Saturday 24 September 2011

back to school…

…or at least that was what it felt like in one critical respect: that old familiar dread. Getting up in the morning, having breakfast and putting the uniform on knowing that in half an hour I’d be back in class sitting there feeling a deep seated, dark, black dread…

It’s not that I’m a stupid person. I always did quite well at school as it happens. My dread always came as a result of my slightly psychotic nature and a constant (if misplaced) fear of failure and humiliation. Basically I hated school, I hated being there, being asked questions, having to speak, having to be someone. All I ever really wanted to do was fade into the background and be forgotten, left to my own devices, in my own little world. To an extent my personality hasn’t changed all that much since my school days: I’m still shy, I’m still terrified of failing and am constantly worried that people will think badly of me or that I’m about to make myself look like an idiot. Of course I am a fair bit older now, more mature and have spent several years learning how to cope and survive in the real world – nowadays my shyness is hidden under a veneer of enthusiasm and implied self-confidence. Sometimes the confidence is even real and I can live life genuinely believing that I am someone and can be someone…

When it comes to flying I have a love/hate relationship with the learning process. On the one hand I love to learn, I always have. On the other hand I hate to feel like an idiot, and despise making myself feel like I’ve made someone think I’m stupid. Aerobatics is great – I came into it completely green, with no knowledge, no skill and no pre-conceptions. I knew I knew nothing and was utterly content to be guided and taught with no fear of sounding stupid, because after all you can’t be ignorant about something you’re truly ignorant of.

I have a pilot’s license. I went through the pain of learning to fly, of being taught, of sitting the exams and having someone watch me and question me and work out whether or not I knew what I was doing or if I’m actually an idiot. I’ve been through all that and have no desire to go through it all again just now thank you, just like I have no desire to go back to school to sit at the back of the class praying that the teacher won’t ask me any questions. Having to ‘re-learn’ everything in the Pitts was not something I wanted at all, to such an extent that I’d been putting off doing any real circuit work and actually learning to fly and land the aeroplane as much as I possibly could. It was daft really, my own bizarre mis-conception that because I could fly a ‘conventional’ aeroplane, I should be able to fly a Pitts Special without too much effort…

A Pitts Special is an incredible aeroplane, and at no point is she to be underestimated. Treat her right and she’ll let you play with her, treat her badly or arrogantly and you’ll soon learn your place. SKNT and I have been flying together for a while now, and I’ve been quite happy to just play with her in the upper air, letting my mentor and teacher take control to get us back down, but of course it was essential that sooner or later I’d be able to take her out by myself, and as such I’d have to learn to actually fly and land her…

Landing is an interesting matter. It’s quite well known that Pitts Specials can be a bit of a handful and a challenge to learn to land, and it’s certainly been my experience that good landings are more of an art-form rather than a science. Learning to land was the part I’d really not been looking forward to – it should be easy, it shouldn’t be hard to learn, I should be able to pick it up really quickly…every bounce, every go-around, every fluffed approach were all things I knew I’d hate myself for because of course I would be making myself look like a useless idiot, and of course Paul was going to judge me for that wasn’t he…

Paul is a great instructor, ok yes, he has his faults as we all do, and at times I find myself feeing frustrated and even aggravated with him (bear in mind we’ve spent a fair amount of time in each other’s company now, and I’m not the most patient of people), but at the end of the day if anyone asked me what I thought of him as an instructor, I’d tell them I think he has a way with being everything he needs to be exactly when he needs to be in order to help someone progress. That, to me, is the essence of a good instructor and teacher…And so it was, after I’d finally swallowed my pride and accepted that my only option was to accept that I was going to be useless, and that it didn’t matter, I started flying circuits with Paul.

It has come to mind recently that an aeroplane isn’t simply a tool or a machine, but that it has a soul. SKNT certainly does, and a character to match. Simply controlling an aeroplane isn’t really flying. Confidence is needed alongside huge amounts of respect and humility, but once you get the balance right (or more to the point, once I had started getting the balance right), and you accept and listen to the guidance you are given, everything will start to settle into the right places. And so it is, that after a few hours of flying round and round and round and round in circles, occasionally landing but more often bouncing, whacking the power on and going around (or just going around after a truly terrible attempt at a side-slipped approach), of swearing to myself, hearing Paul saying the same things over and over again until they finally went in, of forgetting where to turn, of fidgeting in my harness, of wishing my seat was more comfortable or that I was on the beach in the Bahamas instead, of wondering when it would all end, of wishing I was a better pilot, of more swearing at myself, and of finally realising that I am a better pilot, of flying perfect and near-perfect approaches, of landing and stopping and backtracking and flying again, of smiling and realising that every bit of hardship and pain is worth it, of sitting and thinking that I’m madly in love with this type of flying and this type of aeroplane, of realising and knowing that I can do this, of still stuffing it up and swearing at myself occasionally, of going out and flying and relaxing and breathing and focussing: I have finally learned to land.

