Yesterday I finally used the Flight Experience voucher that my wife bought me for my birthday. However as it turned out there were a few hurdles to cross first.. after nearly two weeks of sunshine and perfect blue skies, the forecast for Tuesday was for heavy rain. I couldn’t believe my luck. Thankfully the Met office showed the rain coming in the afternoon & my flight was booked for 11am so we might just be ok. I got all technical and checked the METAR (aviation forecast) for Luton which looked something like this:
EGGW 030720Z 29008KT 9999 FEW031 07/05 Q1003
Thankfully there was also a translation:
wind 290 degrees 08 knots, visibility 10km or more, a few clouds at 3100ft, temperature 8'c, dewpoint 5'c and air pressure 1003mb.
.. which basically meant that we were still on for flying. Phew! – first hurdle.
Just after setting off for the airfield (Panshangar, a few miles from Hertford), with plenty of time to spare, we got a call to say our 18 month old daughter had been sick at nursery, please could we come and pick her up? Aaargh. Second hurdle. So we had to drive back – she was sans breakfast but looking a lot brighter. We figured perhaps it was just a one off – nursery couldn’t keep her in case it was contagious, but maybe she’d be able to sit and watch a few planes?
We set off for Panshangar again… .. and then she threw up all over her car seat. Noooo! Clearly this wasn’t going to be the day that we’d planned – I had to drop my wife and daughter off at home but made it Panshangar on the dot of 11. (Third hurdle crossed – finally made it, phew!)
Thankfully the atmosphere at Panshangar was very relaxed & I had ten minutes to sit with a coffee before being introduced to Sergio, my instructor for the flight. Before this point, my expectation was that a real pilot would fly the plane, I would get to look out the window and enjoy the view, take a few photos and perhaps get a chance to have a go at the controls for a bit. Ho ho ho. As Sergio led me out to the aircraft, his words were “you’re the pilot today so you’ll be doing the whole flight, including the takeoff and all of the landing if you like”. Wow, gulp. Hopefully all those hours spent messing around with flight simulators on my computer would help. I knew what most of the instruments did, but this would be the real thing – and I’d been told that flight simulators are only about 10% of the real experience, so I was nervous.
Unfortunately my wife wasn’t there to be able to take any photos, but I did manage to get a few. This is G-BUIK (Golf Bravo Uniform Indigo Kilo) – a Piper Warrior II, just a couple of years younger than me:
(Sergio is doing the necessary pre-flight engine checks, so I got a chance to look under the covers. There was surprisingly little in there!)
After a walk around the aircraft talking about physics and wobbling various wobbly bits, it was time to hop in.
Right then, what does all this do again? Headsets on, turn the key to start the engine and then we’re off taxiing across the airfield, and I’m learning to drive a plane across the bumpy grass by steering with the pedals (or pushing with my toes to brake) and desperately trying not to embarrass myself!
After following another plane to the end of the runway, we waited & checked the engines one last time (it’s worth being sure, right?). Then I taxiied onto the runway, and with the throttle full open bounced along the grass pointed it at the sky and all of a sudden we’re up in the air. Wow. (You know that feeling of heavy-headedness and disorientation you get when your plane first leaves the runway? Yep.) But it was so smooth – the aircraft was wobbling around a bit, but not as much as I was expecting. The feeling was fantastic! We turned a few times and climbed up to 2000ft, where the view was just incredible – you could see the airports at Stansted and Luton, and even make out Canary Wharf in the distance.
(Sorry, no photos from this bit – I was having too much fun)
I had a go at navigating, practising turns using the rudder pedals as well as the yoke, controlling ascent and descent with the throttle, and even a stall (which I thought would mean we’d fall out of the sky rather dramatically, but it turns out that with this type of plane it just beeps at you and the tail flutters around a bit until you sort it out). The half hour seemed to last a long time as we flew around the skies of north Hertfordshire (obviously there were limits on where we could fly due to the nearby airports), but eventually, just a few drops of rain started to streak along the windshield, it was time to head back to Panshangar – but not before we’d passed over my house, where Sergio took the controls for a bit while I got the camera out:
.. and checked up on the progress with our garden. (see the patio and snaking stone path?)
Then came the hardest part – landing. It was fairly easy to steer the aircraft so that it was lined up with the runway, but Sergio had to help with the throttle a bit so that we didn’t come in too fast. Then we were over the trees and with the throttle closed, pulling hard back on the yoke to land – gently! – on the runway.
(approach to Panshangar – this pic from Google Earth – I was a bit busy at the time)
In fact as landings go, I might be biased, but I reckon it was smoother than some of the commercial flights I’ve been on. Then I taxiied off the runway, back round to the parking area and we stopped pretty much bang on the marks. As the engine stopped and the generators whined down, I thanked Sergio for what had been a brilliant flight and tremendous fun. I might just have to do this again sometime.
(My hair was already like this before the flight, just for the record.)
Over and out.