Cheap doesn’t always mean cheerful
Trying to save money by learning to fly on a bargain club aircraft taught one pilot some valuable lessons he hadn’t expected
Many years and flying time ago, my qualifying cross-country flight — an 150nm trip with two landings, then back to base — turned out to be a much broader airmanship lesson than anticipated.
Having done the majority of my flight training on an RAF University Air Squadron, with well-maintained Grob Tutors, my post-graduation budget definitely could not stretch to such luxury. Instead, I opted to finish off my PPL flying a club Cessna 150. This came at a bargain price, even with the decidedly more ‘vintage’ feel than I was used to, and a constant bootful of rudder to offset the bent fuselage!
I’d been to the landaway airfields and done all the prep, so when the day rolled around on a perfect CAVOK morning, the instructor signed me off to start the trip. If I didn’t go today, I never would.
From the outset the little old aeroplane brought some challenges. The alternator wouldn’t charge at all at taxying revs, the red warning light staying on. Also, In order to have enough fuel for the trip, I’d need full tanks. Unfortunately, the plane had a deferred fault with the fuel venting system, meaning that the fuel would drip out down to the three-quarter level whilst on the ground. The only thing for it was to fill up and make a quick departure before losing fuel or battery charge.
I settled down into the navigation on the first leg. All was now well: great weather and it looked like I was a few minutes ahead — I could even see the first airfield already. I radioed the airfield, letting them know I had “field in sight” and set up for a downwind join. The Tower said they couldn’t see me though, and I couldn’t hear the microlights in the circuit on frequency.
It took a few more seconds and then the penny dropped: in my haste to depart, I was not where I thought I was. In fact, I was at a microlight airfield a few miles from the intended destination. I made my apologies before joining the correct circuit and bouncing down the runway in use, still with more fuel than I was used to in the aircraft.
Presenting my PPL XC form to the on-duty FISO, he annotated ‘Excellent’ in the Airmanship section, which made me wonder exactly how bad things had to get in order to receive an ‘Unsatisfactory’! Getting back in the aircraft, I set off for the second airfield and climbed away on the correct nav track. Carrying out a FREDA check, I noticed the alternator light was still on. This usually went away once airborne, and certainly was something I’d never seen on the Tutor. Shortly after this I became a lot more concerned: I could smell burning in the cockpit and simultaneously became aware of heat on my knee. Convinced I was facing an electrical fire, I was puzzled to see no CBS tripped, but the alternator warning light still on. I shut down the master switch and ventilated the cabin, keeping the aircraft flying but losing my basic service from the LARS unit and the radio nav equipment (battery GPS was well out of the budget then).
I decided to try to minimise the electrical load and run on battery only. It worked — the burning smell disappeared but I knew I wouldn’t have long until I lost the radio and flaps on the battery power. Pausing for a moment, I was about to contact the controller when I suddenly realised I had no idea where I was! Using all my capacity to diagnose the fault, I had flown an odd heading, not helped by a rapidly windingdown DI. This was no time for “temporarily unsure of position”, I admitted I was lost, and the controller had clearly been trying to reach me during the electrical trouble. To my shock, he informed me I was half a mile inside controlled airspace and gave me a heading to fly out. Things were not going well.
With help from the controller, I found a ground feature to take me right to the second airfield. I just about managed to get a flap selection and weak radio call out before the battery went completely flat as I taxied in. I was delighted to be back on the ground, and the airfield FISO seemed pretty indifferent as I explained the background to my muted radio calls. Another ‘Excellent’ for airmanship, apparently.
Calling the club CFI, he wasn’t entirely surprised, and flew out another (better condition) aircraft for me to finish off the final qualifying cross-country leg.
So, what had I learned from this catalogue of errors? If there was one overarching issue, it was the false economy of cheap training aircraft. I’d tried to do the training for as little expense as possible, but had sacrificed aircraft reliability. While the many minor snags would not have been an issue to a more experienced pilot, as a novice the cumulative effect can be overwhelming. Even when trained and prepared for individual problems, they add to the already high workload. Realistically, although this was an airworthy aircraft for the circuit flights it usually did, it was really not up to the job for cross-country training.
I could have been more thorough on my fault diagnosis. My technical knowledge wasn’t great at the time and I’d convinced myself I had a cockpit fire — a well drilled emergency from UAS days. The combined burning smell from a slipping alternator belt and heat (actually from the sun as I changed heading, I later realised) were convincing enough. With better knowledge of the type, or looking further in to the defects, I might have realised the situation wasn’t as serious as I’d thought and been able to focus on other things.
The aviate, navigate, communicate process had worked, but only just. In my rush to depart, in order to keep my fuel, I’d set myself up for a basic navigation error. Later, although I’d kept the aircraft flying (in itself no easy feat on that old thing), I’d lost situational awareness and the ability to communicate effectively. However, by admitting things were going wrong to ATC early on, I’d possibly saved myself further trouble in the form of a more serious airspace incursion.
It probably won’t surprise you that, after that experience, I took on a second job and flew the best club aircraft in the fleet for my (successful) skills test!