July 11, 2008

Flying With Rosie

I’ve been trying to get onto this post for a while, especially as I dropped a few hints about it in an earlier one, but as usual time, the old enemy, got in the way. But now the decks have cleared a bit I can take the opportunity to post the latest news.

For several weeks, much of my time was taken up with things to do with the Xair so now with that out of my hair, I decided that the time had come to take the bull by the horns and start seeing about doing some proper flying. After thinking long and hard, I decided that although this whole thing began with the purchase of Our Trike, I now had to agree with something Ken had said. The idea of flying in a totally open cockpit is still fun but there’s much to be said for having a closed cabin. There are obvious things, like having side-by-side seating, which makes the whole experience much more enjoyable if you have a passenger. And as I’ve said before, enjoyment is the main point of this whole exercise. And being able to fly at virtually any time of year without needing to wrap up and wear crash helmets and stuff like that is also another big consideration. But really the deciding factor for me has been the weather.

This year has not been shaping up too well at all in the UK for flying small aircraft. It’s not just that we’ve had a lot of rain, we have, but even when the weather has been clear and bright, we’ve still had quite a bit of wind. Now, wind is a big No-No for Our Trike. More recent flex-wing (or weight-shift) designs, which is what Our Trike is, can handle certain amounts of wind, but Our Trike is an older design and really needs almost calm conditions to be safe. But no flex-wing can be flown safely in anything like the windy conditions that a fixed wing (or 3-axis) design can cope with. So the decision really is a no-brainer. Have to go fixed wing.

The other consideration, of course, is that all of my previous Group A and gliding experience has been in fixed wings so the learning curve is likely to be less steep in a 3-axis model too. So that’s why I got in touch with Rosie.

Rosie is a microlight Instructor here in South-East England. She has two aircraft, an Ikarus C42 and an AX3 and you can choose which one you prefer to learn in. The C42 is modern, high-tech and for me, I’m afraid, a bit flashy. On the other hand, the AX3 is old (mid-nineties I think), a little bit tatty and frayed around the edges with a few thousand hours on the clock. Having so much in common with it, obviously I had to go for the AX3! And here it is.

By the way, if you click on any of the images in this posting you will be able to view full-screen versions. You’ll also have the option of viewing the original digital pics which are all much larger than a browser window. But beware – they are all over 1 MB (one of them is 1.7MB) so they may take a while to open if you have a slow connection. But it’s worth it, I think, because some of them have a lot of detail in them, especially the cockpit pics that come later. You can save them into a folder on your own machine to view off-line and if you zoom in you can see an incredible amount of detail. Aren’t they marvellous, these digital cameras 🙂

But before we go any further, let me tell you a little bit more about Rosie. She’s a charming lady of, let’s say, about the same age as us. Flying with Rosie is a most enjoyable experience. She’s amusing and excellent company but like all good Instructors, she keeps control of things, but with a light touch. She knows what she wants you to do and how she wants you to do it but she communicates this in a way that makes the learning process a whole lot of fun.

And so it was that I turned up for my first flight with Rosie on the 10th of June. Actually it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that. Rosie flies from a small farm strip not far from Canterbury and despite her having given me directions how to get there, I’d spent about 45 minutes driving around the beautiful country lanes of Kent lost, looking for it! I’d taken the time away from my business (dang it, why not – it’s my business!!) and bv the time we’d had our briefing it was getting on for 2pm by the time we took off.

It was a beautiful afternoon – bright, sunny, a bit of cloud but a little bit windy. Rosie handed the controls over to me quite soon after take off and I thoroughly enjoyed getting the feel of them. We headed for an area in the direction of Dover and could clearly see the Cross Channel Ferries entering and leaving the harbour. This was the kind of flying that I had been looking forward to.

