Welcome to my blog.

In 2008, I received a trial flight in a light aircraft - a flight which changed my life. After a mere thirty minutes in an asthmatic old Cessna, I decided I would become a pilot. It was love at first flight. As Leonardo Da Vinci famously said - Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

However, like any relationship, there were highs (and there were puns!) and there were many moments where I thought I would never grasp this new skill.

After fifteen instructors, six flying schools and enough tears to fill a dam, I became a private pilot. And, because of a strong masochistic streak, I decided to study for my Commercial Pilot's Licence.

This blog is a working narrative of my time as a pilot, through my personal writing, my round Australia trip and my career as an aviation journalist, magazine editor, customer engagement manager for AvPlan EFB and aircraft salesperson for Cirrus Sydney.

Aviation has changed my life: through learning to fly I have discovered a part of myself that is resilient, organised and capable of great joy as a result of hard work, setbacks and learning.

In the words of Socrates, “Man must rise above the Earth – to the top of the atmosphere and beyond – for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.”

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to email me with advice and suggestions on


Friday, January 13, 2012

Day Two

I glid, I did...

Today promised a new experience - motor gliding.

A month or so ago, I received a letter at Sport Pilot in response to an article I wrote about an engine-off as part of my flight test. I called it something like a 'brown trousers moment' and the CFI of The Byron Gliding Club was inspired to write to me, suggesting all students should first glide in order to familiarize themselves with engine off (or, engine absent!) ops. Immediately, I wrote back suggesting he show me. And straight away, he responded, saying 'sure! Come glide with me!'

The man is the legend, Norm Sanders - he has a entire Wiki page devoted to him, and is surely the finest glide teacher in the land. I was quite bubbly with excitement and nerves.

But first, I had to get there. The flight from Ballina to Tyagarah (which I nicknamed Viagra - the hardest strip in NSW) is only fifteen minutes, inspiring Mr Bigg to follow us in Mimi. We refuelled and took off (remembering the right hand circuits) to look for the aerodrome, of which Norm had kindly sent a photo. Sure enough, fifteen minutes later, we spied the 1000m grass strip. I was relieved and delighted to see the wind favouring 05, allowing me to approach on the non tree side facing out to the sea. The landing was peachy, the wind being only about six or so knots. Greeted immediately by Norm and his dog, we were then taken to the club to meet the other glider pilots. It was decided I would join the Glider Federation and have a full, hands on lesson. Mr Bigg landed in Mimi and settled down to watch me receive my punishment for showing him up at his home strip.

I was strangely nervous, but Norm was fabulous in putting me at my ease, explaining each facet of the strange looking flying machine with the extraordinary wings.

"Now, I know you can already fly, but this is something a little bit different. It's not just about pressing buttons, and sometimes GA pilots take a little time to unlearn some of their training that's not necessary useful for gliding. Some people think gliding is a step down, but it is in fact quite a different skill. Sully, of the Hudson river incident, credits that landing to his training as a glider pilot, you know."

The first massive difference - apart from the size of the wings, the canopy, and the strange wheel on the low-lying fuselage - was the fact that the stick is operated with the right hand, leaving the left hand free for the airbrakes. It took me ages to undo the habit of holding the stick with the left. The cockpit panel was mostly the same, except for the "liftometer" (not the correct name; I can't remember what Norm called it) which is kinda like a VSI.

Norm started the motor (a Jabiru engine) and taxied out to the strip where we took off in what felt like 50m. We climbed to 2000ft, and Norm demonstrated the characteristics of the powered glider. The first thing that struck me was how much rudder input was necessary; we turned on the rudders alone and noticed that a left hand turn saw a nose drop and a right a nose climb. Norm then demonstrated a stall, which was so sedate it was barely noticeable. Ditto the climbing stall (the most dangerous and likely stall for a glider pilot) - again a very polite little shudder. And then, Norm turned off the engine.

"let's glide!" he beamed.

Turning off the engine is a slow process, bringing back the power little by little and checking the cylinder head temp until the numbers are suitable. And then - total silence, apart from maybe the sound of my beating heart, and throbbing veins. Funnily enough, once I realised we weren't going to plummet to the earth (yes, yes, I knew we weren't; I know it's not only the engine keeping us aloft; I can see I have allowed myself to become "engine dependent") I soon got used to it. There'd be moments where I suddenly say 'no engine!' and Norm would beam. Only when we flew quite low over the ridges, to ride 'ridge lift' did I feel a little freaked. But once again, I chilled and dug the feeling. It really is quite awesome. Until of course your instructor turns to you and says,
"boy, the wind has really picked up. Brace yourself for a rough landing"

A GA pilot always, always, has a go around in his/her back pocket. With gliding, there are no second goes. Admittedly, we had an engine, and it could have been powered up if absolutely necessary, but the Byron Gliding Club have a 'no engine landings' policy, feeling that engine landings are not in the spirit of gliding. I rather got the impression that turning on the engine for landing would be the social equivalent of bursting into a Mariah Carey tune, or scratching your armpit at the table, or perhaps admitting you'd voted for Howard.

Towards the ground it was bumpy. The sock was swinging like a suburban couple as we joined a close downwind. Norm never let the strip out of his sight, and remained high saying, "with height and speed, you have a full bank account. As you get slower and lower you start to withdraw from that account. The only time that account is to be empty is when you're on the ground, tied down"

As we neared the strip, on short final, Norm pulled the airbrakes and hung out all the washing. The drag was phenomenal. By now it was so bumpy Norm was dancing on the rudders. Unlike me on such landings, he was neither swearing nor drenched in sweat. It sure looked like he was working hard, but he certainly didn't seem phased. The ground roll was much smoother than I had expected, and as we taxiied back to the club he just said,

"phew! Quite a crosswind"

Norm Sanders
I was charmed by his humility; had I taken a crosswind like that, I would have been yelling "whoooop! I am the crosswind queen!". But, of course, I am still a Baby Pilot, and a bit of a prat at the best of times, whereas Norm (it turns out, unbelievably) is almost eighty, and a man of wisdom and dignity.

As we alighted the glider, Norm commented I'd taken to it "like tape to a duct" and wished I could have tried a few landings on my own (gah!). I'd already decided I'd like to try again. And again. And maybe again. All my (Australian) life, I'd watched surfers and wondered what was so magical about waves that would motivate people to get up with the lark, don an unflattering rubber outfit and plunge themselves into a cold sea. I think perhaps for them, it's the very same buzz as catching a thermal, or riding ridge lift, or managing a cross wind landing without power. Except, apart from the sweating, we get to stay completely dry.

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