July 19, 2015

West coast flight – Conclusions

So, after 6 days, 1300 kms and just over 15 hours of flying, in the cold light of day, what conclusions did we draw from our experience and what might we have done differently?

The first thing that Wim and I agreed on is that radios are essential. I had one, but hardly used it, and although Wim had borrowed an old Icom from Victor that we’d rigged up an antenna and power supply for, in reality he couldn’t use it because he didn’t have a proper headset. It was impossible for him to pick up in his hand and use manually while in the air and in any case, as he uses a helmet, he’d never have know about an incoming call or been able to hear anything through the earpiece.

We’d tried to get a ‘phone’ type headset incorporating a mic working in the period before we left, without success. But this was really only a ‘Wim thing’, who’s the world’s biggest fan of ‘minimalist’ flying and I know of no ULM/microlight pilot in the UK (or indeed, France) who would have considered undertaking a flight like ours without a proper radio.

Transponders would also have been incredibly useful as having them would have allowed freedom of access to huge swathes of airspace that were closed to us, either formally as at Lorient, or informally, as by the military who had grabbed airspace near Dax. However, given that we have no use for them in our day-to-day flying in the Dordogne and that at around 2000€ a pop they are uneconomic to purchase for just occasional use, we probably need to accept that should we plan similar flights in the future, certain areas of CAS will be closed to us and we will either have to find routes around them or choose different areas entirely for our tours.

But what about things of a more general nature? The first lesson that I learnt on day one was that it’s essential to check and double-check any equipment that you will be relying on. I thought that I’d loaded all of our routes into my Asus tablet that I’d intended to use for navigation but was aghast when I turned it on and found that it was empty. If it had not been for the 5″ sat nav backup that I had with me that served me well the whole way round, my tour would have been up the creek without a paddle even before we’d taken off.

Similarly, we lost more time when Wim’s engine wouldn’t start, we think because he’d run it for too short a time the day before to check it and had oiled up the plugs as a consequence. The conclusion was that you must check your aircraft carefully beforehand but in a sensible way and as an extension, as I found out at the end of our tour to my cost, you must replace any suspect parts that might let you down before you leave. That’s because if they do so when you’re hundreds of kilometres away from base, the problems and additional costs that will result might be considerable and although 56NE’s axles snapped during the last landing back at Wim’s home airfield, it looked as though they could have gone at any time while we were away if I’d had a hard landing, with possibly very expensive consequences.

A flight like ours needs detailed planning as I described in a previous post, both for it to be successful and to give you peace of mind that nothing unexpected will arise en route to bite you on the back-side. The main conclusion arising from our experience is that having made a detailed plan, STICK TO IT and don’t make changes on the fly. At home with your computer, the software and all the equipment you need, planning is difficult and time-consuming enough but in the field with little to assist you, it’s fraught with problems. That’s when things can, and for us, did start to go wrong.

And when you’re on tour, make sure that you use the results of your planning to the greatest effect. I’d taken the trouble to create a plog sheet and chart for every single leg of our tour but all too often we succumbed to the feeling that ‘it’s getting late and time to go’ and having inserted the relevant ones in my kneeboards, I took off without having properly consulted them.

It’s essential to swat up on the planned route in detail before you take off, making sure that you know what altitudes you should be flying at in each sector, what key visual cues you should be looking out for and when they should come up and what the appearance of the destination airfield will be from the direction that you will be arriving from. And for the latter you need to have carefully read the relevant airfield card, a copy of which you should have with you, so you are also aware of the runway that will be in use and of any special conditions that apply, relating to obstacles, noise abatement etc.

There’s also the question of water crossings. We knew that we’d be doing several, some lasting 15 minutes or more, and you need to think about the safety aspects that are involved. Wim and I decided not to take life jackets with us, although in my case I have one which is new and unused. Other pilots need to decide what’s right for them.

Incidentally, although I’d carefully printed off and collated all of the above information, I’d inserted it into one of my kneeboards that I’d placed on the cabin floor leaning against the side of the pod. When it rained heavily at Amou, the papers got wet causing the ink to run. Luckily, only some of the corners and a couple of the chart edges were affected, so although they looked horrible cosmetically, there was no real harm done, but the lesson was that as you rely so heavily on all of your ‘paperwork’, you should take steps to ensure that it’s kept safe and protected from all possible threats, including water, at all times.

Finally, there are the more basic lessons that we learnt from our tour:

> Pare weight down to the minimum – don’t take more of ANYTHING than is strictly necessary

> Take plastic jerry cans, not metal, like I did, as the weight saving is significant

> Unless you’re a gourmet and can’t face simple fare, only take canned food that you can cook in one pot

> Double-check your camping gear; a faulty air bed and a bad night’s sleep might lead to disaster

> Ensure that you take suitable charging systems for your phone/camera/camcorder

> Also take spare charged batteries for when you can’t charge things and extra memory cards

And that’s about it, really. Despite the unfortunate way in which our tour ended, for me anyway, I’d never have missed it for a minute. We’re already talking about where we might go next year, and who knows, if Victor gets up to speed in his Rans S12 in time, there might be three of us next time. One of our new-found friends at Le Thou came out on our second day there wearing a cap with a roundel on it and the letters ‘RAF’. We said that we’d be back next year with our own caps on which there would be the words ‘Les Vétérans de la Dordogne’ and who’s to say that we won’t 😉