Flying Memories – Chapter 7 (of 10)

In this chapter I recall: a former flying student of mine who became a QANTAS captain, a potentially fatal error made by an overconfident trainee commercial pilot, surfing a 3,500 foot wave over Bass Strait in a single engine aircraft with power set at idle, a near mid-air collision between two aircraft at Moorabbin and a memorable joyride with my brother Noel in 1981 at low level over the best that Sydney had to offer.

The vet who became a QANTAS captain

In 1988-89 I did around 40 hours of commercial pilot licence (CPL) flying training with Nathan, who at the time was a vet in a successful practice in suburban Melbourne. He wanted to improve his flying qualifications which is how I came to meet him when I was instructing at the Schutt Flying Academy at Moorabbin.

The photos below were taken on a CPL training navigation exercise with Nathan to Willurah Station (north of the Murray River in western NSW) via Clifford Downs Station in VH-NAY (C172RG). Total flying time 5.5 hours, 29 March 1989.

Willurah Station airstrip from the air

Willurah Station airstrip

Willurah Station homestead from the air

Willurah Station homestead

On the ground at Willurah Station

Willurah Station airstrip.

L: me. R: Nathan

QANTAS 737 Captain Nathan Koch

Nathan living the dream of many young pilots flying old aeroplanes in remote areas (as he once did).

Nathan went on to obtain his commercial pilot licence, then he did further study to achieve his Airline Transport Pilot Licence. After some varied and interesting general aviation employment (including flying summer shark patrols for 3KZ in the same period as I did) Nathan gained acceptance into QANTAS as a pilot. After a stint of international flying he became a Boeing 737 Captain, and he continues to fly for QANTAS in that role. I am pleased to have played a small role in Nathan’s early flying training.

Footnote: When I was doing Nathan’s CPL flying training, my daughter Jess (6 or 7 years old at the time) had a pet mouse which I will refer to as Henrietta. Henrietta fell ill, so Jess and I took her to see Nathan at the veterinary surgery. He duly examined the patient and offered some advice about what could and could not be done for Henrietta in the autumn or possibly even the late winter of her short life. Henrietta came home with us, and died a few days later. After a quite brief grieving period I suggested to Jess that it was kind of Nathan to see if anything could be done for Henrietta, and that a thankyou letter would be a nice thought. Jess’s short letter, in her best handwriting, said (as best I can recall): ‘Dear Nathan, Thank you for trying to make Henrietta better. She died. Love Jessica.’ To this day I don’t know if this episode was a factor in Nathan changing careers.

A potentially fatal error caused by overconfidence


Light aircraft all carry a magnetic compass, usually mounted centrally above the instrument panel. The magnetic compass reading in an aircraft is subject to turning, acceleration and deceleration errors. Pilots once had to compensate for such errors by applying corrections to the heading shown on the magnetic compass. The advent of the directional gyro (DG) changed all that. This is a gyroscope connected to a compass card. The DG does not have any turning, acceleration or deceleration errors. But importantly, it is not a compass. It will only give an accurate heading if the pilot has set the DG to read the same as the magnetic compass (referred to as slaving the DG to the magnetic compass) – a task done on the ground before flight and at regular intervals (every 15 minutes or so) during flight. Slaving the DG to the magnetic compass is a check item performed before takeoff, and then at top of climb, and thereafter at frequent and regular intervals during the flight.

In 1987 I was asked to take over the CPL flying training of a student. I was told he flew very well. But I noticed immediately that he was overconfident, to a degree that was adversely affecting safety in his flying. I visualise pilot confidence like a sine wave moving up and down between horizontal parallel lines. It tends towards under-confidence when the pilot receives a fright or has an otherwise salutary lesson in the air, and tends towards over-confidence when all has been going very smoothly for a while. Both confidence states can be deadly. A pilot should constantly monitor his confidence level so he can react and take steps to keep his confidence levels within suitable limits.

One manifestation of over confidence developing, especially in a relatively low time pilot, is that the various checks required to be done (eg pre-start, pre-takeoff, top of climb, top of descent, various emergency procedures, pre-landing vital actions, pre-aerobatic flight etc) are gradually performed less thoroughly. This sometimes develops to the point where many of the checks are not adequately performed at all. Pilot checks are performed in accordance with check lists which can be written or recalled using mnemonics to aid memory. For example, my pre-takeoff check was remembered with the letters: TTMMMPFICCHH. To the extent it is relevant for present purposes, this check list required the following items be performed after engine start and before takeoff: Throttle friction nut secure, Trim set for takeoff, Mixture full rich, Master switch on, Mags check at 1600 RPM and that both mags switched on, Primer locked/Pitch full fine, Fuel on and sufficient, fuel pump on and pressure OK, Flaps check operation and set as required, Instruments L to R: this required checking all instruments in turn for correct operating values and settings, which included setting the altimeter to a specified pressure setting and slaving the DG to the compass.

