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Joining sport and recreational aviation

Learning to fly: getting started

Rev. 4 — page content was last amended 6 August 2011
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The following text has been adapted from a brochure once issued to prospective students by an RA-Aus approved flight training facility located at Watt's Bridge airfield in southern Queensland. The author — the late Tony Hayes (1943–2009) — is the inaugural holder of the RA-Aus Meritorious Service Award. Tony had a long career in gliding, initially in the UK and then in Victoria and S.E. Queensland. He was deeply involved in the initial concept and subsequent development of the little-used Watts Bridge airfield into a recreational aviation centre. Tony established the Brisbane Valley Leisure Aviation Centre at Watts Bridge for training glider pilots but added the training of ultralight pilots in the mid-90s.

Module content

  1. Medical, health and clothing
  2. What are your goals?
  3. What type of recreational aeroplane?
  4. Trial instructional flight
  5. Some practical hints on training
  6. Choosing a school
  7. Conversions from general aviation aeroplanes or from GFA sailplanes

1. Medical, health and clothing

The basic medical requirement is that your health meets the requirements necessary to hold a car driver's licence. This significant concession allows people to fly who would otherwise be grounded in General Aviation. RA-Aus flight instructors, however, must hold a valid General Aviation pilot's medical certificate.

General health considerations are basically commonsense. Do not fly when under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Some medications present no problem but consult your doctor if in doubt. You should avoid flying when taking prescription drugs that affect your orientation, vision or alertness, for example some antihistamines cause drowsiness. If you wear bifocal glasses, or have just changed your glasses, it may be wise to check that your vision is OK. This is not particularly visual acuity but more about any impairment to perception of height (and changing height) near the ground.

At our own school, clothing is not too much of a problem. During the summer, slacks and shirt sleeves are normally OK with possibly a light pullover or jacket early in the morning. In winter, a warmer jacket and light gloves may be required early on. Communication headsets are provided by the school. However, note that clothing is dependent on the ultralight type. Very exposed cockpits require suitable clothing in the form of padded flying suits, very warm footwear and gloves, plus helmets. Our school's aeroplanes have semi or fully enclosed cockpits so there is less of a problem, plus Queensland is generally warm all year around.

2. What are your goals?

You should spend a little time reflecting on why you want to learn to fly or convert to ultralight flying. This is important for practical reasons I will come to, but overall the objectives people start out with often change after they have some practical experience. Having a reasonable idea of what you want to do, and why you want to do it, should have an important bearing on the school you choose for your training. In addition, the following section briefly discusses different types of ultralights — and there are many. This should also influence your decision on what type you train in.

Finally, we strongly suggest that you do not buy an aeroplane before you have ample practical experience by which your personal goals can firm up a little.

3. What type of recreational aeroplane?

A little time will be spent on this one because your personal conception of what a recreational aeroplane is may be a long way removed from that which any particular school has to offer for training. If you do not train on something matching what you want to eventually do, then you could waste a great deal of money, be generally unhappy in training and so not learn as well as you might. You may also find you are up for considerable extra training to reach your personal target.

Recreational aeroplanes fall into two main categories — '3-axis control' (normal aeroplane control with stick, ailerons and rudder) and 'weight-shift control' (where the aeroplane is steered as a result of moving the pilot's weight relative to the wing).

In the latter case there are two main recreational aeroplane categories — the powered hang glider (usually known as 'trikes') and the powered parachute (or Aerochute). In both cases the crew pod and engine are suspended below a wing or canopy. These are generally rather slow and exposed aeroplanes and are also a bit physical in how they are controlled.

In the 3-axis area there are again broadly two sections. We may term one 'traditional style' ultralights which by, nature, are high drag and low inertia or low momentum aeroplanes. The other we may term 'de-facto GA' and these tend to be larger, heavier, cleaner and more expensive.

In three short paragraphs I have given you five major choices — for you will now face what trainers are available to learn to fly on at the schools you can reach. There is not much point learning to fly on a fast, glass fibre Jabiru 3-axis when your leanings are towards the trike style of flying — the controls work the other way around for a start. At the same time, if your concept of a recreational aeroplane is a Jabiru, then you are going to be less than happy with meeting a trike. Just because a school is an RA-Aus school does not mean it has the aeroplane type that matches your personal goals.

Generally, there are trainers about for the various main categories. There are fewer trike schools than 3-axis and equally there are very few powered parachute schools. The majority of people go for 3-axis and there are a couple of wrinkles here to consider. The considerations again depend on your personal goals.

If you are aiming at low-cost, simple, local flying then you need a 'traditional' style ultralight trainer to prepare you for this. If you train on something more slippery and heavier, then you may need additional training to prepare you for what you later buy. If you train on a traditional trainer with your eventual sights on something more up the ladder, then your conversion to the larger and faster machines is far easier.

If your intention is to get something relatively large or fast, or just continue hiring the school aeroplane after you have achieved the pilot Certificate, then you should look for schools that provide the class of aeroplane you are interested in.

