G-BFTE Grumman AA-5A Cheetah

From Trial Flight To PPL – Private Pilots Licence

For some the path from a trial flight to the acquisition of a Private Pilots Licence is one that takes only a few months to complete, but for me it was to last a little longer.

Helicopter Bell-47D G-ASOL
Bell-47D G-ASOL and passengers

My first taste of flying was as a child in the 1960s.  My father had hired a helicopter to spray fertiliser onto a small crop of conifers planted on some of his land in Wales.  Once the job was done the pilot agreed to give we three children a ride in his Bell 47-D (G-ASOL).

I don’t remember much about it, but it must have planted a seed.  It seems it wasn’t just the trees that benefited from a little boost that day.  However, it would be nearly two decades later before the seed bore fruit.

I left school at 16 with only a few qualifications and spent several years in and out of dead-end jobs so  I was restless for a challenge.  I needed to set and achieve a goal, go on an adventure of sorts and spread my wings.

Learning to fly fitted the bill in every way.  I was also inspired by the books of Richard Bach, in particular Gift of Wings and Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.  There was a new world to explore but I didn’t have to cross the globe to find a rain forest.  All I had to do was to go up, not across.

Replica of Spitfire prototype K5054
Replica of Spitfire Prototype K5054 which first flew from Eastleigh Aerodrome

I lived within a few miles of Southampton (Eastleigh) Airport, birthplace of the Spitfire.  The airfield has been in use for over 100 years.  The first aircraft took off from this airfield in 1910.  At the time, in the mid 1980s, it was still a mix of GA (General Aviation) and commercial flights to the the Channel Islands and elsewhere.

I chose a flying school called Flight Preparation.  They had a small fleet of Grumman AA5A Cheetahs and some office space on the first floor of the old terminal building.  They also rented offices a few miles away in Chandlers Ford where they provided evening ground school classes.

My first lesson was on the 3rd November 1984 in a Cheetah with the registration G-NASH.  Being a bit of a slow learner and with weather and other delays, it was to be seven months and a total of 17 hours and 35 minutes of dual instruction before I was ready for my first solo on 4th July 1985.

My First Solo

G-BFTE Grumman AA5A Cheetah
© Ian Haskell

They say no pilot ever forgets their first solo, and they are right.  I can still feel the anticipation after another round of circuit bashing in G-BFTE.  As a student you know that the day is imminent but you’re never quite sure when the instructor is going to ask you to fly that first solo.

After several take-offs and landings in during which my instructor criticised my abilities to the point where I was ready to complain we taxied onto the apron.

Are we going to park, return to the terminal building, and discuss my obvious inability to control an aircraft?  Or is today the day?

As we came to a halt my instructor said, “Right. Do that again, just the once.  I’m going for a cup of tea.”  Before I could issue any kind of protest he was out of the aircraft and walking away without looking back.

First Solo PPL
Instructor to student: don’t screw it up

Of course, tea was the last thing on his mind.  He would have probably watched as I made my radio call and taxied back to the holding point. Perhaps he watched as I made every turn and kept his finger crossed for a half decent landing with no bounces, wheel-barrowing or worse.

Once the tower had given permission I moved out onto the centre line of that big concrete runway.  I glanced once again at the Ts and Ps (Temperatures and Pressures).  They were all in the green.  Full throttle, gently, and off we go.

The first thing I noticed was how much faster the aircraft climbed without the instructor.  Then, it was a case of follow the drill.  Climb out, turn, downwind call.  For a few moments on the downwind leg I allowed myself the luxury of looking around.  “I AM FLYING THIS PLANE! I – ME – I AM FLYING THIS AIRCRAFT!”

Grumman Cheetah AA5A G-NASH
G-NASH – First flight and several solos in this aircraft

I made my downwind call and turn onto base leg.  Moments later I was on final approach and the view out of the cockpit looked about right.  I made my last radio call of the circuit and concentrated, hearing my instructor’s voice in my head as I looked at the end of the runway and my position relative to it.

A gentle flare, a little more, and the main wheels were down.  I held the nose up as the speed decreased and let it too drop onto the runway.  Not a perfect landing but I was down safely.

