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Australia Pilot Training Guide 09

Updated on January 10, 2016
Flight school training aircraft parked at ramp.
Flight school training aircraft parked at ramp. | Source



THIS is all too easy. It's time for some disasters, or at least some decent"what-ifs", and there's going to be no other way to go about it. A furtive glance at my passenger, and I managed an admirable bellow:


"Holy &%*&!" he curses. Now dislodged off his seat and wearing his coffee, he's not happy. "What the hell are you on about - blackout?" He's shaking his head like I've gone mad.

"Well, just think about it," I replied earnestly. "What if we're just cruising along up here, all fat, dumb and happy, and all these pretty-coloured moving maps with numbers and arrows and stuff all over them suddenly blacked out. Boom - nothing - black - not a cracker - not a peek out of anything behind those fancy glass cases. Zilch."

"OK, OK, I get it already, you've lost some electrics to your panel - now what's your point?" He's a bit cranky with me about the coffee.

"My point is, we're all getting lazy.

I don't know about you; actually I do know about you, and I reckon we rely on the GPS too much these days, for the simple reason that we can, and it's there to use. Not to mention it's awfully good at navigating, and never gets emotional or argues with me. Come on, bucko, when's the last time you did a 1 in 60, or worked out your exact position by chart and watch or, heaven-help-us, do a diversion without the help of the GPS?" My pilot friend gazed out his window, clearly racking his brain, and mumbling something about a bloody fruitcake and why couldn't we just get on with life in the modern age.

So today for pilot training, I'm dragging you all back to your first navigation exercise and for those of you who haven't been there, you've a lot to look forward to. Seriously, they're heaps of fun. I'm particularly enamoured with the high-scale hypertension and clenched ribcage that accompanied my earliest efforts at finding my way around the country. Top of the list of favourite memories would have to be my first solo nav, when my initial turning point didn't come up when it should have. So scared was I that

I turned around immediately, convinced I was lost beyond hope, and limped back to my home airfield (quarter of an hour back down the massive freeway beneath). The instructor who had let me loose came running out and asked me what on earth had happened and I told him I'd got lost. "Oh no, that's too bad," he said sympathetically. "Where?"

I stood there, looking up at him for a long moment, hoping that stupid question was going to be rephrased, but it never was, and so I dissolved into tears as is my right. The sight of his fumbling and hand-wringing at what the hell to do with me next almost lifted my spirits back to normal, but the scars remain. My mistake had been ignoring the big picture thing, and to this day, I've never gotten over that feeling of thinking I was lost. We're back in school.

Flight instructor checking student pilot's flight planning, mainly flight calculation and weather report. If you cannot understand anything don't hesitate to ask your instructor.
Flight instructor checking student pilot's flight planning, mainly flight calculation and weather report. If you cannot understand anything don't hesitate to ask your instructor.

CASA Safety Video - Camden OnTrack VFR Operations


"Nothing in this world is going to be more valuable in saving a pilot's workload and guesswork in the cockpit than pre­planning," says David Maddock of Camden Airport-based Gostner Aviation, Australia, in south-west Sydney.

"If those lovely Yanks pull the plug on the satellites, it needn't ruin your day."

David is a veteran of the pilot training industry and although a regular IFR instructor, I knew he would be well versed in the concepts of navigating the "old-fashioned" way, with full reliance on map & timepiece, and protractor and whiz-wheel calculations in-flight. Determining groundspeeds for ETAs, and new headings in off-track situations are dead-reckoning methods that my flying could do with some brushing up on, so I told David I didn't want to use the GPS at all on this flight: Camden-Goulburn-Canberra-Camden.

"Well," he replied. "You can do that, but don't forget that a PPL test these days requires that you have a working knowledge of the instrument panel in the aircraft you are flying, and you're perfectly within your rights to use the navigational equipment to affect a safe flight. Where the problem lies, is when pilots rely solely on the GPS, and if that suddenly died, they wouldn't have a clue on their present position. So the best idea is to use such aids as a back-up in your pilot training to what you already know, and that's what we'll do today."


We decided to tackle a navex (navigation exercise) from go to woe.

I don't know about you but, for me, the first ten minutes of any nay is the most stressful. Anything you can do to minimize that, is a good thing. Back to the pre-planning statement - nothing beats it. By the time you hop into your aircraft, you should have a fair bit of information staring back at you from the flight plan on your lap.

"One thing I always try to stress," says David, "is to make sure the student knows all there is to know about the destination airport. Read everything in ERSA relating to that airport, and any logical ones en route in case you need to land there. Note the elevation, taxiway layout, any local traffic regulations are important for pilot training.