You should also be aware that 3-axis aeroplanesaeroplane, as a group, are divided into two quite separate additional categories, no matter their price, size, etc. — this is nosewheel and tailwheel aeroplane. In the former, the aeroplane stands on the ground in a level attitude with its weight supported by a largish nosewheel and two mainwheels further aft. The tailwheel (or 'taildragger') has two main wheels well forward, a light tailwheel, and sits on the ground in a tail-down attitude.

This may not seem of much consequence, but it is. The nosewheel aeroplane is considerably easier to land and to handle on the ground. The taildraggers can be a handful without the correct training. If you learn on a taildragger, you can convert straight into a nosewheel. If you learn on a nosewheel, you may require several hours more training for a safe conversion to a taildragger. A good parallel is in driving. If you learn on an automatic car you will have trouble adjusting to a manual gear change car and will require some practice. If you learn on a manual, you can get straight into an automatic.

At our school we have deliberately aimed for the middle ground. The tailwheel aeroplanesaeroplane we operate are the most exacting trainers in the RA-Aus training fleet. They are not easy but we have a lot of ways to enable you to tame them in a similar time to anything else.

However, if you learn in our taildraggers you are pretty much equipped for anything. You can move down into the lower weight and simpler aeroplanesaeroplane, or up in performance to the larger, heavier and more expensive types. Either way, your training will be totally valid, and later when your personal goals may change, our training will support your new decision.

4. The trial instructional flight

If I have given you too much information and you are now unsure of exactly what you want to do and what you want to do it in, then there are practical means of making your mind up.

Visit a couple of schools, see what aeroplane they have and try an air experience or trial instructional flight [TIF]. There is free temporary membership of the RA-Aus available for TIFs so there is no outlay other than the flight cost. However, be warned; the TIF can be translated as trial introductory flight, which is little more than a sampling joy ride. At our school we give you a 20 minute pre-flight briefing and 25 minutes in the air, most of which you will spend on the controls. Our intent is to enable you to sample our instruction as much as our aeroplane and airfield.

When you start training you may have three hours flight instruction before you make a decision to continue. At that point you must join RA-Aus or give it away.

Your actual training will depend on three main elements: (a) what you want and if local schools can supply the aeroplane category; (b) how much you can afford; and (c) how much time you have.

5. Some practical hints on training

The following is written by a person with 35 years experience of recreational flying training instruction in three different aviation disciplines. You would do well to give the following words more than a passing glance.

You basically have three choices: (a) you will train via 'casual' visit to a local school (perhaps visit once or twice per week or fortnight); (b) if you cannot get what you want locally you will go somewhere else, perhaps a distance away, and stay for a period of intensive training (maybe one, two or three weeks); and (c) you strike a compromise and perhaps start with a short course for basics, continue with casual training locally, then finish off with a further short course.

Do not fall into the trap of just dividing the minimum 20 hours flying training by days available. You have fatigue levels and in our experience you will not withstand much more than 2 hours intensive basic flying training per day in conjunction with the ground lectures we give and the homework we also give. You can certainly do more, but it will not be value for money training — only flying time. The bottom line is not how many hours you have done but the competency standard for what you are doing — how well you are doing it. It is the competency standard that has to be reached, not just the minimum hours, and you will have to do as many hours as that takes — without adding non-productive hours to it.

You should also think of the 'two steps forward one step back' if you are casual training. Regularity of attendance is critical to your training progress. This makes you more vulnerable to weather. If you lose two consecutive weeks due to bad weather on your 'flying day' then it will actually be nearly a month between flights. Flexibility in attendance is important when casual flying to keep you current and progressing.

On courses you should also think of the 'skills most quickly learnt are those most quickly lost' aspect. You should structure your finances so when you return from a course you can continue keeping in regular flying practice. Bear in mind that an aeroplane is not a car — you cannot pull over and have a think about things, once you go then you have to complete a flight and the consequent landing, which requires you to be in practice. Holding a pilot's certificate is only a demonstration of competence reached, not an assurance that you can have a big lay-off and be as good as you were when you were flying every day, at least not until you have a great deal of experience.

Another important factor in your flying training — in terms of both value for money and your eventual standard — is support training. Most people do not realise that maybe 90% of flying instruction happens on the ground where there is time to ensure your understanding and preparation for the intensive bursts of time you actually spend in the air. It is essential that your flying is fully supported by lectures, and pre-flight and post-flight briefings. In turn, these should be conjoined with reference and study material so you can learn and revise at your own pace in your own time.

Weather conditions also have a large bearing on value for money and progress. Recreational aeroplanes are light so they get bounced around in turbulence. When you are coming to terms with controlling an aeroplane you need to be able to clearly see the results of your inputs without the atmosphere obscuring the situation by making the aeroplane do the opposite to what you are attempting.