The overconfident student was reciting these pre-takeoff checks accurately by name but without actually attending to each item thoroughly or at all. He would say each item out loud, eg “Mixture full rich”, and his hand would move towards the mixture control while his eyes were already moving to towards the master switch, but he would not actually touch the mixture control to confirm it was in the full rich position, and he might also be satisfied with a quick glance in the direction of the master switch (in its simplest form, a two position rocker switch) instead of physically confirming it was on. The danger posed by inadequate checks is obvious.

In the example given above, he should have paused, looked at the mixture control, grasped it and physically confirmed it was fully forward in the full rich position, before moving on to the next item and thoroughly confirming by word and touch that the master switch was in fact in the on position, and so on through the entire check list.

I had spoken to the student about this problem and he undertook to perform his checks slower and with proper mental and physical attention given to each item.

More than one aircraft has taken off with, for example, the fuel cock in the off position due to inadequate or non-existent pre-flight check of this item. Some aircraft have enough fuel in the lines with the fuel cock in the off position to taxi, takeoff and start to climb. The engine stops shortly after liftoff and the aircraft will glide to the ground before there is time to get fuel to it and re-start the engine. A forced landing is the only option in a single engine aircraft, on whatever terrain presents directly ahead or up to 30° either side of straight ahead.

The incident

On a long navigation exercise through western Victoria with this student in spring of 1987, we landed for fuel at a country aerodrome (elevation 445 feet above sea level) surrounded in three directions by huge flat farming paddocks, and to the south east by such paddocks for a distance of 16 nautical miles or so, beyond which there arose abruptly from the plains a mountain range with steep craggy slopes. The highest point on the spectacular north-south ridges is over 3000 feet above sea level.

The planned track away from the aerodrome was to the north east, well clear of the mountains. The student ran through his pre-start checks, and taxied to a run-up bay where he ‘performed’ (unthinkingly chanted?) his pre-takeoff checks. In fact, they were inadequately performed as he reverted to his recent bad habit of a fast and superficial run through the check list without in fact actually checking most items. I note that when he chanted, “Instruments left to right”, he looked at the panel and actually said, ‘altimeter’, and ‘set DG’, but he neither checked nor changed the pressure setting on the altimeter, nor did he slave the DG to the magnetic compass. As the aircraft had been stopped and shut down for the refuelling, the gyro in the directional gyro had completely wound down to a stop. So when it powered up again, the compass card was on a random bearing, and would stay there unless and until the pilot manually aligned it with the magnetic compass. It was in fact over 120 degrees off being aligned with the magnetic compass. Uncorrected, this was a dangerous state for an aircraft, because if the aircraft after takeoff set its heading using the DG (the pilot being used to the DG having been set to correspond with the magnetic compass), and the DG was on some other random heading, the aircraft would be flying in that other random direction, not the flight planned heading.

Having noticed this omission, I decided to deprive the student of external vision just after takeoff, to simulate night flying at the lowest safe altitude for this leg (calculated during flight planning on the ground). This was done using a conventional instrument-training hood worn like a hat with a half tunnel peak projecting forward which shuts out forward and side vision. The wearer can only see the instruments (including the magnetic compass). The other pilot (me) is responsible for maintaining a good lookout, which on this day was done in bright sunshine and great visibility. I did this to see where the flight would lead before the important omission in the pre-takeoff check was noticed and rectified. Early stages of the flight offered the opportunity for rectification. The first was a series of checks at top of climb as the aircraft was levelled out at cruise altitude. The second was shortly thereafter, when the aircraft was level and had accelerated to its cruise speed, a point at which there should have been a further check that was checked that the DG was displaying the same heading as the magnetic compass. The student flew through both of those with more cursory checks which did not pick up as they should have that the DG was hopelessly and dangerously misaligned with the magnetic compass. The aircraft was heading wildly off course.

I gave the student an indirect prompt, along the lines of, “It’s dark and wet out there, with obstacles and hills on and near our route which we have planned to avoid, your passengers in the back are relying on you to get them home safely. Are they in good hands?” After another cursory and unseeing look across the instrument panel (save for the artificial horizon and altimeter which were getting most of his attention), and he confidently assured me they were.

