Beginnings - Getting my PPL

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I suppose my first interest in flying was when my Dad used to take me to our local aerodrome, Stapleford in England (EGSG), to watch the planes taking off. I must have been eight or nine at the time. My first actual flight was when I was eleven or twelve. We were on holiday in Great Yarmouth and the local airfield (EGSD) was offering sightseeing flights. For five pounds ($8) each, as I remember, we were taken up in a small four-seater (no idea what it was) for a ten minute flight around the town. It doesn't sound like much money, but for my Dad at the time it was really quite a bit and he must have wanted to do it a lot.

I didn't really understand until after his death (a decade ago, at 81) my Dad's fascination with transport – which is surprising since it is clearly where mine comes from. When I was three or four he would lift me onto the railway bridge to watch the trains. If there's one thing I regret about flying, it's that I started too late to take him up. I'm sure he would have loved it. His first commercial flight was in the late seventies on a Dan-Air Comet. Two explanations may be needed here: Dan-Air was a fairly spectacularly unsuccessful UK operator, growing out of charter work, which was finally sold to British Airways for £1 (yes, one pound, representing a collection of obsolete aircraft and a mountain of debt) in about 1982. And the Comet was the first jet airliner, and British too; the Comet IV, the first version that didn't spontaneously explode in flight (hey, everyone has teething troubles), first flew in 1958. When my Dad flew on it, they had a balance problem and asked him to move so that the plane would stay in the air. Unfazed, he watched the view and loved it.

To fast-forward quite a bit now, I often thought about learning to fly but it was never practical. When I lived in England, I couldn't afford it and (as I now realize) England is a terrible place to learn to fly: expensive, terrible weather, and few places to do it. Then I moved to France, and I was traveling so much that it would have been impossible. So it remained a dream. Hundreds of thousands of miles as a passenger on commercial flights kept the dream awake, but did not replace it.

Then at the beginning of 2001 I made the decision to move to California, although it took me another six months to get my home moved there. In January 2001, I had to visit Petaluma, about 40 miles north of San Francisco, from San Jose, about the same distance south. It's a horrible drive and can take up to three hours in rush-hour traffic, which of course is when you need to do it. I was going with a colleague (Bill), who said, "well obviously, I'll fly there". Aha! We flew together, and I was hooked. Bill put me in touch with the Sundance Flying Club at Palo Alto.

First Flight

By May I was spending three weeks in California at a time, so I could start taking lessons. I met Fred, the chief pilot at Sundance, but then he got sick. Of course I was desperately impatient to get started and found this very frustrating. At that point I had visions of flying almost daily and getting my license really quickly. After a few calls, Fred fixed me up for the first couple of lessons with other people.

So my logbook records that my first flight in the left seat was on 16th May 2001, in a Cessna 152, N67648. It's very daunting sitting there for the first time and realizing that you're expected to drive this thing. By that time I'd read several books so I had a pretty good understanding of the theory. Actually holding the yoke is something else. The instructor (I never flew with him again, and I'm not sure I remember his name, maybe Dan) handed me the plane at 500' or so, and we flew what became a standard route during training, straight out to the Dumbarton Bridge a couple of miles off the runway, then left turn heading 210 through a gap in the Santa Cruz mountains and over to the coast. It was a straightforward flight, things seemed to work pretty much the way the book said although – as I expected – I ended up chasing the plane a lot of the time. Dan demonstrated stalls and steep turns, and very quickly we were heading back. As often happens, there was a strong northerly wind at altitude and I couldn't figure out why I had to keep messing with the heading to keep pointing at Mount Diablo. Of course I knew – this was my first experience of how much stuff that you know perfectly well, that you end up forgetting when you're stressed in the plane. Soon we were back on the ground with 0.9 hours of flight to write into the logbook that I didn't yet have, and the absolute conviction that I was going to learn to fly.