And so it went, that last Thursday Paul got out of SKNT and sent me off for the first time without him. After a shaky start and one of the most incredible pieces of decision making I’ve ever witnessed from anyone (I made a fairly major mistake and landed horribly shaken and prepared to walk away), I flew a few circuits and landed a few times, and left the airfield as a Pitts pilot, no longer just a student any more.

If it isn’t hard, it’s probably not worth doing!

Monday 19 September 2011


Terrified. Unsure. Alone and trembling, breathing deeply trying to gain composure…

That’s how I sat, in the back seat of a two seater Pitts Special, alone with nothing but the wind and my own thoughts for company.

Sherbern-in-Elmet, Yorkshire. The Tiger Trophy competition. Paul and I had headed up, he flying the Pitts and me driving my new second home (the van). This was quite a big one – all classes competing, from the Beginners (just me as it happened), all the way up to Unlimited. Lots of pilots, lots of banter, lots of flying. The whole thing was a fantastic experience for me, being only the second aerobatic competition I’d ever attended. I managed to fly my Beginners sequence on Friday, admittedly not as well as I was really capable of, but in all honesty I hadn’t prepared all that well and hadn’t really been overly concerned with the sequence – immediately before flying it and being judged I’d been practicing a sequence for the next class up (Standard). Being the only entrant I’m loathe to consider that I won (can you win a competition if there are no other competitors? I don’t really think so…), but despite my woeful lack of preparation and my somewhat distracted state, flying in some thick miserable haze of poor visibility, I still managed to be awarded a respectable 70.7% on my scoresheet.

Saturday’s competition was great. I’d hoped to be able to compete in the Standard class, but paperwork and my lack of endorsement precluded that happening. That’s not to say I didn’t fly, but I’ll get to that in a bit. The competition in itself was for me a wonderful and eye-opening experience – I got to watch some fantastic flying and meet a wide range of amazing and friendly people, pilots, judges, partners – all people enthused about aerobatics and the life that surrounds it (to any of you that were there and kind enough to talk to and make a young, shy pilot feel welcome, thank you!).

Two days previously, I’d spent the day at Shobdon flying circuits with Paul, gradually feeling more and more confident that I actually was starting to get the hang of landing at last. The good landings had continued all day until a moment of insanity clearly struck my normally sane instructor – he got out of the aeroplane and sent me off alone for the first time. (Quite how wise a decision this had been on his part came rapidly into question as I had a rather shocking near crash experience on my first landing, but that’s another story – ever cool, calm and collected, Paul managed to talk some sense into me and sent me back out to make less of a hash of things and as a result salvaged a good chunk of my confidence and esteem, and as such I left the airfield having been signed off to fly the Pitts solo, albeit by the skin of my tightly clenched teeth…). Anyway, my point here is that on Thursday I’d managed to achieve my aim for the winter, somewhat sooner than anticipated, and had solo’d the aeroplane.

Preparation is quite important to me in life. I like to know, as far as possible, what is expected of me and what I have to do, so at the end of the day hearing Paul ask me if I’d consider flying my ‘proficiency endorsement’ flight solo in the competition box, instead of with an examiner in the front seat acting as safety pilot (as I’d been led to believe would happen), I spent a good few minutes stunned and wondering whether this was genuinely the most ridiculous idea I’d ever heard, or if his belief in me was justified (could I really do this? Was I really capable? Could I really be ready for this?).

Terrified. Unsure. Alone and trembling, breathing deeply trying to gain composure…

That’s how I sat, in the back seat of a two seater Pitts Special, alone with nothing but the wind and my own thoughts for company.

