Flying Memories – Chapter 6 (of 10)

In this chapter I recount a few memorable experiences from my time as a flying instructor. They include nearly being struck down in my prime by a student on his first solo flight, the vigilance required when flying with a student who flies very well until suddenly he doesn’t, and how a dirt strip 5,200 feet above sea level in the Victorian high country had useful lessons for trainee commercial pilots.

The pleasure of teaching people to fly

I obtained my initial instructor rating (new instructors start with a grade 3 instructor rating) on 13 July 1981. Most of the hours I logged as a flying instructor were in South Australia at the Port Lincoln Flying Club of which Barry Firth was the chief flying instructor. I gained further experience as a flying instructor at Moorabbin (Schutt Flying Academy) and Kyneton Aero Club. I eventually accrued the required number and type of hours of flight instruction for a grade 1 instructor rating, which I obtained in March 1986.

My first flight as an instructor was on 25 July 1981 out of Port Lincoln with Allister on a 5 hour navigation training exercise as part of his commercial pilot licence training. Allister went on to enjoy a very successful aviation career running his own international aviation consultancy business. He has in excess of 10,000 hours flying experience.

A senior Air Traffic Controller based at Adelaide airport owned Cherokee Six VH-STV which I hired regularly in the early 1980s. It was based at Adelaide airport. I did Peter’s commercial pilot licence (CPL) training in his aircraft, a lot of it near Adelaide which meant we were often in controlled airspace. I realised that we were getting an excellent run with clearances from air traffic control during training flights in the busy Adelaide control zone when in late 1981 I sought and obtained a clearance to conduct a simulated forced landing about 20 nautical miles south of Adelaide International airport (where from memory, the lower limit of controlled airspace was 2500 feet). Normallly such a training exercise would be done entirely outside controlled airspace. I obtained a series of clearances to commence the exercise in controlled airspace, then leave controlled airspace passing through the lower limit of one of the steps in a glide descent, then climb and re-enter controlled airspace to repeat the exercise. As Peter needed no training in controlled airspace procedures and I wanted his full focus on the forced landing exercise, I handled the radio while he flew the simulated forced landing glide approach. There were a lot of radio frequency changes, clearances given and read back, all-stations calls, and conflict-avoidance communications with other aircraft when outside controlled airspace. I never asked if we were given those clearances because his colleagues recognised the aircraft rego and knew he was doing his CPL training or whether we got lucky and struck a quiet period. But I never again asked for such a series of clearances in capital city controlled airspace, because I was confident it would not be provided.

In 1981-2 I did the private pilot licence navigation training for a conscientious and bright young man (Greg) with aspirations to join the RAAF. He subsequently wrote to me on being accepted in the Air Force as flight crew where he was trained to be a fighter pilot. I enjoyed reading Greg’s letters about his exploits in RAAF aircraft. A trend I noticed with some of my flying students was that after their training was finished and their flying careers were under way, they got in touch with me as soon as they had flown something fancier than I had ever flown or had accrued more hours than I had. For most of them, neither milestone took long to reach. It didn’t take long for Greg’s letter to arrive straight after his basic training with the RAAF and his posting to 75 Squadron at Tindal to train on the supersonic Mirage fighter.

Teaching west coast (Eyre Peninsula SA) farmers to fly

I particularly enjoyed teaching west coast farmers to fly. There were many. The list included Aub and his wife Leanne, Lindsay (who went on to get his CPL and run a very successful charter business out of Coober Pedy), Paul, Neville, Barry, Leith and Pat. Many wrote to me after completion of their training and thanked me for the time we spent together in the air. I found farmers to be excellent students as they were used to operating a variety of engines, and they were used to making significant decisions in practical circumstances. The were also keen and able weather watchers. They also seemed able to keep a sense of overview, without being lost in the detail. Importantly, they were all very enthusiastic about learning to fly.

One farmer I trained sent me a letter and a gift after he obtained his licence. He closed off his letter with the following words: “Having now obtained my licence I feel like a million dollars when I take to the air to go somewhere, which has made it all worthwhile. John I hope that the trinket will serve as a memo to those nav trips with that ole bushwhakka from the coast.” I too felt like a million dollars introducing all these people to the wonderful world of flying.