The rest of my early lessons are a bit of a blur. It wasn't until the third that I got to fly with Fred, who saw me through the rest of my primary instruction. This was the first lesson where I landed the plane, or at least had my hands on the yoke during the landing. I think it was on my fourth lesson that we went over the hills to Half Moon Bay and did a couple of night landings. There is one lesson that I remember vividly. We had been out over the marshes in the Bay practicing ground reference manoeuvres. When we returned, the wind had risen and included a substantial gusty crosswind component. I had never tried a crosswind landing and overcontrolled like crazy on short final, yanking the yoke from side to side as I tried to stay, or at least get, in line with the runway. Finally I had it over the runway and about to flare when a gust caught it and we veered rapidly towards the grass. Fred took the plane and told me to add power, but I was not quick enough and we dropped in from several feet. I was very shaken after that. The sensation of the runway drifting sideways under us as I anticipated the worst stayed with me for a good many flights.

During my training I followed the newsgroup for student pilots (rec.aviation.student) very closely. The most helpful thing I learned from it concerned crosswind landings. During any landing, in fact, use the yoke to control sideways movement and hence keep on the extended centerline, and use the rudder to keep the nose pointing down the runway. From about a quarter mile out, forget all about coordination and treat them as completely separate controls. It works a treat. The other thing the newsgroup is good for, is making you realize that everybody has the same problems, the same sticking points, and the same learning plateaus.

I returned to Europe for three weeks after my seventh lesson. I could kind-of land on my own, though only by being talked through the whole thing. When I returned at the end of June, I had lost such proficiency as I had acquired. Then Fred went away on a two-week flying vacation (to the East Coast in an Archer), so he arranged for me to take lessons with Peter. I was determined at this point to get the hang of landing, which led me to what I realize now was a mistake. My logbook shows that I flew nearly every day for two weeks with Peter, making as many as 15 landings in a 1.8 hour lesson – and that includes flying across the bay to Hayward and back. (Hayward has the great advantage that it is right under the final approach to 29 at Oakland, so Southwest flies 737s over every few minutes at under 2000'. This may not sound like much of an advantage, but it means that the pattern altitude is only 650' so you can scoot round it quite a bit faster). I became incredibly frustrated, and I would have done better to have flown less and had more time to digest what was happening. It was I think my final lesson with Peter where he diagnosed my problem, a classic, that I was looking over the nose and not down the runway. This was probably the single biggest "light bulb moment" in my flying experience, and with only a few more landings I was making a decent job of things. Eventually of course it becomes automatic to change your sighting at round-out altitude, but at first it took quite a conscious effort. Pattern work at Palo Alto is never dull. Often we were number seven, with a downwind that took us over the next airport (Moffett, a military field which is usually idle but occasionally lets a C-130 flying at you). One day we had in the pattern N67648 (us), N67846 and N67864 – all C152s based at PAO. This requires careful attention on the radio. Go-arounds, 360s, upwind and downwind extensions, simultaneous left and right traffic – all of these are commonplace.

Then Fred returned, and on our first session together we flew down to San Jose. This was my first experience of flying in Class C. At first, like all student pilots, I was terrified of the radio: I couldn't understand anything that was said, and was petrified at having to speak. Fred was a great tutor for the radio, very much a stickler for getting it right and always quick to correct the use of too many words. For example, when instructed to "taxi into position and hold", he would always point out that repeating "taxi into" is a waste of time and air, since there is no other way to get there! Listening to some of the other students – and qualified pilots – on the radio, fumbling and saying the unnecessary, he would always point out how it could be done better. In a busy and confusing airspace like the Bay Area, this training was invaluable. Two days after my checkride I flew through the San Francisco Class B and – though I say it myself – handled it like a pro, and never had to ask "say again" nor repeat or expand my own transmissions. The cool thing about San Jose is of course mixing it with the jets. Small planes have their own runway (30) but even so you end up spending quite a lot of time holding for wake turbulence as the big guys take off.