After a good deal of procrastination and thinking, I eventually swallowed my lack of self-confidence and listened to the voices of the pilots willing me on, and the voice of the man that really knew what I was capable of. Paul and Ron saw me to the aeroplane and then headed to what had been the judging line earlier in the day, off to watch me fly the 2011 Standard Known sequence to prove that I was capable of safely flying and competing at this level. This was my first ever solo aerobatic flight…

Take-off scares me. A 200hp Lycoming engine attached to a big propeller on the front of a relatively light-weight aeroplane with only me in it is not something to be underestimated. Rudder inputs to compensate for the gyroscopic effect of such a big propeller on such a short fuselage, changing as I change my attitude to lift the tail to allow myself to see the runway ahead of me, lumps in the grass throwing and bouncing us around as we rapidly accelerate – it’s a relief when I can finally pull her up and take flight. I start to breathe again.

It’s only relatively recently that I’ve caught the aerobatics bug, but caught it I have and I doubt I’ll ever be cured – not that I want to be. Flight is something special, and aerobatic flight seems to me to be the embodiment of the focus and freedom I’ve spent my life searching for. The mountains are the only other place I’ve ever found such clarity of thought through sheer necessary focus, and only then for an instant at a time. In the air the challenges aerobatic flight presents me are everything I crave – clarity, focus and emotion all folded into one.


The Standard Known Sequence for 2011 – my first solo aerobatic foray

“The box, just find the box. Get higher, just relax, get it done.” My thoughts are my own, my emotions personal and private, but in the following moments they are nothing but crisp, logical necessity.

“Shit, there’s cloud. Ok just keep circling outside the box and wait for it to shift, it’s only momentary…”

Nothing went exactly to plan. My mind was full to beyond capacity, I couldn’t remember the sequence, everything happened too quickly. All I knew was I had to stay in the box, maintain the heights I’d calculated for each manoeuvre and fly everything safely. It all happened in such a blur I barely had time to realise what I was doing and that in those moments everything I’d been striving for over the past year of flying were suddenly being realised…

Landing at a strange airfield is always something that I find mildly traumatic, and being in a high-performance biplane that I’d only solo’d once before wasn’t something that was particularly helpful to my already broken nerves. Yes, my nerves were broken, but clearly not yet shattered as my eventual landing was as perfect as I could ever have hoped for – not so much as a skip, just a nice settled gentle touch down allowing me to roll the nose forward and see where I had to put my feet to keep myself in line. The relief was immense but very quickly replaced by the horrible knowledge that I’d landed on a runway from which I had no clue of where to taxi. Having to ask stupid questions over the radio is something I suspect I’ll get used to doing, but at the time I found myself chattering away to myself in private in between said stupid questions, just to maintain some semblance of sanity as I meandered my way back across the airfield, parking and shutting down my engine.

A few questions later, Ron told me he was happy and that he’d sign me off. Next year I’ll be flying alone and competing with the others at the Standard level.

Still terrified, but now sure. Standing alone and trembling with excitement, I have composure. I am an aerobatic pilot.

Sunday 11 September 2011

alcohol, tents and bog-trotting

Picture the scene – I’m at Shobdon airfield having just landed the Pitts for the nth time (I’m on the circuits at the moment trying to make my landings more consistent before Paul lets me loose on my own) and have a somewhat mad rush home because we’ve run late due to the rainy weather.

I rush back, to discover that the chap I was supposed to be meeting at my house, was in fact not at my house despite the message he’d sent saying that he thought he was…cue a short search and phonecalls to reveal that he’d made the mistake I’d told him he would, and had ended up at the house the sat nav will have you believe is ours (when in fact it is not).

Five minutes later and a certain Mr Phil Sorrell (aka DaylightGambler) had arrived on my driveway along with his dog, Angel, and a big bag full of alcohol.

This was to be the beginning of a slightly unconventional weekend for me – firstly because a trade deal of cider in exchange for a home baked toffee apple cake meant that on Friday night I ended up insanely drunk on a combination of the aforementioned cider and several different single malt whiskies, secondly because on Saturday I spent the entire day wishing I was dead. The hangover caused by Friday night’s excesses (actually, we were still drinking at 5am Saturday so I really do have no-one to blame but myself) was truly horrific and as a result we did nothing but sit, lay down, sit, grumble, eat bacon sandwiches, drink coke and finally bake the promised cake.

Eventually the pair of us (aided by my long-suffering legend of a husband) gathered ourselves together enough to head out onto the hills on the estate out back with our tents, for a surprisingly lovely ‘wild’ camp. There’s something about walking up into the hills by the brilliance of a near full moon that’s truly special.


