Our CFI, Lance Appleford, wrote this inspiring article for the local newspaper.
Our CFI, Lance Appleford, wrote this inspiring article for the local newspaper.
If you ever have the time and money and find yourself abroad without anything to do, why don’t you get an airplane check ride and tour the area in style? Back in 2002, my ESL school had just gone bankrupt and I was out of a job so I skedaddled off to Kenya to visit my sister.
Of course you probably have a few questions already such as visas, prophylactic medication for malaria and yellow fever etc, but since I want to keep this short, I’ll cut out some of the more mundane aspects of my adventures and cut to the chase.
When I had properly settled in at my sister’s beautiful home in Nairobi (some call it Nai-robbery), I began to enquire about flight training. That search led me to the Wilson Airport. A few details about Wilson Airport: It is a class D airport and control zone. Its elevation is 5600 feet, and at an average day time temperature of 25 degrees Celsius that equals a DA of 8000 feet! It has two paved runways, the longest one being north-south and the shorter one running east-west. For some reason the north-south runway, being the longer of the two and the closest to the GA ramp, was hardly used. It may have had to do with the fact that just south of the airport was Nairobi National Park. Can you imagine the pre-take off briefing? “In the event of an engine failure and airborne just after take off with insufficient runway remaining I will maintain control and avoid obstacles, packs of hyenas, prides of lions, and any other wild animals by making gentle turns. And by the way, I (the captain) will be the last to leave the airplane with the hopes that all carnivores waiting outside the wrecked fuselage will have dined sufficiently well prior to my egress.”
All joking aside, this was an airport that had seen an accident or two. Just take a walk through their airplane junkyard right next to the flight school. We spent the afternoon entering aircraft and trying to determine what had happened. In one UN registered Dash 6 there were two distinct bullet holes in the co-pilot’s side window reminding us that the Sudanese Civil War was happening just north of the Kenyan border and that even the UN wasn’t welcome. There must have been at least 40 aircraft there and nary a one put there by the students from the neighboring flight school. It was a very real reminder of the dangers of flying and I bet a few of them were put there due to the pilots’ disregard for density altitude.
After about 5 hours of mountain training, I was ready to go on some solo cross-country flights. My first flight included my brother-in-law and two of my ESL students. We planned on flying north, keeping the Aberdere Mountain Range (14,000’) on my left and Mount Kenya (23,000’) on my right, crossing the equator and then heading south on the western side of the Aberdere Mountain Range down to the Masai Mara game park. I figured 10,500 would be a suitable altitude and with my weight and balance done and full tanks, I preflighted my Piper Archer 180 and filed my flight plan.
Holding short of runway 32 with my run up complete and engine mixture leaned, I was given take off clearance and away we went. I got airborne no problem but once I got out of ground effect the stall horn started blaring away. Even when I lowered the nose and kept a very small climb attitude I still heard the horn. By the time I had cleared the airport zone I was still very low at 1500 AGL and had my brother-in-law take control as I milked the engine mixture control for any extra bit of power. That was my first scary encounter with the dangers of density altitude and not the last on this flight.
We finally leveled off at 10,500 feet and got on our way. There was quite a bit of Caravan and Dash traffic heading to and from the Sudan, which began to peter off as our flight progressed. Apparently the best time to fly up to the Sudan is either early morning or during the heat of the afternoon when everyone is sleeping or too lazy to fire a gun.
After dodging virga all the way through the Aberdere and Mount Kenya corridor, I started to relax and enjoy the scenery. I tried not to let the thought of an engine failure creep in to my mind because this hilly region of Kenya didn’t really lend itself to a safe forced landing. Once past the highest parts of the Aberderes, I began to descend and head southwest down to plains of the Mara. We flew over soda lakes with thousands of flamingoes startled into flight. We saw the occasional hippo head peeping out of the water and continued further south. One of my checkpoints along the way was a big volcano, which initially I had put my track line right over but with some friendly advice erased it and put it a couple miles off. As I flew next to this huge volcano I saw the wreckage of one or two aircraft in its belly. Apparently a fair amount of lift is lost directly over the volcano due to the effect of wind and the suction created by the volcano’s cone. I guess I should mention that these were extinct or dormant volcanoes and not producing any lava or ash.
Flying over the Mara was awesome and we saw hundreds of giraffe, zebra, caribou, and wildebeest as well as small groups of elephants and lions. It felt nice to be over flatlands again despite the types of animals down on the ground looking hungrily up in the air for dum-dums to fall from the sky.
