Taking Flight

John Turner finds that piloting an aeroplane is the perfect tonic after a hectic week

November 5, 2009

Why fly your own plane? Everyone needs a strategy to de-stress. Work is hard (and seems to be getting harder). Taking home each day's worries is no fun at all. At the end of the week, I need a way to distance myself from work and put frustrations and problems into perspective. So I go flying. As pastimes go, it is relatively solitary since most of us who indulge do so alone. If you're after sociability, stick to golf.

Flying an aeroplane can be a busy activity, and while you are doing it there is no time to worry or even to think about much else. A one-hour flight gives me a mental workout. Flying is, I find, the ultimate pick-me-up. It exercises different yet complementary skills to those I call on at work but it also demands expertise in multitasking and managing a workload. Just like work, in fact.

Actual flying is the easy bit. It needs a reasonable degree of hand, foot and eye co-ordination (psychomotor skills, to use the jargon). Steering a course and maintaining a set height is straightforward. At the same time there are several other things to do. You must listen to radio chatter and use it to build a mental picture of the traffic around you. Some of it may be heading towards you, and if it's the military they will be very fast. In busy places like southern England, the talk is almost constant. Now and then air traffic control (ATC) will address you, and it is important to reply promptly.

Keeping a good lookout is also vital. Not everything has a radio or shows up on ATC's radar (think of hot-air balloons, microlights, gliders, flocks of geese and so on). As a pilot, you are responsible for seeing and avoiding all other flyers.

Finally, there is navigation, which basically involves identifying landmarks. For my sort of flying, navigation is a matter of maps, compasses and a stopwatch - and looking for smoke from bonfires and chimneys to see if the wind has changed.

There is no room for complacency or incompetence. Rudyard Kipling wrote some lines that have always seemed to me to be particularly applicable to aeroplanes:

But remember, please, the Law by which we live

We are not built to comprehend a lie

We can neither love, nor pity, nor forgive

If you make a slip in handling us you die!

To help avoid such slips, the learning process is never ending. There is no such thing as a minor aircraft accident: the ground is too hard. Unlike car drivers, pilots have to take a driving test every two years for each licence they hold. There are separate licences for basic flying, night flying, instrument flying, and for each kind of aeroplane. Retraining and assessment means you are a student under instruction for a fair amount of time. It is good to be reminded of how hard learning can be.

Flying is a strange activity in another way. It can require rapid decision-making based on mental arithmetic, and this is where workload management comes in. Aeroplanes fly in invisible flowing rivers of air. Usually these rivers are horizontal, but sometimes they flow up or down. Pointing the nose of the aeroplane in one direction gives no guarantee that you will go that way: the flight path is determined by a combination of the aeroplane's speed and heading, and by the speed and direction of the wind. To understand this, think of a boat being rowed across a fast-flowing river with the rower aiming for a particular point on the far bank, and extend the picture into three dimensions. It can be challenging to estimate the heading to achieve a particular ground-track while struggling both to fly in poor weather and reply to instructions from ATC. The key is to think ahead - or, in other words, to manage your workload.

The one thing flying is not good for is actual travel. There is a saying among pilots: "Time to spare? Go by air!" which is all too true. I have - occasionally - flown somewhere for work. There are few universities with their own runway and not many with a nearby airfield. I was, for a time, an external examiner at Cranfield University (which has a nice runway), and on a few occasions I did fly there. It is chancy, however: it is all too easy for the weather to change, and then you either fail to arrive or more likely get stuck somewhere because it is raining and you can't fly home. A car is better - but much less fun.

So let's go flying. I fly from Thruxton, near Andover in Hampshire. Airfields have an atmosphere of their own. Airports are large and modern, designed for passengers and big jets. Airfields were designed for small aeroplanes and pilots, and are mostly grass. In the UK most airfields were built in the 1940s and evocative (if dilapidated) Nissen huts and wartime control towers are still common.

Going flying is always a little bit frightening. This induces a proper caution and is, in my view, a Good Thing. All flights begin with a ritual known as "the walkround" in which bits of the aeroplane are waggled and poked, inspection covers opened, tyres prodded, and fuel and oil levels checked. The walkround is curiously calming and I find it creates the right mood.

