Trust your Instruments

Flying is easy! Keep the sky above you and the ground below, point the aircraft in the direction you want to go, look out the window occasionally to know where you are, with towns, lakes roads and so on.  Easy, Right?
During the day time with clear blue skies in small aircraft with Visual Flight Rules (VFR), it is at least. What about at night or in the clouds, fog or rain? Or in big heavy aircraft, travelling at 900km/h? How do pilots know where they are going and not crash into each other?
1stclassIf that question makes you a little anxious while you fly, don’t worry. You can keep sipping your champagne and relax, knowing that your Pilots have studied and trained hard to know where we are and where we are going, using accurate instruments and systems.

For those curious, we do this using Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). A set of rules and navigation systems using; aircraft instrumentation, ground based Navigation beacons and facilities, inertial navigation systems and more recently GPS. Combine with Radar and radio communication procedures with Air Traffic Control, to organise separate and control aircraft. Kind of like an invisible, three dimensional, multi-layer, sky highway. Learning how to fly these “highways” takes a while to master. As always, it starts in the classroom with theory, then simulator or synthetic trainer, a computer simulator where your mistakes don’t kill you. And finally the aircraft, where your mistakes can kill you.

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Synthetic Trainer (Photo IG: aapa_rex )
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Approach procedure chart – Sydney

 

This was my experience
January, the hottest, driest month of the year, and this day was no exception. The air was hot and dry, not a cloud to be seen and I was ready for my first real IFR flight: Mangalore to Shepparton for a few practice approach procedures then back to Mangalore.
I had practised these procedures countless times in the air-conditioned comfort of the Synthetic Trainer and on my computer, using Microsoft Flight Simulator, a very useful study tool,  But I was far from mastering them.
We began taxi by mid-morning, much later in the day than I’d like. The summer sun had begun heating the earth, pushing the temperature past 35 Degrees Celsius, on its way to 40. My shirt already damp from perspiration, the first few buttons open, along with the aircraft door, trying to promote any sort of fresh air flow while we taxied.

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the hood

Things didn’t get much better once we were in flight. The heated earth was sending intense thermals into the sky causing constant turbulence, bouncing our little plane around the sky, requiring constant control input. To make matters worse, I was “under the Hood”. An awkward device that you wear on your head which prevents you from looking out the window, forcing you to use only instruments to fly and navigate.

 

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Piper Warrior PA-28

With frustration and difficulty, I focused on the bouncing instruments, gripping the controls with my sweaty hands. I needed a third hand and a second brain to manage the workload. But all I had was an instructor beside me watching and critiquing, “Altitude, Heading, Tracking, Altitude”
I couldn’t wait to get back on the ground. I persevered, trying not to let the rough conditions frustrate me, taking the sortie one step at a time. The two-hour flight left me physically and mentally exhausted. And I didn’t even see a cloud.
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My first moment flying in clouds, real IMC (instrument conditions), is still very memorable. I remember it so well because it’s burnt deep into my memory, along with a good human factors lesson. Because in that moment I realised how quickly I could kill myself.
My instructor and I were heading towards Melbourne at 6000feet, on my first IFR navigation flight at night. Fortunately, as it was a cool summer night, the air was as smooth as silk.
With my attention focused carefully on the instrument panel of the ‘Autopilot-less’ aircraft, my instructor asks; “Have you flown in cloud yet?” “No, not yet” I reply. “Well, you’re about to,” he says, switching the landing lights on. I lift my eyes, fixating on the illuminated oncoming clouds. There’s something captivating about this moment, as we are swallowed by misty cloudiness for my first time.7
Seconds later I break my fixation and I re-focus on the instruments, finding the aircraft banked 30degress to the left, pitch 5 degrees down, altitude 250 feet low and quickly descending. I yank the controls correcting the attitude and my flight path. The deviation was so gentle I hadn’t even felt it; I was seconds away from a spiral dive and had no clue. I’ve read stories of pilots dying like that!
Now I had a new problem. The aggressive correction as confused my inner ear. It now feels like we are banked 30 degrees right, but my instruments are saying we are straight and level. This spatial disorientation is known as Sensory Illusion or The Leans. Our caveman vestibular system isn’t designed for flight; it can be a dangerous situation for an inexperienced pilot, with the potential of a Graveyard Spiral. This is my first real experience of this illusion. I’ve heard “Trust Your Instruments!” so many times in training that it’s ringing in my head automatically. So do, I trust my instruments and tilt my head to the left to help my ear feel more normal, a tip I had read about in an old theory book.
A long 30 seconds later, I regain my senses. The instructor quietly monitoring me gave me more confidence.  I am still not sure if he, himself a young pilot at only 21years old, was expecting that situation to occur. But it was a valuable lesson.

