Sometimes it takes an event or experience to make you understand the true weight a word carries; like ‘plummeting’ during your first spin. Today I was going to learn to fly ‘complex aircraft’.
One of the requirements (a fun one) for the Commercial Pilot Licence is to complete five hours of training in a complex aircraft: One with flaps, retractable undercarriage and a constant speed propeller. A ‘real’ aeroplane as some like to call it.
Our ‘real aeroplane’ today was the school’s Piper Arrow. Now one of the constants of this universe is that if you ever hear someone describe a Piper Arrow during a bit of clubhouse banter, the word ‘brick’ will always follow – usually within a sentence or two. Always some ‘war story’ of a scary take-off or other hangar talk.
This is the story of my introduction to a spiffy looking red and white Turbo Arrow IV – and by extension its close association with the humble brick.
Still, at first glance the only new things appeared to be the gear and constant speed prop. Oh, and of course the turbocharger on the Arrow. Two extra controls; how hard could that be? Well, one morning bright and early I rocked up at the airfield to find out just that.
After rolling back the hangar doors I looked at the plane and took it in. The Turbo Arrow – it looked like it sounded. From its high T-tail to its pointy spinner it said, ‘I’m fast.’
Three greens above the gear lever on the panel are cool.
I hopped inside and surveyed the cockpit. Usually I’d found cockpits to be simpler than they first looked once I broke them down into the main parts: flight instruments, avionics, engine gauges, and controls etc. But the Arrow was quite opposite. The more I searched, the more buttons, lights, and gauges I found. Every square inch of space on the panel was taken up by something. There were even placards and performance tables printed on the sun visor. On the floor in the centre was the flap lever, rudder trim, and emergency gear extend lever. And on the wall by my left knee I found the fuel selector. It was the sort of cockpit where if you weren’t looking for ‘it’ you wouldn’t see it.
But the one exception to this was the signature ‘three greens’ above the gear lever on the panel – cool.
With the requisite ground school and technical exam dusted, my instructor and I heaved the plane out of the hangar and began the preflight. This sent me grovelling under the wings to check the landing gear for any hydraulic leaks – a must-do for any pilot who doesn’t want to chance a ‘wheels-up’ one day.
Before turning the Master on, I made damn sure the gear lever was in the down position and that all other switches were off. Following the checklist carefully, I primed the engine and turned the key… it fired first try. Then once it had warmed up nicely I started taxiing with one wheel on the gravel (Morningstar has narrow taxiways) to the holding point.
For take-off we wanted 41 inches of manifold pressure (MAP), that is; the air pressure available to the cylinders, and 2575 RPM. But you couldn’t just set the propeller to max RPM and floor it: the Arrow had a turbocharger – a mini turbine driven by the exhaust gasses which spins a compressor many thousands of RPM. The compressor shoves more and more air into the engine for it to burn and produces a huge boost of power. But my instructor explained that as we would pick up speed during take-off run, the ram effect would increase pressure even more and boost the engine beyond its limit – put simply, the engine goes ‘Bang!’
Also, the turbo would lag behind the engine as it took time to spool up. So, finding a new respect for the term ‘complex aircraft’, I lined up on Runway 20 for blast-off. Holding the brakes, I gingerly pushed the throttle up to only 36 inches and held on for dear life as we leapt forward. Several seconds later my backside felt the turbo kick in hard and gradually push the MAP up to 41 inches. The towering blue gums at the end of the runway loomed ahead, but they were no match for the speeding Arrow.
After a firm pull on the yoke we were off the ground and climbed away steadily. While booting right rudder to counter all that torque, I started the after take-off checks: ‘Tap the brakes, undercarriage down and fixed… I mean ‘Gear UP!’’
Thrilled to be pulling the gear up on an aeroplane for the first time in my life, I raised the lever and waited. Wanting to avoid a hard smack on the wrist from my instructor, as warned, I kept my hand on the lever until the gear-in-transit light stopped blinking and the wheels were tucked away safely. Then I continued with the rest of the checks.
I always wondered why we’re supposed to tap the brakes after take-off. My instructor explained that as the wheel rotates up into the wheel well, if it’s still spinning it will produce gyroscopic forces on the gear strut – like a spinning bicycle wheel.
In about half the usual time required, we’d made it into the practice area. With more weight and speed behind me, it flew ‘straight as an arrow’ once trimmed out. But with all that power, if I had even slightly too much back pressure on the yoke the Arrow would very comfortably go into a 500fpm climb – just like that.
Engine management took the cake for the biggest learning curve. I was spending lots of time (more than I should) with my eyes inside the cockpit, trying to keep track of RPM and manifold pressure. What made changing power to a particular setting tricky was the turbo lag. If I throttled back, the engine would immediately respond, but a few seconds later it would drop further as the turbo slowed down. And so I would have to look down at the gauge again to adjust it. Then of course when I looked up I’d find myself climbing or descending again. ‘Set it and forget it’ didn’t exist in this plane.
Soon it was time to head back to the airfield and attempt some touch-and-goes. The Arrow even saw a chance to one-up me during the descent to Morningstar when the turbo started pushing more power again in the thicker air. Constant monitoring was required. My instructor also warned me of the very real risk of shock cooling the cylinders. I couldn’t just arrive overhead the field, chop the power, and descend to circuit height; I had to plan. And that meant always staying one step ahead of the aircraft – a very fast race to run!
I turned downwind and ran through the landing checks.
‘Gear down… Three green’.
The cockpit was extremely busy and before I knew it we were on final approach and too high.
As that perennial hangar talk saying goes; when gliding in an Arrow, if you throw a brick out the window chances are you’ll see it whizz past again as you overtake it on the way down.
I’d misjudged the approach so I instinctively throttled back to idle… and soon saw that the brick analogy wasn’t quite the tall tale I thought it was. We plummeted over the trees toward the runway and back onto the proper glide path.
I remembered my first instructor’s words: He told me that you never ‘put an aircraft down’ on the runway; you ‘finesse’ it on. That, soft pillows, and smooth butter were the thoughts I tried to keep in my mind as I precariously edged it down to the numbers.
With the T-tail elevator sitting well above the propeller’s slipstream it was less effective. So I had to give the yoke a gutsy pull to get the heavy nose up before touchdown. Teeth clenched, I waited… and was rewarded by a dull ‘thump thump’. I sensed waves of relief from my right, as well as from inside.
But we were eating up Morningstar’s short runway every second so there was no time to stay for more than literally a touch and go. As per his instructions, I throttled up until my straight forefinger touched the panel (leaving a few centimetres of throttle to go) while my instructor monitored the manifold pressure. Then he adjusted my power setting so we didn’t blow the engine up.
As the turbo kicked in we whooshed down the runway, and I actually noticed him reducing power to keep it under the limit.
I’d had all I could take for one hour and made a full stop landing
After two more fearful landings I’d had all I could take for one hour and made a full stop. With that being the first of five hours’ training, the single biggest thing I learned was a newfound respect for complex aircraft. One or two seemingly insignificant add-ons really do make a difference when you’re in the air, where they quickly soak up the last bit of brain juice you have left.
Complex really is complex… especially when you’re flying a brick.