Chile. In particular, the fact that the continental tectonic plate enters below Chile, at about 40 km depth, makes the tectonics of this country one of the most active in the world, producing the most intense earthquakes and eruptions around the planet (hundreds of volcanoes around the 4500 km).

As a matter of fact, the most powerful earthquake registered worldwide took place on May 22, 1960, in Valdivia, some 850 km south of the capital, Santiago. The magnitude of that event, 9.0 on the Richter scale, is equivalent to thousands of atomic bombs, destroyed the city of Valdivia, and generated a huge tsunami. This affected the nearby coast, killing hundreds and devastating industry and seashore as far as the Japanese coast. Still today, one can see remains of that earthquake in the Valdivia region.

Chile coast from air

The coastline is beautiful, but it hides some major tectonic action.

On February 27, 2010, another major earthquake occurred, this time 8.8 on the Richter scale and with a hypocenter at 30 km depth, onn the coast north of Concepción, a city some 500 km South of Santiago. Although this time the energy liberated in the hypocenter was lower than the one in Valdivia in 1960, the damage was larger in the country, since a big slab of the plate moved. The earthquake was quite strong, covering almost the entire country, and generated a tsunami along the whole coast of Chile. Some 600 people perished in the event, and new measures were taken to prevent the population from being affected by tsunamis.

Although these are impressively strong earthquakes, Chile has learned to build cities accordingly, and so few buildings collapsed in the 2010 event. I lived at that time in a 4th floor apartment with my family in Santiago, and believe me, the experience was terrifying with this 8.8 earthquake. Honestly, I was quite sure that the building would collapse at any moment. You barely can be standing during the quake. Fortunately, the building did not collapse and only minor damage occurred.

This major earthquake produced many “replicas” or smaller earthquakes for the next few months, and one of these is the center of this story.

On March 11, 2010, less than one month after this traumatic earthquake event, I was a fresh new private pilot, with a certificate obtained some 3 months ago, and eager to fly as much as possible. The planned flight was in a Cessna 152 II, two seats and plate CC-KSG, an old trainer from the Club Aéreo de Santiago, the principal flight club in Chile and one of the largest in South America. It is also the largest and perhaps oldest flight school in Chile (since 1928), with more than 35 airplanes. The club owns the so-called Aeródromo Tobalaba, with the official name Aeródromo Eulogio Sánchez (SCTB), the largest general aviation airfield in Chile, and the second busiest runway in Chile, after the international airport in Santiago. In spite of this, the runway, oriented 01-19, is only 1000 m long and does not have VOR or other navaids—only an abbreviated PAPI plus very efficient tower controllers. It is also in the middle of Santiago, with houses all around (see this Friday Photo).

The aforementioned flight was intended to overfly the coast of the Pacific Ocean, some 55 nm to the west, and return. An easy and nice sightseeing flight from above.

An interesting moment of the flight was, as usual, before takeoff, during the preflight and planning, when calculating the fuel for the trip. Consider that the airplane does not have a super performance (near 90-95 kt at 65% power), although a reasonably good endurance of four hours. So, 200 nm as total distance has to be carefully considered. I thought that it was enough to have only 45 min of reserve and no more. So, no plain fuel tanks, for a trip of two to two and a half hours maximum, including an overfly along the coast. However, I remembered the local saying, “no fuel, no life,” so this time I chose to fill up the tanks to the top, and thus have a larger fuel reserve. I was traveling alone, so there was no problem with the maximum load. With full tanks, I was still a little bit under the maximum takeoff weight.


Santiago often sits below an inversion that keeps low altitudes very hazy.

The flight was very nice, almost no clouds, visibility around 7 to 8 km (due to a typical inversion layer at the season, see pictures), sunshine during a wonderful South American fall, more than 10 km slant visibility, all computed, all considered. The airplane did its best, the engine roared smoothly, the coast overfly was wonderful. In the words of Richard L. Collins, an almost “perfect flight.” Too good to be true. After almost two hours over the coast, it was time to come back.

As the return trip now headed east, about 20 nm from the metropolitan airspace and flying at 4500 ft AMSL, I noted something odd in the landscape. Some clear amount of dust was being elevated from the soil. In 10 minutes, the visibility went to almost nil. What happened?

Just at the moment I decided to call the metropolitan flight information center, to ask what was going on, I received a call from the same center saying that a major earthquake just happened minutes ago. All airports were momentarily closed and flights would be rerouted and/or have to wait for instructions in the air. Indeed, too good to be true. My major concern was the visibility, since it had begun to really deteriorate, and I had almost no IFR training. I decided to go up for a better horizon line, which finally happened at 5500 ft, pretty much at the inversion layer altitude that fall season in Santiago.

I flew to SCTB waiting for instructions. Then I was instructed to wait above a determined zone south of SCTB for more than 20 minutes, then other 20 to 30 minutes, and so on. Meanwhile, they were checking the runway from damage. The earthquake I did not feel at all… but could see with my eyes. It was a 7.0, also a major event. While circling, I remembered what a good idea it had been to fill up the fuel tanks to the top.

Eventually, the dust subsided and the visibility improved, but still no landing authorization came. When I was thinking about going to a nearby airfield at the edge of my fuel reserve, I received the radio notice that the authorities had reopened the airfield. Shortly, I received my landing clearance. I landed with a 35 min reserve. Had I not filled up the tanks, which was the original plan, I would have had a reserve for only 10 minutes of flight! A good lesson from the earth to the air. Air, land and sea: connections exist sometimes far from our imagination, and when possible to foresee, we must take them into serious consideration.

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A flying gig in New Zealand

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A long, long time ago, when I was training for a commercial license, my instructor had some words of wisdom for me: “Don’t ever fly for a living. It will ruin flying for you. You like it too much.” But he was wrong. After flying for a major airline more than 28 years, I reached the mandatory retirement age. I loved every minute of it, and I had no desire to retire. So, I began to research options so that I could continue commercial flying.

This is a different kind of airline flying.

As I scanned the internet, I came across a flying opportunity in New Zealand. A small airline was looking for a chief pilot. New Zealand businesses are required to draw from the domestic pool before seeking qualified individuals from elsewhere. Their problem was that a chief pilot would have to have airline experience, as well as business management experience. Prior to airline flying, I managed an advertising agency and other businesses. Also, I have been living a dual career as both an airline pilot and an attorney. After several online interviews and written applications, I was hired.