By late July I was beginning to think that I would never get to solo. My landings were OK, I was approaching 30 hours, and I swore to myself that if I hadn't soloed by the time I returned to Europe at the end of the month, I'd assume I was terminally hopeless and give up. I think Fred must have recognized this too, because I finally soloed on my last lesson before returning, less than 24 hours before catching my flight. It was at Hayward, I guess because it's quieter than Palo Alto, but the problem is that the setting sun is really in your face. So Fred squeezed my solo into the very last minutes before sunset meaning that, contrary to tradition, I only did one circuit. Not long before a student had porpoised on their first solo, eventually landing on the nosewheel and bending things, so Fred was at great lengths to remind me not to do this, and what to do if I bounced or ballooned… "whatever you do, don't push the yoke forward". There's no doubt I was nervous, but I'm sure he was more nervous than I was. Eventually I took off, flew my 650' pattern, and turned base. Yes, the climb was faster than before, although not as dramatically as some people find. I heard some chit-chat with another plane coming in behind me but was kind of busy with my own flying to pay much attention. Then on short final tower said, "9ZL, make this a touch-and-go for following traffic". But I can't do a touch-and-go! My instructor said this was to be a full stop! So, "9ZL, unable. This will be a full stop." I landed: "9ZL, no delay off the runway please." I taxied off as rapidly as I could, and as I drew perpendicular to the runway, I saw a Lear follow me in and touch down the instant I was clear. "9ZL, thanks." Of course I should have told them it was my first solo, but I didn't think of it.

When I taxied back to Fred, he was almost a wreck. Unlike me, he'd followed the whole thing, had seen the Lear coming in fast. All he said was "nice work on the radio – you did the right thing." Then back to Palo Alto, the usual call over the cutely-named Coyote Hills (though actually there's a lot named after coyotes in the area, I guess they must have been pretty common once upon a time), and landing in the twilight.

It was another three weeks before I flew again. They were three of the most unpleasantly filled weeks of my life, packing two houses, making all the arrangements for them to be let, tearing apart homes that had taken years to build… it's another story, but all I can say is that if you move to another country, don't expect it to be easy or pleasant. (And it wasn't even my first time – this was my fourth international move). On the 13th of August – my logbook says – I returned to Hayward and finished my solo with two more landings, uneventfully this time. During August I flew relatively little, since my kids were with me, but from 29th August I flew nearly every day, now sometimes on my own. On 3rd September my logbook says for one flight "ten good landings" (out of 10), so by then I had clearly got the hang of landing. Entries are almost daily until, of course, 11th. I had been scheduled for a "phase check" with another instructor that very day, to start towards cross-country flying. During that time, while sharing the general distress over what had happened, I was also becoming very frustrated about my flying. I even thought about transferring my activities to Reid-Hillview (RHV), which was just outside the "enhanced Class B" (ECB) which made our lives impossible for many weeks. It was 25th before my phase check finally happened.

For practically the whole of October, I flew solo. On 6th, I did a sort of "mini cross country" with Fred, flying over to Tracy and Byron which was the furthest from home that I had flown. But after that I was on my own. This was during the crazy period when students could fly solo in ECB, but qualified pilots were not allowed to fly VFR – not even the instructors who could however fly with a student. (I was surprised that during this time there were no incidents of instructors hijacking innocent bystanders and press-ganging them as students, just so they could fly as they wanted to). My logbook entries are all much the same: short and soft field takeoffs and landings, no-flap landings, power-off landings, steep turns, stalls, slow flight… mostly done over the coast above San Gregorio and Pigeon Point. On one flight I did a power-on stall which I haven't forgotten. Few people, I think, actually enjoy power-on stalls. But I was getting used to them, until on one I had a serious wing-drop. In about a quarter of a second many things went through my mind (though not, as in books, all of my life): I'm on my own, nobody can save me, I guess it's all over, I'd better do something. Then I kicked in some rudder, straightened things out, and everything was fine. But it took several minutes for my heart rate to return to normal. I remember thinking "back on the horse" and doing several more power-on stalls, before returning with gratitude over the ridge to Palo Alto.

