New horizons

Jon by the new aircraft

Jon by the new group aircraft

I’ve finally bitten the bullet and joined a light aircraft group at Biggin Hill which will hopefully reduce my day to day flying costs.  As most are probably aware, flying isn’t cheap, but joining a group, or buying a share in a plane can cut hourly costs compared with flying club aircraft.

Until now I have continued to hire the aircraft from the club where I trained for my pilot’s license.  This has been very worthwhile in spite of the cost, because of the supportive environment.  There are always instructors on hand to answer questions, and to give advice.  The time has come though, to break free.

Around 7-10 people share use of the aircraft pictured, and it can be booked online.  There are no restrictions on length of bookings which means I can actually start to make use of my skill, and take family and friends for proper trips away.  The aircraft is a Piper PA28 Warrior 2, identical in most ways to the planes I’ve been flying, but like with cars it does fly a little differently, and even has a basic autopilot.

The flying group had to be certain I was a competent pilot, and after checking my license and medical certificate, I was subjected to a basic test flight.  This I passed and last week I flew my first flight as a new member of the group.  I intended to fly from Biggin Hill to Guildford, then south to Selsey Bill, then east along the coast to Seaford, before returning northbound to Biggin Hill.  The visibility was fairly poor though, at between 8-10km, which may sound like a lot but at 2300ft, and travelling at 100kts it isn’t much at all.  Also, as you head into sun, that 10km feels like 2-3km because it just looks like a wall of haze.  For those interested, Legally 3km is the limit for my license, but I’d never want to fly in those conditions.

PA28 cockpit

PA28 cockpit

I had adjusted to the restrictive conditions, and had just reached Guildford when the radar controller I was talking to, warned all pilots of a thunderstorm at Dunsfold in Surrey.  This was within 5 miles of my intended course, and a couple of minutes away, so because I couldn’t see the storm, I elected to turn back.  Thunderstorms should be avoided by a very wide margin, as the powerful winds, hail and down-draughts/up-draughts can wreck any aircraft.  The storm hadn’t been forecast, although I have to admit that atmospheric conditions and an approaching front were signals that it had been possible if not now, but later.

I have to concede that my return navigation to Biggin Hill was not perfect, yet reasonable.  I knew the area, and followed landmarks as opposed to picking a heading then sticking to it.  I also used the aircraft’s navigational instruments to hone back in on Biggin Hill.  I found that the impending thunderstorm, poor visibility and multiple aircraft to avoid in the area affected my focus, as I just wanted to get back quickly.  It wasn’t a problem, but something to learn from.  One of the issues was that the return to land at Biggin Hill involved a slightly different track inbound from the outbound route.  This meant that I couldn’t simply fly a reciprocal course.

Anyhow, in spite of the increased workload and concern about the weather, the flight was enjoyable and yet another learning experience.