Flight Training was and still is one of the most challenging things I have ever done. I’d also really love to go back in time and do it all over again knowing what I know now. But only if I could take with me, what I know now.
You see, flying around the countryside in a light aircraft is really fun. Especially, when you know what you’re doing. The problem was, as a student, most the time I didn’t know what I was doing, or at least I wasn’t confident in what I was doing.
Obviously, this is why we are students, to transition from no idea to a safe level of competence. And as we progress, the required level of competence continues to rise, as we strive for mastery of our profession. It’s the feeling of climbing up a down going escalator, with every successful step up; a new step appears at the top, a new level of competency to meet. This is the student experience.
It was my first solo navigation flight and I was feeling confident having finished a number of navigation flights with an instructor. I felt I was starting to get the hang of this flying thing. I had departed Mangalore Airport, successfully avoided the military airspace and tracked west for half an hour towards my first waypoint, Saint Arnaud, a small town in central Victoria.As the small town came up on the nose, I identified the aerodrome, broadcast my intentions on the radio and made a turn towards my next waypoint, Maryborough, Heading 176 degrees set. I noted the time and amount of fuel remaining. – It should take 22 minutes to get to Maryborough. 5 minutes pass by, the road out to my right looks like the one on my map. “I’m on track”, I confidently think to myself.
Another 10 minutes pass by; I should be crossing some small roads and seeing the town in the distance any time now. But where are these damn roads that the map is showing, and why are there hills to left of me? I try to identify the big features and landmarks… A sinking feeling hit my stomach, “where the hell am I?” By now 17 minutes has passed since St Arnaud. The time ticking by faster and faster, with every minute, I’m travelling almost 2 nautical miles! Unlike a car, you can’t just pull over, look at the map and ask for directions. “Ok, I’ve been trained for this” I begin to retrace my steps like someone who had lost their keys. “I’m sure that was St. Arnaud where I turned onto a heading of 176 degrees, which is south…. South”, I looked at the map again… Maryborough isn’t south of Saint Arnaud… It’s south-east! I pull out my protractor, “136 degrees!” I had written the wrong heading on my flight plan!
I quickly drew a new line on the map of 176 degrees from St. Arnaud. “Ok, 19 minutes at 1.8 miles a minute, that puts me 34 miles along this line.”I identify the big terrain features around me, the hills to the left look like the ones shown on the map. Then the little features to narrow it down, unfortunately, this part of the countryside is quite dull. There aren’t many distinguishing features that stand out from three and a half thousand feet. I’m left with matching the intersections of roads and turns in powerlines that I see bellow with what is depicted on the map. Still not completely certain of my position, I bank the small aircraft and point it towards what I believe is the direction of Maryborough, but I can’t help doubting where I am. The next 10 minutes are just as nervous; Recalculating if I have enough fuel to still get home and trying to get a good position fix so I can be certain of where I actually am. A set of power lines running east, directly to the town become my yellow brick road. After 12 minutes I am over head the familiar township. With a sense of relief, I point the aircraft in the direction of Mangalore, carefully double checking my track this time, for the home leg, enough excitement for one day. A few minutes later, I hear over the radio another young pilot of a Cessna 182, I assume also a student, asking the Radar traffic controller for help determining his position since he’d become lost. “Ha, I’m glad I’m not that guy”, I thought to myself. He too found his way and I took the free lesson in witnessing his experience on the radio. A bonus lesson, in becoming unlost using air traffic control.
That was one of those experiences where I felt good about a making a “mistake” because I got to learn a lot from it and test myself. It felt so much better than one of my next “successful” experiences. My Private Pilot Licence (PPL) flight test; I fumbled my way through this flight fairly well, demonstrating my newly acquired pilot skills and knowledge to the testing officer; an extremely experienced pilot, who was also an Entrepreneur and Aviation Lawyer on the side (amongst other things). One of those exceedingly intelligent gentlemen who leave regular Joes, such as me, feeling like they’ve achieved nothing in life. The test went well enough that I passed. But the debriefing gave the bitter to the sweetness. All I remember him saying was, “I don’t think you’re natural and you’re really going to have to work hard at this if you want a successful career.” My stomach sunk like a brick, so much for celebrating.
A few months later, I was to meet the same officer for my Commercial Licence (CPL) flight test. Safe to say I was a bit nervous being tested by the same guy in a new aircraft type that I had only 15 hours in; a Piper Seminole, a light twin-engine aircraft, the only twin engine aircraft I had ever flown at this point. This was less flight time than a Spitfire pilot going into the battle of Britain. I didn’t have Luftwaffe shooting at me, so I guess that’s fair.
This test didn’t go well at all. We didn’t even get out of the vicinity of the aerodrome. After being requested to demonstrate a stall. (A Stall is when and aircraft goes so slowly, stops flying and begins to fall out of the sky) I did as I’d been taught, slowing the aircraft then at the first the sign of the stall, lowering my attitude and accelerating again. But he wanted to see a fully developed stall.
Knowing I had never put this aircraft into this position, I became increasingly nervous. I failed to set the power on the engines evenly and the stall came with a massive wing drop and 180-degree spin.
Although I did recover, my recovery was not to a safe standard. All he said was, “that’ll do, take me back to Mangalore.” It is hard to explain what it is like flying and landing an aircraft knowing you have already failed your licence test.
This was my first of many humbling experiences where I have been confronted with failing or making an error that reminds me that I’m not that good. Something all pilots have had experience with. We are trained and work in such a critical environment where we can always improve, our mistakes are highlighted and we’re held immediately accountable. If you don’t make the effort to keep your skills polished, you are reminded often that you are slipping, as you’re only as good as your last flight. This can be stressful if you don’t figure out how to roll with the punches and enjoy the process of continual self-driven improvement. It requires a bit of discipline, but it is actually rewarding, seeing your skills develop. And as I’ve said before, it can be one of the most fulfilling parts of the job.
After my failed flight test, I had some re-training where I was taught to stall and recover the aircraft, correctly.
The next test I passed, with another reminder from the testing officer to work hard. Ten years later I understand why, and I’d probably tell myself the same thing.
Looking back, I would have loved to have the maturity and knowledge have now. But it is in these tough experiences that demand a higher level of maturity that make us grow, gaining maturity, resilience, experience and wisdom.
There’s an old saying amongst pilots; “Every pilot starts his career with two buckets. One bucket full of Luck and an empty bucket to fill with Experience. The goal is to fill your experience bucket before you empty your luck bucket”. This is a subtle reminder of our own mortality and fallibility. For those of you beginning your aviation careers, I hope I can help you fill your experience/knowledge buckets just a little bit by sharing my stories with you.