Max finally goes solo and I narrowly avoid being struck down in my prime

While living in Adelaide in 1981-2 I regularly returned to Port Lincoln to conduct flying training for the Port Lincoln Flying Club. In mid 1981 CFI Barry Firth told me he had a student pilot, Max, who had a mental block about going solo. Apparently Max started learning to fly many years ago at Parafield but gave it away.

So Barry had recently trained Max up to solo standard, and the day finally came when he was to be sent solo. As Max and Barry sat in the idling aircraft in readiness for take-off near the end of the strip, Barry told Max (who had already expressed some reluctance at the prospect of flying solo that day) that he had assessed him as more than ready to go solo, and was now going to exit the aircraft and watch Max do his first solo circuit. Barry shut the door securely and began the long walk across the aerodrome back to the clubhouse.

Barry was expecting to hear the sound of the aircraft taking off as he walked across the grass between runways. But there was no such sound. What Barry could hear though, and very clearly, was the aircraft engine at low power with occasional small blips on the throttle to keep it moving as Max taxied at walking pace directly behind him. Instead of Max flying his solo circuit, landing and taxying with a satisfied smile back to the clubhouse to receive congratulations from Barry, there was a sorry convoy of two taking the direct track across the aerodrome back to the clubhouse at walking pace. The way Barry related this to me conjured the image of a mother duck on a long slow walk with a single duckling silently following behind. Barry gave him the full length of the walk back to the hangar to change his mind, and did not look back once. When they both eventually arrived at the hangar and the aircraft was shut down, Barry told Max there was no more he could do for him than thoroughly prepare him for his first solo flight and send him first solo as he had just unsuccessfully sought to do. Barry suggested Max should come back when he was prepared to go solo, and that he should suspend his training in the meantime.

Barry’s suggestion that I take on Max to see if I could get him past his first solo flight was a challenge I couldn’t resist. So on a number of weekends between August and December 1981 I did a total of 4 hours flying training with Max in VH-MCJ (the aero club’s Cessna 172), comprising revision of some upper air work (stall recovery, steep turns and forced landings) but mostly circuit training: take-off, fly a rectangular pattern at 1000′ above ground level beside the airstrip and land; repeat. Emergency procedures in the event of engine failure on take-off were also practised. Max was flying very well and in my view had good judgment and a smooth touch on the controls. Barry had expressed a similar view about his skills. But as Max flew more and more high standard circuits with me sitting silently beside him, he fell into the habit of prefacing every lesson by seeking an assurance I wouldn’t send him solo during that session or on that day. After one such session I sat down with him in the briefing room and we talked about his early flying training experiences. I learned that he had been in a De Havilland Chipmunk at Parafield with an instructor in control when the aircraft crashed on takeoff. There were no injuries. Max stopped flying at that point. We discussed the accident for a while and the reasonableness of not rushing back to a Chipmunk in a hurry. This accident seemed to me to be a likely explanation for Max’s reluctance to go solo.

So I explained to Max that the key to him going solo was not that when the time came he should necessarily feel ready and able to do so, but that he must have faith in my judgment if and when I told him he was ready to go solo. I explained that words like fear and anxiety were misdescriptions of how a pilot should feel before going first solo. They are descriptions which suggest the pilot is disabled to some extent from giving his best performance. A better description was that he should feel a healthy state of apprehension, which recognises that he must be alert, focussed and satisfied that he had the necessary knowledge and practice to execute the skills of a solo circuit on his own. This is the reality and the language of performance enhancement. Max booked another lesson with me some weeks away. I wasn’t sure whether he would actually turn up for this lesson or cancel the booking.

But Max did turn up for his next lesson, on 5 December 1981. I took him up for some revision of stalls and steep turns, then we did some circuits in perfect weather. All were flown with Max’s usual deft touch. I did not have to intervene or take the controls at any point. He was, once again, ready to go solo. But I didn’t tell him that just then. I told him to have a spell and relax in the hangar while I took another student out for half an hour of circuits. I also suggested he mentally rehearse the various tasks involved in flying a circuit – a useful form of training and it was free. I also told him that I appreciated that he had not sought the usual assurance from me that he woudn’t be going solo on this day. I told him though that he would be going solo soon and that when I exited the aircraft to send him solo, I wanted him to remember to trust my judgment, and to focus on the circuit he had rehearsed so well so many times, and to simply do it.