We began our long arduous climb back up to 10,500 feet as we headed east towards Aberdere Mountain Range and Nairobi. We were almost level at altitude when we crossed over the tall escarpment separating the Aberdere Range from the plains of the Mara. It was at this point while looking down at the top of the escarpment a couple thousand feet below me that I noticed our VSI showing a descent of 1500-2000 feet per minute. Since I was already doing our best rate of climb and descending I figured I had about 45 seconds before we smacked down onto the rugged foothills. Fortunately, once I’d gotten over a mile or two past the edge of the escarpment, the downdraft stopped being so uncivil. Once again my passengers were somewhat oblivious to the near-death experiences I was seemingly having every couple of hours.
A volcano or two later and I was back in touch with Wilson Tower. One missed approach and I was safely down on the ground, wondering how I was ever going to survive at the rate I was going. The next few flights went remarkably well in part due to my increased experience, lighter loads, and better planning.
In my experience, pushing the envelope isn’t always the brightest idea as the envelope has a big friend called Physics and he doesn’t like stupid, arrogant pilots.
The last three weeks gave me the chance to learn new things and also enjoy a large serving of humble pie.
As an instructor, I feel like I do my job quite well in most areas and in others not so much. I find that my level of patience isn’t as elastic as it once was and even though perhaps my techniques for instruction are better I may be taking away from the joy of learning a bit by not being satisfied by my students’ ability to learn quite so quickly.
Learning to fly multi-engine aircraft put me in the left seat, which was a first in a very long time. Now it was my turn to be the instructed and to have an instructor and examiner sit to the right of me. I found myself relying upon them to teach me properly and to let go of my ingrained role as a teacher. I also had to leave my ego at home and be able to take on the criticism given to me. That was really hard. I knew that if I took it personally or disregarded it that my training would be ineffective and take much longer and at $350 an hour, I had to suck it up.
The morning of my flight test found me anxious and already exhausted from the short but intense road I had journeyed. It doesn’t matter how many flight tests I do. It’s the same old feeling of will I be able to show the examiner that I am skilled and safe enough to pass. I have to admit, it was probably one of the worst tests I ever did and the only saving grace was that in the end I had passed. And you should have heard all the excuses I was giving for such poor performance. It was like a small platoon of soldiers ready to sacrifice their lives for my battered ego. Of all the excuses I uttered that day, I would have to say that the lamest was that my age was a limiting factor on my performance. Ready excuses such as the above just show that I was willing to justify my poor performance rather than work harder. As soon as the excuses start popping up that’s the time to kick the studying into high gear and leave them behind.
Being a student again gave me a chance to see life in the cockpit from their point of view. It had been years since I had done that and found that I made mistakes, asked dumb questions, and needed lots of reminders and practice. All these things can add up to low confidence if you’re hard on yourself like I am. I think what you have to tell yourself is eventually you’ll get it and that being a student gives you the right to make lots of mistakes as long as you try hard to learn from them. Once you are free from the ever-demanding instructor though there is no safety net anymore. Those mistakes you made while training cannot be allowed to happen once you’re solo. Learn from them if you can but not all mistakes will the aircraft lightly forgive. As difficult and humbling as it was (even at my age), flying a twin around at over 180 mph was an awesome experience that every pilot should try!
I have encountered lots of students in my short career as a flight instructor. They have come from all walks of life from 14 years of age to 70 and from all over the world. They all bring different views, expectations, and resources to the table but unfortunately not all succeed. In fact I would say that 90% of the people that walk through our doors leave without licenses. There are probably as many reasons as there are people but I’ve discovered a few that keep repeating themselves.
This is by no means a complete list but if you have most of the above mentioned in your favour, then there’s no reason you can’t succeed in your flight training.
Okay. Passengers loaded and seatbelts on, passenger briefing demonstrated and explained. Let’s go! Ah dangit! We are not moving forward under power. Must have left the parking brake on. Nope! Double dangit! Left the chocks on. Shut down. Explain to the passengers that their dumb pilot didn’t do a good walk around and leave it to their imagination while I am taking away the chocks on how well the rest of the flight is going to go.
Leaving chocks on and attempting to taxi is a relatively harmless mistake, but if I am that thoughtless about that what else will I eventually forget? Looking back, these things usually happened when I was really tired or had a lot of things on my mind resulted in a good ego thrashing as a consequence. Others aren’t so lucky though.