The random heading on the DG resulted in the aircraft heading SSE from the aerodrome, not north-east as planned. We were flying at the lowest safe altitude for the route to the north-east, which was around 1750′ (above sea level). But as we were heading SSE, we were tracking directly towards the mountain range (a route which required a lowest safe altitude of 4,800′). At our cruise altitude on the track we were taking we were on a fatal collision course with a rocky cliff a long way below the summit of the mountain range. I watched the mountains looming larger as the student kept the wings level and regularly checked that the DG was displaying the flight-planned magnetic heading for that leg.

A few more minutes passed and I suggested a CLEAR check as the aircraft power settings and trim were now set to maintain our cruise altitude. The first item on the CLEAR check is ‘compass’! It obviously requires a check that the DG is aligned with magnetic compass, and that the heading actually being flown is the heading calculated and planned to maintain the required track with allowance for wind drift. Again, the word ‘compass’ was spoken, but nothing of relevance was actually checked. The potentially fatal error was again not rectified – all due to over confidence.

As I sat in the right hand seat watching the student fly by instruments at the correct altitude and following a heading that was more than 120° in error due to the DG not being aligned with the magnetic compass, I watched the mountains and the cliff faces loom larger and larger, taking up more and more of the forward view as they grew in apparent size as we drew closer at speed of 110 knots or so. I picked my moment carefully. “Are we still OK [name of student]?” “Yes we are,” he assured me. “With my left hand I flipped his instrument hood up revealing a windscreen rapidly filling with mountains, as I said, “Taking over. We are not OK.” I applied full power and raised the nose a little as I banked to the left and did a 180° turn away from the mountains. The 180 was perhaps a little more dramatic than it needed to be as we certainly were not anywhere near close enough that collision was actually imminent. But the view out the windscreen was not what the trainee pilot expected to see.

The point that needed to be made (always check and re-check compass/DG alignment) was unequivocally made by allowing the flight to proceed on the erroneous and fatal heading. Had I given him an express reminder on the ground to align the DG with the compass, he would’ve happily done so. But his form as a student was such that I believe he would have treated it as minor slip and been fully confident he would have picked it up at top of climb check, or in a CLEAR check in cruise, or just because he was a thorough pilot who would never let a single error like that persist to the point of danger.

I told him that if he had been in command on his own under the simulated circumstances at night, he and all on board would now be dead. He was shocked and uncommonly quiet. I asked him to check the DG alignment with the magnetic compass which he did. He was astounded at how far apart the compass and DG headings were. I pointed out the series of clear occasions when he should have properly performed this vital check item but failed to do so. I did not need to elaborate on the potential consequences of his oversight, nor on the obvious way to rectify the problem.

Without more from me on the topic, his performance of checks on subsequent flights became a model of thorough and complete mental and physical performance of all check list items on all the flights I did with him after that date.

Surfing a 3,500 foot wave

On 10 December 1986 I was flying with a student in the Phillip Island area. I notice a squall line approaching from the south west over the expanse of Bass Strait, with what appeared to be some form of roll cloud in front of it. On the surface of the sea there was a clear line between rough and smooth water at the leading edge of the squall line. I was witnessing a scaled-down version of a cold front: a body or wedge of cold dense air advancing towards warmer less dense moist air, pushing it up and so creating cloud including the roll cloud. The air being pushed up was moist, and cooled as it rose to the point where the moisture condensed and formed cloud.

I was conscious that the student was paying for the flight and my time, so I asked if he wanted to have a short break from doing VOR radial intercepts under the hood to go and surf a wave in the sky. He was keen.

When the squall line was only 3-4 nautical miles from the island I flew out to it and at an altitude of about 3,500 feet I flew just above the top of the now well-formed roll cloud with bigger clouds behind it and solid rain beneath it. I reduced the power to idle and put the carburettor heat on to prevent ice forming in the carburettor. I then soared back and forth over the front of the roll cloud with the aircraft trimmed to fly at an airspeed of around 90 knots. I maintained altitude and speed with ease. I did this until I was back over the land. I could have switched the engine off and stopped the propeller turning and we would easily have stayed airborne at 90 knots. But as another incident recounted in one of these posts of my flying memories demonstrated, that would have been unnecessary and unwise. I could’ve followed the progress of the cloud inland for some way flying very economically at idle power but I knew the cloud would would change form and start to dissipate once it was over the varied topography and rising terrain in the immediate hinterland.

The student expressed delight at this brief diversion during his lesson.

