Flight to Ayers Rock with friends in 1980
This was my second flight to Ayers Rock with friends in 1980. It was a shorter flight than the May trip earlier in the year, lasting only 4 days, and Ayers Rock was our northernmost landing point. My passengers were Liz, Julie Moss (pregnant at the time) and Bill Tasker. I had booked my favourite Cherokee Six VH-WCJ only to be told on the morning we had planned to depart that it wasn’t available. After a few phone calls I located another Cherokee Six at Whyalla airport. This was a 260 horsepower aircraft, and a much older model than the 300 horsepower WCJ. But with no other option and sight unseen, I booked it and we drove from Port Lincoln to Whyalla airport. VH-PYO was a tired looking aeroplane. But it had a valid maintenance release and and I trusted it would do the job. The tone was set when the person hiring out the aeroplane gave us a tyre pump to take on the trip for one of the tyres which he said, ‘kept going down’. I was used to flying aeroplanes from organisations that would never hire out an aircraft with a slow puncture.
Old school instrument panel – even in 1980.
It was a hot and dusty day despite it being only mid-October. This is not a dust storm – just normal conditions at Whyalla.
As promised, the right main wheel needed pumping up during the trip. Bill Tasker on the right.
VH-PYO tied down at Ernabella. Despite its age, I do like the lines of the Cherokee Six.
L to R: Bill Tasker, Bob Lynes (principal of Ernabella aboriginal school), the pilot and Julie Moss at Ayers Rock airstrip.
After takeoff from Whyalla in bumpy air due to a hot and gusty north west wind, I recall climbing looking for smoother air, without success. The forecast was for the northern end of a cold front to cross the south of the state during our flight to our refuelling stop at Coober Pedy. Typically, well inland in SA there is not enough moisture for the mechanisms of the front to create rain and storms. So I expected that when we crossed the front we would simply experience a wind change from NW around to SW, a drop in air temp and smoother air. After overflying Woomera and with 175 nautical miles to run to Coober Pedy, the visibility began to decrease due to dust and our ground speed reduced indicating the winds were stronger than forecast. Cold fronts in the desert can create dust storms in dry conditions.
Before long we were in a proper dust storm and while I could see the ground below there wasn’t any useful visibility ahead or in any other direction. Our route was directly across the South Australian Desert (with the Great Victoria Desert to our left and the Simpson Desert to our right) and landmarks were not abundant. But more importantly they were not visible as we flew through the dust storm. Diverting in that remote area to fly clear of the dust storm would have involved considerable distance, and was not necessary from a safety point of view as we would soon fly through the front and associated dust storm and visual navigation could then resume. Climbing over it would’ve used more fuel and would not have resulted in any improved visibility for purposes of navigation. I had flight planned to change our heading during this leg to take account of the wind change with the front. But as the winds were stronger than forecast, a greater change of heading to the left would be required to track directly to Coober Pedy. I elected to fly the flight planned heading without increasing the drift angle until visibility improved and it could be done accurately by reference to landmarks. Wandering around on various unlogged headings in a dust storm with no visual reference is a good way to get lost. By maintaining a known heading I could later deduce my position and make heading changes based on something better than sheer guesswork if landmarks could not be identified.
As the dust began to clear, I calculated an approximate position north of our flight planned track and searched the ground unsuccessfully for landmarks to identify exactly how far north of our planned track we had been blown. I had also thought that the Coober Pedy NDB (non-directional beacon, which transmits a radio signal that the aircraft can use to fly to the location) might be picked up by the aircraft’s ADF (automatic direction finder which calculates the relative bearing to the station) in the aircraft. But the Coober Pedy NDB at that time was a low-powered station and could not be picked up at our distance from it. Pilots would joke that you could only pick up the Coober Pedy NDB signal in an aircraft if you were parked under its transmitter aerial at the airport.
So from our new deduced position, with the dust storm well behind us, I marked a point on the map where we should be. That point was virtually due east of Coober Pedy. So I plotted the new track to Coober Pedy, and applied some drift to the left to take account of the post-frontal wind direction and strength, and took up the new heading with a revised ETA for Coober Pedy. I commenced our descent some distance out, and we arrived at Coober Pedy near the calculated ETA and on track. DR navigation works.
