Deciding to embark on PPL training
At the start of each New Year, I try to make a few plans for the year ahead and set some priorities. This year, I was really pleased to have made the decision to learn to fly.
I’d been hankering after doing this for a few years. Why now?
Firstly, it costs a lot. But I’ve been saving up for several years and last year made a reasonable amount from a sideline.
Secondly, I needed to negotiate with the family. It’s not reasonable for me to be spending that much time on such a self-indulgent activity. But they seem to think it might be cool having a dad who can fly and/or take them places at the weekend. Beats sitting in the car. I don’t think they really know what to expect, but look forward to trying this out (in good weather).
Lastly, I needed to persuade my wife that it’s not dangerous. We all read of aircraft crashes, especially small aircraft. But that’s mainly because they are so rare they become newsworthy. Looking into it more, most are caused by pilot error – such as running out of fuel or continuing into adverse weather conditions. I’m pretty cautious about this and would by nature delay or postpone a flight, so don’t see this as an issue.
Choosing a Flight School
Where to start? The first thing to do was to look around at airfields and flying schools within easy reach. From where I live there are three or four options that I know of:
- Bristol Airport. A busy commercial airport with a flying school. I’d heard it can take 15 minutes to get permission to takeoff while you wait at the holding point, not just eating into your flying time but also your hard cash too. You aren’t going to be able to do repeat circuits here as you learn to land and take-off, instead needing to fly elsewhere and return at the start/end of each lesson. So ruled this out
- Gloucestershire Airport (formerly Staverton). Entirely General Aviation, this is a busy and popular airfield for both aircraft and helicopters. I’d flown from here with a friend a couple of years back, and liked the setup, flying school etc. It’s about an hour’s drive from home.
- Kemble Airport (also marketed as Cotswold Airport). This ex-RAF base boasts a long runway. It re-cycles old airliners, as large a Jumbo Jets, but has no scheduled flights. Popular general aviation with two flying schools and a helicopter school, this was well setup. There’s a well appointed restaurant that overlooks the runway, giving the place a friendly and relaxing appeal. And being only 40 minutes drive from home, this had the edge on Gloucester.
- Compton Abbas Airfield. Some friends have learnt here and found it very friendly and popular. It’s a grass airfield and quite high, so can suffer from some weather limits. The drive there is also longer than the others, over an hour, along windy roads.
So I rang up and booked a 1 hour trial lesson with Kemble Flying Club to see if we liked each other, understand what’s involved and whether I liked flying. I chose the Club because it had a range of different planes (2 seater through 4 seater), meaning I could learn on a cheaper 2 seater then progress to a 4 seater when wanting to take passengers and/or fly further in the future.
I didn’t consider going down the microlight route. Even though some of these are quite similar to the larger aircraft, they are lightweight and I felt unsuitable to fly long distances – perhaps I’ll revisit this decision in the future when I have more experience.
I’ve been investigating the different UK pilot qualifications, what’s involved and the benefits. This isn’t easily determined from the various websites and is complicated by the option of a UK only license called an NPPL (National Private Pilot’s License).
[Since this was first written, there is now also a UK LAPL licence available, now with similar privileges to the NPPL and also invalid abroad apart from a few specific exceptions].
NPPL is intended to be cheaper to obtain (fewer minimum flying hours required) and has less stringent medical requirements (your GP can sign you off for 5 years). You can still carry up to 3 passengers (not for profit), fly anywhere in the UK including Channel Islands and Isle of Man, fly through controlled airspace (with some restrictions) and fly other types of aircraft (restricted to 140 knots speed simple single engine). For many people this would meet their needs.
What you can’t do is fly abroad (this might change), fly at night or fly with instruments only. You’d need instead to get a full PPL then do some additional hours for night/instrument flying. In both cases, you’ll need to revalidate your license every 2 years with a 1 hour flight with an instructor plus a set number of hours. My initial thinking was to go for the NPPL because it met my requirements in the short term. But later I opted for the full PPL because the amount of training required overall ends up being very similar.
