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Aviation

The Decidedly Unsexy Side of Aviation

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A beautiful sunny day in Vancouver yesterday and nothing on my work calendar so I took an afternoon off for a flight. Yesterday was a reminder of the some of the stuff nobody tells you about flying. For example:

  1. De-icing your aircraft (at least a fellow club member had flown earlier so it was only frost and not ice)
  2. Towing your 1700 lbs aircraft from its parking position by hand while scrambling for traction on an ice-covered ramp (no salt allowed on the ramp)
  3. Waiting for the combination of de-icing fluid and solar powered de-icing to make your airplane airworthy
  4. After numerous attempts, discovering that all your efforts are for naught because you can’t get the $@#%^@^!! plane to start
  5. Pushing your aircraft back to its parking position and putting everything back to bed without the satisfaction of an actual flight

Disappointment was me.

I love the simplicity of my flying club’s 60’s and 70’s vintage aircraft, but what I wouldn’t have done for a modern car-like starting experience yesterday.

Not Choosing a Flight School

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Here in Southwestern British Columbia, aspiring pilots have many training options for the private pilot license (PPL). Spend a little time on the AvCanada forums and you’re bound to come away with more questions than answers. Transport Canada has a good document on How to Select a Flying School that I recommend, but I think the flaw is that it culminates in the choosing of a school.

Don’t choose. You’re not marrying the school.

Instead, be open to change. You’re about to splash out hard earned dollars on training. If you’re not happy with the school, the instructor, the aircraft, or whatever… then move on. You can talk about your concerns with the school (generally a good idea) or simply vote with your feet. But if you’re not happy, grab your Pilot Training Record (PTR) and find somewhere else.

So, what should you be thinking about? The Transport Canada document is good but here are a few of the things I think you should be considering in your PPL journey and how I came to my decision between schools at Squamish (CYSE), Boundary Bay (CZBB), Pitt Meadows (CYPK), and Langley (CYNJ).

  1. Instructors: Without question, instructors are the most important part of the equation. No other factor makes up for them. They need to be competent, obviously. But here’s the rub. You are a know-nothing student! You can’t tell the difference between a good one and a bad one. I liked my first instructor but I honestly didn’t know if he was good or bad. I don’t think there’s a way for a new PPL student to tell. What I did benefit from was flying with different instructors early in my training and that gave me more confidence in their abilities. If I were to do it again, I would take a familiarization flight and get a PTR started at a school and then try another couple of instructors at different schools and then pick one to start diving a bit deeper with. All the hours are loggable toward your training and I think you’ll have a much better feel for their quality after flying with them.
    Remember, more stripes are better!

    Remember, more stripes are better!

  2. School Philosophy: Many of the local flight schools make their money by pumping large numbers of pre-professional students through their licenses so they can immediately sit in the right seat of a 737 and turn on the autopilot shortly after take-off. There’s nothing wrong with that (although I kind of fear those pilots) but you should consider whether the school’s philosophy fits your goals. For me, I’m flying for fun and adventure, and will likely spend 99% of my aviation activities as a single pilot in small aircraft without significant automation. A school that focuses on stick and rudder skills and generally not turning myself into a smoking hole in the ground is the priority for me.
  3. Airport Proximity to Practice Areas: Where are the practice areas in relation to your chosen training airport? Early on in your flight training you will be focused on “airwork” activities. This generally involves flying to the designated practice area, performing maneuvers and then returning. If it takes 0.4 hrs to travel there and back (12 min each way), you’re spending $80 (at an example dual rate of $200) for transit time where someone at a smaller uncontrolled field might only be spending $20. A good instructor will try to ensure that the time is not totally unproductive, of course, but those are real dollars out of your pocket.
    What is 19 nautical miles going to cost you?

    What is 19 nautical miles going to cost you?

