Some private piloting in Texas
I had a business trip to Dallas, Texas (airport code DFW = Dallas Fort Worth) for a week and hoped to squeeze in a local flight at some point. Flights to the US are much cheaper if you stay over a Saturday night (to differentiate between business and pleasure), so I saved considerably by flying out a day early. The journey out was fairly uneventful, but it’s still a very long day – driving to the hotel at the equivalent of 3am UK time and trying to make sense of the local motorway network. After waking up at 4am US time, having a hearty breakfast, it seemed already mid day to me when I turned up at the airport shortly before nine.
I’d chosen Slipstream Aviation, based at Dallas Executive (formerly known as Redbird) Airport, a few miles to the south of the city centre. The flight school has 3 Grumman Cheetah’s and a twin Commanche, with about 3 or 4 instructors. It’s not a major operation, but their website read pretty well and I had high hopes.
The airport was completely deserted when I turned up at 8:45 on Sunday morning. The directions to the flight school involve driving onto the airside, across the apron and into a parking lot. I had to wait quite a while for someone to answer the intercom to admit me airside, and found the school empty on arrival. Don, my instructor, turned up on time and quickly put me at ease.
My primary goal was to achieve a BFR (Biennial Flight Review) which would re-validate my US PPL licence for a further 2 years, and I also wanted to pass a rental checkride – which would allow me to rent one of their aircraft to fly solo. It’s common for these to be combined, but the requirements don’t overlap 100%. The benchmark is the PTS (Pilot Test Standard), which is an FAA baseline and a subset of the PPL skills test. This would give me the confidence that I could do that elsewhere in the US, and also restore faith in my piloting skills after failing a checkride with Bristol Aero Club and making some disappointing landings in recent flights.
So the scope of training needed to cover:
- Learning the local procedures for flying in the US, including radio calls etc.
- Differences training onto the Grumman AA5A
- Completing the ground school and flight training requirements for the BFR
- Passing a checkride to satisfy the instructor I met their insurance requirements for solo hire
Don first checked out my paperwork and took photocopies of my US license, JAR PPL licence and medical. He also had me sign their standard customer agreement (which I did using his iPad – nothing on paper) and swiped my credit card. He then explained that the minimum requirement for a BFR is an hour of ground instruction followed by an hour dual instruction. He was careful to say it wasn’t an exam, and that he would point out/demo a few things to me but that I would be expected to fly the aircraft myself and that if he had to take over control then that wouldn’t be a good sign.
The aircraft used by the club, the Grumman Cheetah AA5A, isn’t a specific type I’d flown before, so there would need to be some differences training which he would take account of. A checklist and related documentation for the aircraft can be downloaded from their website.
Don walked me through the various requirements of a private flight, asking me what made me legal as a pilot (valid PPL, valid medical, photo ID), what made the aircraft legal and what documentation must be carried onboard (certificate of registration, current airworthiness certificate, pilot’s operating handbook), what preparations must be made prior to each flight. We also covered the various classes of airspaces, and this highlighted some of the differences between the UK and US.
For example, the US has no Class A below 18,000 feet. There’s some Class B, but this is often accessible on request. The specific term “cleared to enter controlled airspace” doesn’t have to be used, and for Class D simply having two-way communications is clearance in itself. We also covered the various acronyms for preparation, and the sequence of radio calls for departure and return to base. VFR distances from clouds in various airspace classes was discussed thoroughly. Fortunately, I had revised this and was able to answer most questions sensibly.
The overhead join, a highly popular and strongly recommended manoeuvre in the UK when arriving at any airfield isn’t used here at all. Instead, a 45 degree join into the downwind leg is most common.
Don was a strong supporter of ForeFlight, a US version of SkyDemon/HD Runway iPad applications. This can provide all the pre-flight planning information quickly and effectively, including all charts, plates, weather, notams etc.
Out to the aircraft
After a good hour’s discussion, Don briefed me on what the flight would entail and we headed out to the aircraft. To me, the Cheetah with its sliding canopy resembled a Robin DR400 more closely than my usual PA28, but there’s really not that much between them. Don completed each section of the checklist checks, then double checked against the printed checklist after each stage.
There are a couple of checks worthy of extra-special attention on this type of aircraft. A single pin holds the nosegear on, which would fall of if it slipped out. The elevator at the back has a hinge mechanism connecting it to the fuselage near the base of the rudder. Again, you really wouldn’t want that to go awry. So Don carefully pointed both of those checks out to me, otherwise the pre-flight was pretty much like most other single engine aircraft.
After starting up, we listened to the ATIS, and I radioed up to request taxi. The radio calls seemed to me to be quite different to those in the UK, much more concise and direct. Perhaps that’s partly because it was a towered, ATC controlled airport, and we had a separate ground frequency/controller. Don was keen to keep the radio calls short and avoid any unnecessary verbiage. So I said something like “Executive Ground, Cheetah 9987 Uniform, Ambassador, 18, south departure”. Ambassador being the part of the airport where we were, and 18 being the runway in use. I forgot to include the ATIS code, which would confim we had listened to it, so the reply included the pressure setting and some related information.
