Microlighting

As mentioned before (see ‘Convergence‘), I booked myself a flying lesson in a microlight. This Thursday, the 4th of October, it all went ahead, having been postponed from the Tuesday due to gusty winds.

Above is a picture of me in the microlight just before take-off.

The lesson itself was very similar to the lesson I had in the Cessna at Lydd Airport almost exactly two years ago. The take-off was a bit bumpy, and again I went a little light-headed in the turbulence, but this time I found that I settled down and relaxed more as the flight went on. This could be down to the microlighting lesson being an hour compared to the 30 minutes I had in the Cessna. However, I am deriving a certain amount of encouragement from it as it makes me think that continued lessons might see this tension disappear in much the same way as the nerves that were present in my early driving lessons are now a distant memory.

I also found the controls a lot easier to handle during the period in which I was in sole control, and the limited number of instruments also made things clearer and easier to follow. Compare the two photos below, and you’ll see what I mean.

The Thruster microlight cockpit

Cessna 152 cockpit

The view was much better in the microlight too, and made for a slightly more enjoyable experience in that respect. At one point, we could see as far as Canary Wharf from 2,500 feet up in the Essex sky.

The main problem I had with this lesson was knowing whether or not the bumpy ride we had at times was due to the gusty breeze or my clumsy efforts with the controls. I was reassured that it was more likely to be the former, but I retain a lingering suspicion that the instructor was giving me the benefit of the doubt.

I think I will have another couple of lessons before making up my mind whether or not to pursue this seriously. It’s much cheaper than learning to fly a light aircraft, but then “much cheaper” is shorthand for £3,000 to learn rather than £10,000, so it is still a considerable amount of money to spend.

Convergence

If you’ve read my ‘To-do list’, the post I made about my New Year’s resolutions, and possibly even the post about quitting football, there are several things I’d like to do in the future. I’d like to learn to fly and I’m looking for some sort of physical activity to replace the football I have played on and off for about sixteen years. I would also like to lose a bit of weight and get fitter, having ‘filled out’ when I was seventeen and only dropped below thirteen-and-a-half stone once when I had mumps in 2005, when I lost over twenty pounds in ten days.

My problem is motivation. I really want to go for a run, and I will, just as soon as I finish this biscuit. Oh no, hang on, you shouldn’t exercise immediately after eating, so I guess I’ll have to go later.

It’s also no secret that I’m pretty frustrated with work, mainly due to the fact that the pay isn’t the best, which pretty much ruled out learning to fly any time soon. That was, until I stumbled across the idea of flying a microlight.

And then, in one of those strange, coincidental moments, everything converged to hopefully kill all three birds with one stone.

Emma and I were visiting North Weald airfield on Sunday for one of their airshow-type days, and saw that a company called Saxon Microlights were present and chatting to people about learning to fly a microlight. After a prolonged conversation about the joys of flying these aircraft, I started discussing the prospect of booking a lesson. I suggested some time at the beginning of October, and the instructor said “Of course, you’re less than fourteen stone…”, to which I replied, “Well…. give or take…” only for her to rejoin: “You will be”, and promptly weigh me. I weighed in at 91.2kg, and she set me the target of 90kg before my lesson. And now, I have the motivation, an achievable target and a plausible method which should all combine to help me achieve all three of the targets I have set myself over the last nine months.

3rd Time Lucky

Yesterday, at the third time of asking, my flying lesson finally went ahead. The sky was clear , the breeze was fairly gentle, and the sun was shining brightly; all in all, perfect flying conditions.

As I’d only ever flown twice before – out to Greece and back again – and in an airliner (a 737 if my vague memory serves me correctly), I had booked the shortest lesson available, a 30-minute taster, just in case I didn’t take to it as well as I hoped. As it turned out, I had no such problems, and really enjoyed it.

Anyway, enough of the vague generalities, let’s get down to the detail.