"And if you're planning to operate in controlled airspace, ask your instructor if he can arrange for you to spend some time in the radar room and control tower beforehand, if you live nearby. Watch and listen. For CTA ops, one of those visits is worth five nays." (And a whole lot cheaper, I'm thinking.)

And then there's the big one - Weather. The weather is actually the boss of this whole gig - it tells you whether or not you're even going to take off. So it's a good idea to be able to translate the coded symphony of our forecasts into plain English. For those with access to a computer, the NAIPS system is one we've all embraced and for my money, it's a blessing after listening to that turnip on DECTALK and battling with Avfax for years before Airservices made it easy for us. We all know the forecasts are written in Hebrew, but they're not going to change anytime soon apparently, and so student pilots will initially have to spend a lot of time understanding them in their pilot training.

Flight instructor and student doing pre-flight checks will ensure fewer surprises in the air.
Flight instructor and student doing pre-flight checks will ensure fewer surprises in the air.
Checking flight weather and requesting control tower permission for the taxi-departure.
Checking flight weather and requesting control tower permission for the taxi-departure.

Jabiru J160 sport flyer

"Once you've got a positive fix, take a break, relax for a while & enjoy the view"

Says David: "Forecasts can be complicated - get to know them. Even when you're not planning to fly, get a forecast every day and practise reading it. Do this heaps of times and the format will become easy. What you must come away with is an honest understanding of what the weather is expected to do."

Another thing I'm reminded about is the importance of knowing where to look for specific information on the aircraft you're flying. The Flight Manual is for you — the pilot, not for the maintenance people, or the flying school; it's for you and you should familiarize yourself with its contents before going flying. In your pilot training double-check Weight & Balance calculations with the info contained in the Flight Manual. Don't be the slightest bit hesitant to ask your passengers their weight and don't lie about your own, OK? The accident investigator will so know.


If David could put this one in Neon lights, he would. He maintains that a pilot's mental attitude is everything and cites over-confidence as the most dangerous attribute a pilot can possess - no matter how many hours there are in the log book.

I told him that my problem was the complete opposite, that I always wished I had more confidence. I've been told a million times that there's absolutely no reason for lack of confidence if you've done your homework thoroughly and you are comfortably current in your aircraft. Any challenges in flight can then be tackled with a head that has room to think, and your endless hours of training will kick in when required.


OK, we're outta here. Today's aircraft for the pilot training is a Jabiru 160 with a cruising TAS of 90 knots so there should be plenty of time for some pretty impressive en route navigating. There's also going to be plenty of time for drifting off-track between obvious landmarks and wondering where the hell I am. I've got 10-mile markers on my pencil-drawn track and am using the VNC because of the Australia's controlled airspace steps out of Sydney.

"Writing down an accurate departure time is critical," David says. "If your departure onto your first track takes you overhead the airport, then it's easy, note that time and you're in business. But if you're joining your track after a few minutes of flying time to get you established, you need to take a look at your position, note the distance from the airport and work out how many minutes to subtract from the current time to note down as your actual departure time (ADT)." Instrument Flight Rules dictate that you're established on track within five miles, so it's generally accepted that that's good enough for VFR operations.

Plan a flight without using the GPS. It will be an hour or two well spent, grabbing an instructor so he can keep you honest. Its good for the soul.
Plan a flight without using the GPS. It will be an hour or two well spent, grabbing an instructor so he can keep you honest. Its good for the soul.

If there's an unmistakeable landmark on your track within or around that first five miles, that's a stress-free way of confirming you're on track. I was also taught years ago, that if you use Track as Heading for the very first part of a leg, and look into the distance for a straight-ahead landmark - it might be a dip in the ranges, or the peak of a mountain - you can see roughly where you want to end up in your pilot training. You can then determine how accurate your flight-planned Heading is working out as you go along, without being solely dependent upon often illusive ground indications.

We covered procedures like working out groundspeed as we progressed. Today, we're using 10-mile markers which you've drawn on your map last night. As the first ten miles always involves a climb, in our case at about 80 knots, i.e. seven and a half minutes over 10 miles, then you know that about seven minutes on from your ATD you should be nearing your first 10-mile marker. In your pilot training write down that ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival) on the map so you can compare it to the actual time when you get there and if it's different, you're already starting to see the effect of wind. Once you hit the cruise, see how it works out using your TAS over the next 10-mile section and you'll soon get hold of what the wind is doing and be able to work out a pretty accurate groundspeed by noting how long it's taken you to fly 10 miles.

But keep those ETAs updated all the time; they'll be an enormous help during those times when you lose the plot in the cockpit and get distracted. And mark down positive fixes whenever you can.