We taxied off, and this is where I learned that the castoring nosewheel of a Grumman can be much more tricky to steer than a PA28. It’s not nearly as bad as it first seems. It reminds you of a slightly misbehaving supermarket shopping trolley, requiring firm differential braking and/or power to get the thing moving in the right direction and keep it there. On the plus side, it’s very much possible to turn on a sixpence.
Near the hold, we did a 180 turn (more like a 270 really) and conducted the power checks before continuing on to the hold. Without signing off from ground, I just changed frequencies, called the tower to confirm ready for departure and was cleared takeoff, with wind just 10 degrees off the runway but 14 gusting 17 knots. Rotating at 55 it took a little more speed to really get unstuck (as Don had said it would) and we settled into a climb at 80 knots.
After we departed the ATZ, we didn’t sign off, say we were leaving or what frequency we were changing to. You can have those conversations if you want to , but they are not mandatory or even expected.
Don pointed out a number of landmarks, including some substantial and fairly high radio masts, lakes and a concrete works. The major motorways and lakes were easy to match with the chart.
Heading further south, and becoming free of the controlled airspace immediately above, we then did some General Handling. Power off and power on stalls were followed by steep turns in a figure of eight. A practice forced landing went quite well, and I would easily have made the field despite noticing some (small) power lines at the approach end only when we got closer. Don demonstrated what he described as a falling leaf, where the aircraft is continuously in a stall and floats from side to side. It was a strange feeling, but at the same time gave confidence that the aircraft behaves well even at this outer edge of flight performance. My stalls were considered good; my steep turn could have been better (on height keeping) partly due to an initial tendency to look down at the ground rather than at the horizon ahead.
Mid-way Regional is an uncontrolled airfield about 15 miles south of Executive, and we announced ourselves joining downwind. Don had me prepare to land there, first calling up the AWOS (automatic weather reporting system) and then self-announcing on the CTAF radio channel. Another aircraft was just taking off as we approached downwind.
My first landing was OK, perhaps a little off centerline and I relaxed on the controls too quickly after the mains touched down. The castoring nosewheel reminded us of its presence, and I quickly pulled back on the yoke to correct that. We did another couple of landings, mostly glide approach but not using flaps.
Heading back to Executive, I was starting to flag. The jetlag was beginning to take its toll, and Don handled the radio comms with us making a right hand downwind join and landing reasonably short so we could exit quickly onto the taxiway before parking up.
Don debriefed me in his office. He was satisfied with the ground school/theory aspect, with the stalls, PFL and landings. He would have liked me to look ahead on the steep turns, but otherwise these were OK, and he pointed out a few other minor issues.
In summary, he was generally happy with my flying ability – “you know how to handle the aircraft” – but would like to see me do more (i.e. everything) myself before signing me off. This would specifically include me handling all the radio comms, and completing the flight planning for a landaway.
I was more than happy with this assessment. I still felt unfamiliar with the radio calls, but was pleasantly surprised with his positive feedback of my landings. He seemed confident that a further hour with an instructor would be more than adequate. Unfortunately that wouldn’t be with him – he was fully booked – but he would pass on his findings to the other instructor.
John was a younger instructor and brand new to the team, and to the area. Actually, I think I was his first student here. He was also not an hour builder, but not quite as experienced as Don.
We talked through the radio calls on the ground first, and rehearsed them thoroughly. This time, John watched as I pre-flighted the aircraft, started up and made the radio calls. He pointed out a few refinements, but broadly left me to manage the flight. After departure, it again seemed strange (a) not to sign off from the tower and (b) not to call up anybody and ask for Flight Following (or Basic Service as its called in the UK). We just headed south to Midway where I self-announced a downwind join (arriving 45 degrees offset at pattern altitude). I’d listed to the automatic weather system (ASOS) beforehand, so could work out what the favourable runway direction should be.
We did three circuits, and each time the landing improved. John pointed out that I needed to align the runway centreline markings not with the centre of the engine hood (which has a honking big bump in the middle), but instead with the left hand side of the engine cover directly in front of me. I also realised that one of my failings with landings has been rounding out too low, and this helped me prolong the roundout so that we landed more gently on the mains. The Grumman is “a bit of a floater”. We didn’t use flaps at any time – the runways are so long here they just aren’t needed – which kept things simple.
Returning back to Executive, we did another couple of circuits and John was very happy that my last landing was right on the centreline at the right speed and attack angle. After taxiing back to parking, he confirmed he was happy to sign me off which he did after a short debrief. He was more than happy for me to solo hire, but recommended I didn’t immediately head north straight towards Dallas Fort Worth International airspace. I’ve even got a nice school stamp in my logbook to prove it.
