Biggles Goes Solo

“Here Dad – Happy birthday” Brighid perkily presented me a voucher for an $149 introductory flying lesson.

“What a top thing to do. Thanks a million. Doubt though if my eyesight will let me fly.” I replied with the caution old farts are wont to mumble.

The Wellington Aero Club is a somewhat drab weather board building. It’s obviously a club. Tawdry furniture and dull surrounds make no pretense that first impressions matter; as they might in a commercial operation. They taught WWII aces like Cobber Kain to fly – so what!

“Hi, you must be Ross” said the spiky blond Charlotte cheerily. She was dressed in the unflattering uniforms flying instructor’s daily recover off the bedroom chair. Pointing to the tarmac where three 1970’s Piper Tomahawk training aircraft were lined up she said.“We are taking Juliet November Echo.”

With radio headsets we made our way to JNE. She showed me how to “prep” the plane. A wooden dipstick measured fuel levels in the wing tanks. I pushed a plastic test tube into the drain plugs to sample the bottom of the tank making sure it looked, smelt, and was grunge free petrol. A walk around the aircraft checked on aileron waggle, nuts were tight and bird’s nests were not in the engine intakes. It’s a bit of a squeeze into the two seat cockpit. Charlotte starts the engine and calls the Tower. They direct us to taxi to Whisky 1 for “pre takeoff checks”. She lets me steer.There’s a knack to push the rudder pedals and brake together, for at 1200 rpm the plane trucks along.

Onto the runway, cleared for takeoff, full throttle, gather speed and we are airborne.

The Harbour had a cool gun metal sheen about it from 1,500 feet. We winged our way up the Hutt Valley. I was given the controls. They are like a car steering wheel cut in half.

Slight turns left or right keep the wings in level flight, or turn the plane. Ease the controls forward and the nose drops, pull back and up you climb. Push a rudder pedal the nose turns.The art was to keep the horizon,where the sky merged with the Tararua tops, a third way up the windscreen.A few turns,back past the Point Howard where it was bumpy from Eastbourne hot air,and down the coast to join the landing circuit.

We descend towards Island Bay, turn, lower flaps, throttle back. Charlotte flares JNE up just above the runway, cuts power and touchdown. We move quickly off the runway. with a Boeing behind. What a buzz!

I have always thought of flying. Dad was a de Havilland test pilot after the war. I was brought up around planes at Rongotai where he later worked.Indeed,as a snotty kid,I leant to drive on the runway as it was being built. Little did I think then I might learn to fly from it half a century later – for I had a lazy eye that got me kicked out of the Navy Reserve.

Standards change, sight can improve with age, and pilots wear glasses. I heard of this so contacted a Civil Aviation (CAA) approved eye specialist.

In a darkened chamber in an upper Kelburn room a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons put me through a gauntlet of different lens, peering at dots and lines, and colour pattern recognitions. He then told his receptionist, without any aplomb so befitting the occasion “Mr Jamieson has passed his CAA test ” I was elated, and $100 poorer. Next hurdle my hearing. A formulaic audiologist had me judging when noises,tones and pitch’s faded in and out of ear phones. Mercifully, I was OK.

Finally onto the CAA approved doctor in leafy suburbia. I was relaxed about this, as I was as fit for the Taupo bike race.There was a questionnaire to complete about rugby concussions, drinking habits, parent’s diseases, and so on.The Doc gave me a thorough going over including heart, ECG and a lung capacity test.He asked finally “if the family jewels were OK” and without thankfully examining them entered my results into the CAA computer format.I’ve puffed an odd cigar over the years. This skewed my data towards the smokers red no pass zone – but I was fine.

I left the surgery beaming, with my Class 2 certificate (and for the tally, $250 poorer). Punching the air driving home, I resolved to give up cigars there and then – and have.

At a social do I met the Airport CEO, Simon Draper. He said there were few, if any, other airports in the world where students learn to fly on the same strip commercial Jumbo’s land. Wellington had been closed, at considerable cost because Tommahawk trainers flipped on takeoff a few years ago. Impatient students had not waited for the turbulent wake of the departing jet to settle.

Wellington Airport Limited would love the Aero club to leave. This is unlikely, as the Aero club was there first – squatters rights! It was established in 1929 with an aeroplane donated by the Evening Post.Most commercial flying then operated from Paraparaumu, and Rongotai was just an air strip.