Single engine night flight Parafield to Port Lincoln – ADF failure; vacuum pump failure
On 21 October 1980 Liz and I flew in the Port Lincoln Flying Club Cessna 172 VH-MCJ (a Cessna 172N manufactured in 1977) to Adelaide to attend an evening event. We landed at Parafield. The flight over was in daylight, the flight back was late at night. I have only had one in-flight vacuum pump failure in all my flying.
The return night flight occurred during the middle of the period in which I was doing my commercial pilot licence flying training with Barry Firth, the chief flying instructor at Port Lincoln Flying Club who became a good friend through flying. Part of the flying training included simulation of flight without external visual reference by reason of any or all of cloud, heavy rain and darkness – instrument flying. As the pilot under instruction, a plastic hood was placed on my head. It consisted of a head strap with a curved plastic hood which deprived me of any view out the front and side windows. Even a glimpse of a horizon or the sun can orient a pilot as to the aircraft attitude, so to ensure there was not even a momentary accidental glimpse of the world outside, maps were sometimes placed over the lower parts of the side and front windows. This forced the pilot under the hood to fly solely by reference to the aircraft instruments. The pilot in command had normal visibility out all windows and maintained the required lookout for other aircraft during flight.
Modern light aircraft are equipped with six basic instruments which collectively enable the pilot to manoeuvre the aircraft (climb, turn, descend and recover from any unusual attitude). These instruments provide important information as to aircraft performance including airspeed, altitude, attitude (eg straight and level, banked etc), vertical speed, turn rate and slip and heading. These instruments are not all powered from the same source. Some are powered electrically (the turn and slip indicator), some by the pitot-static system (altimeter, vertical speed indicator and airspeed indicator), and some by suction (the artificial horizon and the directional gyro), created in modern aircraft by an engine driven vacuum pump, and in older aircraft by an externally mounted venturi on the side of the fuselage.
The artificial horizon is of central importance to a pilot flying by instruments as it shows the aircraft attitude in pitch and roll at all times, while it is functioning. The other instruments individually and collectively provide confirmation of the information displayed on the artificial horizon.
If the engine-driven vacuum pump fails, the artificial horizon and the directional gyro no longer function. They will give erroneous readings as to aircraft attitude. Flying without these instruments is part of learning to fly on instruments. It is called limited panel flying.
The basic six flight instruments in a typical modern light aircraft.
L to R (top) airspeed indicator, artificial horizon, altimeter
L to R (lower) turn and slip indicator, directional gyro and vertical speed indicator
The weather forecast for the night flight from Parafield to Port Lincoln on 21 October 1980 was for middle and upper level cloud, with a possibility of some rain en route and suitable conditions at Port Lincoln for approach and landing. We in fact experienced some low cloud and rain en route but conditions were fine for the takeoff and climb to cruise altitude, and for the descent and landing at Port Lincoln.
At our cruise altitude we occasionally flew through cloud or some light rain, and were between layers of cloud for some of the flight. The horizon was not visible, nor were the stars above. So I was hand flying the aircraft by instruments to maintain wings level, altitude and heading. A pilot’s instrument scan covers all the instruments systematically, with focus on the artificial horizon as the hub of the scan.
So it was of interest that when I noticed the artificial horizon showing a developing bank to one side while the scan of other instruments showed no change. If the aircraft was banking the other instruments should have confirmed that the aircraft was turning. But those other instruments were indicating that straight and level flight was continuing. A quick look at the vacuum gauge confirmed that the engine-driven vacuum pump had failed. This meant the AH (artificial horizon) and DG (directional gyro) were no longer functioning and that I would have to rely on the other instruments including the magnetic compass on top of the dash panel to continue the flight to Port Lincoln.
As I was in the middle of my CPL flight training, and had recently done limited panel flying training (under hood, and at night) simulating a failed vac pump, I covered the two unserviceable instruments (the AH and DG) with a $2 note to avoid distraction as my instructor had done during my CPL flight training, and proceeded to maintain heading and attitude by reference to the remaining functioning instruments (which were not powered by suction from the vacuum pump). The ADF was of assistance in maintaining the track towards Port Lincoln. But shortly after the vac pump failed so did the ADF. What are the odds of losing three useful instruments on the one flight, at night? The magnetic compass continued to work perfectly.