The aircraft was refuelled, and Max did two further excellent circuits with me on board. At the completion of the landing on the second circuit Max gave the appropriate radio call and backtracked up the runway to do another takeoff and circuit (he would have thought and no doubt hoped, with me on board). When we got to engine run-up area near the end of the runway he did his pre-take-off checks and taxied the aircraft to the middle of the runway facing takeoff direction. I told him to stop then opened my door and climbed out of the aircraft. As I was standing on the bitumen runway beside the open door, securing my seat belt so it did not have a loose end flapping outside the aircraft, I said something like this to Max (the words I have said to every student I have ever sent solo), “You’re doing this next one on your own Max. The conditions are fine and you only have to do what you have been doing with me on board. You have been flying well. You have enough fuel to stay up there for 5 hours or more, so there is no issue if you decide to go around on the approach to a landing. You have done that in training many times. The aeroplane will be a little lighter without me on board, so it will take off a little sooner, and float a little longer during the landing.”

I looked at Max who had said nothing to date. He had his hand on the throttle, his eyes fixed straight ahead and he was sweating profusely. “I hope you’re right”, he said, looking straight ahead as he advanced the throttle to full power and the aircraft started accelerating quickly. I was still standing beside the aircraft with the door open. So I quickly closed it with a slam as the aeroplane accelerated away from me. I knew without looking that I was about to hit by the leading edge of the horizontal stabiliser (tailplane) at the rear of the aircraft unless I ducked. I did better than duck – I threw myself forward face down on the runway surface as the tailplane moved over me without contact. I stood up and dusted myself off as I watched Max complete his take-off run and become airborne.

He did a wide circuit, and I watched with pleasure as he chose his base turning point perfectly, reduced power and re-trimmed the aircraft for the descent. He did not overshoot his turn on to final, and rounded out smoothly within a couple of metres of the runway surface. He brought the power back to idle, progressively held off as the aircraft slowed in ground effect until the main wheels kissed the runway gently. Then he maintained some back pressure holding the nosewheel off the runway for a short time until it too gently lowered to the bitumen. He took the next taxiway exit and came back to the clubhouse where he parked the aircraft. Max now had 0.2 hours solo experience to record in his log book – his first entry ever in the solo column. He had a wide smile as he exited the aircraft and I shook his hand congratulating him. He talked and talked about that circuit. He had long handshakes with a few other members in the club house who knew his story. He was clearly rapt at his achievement, which was simply overcoming a barrier in his mind rather than any deficit in skills or knowledge.

Max went on to fly for many years. He subsequently did his navigation training with me, then obtained his night flying rating. Not long after that he purchased an aircraft, VH-WIL, which was one the Port Lincoln flying club aircraft. He was also elected president of the flying club for a term and involved himself enthusiastically in all club actitivies. Max’s first solo opened the door to a long and safe flying career as a private pilot. I know of nobody who got more joy from his flying than Max. It was an absolute privilege to send him first solo, and especially to watch that flight from the ground rather than clawing for grip on the flush-riveted aluminium surface of the tailplane as late-boarding passenger. So we never had to resolve the question of whether a circuit with one student pilot at the controls and the instructor clinging to the tailplane is in fact a solo flight.

Be especially vigilant with the student who seems to be flying well


In the summer of 1983-4 I was in Port Lincoln instructing, and one of my students from the Eyre Peninsula was undertaking flying training for his restricted private pilot licence – the first licence a pilot receives. This licence did not include any navigation training.

He was a good student who had done all the required ground exams sooner rather than later, and he handled the aeroplane well. He was conscientious in his operation of the aircraft, demonstrated a good standard of airmanship for a beginning pilot and was receptive to instruction.