When you get hired in New Zealand, you do not just hop on the next flight Down Under. It is a long and arduous process. First, the employer must apply to the government to get approval after submitting evidence that they made an exhaustive attempt to hire from within the country. Then the applicant must submit a request for a work visa. Many documents accompany the application, including FBI forms and international forms that confirm no criminal record. Additionally, financial records must be submitted that prove the applicant has enough money to purchase an airline ticket back home in case you become a “persona non grata.”

Still not done. They want to be sure that you do not become a burden to their health care system. You must be examined by a designated doctor in the United States that works with the New Zealand immigration department. You are checked for tuberculosis as well as other ailments. The examination is not cheap.

After immigration hurdles were cleared, the next challenge was obtaining approval from the NZ-CAA, their equivalent of our FAA. In New Zealand, you do not just train for an ATPL or CPL. You must justify why you need such a license. The NZ-CAA contracts out the application process to a company called ASPEQ. The small airline that hired me operated under 135-type rules and therefore only a CPL was required. Since I hold an ATP license in the United States, I first attempted to obtain the ATPL.

However, after finding out that an ATPL would cost over $20,000 (no, that is not a misprint), I decided that the CPL would be sufficient. Despite having over 23,000 hours flying jet airliners all over the world for a major airline, I had to fill out an application that broke down my various flight time in detail. “How much cross-country time do you have?” Also, a six page “Fit and Proper” form had to be submitted, proving that I was worthy of the CPL. The scariest part was that I had to send my last two logbooks to New Zealand in advance—not copies—only originals were acceptable. The applications were an eight-month ordeal. After dealing with the NZ-CAA, I have a newfound appreciation for our FAA.

The CPL written exam had to be scheduled long in advance, as locations and dates are limited. Many of their flight rules are different than ICAO standards. Additionally, distances are expressed in metric. For instance, VFR minimum visibility is 5 kilometers. The CPL written was a challenge, as it would be in any country. The First-Class Medical Certificate exam also had to be scheduled long in advance. The closest CAA-approved doctor was 100 kilometers from the remote town where I was to live, over a windy mountain road that famously had 365 turns.

The CPL checkride is a bit different. Unlike the United States, maneuvers such as chandelles and lazy eights are not part of the CPL checkride. In New Zealand, maneuvers include steep turns, emergency landings, and short field and soft field takeoffs and landings. With mountains as a constant factor, wind and weather conditions in New Zealand can be quite challenging. That was certainly the case during my checkride.

Those ever-present mountains mean turbulence can be severe.

As the ride started in a Piper PA-28 Archer, winds were gusting to 20 knots. However, during the ride, winds picked up to gusts that exceeded 40 knots. I experienced the worst turbulence I have ever encountered in a GA airplane. During the checkride, we first attempted to land on runway 36, but crosswinds shifted to the west, forcing a go-around. The second landing attempt was to a short gravel runway 29. However, another go-around became necessary, as winds shifted yet again, this time to the south.

By this time, the turbulence had become moderate to severe. I no longer cared about the checkride. I just wanted to get out of the sky. Lining up for runway 18, I was a bit over speed to compensate for extreme airspeed fluctuations, but the winds were within parameters, and with such strong headwinds, the ground speed was slow. I put the plane down and got it stopped. Apparently, the examiner was satisfied with my decision making and he certainly got to see that I knew how to go around. I obtained my New Zealand CPL. In New Zealand, you must be type-rated for every airplane you fly. After being checked out in each airplane, I now hold a type rating in a Piper PA-28 Archer, a Piper PA-34 Seneca, and an GA-8 AirVan.

VFR flying in New Zealand is bush pilot flying. Flying VFR literally means by visual reference; there is no VFR radio navigation. Everything is based upon geographic references. Large zones have a given frequency and you report your position at key reporting points. Foreign pilots must not only get used to the New Zealand accent, but also pilots must get to know different terms. In New Zealand, you do not “back taxi,” you “back track.” You do not “enter the pattern,” you “enter the circuit.” If you are landing on a paved runway 24, you are landing on the runway 24 “seal,” meaning it is not grass, but rather sealed with pavement. Many runways and taxiways are grass, even at larger airports with towers.

New Zealand flying is mountain flying. This is especially true on the South Island, which is almost entirely mountainous. As an airline pilot, I never had to be greatly concerned with mountain flying. Jet airliners spend most of the time in the flight levels, well above the terrain. Before heading Down Under, I studied mountain flying procedures as much as possible. The New Zealand airline had a mountain flying expert who provided recurrent mountain flying training every year.

IFR flying in the United States is a breeze compared to New Zealand. The entire Air Traffic Control system consists of 19 towers, two radar centres (yes that is the correct spelling), and 816 employees. IFR flight plans must be filed at least 30 minutes in advance—no “pop-up” IFR. While flying IFR, you must call ahead to the next sector 10 minutes prior to entering the airspace. Additionally, there is a fee for flying IFR. While general aviation seems to be thriving and growing in New Zealand, very few GA flights are conducted under IFR.

Typical flights for the airline consisted of destinations on the South Island and to Wellington, which is the nation’s second largest city, located on the south end of the North Island. The airline also provided flying tours of the area. Of course, sightseeing flights were always conducted VFR. Whenever possible, all flights were conducted VFR as there was a fee for IFR filing and because the more costly twin-engine aircraft was required for IFR. By regulation, all passengers and crew members are required to wear life preservers.

A flying gig in another country can be a great experience. However, before you go, do your homework. Check to see what immigration and pilot license requirements must be met. Also, check the tax laws. While you may not get double-taxed while being employed in another country, some countries have the right to tax your worldwide income. Rest assured, no matter where you fly, you will come away with a newfound appreciation for the freedom we have flying in the USA.

Read the NOTAM—my conflict with Air Force One

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In the summer of 2019 I was ready for my first international flight. The plan was to visit a friend in Warsaw, record an episode for his webcast series, and drink beer together for a couple of days. In the weeks leading up to my first “giant leap for a man,” I took my preparations seriously, or so I thought. I passed the ICAO English exam level six, got a fresh map of southeast Poland, planned my route in SkyDemon, discussed the options with the plane owner and other pilots, and read up on current affairs in Polish airspace.

All seemed good and the weather in late August seemed not too stormy, so I got into my travel fever. I prepared my flight plan and duly filed it the night before the flight. The idea was to fly out from my home airport, LZDV in Slovakia, and land in EPBC, a nice GA airfield within the city limits of Warsaw. Admittedly, a Cessna 150 is not an optimal airplane for four hour trip, but I fully subscribe to the idea of slow and sturdy.