When the vac pump failed Liz stirred from her snooze and asked what I was doing (I was putting the $2 note in place at the time). I explained that the vac pump had failed and that it was not a serious issue, and she went back to sleep.
The rest of the flight and landing at Port Lincoln followed without any problems. I put the aircraft in the hangar and entered the defect on the maintenance release (a document which by law must be kept in the aircraft for purposes including the listing of defects when they are discovered) to inform the next person wanting to fly aircraft of the defect. We arrived home not long after midnight.
Endorsement on Wedge Island airstrip
On 16 January 1981 in VH-WIL, as part of my commercial pilot licence training, my instructor Barry Firth and I undertook a navigation exercise which included landing on Wedge Island. He gave me a session of circuits on the island to approve me for commercial operations from that strip. Wedge Island now has an entirely satisfactory airstrip. In 1981 it had an ‘airstrip’ that only approved pilots could use. It was actually one of the four wheel drive tracks on the island that was used for takeoffs and landings.
Every takeoff and landing on Wedge Island was an enjoyable test of skill. The landing area did not meet the normal requirements for operations in a loaded Cherokee Six which was the most common aircraft type used there. By those standards it was too short. The regulator granted a dispensation to a handful of approved pilots to conduct commercial passenger-carrying operations into and out of the island.
I flew passengers from Adelaide to Wedge Island on weekends for a couple of years until I moved to Melbourne at the end of 1982. My first charter flight as a new commercial pilot was on 28 February 1981 (about a month after I passed my commercial pilot licence flight test) from Parafield to Adelaide to Wedge Island and back, in rain and low cloud. I flew a Cessna 172 registered VH-IGP. In 1981-82 I averaged around one charter a month to the islands at the foot of Spencer Gulf. They were mostly to Wedge Island, but also included charters to Thistle Island and Spilsby Island.
The busiest day of island charter flights according to my log book was 4 September 1981 in VH-TVF (a PA28 or Piper Archer). My day started in Adelaide (I ferried the aircraft there from Parafield the day before) and flew AD-WGI-AD-WGI-PLC-SPILSBY IS-AD-PF. I logged a total of 4.8 hours in the air that day, with 7 takeoffs and landings. I moved quite a few passengers and a lot of luggage.
When I left Adelaide and moved to Melbourne, the owners of Wedge Island for whom I had been doing the charter flights, gave me a lovely large framed photo of WGI with an aircraft on the strip, with a note of thanks for my contribution to the safe flying record in and out of that strip. I valued that gesture, and the experience of conducting commercial operations to the island back in the early 1980s as one of the small band of pilots who did so.
Ready for departure from Parafield on my first charter flight as a newly qualified commercial pilot.
Winning the race with an approaching band of rain to reach Wedge Island.
On Wedge Island. The straight part of the track visible above the aircraft is the landing strip. The takeoff strip was in the low scrub just beyond the line of scrub at the top right of this photo. You had to taxi along the track visible above, up the slope and around the bend, to find the elevated straight bit of track used for takeoffs. It was narrow and rough. Takeoffs involved a running start after a U turn rather than a standing start holding the brakes on while applying full power then releasing them to start the takeoff roll. Aircraft performance on some days required lowering the nose after takeoff to build up safe airspeed. This short but useful descent could be done because of the downsloping terrain immediately beyond the end of the strip.
Rain was often encountered on trips to Wedge Island.
Commencement of instructor rating training – “If it doesn’t start this time, we’re getting wet.”
18 February 1981 I commenced my instructor rating training in a Piper Archer (PA-28.181) VH-TVF with Bruce Hartwig as my instructor. Bruce was a very capable and highly experienced pilot. It was a privilege to fly with him and learn from him. When Bruce was not available another experienced instructor who worked with Bruce continued the training.
My commercial pilot licence training had substantially advanced my understanding of flying and my flying skills. The study and flying training for my instructor rating was responsible for further improvements in both areas. To become an airline pilot, further study is required to qualify for the air transport pilot licence (formerly known as the senior commercial pilot licence). It involves even more in depth study of the subjects covered in the lower pilot-licence levels. This should be very reassuring to passengers travelling within Australian airlines.