The flying club CFI Barry Firth once said to me that it was the student who was flying well you had to watch out for, because of the temptation to relax and perhaps assume things were going to keep going well. With students not flying well the instructor was usually on high alert and ready to take over in an instant.

No student pilot at Port Lincoln was ever sent solo by me (or by other instructors at the flying club) without being able to demonstrate a sound crosswind technique. The airport is located close to the sea and local wind changes in addition to major weather-system wind changes are common. A pilot can take-off with no wind, or directly into wind, then even after a single circuit be faced with no option but a crosswind landing.

Another skill all student pilots are taught before going solo is what to do if the aircraft touches the runway sooner than intended then, contrary to the pilot’s intention, becomes airborne again at a relatively low speed. This is sometimes inaccurately referred to as the aircraft ‘bouncing’ back into the air, which to an observer is probably a reasonable description of how it looks. But it isn’t actually a bounce. It is usually caused by an incorrect pilot response to an apparent increase in sink rate as the aircraft gets close to the ground. There are a number of causes of an aircraft touching the runway prematurely during a landing then becoming airborne to say 30-40 feet or perhaps even higher above the runway. Suffice to say, it can happen. Learning the correct responses if it does is part of the flying training syllabus.

If a pilot finds himself in a decelerating aircraft at such a height after brief contact of the main wheels with the runway, with idle power set, full flap (which causes the aircraft to decelerate) and controls mushy at low airspeed approaching the stall speed of the aircraft, there are three options. The first is to do nothing and with a surprised look on your face let gravity take over for a very heavy landing or a crash landing. The second is to go around. That is, immediately apply full power, hold the aircraft attitude level (which requires considerable forward pressure on the stick as the aircraft is trimmed for descent without power), maintain wings level as the aircraft descends slightly as it accelerates away for a climb out and ‘go around.’ At a suitable moment the trim can be adjusted, flaps can be retracted one stage at a time and the aircraft configured to climb away normally for another circuit and landing. The third option is slightly more advanced and is usually taught at a later stage of training. It enables the landing to proceed without going around. This concludes the necessary background to understand what follows.

The incident.

On a Sunday in late January 1984 I had been flying with the student doing revision of training sequences from the entire restricted licence flight training syllabus, in preparation for his restricted licence test flight. He was going well. As the afternoon wore on a seabreeze came up creating a solid but steady crosswind from the left on runway 19. This student had previously demonstrated sound crosswind takeoff and landing technique in simlar strength cross winds. I decided to conclude the exercise with a standard crosswind landing to a full stop.

I should interpose in this narrative the fact that the student by this stage was no doubt becoming fatigued, not to the point of dropping off to sleep, but to the point of simply not being as sharp as he was earlier in the day. Monitoring fatigue is something a pilot must learn to do for himself, and it is certainly something an instructor should monitor in his students. His flying was showing no signs of being off the mark, but it seemed a good time to finish the day’s flying, with a proper crosswind landing. As things turned out, the actual best time to finish the session with a crosswind landing had already passed.

The reader needs to know that after touchdown in a crosswind landing when the aircraft is established on the runway, the pilot must progressively roll aileron into wind (progressively turn the control column into wind) to prevent the upwind wing of the aircaft from rising and possibly tipping the aircraft over.

The circuit and approach for the crosswind landing were satisfactory, and corrections of heading and descent rate on final approach were appropriately made. Flaps were extended and the aircraft was trimmed. Around flare height the student levelled out the aircraft at the right distance above the runway. He applied right rudder and left aileron to track directly down the centreline by maintaining a controlled sideslip as the aircraft decelerated. But instead of ‘holding off’ as the aircraft decelerated (progressively bringing the control column back to keep the aircraft just above the runway as it decelerated until it eventually touched down) he allowed it to descend and touch the runway prematurely (at higher than normal touchdown speed). This caused the aircraft to become airborne again – with low speed, a low power setting and a nose-high attitude. We were higher than we could safely fall. At this point he apparently failed to recognise that the aircraft had ‘bounced’ and applied the control input of more aileron ‘into wind’, an act explicable only by fatigue. This is a step to be applied only after the aircraft is established on the ground in its landing roll. If done while airborne close to the ground, the aircraft will bank (steeply if not instantly corrected). So the aircraft was suddenly 50 feet or so above the runway, nose high, with a rapidly increasing bank angle to the left and heading towards scrubby terrain to the left of the runway. Flaps were fully extended and the stall warning was starting to beep. This sequence happened much more quickly than the time it takes to read my description of it. This is the description of an aircraft about to crash.