The elation I felt as I walked across that apron to the terminal is still vivid 30 years later.  It was as if I had crossed into another world, from the land where people don’t fly, to the land of pilots.  I felt ten feet tall and couldn’t stop smiling.

After the First Solo.  Celebration, and delays

Lauren Richardson's Pitts Special S1-S G-BKDR
Lauren Richardson’s Pitts Special S1-S

Four days later I celebrated my first solo with the first of two 20 minute rides in a Pitts Special S2-A in which I experienced open cockpit aerobatics for the first time.  The contrast between the enclosed, gentle flying of the Cheetah with the power and maneouverability of the Pitts could not have been greater.

I can still remember the sensation of being at the top of loop as my backside left the seat and I realised why the instructor had made sure my shoulder straps were so tight.

After several loops, flick-rolls and stall turns I was left in no doubt as to the unbridled joy of aerobatics.

Between the summer of 1985 and the autumn of 1986 another 14 hours of dual instruction and 8 hours of solo flight was logged before I passed what was then called the General Flight Test (now called the Skills Test).

The solo time included a Qualifying Cross Country (QCC) flight from Southampton to Exeter, Exeter to Bournemouth, and Bournemouth to Southampton.  Approaching Exeter I still vividly remember looking down and seeing the VOR at Ottery St Mary.  My navigation was spot on!

However, despite completing the QCC and the GFT something went awry.  I was out of work again and both the flight school and I didn’t pull all the various components together and submit an application to the CAA for the licence.

1988 – Another push to complete

Aircraft Propeller
Delays and frustration

Nearly two years later, in May 1988, the funds were available to complete the goal.  This time I choose a school based at Blackbushe airfield in the north of Hampshire. I am not certain but I think Flight Preparation in Southampton had gone out of business by then.

Due to the lack of continuity in my training and changes to the PPL syllabus I had to go through several hours of dual training before I was ready to go solo again.

Then, after a few hour of solo navigation exercises I was given an NFT (Navigational Flight Test), which I failed!

The flying funds ran out again and my training at Blackbushe came to an end in February 1989.  It wasn’t until September 1991 that I could afford to fly again.

Completion at last!

Compton Abbas C150
Completed at last! Only took me seven years.

On 6th September 1991 I began a series of lessons at Compton Abbas airfield, this time in Cessna 150s.  Once again, revision was necessary before I was ready to solo, but the training went well and I passed the NFT on the 13th September.

A week later I completed the Qualifying Cross Country to a satisfactory standard by flying from Compton to Sandown (Isle of Wight), Sandown to Exeter, and back to Compton.

After another 50 minutes of preparation after the QCC I passed the GFT on the 20th October 1991.

I had done it, and this time there would be no foul-ups with the paperwork.  All the forms were filled in and sent to the CAA and my licence arrived a few weeks later.

It had taken me seven years, but I got there in the end.

I was the proud owner of a Private Pilots Licence at last.

What are you waiting for?  Go Flying!

Flight Preparation Fleet  – Southampton (Eastleigh) Airport in the 1980s

With thanks to Ian Haskell for the photos.  Ian worked at the airport as an Air Traffic Controller and learned to fly there too.

All these aircraft are Grumman American AA-5A Cheetahs apart from G-ECCO which is a Grumman American GA-7 Cougar.

G-RJMI Grumman AA-5A Cheetah
G-RJMI
G-NASH Grumman AA-5A Cheetah
G-NASH
G-ECCO Grumman Cougar
G-ECCO
G-BJDO Grumman AA-5A Cheetah
G-BJDO
G-BIPV Grumman AA-5A Cheetah
G-BIPV
G-BIJT Grumman AA-5A Cheetah
G-BIJT
G-BGCM Grumman AA-5A Cheetah
G-BGCM
G-BFTE Grumman AA-5A Cheetah
G-BFTE
5 Essential Tips for Enjoying Airshows

5 Essential Tips for Enjoying Airshows

A Stringbag 1
A wide variety of vintages

Airshows are a great day out for individuals and families. They can be enjoyed by anyone from aviation enthusiasts to those who may not a first consider themselves interested in aircraft, but who enjoy the spectacle and the occasion.  With that in mind here are 5 essential tips for enjoying airshows that will help you to make the most of the day, whether it’s a big international show or a smaller event on a grass airfield.