I turned up just before 2pm and signed in to the visitor’s book. Or at least, I guess that’s what it was. It might have been a trainee pilot’s signing in book, but ultimately, there isn’t much difference between the two…

After that, the instructor (a very nice guy called Joe Cunningham) issued me with a pair of headphones and then sat me down in the briefing room and explained how the controls worked. This took a good ten minutes or so as he explained that each control has both primary and secondary effects, and so it is often necessary to use a combination of the controls to negate the secondary effect (because that is usually an undesirable consequence of the primary effect).

We then walked out on to the ‘apron’, the area of tarmac in front of the hangars but separate from the runway where the planes are parked. I climbed in to the cockpit, plugged in my headphones and tightened the seatbelt while Joe performed a few last-minute checks. We then taxied over towards the runway, and Joe showed me how to check another couple of things, though to be perfectly honest I can’t remember exactly what they were.

We then approached the runway, with me doing some of the steering. I say “some” because I wasn’t very good at it at all. Y’see, the thing with aeroplanes is that when in the air, you can steer with your hands, much like you do in a car. On the ground, you operate the rudder with your feet. I wasn’t being quite firm enough, and so we kept veering off course. After pausing at the entrance to the runway – holding point D, I think I overheard from Air Traffic Control – we then took off. I don’t know if he noticed, but as soon as we were airborne, the biggest grin spread across my face, and it was quite a while before it began to fade.

During the briefing, he had asked me a little about myself, where I lived and worked particularly. As a result, we headed off towards home and eventually Tenterden. The thing that struck me the most from 2,300 feet up was how close everything seemed to everything else. At one point, we had Brenzett under one wing (or so it seemed), and looking out the other side, Brookland seemed directly below the other wing-tip. It was about this time that I had the only dodgy moment of the whole thing – we hit some turbulence and dropped suddenly, giving me a massive headrush that took a second or two to clear.

We found home quite easily, and Joe took us round in a loop to get a closer and longer look before we headed off towards Tenterden. Apparently, Harriet, Nick and Buster were in the field waving, but we were too high to see them.

Over Tenterden, we did a slow and wide turn and headed back towards Lydd. During the outward journey, we had been averaging a speed of 80 knots, and I asked Joe what sort of speed this translated to in mph. I was astonished when he said that it was around 100mph, and pointed to the dial which had a small inner window which I hadn’t noticed before, showing the speed in mph as well as in knots. I found it so hard to believe because up in the air you have no fixed points near you from which to judge your speed, and so it feels as though you are drifting along at a very leisurely pace. It wasn’t until we overheard a message to ATC from another plane which was going in the opposite direction to us at the same altitude, and I looked out of the window that I saw how fast we must have been moving.

During the flight, I had been in control of the plane for a reasonable amount of time, but I was simply responsible for keeping it straight and level. Luckily, this wasn’t beyond me, and there was a great feeling when a slight touch on the controls brought about an instant and noticeable change in direction. This also made me quite nervous as it brought home how easy it would be to overdo things!

As we approached Lydd, I was allowed to start bringing the plane around in a circle so that we would land into the wind. This helps slow the plane down as it comes back down onto the runway. Joe took over and brought the plane down – quite smoothly as well – and then he let me taxi back towards the hangars. Once again, I was too gentle, and he had to step in on a couple of occasions to stop me veering into something very expensive. As we approached the parking place for our aircraft, we spotted my mum, snapping away with the camera. The photos below are all her work…

 

After landing, and posing for a couple of photos while Joe and another man from the Aero Club secured the wings (they’re tied to the ground to stop them blowing away on windy days), we went back inside where I was presented with a certificate to commemorate my trip.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but with hindsight I think I was a little overawed by the sheer fact of being up in an aeroplane, and with my hands on the controls to properly concentrate on what I was doing at first. I also think I was a little too timid with the controls. In my defence, I defy anyone to not be a little cautious once they’ve seen how responsive the plane is to even the slightest movement of the control column. Next time (and there will be a next time, though when is less certain), I think I’ll try to be a bit more positive, and, with the intructor’s blessing, experiment a little more with the controls.

Wish me luck!