The instant he failed to apply full power and erroneously applied left aileron as the aircraft became airborne again, my left hand went to the throttle and applied full power so fast I temporarily pinned his hand on the throttle under mine. At the same moment I pushed the control column fully forward and set neutral aileron and applied full right rudder to counteract the incipient spin. Because of our low airpseed the aircraft response was neither crisp nor immediate. I kept the aircaft nose down descending from our already perilously low altitude to accelerate as we headed towards the low scrub to the left of runway 19. The wings levelled as we sagged towards the ground. Just above the ground I of course had no option but to level out. I remember thinking it was touch and go whether we had enough airspeed to avoid contact with the bushes and the ground. It is difficult to judge but I think the main wheels were probably only a metre or so above the tops of the bushes. But at least we were wings level with some elements of control restored. We should walk away. I gently applied backpressure in an attempt to fly level just above the ground at the lowest possbile height without stalling and without contacting the ground. At less than half a wingspan distance from the ground we were able to somewhat unconvincingly maintain height in ‘ground effect.’ We flew a considerable distance under full power in ground effect over low scrub and terrain unsuitable for a landing, the extended flaps giving us a lower stall speed which was a good thing, but also creating drag which slowed our acceleration. Eventually we started to win and the airspeed needle started to gradually move up to a safe value above stall speed. In flying terms, if we were not actually flying ‘behind the power curve’ we were very close to doing so. We then climbed very gradually to a safe speed and height and retracted the flaps.

After normal flight was resumed, as I climbed to 500 feet for a low circuit and landing, in a normal tone I asked the student what was going through his mind when he rolled on aileron after kissing the runway and getting airborne again. He responded that he was applying aileron as you do after a crosswind landing. I knew as he said it that he understood it was very much the incorrect action. He had plainly reached a significant fatigue point which dramatically affected his capacity to respond correctly to the situation. My tasks as an instructor were to ensure he learnt from the incident and to preserve his confidence in his piloting ability. I needed to ensure that I did not make my reaction more memorable than his incorrect actions in the air. I did not know whether or not he recognised at the time that this had been a close call.

I did not criticise him but went through the correct actions, and discussed the control inputs I applied when I took over control. Incipient spins and recovery from them are demonstrated to pilots during their training, but at an altitude where recovery from the incipient spin and resumption of normal flight can be achieved by 3,000 feet above terrain, not 3 feet. At a later date, we revised crosswind takeoffs and landings and he performed very well. He went on to obtain his licence, do his full navigation training and eventually own and fly an aircraft happily and safely for many years.

In 2017 I came across this pilot for the first time since he completed his training with me in the early 1980s. After some initial small talk between us he paused, then asked, “Do you remember that day…” Before he could say the next word I interrupted and simply said, “I do”. We both left it at that and talked about other more recent events in our lives. Seems it was a memorable day for both of us. I was pleased that his confidence had survived the experience. I knew that with the passage of time and his gaining of flying experience, the incident had come into clear focus for him and he now had a sound perspective on it. If he ever writes his ‘Flying Memories’, he now recognises that this incident during his training should feature.

Air density and sea-level pilots at a mountain strip

When I was instructing for Schutt Flying Academy out of Moorabbin in the 1980s, I did quite a bit of flying training with students working towards their commercial pilot licence. As most had learned to fly around Melbourne and rural Victoria (but not in the high country) they had a few bad habits which are easy for ‘sea level’ pilots to develop. Principal amongst these was failing to adequately consider the effect of variations in air density on landing and takeoff performance. They had all passed theory tests which taught them that hot air is less dense than cold air, and that air density in the atmosphere decreases with height above sea level. But as these students had mostly flown lightly loaded single engine aircraft operating at sea level or thereabouts from very long airstrips, the importance of air density variations to aeroplane performance was not often apparent in flight, and was therefore easily overlooked. That is why I took them to the Snowy Range airstrip in the Victorian high country east of Melbourne. It is a strip mostly used by aircraft engaged in bushfire fighting operations.