A week later, Victoria was hit with devastating Bushfires; Black Saturday. 50 Kilometres away, fires raged out of control for weeks, blanketing the state in smoke. When the smoke was thin enough to allow us to take off and land, we were able to fly. The smoke giving an eerie unpredictable environmental condition to fly in. The positive being, it was real instrument conditions and it was better than being under the damn hood

With my training coming to an end and a successful flight test. I took my first flight as an IFR rated pilot. I couldn’t wait to exercise my new licence and fly anywhere without being bound by cloud or rain.

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Canberra ILS procedure

It was a beautiful day heading into Canberra, I was eagerly expecting vectors onto an ILS (instrument approach). Then to my surprise and disappointment, I hear “X-ray Delta India, You’re cleared for a visual Approach runway 35.”  What the hell? I was IFR! – I hadn’t realised this obvious point since we never practised it in IFR training: You can still do a visual approach (a simple VFR procedure) when you’re IFR, as long as you’re in visual conditions (VMC).
After the “WTF?!” moment followed by the “Well Duh” moment, I looked out the window, pointed the aircraft towards the airport and landed. Easy!

 

Tip for the young aviator.
Throughout my career, I have supplemented my flight training with hours and hours of playing Microsoft flight simulator (FSX), even during my training for the 777.
Obviously, you can’t log any of it. But it is a great and affordable training tool. Especially with real flight time or full motion flight simulator time starting around $300 per hour and going into the thousands of dollars per hour. Flight Sim is free after the small purchase cost. You can practice anything from circuits and radio calls to Instrument approaches and procedures, failures, Scan-flows even rehearsing full flights. It gives you a real time learning scenario, with time pressure to force errors and highlight weaknesses and deficiencies which you can learn from.

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FSX Cessna 172. used instead of Piper PA-28
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FSX King Air similar enough to SAAB340 to practice procedures

I highly recommend it if you are studying to be a pilot. Plus, it gives you a break from the books. Just don’t get too distracted trying to get a good score flying the Redbull Air Race.

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PMDG B777 with Virtual CDU on tablet, wirelessly connected to fully program FMC

I highly recommend PMDG, Virtual Avionics and Aerosoft. I used the PMDG Boeing 777 as a training aid and have played with the Aerosoft A320. All buttons and switches function as they do in the real aircraft.
I will use their products again for any other future aircraft I get to fly. Just make sure your computer is powerful enough to run the programs.
https://www.precisionmanuals.com/
http://www.aerosoft.com

What do buckets have to do with being a Pilot?

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.

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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.

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World Aeronautical Chart (WAC)

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?warrior 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!

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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.

 

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IG: @aapa_rex

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.

 

Spin. Ok, mine wasn’t this bad

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.

 

Planned Route – Where am I going!

There I was; at the beginning of 2008, fresh out of High School, hardly an adult with an amazing opportunity in my hands.  And sitting in front of me was the scariest, most adult looking contract I had ever seen. I was about to sign a 7-year employment contract and bond, plunging myself into ninety-thousand dollars (AUD) of debt.
I only had seven thousand dollars to my name, for which I had been working all summer in a factory and a piece of crap car, worth no more than four thousand bucks. What’s more, I would be committed to the one airline until I was 27-years old.

What was I getting myself into? How did I know this was the best option for me?

