Having a flying lesson was next on my bucket list.
‘You could have a new career as a drug courier,’ said my brother when I told him.
‘Don’t worry about the risks,’ said an underground mining friend.
So I filled in the waiver and duly watched the safety video that showed a small American plane nose-diving into the ground. The explanation for the crash followed, and I found that reassuring. I had not been apprehensive, in any case.
I love flying. I’ve flown in many small planes, mostly to and from the Central West in the 1980’s and more recently over the harbour with Sydney Seaplanes. Even soaring in a huge A380, I never get over the magic of flight, what get us into the air and what keeps us there.
Today, 17th February 2023, at Sydney Flying Academy, Bankstown Airport, I am having a Trial Flight in a 2-seater Tecnam P2008. Each seat has a brake, two rudder pedals, left and right, and a control stick. Between them is the throttle and a hand brake rests near the floor to its left. There are two positions for the flaps at the back of the wings. Like a car, the plane starts with keys that insert at the left of the dashboard but, unlike a car, the two pilots communicate with each other through headsets. Following pre-flight checks and pre-take-off checks, planes taxi out on the right side of the runway. Altitude is measured in feet, courtesy of the Yanks, and speed is in knots.
It was a perfect day for flying, hot, clear and virtually windless, and we had to wait our turn with the other traffic on the runway. My instructor said that 11.30 was a good time to fly because there was less air turbulence then than later in the day. He added that he had been up early that morning and it had been a beautiful flight at that time as well.
Pilots are calm, instructive people, which suited my mood because I wanted to find out as much about the mechanics of the plane as I could, having already a basic knowledge of aerodynamics, flaps, slats, spoilers, the stall angle and how jet engines work. Our plane had a single propeller but a small jet took off just before us.
I learned that the pistons in a plane go from right to left instead of up and down. I also learned that the throttle and the choke are not the same thing. This slip I blame on learning to drive on my grandfather’s 1967 Hillman. On wintry mornings you had to heave the choke out to supply the engine with petrol otherwise the car wouldn’t start, and I got into the habit at the time of thinking that ‘throttle’ was American for ‘choke’ and that it had the same function. In fact, the throttle controls the amount of fuel and the air necessary for its combustion that enter the engine. Therefore, before increasing the speed for take-off, the instructor pushed the throttle forward. The noise of the engine increased but didn’t roar like a seaplane, fortunately. Seaplanes have to plough through water resistance.
Our take off speed was 50-55 knots and our landing speed was 65 knots. The reason for the difference is related to holding the plane in the air as it is coming in to land. Bear in mind that the air speed over the curve of the wing keeps the plane up by creating low and high pressure zones above and beneath the wing respectively. Because nature wants to equalize pressures, a plane rises into the lower pressure zone. The flaps behind the wings increase the lift before landing by increasing the distance the air above the wing must travel, therefore its speed, and therefore the pressure difference.
I learned about a vortex, that is the air spiralling from the propellers over the plane. As well, the air passes backwards over the curve of the wing most strongly near the middle, thereby creating greater lift in that area, which is just what you want with two heavy humans perched in the cabin. The lift tapers off towards the end of the wings.
We remained at 500 feet until we flew out of the Bankstown radio area when we were able to climb to 1500 feet. (I seem to have 2500 feet stuck in my head. Not sure why.) Suburbia interferes with the airflow, so the minor wind bumps decreased as we got higher and left the housing developments behind. It was a smooth trip, resembling floating, and the noise inside the cabin was only moderate. The instructor answered my questions about how the plane remained balanced from front to back and from left to right. He offered me a turn taking the control stick, but I didn’t feel ready for that today.
The pilot used the control stick and the rudder pedals to control the plane in the air, and a whole range of helpful column graphs on a right-hand touch screen provided references to ensure that the plane was flying in the ‘green’. On the left-hand screen, a small white ball indicated left to right balance by wobbling between two points and above it was recorded the angle of the plane to the horizontal. The stall angle is 15 degrees. Flying at an angle greater than this will disrupt the pressure zones above and below the wing and the plane will fall out of the sky. The same will occur if the air speed over the wings drops. Put simply, you can’t fly slowly. We flew at around 90 – 95 knots but the little plane will suffer stress damage to the fuselage above 140 knots.
The visibility was so perfect that you could have counted the leaves on the trees, and waterways rather than houses and industrial areas dominated the city in gleaming coils of blue and silver. Rather than Sydney looking like an over-developed sprawl, today it seemed vibrant because of the clarity of its colours, the eucalypts a rich deep green and the mauve horizon disappearing into a tumble of white-tipped clouds. I even spotted my house, thanks to the large development beside it!
Movie-goers might be forgiven for thinking that the internal combustion engine pushes the plane along, but the reality is that balance is achieved by understanding air currents, vortices and wind speed and direction. If only pilots could be like birds and not have to think about it, for in essence it is the same thing, and I read that the Wright brothers spent a long time observing birds.
Bankstown Airport has three runways between 1000 and 1500m long and, as we returned, the instructor pointed out Prospect Reservoir lying serenely below, an important reference point to identify before landing.
In order to land the rear wheels before the nose, you hold the nose up with the control stick until the rear wheels touch the ground, then ease off and the nose will touch down by itself.
All I want now is to book my next flight. So much for my bucket list.