Three de Havilland Tiger Moths put on a show.
Three de Havilland Tiger Moths put on a show.
Here is the first in an ongoing series of 'Learning to Fly ' blog posts.
"A Matter of Course" (Part One)
There is no doubting that GPS has revolutionised the manner in which we transit the globe. For the visual pilot it has brought precision navigation to the cockpit at a highly affordable price. However, in some instances it has also opened the door to an old foe of aviation; complacency.
When Elrey Jeppesen plotted his way around protruding peaks and wild weather 75 years ago, he set in motion aeronautical charts as we’ve come to know them today. Decade after decade, the art of navigation has sought further precision and reliability as aircraft have increased in speed, range and capacity while our planet has seemingly shrunk at a similar rate.
The stars upon which the ancient mariners once gazed have been crowded by a sea of man-made satellites skimming across the night sky. From a constellation of these satellites in medium earth orbit, the signals are relayed that permit the calculation of a position down to a matter of metres, or less. And this is not the realm of lunar modules or long haul flight decks, this information can today be found on the dashboards of hire cars and mobile phones.
These Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have revolutionised not only the ‘how’ of navigation, but the ‘who’. Precision is at the fingertips of the masses on a moderate budget. For aviators who transit the three dimensions without the comfort of pulling over to the kerb, GPS has proved a blessing. It has also reinforced that in navigation we should look before we leap.
The Hills Are Alive.
It was once said that the only hard thing about aviation is the ground. Whilst a gross over-simplification, there is no denying that controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) has plagued aviation from its earliest days. Perfectly serviceable aircraft have been flown into the ground for all manner of reasons. For visual pilots, often weather has played a major role, forcing pilots down amongst the treetops or diverting them off track as they struggle remain clear of cloud and rain.
In such scenarios, correctly used, GPS is potentially a pilot’s greatest ally. The ever-improving moving map displays and terrain overlays offer a greatly enhanced aid to situational awareness. Furthermore, in these high workload situations flailing charts and dropped protractors have been replaced by an accurate, track-oriented display.
So why are the old demons still with us and VFR pilots impacting the terrain?
Obviously the reasons are many, from airmanship issues to planning and enroute decision making. However, one aspect of these tragedies involves GPS. In some cases, this great advance in navigation can actually reduce the level of a pilot’s situational awareness and lead to fixation and dependency. This is not the fault of GPS, rather the way that we as pilots interface with it.
A Double-Edged Sword.
Visual navigation has always been a challenging aspect of aviation and consequently one of the most satisfying. At the mercy of the invisible wind and the seasonal changing of terrain, the picture can look significantly different from 500 feet to 5000 feet. These variables must always be factored into the mathematics of speed, heading and time. Consequently, this form of navigation is often thought of as an art as well as a science.
GPS has increased the science by offering not only precise position information, but direct tracking and so much more at the touch of a button. For some, the ease at which these numerous functions can be achieved has come at the cost of their basic navigation skills. The art has been replaced by a dependence upon technology.
In navigation, straight lines are preferable, right? The shortest distance equates to reduced flight times and savings through reduced fuel burn and engine wear. In truth, the answer is both yes and no. It is true that straight lines are more efficient, but airmanship encompasses so much more than pure numbers. Direct tracks do not always consider terrain, freezing levels or airspace organisation.
Where possible, visual flight routes have traditionally been planned to permit the confirmation of an aircraft’s position and progress by reference to ground based features. By default, these features have generally equated to better terrain. Roads and rail lines have sought to wind their way around particularly rugged country due to ease of construction. Towns have subsequently grown along these thoroughfares and waterways, all of which offer aids to the task of map reading.
Such waypoints offer more than merely a visual fix of one’s position. They prompt a cycle of cockpit management that encompasses many elements, including fuel management, time-keeping, compass alignment, log-keeping, chart organisation and so on. Without these waypoints it calls for a different skill set and self discipline to avoid motorway-style, cruise control and white line fever. Just set and forget..........
Check back for Part Two and the next instalment in the 'Practical Pilot' series.
Thanks again for your support of this ever-growng aviation blog. By the 3rd of this month we had surpassed the total number of visitors to the blog in December and today we're set to eclipse January's numbers. A phenomenal effort by you all.
