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Flight over Highlands

Beauty in the air - photo by Cristina

We planned a flight over the Highlands before we left home but this required good weather. Given the weather we've experienced so far, it wasn't certain until this morning. The plan was for a 45 minute flight at 9:00 AM. Wake-up at 7:10, getting ready, morning tea with a biscuit each and then, few minutes past 8 we're out the door to catch the no. 11 bus for the airport. The bus should call at 8:16 near the hotel and around 8:45 at the airport.

The airport is not very large but it is a proper airport, not an airfield. The bus stop is near the passenger terminal, we know that we are supposed to go to the long time parking and somewhere near its end we should find Highland Aviation. It's not that short a walk, it seems that the airport is about to end when we eventually find them near one corner. Enter and greet the person there, we're informed that someone will take care of us soon.

We make ourselves comfortable and my attention is drawn to the map on the wall, but I only manage a glimpse before the receptionist arrives. We receive our forms to fill, in which we acknowledge our duty (among other things) to tell all our friends, relatives, pets and others how good and pleasant our experience with Highland Aviation will have been. But of course! Being done with the forms we look around at what's for sale around the reception area: instruction manuals, headsets (including one in pink!) other related items.

A small Piper taxies near the office and produces a light girl that seems like she could simply ride the wind, no need for an aeroplane. Once inside we notice the stripes on her shoulders, then she introduces herself and it turns out she's our instructor - Anna. We go to the map and she shows us where we could fly and what would be interesting to see. We want to overfly Loch Ness (of course!) and maybe also see a castle. I ask if it's possible to extend our schedule to one hour and fly a circuit with a touch-and-go before landing, to try my hand - I explain that some time ago I held an ULM license. Good news: approved.

After she makes all the arrangements, we go to the aeroplane (Piper PA-28) and receive a briefing about how to enter. Cristina goes first, making the sacrifice to stay in the back. I have the left-hand seat while Anna will sit on the right-hand one. That is the typical student-instructor arrangement, with student sitting where the main flight instruments are. We get our headsets (Cristina gets a pink one!) but we don't put them on yet - with the master switch OFF there is no power for the intercom. Anna warns us that the engine might not start from the first try because, even if it was warmed up during taxi, it's quite cold outside. However, there's no need for alarm this is normal. I assure her that we're used to cranky engines. The engine itself probably heard our conversation and as such starts with no fuss since there's no one to impress.

Anna checks the magnetos (piston engines have 2 separate ignition circuits for redundancy: both are used in flight but each can be separately disabled to check that everything is working properly), she asks if we do the same (ULM flying in Romania). I answer that yes, it's the same.

We don the headsets, check that we can hear each other, then she listens to ATIS with a pen in her hand. This we don't have at home - the ATIS, although on second thought, I'm not sure about the pen either. Writes down the ATIS identifier, wind, sets the altimeter, done. The Sun is low enough that it flashes into my eyes through propeller blades, but we have sunshades that can be pulled in front of the windshield - good thing. Even better, my sunshade has all the speeds written on it. She informs us that she'll talk with tower now, it's the first time I see how things are done "in the big world". I knew the theory but never seen it done in practice. First you tell them what ATIS you've got (identifier), announce your intentions, receive a transponder (SQUAWK) code and set it, confirm that they can see you and then request permission to taxi. While taxiing Anna tells me that there are two runways, wind is somewhat in between but more of a headwind for the shorter one. On second thought it's almost straight headwind for the shorter one, unless it changes now. I offer an opinion that given the circumstances it's better from the short one with headwind (maybe she was just testing me?), she agrees but will check the wind once again, just in case. We continue to taxi on the short runway (12-30) towards the intersection. Tower gives the same wind direction, cleared for take-off from runway 30. 180 degree turn for line-up and we're ready.

Anna tells me that she will perform the take-off and will let me know when I'll have the controls. Understood. The take-off is similar but not really the same as with the "Rebel" I learned on. It's similar in the power to weight ratio of the aeroplanes, but here we have a nose-wheel so there is no trouble with lifting the tail, consequently no risk of lowering the nose into the ground while doing that. Directional control on ground seems to be much easier. A short while after, we're off the ground, she lets me know I can take the controls. I do so, I feel her hand "checking" for a short while then she leaves them to me. Lets me know that she'll raise the flaps, OK. I can hardly feel it. It seems that I don't climb steep enough, she tells me that optimal climb speed is about 70 knots, I was maintaining around 90. I pull up a little bit further but I don't feel comfortable under 75, tell her, OK, she says slightly amused. I notice the smoke stacks that I saw from the bus earlier, seems like a power plant, I ask and find out that it's an OSB factory. "It's a good waypoint" I observe - "Yes, and they're also good for showing you the wind direction".