I recall one flight during my instructor training on a dual exercise out of Parafield (not with Bruce Hartwig) where the instructor came close to bringing us unstuck. We had been doing various instruction sequences at altitude and were on the way back to Parafield. We were descending over the gulf waters out from Outer Harbour and the instructor who was pilot in command, decided to take over and demonstrate how to show a student that when a forced landing was being simulated with the engine at idle, the fact that the propeller was turning did not mean it was delivering any thrust. That is, a glide with the engine at idle and the prop windmilling is a realistic simulation of the glide performance of the aircraft in the event of an engine failure, and a demonstration that the aircraft would fly (glide) perfectly well without any power.
By leaving the engine running in the instructional forced landing exercise, full power was immediately available should it be required. Also, engine re-start issues were avoided (not every engine re-starts unfailingly on the first attempt). I would expect the student pilot to accept the instructor’s assurance that the idling engine and rotating propeller were not delivering thrust and that the demonstration faithfully simulated aircraft performance after engine failure. That is how the simulation should be done.
My instructor brought the throttle back to idle. He trimmed the aircraft for 70 knots, and it flew perfectly well without any thrust from the engine. That is where I would have (and he should have) ended the demonstration.
But he then pulled the mixture control out to the idle cut off position. This is how the engine is stopped on the ground at the conclusion of a flight. It shuts off the fuel supply to the engine. This step was unnecessary. But even without fuel, in an aircraft gliding at say 70 knots, the propeller will still keep turning due to the airflow through it. So my instructor’s next action was to pull the nose of the aircraft up to slow it down until the airflow was insufficient to turn the prop. Sure enough, the prop stopped completely. For completeness, he also turned the magnetos off. It is interesting to see the end of a stationary propeller blade sticking up above the nose of the aircraft, with all its nicks and imperfections, just sitting there motionless while in flight.
By this stage we were down around 1000 feet above sea level, and out of gliding distance of land. The view through the windscreen was of a stationary propeller and the waters of the Gulf of St Vincent drawing ever closer. The instructor had been simulating a continuous light hearted narration of his actions to the imaginary hapless student being shown that the aircraft glides perfectly well with the power at idle, and it does the same with the fuel to the engine (and magnetos) turned off, and with the propeller not rotating at all. The steps he took beyond reducing the throttle to idle power, are not on any syllabus as part of teaching a glide approach with simulated engine failure. For completeness, at some point a pilot should be shown a mid-air re-start from a stopped prop by diving the aircraft. I was taken through this sequence when I did my aerobatics training (at height, and above suitable landing areas). That is not what we were doing on this flight.
“So now that we know that the aeroplane glides perfectly well with no power as demonstrated by it receiving no fuel and by the propeller not moving, we simply re-start the engine.” The patter was upbeat and non-stop. He pushed the mixture control to full rich to restore fuel flow, turned the magnetos on and engaged the starter. While doing so he pointed out that with sufficient height, you can dive the aircraft to a relatively high airspeed at which the prop will start spinning, and with fuel and spark it will re-start. He added, his speech becoming a little more rapid, that we didn’t have sufficient height. That much was obvious, as we were now below 1000 feet, over water and descending. Despite the starter being engaged and the prop doing a couple of slow half turns, the engine did not start. He gave the throttle a few quick cycles in and out to get enough fuel to start the engine but not enough to flood it. Another burst on the starter but the engine remained lifeless. “No problem, we simply go through the start procedure as we would on the ground” he fired off at barely comprehensible speed with the smile well gone from his face as he gave it another prime with the throttle and engaged the starter again. Still no joy. Then with all humour gone as we were now around 300 feet above the water, he added, “And if it doesn’t start this time we’re getting wet.” But it did, and we didn’t.
With full power we climbed to the appropriate altitude for our return to Parafield via a nearby reporting point. A sheepish grin was the only concession from my instructor as to the lack of wisdom of what we (he?) had just done. I certainly learned something that day about taking an unnecessary risk, even though it didn’t initially appear as a significant risk.
A month flying around the outback
In 1981 between June 7 and July 4 I was tour manager and pilot for an Arts Council tour of remote aboriginal and other rural communities in SA and NT with three artists on board. My passengers were a Canadian dancer, an African singer and dancer, and an Adelaide folk singer.