As a consequence, I have had a very diverse range of requests for future content; from military aviation to commercial airliners and general aviation commentary. However, a common underlying theme is to discuss certain aspects of learning to fly.
Whilst I have held a flight instructor rating for nearly 25 years, I do not hold myself up as any supreme authority; nor should any individual. We are always learning as long as we fly. However, as there have been so many requests that I will post some blogs on learning to fly with the disclaimer that nothing supercedes any manuals, regulations or the final word of your individual flight instructor or examiner.
These blogs will be a guide to the burgeoning pilot that hopefully provoke some thought as they venture down the aviation road. They will look at such things as the use of GPS, flying an approach and so on, but are neither definitive nor specific to any particular aircraft type. They are there to be read, considered and applied at your sole discretion.
I trust that these 'Practical Pilot' posts, like the others thus far, will continue to encourage our shared interest in aviation.
The view through the 'Head-Up Guidance System' (HGS) of the Boeing 737-800.
Image by Steve Ruttley.
Check back here for the upcoming 'Blog Post' on Head Up Displays.
Hi All, here's something a little different today.....
The De Havilland aircraft company had a fine tradition of civilian training and touring aircraft prior to the outbreak of World War Two. From Humming Birds and Hornet Moths to Dragons and Albatross, the British company produced a vast range of machines. At the upper end of the speed spectrum was the twin-engined monoplane, the DH88 Comet. Manufactured from wood, the Comet blew away the competition in the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race from the UK to Australia, though just as significantly, it planted the seed for a revolutionary military aeroplane. The DH 98 Mosquito.
The Mosquito was originally conceived as a high speed unarmed bomber. In 1940 with Great Britain facing its darkest hour and a shortage of resources, it needed aircraft and it needed them quickly. Though the Air Ministry had some reservations about the unarmed aspect of the design, it could not argue with de Havilland’s expertise in wooden aircraft production techniques. Additionally, the fact that its construction called for minimal amounts of treasured metal resources offered up a viable alternative.
After a series of changes in the aircraft’s perceived role, the original order was modified to a requirement for 20 bombers and 30 fighters. The prototype initially built in a hangar disguised as a barn at the home of de Havilland, Hatfield. It narrowly missed being destroyed during a successful Luftwaffe bombing raid on Hatfield that did spell the end of a number of materials and over twenty people. However, the Mosquito survived and undertook its maiden test flight in November of 1940 at the hands of Geoffrey de Havilland’s son of the same name. During the subsequent trials the Mosquito’s speed established it as the fastest combat aircraft on either side of the conflict; a title it held for the next two years.
Into the Fray.
The Mosquito’s first operational sorties were in the role of Photo Reconnaissance (PR) in August 1941, a task it was ideally suited to with its high speed. Early in 1942, the aircraft began to see service as fighters and bombers. The Mosquito had far exceeded the original specifications and through minor modifications was able to carry 500 pound bombs in place of the originally planned 250 pounders. The first bombing raid was a daylight strike on Cologne after a “1000 bomber” raid had taken place the previous evening.
The versatility of the Mosquito became apparent and aside from being a fighter, bomber and photo recon aircraft, it successfully served as successful night-fighter and even participated in the “Hunter/Killer’ pairing of Turbinlite operations. The Mosquito was also extensively used in the precision-navigation role of ‘Pathfinder’ where it would fly in advance of the main bomber force to mark the target with incendiary ordinance. BOAC (the forerunner to British Airways) even used civilian registered Mosquitoes during the war to run the gauntlet between Britain and neutral Sweden on a regular air service. There seemed very little that the Mosquito could not do.
In its time, the Mosquito was called upon to fill some rather niche roles that have gone down in folklore. Two of these were 618 Squadron’s use of the bouncing bomb ‘Highball’ and the breaching of prison walls in ‘Operation Jericho’.
While much has been written of Barnes Wallis’ bouncing bomb and the Dambusters raid on the Ruhr Dams, there was an alternate deployment of the bouncing bomb planned for use by the Mosquito. This version of the bomb was known as ‘Highball’ and while the Dambusters used a cylindrical style bomb, ‘Highball’ was far more spherical. Also conducted under a great veil of secrecy, 618 Squadron was tasked with using the bomb in an anti-shipping role with its number one priority the sinking of the German battleship the Tirpitz. Unfortunately, despite all of the effort and training, 618 Squadron never had a shot at the Tirpitz and eventually the squadron was deployed elsewhere.