Snowy Range airstrip is at an elevation of 5,200, and is situated approximately between Mt Buller and Dargo. It has a short east-west strip, and a longer north-south strip (with a marked downhill slope to the south). On a hot day the reduced air density at this airstrip will affect take-off and climb peformance significantly.

Snowy Range ALA runway diagram

Air density reduces with altitude, and also as the air temperature increases. An aircraft taking off at an airstrip well above sea level will require a significantly longer takeoff distance than it would at sea level. An aircraft taking off at sea level in cool air at dawn, would require more runway at 2pm if it turned out to be a very hot day.

An aviator must be cautious taking off and landing in thin air.

Pilots have performance charts in every aircraft they fly which take into account a wide variety of factors including air temperature and runway elevation to determine take-off distance required. So a pilot is able to calculate before a flight exactly how much runway he needs to takeoff safely and legally. The aircraft performance charts also take into account runway slope, runway surface and headwind component which also affect take-off distance required. The performance charts relate aircraft performance to air density using a concept called ‘density height’. For this reminiscence of mine about taking students into Snowy Range airstrip, a technical explanation of density height is not required. It is sufficient to know that the higher the density height figure, the less dense the air, and the greater the impact on aircraft performance.

I would arrange a summer navigation exercise so we could have lunch at Snowy Range airstrip. The strip was not available for much of winter due to it being above the snow line. Most student pilots on arrival overflew and inspected the landing area and selected the east-west strip because even though it was shorter, it was flatter. I think they also found the visible steep slope on the other strip uninviting at their level of experience. After landing I would ask the student to consider whether the Cessna 172 we were flying could at maximum take-off weight safely and legally use the east-west strip for a take-off if it was the temperature we were experiencing on the day and there was no wind. Most would eyeball the runway, take a guess and say yes. A few would consult the performance chart and correctly tell me the answer was no. All left Snowy Range airsrtrip impressed by the practical reality of the dangers associated with flying in thin air.

As the north south strip was long, and had down slope at its southern end, it would be adequate for a take-off to the south for an aircraft with a weight and performance for which the east-west trip was too short. After take-off to the south on the longer strip, with a descending left turn after liftoff the aircraft could fly down into a valley. That is, the aircraft could descend after take-off to build up airspeed if required. This feature of the strip would be a useful safety net in marginal conditions at this strip with a fully loaded firefighting aircraft taking off on a hot day with not much wind. I used to demonstrate such a takeoff to students.

I found such visits to the Snowy Range airstrip a sound way to reinforce that ‘eyeballing’ strip length for takeoff purposes can be dangerous. The charts are not just there for perfectionists, they are there to be used. Take-off and landing performance charts do have safety margins built in to them to allow for a variety of factors that can affect the performance of an aircraft when taking off and landing. It is not legal to nibble into these safety margins just to get airborne from a strip which is too short according to the performance charts.

Density height and takeoff performance is as important to heavy jets as it is to hang gliders. In the late 1970s I taxied for take-off at Adelaide airport on an extremely hot afternoon with nil wind, and received my clearance to takeoff ahead of a Boeing 747 which was ready for takeoff and would normally have been given its takeoff clearance first. But the Boeing was parked fully loaded and idling as it waited for a 1°C drop before it could accept a clearance to take off from this runway which (obviously) was of marginal length for such an aircraft in these conditions. I understand that runway 23 was later extended considerably permitting its use by such aircraft at higher takeoff weights, and in hot conditions. Prior to the runway extension there were examples of ground approach lighting at the end of the runway being damaged by jet blast as large jets took the entire length of the runway to become airborne.

Snowy Range airstrip

View to the east down the short east-west Snowy Range airstrip.

Parked beside runway markers on Snow Range landing strip 5200 feet above sea level.

Cessna 172 parked near runway markers on Snowy Range airstrip.

To be continued

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