Tuesday 20 May 2014

Phase Two

Firstly, an apology. I realise that I’ve somewhat neglected this blog – I make it just a shade under seven months since last I posted – but oh well, better late than never…

Somewhat unsurprisingly, quite a lot has happened since the last instalment. Just after Christmas we had our first seven EASA exams and then two weeks of much needed leave in which to recover from almost four months of hard work. Results came out at the end of the second week of leave and having passed all my exams, the next Monday brought the start of phase two…

So, phase two. If we’d thought that phase one was intense, phase two was nigh on insane! In some ways there was less to learn than in phase one, in as much as the first phase was devoted to learning shed loads of facts while the second phase was devoted, on the whole, to learning principles that could then be applied in many different ways. The subjects covered were radio navigation, general navigation, aircraft performance, flight planning, mass and balance and the two fact learning subjects; air law and operational procedures.

The first five of these are mostly maths based – the ability to do long division and work out the angles in a triangle is invaluable. Air Law and Ops, on the other hand, are very much a return to the phase one method of learning lots of facts and reciting them. There was also not a lot of time to get a grip on the basics before examinations were upon us in the form of test twos after only three weeks. The same frenetic pace applied to the rest of phase two as there were only thirty one teaching days from beginning to end, followed by a revision week, school finals, another revision week and then EASAs. Our EASA exams also marked the end of the paper era – from now on all the exams will be done online.

Aside from the academic side of things, late March also saw us all undertaking the obligatory trip to the US embassy in London in order to get paperwork sorted out. This was just the start of a long list of other admin tasks; the US requires you to have not only a visa but also Transportation Security Administration (TSA) approval to undertake flight training – to make this even more arduous you need separate approval for each different type of aircraft you’ll be flying!

My future office

I was also lucky enough to get a chance to have a jump seat ride on a BA airbus going out to Stockholm and back. This came the day after finishing my phase two EASAs and so was a fantastic treat/way to celebrate/chance to see the practical application of some of what we’d learned. The process of setting up an airbus seems rather daunting at the moment, as does managing to get a word in edgeways on Heathrow Ground frequency and then actually managing to follow their rapid and complicated instructions, although no doubt both of these will become less daunting with time and experience… After an easy two hour flight the descent into Stockholm was made through thick clouds that only gave way to clear air about eight hundred feet above the ground, prompting the captain to make the wry comment as we passed a thousand feet that “a runway would be nice any time now.” An hour and a half on the ground was spent chatting with the whole crew and then being taken through the process of setting the aircraft up; with so much time available the first officer was able to show me the ins and outs of the system slowly enough that I could actually follow it! And then we were off again for Heathrow, although not before a small delay at the end of the runway as the crew resolved an air con issue that had sprung up on engine start. That sorted, we took off into the clouds again and headed back to the southwest. Not long after getting established in the cruise another aircraft passed under us heading south and although the magic box on board told us that they were the mandated thousand feet below us, when you’re seven miles up there’s nothing to give perspective and that separation seems pretty small! Arriving back over southern England the weather was perfect for a bit of hand flying – a rare treat for a commercial pilot in today’s crowded airspace – so the first officer flew the approach before handing over to the captain for his landing, which can only be described as a greaser…

The flight back was the captain’s flight so the first officer handled the radios, apart from during the initial and intermediate approach when the roles were reversed. BA is one of the few airlines to persist with this monitored approach concept, which is where the non-handling pilot flies the approach and assumes that the landing will be aborted and will result in a go-around. This way, not only does the non-handling pilot keep his eye in for if he does need to take over for any reason but he’s also ready with all the information needed for the go around and can talk the handling pilot through it to save any confusion. Assuming that the approach isn’t discontinued for any reason, the non-handling pilot hands the aircraft over to the handling pilot at about 1200ft so that the aircraft is completely set up in time for the 1000ft stable call – for an approach to be stable the speed, height and power must be right and the aircraft must be on track for the runway with the flaps as required and gear down. If any of these criteria aren’t met then it’s mandatory to do a go around and have another go at the landing.

Anyway, suffice to say that the entire flight was not only a fantastic learning experience but also great fun. The next instalment of the blog should be up soon (I promise not to leave it as long as for this instalment) and will cover the trip out to the states and the start of flying!

Friday 25 October 2013

Light at the end of the tunnel...

Seems to be becoming a bit of a common refrain for me, but it's been a busy couple of weeks...