We ran through the Microlight Syllabus. Straight and level and turns to the right and the left. Climbing and descending, straight ahead and in the turn. Stalling, slow flying, I didn’t realise until afterwards just how much of the basic syllabus we covered. Rosie was very complimentary. She said my flying was ‘delightful’ which I thought was not only a charming compliment for which I was most grateful, but which also made me feel just as I had as a young student pilot over thirty years ago when my old Instructor had complimented me when I’d done something well. Strange, isn’t it, how some things just don’t change with time. The wide grin was plastered all over my face like glue 🙂

Rosie directed me to a little landing strip in a nearby field – just a mowed strip on a not-that-level field next to a road where we could do some touch and goes. Boy, if I’d had any thoughts of being a bit cocky about my flying skills up to then, now was the time to forget them.

The approach was over the road and just as you thought you’d managed to get everything nicely set up, you were hit by the same bit of lift every time, rising off the tarmac. There were trees to our right and as the wind was a bit from right-to-left and not straight down the strip, there was a bit of roll-over off them. And then to cap it all, we were flying into the low point of the field with the strip rising gently up ahead of us and there was a ditch with a few bushes just before the threshold causing the weirdest little bit of turbulence I’ve ever come across. All in all, quite challenging! But fun was not the word.

It soon became clear that there is some way to go before I get back the somewhat delicate skills that you need to do consistent good, safe landings. And in any case, there’s a learning curve because the whole approach and landing sequence is so different between a typical Group A light aircraft and a 3-axis microlight. Because the inertia of the microlight is so much lower and the forward resistance relatively so much higher, the approach is considerably steeper, so even without flaps (the AX3 and most microlights don’t have any) you feel as though you are doing a Group A full-flap approach. Then, you leave the flare later and much lower (ahem… bum height as a certain lady Instructor who will remain nameless suggested) and hold off aiming to land on the main wheels with the nose up to keep the weight off the nose wheel. I found that I was keeping too much trailing throttle on as I tended to do in the past to get a ‘greaser’ of a landing but this meant two things tended to happen. First, by the time I’d touched down, I’d used up too much of the runway and secondly, the long flare gave the wind the chance to blow the aircraft around. And so it did! Things to remember and lessons to learn straight away.

But all good things come to an end and eventually we headed off back to the home strip. That first session came to 1hr 30mins – and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world 🙂

I next flew on 24th June. Boy, if I’d thought the last session was challenging, it was nothing compared to this. The wind was gusty and also pretty variable meaning that setting up to land was not at all easy. We returned to the same field as before for some more touch and goes. The whole session lasted for 1hr 25mins and I have to say, it was pretty gruelling. I thanked Rosie afterwards for persevering because it must have been pretty tiring for her as well, especially as some of my efforts were not at all pretty. It was excellent practise, not that you expect to be flying and landing in such conditions all the time. But experience suggests that some day it will happen, so what better way to learn how than with an experienced Instructor sitting by your side.

To date, just another 1hr 10mins on 1st July and this time conditions were not ideal, but were a lot better. Hooray! Take offs and landings totally under my own hand at last. A satisfying and essential advance and development. After all, you can’t solo if you can’t take off and land… 😉

To finish this post off, what about a few more AX3 pics for those who are interested. Here’s another external shot taken from the other side.

And now a couple of cockpit shots to give a feel of what it’s like to fly one of these little aircraft. Rosie had removed the little Icom radio when they were taken which explains why there appear to be some loose cables hanging out.

Note that the AX3 has a single central stick. Here are some of the controls and indicators that can be seen if you zoom in a bit – see if you can spot them. Master switch, fuel cock, mags/starter switch, engine choke, fuel pump switch, fuel pressure gauge, carb heater switch, engine hours switch, RPM gauge, airspeed gauge, compass, engine temp/pressure gauges plus, of course airspeed, altimeter and vertical speed gauges. Even in this type of aircraft, pretty much a ‘standard fit’ of instruments, but no DI note. And more and more owners are fitting GPSs as well, these days.

One last one to finish off.

Not the fastest, most modern(!) or the most comfortable 3-axis microlight around but what the AX3 does have in abundance is character. That and flyability, and I look forward very much to progressing my microlighting experience in it.