Both share exactly the same ground school exams. The navigation skills test is shorter for the NPPL, but you can extend it so it would cover both (which is recommended). You can fly solo with only the GP medical examination based on doing the NPPL, so that puts off one other requirement.
The first lesson is billed as a trial – for both you and the flight school. It gives you a good understanding of what’s involved, the type of flying you can do etc. My lesson, having been deferred twice because of poor weather during January was finally scheduled for one otherwise dull and dreary Saturday afternoon.
At the flying school, I was first briefed on the flight including some emergency procedures (run for it, avoiding the propellor) and what we’d be doing that day. The flight involved taking off, flying in a triangle to some nearby landmarks and landing. This included my being allowed to fly the plane and get used to the controls. I was briefed to say “I have control” and “You have control” when taking over or relinquishing the controls to avoid clashes.
There were some checks of the plane itself, then the instructor called up the tower on the radio before departing. We taxied along to a separate area to do some power checks, running up the engine to almost full power and at idle to ensure it was working well. When taxi-ing along, you steer with your feet only (the “steering wheel” or yoke has virtually no effect) – which takes a bit of getting used to.
During the flight I took over while we flew in a straight line and turned a few corners. Navigation was very much by eyeball, looking out for landmarks such as rivers and towns. There was a bit of chatter on the radio, but we were in uncontrolled airspace so were pretty much on our own – had to keep an eye out for other aircraft, which on a dull January day was pretty unlikely. On return, we parked up and debriefed.
I was awarded a certificate for my first hour’s training. I also got a pilot’s log book so I could record this as part of my training. So what’s next? The flight school website was a bit vague on details or the syllabus, so I need to research this further.
A PPL license requires a minimum of 45 hours training, 7 ground exams and a couple of practical exams. Estimating that I could do about 1 hour flying a week (allowing for weekends off, poor weather etc), this should be feasible to achieve within the year. So I signed up for further lessons with the same instructor and ordered the ground school pack, which includes all the books and other material for the written exams.
PPL Course Structure
Completing my First Solo
After 17 hours of instruction including much circuit bashing, this was the big day!
Weather was looking great, a plane was available, we were all set.
Unfortunately, my instructor called in sick – probably the first time in years – and things were so busy at the flying school that I could only get a session with another instructor at the end of the day. I went in anyway and sat the Navigation ground exam – passed with 92% – and hung around. Lessons were running very late, and it became clear that my late afternoon session would be cancelled.
The instructor was prepared to do this after the airfield closed – it’s now possible to do training “after hours” – but I wasn’t keen on my first solo without a tower to talk to (and a fire brigade on standby!). Fortunately, one of the other staff members took pity on me. He had been a flight instructor for some time, but in recent months working full time as a commercial pilot for the air charter side of the business. He gave me a briefing, went round for four circuits including a couple of EFATO (engine failure after take-off) drills.
It was just 5 minutes before airfield closing time when he called the tower and asked if there was enough time left for me to go solo.
I was on my own, and before I could really think what was happening had lined up and applied full power for takeoff. Boy, did the aircraft take off so much faster and climb so much quicker without the weight of an extra passenger onboard! Having done the circuit many, many times already (maybe 30 or more), the drills were becoming automatic. Made the downwind calls, carb heat on, turned onto base leg, slowed down, two stages of flaps, onto final, last stage of flaps, check the speed, radio call for final and held it together for a fairly straightforward landing. The tower congratulated me, gave me taxi instructions back to parking and then immediately announced airfield closure.
They say you always remember your first solo and this was surely a major milestone for me. It would have been very frustrating not to have done this on such a good day, especially when I felt ready for it. Thanks to the instructor and tower for going out of their way to accommodate me.
The flying school gave me a specially printed certificate (a bit like the National Cycling Proficiency one I got many years ago). When I asked if they planned to cut a strip off my shirt tail (apparently a common routine in the US, from the days of learning in aircraft where the instructor would sit behind and tug on your shirt tail to get your attention), nobody had heard of this custom. Probably just as well!
I was also given the flight strip from the tower as a memento
Pleased as punch and now telling anybody who wants to know that I’ve reached this stage.
