I couldn’t exactly ‘snap out’ of being homesick. It was so bad that I didn’t fly for about 10 days following my sudden meltdown. A lot of uncertainty hung over my head, just like the current climate we are witnessing. I didn’t know if there was an end date to being homesick or how long this episode was going to last. Everyone deals with it in their own way. I kept to my books, became rather recluse by staying indoors – (not recommended), didn’t update my family about anything, occasionally driving to the farmers market and grocery stores to buy supplies. Progressed through topics such as Meteorology and Air Law, became somewhat of a decent cook – surprising.
During my reluctant time in hibernation I realized that becoming a pilot is so much more than just flying the airplane. Even at the student pilot level If you’re not in the right frame of mind, if you allow yourself to sit behind the controls despite knowing that your mind is clouded, the impact your background has had on you and if you don’t give yourself time to process things, what does that say about your conscience when it comes to flight safety. Say for example, you choose to power through all of that and you acquired your license. It still doesn’t make you a safe pilot. If anything, it makes you a at risk pilot. Shows you’d be willing to make more unfavorable and erratic decisions. I wasn’t that nor did I wanted to become one. I lead by sound instinct and when I was feeling much better by the 12th day, I went back to school to continue flying.
I don’t know how other pilots in training dealt with it and how current pilots in the industry deal with it, but I know it does linger and never really goes away completely. I for one am certain that when faced with a similar episode in the future, I’ll be handling it in a very healthy way.
Don’t worry I’m not going to go through every single entry in my logbook but believe me I would if some memories hadn’t faded. Here are some of what I considered most memorable.
October was packed. Still jacket weather for me. I managed to buy an electric blanket – what a genius invention that was and slept in the room with the washroom light on. I also bought a plastic bin to do my laundry in and bought a box set of pots and pans, Target was a like a thrift store haven although I’d imagine it’ll be even cheaper in an actual thrift store. Bought a knife, a cutlery and serving plate set. Everything I needed for less than a $100. The landlord managed to get hold of a spare refrigerator and a coffee table about 2 weeks after I had moved in. My ingredients didn’t go bad for the 2 weeks prior because the temperature in the house was that cold. I just set everything out on the kitchen counter but once the refrigerator came things got better in terms of saving money from buying take-away.
The school hosted its annual Air Race which I saw as an opportunity to participate in and better integrate with everyone. I met another Singaporean and a Malaysian girl who were with the school even before I enrolled. They were at different stages of their PPL program. He was working on his 3rd circuit solo and she had commenced her 1st training area solo while I was just about to start lessons on stalling. We created a Whatsapp group called Pilots to be for ourselves and we all know how that turned out after a while.
Participating in the Air Race was phenomenal. It brought back so many memories of me and my very close friend when we were in secondary school, on our flight simulator doing a race from random airport to the next.
So the deal was that we’d pick an instructor and the aircraft of our choice, fly from Jandakot Airport to Rottnest Island about 20 miles west out over the coast, land, get on a bike and cycle to a café, take a picture as evidence with the Chief Pilot of the school who was hidden amongst the crowd, cycle back to the aircraft and fly back to Jandakot. Whoever had the fastest time on record to do so wins an actual aircraft propeller blade.
Someone already chose my instructor and I was obviously limited to the type of aircraft I could fly which was the C152. I wasn’t really left with any choice other than to go with the 1 remaining instructor available, but he was fantastic. Although we didn’t win, I enjoyed every bit of it, flew over the water at 700ft the whole way.
Blurred lines and False hope
One thing that really caught me off-guard right at the beginning of training was Ground School and how I was basically left to my own devices and to be at the mercy of my instructor by which method he chooses to teach the PPL subjects. There wasn’t a mutual discussion of how he was going to conduct the lessons or how we are going to best approach it together. It was just ‘you study the topics on your own and if you have any questions you can come and ask me.’ This continued until the last day. Yes I was briefed before every flight, he would cover the technicalities and agenda for that day’s flight but it was just at the surface level. I mean come on, how much mud does a candidate have to wade through just to get a foot in the industry. I’m not asking to be spoon fed and some may not agree with me. What I wished for was given that a PPL is the very first license one acquires, wouldn’t it be best that an instructor guides them every step of the way allowing the candidate to refine his or her skills under supervision of good will and then let them be completely independent should they want to pursue further endorsements after they have acquired their PPL.
I have another point to make regarding this vague approach that I faced, but I’ll mention it in the last installment of my blog; ‘if nothing works at least you know you have your instructor’.
I started working really hard from the end of October giving my 110% every day, after my instructor had a chat with me and told me that he was positive he could see me going on my navigation flights by the end of the year, which meant that I could possibly attain my PPL by January or February latest by March. Although inwardly that wasn’t my concern of attaining my PPL in the shortest possible time frame, it really boosted my morale and gave me somewhat of short-term goal that I could set my eyes on.