Having checked over the craft, you climb in and do up the straps. There are more checks to do in the cockpit, and memorising these is forbidden - it is too dangerous to rely on memory. All aeroplanes, even small and simple ones, come with a checklist. For my two-seater, the pre-flight checks run to four A4 pages.

Once you are ready, strapped in, the cockpit has been closed and the engine is running, it is time to take off. This is an exciting bit. When the control tower gives permission, you open the throttle and bump across the grass, steering with your feet via the rudder pedals. The speed increases slowly as you watch the hedge at the other side of the airfield come nearer. The steering becomes less and less effective as the weight of the aeroplane transfers from wheels to wings. Flying speed (about 70mph) is reached before you get to the hedge, and you gently raise the nose by pulling back on the stick. The bumping and some of the noise stops, and you climb from the ground. The higher you go, the farther you can see, and work-related problems decrease in importance as rapidly as you gain height.

England is beautiful from the air: a green patchwork that (even in the South East) hardly looks built-up at all. The sea sparkles and places like the Isle of Wight (a favourite of mine) are stunning. Watching the sun go down over Bournemouth with the Needles in the foreground is one of my favourite experiences. The man-made items that stand out most, apart from towns and cities, are archaeological features: Roman roads run for hundreds of miles, sometimes taking the form of a modern highway and sometimes just a hedge or a line of trees. Bronze-age earthworks circle hilltops, and you get a true picture of places such as Avebury or Stonehenge only from above.

The higher you go, the less that work and its problems seem to matter. On a clear day the distances are amazing: from two miles up over Hampshire I have, simply by turning my head, seen France, South Wales, the Thames estuary and the curve of East Anglia.

At night a new world opens up. There is little sensation of movement as the air is so much smoother than in daytime. Chains of light lie like scattered jewels across a velvety blackness, and on a moonlit night the clouds look frosty, beautiful and remote.

Mostly I fly rather aimlessly around southern England. It is satisfying to leave Thruxton, explore Somerset, follow the Channel coast east as far as Chichester, and return to Thruxton, all within an hour or so.

Sometimes I land at another airfield, which is always interesting. The approach to Bembridge, one of my favourites, involves flying out to sea, turning back and landing on the clifftop.

Going to France is exciting, not least because you have to talk to French air traffic controllers. Crossing the Channel is not really dangerous - but we always wear life jackets and have an inflatable boat ready, just in case the engine stops. It all adds to the fun.

At the end of each flight there is - usually - the satisfaction of executing your arrival in a competent manner. This is the second exciting part of most flights, and fulfilment is to be found in precision flying. The approach to any airfield involves flying around "the circuit", an invisible rectangle with precisely defined heights at the corners. The circuit is usually about two miles long by a mile across, and it is not uncommon for it to be occupied by other aircraft, all moving at 100mph or so. It is like driving fast around a busy roundabout with the added fun of a third dimension.

At bigger airfields, the circuit may be supplemented by radio beacons, and you have instruments to record their distance and direction. When it is cloudy, an instrument landing system (ILS) helps you down, and the technique is different. ILS consists of a narrow radio beam projected upwards at a shallow angle from the runway. The aeroplane has to fly down the centre of the beam.

For the pilot, this means that, as well as controlling the plane and talking to ATC, you must fly in such a way that a pair of crossed needles stays centred over a target. One needle tells you if you are high or low, and the other to the left or right of the approach path. If done properly, the otherwise-invisible runway appears out of the murk just in time for you to land on it. This is instrument flying at its most demanding. It is really hard but rewarding if done well.

After landing, taxiing back to the hangar and switching off, I like to slide back the canopy and sit for a few minutes in the cool evening air, listening to the dying whine of the gyros as I complete my paperwork. Each flight has to be logged.

There is a special quiet that comes over an airfield after the last plane of the day has landed: a semi-silence containing the noise of rooks, the sound of wind around the hangars and the clatter of a distant grass-cutting tractor. There is also a slight feeling of relief to be savoured (flying can be scary at times).

However bad a week I have had, that Friday evening flight somehow puts it all in perspective.

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