Looking back towards Inverness, along the Caledonian canal and Ness river - photo by Cristina

We continue along the Ness river (that flows from Loch Ness), and we learn that parallel to it runs the Caledonian canal. It's funny to see the river and the canal along each other I wonder why they didn't simply make the river navigable? Further away we begin to see Loch Ness - in a few minutes we'll be overflying it. I look around - woods and rough terrain all around, where would one land in case of engine failure? I comment on that, she laughs - "Yes, there's not much open terrain here" (well, she might know some clearings that I don't see) and then, quite suddenly it seems, we're over the lake, more or less straight down the middle.

That makes the availability of clearings slightly academic, we have around 1000 feet on the altimeter, maybe we'll catch the shore (not worried, just idly thinking). I'm brought back from my idle thoughts when the air turns quite bumpy all of the sudden, after the calm we've had so far. There you have it: all kinds of terrain, add in some heat from the Sun.. I feel her hand on the yoke to check my reactions, tells me that if I find it too much I can leave the controls to her. "For now I can handle it, I'll let you know" (after a few seconds the hand seems to be gone). "If you go slightly towards the left and climb a little further up it should be more quiet" - Some more throttle, climb and indeed not 500 feet above it's again peace and quiet. She knows the area inside and out!

Loch Ness, longer than I would have imagined - photo by Cristina

By the way, the throttle is only on the centre pedestal, however having a yoke instead of a control stick makes it easier to hold the yoke with my left hand and adjust the throttle with the right. In the ULM back home I would rather cross my hands than use my left on the stick, more so during turbulence, she laughs when I tell her. (She always seems pleasantly amused - friendly, not malicious). She then asks if we have mountains in Romania, I answer that yes, we do, but I only flew over plains. I get an amused "I see" (in which I read: "That's why you're not used to fly over this kind of terrain" - quite right).

We see (in fact she sees it and shows it to us) a castle built right on a corner of land by the lakeside: Urquhart Castle. We can descend for a better view says Anna. Said and.. somewhat done. I'm reluctant to make a steep descent, she cuts the engine further - "Keep the airspeed at 90" - "All right". We're descending and I scan between the castle, airspeed and altimeter. About 200m above the water (by my approximations) I increase the throttle for level flight (she seemed on the verge to do the same). "Which way now? Turn right and keep the castle on the left?" - "Yes, go through the valley going right" comes the agreement. Cristina sits on the right side in the back and in a right turn she can't see much of the castle but the rest of the landscape is quite a view.

We climb again but so is the terrain below. Anna: "climb to 2000". Looking down as we reach the altitude I estimate we have 300 meters below, ask "around 1000 feet terrain elevation, right?" - "About right, even 1200-1300 in places". The view below is quite spectacular, with brown wavy land below but it's only dry grass, not the bog of the north. And there aren't so many trees - good for an unlikely eventuality of an engine failure. (I have a way of always keeping that in mind when I'm at the controls - not as a worry, just to be prepared).

Sun rising over Highlands - photo by Cristina

Here and there we see some ponds, lakes even. They look strange tucked between what looks like dry hills. There's another river in front of us - Beauly, Anne tells me. There is a hint of mist towards the horizon, enough to make the landscape look mysterious (just as it should here). To the right, towards the horizon I see Kessock Bridge and comment how good it looks. "We can admire it a little closer, let's go there!". Right turn and then follow the river in slow descent. Then we let the river (or firth?) to our right, and upon arriving at the bridge another slightly steeper right turn, steep enough that I hope Cristina got to see (and photograph) the bridge despite the fact that I didn't end up low enough. I already see the OSB factory and there's a short moment of confusion: Anna said "follow the coastline" and I somehow understood "go towards the factory". No problem, a left turn gets us more or less on track. She checks the wind with the tower, it hasn't changed, we'll land on 30 but there's another aeroplane taxiing for take-off, we should extend our circuit to allow them enough time.

