Returning to the cockpit after a lengthy absence and a massive heart attack, means some major surprises for our intrepid aviator.
I can’t recall exactly when it was but I must have been about seven. A wide-eyed youngster embarking on his first aeroplane ride. Strapped into the seat alongside my mum, eyes wide-open and absolutely loving the feeling of power as the F27 Friendship roared down the runway before soaring into the sky. Before long, we reached our destination, but for this seven-year-old, it was the journey that remained in my mind forever. It was this flight that initially fuelled my passion for flying.
Since then, the passion for flight hasn’t diminished and the love of aircraft, both old and new, remains. I’ve been working as an aviation journalist for almost two decades; movie favourites include “Top Gun”, “Mosquito Squadron” and “Memphis Belle”, and I still get a thrill out of the surge of an aircraft on takeoff, whether it’s a single-engine lightie, an old warbird or an A380. The adrenaline pumps just the same.
And it’s certainly pumping right now.
Sweating profusely and passing through five hundred feet AGL, I make my final turn for a paddock I’d chosen some time ago, when my instructor, Schofields Flying Club CFI Bill Cooper, had pulled the power to idle: “Forced landing,” he said, his words ringing in my ears as I hesitated for what seemed like an eternity. In those intervening moments as the Diamond DA40 bucked and swayed in the turbulence, I struggled to establish an even rate of descent and to maintain some semblance of order. Overwhelmed, I ignored the staples of conducting a forced landing such as making a Mayday call, completing a passenger brief and a cockpit readiness check; my mind and my hands were far too busy with the basic function of controlling the aircraft.
I extended full flap, but even before I had completed the turn on final, I could see we were going to miss the paddock I’d selected as my landing area. Instead, we were ploughing towards one of the heavily wooded areas well beyond the target. Bugger.
“Go around,” Bill said via my headset, remarkably calm given the challenging nature of the situation. I applied full power, closed the carby heat and removed one stage of flap as I urged the Diamond skywards.
Although I was fraught with embarrassment over the weakness of my performance, it was consistent with the rest of my flying in the forty minutes or so that had evaporated since we left the flight line at Bankstown Airport. My radio calls were hesitant and inaccurate, my pre-flight checks were slow and disordered and climbing out I suddenly panicked when I couldn’t remember the departure altitude for Runway 29R, and had to ask. There I was, flying like a novice; lacking confidence and rapidly deciding that it was time to give the game away.
Why am I so disappointed? For starters, I haven’t done any consistent flying for ages, making it impossible to maintain those hard-earned skills that are the foundation of being a safe and competent pilot. Those same skills that are needed to provide the absolute delight I take from being at the controls of a light aircraft. Indeed, my flying in recent times has been a rabble of inconsistency. But why? Why has it come to this point? A combination of things, really. Work commitments and playing the role of father and husband have made flying on a consistent basis a major challenge. Then there’s the old nutmeg of finances. As you all know, flying isn’t cheap, in fact it is even more expensive today than when I began my journey in the early 1990s. And try justifying to your beloved wife the expense of a jolly up the coast in a single-engine aircraft when the same amount of cash can be spent on more “family-friendly” entertainment.
But despite these “reasons” (some would say they’re excuses), the embarrassment of my performance remains. Nevertheless, armed with the knowledge from Bill’s briefing, it was with determination, not anger, that I strode out to the brand new Diamond DA40 CS on the Schoies flightline. The despair was waiting for me, forty minutes into the flight, as I climbed away from that failed forced landing.
The funny thing is, I had fully expected my flying to be rusty and more than a little bit rough around the edges. I also expected that I would need a session or two to achieve the minimum standard I demanded of myself. What I had not anticipated was the extent of the debacle. How even the simple things seemed to elude me; stuff I believed to be so firmly entrenched in my brain that I could recite without thinking. How wrong I was! The homework I had done the previous week had included an overview of the G1000 avionics suite – transitioning from analogue, steam gauges to rolling tapes and digital readouts takes some getting used to – area frequencies, and some basic numbers for the Diamond. But not the numbers and handling procedures that I believed were so deeply ingrained in my brain.
Bill Cooper was reassuring as we taxied back to Schoies; but I had a sneaking suspicion he was adopting the softly, softly approach and doing his best to be positive.