Cross Country

Finally on October 27th, the great day arrived for my first cross-country. I'd spent a whole lesson of ground going over all the things I needed, and had spent every evening since planning the flight, with plotter, charts, E6B, and everything else. My wife asked innocently "is every flight going to be this much work?" (Fortunately, once I started flying often, I had already discovered DUATS, and so the answer was no). We flew to Rancho Murietta, a middle-of-nowhere airport in the San Joaquin valley whose sole interest is that it is home to a Flight Service Station. Post 9/11 of course these were closed to everyone, so there was absolutely nothing to do once we got there except visit the bathroom and return. My flight there, with dead reckoning and pilotage only, was uneventful, but once in the vicinity I absolutely could not find the airport. I flew around in vague circles and was beginning to despair when Fred hinted that maybe I should use the VORs. I'd thought that this would be pretty much cheating on my first cross-country, but once I figured out the radials and distances I landed without incident. The return flight was also uneventful, except that this was the first time I ever used an autopilot. The plane was equipped with the very crude and simple Cessna single-axis autopilot, which just knows how to fly to a heading. Even so it was a revelation. We flew back via a VOR (Manteca) which gave me my first experience of tracking them, and then it was back to Palo Alto.

This flight was rapidly followed by my first night flight, not a cross-country but just to Reid Hillview and San Jose. Night landings are always a bit tricky, and the first few are really something. After that, things became very frustrating. The winter weather set in, and almost every weekend I would plan a cross-country flight which it was impossible to execute. One November evening I did my night cross-country. First I planned this (as I recall) to Sacramento, but the Valley was impossible. Then I tried Salinas, but when I called the briefer he said it was IFR. Fortunately he was a helpful guy who said, "You don't really care where you go, do you? Let me see what I can find…" He suggested Santa Rosa, to the north. We flew up the San Ramon valley, avoiding the Class B but talking to Bay. To my surprise, they cleared us into the Class B anyway and we clipped a corner of it. We stayed talking to Bay, and when we reported the airport in sight the controller said "sure, but you'll be back with me in a moment, trust me." He was right – the tower reported the airport IFR due to ground fog.

It was strange to fly over the airport, with perfect visibility downwards, knowing that it would not be possible to land VFR. As foreseen, we called Bay again, and diverted to Napa where the coffee shop was still open. While we were drinking our coffee Fred suddenly realized that Napa is not quite 50 miles from Palo Alto, so this would not count as a cross-country. What to do? We flew the ten miles or so to Petaluma (52 nm from Palo Alto), which was still just VFR – fog was lying over parts of the town, but the runway was still clear. But at the far end of the runway the lights had haloes, so without ado we turned the plane and, in the absence of wind, took straight off again in the opposite direction. While flying over the bay, I heard the late BA flight to London on the way out: "Speedbird 286, roger. Goodnight." The English accent sounded strange and clipped, although I suppose I sound just the same. Our planned return route was towards Oakland, then over the airport and down the bay to PAO. However Bay had other ideas. In fact, I think they forgot us, and when I called abeam Oakland to request the transition it was probably too late to hand us off to the tower. So instead they passed us to the controller handling the heavy iron into Oakland, whose sole concern was to keep us out of the way of her traffic, sending us inland towards Livermore. By the end it had been quite an eventful flight.

My long dual cross-country happened at the beginning of December, down to Salinas then a hop round to the hills to Hollister. Hollister is a great little airport, with lots of interesting planes and a good diner (the Ding-a-Ling Café… who knows why) which was closed by the time we got there, although I've been there since. We returned by way of South County and RHV. It was an enjoyable flight and convinced me that cross-country flying holds no terrors, at least in good weather conditions. This was followed a week later by my first solo cross-country, to Salinas and back. I had a flight plan with checkpoints every few miles, which I timed and verified, I used flight following as well as filing a VFR flight plan, I made plans and alternative plans for days. In the end it was almost an anti-climax. I ate my lunch in the deserted terminal building at Salinas, then returned.