Phil admiring the view  (yes, this is indeed where I live, and I most certainly do know how lucky I am)

Upon waking up on Sunday morning after said camp, the view was stunning. The bad weather had cleared for a few minutes and we sat and just drank it all in for a while, braced by a clear wind and with eyes set upon a life-affirming landscape vista.

Our tranquillity was broken a short while after we’d managed to brew the all important cuppa, by the grim greyness that we’d been expecting and so we set upon striking camp with a deal of haste before we got drenched.

After a breakfast omelette back at home we eventually settled on doing a simple walk at Lake Vyrnwy and heading up along the line of the waterfalls on the northern side. At least, it was meant to be simple…


Lots of water!

Personally, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of bog-trotting and marsh wandering, and so the next few hours were not necessarily my idea of heaven – it looked on the map like we were heading for a nice simple circular route up following the stream until we reached an old dwelling with a track leading back down through the forest to the road…The distinct lack of paths on the map were a clue to the nature of what was to come – the Berwyns are an area reasonably famous for their bogs and peat hags.


It may LOOK lovely, but the next part was really rather cack

Ok, so at the time I didn’t really enjoy having my boots fill with stream or my trousers absorbing several gallons of boggy poo water, but it’s always a good laugh afterwards, and this walk was no exception, and the area is undoubtedly a beautiful wild place and somewhere I truly feel at home.

Phil has been excellent company, and I look forward to sharing a few more days in the hills with him (assuming he’s not decided I’m some mad woman he never wants to be involved with ever again), although perhaps will less whisky next time…

Monday 5 September 2011

filler in

So what have I been up to of late? Just general life business I suppose, you know, van building (I have a transit I’m converting into a ‘stealth camper’ of sorts), aerobatic flying and general Pitts Special flying, mountain biking, looking for work…

Yes, I did say looking for work. Depressing as it is, the only way I’m going to be able to keep up the flying and attempt this mad career change thing (which, incidentally is still a notion open to options…current thinking is centring around possibly trying to get a commercial license and flight instructor rating, although I’m investigating everything else I can think of too), is to get more engineering work. More contract days would be ideal and we shall see what happens.

If anyone knows of anybody in need of a Radio Engineer, then let me know, please!

Also partially related to the career change and flying thing, is my latest major acquisition – the ex-police Ford Transit I’ve just had a bed built into the back of. It’s fabulous! I’ve always wanted a van camper, ever since I can remember seeing one a few years ago on a climbing trip. All hardcore outdoorsy people seem to have them – climbers, bikers, guides etc. Up until now I’ve never been able to justify the extra cost of owning and running one (over the cost of running the estate car), but with plans afoot to do more consecutive flying days, it makes no sense to be driving backwards and forwards to the airfield everyday (a 2.5 – 3hour round trip), and hence the van has become a hugely sensible option. It will also give me somewhere to chill out before and in between aerobatic flights AND somewhere to cook dinner/brew tea etc, thereby also saving on the amount I spend in the cafe. It all makes sense, honest!

The current build project, now that the bed is mostly done, is the ‘mountain bike quick access storage’ thing. I have some cunning ideas in the pipeline and some interesting bits of hardware on order, so hopefully in a week or so it’ll all be sorted and I’ll be posting up a complete set of ‘pimp my ride’ style photos for you all to yawn at.

Speaking of mountain bikes, this weekend just gone Matt, Philip and I finally managed to get over to Bwlch Nant yr Arian (near Aberystwyth) to try out some of the trails there, and I must say we were mightily impressed. Stunning views, a great little cafe, brilliantly fun sections of fast, technical singletrack, scary exposure and relatively sociable fire-road climbs all made for a fantastic day out. We will be going back I’m sure!


Fantastic view from the cafe deck. The Red Kites are great to watch too.


Somehow, despite deliberately taking the camera with us, we failed to get any good photos on the trails, but the big grins on our faces here tell the story – a truly fabulous day out on the Pendam and Summit Trails

Oh yes, and I probably should just mention that flying-wise, plans are afoot for me to be competing at the Tiger Trophy up at Sherbern-in-Elmet (near Leeds) on the 16th and 17th of September. Hopes are that I’ll be able to enter the Beginners category again on the Friday, and also enter the Standard on the Saturday. So right now I’m studying like mad to make the very most of my flight time in training over the next couple of weeks. I love it.