A task for the Mosquito that did see notable fruition was ‘Operation Jericho’. Conceived in 1943, this mission involved an attack on the Amiens Prison in France which was holding amongst others, numerous members of the French Resistance who were scheduled to be executed. The daring low level attack took place on the 18th February 1944 and included squadrons from the RAF, RAAF and RNZAF. Its plan was to destroy the prison walls to facilitate the escape of the inmates, with an alternate plan of destroying the prison outright should this fail. It did not, and while there was loss of life, hundreds of prisoners were able to escape.
To quote specifications for the Mosquito is akin to comparing racehorses; there are so many types and so many variables.
In essence, the Mosquito was a twin-engined combat aircraft of primarily wooden construction. It was operated by two crew, including the pilot, and whether the second crewman was a navigator, bomb aimer or radar operator was dependent upon its designated role.
Powered by two Rolls Royce Merlin engines, it could carry nearly two tonnes of bombs deep into the heart of Germany. As a fighter it could carry 4 × 20 mm Hispano cannons in the fuselage and 4 × 7.7 mm (.303) Browning machine guns in the nose. Some photo reconnaissance versions had a service ceiling of 40,000 feet and a number of marques had a top speed in excess of 400 mph.
Ultimately, nearly 8,000 Mosquitoes were built and of these around 6,700 were delivered in wartime. As an aircraft it was not purely versatile, it was truly prolific as well.
As with all types, a number of Mosquitoes met ignominious ends on scrap heaps at the end of the war. However, several models survived and the Mosquito production line remained open until 1950. They saw service with air forces around the world and saw action with the Israeli Air Force during the Suez Crisis. A less adventurous tasking involved duty as target tugs while others took to the seas as a carrier-borne variant sporting folding wings.
To the very end, the Mosquito continued to fill roles that no other aircraft could. The model continued onto the Mk. 43 which was a trainer with the RAAF, but there were so many variants and marques before the final propeller stopped.
I had the pleasure to be interviewing a ‘Battle of Britain’ veteran who in 1942 received a new posting to a Mosquito squadron with some trepidation. He had heard very little of the new type other than the fact it was wooden and therefore seemingly a backward step in fighter technology.
He went on to fly the Mosquito more than any other aircraft and commanded a Mosquito squadron post war. He never lost his affection for the ‘Mossie’ he grew to love and sixty years later still had a twinkle in his eye when remembering de Havilland’s “Wooden Wonder”.
Overhead Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport.
As the numbers continue to soar on this blog and a new group of readers join us, I thought it would be worthwhile to re-visit five of the most popular aviation blogs thus far. Here they are.
1. Golden Days.
For those of you new to this aviation blog, welcome aboard! And for those that are continuing to come back, thanks for your support and please enjoy the growing list of original content.
We in the aviation world are actually a little further ahead of the game. We don’t give ourselves enough credit, but while corporate entities strive to maintain a level of secrecy, aviation seeks to share its shortcomings. The dissemination of safety findings on a global scale in an effort to circumvent repeat occurrences is one of our industries greatest achievements. When faults are found with aircraft, or the way in which we may operate them, that information is freely broadcast. It is a level of operational maturity that has not been achieved overnight, but it is a work in progress we can all be proud of.
Air safety investigation has come a long way over the decades. Rather than simply attributing every smoking wreck to “pilot error”, our knowledge based has broadened to delve deeper. We recognise that the finality of an accident is the result of numerous factors slipping through the net before ultimately combining in a lethal cocktail. The pilot is the final line of defence and sometimes he is just not enough. Sure, there are still instances of rogue pilots blatantly contravening every rule of good sense, but fortunately they are in the vast minority.
From ICAO and the national regulators of aviation down to individual operators, the pursuit of safety is an ever developing challenge. At its very core, success lies in open, honest reporting. Everyone has the ability to observe and speak up and in its most basic form; this is one of the places where safety begins. It may be wrapped grandly in a formal reporting system, or bound in the pages of an official accident report, but fundamentally it is about being honest. Whether it involves reporting potential safety issues or dissecting a tragedy in hindsight, there is no room for cover-ups or misplaced silence. Well chosen words may save lives.