My long cross-country was on the day before Christmas. I had hoped to get to Auburn, out in the Sierra Nevada foothills, but the weather wasn't promising and I also planned a flight down to Paso Robles. This is not really a great training destination, since it would be just about impossible to get lost flying down the Salinas valley – and indeed I didn't. I even managed to pick out all the private airfields along the way, and successfully navigate around R-2504 which inconveniently lies on the direct route and means you can't just head for the VOR. On the way back I stopped at King City (KIC). It's hard to imagine any other reason why anyone would want to go there, or why it has an airport at all. Then I flew over the Pinnacles to Hollister. My planned route was direct and involved a lengthy diagonal over the hills at 4500', but I was irresistibly pulled to the right and the comparative safety of the valley. This was a good lesson, and although I've taken a similar route several times since (mainly to avoid stratus at Salinas) I've always done it at 6500' or higher. From Hollister I snuck up the eastern edge of the Santa Clara Valley to avoid the Class C around San Jose.

By now I was beginning to think I was nearly there, so on 26th December I took my written at West Valley Flying Club. This was a cinch, although I realized that it was the first time in over 25 years I had taken a written test whose result mattered, and I was surprisingly nervous. I used the Jeppesen book of test questions to prepare – by the time you have been through this three or four times, each question is like an old friend. I was quite annoyed to get one new question which was not in the book! I was also very surprised not to get any of the navigation questions, the ones where you have to work out the time of flight and fuel consumption, given the wind and so on. In fact I got two questions wrong, both relating to meteorology. One was just a silly mistake, confusing the various kinds of fog, while the other was to do with the interpretation of the old-fashioned weather maps – which you have to try quite hard to find these days. Many of the questions of course serve absolutely no useful purpose with regard to the ability to fly an aircraft, but rather deal with regulatory minutiae. My colleague Bill believes that much of this, and the odd discrepancies in regulations (such as the three different definitions of night-time and when they apply) are just a kind of intelligence test to make sure that pilots have a certain basic level of mental ability.

Frustration - and Checkride

Armed with my written results and having completed nearly all the requirements for the test (cross country time and the like) I was confident that I was only a few weeks away from getting my license. I'd been constantly practicing the various manoeuvres and different kinds of takeoffs and landings, and by now I had nearly 100 hours in my logbook. So I was pretty seriously disappointed when I had a kind of phase check with Fred on January 2nd, and at the end he said "We've got quite a bit of work to do", although I couldn't argue with his opinion. In fact, I think the tens of hours of solo practice, while thoroughly enjoyable, had really not helped at all. With nobody to correct minor faults as they occurred, they had been reinforced. For example I was consistently using too much aileron and not enough rudder to level up from turns, and the ball was all over the place in the pattern. A dozen or so lessons later, things had come to together, and a phase check with another instructor in mid-February showed only a couple of things I needed to work on. I was terrified of steep turns – not about their safety but about my ability to do them within limits – and was sure that these would be my undoing.

My checkride was booked for March 7th, and the night before I met with Fred to go through all the documents for the airplane and generally brush up for the oral. However it was already pretty obvious that the weather would not cooperate. The test was delayed until the following Sunday. I slept badly in anticipation, and felt terrible in the morning. The weather was overcast but clearing. At 11am, the examiner called to say that she did not think we should do it. I was unbearably frustrated, and becoming convinced that I would never, never get my licence.