I took off around 7am on Friday, August 30, avoided some local showers, climbed to 4500 feet MSL, and started to enjoy my ride. The flight was mostly smooth except for some showers south of Warsaw about one hour before my ETA. The friendly controller asked me to deviate more to the west to avoid it. I must have been flying somewhat erratically because he called me after about 10 minutes and gave me the heading to the destination. In my (weak) defense, try to find out how PRZEDBORZ gets pronounced in Polish and you may have some sympathy for me.

So when I finally landed in Babice Airport, the sky over Warsaw was clear again and I was happy to be on the ground. My friend was waiting for me and the vision of a landing beer was becoming very vivid. I tied down the plane and went up to the office to pay the fee. On departure (remember, the beer!), the friendly gentleman mentioned—just by the way—that the airspace over Warsaw was about to be closed from 10pm that day (Friday) until 10pm the following Monday.

Well that might change plans.

The reason? The US President was about to fly in to commemorate the outbreak of WWII and the whole air traffic system was shut down for the long weekend. I was shocked—my initial plan was to fly back on Sunday. I tried to object, not knowing anything about it in prior, to which the response was, “it is all in the NOTAM. Did you not read it?”

Well, I did read the NOTAM, but clearly not all of it. So I went online again, and here it was, screaming at me:

A3751/19 NOTAM
A) EPWA B) 1908302200 C) 1909022200


CONTACT PHONE: +48 261 828 280, +48 261 828 202/220FAX: +48 261 828 467,EMAIL COP.SRL(AT)RON.MIL.PL

So, I felt panic for a moment and started considering my options. Flying back again was not one: I was too tired and afternoon storms were building up on the route. Hopping to the nearest GA airport outside of the restricted area got rejected by their staff—they did not speak English. So I resigned myself to extending my stay in Warsaw until Tuesday. That would mean my planned business meetings would have to be rescheduled. Not an option I liked.

Then, after a good late lunch and some beers with my friend, I had the great idea of re-reading the darned NOTAM and came to the part which says, “ OTHER FLT… ARE POSSIBLE ONLY WITH PERMISSION…” Then I remembered the old saying, “if you don’t ask the answer is NO.” So I fired up my PC and wrote a very humble email to the address given in the notice. I was given a clear answer that my plan to fly back on Sunday was a no-no but that I could fly back on Saturday afternoon as an exception. Needless to say I jumped on the offer from the very friendly captain and shortened my visit considerably.

Sure enough, the next day I took off at 1500 local time sharp and, after some five minutes of flight, I was out of the restricted area. Local staff at the EPBC airport was very surprised when I told them I had the exception. Luckily, SAMs and F-16s of the mighty Polish Air Force clearly were informed about my little plan.

The rest of the flight went smoothly and in the early Saturday evening I landed safely at my home base.

My learnings?

Having built my professional career in IT, I am familiar with RTFM. For non-IT pilots out there: R stands for READ and M for MANUAL… I made a lasting mental note of RTFN for the rest of my hopefully long flying career.

And one more: controllers are there to help you and make you safe. If possible, they try to make things happen for you. Asking for help costs some of man’s pride but nothing more.

Epilogue: On that weekend, the US President decided to stay home due to an upcoming hurricane emergency but sent his VP instead. At least the airspace restriction was not in vain.

When VFR is the only option, fly to the blue sky

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Late in March 2020, just before the Covid-19 travel restrictions started to bite (in Australia anyway), I received a call from pilot friend Hew asking if I was available to help him pick up his RV-7 from Longreach. He had left it there some weeks earlier following a brake fire that damaged a wheel spat and gear leg fairing.

An RV rescue mission? A perfect cross-country.

The brake problem had now been rectified and the aircraft awaited collection from Longreach. Straight line distance from Cairns (YBCS) to Longreach (YLRE) is around 830km (450nm or 515sm) but much further by road, so the only option for getting there and back in the one day was by air. Hew had borrowed hangar mate Michelle’s RV-6A to fly to Longreach and retrieve his aircraft. All that he needed now was another pilot to accompany him in the RV-6A, then fly that aircraft back home to Cairns. Was I available? You betcha!

I had flown Michelle’s RV-6A before but thought it would be better for Hew to fly the aircraft to Longreach while I watched him operate the new Garmin unit that had replaced the Dynon I was familiar with. That would give me a chance to update myself on the Garmin before the solo flight home.

Weather along the coast near our Cairns departure point was mostly VFR with occasional rain showers and low cloud along the coastal ranges being produced by a strong on shore wind. The forecast for later in the day indicated deteriorating conditions extending further inland and could make crossing VFR back over the coastal range difficult. No such problem for Hew as both he and the RV-7 were IFR-capable. I would have to return VFR, which was no real problem due to the plentiful inland alternates available and my retired status.

Blue skies through the Stoney Creek gap.

The visual departure from Cairns and out through the gap at Stoney Creek (SCRK) was uneventful with conditions rapidly improving as we headed inland with blue sky for the remainder of the flight. Once across the range we were in uncontrolled G airspace, requiring a few CTAF overfly broadcasts and apart from monitoring area frequencies, no interaction with ATC. Longreach itself is an uncontrolled aerodrome.

After refuelling our aircraft and giving Hew’s RV-7 a thorough pre-flight, we taxied in company for departure from Longreach. Departure time was a little later in the day than we had anticipated, but there was still ample daylight for the trip home to Cairns and for any weather diversions that might be needed. Mareeba, on the western side of the coastal ranges, would be my main alternate with Chillagoe (YCGO) well out to the west if the weather really went bad.

Inland temperatures in North Queensland at that time of the year can be quite high, producing plenty of thermal activity and the formation of thunderstorms in the more humid air, especially closer to the coast. Hew climbed the RV-7 to 8000ft on an IFR plan, I followed in the RV-6A at the VFR level of 7500ft with a true airspeed of around 150 knots.

We parted ways at Hughenden (YHUG), where Hew tracked direct to Cairns while I continued on via Mount Garnet (YMRT) and Mareeba (YMBA). A few minutes after passing Hughenden, a descent to 5500ft was necessary to remain under a lowering cloud base that had started to form. Soon enough, approaching the Mount Garnet area, rain and patches of low cloud forced further descent to 3500ft and lower with some diversions either side of track to remain in VMC. Clearer conditions were visible out to the west and would provide an easy escape route in that direction should the need arise.

Light rain can fool pilots, especially in areas with rising terrain.