My first solo flight in the US
The next step was simply to repeat what I’d already done with John, but this time on my own. I picked another uncontrolled airport close by to fly to, Lancaster airport (KLNC), planning to do a couple of touch and goes then return – intending to complete this in about half an hour.
The transit check was quicker than pre-flighting in the morning, but there was no hurry and I set things up in advance. I’d written down all the frequencies to use, so I didn’t have to depend on the Garmin 430 or my iPad which was proving difficult to view in the bright sunshine. Skydemon would have worked, except the aircraft didn’t have a power socket and I’d left my power monkey battery at home.
After repeating the radio calls and procedures just as I’d done with the instructor, it seemed very quick and easy to take off and depart the zone. I headed south to exit the Class D airspace, then used the Garmin to direct me to Lancaster airport (KLNC) only about 10 miles away. I dialled up the AWOS and listened to the automated weather report – winds calm, which made runway selection difficult. Switching to the CTAF frequency, I heard another pilot make calls for runway 31 so set myself up for that, knowing from my earlier research that this would mean right hand circuits. Self announcing, I joined the circuit and did a touch and go.
I did wonder about making a full stop landing and parking up for a break, but thought I’d better return to Executive and keep it simple. At this point, I noticed the Garmin starting to fail – it switched itself off and tried to reset/power up again. The radio, tuned into Executive, came and went. Fortunately, I was close enough to Executive that I could actually see the destination airport and didn’t need it for navigation. I’d also written down the frequencies to use, so that wasn’t a problem either.
I switched to the second radio and listened to the ATIS, then called up the tower to announce my intentions. Someone else spoke at the same time, and it seemed I had to try several times without getting a reply. It was at this point that I realised the radio transmitter wasn’t working. The electronic fuel meter had also gone blank now as well as the Garmin, so it was clear that the alternator had failed and the battery was draining quickly.
Plan B – divert to an uncontrolled airport
Not wanting to enter Class D airspace without prior radio contact, I elected to return to Lancaster where I listened out for other traffic, made some radio calls (which probably didn’t work), landed, parked up and shut down. Trust me to have complete radio and transponder failure on my first US solo flight.
I rang the flying school and they were very apologetic. At first, they proposed that I just fly it back non-radio. They reminded me of the light signals and said they’d call the tower to forwarn them. I initially agreed to that, but found the battery was so flat that it wouldn’t even turn over the engine. I waited while they made other arrangements.
After a few minutes they called back and explained their engineer would fly over, swap the battery across, and asked me to fly it to Grand Prairie Municipal Airport (KGPM) (about 15 minutes away) where the engineer is based. The engineer would follow and then someone would fly me back to Executive. I was OK with that idea, so had a coffee in the FBO and waited for him to turn up.
About 40 minutes later the engineer came inside and said that the battery he’d got was physically too big to swap across, so we wouldn’t be flying that aircraft anywhere today. He took the flat one out, and flew me back to Executive in his Cessna Skylane 182. It’s huge inside and felt like sitting in a Range Rover. Misha, the flight school owner, was very apologetic about the technical problem, but I felt they’d handled that as efficiently as I could have expected and was happy to pay for my 0.7 hours flight time. I’d achieved what I’d wanted with my solo flight, albeit just finishing up initially at the wrong airport.
So what else could I have done?
We talked through the procedures for returning with an inoperative radio. I had been concerned that entering Class D without a working radio was against the rules, but apparently this case is specifically permitted under FAA regulations (Class Bravo would be quite a different thing altogether). In the UK, I don’t believe this is permitted unless you declare an emergency and in some airports they explicitly require non-radio traffic to leave their zone and go elsewhere. Since my transponder also probably wasn’t working, I doubted that squawking 7600 would be seen, and this was also a factor for me. Misha explained that he had needed to do this himself a couple of times, and discussed it with the ATC staff afterwards both times. He also explained that light guns can be and are used here in these cases – they aren’t a relic of old theory books.
He was genuinely appreciative of my understanding of the situation. It wasn’t his fault; perhaps I could have realised there was an electrical problem earlier, perhaps I could have returned and used the radio failure procedures, but on the other hand perhaps other clients would have been more annoyed and caused more fuss if it happened to them.
Overall, I have been genuinely impressed with the setup for General Aviation in the US. The operations and rules seem much more practical and pragmatic than in the UK; the simpler radio procedures make sense. There is a strong focus towards safety, lots of support which helps reduce cost/complexity, and plenty of facilities to use. Texas has 396 airports alone! It’s not just that it’s cheaper than the UK, the whole environment is setup to make it work. I didn’t see a single Hi-Viz jacket throughout, or penalty warning notices for not wearing them. I hope I can take advantage of flying in the US again sometime soon.