The aircraft I chose for this trip was VH-STV, a very well maintained Cherokee Six which belonged to an Adelaide air traffic controller. The following year I was his flight instructor for his commercial pilot licence training. I also trained his wife up to her first solo flight as a measure to provide her with sufficient skills to land VH-STV in which she frequently flew on trips with her husband.
The Cherokee Six is a great bush aircraft. STV performed flawlessly for the 35 flying hours over the course of the tour. We landed at Tarcoola, Coober Pedy, Indulkana, Ernabella, Curtin Sprints, Ayers Rock, Fregon, Alice Springs, Pipalyatjara, Amata, Mt Davies Camp, Mulga Park Homestead, Mimili, Whyalla and finally, Adelaide Airport where the aircraft was based.
Fuel for the trip required some planning. Only some of the places we visited had avgas supplies, some underground, but mostly drums. So the month before the trip I had to arrange for the delivery of 200 litre drums of Avgas to a number of remote locations on a semi-trailer which did a regular run through these remote areas. One of the little flight planning challenges in doing this trip was to arrive at each drum-drop location with the statutory fuel reserve/s intact plus a number of litres of further fuel so there was room in the tanks for the addition of the entire 200 litres from the drum. Waste not want not. An overarching consideration was of course that at every takeoff we carried sufficient fuel to safely reach our next refuelling opportunity with reserves intact. I’m pleased to report that all the 200L drums we pumped fuel from were left near empty, we never had to divert for fuel and without fail the engine kept going to take us to our next refuelling stop for a landing with reserves intact.
This Cherokee Six instrument panel in the photo below is actually in VH-WCJ, but in material respects is identical to the panel in VH-STV. The green arrow points to a cluster of four small gauges each with a short white needle parked to the left. These are the fuel gauges for (left to right) the left wing tip tank, the left wing inboard main tank, the right wing main tank and the right wing tip tank. With full tanks (say, 270 litres) all needles are at their right hand stop. If the only reserve on a given flight is 45 minutes flight fuel, that equates to around 45 litres. The manufacturer recommends burning off the tip tanks in each wing (with takeoffs and landing only ever done on the inboard tanks), then the inboard tanks. It is very poor practice to completely empty a tank and get air in the fuel lines. In round figures, each tip tank could be relied on for 60 minutes of flying, and the needle would be showing empty. Assuming the main tanks are used equally, landing with the 45 minute reserve intact means that the 45 litres is in two tanks, not one. By the time the inboard tanks are down to somewhere around twenty-something litres in each tank, all four fuel gauges at a glance show empty.
On long outback trips where most or all of the flight fuel is used and only reserve fuel is left in the tanks, the best way to safely manage fuel is by calculation (in the absence of more accurate fuel consumption gauges such as larger aircraft use). Each time I refuelled a Cherokee Six, I noted how much fuel each of the four tanks took, and then referred to my in-flight fuel log which showed among other things the amount of time flown on each tank so I could calculate the average consumption rate achieved on that flight. Relying on actual carefully calculated consumption rates for a particular aircraft is more accurate than relying on the manufacturer’s often optimistic figures as to fuel consumption rates. It is also more accurate and comforting than relying on four flickering fuel gauges all appearing to show near empty tanks.
So when the sun is setting, and there is nothing but desert in all directions, and I have 20 minutes to my destination which is not yet in sight, and all four fuel gauges are unhelpfully flickering around the empty mark, I can have confidence in my calculations that the fuel remaining in the two inboard tanks is sufficient to reach our planned destination and land with at least reserves intact. I have never run out of fuel when flying.
I removed a couple of passenger seats and slept in the aircraft for two nights at Pipalyatjara (Mt Davies Camp) airstrip in late June as accommodation was scarce and the artists deserved (or at least were given!) priority, in the form of a bed and roof to sleep under. The outside air temperature in the middle of the night as recorded on the aircraft thermometer mounted on the top of the windscreen was -9°C. I was in a sleeping bag (which is not the same thing as sleeping in a sleeping bag). It was cold, but memorable.
Pipalyatjara is a small Pitjantjatjara aboriginal community. It is a remote place.