A good pointer to how well any school actually understands and controls training is the length of each flight lesson. The majority of human beings have learning limitations, which result in a marked slow-down of absorption, and an increase in error, after about 35 minutes engaged with the current exercise. You obtain far more value by getting out for a break after 35–40 minutes in your basic training and then having another session.

At our school we offer both casual and course flying, and tailor the training to individual requirements — you will only get what you need. We use powerful conceptual instruction methods in conjunction with lectures, briefings and the school's integrated briefing note series. Our airfield is large but the design ensures you do not waste heaps of time taxiing and it is normally quiet, so you can get on with repeat circuit work without being slowed down by other traffic.

6. Choosing a school

The main problem any new student faces is that, by definition, they will know very little about flying and particularly the mechanics of flying training. This does not put you in a very good position to make decisions when you are just about to invest a fair amount of your money.

As students have little choice, assumptions tend to be made. The most common one is that all schools and instructors are fundamentally the same — therefore a choice can be made (for example) based on the most attractive price, whereas actual value for money should be the determining factor. Certainly all schools have to meet the stipulated standard, but how they do this is very much up to them.

The foregoing notes will have given you some ideas on key areas that will affect the value of your training in standards, money and human terms. We will now give you some general advice on how you can employ that information.

Your most valuable information source is word-of-mouth referral from people who have similar goals and outlooks to yourself. They have been 'hands on' and will know how the interface with the school felt like subjectively as well as objectively.

If you do not have such an information source then you will have to make decisions for yourself. The first step is finding a school that has an aeroplane type suitable to your intentions and which has a location to meet your travel and time needs.

You now need to get a 'feel' for how the school will work for you — is it a bit cold and commercial, or friendly and 'clubby', or somewhere between. You could take a TIF to try them out, but also spend some time watching the operation and studying the general activity on the airfield. See how they handle their students and talk to those students yourself to get their impressions.

You may not be able to do much assessment by visit if you intend travelling some distance to a course. In this case, an important factor is to assess how much the school is trying to inform you and help you versus how much 'selling the product takes precedence'. In our case we are rather blunt. We would sooner take the time to give you information, to make valid decisions on, than have you here for our product when you do not actually need it. That would only waste your time and ours — better to sort it out now.

In addition to the above you should be given a reasonable idea of what is going to happen to you. At our school you will receive one-on-one training with the same instructor and possibly flying with another for just isolated exercises for a change of pace. You will either be on your own or with one other person, usually one of our casual students who will be different on a day-to-day basis.

We will require you to fly early mornings (6.00 am) and we usually operate (on average) until around midday, depending on the time of year. When you arrive we will sell you a copy of the school's briefing notes and then put you in a co-ordinated program of lectures, briefings, flying and then homework using the notes for revision or initial penetration of new exercises. These programs are individually designed for your particular needs as a person in conjunction with whatever stage you may have reached.

We seldom fly late in the day partly from fatigue reasons from the long day (you will get tired and we have to watch this), and mainly because on most days we have a brisk sea breeze come in just as the convective turbulence is beginning to ease. We will not fly you in the turbulent middle of the day until you are virtually at Certificate stage and have confidence in how the aeroplane responds to your own inputs and can therefore work out how the turbulence is affecting the machine. Note, however, that some inland schools (approximately 50 miles or more from the coast) do not get sea breezes, and late afternoon and evening can provide good training conditions.

Another important point in assessing a course is the mundane matters like toilets, showers, food and a bed, and the distance away some or all of these may be. A lot of schools leave this entirely to the student. So do we to an extent, but we can steer you in the right direction and make arrangements for you.

7. Conversions from general aviation aeroplanes or from GFA sailplanes

Please note that some general aviation pilots become confused about RA-Aus aeroplanes. The PPL allows flight in aircraft below 5000 kg but this means a VH-registered aircraft under the CASA control system. The licence does not allow you to go and fly a balloon or glider, neither does it cover an RA-Aus aeroplane. The recreational aeroplane is controlled by the RA-Aus system, carries RA-Aus registration and has its own legal ordinance. Part of that ordinance requires you to be an RA-Aus member and carry an RA-Aus Pilot Certificate to fly an RA-Aus registered aeroplane.

If you have prior gliding or General Aviation experience to the extent of 20 hours of which 5 hours are as pilot in command, then the minimum requirement becomes 5 hours experience on RA-Aus aeroplanes of which 1 hour must be as pilot in command. You must also satisfy an RA-Aus Chief Flying Instructor that you are conversant with the flying training syllabus, particularly the handling of high-drag, low-inertia aeroplanes.

If you already carry radio operator and/or cross country endorsements then RA-Aus will accept these without further training or testing if they are from a recognised source.

... Tony Hayes, CFI

The next module in this 'Joining sport and recreational aviation' series is is an outline of the RA-Aus flight training organisation, facilities and the clubs associated with RA-Aus members.

The 'Joining sport and recreational aviation' series

Copyright © 2004 Tony Hayes