“For someone who hasn’t flown for a while and who has the medical problems you’ve had, that was OK,” he said. “Just what I would have expected. You’ll find that the next session we do will be much better. It will all come back to you. You’ll surprise yourself next time.”
Today’s session with Bill is my first in the left-hand seat of an aircraft for some time and in a perverse way, one of the major reasons – perhaps “the” reason – I’m here undergoing some revision is because of my recent heart attack. Since that fateful day I made a decision to follow my dreams and to make the most of every opportunity that came my way. And thanks to a dedicated support team of family and friends, I’m on the right track. My fitness and health have improved dramatically; I’m a regular at the gym, I’ve modified my eating habits and as a result, I’m far fitter and healthier than I have been for at least a decade. And rather than seeing my cardiac mishap as a negative experience, I swear to anyone who will listen, that suffering a heart attack was a blessing in disguise. A wake-up call. An opportunity. A second-chance.
So when the opportunity arose to do some flying with Schofields Flying Club I jumped at the chance. Yes, I need to pass some stringent tests to win back my medical, but in the meantime scorching around the skies in a sleek machine such as the Diamond DA40 CS is something I just had to do. How could I say no to such a golden opportunity?!
On meeting Bill Cooper for the first time, he made it clear that he expected a 100 per cent effort from all his students – including me. I agreed wholeheartedly. Cooper runs a tight ship at Schoies, with discipline and preparation the key factors in his style of flight training. But he’s also a fair man with a ready smile and a good sense of humour.
After a quick question and answer session about general handling, I realised this journey was going to be an interesting one, especially because my flying would be conducted in the Diamond DA40 CS, a spunky little number with full leather interior, Garmin G1000 avionics, a spacious cockpit (great for those of us who don’t possess the classic pilot’s physique), big perspex canopy, a powerplant boasting 180 horses, and unlike most aircraft in its class, a fixed-pitch propeller. That’s some serious aeroplane.
Overwhelmed with equal doses of apprenhension and excitement, I initially arrived at Schoies thankful to be getting back into the sky again, yet anxious about failing to measure up to the task, especially as my moment of truth was being published in a national magazine.
But I needn’t have worried. Bill put me at ease immediately and simply passed on some of the wisdom he has gathered in an aviation career of more than 40 years.
Finally, after a thorough pre-flight briefing on the aircraft and the sortie we were about to undertake to the training area, it was time to go. My moment of truth had arrived.
My expectations weren’t high and I suspect my instructor’s weren’t either. I mean, being away from the left-hand seat for so long left me feeling a little nervous. But it was disturbing how quickly I’d forgotten things that had once been second nature. Radio calls, procedures, checklists. All those things that were committed to memory, were now … but a memory.
Bill took me through the takeoff procedures and as we accelerated down the runway, everything flashed by in a blur. Before I knew it, we were airborne. Eventually we levelled out and Bill put me through my paces. Straight and level, stalls, medium turns and a forced landing at The Oaks before returning to Bankstown.
While straight and level and stalling weren’t too difficult, I made hard work of turning. Or should I say that turning made hard work of me? My scan was poor and my inability to hold the correct attitude made life extremely difficult. Talk about the tail wagging the dog.
I was also tentative with the aircraft and it showed in my below par performance. “It’s only an aeroplane,” said Bill. That’s easy to say when you’ve been flying for over four decades! “If you want to make the aircraft do something then you must fly it in a positive manner. It requires positive control.”
Bill had briefed me on forced landings back at Schofields, but after forty minutes of the lesson, my stocks were depleted and after struggling with my turning, confidence wasn’t as high as it could have been. And that’s when my moment of truth arrived in the form of a failed forced landing, an occasion that sent me packing with my tail between my legs.
But all wasn’t lost. After all, it has been a while since I was last in the saddle and with my health scare still a vivid memory, it hasn’t been easy. And there have been several positives, including the fact that I’m not only back in the air but I’m also flying a beaut little aircraft in good company. My confidence improved during the debrief back at Schoies and I’ve decided that there’s no use sweating over the small stuff like today’s so-called debacle. I’ll look back and consider it a learning experience. It’s awesome to be back in the air and with someone like Bill Cooper keeping me in line, things are certainly looking good. Can’t wait for my next session.