Obviously the size of the airshow is a big factor that determines many things, not just the size of the queues for the loos.  So keep that in mind when planning your day out.

Parents who have experience of any kind of outdoor event involving their children will probably be familiar with most of what comes next, but check through anyway as there may be one or two things you haven’t considered.

Check the weather and check it again

Spitfire at Goodwood
Grey skies and drizzle 🙁

The airshow season in the UK is from spring to autumn, so there’s bound to be a wide variety of weather and some events can be cool to say the least.  Airfields tend to be wide open spaces exposed to the elements!

As the day approaches keep an eye on the weather and check it again on the morning you leave for the show.  Don’t rely just on the main TV news for this as the weather at the airfield may by very different from the regional forecast.  There are plenty of fairly accurate apps for this, like WeatherPro which comes with a free and a paid version.

Airshows are rarely cancelled due to adverse weather, but it would be shame to make the journey only to find that it had been called off and you neglected to check before leaving.

Clothing and footwear

A Antonov AN-178 1 1960Once you know what the temperature is likely to be you can choose appropriate clothing and footwear.  Your enjoyment of the show is going to diminish rapidly if you get cold waiting to watch pilots put on a display.

It’s highly likely that you’re going to be standing on grass, whatever the size of the airfield.  If there has been any recent rain you will notice the damp.  If you don’t plan on bringing any folding chairs then a thick picnic rug is a good alternative.

If there’s going to be any sun remember to bring the sun cream.  Every year thousands of people return from airshows with sun burnt faces and necks because they’ve spent several hours staring up a the sky and forgot to put on some protection.

Essentials: hat, sun cream, sun glasses, umbrella (for shade, as well as rain)

Food and drink

It is an unfortunate fact of life that the catering at outdoor events tends to be overpriced, but it is convenient and there’s usually a fairly good variety. The other disadvantage is that you have to queue for it, so sometimes it pays to get an early lunch and avoid peak times.

The obvious alternative is to bring your own, but that means you have to prepare it and carry it to wherever you intend to sit.  That might be quite a long way from the car park, so a rucksack or trolley might be the answer if you have a large party of adults and children.

The loos are better than they used to be, but they can still be unhygienic due to constant use.  Wash your hands thoroughly and consider bringing your own hand sanitizer or anti bacterial wet-wipes.

Travel and access

A Blades 1 1960Again, forward planning is important if you are to reduce the stress levels and make the day go smoothly.  It may be tempting to pile everyone and everything into the family car and set off, but sometimes travelling light and going by public transport is the better option.

The Farnborough International Airshow (held once every two years) is one example where travelling by train might be better.  In 2016 there was a two hour wait for people trying to leave the main car park after the event on the Saturday.  Meanwhile, those who travelled by train simply boarded a free shuttle bus to the train station.

However, public transport will not always be an option and you’ll need to make your own way there.  If you end up parking in a large field, check your location before leaving the vehicle i.e. remember where you parked!  There’s nothing more annoying than trying to find the car when all you want to do is get in and get home.

Airshow Photography

Airshow PhotographyAirshows provide great opportunities for both amateur and professional photographers.  No doubt you will see the serious amateurs and the professionals with their large lenses and tripods.

However, taking pictures at airshows is something everyone can have a go at and it can be easy to take some good shots for the album or to share on social media.

Your phone or tablet is probably best for taking still images of the static display of aircraft and varies other activities around the site.  Without a zoom lens you’re unlikely to get a good picture of aircraft in flight.

On the other hand you can film the displays on your camera and by so doing capture the sound of a Rolls Royce Merlin engine or some other dramatic engine noise.

Conclusion

Finally, a word about safety.  Crashes at airshows are extremely rare, but when they do happen the effects tend to be dramatic and consequently they make a lot of headlines.  Statistically speaking you’re probably safer at the show itself than you are on the journey to it.  The aviation authorities and the airshow organisers take every precaution they can to keep you safe, and crowds continue to flock to all sizes of shows throughout the year.

To find out more about airshows and to choose your next one search online for one of the many sites that list them each year, like Flightline UK.