L to R: Pipalyatjara (Mt Davies Camp) showing the airstrip and settlement; the location of the settlement near the intersection of the WA, NT and SA borders; and its location on the continent.
Navigation for the most of this month in the outback was by dead reckoning (or DR), as we were beyond the effective range of any radio navigation aids, and GPS technology had not yet reached bush aircraft (or me). This requires careful planning, careful maintenance of a flight log during flight, and careful map reading. It is very satisfying to fly for many hours over remote country and to arrive at your destination on time and exactly on track. It feels like a very meaningful link with aviators from earlier days, and mariners from even earlier days.
On 4 July, the last day of this trip, my day started in Coober Pedy and ended at Adelaide airport around dusk. Intermediate landing points were Tarcoola and Whyalla. After unloading and saying goodbye to the passengers, I taxied the aeroplane to its three tie-down rings sitting inside white painted tyres in the grass, and parked it in basically the position from which I untied it a month or so earlier at the start of the trip. Liz was at the airport general aviation parking area to meet me. It was cold and Liz sat in the front left hand seat while I sat in the other and completed the paperwork on my flight records and on the aircraft maintenance release. I was working with a small torch held in my mouth as the sun had set, even though there were large lights illuminating the nearby movement area. My thirty-second birthday was only a week away. Liz was 26. We were well and truly a couple. And it was in that cockpit that Liz told me our family was going to increase by one in the new year! What a great day. The arrival of Jessica is a whole other wonderful story.
Jess in her booster seat in a Cessna, ready for takeoff. Jess could see the horizon out the front window when she knelt on this seat. I recall Jess flying the aeroplance from this seat in the kneeling position. I simply told her to look out the front window, and keep the top of the instrument panel in line with the horizon. I explained (and had her move the controls in flight as instructed) that pulling back on the control column made the aeroplane nose go up (and would cause the horizon to disappear below the top of the dash panel), and that pushing forward on the control column would make the nose of the aeroplane go down which would make the horizon seem to move up the windscreen. Rolling the control column left or right to turn seemed to be intuitive for her. I looked after the power settings and rudder pedals neither of which needed too much attention when cruising straight and level. Using the simple method of flying by attitude (the position of the aeroplane relative to the horizon) Jess maintained height and heading with entirely adequate accuracy for sustained periods. This made me wonder whether flight instruction had been over-complicated by grown ups.
When I first asked Jess to turn the aeroplane through say 90° or more (rather than just waggle the wings left and right a bit), she applied aileron (rolled the control colum to the left) and when the wings were banked at about 30° I asked her to hold that angle ie the angle of the top of the dash to the horizon. She did that without any further prompting from me by centralising the control column and the aircraft was stable in a turn with a 30° angle of bank. (I applied rudder when and as required to keep the turn balanced).
But a very interesting further thing happened during the turn Jess had initiated with these minimal instructions.
Optional paragraph for those interested in a spot of theory. A pilot knows that when an aeroplane banks, the nose will tend to drop and the aircraft will start to descend because banking reduces the lift produced by the wings. In straight and level flight the lift vector is vertical, and is equal and opposite to the weight vector. In a bank, the lift vector is tilted which reduces the vertical component of lift making it less than weight, which means the aeroplane descends. So when an aircraft is banked a pilot must apply a little back pressure on the control column to increase the angle of attack on the wings which causes the wings to create more lift thereby restoring the total vertical component of lift produced by the wings to a value equal to weight, which stops the aeroplane descending and enables it to do a level turn. The tilted lift vector lengthens once the angle of attack is increased to create more lift, such that its vertical component of lift is once equal and opposite to weight and the aeroplane maintains height.
Without knowing any of these interesting aspects of the aerodynamics of a turn, Jess banked, held the bank at the required angle by neutralising the ailerons, and intuitively pulled back a little on the control colum when she saw the nose start to drop to keep the turn level. This is precisely the action required by a pilot in a turn, and pilots are taught the theory and given demonstrations then finally practice at maintaining level flight during a turn. Jess just did it.
Birds know nothing of the theory of aerodynamics either, and fly better than man ever will.
But I am firmly of the view that if you wish to learn to fly a fixed wing aeroplane and go solo, get a licence and become a safe pilot, you do need to understand the principles of flight.
To be continued