This is where it gets a bit tricky. When flying in light rain it’s possible to see a long way ahead but lack of visual clarity through a rain spattered windscreen can result in a pilot unintentionally getting very close to the top of hills and ridges without noticing, especially where the terrain ahead is gradually increasing in height. With that in mind, I did not descend any lower than necessary while I orbited about 20nm short of Mareeba, looking for a way through.

Sadly, the year before a quite experienced Cessna 182 pilot died in a CFIT accident in similar conditions in the same area. His aircraft hit the top of a ridge just 14km short of his Atherton (YATN) destination. Low cloud and heavy showers were moving through the area at the time.

Between Mount Garnet and Mareeba, the terrain begins a gradual slope up to around 4300ft just to the east of track. Today the high ground was completely covered by low cloud, with just a few narrow shafts of sunlight breaking through. The GPS map proved to be invaluable in that situation, keeping me orientated and away from the high ground.

I eventually diverted about 20nm to the west to get around the low cloud and rain blocking the way. From there the path to Mareeba, Stoney Creek, and Cairns was, much to my surprise, wide open. ATC had advised me earlier when I came into VHF range that Stoney Creek weather was marginal for VFR so for once my luck was in. A short hold was required at Stoney Creek while waiting for a clearance, then I made it the last few miles into Cairns. Hew had landed only a few minutes before me. We hangared the RVs, compared notes, and called it a day.

I had thoroughly enjoyed the unexpected flight and the opportunity to practice my weather avoidance skills. Thanks again Hew. It was unfortunate that we didn’t have time to visit the QANTAS Founders Museum at Longreach, but that will keep as an excuse for another flight.

Hours of boredom, followed by…

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We’ve been cruising through Russian airspace for several hours. Our altitude is 11,100 meters standard or 36,400 feet, and we’re going through the Stans. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, with a couple more Stans to go.

The airplane tonight is a 747-400M. With a takeoff weight around 900,000 pounds, this gleaming behemoth was christened “The City of Calgary.” It’s been in service for five years since it came off the Boeing assembly line in Renton, Washington.

This whale has the latest state of the art bells and whistles to keep us entertained. The glass cockpit is beautiful to behold at night. KLM spares no expense in getting all the best equipment, a pleasant change from some of the relics I’ve flown with three airlines in the States.

I’m sitting in the captain’s seat and officially titled as the second officer. The real captain is asleep in a bunk room behind me. Captain Karl and another first officer are wearing their official blue sweat-suit pajamas with big white letters saying “KLM Crew” across the back. Those two have been zonked-out for about three hours.

In the right seat is First Officer Marten. We do our well-rehearsed procedural dance steps as we fly on through the darkness. We share the same profession, but our cultures, history, and backgrounds are very different.

A 747-400 can weigh as much as 900,000 lbs. on takeoff.

In about 30 minutes we will pass over Afghanistan, where a civil war is raging. We were briefed to fly as high as possible while crossing that area. I’m supposed to radio the Afghans about 15 minutes ahead of time to let them know that we would be entering their airspace.

It’s an eerie sight crossing over Kabul on a clear night. A huge city with around 3.5 million people and the whole place is dark. If we dim the lighting and peer straight down, we can see some car lights and little streaks of light zipping across and disappearing. Occasionally there’s a flash at the end of those streaks. These are rocket propelled grenades being fired.

We’ve been in the seats for 3.5 hours and feeling the effects of flying on the back side of the clock. Both of us are yawning and ready for a break. Not to worry though. The guys in the back will be getting their scheduled wakeup call from us in about 10 minutes. Then it’s our turn to put on our blue jammies.

The Russian air traffic control system in 1994 is on the verge of collapse. English is the universal language in aviation but not everyone down below can speak “good” English. Russian controllers are using “throat mics,” which have been around since WWII. Not only are the transmissions garbled, the English-speaking pilots passing above are talking to an interpreter standing next to the controller below. That controller will radio directly to an Aeroflot flight in Russian, but the English communications are relayed through the interpreter.

The Russian radar displays are outdated. The large flat screens have small pieces of clear plastic called shrimp boats placed on the glass. Not all Russian centers remain this antiquated, but in the southern provinces they are.

We’re sitting on the flight deck and yawning on occasion. We do our flight plan entries and company communications. We make sure the many fuel tanks transfer the gas properly and the engines don’t run dry. I do some quick math and compare it to the flight plan. We still have enough gas to make it to Bangkok. Yawn… If I get really bored, there is a little knob on the nosewheel steering tiller to my left that I can spin. I slap it with my finger, and it twirls around like a fidget spinner.

I give the fidget spinner another twirl as Marten reminds me to ding the pilots sleeping in the back. I shift to my right and search the center console to find the ding button thingy. Where did it go?

I’m suddenly startled by a loud voice: “TRAFFIC – TRAFFIC.” What the heck?

The Nav Display is showing an airplane directly ahead of us at close range. The altitude display is showing zero.

Both of us lurch forward to look and see two dim lights approaching. One is red and one is green, and they are rapidly splitting apart. Those are the front navigation lights on the wingtips of another plane, and we are about to hit.

In seconds, the loud voice is back on the speaker shouting, “DESCEND – DESCEND,” and we are now in a full-blown Resolution Advisory. The closure rate of the two airplanes coming at each other is over 1000 miles per hour.

After what seems like an eternity of disbelief and indecision, my hands finally start moving for the controls. I’m starting to see some shadow outline of the airplane between the navigation lights. It’s really close.

An RA in the middle of the night will get your attention.

Both of us grab the controls at the same time and we simultaneously push the buttons on our control yokes to disconnect the autopilot. A click-click sound can be heard, and I push. Now we’re both pushing.

With my brain in overload, I still have time to wonder if this is the end. I’m wincing and waiting for the impact. What will it feel like? Will things suddenly go black and be over? Will there be a loud crunch, followed by deafening noise and a freezing rush of air? Will we have some control, or will the tail fin be torn off and we slowly flat spin into the barren desert seven miles below?

The combined horsepower of the two of us pushing is too much and we are going down at zero g. I see my KLM dark blue tie floating up in my face.

Marten says the magic words, but he seems to be talking in slow-motion: “M-Y  C-O-N-T-R-O-L-S!” I sluggishly back off the pressure and remove my hands from the yoke.