For those who are about to start your flying career. We all know there are a number of different pathways; from Airforce/Military, Airline Cadetships, University and General Aviation, just to name a few of the common ones. And they all come with their pros and cons.
So what would I recommend?
Knowing what I know now, my first piece of advice is: There will always be people who argue that one pathway is better than another. It is important to remember, these people will often argue what is better for them! Not necessarily for you and your goals. Still, take their advice, but realise where they might be different from you. An easy way to do this is; ask them to go through the pros and cons, quietly keeping in mind that it is a pro or con in their opinion. Then make your own list of pros and cons based on your values. This way you can use their knowledge in the most effective way for you.

Secondly: Ask yourself why. “Why do I even want to be a Pilot? Why is it so appealing?” Really dig deep, once you have this “why”, write it down. Your “why”, is your motivational fuel. It will help keep you motivated with the many challenges you will face during your career. So make it easy to revisit and remember why. (It is also a common airline interview question.)
You’ll know it’s the right “why” when saying and thinking about it makes you smile to yourself and feel excited or nervous. It still does for me.sunrise I’ll be sitting there having a quiet moment to myself, watching a beautiful sunrise from 35,000 feet. And I’ll remember; I am in control of a Boeing 777! A 300million dollar, 300ton, technologically mind-blowing flying machine! Hauling across the sky and around the world at Mach 0.84(900km/h). Powerful, Free and Adventurous!
I belong to a small percentage of people in the world who will ever get to experience and explore the world from this perspective.20170519_002110 (I used to have similar moments at 15000feet in a 13ton SAAB340 or 5000ft in a PA-28)

I also enjoy the process of learning and forever developing and applying the skills of my profession. As pilots we take pride in that, we understand and appreciate that we are a part of a highly trained team. I guess it’s a professional pride thing, or just ego (kidding).  But we all understand in the back of our minds that we’re responsible for the 450 lives sitting behind us. It is our job to deliver them safely, connecting them to their friends and families, homes, dream holidays and workplaces.
If you’re only motivated by “MONEY”, trust me, there are easier and more efficient ways to get rich. Don’t waste time in aviation. Or even if it’s for business class staff travel. Okay Maybe Business Cass is a motivator; it’s just so comfortable and amazing! I’m so clearly spoiled now.
So what is your “why?” Will it fuel you and give you the endurance you need?

Your “why” should help you with the next question:  Where do you see yourself in 10years? Flying a wide body jet around the world? A narrow body domestically? Or a float plane in the Caribbean or Whitsundays?
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Where do you want your career to take you? Then work backwards. What experiences do you want to have along the way? And for that 10-year goal to happen, Where and Who do you need to be, in 5 years from now? In 2 years from now? 1year, 6 months and 1 week from now? Who do you need to be right now and what do you need to do today, to put yourself on the path to your goal? It might be studying for an upcoming test at high school, setting goals or sending off job applications.

You need to know where you are now, where you want to end up, and the path you wish to take that connects the two.
I never start a flight without a map and flight plan. Your career shouldn’t be any different. Oh, And your plan doesn’t even need to be perfect. You just need to have one.

If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail – Benjamin Franklin

Lastly:   APPLY FOR EVERYTHING!  Take every opportunity offered.  You can always turn one down if you have to and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have two or three offers to choose from in the end.
The question that that annoys me the most is: “Which cadetship or job should I apply for?”
All of them I say! Why are you trying to choose from options you haven’t even been offered yet!?
In the same way, we never leave the ground without having an alternate route or landing airport available. My career has been no different. I’ve re-planned, re-routed, been delayed and even shortcuts that I hadn’t even expected! But I always created options by applying for everything I might want.

So how did I know the Regional Express cadet program was right for me?
Well firstly, I didn’t have many other options.
Secondly, I weighed up the pros, cons and risks. Had my friends’ lawyer Step Dad read over the contract and give me some free legal advice. Then I asked myself; where I dream of being in 5 and 10 years? Then I trusted my gut and signed the dotted line, starting the engines of my career.

You’re the Captain of your life. It is up to you to take command of your future. Navigate it in the right direction!
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I know I promised to share about my experience of surviving flight school as well, but I’ll save that for next week. I hope you found value in this post and that it gives you some tools in how to become a pilot, or even just pursuing any goals you might have in life.