A near-miss at Moorabbin Airport

While flying instructing at Moorabbin Airport, I was pilot in command of a Cessna 172 with a student beside me flying the aircraft. We had entered the control zone from the south east and received a clearance to enter the zone and join the circuit downwind for runway 17L (runway with direction 170°, and the left of the two adjacent and parallel runways oriented 170°).

The rectangular pattern an aircraft flies in relation to an airstrip it is going to land on includes the downwind leg (parallel to the runway and flying in the opposite direction to the landing direction), base leg (at right angles to the landing direction)- a shorter leg on which the aircraft usually commences its descent, final leg (after turning a further 90° from the base leg) is when the aircraft is flying in line with the runway centreline and on which it continues its descent until it is over the runway and lands.

Schematic diagram of standard circuit pattern.

The actual width of the circuit (the horizontal distance between the downwind leg and the runway) is variable within commonsense limits. A pilot can opt to fly a close circuit, or a wider circuit, and is often given an instruction from the tower to report sighting and to join the circuit by following an aircraft ahead which means it will be flying the circuit width chosen by that aircraft. Circuit height at Moorabbin is 1000 feet with the altimeter set to the Moorabbin QNH. QNH is the air pressure on the ground at Moorabbin at the time.

In the Moorabbin control zone, while the tower (air traffic control) provides clearances and instructions, the primary responsibility for aircraft separation rests with the pilot. So a clearance from the tower to join downwind for a particular runway does not carry with it any assurance that if you proceed in accordance with the clearance there can be no conflict or collision with another aircraft.

Moorabbin airport from the air

Moorabbin Airport, looking west

On the day in question, the aircraft I was in was flying downwind maintaining an altitude of exactly 1000 feet, at a reasonable circuit width, and tracking parallel to the landing runway. The student and I were keeping a good lookout for other traffic in every direction where we had a line of sight. We had not been advised of any other traffic on downwind ahead of us, and had heard no other aircraft receive a direction to follow us on downwind. We had maintained a good lookout from before we entered the control zone because in the zone there is a concentration of aircraft departing, arriving and going round and round doing training circuits.

The Cessna 172 I was in has high wings. That creates an obvious blind spot in terms of hazards above the wings and above and directly behind and above the aircraft. High wing aircraft are popular for training. So are low wing aircraft such as Pipers, which are low wing ie you stand on the wing when you exit via the cockpit door. Low wing aircraft have an obvious blind spot in terms of hazards below their fuselage and wings. Visibility directly forward in high and low wing aircraft is restricted by the cowling around the engine forward of the windscreen.

So a recognised hazardous situation is a low-wing aircraft descending on to and colliding with a high-wing aircraft.

We were around mid-downwind and the student had completed his pre-landing checks. At one point during my usual traffic scan I was looking out the windscreen which suddenly filled with the extensive underside of a Piper aircraft overtaking us at very close quarters directly above us. It had descended directly over the top of us from a higher altitude and at a higher speed. The pilot was obviously late in establishing the aircraft at the required 1000 foot circuit height, putting us at the critical time slightly ahead and below the Piper – potentially in one of its blind spots. I recall the rapid transit of the dirty underside of fuselage, the main wheels far too close to our wings, the underside of the wings fleetingly in my peripheral vision, the tailplane passing across our field of view. It had overtaken us at what felt like a mere couple of metres above us apparently without any awareness we were there. There was no time to apprehend imminent disaster because it passed us very quickly. Had the descending and overtaking aircraft collided with us there is only a remote possibility it would not have been catastrophic for both aircraft.

The other aircraft landed ahead of us unharmed. We also landed unharmed.

It was a useful incident for the student to see, and to discuss with him.

Low level joyflight over Sydney

I was in Sydney in late December 1981 with my brother Noel. We had the inspired idea that as I had a commercial pilot licence and a brand new instructor rating I should be more than up for a joy flight over Sydney in an aeroplane we could hire from Bankstown. So out to Bankstown we went, and shopped around until we found a Piper Cherokee (registered VH-TVJ) available for hire after a satisfactory check flight with one of their seemingly teenage instructors. He was surprised when, after asking me to demonstrate a short field landing on or near the ‘piano keys’ (white markers on the runway), I did so with the main wheels touching the very beginning of the piano keys and the aircraft rolling to a full stop without braking before the first taxiway exit. I thought he should do some more bush flying, as a short field landing with accurate touchdown point at low speed is a standard requirement in the bush. But then again, when I looked at the Visual Terminal Chart we were to fly with, I thought perhaps I should do some more visual flying in congested control zones in big cities! But I reminded myself that an aeroplane at a given time can only fly one heading and one height. As for radio communications with traffic controllers, it’s all in English and only one person at a time can talk, so how hard could it be?