France for lunch!
Up to this point, I’d only ever taken off and landed at my home airfield. This weekend, the club had organised a group outing to Le Touquet in France. There would be three planes going: one club plane with an instructor and two students (ours), one club plane with two PPL and a passenger, and one privately owned plane with a PPL and a passenger. I would sit in the back on the way out, listening and learning, then fly back all the way. By sharing in this way, I only had to pay for the flight time on the return leg.
We had a briefing and planning session on Monday evening beforehand. We were shown how to fill in the General Declaration (required when flying abroad, includes passport details etc) and the Flight Plan (one required for each way and must be filed at least an hour before takeoff). Although I’d recently done the Navigation ground exam, I wasn’t expected to do the Nav itself. We also need to wear a lifejacket and have one Personal Locator Beacon onboard – these had to be hired especially because the club didn’t have them.
We turned up at 8:30 as planned on the day and the weather looked good. I did the A-Check while the other student revised the navigation plan. We took off as scheduled at 10am and arrived without much ado 1:45 later. We had transited MATZ airspace and talked to various airfields on the way as we passed overhead. The instructor checked the navigation by using VOR beacons and GPS. I got a great view as we passed overhead Goodwood, Brighton, and crossed into France. Le Touquet is a very pretty town with leafy avenues, relaxed atmosphere and great restaurants.
Sunshine in France
On landing, we paid for parking (25 Euros) and also for refuelling which was done while we went out for lunch. We walked into town (about 30 mins) although bicycles were also available for hire. Lunch was excellent – I had scallops in a wonderful sauce – but had to be cut short to make our flight plan scheduled takeoff time.
Cloudy in England
Returning was also fairly uneventful, even with me flying. Le Touquet had perhaps thought we wanted IFR (instrument flight) and gave us clearance requiring climbing to 4000 feet – not possible due to cloud. At about 2000 feet, the instructor called them up and told them so, and we continued at around this height (between 2000 and 3000) for the rest of the journey.
Cloud required us to descend to about 2000 feet as we approached England, but we could see down at the large container ships in the channel at all times. I did a (not terribly great) landing on our return back to base. Overall showed me what longer distance journeys were like, including radio and navigation aids, plus how accessible a trip to France for lunch can be.
And it added another 1H55 to my dual instruction flight time.
Qualifying Cross Country
This is another of the major milestones in the PPL course, where you fly a route of at least 150 nautical miles including two landings at other airfields. You must take a form with you and have it signed by the ATC (or equivalent) at each airfield.
As with earlier solo landaways, the instructor is extremely helpful and double checks your preparation – they are ultimately responsible if you make any mistakes. The weather on the day was very good, but the school schedule was running a bit late and I think my instructor was keen to make a quick getaway at the end of the day. So I had only around 4 hours to make it round the route.
The route was Kemble-Turweston-Shobdon-Kemble, and I was told not to depart Shobdon after 5:15pm to ensure that Kemble was still open when I returned. With the aircraft already refuelled, I expedited my departure but ensured I ran through all the checks fully and was comfortable that everything was working OK.
Kemble to Turweston
Having flown this route both with and without an instructor before, I found this fairly straightforward. The turning point was Moreton-on-the-Marsh. About 20 minutes later, the view of Banbury came up and the airfield was easily spotted. A wide circuit and landed with air/ground confirming where to park.
The clubhouse – really just a couple of portacabins – has the office with radio upstairs. Paid my landing fee and ensured my form was signed (with a “good” rating against the landing), then called back to Kemble to say I was about to depart. Very quick cup of tea and off we went again, departing west on a route leg I hadn’t done before.
Turweston to Shobdon
Passing just south of Wellesborne, I checked my position closely against the map to make sure I didn’t drift north and encroach on Birmingham controlled airspace. Approaching Shobdon, the runway was very easy to spot (much easier than from the South West), and I was all setup for a straight in approach. Tried to raise them on the radio, but there was no answer, so I made blind calls and hoped I’d got the right frequency set.