The screaming “Descend” voice is gone but I hardly have time to notice. We are hurtling downward, and our speed is increasing very fast. We are approaching supersonic on sections of our wings and in a few moments the flight controls may be ripped off or rendered useless. Marten mashes the Auto Throttle button off as he pulls back the throttles on all four engines. We’re up in the coffin corner of the airplane’s speed envelope and we need to get control back quickly. Marten, ever so gently and with years of ingrained skill, tenderly nudges the nose back up to level flight. Things are better but we’re still in trouble.

I feel my hand reaching for the microphone and keying the button. A strangely calm voice says, “Center, KLM 877 is descending to comply with a resolution advisory.” It’s my own voice but it’s way calmer sounding than the screaming in my head.

We are up in the thin atmosphere and the throttles are now at idle. In level flight with no thrust, the aircraft’s speed rapidly drops. In less than 10 seconds we will be in a stall. Marten is steps ahead already and is pushing the thrust levers forward, just enough to stop the rapid decay of the airspeed. He fine tunes the throttles and puts the speed right in the middle of where it should be. Nice job!

There is no response from the Russian controller, so I push the button again. “Aircraft passing position NIDIR on Alpha 845 at 11,100 meters, say your call sign.” That airplane should be on our frequency but there’s no response again.

My right face cheek muscle is twitching uncontrollably for some reason, but I try to ignore it and press on. There are volumes of training procedures and regulations flowing through my mind. What should I be doing right now?

This whole event took place in probably a minute. The autopilot is now re-engaged, and we have a second to breathe.

“Holy Sheet… Holy Sheet!” Martin just kept repeating “Holy Sheet” in his Dutch accent. I pressed on with communicating. “KLM 877 is returning to 11,100 meters standard.” Finally, a distant voice comes through my headset and says, “KLM 877 what are you saying? I don’t understand you.”

I continue to attempt to get my point across to the Russian interpreter that we just missed another airplane and we needed to have the radar tapes marked and file a near-miss incident report. Not sure the Russians can even do this, but this is what we’d ask for in the States.

I notice the two guys in blue pajamas are standing behind us, along with the lead purser from the cabin. The captain is about six foot four with a commanding, deep voice. He calmly asks, “Wat is er gebeurdwhat?” (What happened?) Marten resorts to his native language and unloads in rapid fire, with his hands gesturing everywhere.

Russian radar at the time didn’t necessarily show every airplane.

The first priority was checking on the passengers. We were lucky that almost everyone was asleep and there were no food carts out. There were a few screams heard by the flight attendants and lots of drinks spilled but no injuries.

After several minutes of discussion, the crowd leaves. The captain goes back and changes into his uniform and returns with the other copilot. “Okay then. It’s time for you two to have a break and we will take over.” My wobbly appendages struggle to life, as I try to get out of the seat without doing a faceplant across the center console. I guess it will help if I first unbuckle the seatbelt. The captain reclaims his throne and Marten now vacates his seat.

We go into our bunk room suite. Marten is still muttering “Holy Sheet” as he fumbles with the sweatpants. I comment that the captain took that surprisingly well. Marten tells me that in 1989, the same guy was the pilot in command of the KLM flight that inadvertently flew into a volcano ash cloud in Alaska and lost all four engines. He was also sleeping in the bunk when that happened.

About a week later, I’m back home in Holland. A bright yellow Mercedes pulls into my gravel driveway. It’s Marten and he has news about our near miss.

Martin tells me that the other airplane that night was a Russian built Antonov An-124 Ruslan, one of the largest military cargo airplanes ever built and bigger than our 747.

About 20 minutes before our encounter, Russian ATC cleared the opposite direction Antonov to climb to an altitude above our cruising altitude. The lumbering giant takes longer than expected to get up to its approved height, but the controllers and Antonov crew don’t happen to notice this. It was pure bad luck that they crossed our altitude as we crossed paths.

The controller cleared the Antonov crew in Russian and we did not pick up the exchange. We do our best to listen to radio calls that impact our flight, but we didn’t understand the foreign language.

The older “steam gauge” Antonov was not equipped with a TCAS system like our new “glass cockpit” 747. Thankfully, the Antonov did have an altitude encoding transponder, which our TCAS system was able to read and give us a warning.

Because the TCAS warning was only a one-sided warning, the normal computed 40 second TA and 20 second RA timing was compressed. It’s still a guess on our part, but our best recollection is that it was only about ten seconds from the first “Traffic-Traffic” call to the “Descend-Descend” alert.

The Antonov crew had no idea that we were even there. I’d guess the guy in the left seat was also spinning his tiller wheel without a clue, and never realized how he almost died.

There’s no accurate way to tell afterwards, since neither of us were glued to the TCAS display as we passed. It is our estimation that we missed by only a few feet.

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of TCAS.

Flight of a lifetime—my 8,000-mile trip around Australia

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To fly around Australia was not an idea that happened upon me overnight. It was an idea hatched in childhood, and ultimately flown solo decades later. Eight months in planning and eighteen days in execution, I suspect the planning would have been somewhat quicker if it had not grown into such a public exercise with such a genuine, interested following.

The Australian centenary of flight was an appropriate milestone to commemorate, but it also provided an excellent baseline to highlight just how far aviation had come in one hundred years. True, I covered around 13,000 kilometres across both remote and overwater segments, but the task was nothing beyond the level of an appropriately licensed and experienced private pilot. With all of the modern infrastructure, technology and support at our fingertips, what would have been a major undertaking even fifty years ago, is now relatively straightforward.

That Jabiru would take the author all around Australia, including Canberra. (Photo: Paul Sadler)

With planning complete and the all-Australian Jabiru J230D aircraft assembled and decked out in her “There and Back” scheme, the planets aligned to promise an on-schedule departure on May 5. In the days preceding, there were numerous media commitments to attend to, but more importantly, technical matters to become familiar with, from spark plugs to changing a wheel. There is no substitute for “hands-on” time with your aeroplane and fortunately, I was never called upon to repeat the tasks in the field as the Jabiru happily hummed its way around the country.

The day before departure saw low, grey, and wet skies over Bundaberg. However, the synoptic weather chart suggested that the trough may move out to sea and a big, happy high pressure system would dominate at least the first few days of my flight. The chart was right, and May 5 dawned without a cloud in the sky and my departure from Bert Hinkler’s hometown was set for 10am.

After a few final formalities, I departed Bundaberg right on time and watched the country town fall away to my left as I initially set course to dawdle along the picturesque coastline. It was only when the aircraft was established in level flight and the “housekeeping” had been attended to that I actually realised that the “There and Back” journey was finally underway. It was a great sense of elation with a twinge of, “Wow, it’s a long way to go!,: when I thought of my wife and kids. Yet as I scanned the crystal skies above, I just knew that this would be a flight to remember.