We lodged an approximate flight plan which included our preferred turning points, on the understanding it would probably be altered by Sydney traffic controllers according to traffic at the time. We understood that diversions and holding instructions were to be expected. Bankstown is on the very edge of the Sydney control zone which has a number of reporting points inside the zone. Our flight path was handed to us in segments, with a series of clearances issued for short distances to the next reporting point with a request to report overhead and hold pending further clearance. There were quite a few frequency changes during the flight. At times there were heavy jets flying above us on approach to Kingsford Smith airport.

The route we actually flew was Bankstown – Picnic Point – Cronulla – Sydney Heads – Harbour Bridge (staying over the harbour waters at all times on this leg) – Bankstown. But there were a lot of heading changes and altitude variations to complete this flight, not to mention holding periods as we orbited at various heights pending our next clearance to continue. I lost count of the number of radio communications with the air traffic controllers. On two occasions we flew below the approach paths for heavy aircraft landing at Sydney Airport.

Sydney visual terminal chart extract

This is a newer version of the Sydney Visual Terminal Chart than the one we flew with in 1981, and an older chart than the version current in 2023. But it gives you the general idea of its detailed format and the density and quantity of the important information it contains that is relevant to a visual pilot (as distinct from a pilot flying solely by reference to instruments) flying in the area. It shows Bankstown, Picnic Point, Cronulla, Sydney Airport and the Harbour Bridge. The extract above cuts off the coastal section of our flight from Cronulla to the Heads.

My first clearance given before my takeoff at Bankstown was to fly to Picnic Point at (I think it was at 1500 feet), then to hold for ongoing clearance. It might take you a moment to identify Picnic Point on the map above. I thought it might take me longer to identify it from the air. Rather than rely exclusively on my map reading skills to identify it visually in this densely settled and developed area with which I was unfamiliar, I measured the track bearing and distance from Bankstown to Picnic Point, and knowing my airspeed (and there not being much wind about), calculated the time interval in minutes and seconds (on a small circular slide rule pilots use for such calculations). As soon as eg 3 minutes and 40 seconds had elapsed, during which I accurately flew the heading required to track to the reporting points, I would call ‘Tango Victor Juliet overhead Picnic Point at 1500, request ongoing clearance to [X]’. I cannot swear that I visually identified each relevant reporting point (all those winding freeways, red roofs and backyard pools), but I can say that air traffic control (ATC, which was closely following my progress on radar) never once complained that I was other than where I said I was. Once I got to the coast and into Sydney Harbour of course visual navigation became much simpler.

The highlight of the flight for both Noel and me was when we wound our way up the harbour from the heads at 500 feet above the water tracking at all times over the water. This felt a lot lower than it sounds. The views to our left, right and ahead of moored boats, ships, yacht clubs, luxury residential areas and parkland were spectacular. As we neared the Opera House we received an instruction from ATC to orbit at 500 feet staying over water east of the Bridge until further clearance. The highest point on the Opera House is 220 feet (67m) above sea level – the height of a 22 storey building. The highest point on the bridge main arch is 440 feet above sea level (the aviation beacon is 460 feet above sea level). The narrow area in which we were cleared to orbit is narrow by aeroplane standards, and required that I maintain quite an angle of bank to fly circles of a radius that would comply with the clearance. Kirribilli Point, the Bridge and the Opera House moved across our windscreen quickly and repeatedly.

It felt very much that we were circling between these great icons rather than over them. Each time we came around facing the Bridge it felt as though we were no higher than it. At best we were only 50 feet higher than it. The high-rise cityscape behind the ferry terminals was breathtaking. I remember Noel observing that, “This doesn’t feel legal.” After orbiting for 10 minutes (which is a lot of 360 degree turns at a high angle of bank) we were cleared to climb and upon reaching a specified altitude (which I forget) track direct to Bankstown. Total flight time startup to shutdown was 60 minutes.

In hindsight, this joy flight in planning and execution was somewhat audacious. It would not occur in the modern era. I am confident that lodging a flight plan for a visual flight rules (VFR) flight in a fixed wing light aircraft over Sydney harbour orbiting for 10 minutes at 500 feet near the Opera House and the Bridge, would be rejected outright. VFR traffic flying around Sydney in the modern era has set routes to follow, and a comprehensive Visual Pilot Guide publication replete with photos, maps, frequencies, procedures and advice. But we completed our joyride on first principles of navigation and procedures (both of us being complete newcomers to the Sydney control zone).

Noel and I have clear and fond memories of this short but highly interesting joy flight.

To be continued

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