Some of the silly and stupid things I and many others have done could fill a book up I am sure, but I’ll list a few that I’ve seen. Leaving the tow-bar on the aircraft and attempting to taxi. Leaving a fuel cap off and going flying. Leaving the access panel to the oil dipstick open and having it flap in the wind. Attempting to cross a thick patch of mud on the taxiway and getting stuck. Pulling the mixture to idle rather than carb-heat on the downwind. Landing with brakes on. Leaving the engine tent on and taxiing. And the list goes on.
Most of the above mentioned involved a poor walk around but the next two involve pilot decision making based on overconfidence and disregarding the training instructors have drilled over and over into our students brains.
There’s a fellow who flies out of the airport here at Morden that always seems to be in a rush. He also always seems to have an overinflated opinion of his aircraft and it’s herculean performance. The first time he did his intersection take off with only 800 feet of runway, I was astounded since I have always told my students to use all available runway even if that means taxiing all the way back on runway 10. I am not sure if over the months I was seeing a progression of his boldness but then I saw him take a 30 knot cross-wind rather than use the grass strip. The icing on the cake was seeing him do another intersection take off but this time with a 15 knot tailwind. He ran out of runway really quickly, went past the threshold and onto the grass. Without batting an eye, he turned around wreaked a threshold landing light and fire-wallied the throttle for take off into wind. All this happened without him stopping to inspect the damage created by his extremely foolish behavior. Since then I have heard of a few other antics he has done but will leave it at that for now.
Unfortunately he is not the only one to make light of extremely strong tailwinds. We were all sitting in the office enjoying our mid-morning coffee break when we heard on the radio that a King Air was inbound. We gave them a wind advisory that the wind was from the west at 30 knots and favouring runway 28. The captain said roger and then proceeded to make a traffic call saying he was going straight in runway 10. Out of morbid curiosity we all sallied outside to view the forthcoming landing that our much more knowledgeable and esteemed captain was going to do. He flared beautifully over the threshold of 10, floated over 3000 of the 4000 foot runway, and finally touched down with tires smoking and quickly throwing the props into reverse. He didn’t go over the end of the runway but there was barely any room to turn around for the shaky backtrack to the apron. We all laughed in relief but it struck me when the sole passenger got out the aircraft that it wasn’t so funny. In my opinion, if you’re going to be a jack-assed pilot, do it by yourself and well away from me. Unfortunately that’s rarely the case. Remember there are old and there are bold pilots but there are few old bold pilots.
One of the greatest aspects of being a pilot is the weather. Every season has its own particular bugaboos and some more than others. I love our short summers to death, but near the end of it, I am kind of glad to be saying goodbye. Being in a training aircraft 10 hours a day can wear a little thin after a while especially with 30 degree temperatures and humidity to go with it. Sometimes it’s just plain uncomfortable. I really enjoy wearing shorts and a t-shirt but when students start dripping perspiration on you while in a steep turn it gets downright gross.
Another aspect of summer flying that I don’t find particularly agreeable with is poor aircraft performance. Because of the high temperatures and humidity and occasional low pressure days, aircraft performance can be brutal. I remember a few summers ago, when I weighed a svelte 190 pounds and could fit into a Cessna 150 reasonably comfortably that I was quite sure the makers of the 150 were a bunch of sadistic engineers trying to torture me. On that particular day, we had to do some Forced Approaches and needed to climb to 3000 feet AGL about 4 times. I knew after takeoff that this was going to be a tough exercise to practice under the existing weather conditions when it took us 5 miles just to clear circuit height, which is only a 1000 feet AGL. We continued with our climb and as we flew over unplanted black fields I looked at our VSI and noticed we were climbing at about 1500 feet per minute. Needless to say, we took full advantage of the thermals that day.
Thermals though can be a royal pain in the butt as well. Try teaching straight and level while flying over a chess board set pattern of black and green fields. It’s very difficult for a student to gain a positive feel for flying level when they are doing everything correctly from a pitch and power perspective and are still climbing at 1000 feet per minute. On another forced approach training session, I had pulled the power signifying an engine failure, the student chose a field to land on, found his key points, had done his cause check and mayday call and passenger briefing and still hadn’t lost a foot of height. The student did everything he possibly could to make his field but on short final hit another thermal rocketing up and over his simulated landing area. Very frustrating.
Probably the most spectacular aspect of summer flying is the thunderstorms that pop up out of nowhere. Sometimes they are only individual cells that roll over the landscape, reminding me of Portuguese-Man-Of-War with their deadly tendrils cascading down from their bloated black bodies. Other times squall lines due to the passing of a cold front are the cause. The former are relatively easy to avoid but bring all forms of hell if you find yourself in one. Winds gusts up to 50 knots per hour, surface winds changing direction by 180 degrees, vertical downdrafts up to 6000 feet per minute, hail, lightning, icing and crazy turbulence. As an instructor with students out in the training area practicing their exercises this is a constant concern.