Test Ones are over! Even though the tests themselves are purely for our own benefit as a progress check, pre-exam nerves made a fair old appearance. In the end though, the tests went well and now we're back in to teaching mode again. The other aspect to this is that Monday coming is the start of teaching week 7 of 12, so we've broken the back of the phase 1 teaching as well. Some subjects it seems like we've still got three quarters of the book to do but the instructors know their stuff and from what the other students tell us, it'll all be covered before we know it...

This evening we're going for a whole course pub trip to celebrate the passing of the first hurdle and then tomorrow I'm off to Heathrow for the Flyer Show/Professional Flight Training Exhibition. For anyone who's interested in coming into this profession the exhibition is a must see as it's a chance to talk to the airlines, the pilots, the schools and the students. If you're interested in going, the link for the website is http://exhibitions.flyer.co.uk/

Tuesday 15 October 2013

How time flies...

It's been a busy couple of weeks. Work continues apace and now the prospect of test ones looms large ahead of us. It's great to see how much of the course content is now under our belt and how the various concepts are starting to tie together, especially in met. It does also mean that even though these are purely internal tests, pre-exam nerves are starting to make an appearance in the class...

That said, it's not been entirely serious since last I posted. Last Thursday the school put on Happy Hour from half four until half five, apparently a monthly tradition to mark the day before the new course starts. Being our first happy hour we (almost inevitably and in accordance with our instructors' quasi-orders) crammed in as many beers as we could drink in an hour. Not feeling that we'd done the occasion justice we then scrubbed work for the evening, had dinner (and more beer) in the pub and then wandered back up the hill to our accommodation where we watched Top Gun. No cliches about students/pilots here at all then...

The final point for this evening then I suppose is that the aforementioned new course has now started, so we're no longer the babies of the school. Just hammers home how far along we now are...

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Learning from experience...

Experience is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately we don't have any, so we have to learn from the experiences of others.

By far the most commonly mentioned example for us to learn from is the tragic fate of Air France flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean with the loss of all aboard. This is used as an example in most of our lectures as aspects of meteorology, aerodynamics, instrumentation, systems, human factors and crew resource management all factored into the eventual outcome. Further information and the final crash report can be found at the links below:


In a more subject specific example of learning from others' experiences, stories from flying training were used in the recent Principles of Flight lectures on ground effect. This is where the wing becomes more 'efficient' once close to the ground, leading in broad terms to greater lift generation and less drag. Our lecturer's first anecdote was from his days as an E-3D AWACS pilot for the RAF; while being taught how to land his instructor left the power on as he flared (lifted the nose) for landing and the aircraft, instead of losing speed and sinking as might be expected, maintained height and speed and happily flew along the runway about 10ft up until a go around was initiated.

The second anecdote was about the issues associated with ground effect when taking off. A friend of his in basic flying training was going solo in a Jet Provost trainer that was heavier than usual, using a shorter runway than usual. When he saw that he wasn't going to take off successfully he rotated early in the hope of clawing his way into the air. The aircraft lifted in the ground effect at a speed well below the climb speed; the result was that when it left ground effect the drag increased and the lift reduced, so the aircraft slowed, stalled and crashed back into the ground. Just before impact the pilot ejected and had the story ended there, we might all just have taken it as an example of what can happen. The instructor's next words, however, really brought home the fact that flying, while much safer statistically than for example driving, is unforgiving of even relatively minor mistakes. The end result of the incident was "As he descended under his parachute he went through a wall and was stabbed to death as his knees went through his chest."

Stunned silence descended on the classroom. We've all had emphasised to us the Swiss cheese safety model, where holes in layers are blocked by other layers unless all the holes line up and an accident occurs, but for me certainly this really rammed home the first rule of aviation safety: check, check and then check again that everything is in order because if you don't, at some point you'll pay for it.

Monday 30 September 2013

The end of week two...

...or more correctly, the beginning of week three.

With two full weeks done, whatever easing in we experienced is certainly over. The workload now is, we're informed, as hefty as it will ever get during ground school and we're all aware that we're almost half way to our Test Ones, the first real progress tests of the course.

Most of us took the opportunity to do a lot of work in the couple of days prior to the weekend and thereby give ourselves a bit of down time to relax at the weekend, but the timetable for this weekend is looking intense so relaxation time in the next few days will be at a premium. There is also a bout of 'fresher's flu' going around the class as well, not that we have the time to be ill; as we must by law attend 750 of our 751 scheduled hours of lessons there is no opportunity to lose a day to the sniffles.