After landing and paying my fee, I found someone to sign the form – he hadn’t actually witnessed my landing, but I persuaded him that it must have been good, so got another “good” rating on the form. A quick call back to base and turned around – it was already 5pm and I was close to the limit of how late I could depart.
Shobdon to Kemble
Fairly straightforward, because this was a route I’d also made before a couple of times. Turning at Dursley, which kept me south of both Gloucestershire airport and the gliding fields at Aston Down and Nympsfield, I was back down and parked up just before 6pm.
My instructor took possession of the important form, checked that I had filled in the tech logs, and disappeared off quickly. This was a major achievement for me, and I felt really great about completing it successfully – probably as much of a buzz as my first solo if not more.
Next steps are some revision and then I should be ready for the Skills Test.
First, I had an hour and a half lesson with Bob, my normal instructor, which was described as a Mock Skills test. This identified some areas to concentrate on, but encouraged me that I was not that far off test standard.
The following week, Bob wasn’t available, so I had a lesson instead with another instructor at the school. This was at the end of the day, with the sun low in the sky and directly ahead when downwind. I struggled to see where I was going. His style was pretty offputting and frankly drained my confidence dramatically.
At the end of the hour, and after an extensive debrief, my confidence was gone almost completely. Had I really spent all this time and money during the summer to be so far from being a safe and qualified private pilot? I left the school that day very much down in the dumps and wondering what to do next.
After my disastrous session at Kemble, I thought I’d get a second opinion. I arranged a couple of sessions at Compton Abbas, a grass airfield about an hours drive south of Bath, at which a friend of mine had been learning. It is a very friendly and lively club – much more so than the club at Kemble – with similar training aircraft (PA28).
They managed to fit me in first thing at 9am on both Saturday and Sunday. The weather played ball with clear sky and little crosswind. After a formal briefing session in a separate room, Chris pretty much ran through the skills test in these two lessons. We did both circuit work with flapless, glide and short field landings as well as general handling including stalls, steep turns and practice forced landings.
Afterwards, I was told that I was pretty much ready to take the skills test. This could be done either in Kemble, or if I wanted at Compton Abbas. Since I was very familiar with the routine and procedures at Kemble, I thought it probably best to finish it off there.
But it was great to know there are other flying schools around, with different styles – both pros and cons.
Returning to Kemble, we agreed that I’d have a morning lesson with Bob and then sit the Skills Test that same afternoon. The pressure was on.
I read up as much as I could about the Skills Test and what others had experienced during theirs. It seems that nobody is perfect, but the critical issue is whether you will be safe enough to be let out on your own. The question asked might be, would the instructor happily let their daughter/wife/mother fly as your passenger.
The morning lesson went quite well and I was reasonably (but certainly not overly) confident that I could make a good attempt at the test. Worst was probably my glide approach which was far to wide and high. I was also concerned that my PFLs wouldn’t be up to snuff.
The examiner was very pleasant chap who did his best to put me at ease. He explained that he wanted to be back in time for me to buy him a drink in the pub afterwards. I tried my best to remember all the checks, briefings and run through them, finding that he wasn’t trying to catch me out. The first half of the test involved navigation. I had read somewhere that you mustn’t point out anything you are unsure of – the examiner must take your first answer only – so although we were flying north towards Gaydon and I could clearly see the warehouses when several miles ahead, I didn’t announce that I had it in sight until we were much closer. This did exasperate the examiner somewhat, but he accepted my explanation. We then did a diversion which I calculated and flew on track, not being uncertain of my position at any time.
My timings and direction on the navigation part were spot, even if I didn’t call out positive identification of the destination as early as he would have liked.
The next step involved General Handling, so we climbed up, conducted a full HAZELL check, and performed stalls and recoveries. This then led on to a PFL which was directly above an disused airfield. Returning to Kemble, we did several circuits including that glide approach I was somewhat unsure of, but they must have been good enough.
Taxiing back to parking, he explained that I’d passed and welcomed me to the club of private pilots. We filled out the forms and I was pleased to be able to buy him (and my instructors) a drink to celebrate.
Skills Test: 2:05
PIC Time: 12:30
Total Time: 55:30