The route was loosely based upon points of Australian aviation significance: from Longreach, the home of QANTAS, to Minlaton, home to the oft overlooked pioneer, Harry Butler. Yet there were places of personal significance too. From Kununurra and the Kimberleys, where I had flown as a young charter pilot, to Toowoomba, where my father was laid to rest twenty years ago. The selection of these waypoints made each leg interesting and offered a carrot at the end of each day’s flying. Rather than being merely a long-distance flight, it was more akin to unravelling a scroll, with each new page introducing fascinating words, images and people.

Dawn over Western Australia, just one of dozens of memorable views.

In fact, it was in this way that the flight most readily exceeded expectations. After such thorough planning, there were very few surprises in terms of aircraft performance, airspace or procedures. However, no matter how imaginative I may have been, I could never have grasped the intangible beauty of the land and the warmth of people that I encountered. For this reason alone, I would encourage pilots, one and all, to set course far beyond their regular boundaries at least once.

Along the way I transited most forms of airspace, varying from civil to military and strictly controlled to the wide-open spaces. Occasionally an air traffic controller would hesitate in response to the RA-Aus call-sign, but even so there is an ease about traversing this great country by air that is joyful. And at the end of the sector, the little Jabiru could be found parked beside a towering Boeing 747 or an air force F/A-18 Hornet fighter. The company it kept was as wide-ranging as the country over which it flew.

Over the course of such a flight, it is the diversity of the scenery that can leave an overwhelming impression. That is not to say that there are not individual sights that take the breath away. The majestic Lake Argyle in the Kimberley region or the serene endlessness of the Nullarbor Plain are both very moving in their own special way. However, when you can depart the coastal port of Broome over pristine aqua waters and track along pure white beaches before striking the rustic reds of the Pilbara within an hour, it is nothing short of inspiring. This diversity of colour, wildlife, and inhabitation essentially captures both ends of the Australian scenic spectrum.

To take in such a view from between 500 and 5,000 feet enables one to really embrace the richness of the terrain. The land below has real detail and the passage of the shadows as the day develops provides yet another perspective on the rich canvas below. There are long abandoned ruins of long forgotten towns and flocks of birds that give the impression of a vast blanket skimming from paddock to paddock.

Some towns almost seemed to be vanishing into the outback.

The ruins of towns would pique my interest and I would wheel the Jabiru around and look down along the line of the wing which seemed to point at the structures below me. I would ponder how it was once a thriving community of miners or farmers, now long gone. The buildings remain, blending back into the outback sands out of which they grew. Corrugated tin roofing flapped in the breeze and empty door frames, open to the drifting sands. Only the stone walls seemed to offer any resistance to the onslaught of time and nature.

From above they stood so alone and yet undoubtedly once played host to hilarity, hope, and heartache in grander times. All around the eye can see nothing but the horizon; still these pioneers staked their claim in this very spot. Now many undoubtedly lay in tiny graves on the small ridge a few miles up the road. I could not help but wonder what stories these walls once told, now fallen silent and their words lost in time.

Yet even the so-called “remote” regions stimulate the senses with their jagged, jutting ridges and gun-barrel roads between distant settlements. And within these towns are people so unaffected by the frantic pace of urban reality. Calm and content, inhabiting settlements that have changed little over recent times, yet generous beyond compare. At Murchison Station near Kalbarri in Western Australia I had one such experience.

Over 150 years old, the station had once played host to the famed aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, while I spent the night in shearing sheds of convict vintage. It was a small room with a tiny single window and locks on the outside of the door to contain the convicts who had constructed the dwelling. Nearby, two fallen aviators from 90 years ago are buried and the experience of visiting their graves will not soon be forgotten. My hosts were more like old friends, free of false pretension but long on sincerity and warmth. Their manner reflected the very honest nature of the land on which they dwell.

The next morning too was special. Woken in the pre-dawn hours by the wind rattling the tin roof, the world was still asleep as we came to a halt at the tiny country airport. The night was moonless, and the only illumination was the receding red taillights of the departing truck back to Murchison and the torch in my right hand. The aircraft was still at rest, its wings tethered against the wind and its tail jutting into the undergrowth. And then the wind stopped.

The colors of Australia never disappoint.

There I stood, alone and miles from anywhere as the first tinges of dawn teased at the horizon. I lowered down and sat on my canvas kitbag, a lone audience to the greatest show on earth. Gradually the shards of light became a glowing arc, silhouetting the Jabiru, sparse vegetation and occasional grazing kangaroo against the backdrop. Void of sound, my senses were overwhelmed by the developing canvas in front of me.

Yet beyond the beauty, I always maintained the aviator’s sense of respect. The terrain below can at any time become a landing field for the pilot of a single-engined aeroplane. To this end, the land and the nearest water were endlessly assessed in case the untoward occur. Conversely, flying over Bass Strait or the Spencer Gulf, I was continually aware of the distance to my next landfall. While hypothermia was the greatest threat over the Strait, it was the mammoth sharks that provided the challenge if I ditched in the Gulf.

As part of my preparation, the Jabiru was stocked with supplies to cater for these contingencies. From emergency rations and fresh water, to space blankets, waterproof matches and life jackets. Survival gear was packed for minimum weight, but maximum effect. Certain essential items were also very close at hand in a bright red “grab bag” should egress from the aircraft be particularly rapid for some reason. Furthermore, the aircraft was equipped with a satellite tracking system with an alert mode, dual VHF radios, transponder, and an emergency beacon. In conjunction with the submission of detailed flight plans, I was always confident that I would not perish under the wing like so many pioneer aviators had done decades before. And yet, it is sound airmanship to cater for the worst and be thankful for the best.

Along the way I was struck by the warmth of the people everywhere that I landed. They were interested in where I had been and where I was going and extended a generous hand in friendship to often help me on the way in the form of a meal or a bed for the night. Many lived far from the cities and relied on a weekly delivery of stores for their supplies and yet they still welcomed a stranger like me at their table. And everywhere the work of the Royal Flying Doctor Service was spoken of with the highest praise, always providing a common thread between me and my hosts.

Some airports were large and modern; some were not.

The weather was one variable beyond my control and planning, other than the month of May historically providing fine weather and favourable winds. However, in this area I was absolutely blessed. The high-pressure system loitered over the inland for so long, I thought it had been tethered there and not only provided fair weather, but tailwinds across the Top End of the country. From the flight’s mid-point at Perth in Western Australia, I always seemed to be a couple of days ahead of troughs, fronts and poor weather.