  4. Airport Proximity to You: This one is kind of obvious. A closer airport is better for a lot of reasons. Less time in the car is great. And the weather will deteriorate on you cancelling a lesson even though it looked good when you left the house. But I would encourage you to look a bit more broadly. The closest airport to me, Boundary Bay, is a 30min drive. But it involves a major pinch point tunnel so it can easily turn into a 90min drive with traffic. Pitt Meadows and Langley are 40min in good traffic but also suffer from heavy rush hour traffic. Squamish is further afield at 50min but is significantly more consistent of a drive.
  5. Tailwheels: PPL training in a tailwheel aircraft at a similar price to a C172 would be a major plus, although I don’t know of any such place that does that in this region. My current school has a tailwheel airplane, but it’s quite expensive compared to a C172 so I’ve stuck with the Cessna.

Here’s some things I think are less important:

  1. Technologically Advanced Aircraft (aka fancy glass panel avionics): The PPL is focused on visual flying, and that means using that really big plexiglass window-like instrument in front of you. I appreciate the cool-factor of a glass panel but I just don’t think it’ll make a difference in your flying skills. You can learn a fancy panel later. I have also read it is more difficult to transition from glass to round gauges than the other way around, but I don’t know about that one. It seems like the re-learning curve would be similar to me.
    DiamondDA62Panel

    A pretty cool panel for sure, but you can learn it later when you’ve got the money for one of these beautiful beasts.

  2. Weather: It kind of is what it is. Somehow you’ll make it work even with fickle Vancouver springs and falls. I have managed to fly out of Squamish when Pitt Meadows and Boundary Bay are grounded with fog. And I have been grounded by rainstorms trapped up Howe Sound when Vancouver was severe clear. If your priority is getting things done fast, the way to do it is to train full-time during the summer and bang it off. For everyone else, just deal with the weather you’ve got.
  3. Uncontrolled vs. Controlled Airports: I was disproportionately worried about this before my PPL and now I think it’s mostly a non-issue, with a bit of an edge to uncontrolled airports. My original thinking was that I lived in Vancouver, the closest airports to me are controlled, and therefore I should learn where I have to talk to controllers from the beginning. But that mic button is awfully and oddly intimidating and so I think the edge goes to uncontrolled fields because a) you can learn to talk on the radio without worrying so much about being admonished by a controller (don’t worry, your instructor make up for it) and b) the fields often have less traffic and that gives you more flexibility for non-standard maneuvers. And while it’s technically possible to get your PPL without ever talking to a controller, my instructors ensured that both transiting controlled airspace and landing at a controlled field was part of the curriculum. You’ll learn how to talk to them.
  4. Cost: Whoa, cost isn’t important? Well, it is but I believe this mostly takes care of itself if you find the good instructors and a school that fits you. Flight training is a competitive industry and you’ll discover that rates at different schools are pretty close to each other (do check for any “hidden” costs). What’s going to save you money is effective instruction and generally not messing about.

Regardless of school, the most important thing is to get out flying. It’s awesome and my only regret is that I didn’t start sooner.

The Solo

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I did my first solo flight June 7, 2015. What can I say, I am not the quickest at this blogging thing. But they say everyone remembers their first solo flight and I wanted to document it.

The Transport Canada Flight Training Manual says the first solo is a “landmark in your flying career … but do not exaggerate its importance”. In hindsight, that’s an accurate statement. I was very much anticipating and pressuring myself about the solo, particularly since my training was delayed a bit. But now that it’s done, it feels like the heavy lifting is yet to come. Yes, I can go up in the airplane by myself on a calm-ish wind day but proficiency still seems a long ways off.

The solo started with some dual time to warm up. I did five laps around the circuit with my instructor Akshay, and on the fifth he said that if I didn’t crash the plane on this one, he’d send me up on my own. I remarked that his standards seemed a bit low.

But sure enough, he got out of the plane.

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Last Bastion of the Fax Machine: The Canadian Medical System (Also: An Aviation Medical in Seven Months)

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If you read about the process of learning to fly, you’re bound to come across advice to get your aviation medical examination early. I thought I was doing it right; I scheduled my medical as soon as I decided to pursue the license and as a healthy, athletically active person I thought it would be simple. Little did I know.