"Always read from map to ground in your pilot training, not the other way around," advises David. "Work out roughly where you should be at that time, note any landmarks on the map, and then look outside for confirmation. If you have a grasp on your groundspeed, and what the wind is doing, you've got a method of planning ahead. This is far better than track crawling," he warns.

"The only time you'd read ground to map is when you are lost. That's when you'd start looking for things like prominent line features."


We're sharing the skies and it's not enough to know just all about us. There doesn't have to be a potential for conflict for you to make sure you are situationally aware of the area you are passing through. If it's a CTAF, then make sure you monitor that CTAF frequency for traffic in your pilot training. And, as we were doing, if you are entering controlled airspace, be prepared early. Have all the required frequencies written down; know exactly where the CTA steps are; don't wait until the last minute to request airways clearance, and ensure you're fully conversant with the operation of your transponder.

Canberra's ATIS told us what to expect; there wasn't a great deal of other traffic and the controller was in good humour, so flight within the CTA went fine.


"How do you reckon your diversion technique is these days?" David asks.

"Oh, unbelievably polished," I replied. With no regard to my stress levels, he's clearly thinking about an early mark and giving our more distant waypoint of Crookwell, Australia a miss today: "How about straight home from here then?"

"From here" is usually the bit that causes angst. You've got to have a definite fix on the point from which you make your diversion, and if you've been keeping up to date with your position, that shouldn't be a problem. Sometimes it makes sense to fly another mile or two (or further if you need the time) to a marked town or something, rather than rush your turn and be unsure where it happened. I had big fat Lake George out to my right to give me some help, and a nearby town, so I grabbed my pencil and hand-drew a line from the town straight across the VNC to Camden. I looked at it and estimated a new track of about 045, noted the time, and turned at the town onto the approx magnetic heading of 035.

Orientation, OK- there's Goulburn, ahead and to the south. Then I got out the ruler, gave myself a tidier line, measured my distance, and scribbled down that and the ETA on my pilot training flightplan. Then put the protractor down and noted the actual track. Can I say NOT EASY in this new groovy ultralight aeroplane where the control column is in my right hand - where does the damn pencil go for God's sake?

My housekeeping at this point sucked - I had to stash the nav gear and refold the map without knocking David out - I hate it when the destination is just past the fold - and I knew it was high time for a CLEAROF check. It gives a whole new importance to trimming, that's for sure. I suppose a few secs of autopilot is out of the question. Aah that's right, I'm the one who didn't want any mod cons this trip - wasn't that a great idea. We were porpoising through the air like we were on our tenth rum.

Whilst this creative performance was going on, we'd left the GPS off. So once I'd established on my new course, we hit "Direct to" Camden to compare. That was probably the best moment of the day; my track was accurate and my ETA was out by one minute. I'd been expecting the worst, but why should it have been?


"How's the weather looking?" David interrupts my personal back-patting. Never bloody satisfied, these instructors. "Actually, not too flash now that you mention it," I replied, looking ahead to a decidedly murky horizon to the south of our track and lowering cloud.

"Well,that's something you have to keep ahead of," he says. "It's vitally important to keep reassessing the weather throughout your flight." His pilot training lesson in recognizing the actual height of the cloud bases, and their relationship to us and the horizon was invaluable. We ended up having to descend a thousand feet to keep below the cloud, which he commented was something a lot of pilots leave until it's too late and they've actually entered the cloud. Once again, he stressed it was a case of the thinking processes behind staying out of trouble.

"There's never any substitute for in-command decision-making," he explained. "The more you fly, the more you'll be exposed to less than ideal weather conditions and you'll realise the importance of back-up plans - plans which need to be thought about before you leave the ground. The "what-if' scenario needs to be visited, and visited often."

A wise old pilot once said to me: "So what if you get lost ? Its not death sentence - you can always just land if you have to. Use your head don't panic"
A wise old pilot once said to me: "So what if you get lost ? Its not death sentence - you can always just land if you have to. Use your head don't panic"


I found Camden. It was where we'd left it Cities usually are; it's only dodgy lakes and creeks that might disappear off the landscape without the WAC keeping up. Even then, they're usually marked as temporary. It's a tragedy that such a huge number of Australia's inland waterways are going to sit squarely in that category if this drought doesn't ease up soon. It's a sobering thought.

Today's had been a good flight; I had set out to be put out of my comfort zone and I was. But I slept easier that night, knowing that the old techniques of dead-reckoning still work if called upon, and to practise them once in a while is a very good thing to do. There's a world of navigation techniques that I haven't touched on today, and your pilot training instructor is the best person to teach you those. This was just to get the conscience stirred. You'll minimize your chances of getting truly lost if you ensure you keep a note of where you last turned, at what time and onto which heading. And the next time you go flying, just try flicking the GPS off for a leg or two and see how you go.


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