There is nothing that can come close to a cross-country flyaway for sheer learning value, and no matter how many hours or how much experience you may have, every pilot comes away having grown a little, or grown a lot. From an instructor’s stance, few things can touch the satisfaction of watching your students grow and gain confidence and professionalism.
In early December, the BAC crew packed their bags, loaded the helicopters and headed for the Central Karoo. Essentially, this was an exercise designed for our five pilots who are building hours and experience for CPL and it is one that we will repeat regularly.
• 3 x RH44 – Pilot + 3; MAUW 2,500lbs; Cruise speed 100KIAS; Endurance 3hrs.
• 2 x RH22 – Pilot + 1; MAUW 1,370lbs; Cruise speed 70KIAS; Endurance 3hrs.
• 2 Instructors, 8 pilots and 1 passenger.
• Distance 1,400nm in 4 days.
• Aircraft flying time: RH22 – 21,5hrs & RH44 – 16hrs.
• Day 1: Durban – Mthatha – Gariep Dam
• Day 2: Gariep – Graaf Reinet – Beaufort West – Matjiesfontein – Oudtshoorn
• Day 3: Oudtshoorn – Port Elizabeth – East London – Wavecrest
• Day 4: Wavecrest – Margate – Durban
The route was determined mainly by the availability of fuel and the ability of the helicopters to cover the distance in-between. After that, Instructor influence ceased and the pilots planned the trip, dividing up the planning duties and sharing information.
In four days, we experienced every type of weather – mist, rain, hail, blue sky, thunderstorms, gale force winds, headwinds, tailwinds, downdraughts and zero wind. The temperature ranged between 6 and 37 degrees and the terrain varied from coastal dunes to desert scrub and mountain ranges. From controlled airspace and major airports to dirt runways and gliding clubs, everybody grew and this is what they learned.
GPS is not enough – It is essential that each aircraft has onboard, the map or section of the aeronautical map that pertains to each leg and the surrounding terrain, and that the track is clearly marked with as much pertinent information as possible. This should include heading, distances, fuel usage, time markers, reporting points, frequencies, high points en route, height of surrounding mountains, nature reserves and minimum heights, FADs, FARs and FAPs, runway information and even circuit pattern. In short, study the map properly – if you are flying it, it is your responsibility to plan it. A familiar and well-marked map can make all the difference to the decision making process in the event of a diversion.
If you are planning to fly into an unfamiliar airfield, whether it be an international airport or an uncontrolled strip, make sure you know exactly how it operates and, given the wind direction, which runway will be in use and what the circuit procedure will be. The airfields directory has valuable information about almost every strip in the country and it also has a contact number. Phone the airfield ahead of time to find out any additional information – where to make initial radio contact and to whom, how they would prefer you to approach, where to park and whether the fuel bowser is mobile or fixed. Etiquette and airmanship in and around an airfield is the mark of a professional pilot.
It’s an unfamiliar region and you need to know what to expect from the weather. Besides the SA weather forecast, TAFs and METARs, use the Internet to look up typical weather patterns for the area. This is such important information and it determines what time you should plan to take off, what to expect en route and when you should be safely on the ground. The potential for weather change needs to be factored in, in order to make sound decisions regarding a diversion or alternate route for each leg.
Fuel is a critical area of planning that not only involves distance, groundspeed and weight, but must also take into account the temperature and the terrain to be crossed to anticipate the power usage for the leg. Always include contingency fuel in your planning and have a clear plan for the point of no return. Constantly calculate the fuel usage as you fly so that decisions and diversions are made in good time and are not left for the last minute. As a back up for potential headwinds on the longer legs, the faster RH44s each carried an empty plastic jerry can so that fuel could be ferried back to the RH22s if required. Fuel planning must also involve the actual refueling station at each airfield and whether it is fixed or mobile, in turn, determining how the aircraft are parked for maximum efficiency and the least amount of time spent repositioning aircraft.
Accommodation and Landing Zones:
When arranging accommodation, ideally find a place at which you can land to eliminate the need for taxis or other transport to and from lodgings. In advance, call the lodge and ask them to describe the area, valley, hill or flat, the size of the field, slope and surrounding terrain. This will determine how much power you will require and how much fuel you should be carrying. Where there is no designated runway and a field or piece of open ground has been offered as an LZ, treat it as a confined landing and follow the full procedure. Pay very special attention to wires. The first aircraft in will be responsible for alerting the others about potential hazards.
Of all the planning, radio can be the most daunting, simply because you do not know the area or the local reporting features. Like every other aspect, find out ahead of time so that you are prepared for both the unfamiliar names and where they are in relation to your track. When you are taken by surprise with a half-heard place name and you are scrambling to find it on a map, radio work will quickly dissolve into the realm of the unprofessional. Phone the relevant ATNS tower, explain that you are a stranger, write down the whole procedure with frequencies and reporting points and mark it on your map. Think about what you intend to communicate before you press the PTT. For inter-group chatter, always use the chat frequency 123,45.
When flying with a group of pilots on a roster system, it is always a good idea to talk about and table the rules regarding Pilot-in-Command before the flyaway commences. There is always a natural tendency for less experienced pilots to look to the more experienced pilots to make decisions, which is counter-productive as the purpose of the exercise is to develop decision-making skills. An effective solution is a group policy to respect the flying pilot, who will make the decisions, but who may call on the other pilots for advice or help as he or she sees fit.
Flying is a most unforgiving exercise and if something occurs that you did not anticipate, you have a good chance of reacting from an uninformed position, and that can be extremely dangerous. Know the limits of your aircraft and know exactly what will happen if you exceed these limits. Be aware what aspects of your flight are likely to bring you close to the limits, be it on a hot, heavy take off or while crossing the mountains, and have a contingency plan.
Safety, professionalism and solid decision-making come from being prepared and using that preparation to anticipate each step, staying ahead of the aircraft and making informed decisions continually. Planning is everything.
Five helicopters, a total of 91 flying hours and not one mechanical snag. No lost pilots and despite the weather, everybody made each night stop safely, as planned. A truly excellent trip, with great team spirit and, above all, an unbeatable learning experience.