I don’t feel like publishing my medical history on the Internet—that just seems weird to me—but I’m happy to report that I now hold a Transport Canada medical and am fit to fly airplanes. To get it took approximately seven months, most of it waiting for the medically competent, taxpayer funded, but glacially paced Canadian medical system. Waiting for an appointment with a specialist; waiting to get an appointment for tests; waiting for doctors to interpret results; and waiting for administrative staff to fax documents.

Wait, faxing? Permit me a bit of a rant here.

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Learning to Fly — This is Going to Require Some Work

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[This post was written back in October and I’m just getting around to posting it]

Three flying lessons in and two things are clear: it is very fun and it is challenging. I am not sure how many people get into airplanes and are “naturals” but I don’t feel like I’m among them them!  Clearly, developing this skill is going to require some work. And it doesn’t appear to have any shortcuts.

Each lesson has the same structure: A fifteen minute ground briefing in the classroom where we review some aeronautical principles and how we are going to demonstrate them in the air. I inspect the aircraft and run through various checklists with Nico observing. The 45–60 minute air lesson itself. And then a quick ground debriefing of what went by in a blur. It goes by fast.

Say what you will about the cost of flight training (and my credit card bill will say plenty) but there is something great about a one-to-one learning environment. When my instructor asks a question in the briefing or in the air, there is no hiding place. You better at least take a stab at it. I have probably been doing a better job pre-reading materials than in any degree courses but it is still challenging to recall a fact on the spot with the instructor waiting. And of course, sometimes I’m just wildly wrong. I have a patient teacher in Nico so far. The whole thing forces you to learn concepts quickly and then get in the airplane and use them. It’s great fun.

Learning to Fly — (Finally) Going For It

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[Note: This was written in September 2014, just prior to my first flying lesson]

I have decided that I am going to learn to fly.

I have been fascinated with the thought of flying for as long as I can remember. As a child, one of my Dad’s friends had a plane and we went for a flight where he let me take the controls. I have always looked forward to the opportunity to fly in small airplanes when they have come up. I used to love following United Airlines “Channel 9” cockpit communications back when it was available. And I have long been an internet voyeur of aviation trying to exhaust YouTube (note to self: not possible) and reading pretty much whatever I could find on Avweb.com and the like even though I only had a partial understanding of it as a non-pilot.

Last year, Timberly bought me an introductory flight with a local charter operation in Squamish. It was an incredibly beautiful flight on a crisp December day, and we cruised around North of Squamish with clear views of Mt. Baker to the South and Vancouver Island to the West. I was able to take the controls, do some turns, check out crevasses in the mountains below, and generally cruise around. My pilot for the day, Carlos, explained to me some of the basics of mountain flying and reading terrain, and we experienced some light and moderate turbulence as we cruised around the leeward side of some mountains.

And then — bang! — we experienced a sudden downward movement that put my head into the roof along with the loose contents of the airplane. I’m not too proud to acknowledge that it gave me a pretty good fright. Carlos told me that it was enough of a disturbance to be classified as “severe turbulence”. We kept flying and Carlos took us in for the landing. He remarked that he would have been “worried if you weren’t a little freaked out by that”. I’m glad I passed that test. I left with an odd mixture of exhilaration and trepidation. Do I really want to do this? Because those couple of seconds were genuinely unpleasant. I was planning on doing this for fun —  aren’t hobbies are supposed to be enjoyable!

Well, a great spring and summer of 2014 passed by but flying has continued to be on my brain. A lot. I cannot explain what has been attracting me all these years but I have decided that it’s now-or-never to get started. I figure I will either love it for the rest of my life or I will have some sense beaten into me.

If Warren Miller ski movies have taught me one thing, it’s that if you don’t do it this year, you’ll be one year older when you do. So here we go….