The club offers a $3,260 package to get solo. I signed up.This provides 15 flying hours with instruction, two exceptionally lucidly written training books and a CAA Pilots logbook.The lesson sequence is tightly prescribed. You work through the use of controls, climbing, descending, use of flap, turningand then the more hair raising techniques to pull out of stalls and finally onto circuits with landings. I looked at my old mans 1938 logbook. The training sequence remains unchanged apart from spinning – which a Tomahawk is not designed for.

The Chief Flying Instructor reckons it’s a natural progression for Wellington kids to move on from trikes, to bikes, to cars (boy/ girl racers?) and then into three dimensions – flying.

Booking lessons is easy, with four flying instructors and I can skive off at times during the week.They were enthralling, mostly spent over the coast by Lake Ferry above schools of Kahawai in the light swells below. It is hard to suppress “Yee-ha” yells for the sheer thrill of just being up there.

I keep getting ticked off for looking at the instruments rather than outside. It’s the horizon I’m reminded that tells you if you are level, or height is being maintained whilst banking. To stop me doing this Instructors cover the instruments. Golden rule first “fly the aeroplane”.
Aviation has not gone metric. Speed is in knots, altitude in feet and distance in miles. Great for my generation who still think of house sizes in square feet, but confusing I guess, for budding pilots weaned on hectares and kilometers.
The other Red Barron anachronism is radio. Aircraft call signs like Romeo Tango Hotel don’t sound pc, and “Wilco”, “Roger”, is a parlance one has to master by passing a “high school” type radio exam – which for one who has taught at university I found harrowing.

I visited the Control Tower, nest of this new language.A packet of chocolate biscuits is the entry student koha.Winding up past security the steep staircase opens into a stunning goldfish bowl view of Wellington airport. Welcoming controllers were encircled with radar and computer screens showing planes positions. Controllers slid little aluminum skiffs to one another with each aircrafts details on. They thereby have a tactile depiction of an aircraft to physically move in and out of their control patch.This must offset the monotony of blips on screens, I guess.

Once the flying basics are covered I was flying circuits around the busy airport. Maybe 10 of the 15 plus hours it takes to go solo are spent in circuits. More with older guys.Takeoffs and landings are drummed in by repetition – rote learning not unlike mastering the 8 times table. Landings must click.

On a pristine Thursday lunchtime after 25 circuits the Chief Instructor after checking everything hopped out of the plane.“Of you go”. My tummy churns, no opportunity even for a nervous pee.

Cleared by the Tower I roar down the runway applying full throttle, jiggling the pedals to keep it straight.The plane wants to veer left because of propeller wake or yaw.Easing back on the controls and I’m airborne. Yahoo! I climb to 1,000 feet moving right over the Prison so a following plane has clear passage, turn towards Ward Island,then right angles to be parallel to the runway. Easing the controls forward I reduce the power, trim the plane out at 1,400 feet and aim for the Pencarrow lighthouse. Pushing the radio button I say “Downwind,request full stop landing.Whiskey Alpha Charile.

“Whisky Alpha Charlie, number two Report sighting Saab.” Jeepers where is the Saab – phew I spy its silvery top turning in towards Island Bay.“ Number two.Saab in sight,Whisky Alpha Charlie “.

A right turn round Moa Point.‘Cripes” quick pre landing checks. Brake off, undercarriage down, mixture… “

Then its all go. Reduce the revs to 1600, flick the carburetor heat switch on, get the nose down a whisker and airspeed below 80 knots, trim and set one notch of flap. Anticipating the runway centerline, I turn down Lyall Bay aiming for the piano patterned runway “threshold”. Cleared to land Whisky Alfa Charlie “intones the Tower. Off with the carb heat, jiggle the aircraft to the centerline (so it runs up your bum), ‘Shoot’ too low… more power ‘right oh’ hold it up boy.. ‘Yea’ hold it .. O.K. .‘you beauty’. Just above the runway I look to the end,cut the throttle and when the hangers register in my peripheral vision pull the nose up a whisker and land a tad clumsily on two wheels. Holding the nose off it then comes down,‘Not too bad, old son’.

Yo.I have done it! Roll on private pilots license training – if I can gather the shekels.

When laid to rest, I will be at peace certain rites were fulfilled that entitles me to degrade into Te Whanganui A Tara’s surrounds. A winter tramp across its snow covered Taraura lip was one. Canoeing the length of its Hutt River, another. Sailing its waters out across a moody Cook Straight is a Wellington thing too, as my companion yelled abeam the Terawhiti rip “Rather sloppy – eh? Auckland sailors go home now”. However, to have soared above our Capital’s magnificence, yodel uninhibited by instructor yabber, and land at its stunning International Airport – is tops.

A pox on the neighbour who left a Biggles book in my letterbox!

Ross Jamieson