Last summer, a CB (Cumulo-Nimbus) popped up out of nowhere and was closing fast on the Morden Airport. I had a student practicing to the east, who hadn’t seen it and who seemed a bit disgruntled that I was demanding his return for no apparent reason. As soon as he had landed however he had enough time to tie down the aircraft and run for cover before the big black monster hit us with all its might. If he had been a couple of minutes late or slow in returning, he would have been landing through this. See photo below.
I guess the final disadvantage to summer flying is the mosquitoes. They are fine during the day but come evening and my last flight of the day, they can be absolutely brutal. It’s very difficult to do a walk around when you’re jumping up and down and slapping yourself silly doing the hokie-pokie. Thankfully, most days my students do the walk around and I watch. Haha. As much as I don’t mind killing them on take offs and landings, we still have to clean up the mess and find ourselves cleaning the leading edges and windows most days. We’ve even found them in our stall horn and pitot tube which causes further problems.
Once the summer has concluded and autumn has mellowed, we find ourselves discussing plowing and snow shoveling schedules once again. Winter is never truly looked forward to by yours truly, but it does have its advantages. If you can stay warm in the aircraft and have a relatively painless walkaround, winter flying is awesome. There are, however, certain cold weather limitations that we abide by. We halt all power-off exercises at -20C and below, we discourage cross country flying at -25C and stop flying altogether at -30C. The best advice I can give for winter flying is don’t fly in icing conditions and dress in layers and warm enough as if you had to walk for 5 miles on open ground.
Temperatures and icing aside, imagine having twice the climb performance as compared to the summer. Air exercises such as the forced approach become less of a chore if you can be back at altitude in a few minutes. There are also no thermals to deal with which makes for a nice smooth ride most days. The landscape is all white, except for towns and roads, which to some may be boring, but I find beautiful and serene.
Dealing with other aircraft traffic can be looked at as a challenge and a good learning exercise, but I welcome the break from the summertime weekend fly boys and crop dusters with their defunct radios and straight-in approaches. Thanks to Old Man Winter, we have the skies to ourselves and I can get down to the business of instructing!
-Lance Appleford, CFI
Mountain City’s training area runs from Altona to Manitou and from Roland down to the US border. We have over 600 square miles to do our training in! Of course, schools like MFC (Moncton Flight College) have at least a dozen training areas and probably four times as much room to practice in, but they also have close to 25 aircraft in those areas. At times, I spent more time avoiding other aircraft and staying within our closely defined little practice area than focusing on my student. Commuting out through the control zone and into the practice area could take the student 10 minutes each way. Coupled with the time spent avoiding midair collisions we really had very little training time remaining. It was a wonder it didn’t take 100 hours to get a licence. MCA’s training area on the other hand encompasses the airport and starts once we reach altitude the lesson dictates. We have saved the students some serious time training them here at the Morden Airport.
After our first born and bred commercial students left the MCA nest, we asked for their feedback and although there was some glowing praise, there was also some negative feedback. “I didn’t get enough controlled airspace practice.” “I never flew much in high volume traffic areas.” “The instructor trained me too well.” The first two I gave serious consideration to, and as a result, added a lot more controlled airspace training for the post-PPL student. Since the first cadre of CPL students, I haven’t really heard that comment too much since we started getting them to do hours of circuits at CYWG. As for the last comment…well it’s the age old battle of saving money versus saving your life or the lives of loved ones. Pretty simple to me.
MCA has grown a lot since I first got here. I came here as an inexperienced class 3 instructor and now I am on the cusp of being a class 1 instructor. We added a second aircraft to our fleet and are looking forward to getting a tail-dragger and twin-engine aircraft.
I am very thankful for the opportunities and challenges given to me here at Morden Airport. I love seeing our efforts come to fruition. If Transport Canada employees send their kids on a 2 hour commute to do training here, as opposed to Winnipeg, we must be doing something right in their eyes. Seeing my students take flight sharing the adventure with family and friends is awesome. Hearing from former CPL students that have landed their first job is awe-inspiring, even when they make 4 times as much money as me. The first solo grin. The successful flight test glow. All these things make Morden Airport and MCA special. God bless and safe flying.
-Lance Appleford, CFI