But the road is not paved with gold just yet. There are still companies and cultures that do not encourage ‘speaking up’; whether on the flight deck or on a written form. In these environments, the benefits of safety have still yet to take full hold. Only when aviation professionals feel comfortable reporting mistakes and transmitting ideas can the group work together to minimise risks. Generally referred to as a “Just Culture”, it is an environment that encourages open communication without fear of reprisal.
So what does that mean to a lone pilot sitting in his Beechcraft Baron on a dark, wet threshold about to open the throttles?
It means that you are not alone. Somewhere before, a pilot has executed the same manoeuvre and contributed to the pool of knowledge that better prepares the next pilot. On such a dark wet night there are many dangers lurking. Sensory illusions due to acceleration trick the mind and only the instruments can be trusted. What if an engine should fail? Am I able to return to land or is there an escape path? Nearly every scenario that can be conjured has happened before and whether it culminated in a fatal crash or a moment of cold sweat, there is a lesson to be learned. The facts may be discovered by sifting through the wreckage or analysing a flight data recorder. Happily, they may also be found through self-reporting by a sensible, living, breathing pilot.
By whichever means the facts should surface, pilots should grab them with both hands. Aviation is an ongoing process of education and this is never more applicable than when we have the opportunity to read or the near misses and misfortunes of others. To the outsider this may appear ghoulish, but to those in the field it is cherished knowledge. Often sobering, these tales of misadventure fill the accident report sections of journals across the world.
It is equally important that we remain impartial as we digest the cold, hard facts. For in the safety of our armchairs it is impossible to recreate the mindset of another, or to feel the pressures and distractions that may have led to some terrible omission or oversight. It is not our place to judge with the benefit of hindsight, rather we should glean every ounce of knowledge that can be stored away for use on our own dark, wet night. Often, the pilot will have paid the ultimate price for a perfectly human error and there is nothing to be gained from slurring the reputation of another. In fact, such talk infers a sense of superiority and a belief that the mistake was merely simple and stupid. Beware! There is no room for such complacency in aviation.
I once watched a filmed re-enactment of the final approach of an ill-fated airliner. As the final stages of the approach became more hurried and communication more confused, error after error began to surface with increasing frequency. But rather than sitting in judgement, the hair rose on the back of my neck and a doomed sense of empathy with the crew stirred in my guts. I sat in air-conditioned comfort, knowing the final outcome of this approach, but I equally recognised the conditions that had placed this aircraft and all onboard in harm’s way. I could see the lurking demons of weather, systems failures, commercial pressure and fatigue stalking the hapless crew and I wanted to warn them from my comfortable chair. But it was all to no avail.
Far from sitting in judgement, I tried to take something from the tragic outcome that would improve my own operational performance. And so should we all when presented with safety information or the findings of an accident report. As with 'The Fatal Stall', from time to time this blog will re-visit a range of aircraft accident and incidents in an attempt to enhance the safeguards in our own flying. There will be no judgement placed on those who have ‘stared down the barrel’ in the accidents we review, rather we will endeavour to draw some positives from an otherwise unfortunate outcome. Nor will there be any sense of complacency, for there but for the grace of God, go I.
Chris Sperou doing what he does best.
The first full month at of this blog has come and gone.
When I launched the new website in December, I was venturing into the unknown. A little fish in a very big pond, I wasn't sure if anyone would actually find the website and blog. With so many commercial websites out there with online strategies and advertising, I accepted that I may just be a voice in the wilderness. You have all proven this to be very wrong.
Over the last few weeks the response to the blog has been exceptional. I have made over 50 posts since its inception, but already there have been more than 5,000 unique visitors and well over 10,000 page views! Equally significant has been the messages, comments and subscriptions to the website that have been flooding in. Very kind words and worthwhile feedback; please keep it coming!
For it is my desire to share this wonderful world of aviation that drives me to put in the effort, but it is your interest that will ultimately determine the future of the blog. The fact that so many people are reading the articles inspires me to keep going and I thank you all for that.
So, with the first full month behind me and the future ahead, I maintain committed to producing more original content on a broad spectrum of aviation topics. So please continue to come back and visit, follow me on Facebook and Twitter and let me know what you think. This has been a big first step, but I can't wait for the rest of the journey.