I'm somewhat confused by the fact that Inverness Airport used to have 3 runways in a star pattern and now one is completely disused (I think it was 18-36), we seem to be headed towards the longest one (05-23) but the one we are cleared for is the shortened 12-30. The end result is that I can't see our runway for a while. When I finally have it in sight (small and perpendicular to our flight path) I ask if we will fly a left-hand circuit. Affirmative.

I turn right to enter the circuit and then she starts explaining what to do and when to turn from downwind to base; just then I can't remember which is which. We (in Romanian ULM) count the turns, not name the legs. I explain myself, she says no problem "if you keep this heading you're fine" then proceeds to tell me about the English/international VFR circuit. I knew about that terminology as well, but in the heat of the moment it slipped out of my mind. Luckily, no matter the names the circuit is mostly the same, thus the flying itself seems to have been fine. Anna reminds me that we have to extend the downwind before turning to base (what we call third turn). I think I slipped somewhat towards the runway because no sooner than the turn is finished I need to turn again (4th - towards final), I don't think I asked her for permission, no protests over the intercom, we're slightly to the right of the runway centerline (I obviously made quite a wide turn), well, I correct for final, more or less on the centerline, I feel we're low and try to increase the throttle - "No need, we have enough altitude" - fine, she pulls it to idle. "Speed on final?" - "Around 65-70 knots" OK, I keep it thereabouts. Now I'm better aligned onto the centerline (what we in a rough translation would call "in axis"), there's some crosswind from the left (so that's what deformed my circuit!). It seems I fly the approach quite well, however the energy state is quite low, we need some more thrust (Aha!). Just as I take my hand to the throttle Anna pushes it a little. I like how she is only slightly assisting (like just now with the throttle). The runway was longer, now it's only usable after the intersection with 05-23. However, the asphalt on the disused portion is still visible and that's somewhat strange (especially for someone that has only landed on grass strips, with hardly any markings). As it should happen, because I didn't mind the throttle enough, we're rather high, I notice it but she says no worries, it's just a touch and go, we don't need the whole runway length. No mention of my wounded pride; there's no time, the ground is getting closer, flare is almost passable (my mistake - used to shorter landing gear), if we had a full-stop landing this would have been an embarrassing bounce at least. Maybe the aeroplane would have still been serviceable, who knows. No such trouble now, just as we touch the ground she pushes the throttle to take-off power (I don't even know if that means firewall it as in our plane), pulls the yoke for climb out then leaves the controls back to me.

I can't remember how we made the first turn, I think I asked for permission once I felt we're high enough. This time we fly a right-hand circuit (there is one other aeroplane departing). I ask if I can make a 180 (turn directly "downwind"); I'm not sure about the answer but there was no opposition to my continuing the turn, bypassing the crosswind segment; who knows what she imagines about my style. Part of my reasoning was that with our crosswind and my wide turns, we'd be far enough from the runway by the time we're downwind. I begin to get used to the area, I know were "our" runway is but now she asks me to turn base rather sooner than I would have expected. No real problem there, after that it's eyes out the window to appreciate the turn on final. I come out quite well aligned and as we get to short final I feel her more firm on the controls, I mostly follow her inputs now. She - obviously - makes a perfect smooth landing and feeling the controls is a lesson in itself.

I congratulate her during taxiing, she tries to tell me that it was my landing, "Not quite", I explain, "I felt you more in control". I get a nice answer - that we've done it together - I'd like to think we performed together almost the same but I think the remark was more for encouragement. Not that I mind that.

After arriving to their corner of the airport she shuts down what there is to shutdown, we have a little chat about parking brake and gas cutoff valve - she laughs that I remind her exactly about the things they don't do for short stops.

That almost concludes a great (and pleasant) experience. One last surprise: I get a diploma for performing an hour of dual flight at their flying school. We congratulate each other "I enjoyed flying with you!", shake hands and that is it.

I'm slightly disappointed with myself for not performing better, Cristina consoles me: foreign aeroplane, foreign terrain, foreign language. Not to mention that my last flying was some years ago. That is true, and I realise: the best compliment from Anna was letting me have full control almost all the time. That reminds me: she has a cute approach when needing to use the radio (since the PTT button is on the yoke): she only finely put two fingers on the yoke to press the button without disturbing me. I still felt the touch and saw her out of the corner of my eye, but that was more of a reminder that she really trust me enough to not need keep her hands on the yoke at all times.

Smiles after a great flight - Photo by Anna
Written in 2017, published 2018-03-13 by Mihai Gaitos - contact