There was a little weather to dodge over the stretch of water between the mainland and Tasmania, but nothing significant. Low cloud near the nation’s capital, Canberra, and storms near Gunnedah provided the only real hindrance, but otherwise it was stress-free visual flying. I’d like to take credit for those clear, blue skies, but that area is well beyond my expertise.

The other variable that lay beyond my scope of influence was aircraft reliability. Like the weather, the Jabiru J230 did not miss a beat and performed at better than book figures for the entire trip. Sipping around 23 litres per hour to achieve nearly two miles per minute, the Jabiru made an efficient vehicle in which to circumnavigate the nation. Its high wing both afforded shade and an ideal view of the grand display below. With two seats, the space to the rear provided ample room for all of my equipment and never presented a weight issue that allowed for anything less than full tanks for every departure. It was like a well finished utility vehicle that never had to deal with the bumps in the road when venturing cross country.

Aside from an oil change, filters, and the tyre pressures being topped up in Perth, there was no need for additional maintenance for the entire flight. Each day I would remove the cowls for a closer look and each day I found an incredibly clean engine ready for another day’s work. From icy frosts to sweltering heat, the little machine kept on performing and I played my part by always treating the aircraft and its engine with due respect.

What a welcoming committee.

When Runway 14 loomed large in the windscreen at Bundaberg for the final landing, I reminded myself that the flight wasn’t over yet. However, when the aircraft was parked and the propeller stopped, I allowed myself a sigh of mixed relief and reflection. Beyond that there were family and friends there to greet me and media to speak with. A reception was held at the Hinkler Hall of Aviation and in the shadow of my hero’s memorabilia I enjoyed a wonderful afternoon of catching up with one and all. Along the way the flight had reached its target of $10,000 for the Royal Flying Doctor Service and for me that was a personal goal that meant so much.

Once the dust had settled and I had retired to a house on the coast with my family, I had the first real chance to absorb what had transpired over the preceding weeks. I seemed to have endless tales and humorous anecdotes of the people and places I had encountered. My family listened intently and ultimately, they drew the same conclusions as the media and enquired, “Where are you off to next?” With all honesty, I replied that I really couldn’t say, although I would dearly enjoy stretching the borders once again.

The freedom of flight is something that is so accessible to us in this modern day. To take the road less travelled amongst the cumulus and share the experience with those along the way is something I cannot recommend highly enough. It is an experience that I would dearly love to pursue again. Yet, whatever future flights and adventures may rise above the horizon and wherever those journeys may subsequently take me, I will never forget the month of May when I decided to simply fly “There and Back.”

Err on the side of safety: how I relearned this lesson

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Flying internationally has its challenges. Culture issues arise, new risks and threats need management as you cross borders. In the West, there exist synergies between weather services and Air Traffic Control. This is something we take for granted. In other parts of the world, not so much. Below is a story of one such time where a latent threat could have caused an undesirable state.

On that day, we flew to Tunis Airport (DTTA), the airport that serves the capital of Tunisia. North Africa, in contrast to sub-Saharan Africa, is more Mediterranean. The scenery matches the image conjured by the word Mediterranean. It is a beautiful country that the Arabs have nicknamed, “The green one.” There is even a type of stone named after it: the “Tunis Green Granite.”

Tunis airport sits right off the Mediterranean, and has two intersecting runways: 19/01 and 11/29. Two intersecting runways is usually a welcome sight when reviewing an airport. Two runways at 90 degrees off each other means that you will not need to land with an unfavorable winds. At least that is what I thought.

We started our joint briefing in our crew briefing center with a look at our route and our weather charts. They indicated significant weather activity near the time of our arrival. There was also extensive weather en route. The airport was forecasting good flying weather until well after we landed. The conflict between the two wasn’t unsettling to me. In hindsight, it should have been.

The dispatcher had loaded us with another 15 minutes of extra fuel. This is not very unusual, but it did seem excessive to me. The other pilot joked that the airport is definitely not on his top 10 list. He has had a bad experience on a previous flight and he didn’t trust their forecast.

I still thought the fuel was unnecessary, but I didn’t vocalize it then. I thought my colleague was being difficult to the forecasters. Even the best forecast cannot be 100% accurate but we shouldn’t lose trust.

We had a normal pre-flight preparation and boarded 100-odd passengers. We had an uneventful flight but we kept an eye on the weather conditions in DTTA. Despite the good forecast, the actual conditions seemed to change by the minute. The 30-minute updates to the METARs showed consistent TCUs or CBs. Towering Cumulus and Cumulonimbus are not the most popular clouds among pilots. They are not my favorite either.

200 miles from our destination, we started seeing radar returns. Clouds seemed to be around and near the aerodrome. We requested radar vectors to avoid the worst parts. The latest ATIS information we got from our datalink was 20 minutes old. We were to expect a VOR approach for Runway 11 with the wind coming at us from 140 degrees at 28 knots. Not too bad. Our avionics had the VOR approach in the database and while not an ILS, it still wasn’t bad.

We briefed for that and set up our primary flight plan for it. We also set up our plan “B” which is runway 19 and briefed for that as well. It had an ILS and the main part of the approach was over the sea.

Coming closer to the aerodrome, we saw another cell of weather overhead the aerodrome. The controller told us that the runway in use was now 19. We also started getting radar headings to sequence us in the flow.

We activated plan B and reviewed it again. The weather radar was making us anxious—the activity over the aerodrome seemed to be intensifying.

I heard the controller give a plane coming from the east instructions to proceed to NIREM. That is the initial approach for runway 29 and is around the same area of weather that we thought prudent to avoid. We were starting to figure that the weather returns on our radar were not accurate. Since it was an approach for runway 29, the winds must have changed. We checked the wind again and it was coming from 240 at 15 knots.

The other pilot in the cockpit, meanwhile, seemed uncomfortable with our heading. It was taking us into an area of activity and we asked the busy controller for a different heading. He challenged us about our desired heading, which further added to our doubts. It seemed to us that the controller was doubting our weather radar’s returns. We got the heading we asked for but our certainty in the weather radar was eroding.

A few minutes later, we heard the airplane that had commenced the approach for runway 29. It was announcing that it had performed a go-around due to wind shear on short final. Before we could ask for a change of runway, the controller re-cleared us to a new heading. It would have taken us on a downwind for runway 01.