That said, don't let me make you think that I'm not enjoying the experience. Now that the groundwork has been laid in all the subjects we're getting to the more detailed, more useful information that will be relevant when we're doing the job in the real world so hard as it may be becoming, it's all worth it.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Meeting the Neighbours...

This evening I went for a walk with my flat mate; having reached the middles of chapters in our lectures today there weren't as many questions to do as there have been of late, so we decided to explore the local area. Our destination was the village of Steeple Aston, the location of both a very nice, very reasonably priced pub and the nearest Sunday-service public transport.

The walk down through the village of Upper Heyford was accomplished in short order, then we left the previously beaten path and shortly encountered some locals in the form of cows! Giving them as wide a berth as we could we carried on until the railway, then turned back in order to avoid passing through the cow field in the dark. Even the five minutes between crossing and recrossing the canal made a huge difference, in two ways. Firstly, waist deep mist sprung up all across the valley. Secondly, the cows repositioned to just the other side of the bridge, cutting us off from Upper Heyford and leading to an odd standoff between us, who wanted to get back to the accommodation (via the pub, of course) and them, who seemed inordinately interested in licking us...

After a tense ten minutes - and the somewhat huffy rejection by one of the cows of the amorous advances of the bull - they got bored of trying to lick us and wandered away. We gave them a few minutes to get away and then beat a hasty retreat in the other direction, stopping for a quick pint at the local before beating it back up to the accommodation. It's definitely a lovely weekend walk but perhaps not really feasible as a means of getting to and from the bus, being at least an hour each way when not lumbered with flight bags and/or shopping.

My flatmate (right), some locals and our bovine captors

The settling mist

More mist

Friday 20 September 2013

One down, twenty-five to go...

As the title says, one week down and twenty-five to go. Or at least, the teaching element is over for this week; there is still the personal reinforcement/revision to do over this evening and the weekend.

This week has been brilliant. Set aside the massive feel good factor of the fact that I'm on the road to my dream and this week has still been brilliant. Being not long out of uni I'm more au fait with classroom based learning than some on my course, but we've all been helping each other. Individual study in the evening usually turns into tea/coffee (and occasionally beer) and biscuits powered group study where we give it large bouncing questions off one another and having a good old laugh.

On the subject of laughs, lectures continue apace and with no sign of a let up in the number of anecdotes, wisecracks and jokes. Having sat through countless dry hours of death by powerpoint (not lovin' it) I cannot describe how much more conducive this environment is to rapid learning of a lot of material - this also applies to the previously mentioned group sessions in the evenings.

For those thinking of treading this path, or who are just interested, the subjects covered are:

Phase 1
Airframes and Structures
Human Performance and Limitation
Principles of Flight

Phase 2
Flight Performance
Flight Planning and Monitoring
General Navigation
Radio Navigation
Operational Procedures
Air Law (Air Bore, as it's known)

Phase one covers the period from the start of the course through progress test 1 (in week six) and on to school finals in December and JAA/EASA ATPL exams in the new year. Phase two starts after two weeks of post exam leave and goes through progress test 2 after four weeks and on to school finals and JAA/EASA ATPL exams at the beginning of April (right over my 22nd birthday..!). Then a short spot of leave and on to America for basic flying training. The phase one modules are generally the groundwork theory that will allow us to take apart any system on the aeroplane, fix it and then fix any passengers broken in the process (HP&L). Phase two is the practical side of things (except air bore, kept there so we don't get too ahead of ourselves) and readies us for the practical training in America, of which more as time goes on. You may also have noticed that phase two is rather shorter than phase one; there's just as much to learn, they just reckon you're fully spooled up into learning mode by then. (Sorry, had to get in an aircraft based play on words somewhere...)

And on that note, it's time to sign off for this update. I'll try to update about once a week, probably at the end of the week at about this time. Lovin' it!

p.s. If you're interested in the experience at other flying schools, may I recommend the blog of a friend of mine who started at CTC about three weeks before I started at Oxford: Chris Burrows CTC Wings Blog
p.p.s. For those who aren't fully conversant with the wonderful world of acronyms...

ATPL - Air Transport Pilot's License
EASA - European Aviation Safety Agency
JAA - Joint Aviation Authorities