Finally on March 14th, the great day came for the third time and this time the weather was almost perfect. The oral started badly, because the examiner was unhappy with the aircraft logs and at one point I thought she was going to call the whole thing off. Once we got into the oral proper, things started to look up and we were through it reasonably quickly and with no major "oh s**t" moments. Then it was time to go out to the airplane – N738GE, the best documented and cared for of the Sundance Skyhawks. The first part – take-off, cross-country navigation, and the inevitable diversion – went well enough. One trick I had been warned about was forgetting to re-evaluate the cruise altitude according to the hemispherical rule after the diversion, so I carefully did this, climbing from 5500' to 6500'. But when the examiner asked me what I was doing, I thought I must have got something wrong, which unsettled me a bit. However she was happy with my answer. By then we were in the Byron area, and she had me do steep turns and stalls. Miraculously my steep turns were fine – well, within limits anyway, and my stalls were fine too. She did have me do the power-on stall a second time, because I had a bit of a wing drop the first time although I recovered it with no problem. Quite contrary to what all the books say, she gave me advice freely throughout the checkride (not about how to pass of course, but about the manoeuvre I had just completed). The hood work went OK although I over-controlled quite badly and couldn't hold a really steady altitude – it would certainly have failed me on an instrument checkride. Then she had me intercept a VOR radial. This apparently is something this particular examiner always asks, and I had been warned about it in advance and had prepared for it mentally. But knowing how to figure something out while sitting in an armchair, and doing it under the hood and under stress, are two quite different things. Later I analysed what went wrong – I had quite correctly worked out the heading I needed to follow, but for some reason was unable to get myself to turn to it and persisted in holding a completely wrong heading. It's not actually a requirement to do this under the hood, so she let me take the hood off and gave me a second chance, which went fine. I also did an unusual attitude recovery under the hood, but this was a gentle affair compared to some that Fred had set up for me.

After that we flew back to PAO and did a varied selection of different landings and takeoffs. The last landing was a simulated engine failure, and with the wind that was blowing (15 knots almost straight down the runway) I messed up the first one by turning base too soon and coming over the threshold at about 200'. There are airports where this would work, but Palo Alto with its 2400' runway is not one of them. On my second attempt I turned a few seconds later, but with the strength of the wind this was enough to land me in the water short of the runway. I thought this would fail me (not actually landing in the water of course, but having to apply some power to make the runway). We taxied back, and she said the magic words, "You've passed". She went on to say "you really need to do an instrument rating", and to say something that I thought was pretty profound: if you think a checkride is stressful, just wait until you get low on fuel and lost in IMC. So any technique that doesn't stand up to a checkride, will also let you down when you need it the most. I'm not sure any checkride can actually be enjoyable, but after some of the examiner stories I've heard I think this was probably as enjoyable as it gets.


At the end of my checkride I had logged nearly 140 hours, which of course is far too much. I had a lot of delays, due to 9/11 and the winter weather, but I kept on doing pattern work and the like even though this was probably counter-productive. The truth is that I enjoyed every minute I spent flying (and of course still do) and don't regret any of it, but if I had just flown less I would still have done as well, with a lot fewer hours.

During one of my early plateau periods, someone said to me "If you want to pass in 40 hours, find an uncontrolled field in the desert. But if you want to learn to fly properly, Palo Alto will serve you well even if it does take a lot longer". There's a lot of truth in this. Palo Alto has everything against it – it has a short runway, it is (supposedly) one of the busiest GA airports in the country, it is buried in the middle of one of the most complex bits of airspace in the country. (It is easy to identify the 747s flying overhead on the approach to SFO even from the ground. From 2000' you can almost read the tail numbers). Fear of radio work, worry about airspaces, concern over changing instructions and conflicting traffic – all of this has long since disappeared by the time you are allowed to fly unsupervised. (I lost count of the number of times I was lost, misplaced or misidentified by the controllers, not the regular ones who are excellent but some of the weekend people from the Air National Guard).

Of course the last word must go to my instructor, Fred. To say that I really lucked out is an understatement. I've flown with quite a few different instructors now, and I've been lucky that it has always been a pleasure, but Fred has really been something special. I can't imagine doing it myself, sitting in the right seat seconds away from fiery death or at least professional disgrace, but Fred is always calm and always has the right advice at the right dose and the right time. If I fly until I'm 90, I will always hear his voice on the crosswind-to-downwind turn (challenging since at PAO in a Skyhawk it is also where the power reduction from climb to pattern happens) saying "watch your bank angle, John", or "watch the ball, more right rudder". A less conservative instructor could probably have got me through it faster, but I'm very glad this didn't happen. A few weeks of impatience is a very small price to pay for the confidence that comes from thorough, painstaking instruction.

Next steps – well, three months later I've logged another 60 hours, bought into a fractional ownership of a Skylane, and started work on my instrument rating (with Fred of course).

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