That seemed like a good course of action. We built that approach in the FMS and we briefed it. We were aware of the surrounding terrain and the airport from the previous briefing. This rushed our briefing

We asked for a wind check but we got 240 at 15 knots again. We didn’t feel that it was correct, but according to our calculations, we were within the 10 knot tailwind limit. The radar was adamant that the aerodrome was topped by weather. We disregarded it and elected to go for an approach.

We continued with the vectoring to the ILS and then switched over to the tower. The tower cleared us to land with a wind reading of 290 at 25 knots, gusting to 30 knots.

We captured the ILS and were descending on the glideslope. Passing a thousand feet and descending, the wind seemed to dance all over the place. At 500 feet, we didn’t feel comfortable with the approach; the airplane was dancing all over the place. We exchanged one look from across the cockpit and knew we had to go around.

We asked for some vectoring and picked up a hold for around 10 minutes. We then shot another approach, which was much more to our liking as the weather subsided.

We landed and gave the cabin crew the go-ahead for disembarkation. We then had a small recap in the cockpit. We both reached the same conclusions, albeit through separate paths.

We were always taught to trust our instruments. We had started to doubt our weather radar with little reason. My colleague didn’t trust the airport’s forecast and we had information to the contrary of it. We were lucky the dispatcher had loaded up some extra fuel for us. We could have been in a far more precarious situation if we hadn’t had that. We wouldn’t have loaded the fuel ourselves as we failed to practice proper CRM.

CRM is about using all your resources. We failed to use the tower wind readouts or we would have asked for runway 29. The tower controller read-outs come from equipment near the runway. The approach sector was using reports from another source. The final knock came from failing to use our experience.

My colleague didn’t trust their forecast because of previous experience. I knew that we had more options but allowed the controller to rush us into accepting an approach to an airport experiencing wind shear.

Yes, doubt has its place in aviation, but we should always try to err on the side of safety. Risk taking, on the other hand, has no place in aviation.

That radio is there for communication: a close call

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In July 2018 I was approaching the end of my flight training. That meant all I had to do was a couple of cross country navigation solo flights on the school’s DA-20 to be ready for the final test. For the US pilots here: Central Europe is a beautiful, mountainous landscape, Slovakia being 60% covered with hills up to mountains between 4000 and 7800 ft. Some pilots from neighboring—rather flatter—countries comment it is impossible to get lost in Slovakia: you have mountain chains, among them squeezed motorways, rail tracks and rivers. There is no way to have the feeling of one town looking like any other from the air.

Needless to say, I was very much enjoying my ride in calm summer air with a magnificent, constantly-changing view below me.

Part of my plan was to perform a touch and go at several airfields along the route. Not because it was required by the training plan but because I liked it, and of course because I wanted to practice. About one hour into my flight, I was approaching LZPT, a grass airfield in a shallow valley among the hilly forests of western central Slovakia. The airport has a nice, although a bit bumpy, grass runway (07-25) with a comfortable 1100 m length—enough for any rookie, including me.

I approached the circuit from the northeast at an altitude of 1500 MSL or 900 ft AGL, heading straight at the center of the runway to observe the wind. Of course, I duly reported on the local frequency I was there and what my intentions were. It seemed there was some wind from northwest, pretty much perpendicular to the runway. There was little movement to be seen at the field (as usual on weekdays) except for one Kitfox-like ultralight parked on the apron near the tower.

So I decided to cross the runway, enter left downwind of 07, and go for my touch and go. Even though I knew the airport and had landed there several times before, I decided to extend the downwind leg to give me time to do it properly—right on first attempt.

So when I turned on final I was about three miles from the threshold. All went well, I reported final on 07, and was getting ready to perform a smooth touch down right past the threshold.

Then, about one minute before touch down, I heard somebody saying something like, “LZPT taking off runway 25.” I was not sure I heard right. I mean, I just reported my final about a minute ago. Surely anybody on the frequency, let alone a pilot sitting in his aircraft about to take off, must have heard me?

I played this movie in my head, thinking, “you are a rookie, you don’t know what you are doing, you’re so stressed you cannot even comprehend radio communication, you must have misunderstood, anybody around you knows more than you—YOU ARE NOT EVEN A PILOT YET.” So I continued my approach but, luckily, kept a very sharp eye.

Then, to my great awe, I spotted that previously parked Kitfox looking very much like it was speeding down runway 25 right towards me. Clearly, I must have understood him—he was about to take off on the runway I was abut to land on! Not much more thinking was needed, so I put in full power, retracted my flaps and peeled right, gaining altitude. And, I managed to report, “Go around due to traffic ahead” in a surprisingly calm voice.

As I proceeded to and reported left downwind for runway 25, nobody responded. The airfield became perfectly deserted after the Kitfox departed. I managed to finish the circuit, perform a bit of a shaky full stop landing, stepped out of the airplane and stretched a bit. Fifteen minutes later, I was in the air again, continuing on my planned route towards Bratislava International (LZIB), where I landed 45 minutes later.

As I was reflecting on the events, I came to some rather obvious conclusions:

  1. If you sense danger then speak out. The radio is there to be used.
  2. Your gut gives you a good direction—it is OK to follow it and double check by the brain—not to try to reason your intuition away.
  3. It does not matter much who was guilty after the accident; what matters more is who could have prevented it and did not.
  4. This one I heard from my instructor, perhaps in the second lesson: “In the air we don’t think, we act.” Good advice if you follow it.

As I write this I am a happy 100 hour PPLA time builder. I may be a bit over-communicative on the radio but have not had a close call since that day in July 2018.

How to prepare for airline pilot training

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In this video I will be giving you some guidance on what to think of when you want to prepare for flight training from an early age.
What should you study? When can you start? What should you think of? All shall be revealed!
But remember, you need to watch the WHOLE video, otherwise something might be missed.

On this channel you can expect video-blogs, technical instructions, flying techniques and much more about the wonderful world of commercial aviation and the life of airline pilots.
I am using my 13 years of experience as an airline pilot, training-captain and TRI/TRE to give you MY view of the airline business and the role of an airline pilot.

All the content is intended to give you a positive and constructive view into the fantastic world of commercial aviation.
Please keep your comments and questions in the same spirit and please INTERACT. The channel becomes much better then and its intended for YOUR benefit.

The content on this channel is for info and entertainment only and is not intended to replace any existing FCOM manuals or SOP's.
I am only talking for myself and do not represent any specific company, airline or entity.

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