I really struggled with talking to ATC. Especially during the first couple of circuit practices, so much so that I would profusely apologize to my instructor asking him to do the radio calls one more time and that I’ll communicate with ATC on the next lesson. It was more to do with the lack of confidence, fear of the controller’s tone and the simultaneous actions required by me to fly the aircraft than it was about what you exactly say to ATC. I watched a lot of American ATC recordings and held on to the notion that all controllers were rude and nasty.
Of course, I found out that that wasn’t the case when I was flying in and out of Jandakot but nevertheless, it took time for me to overcome my hesitation of communicating with ATC.
November would become filled with back to back circuits, no breather and a routine that would leave me exhausted by noon. Literally every other day I physically pull out the aircraft from its parking spot by hand to the start-up position on my own, do pre-flight checks, fuel up, check ATIS, brief my instructor, get ground clearance and commence touch-and-go(s). That wasn’t the part that got to me. I enjoyed it and did so with a content heart.
If you would indulge me a little bit here, I cannot for the life of me find the right words to describe the growing pressure it would have on my concentration the more touch-and-go(s) I performed. It is even more mentally draining when the circuit pattern was crowded. I found myself concentrating really hard on every circuit flight, making sure not to miss any details, any calls from ATC, constantly checking if I’m maintaining visual separation, am I too high, am I too low, am I maintaining the right profile. The questions would loop around my head until I called it a day.
There was a close call on one of the days. At this point in training I was flying the plane on my own with no intervention by my instructor. Only verbal guidance and the occasional verbal cues to make minor adjustments. His practice was after every circuit flight before coming in for a full stop landing, he would show me what we would be doing on the next lesson. On this particular day, he demonstrated how to do a flapless landing and glide approach, after which I was asked to do the same. Prior to which I had already done about 6 – 7 touch-and-go(s) – already exhausted. While trying to show my competency for flapless, we flew a bigger and higher circuit pattern and I hadn’t noticed that I was sinking faster than normal and I almost hit a power-line cable. He immediately asked what I was doing, got me to put in full-power and climb. I learned then that it’s important to speak your mind as you know where your limits are even though your instructor might have your best interests at heart.
After that incident, I gradually built my endurance.
He said that I was catching up to my other peers, but the school only had 3 students including myself. The others that I saw from time to time were already established in the industry. They were there in the school to get more ratings or do refresher flights.
I was recommended to a Designated Aviation Medical Examiner (DAME) who ran his clinic with his wife in their huge house, in a wealthy neighborhood. The houses in that area surrounded a huge lake with a huge fountain in the middle.
After several e-mail correspondence a date was set for my Class 1 medical appointment and I drove down rather nervously when the day did arrive. The examiner was very warm and reassured he would make it as comfortable of an experience for me as possible. During all of his tests that he ran on me, he was talking about the realities and joys of becoming a pilot which I found to be very profound. It took about 1.5 hours for the whole thing, spinal alignment check, ECG, blood pressure, audiogram, height & weight, drug tests. I also had to send in blood work 3 days before coming to see my DAME, so the results of that was emailed to him. As for my vision test I had to make an appointment with another clinic to see an optometrist for pilots, as I was told by my instructor that it’s better to know early on if you qualify for a Class 1 medical which automatically qualifies you for a Class 2 medical as well. But if you only tested for a Class 2 medical standard it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can qualify for a Class 1 medical.
There had been instances where students would go through all their training and then when it came down to the medical they find out they are held back by certain issues. Therefore to avoid disappointment it was better to know early on if I could consider flying as a career with vision aide – that’s the classification of eye-wear that stated on my medical cert.
I was at the optometrist for 4 hours. They numbed and dilated my pupils and did checks both with and without my glasses that I wear for flying. My vision became blurry after the check-up as it was cautioned and was advised to sit in the lounge for another hour for it to wear off. It had been 1.5 hours and my eyes were still super blurry but I was able to make things out. I went to the counter and for some reason the reversing drops hadn’t helped much. Ideally you would come to the optometrist with someone so that they can drive you back, but I had no one. I walked out to my car and tried to get my bearings. I needed to get back to Kardinya before sunset as I was quite far. I drove slowly.
I had to wait for about a week after that before CASA sent me my Class 1&2 medical cert which I was very pleased about and I had to have it on me at all times when I go for my solo.
The Mighty 1st Solo
In fact on that day I didn’t even know it was going to be the day of my First Solo. I was told that it was just going to be another training day for me. By this time it had come up to about 2 months and I had clocked in slightly under 14 Hours and on that day it was to be my 8th Circuit Practice with my instructor. So I thought alright, this is the 8th circuit practice, something I’ve done many times before and I’ve become comfortable with my landings and it has always been above satisfactory according to my instructor. So I have this in the bag.
You know as a kid all I could think of was to Fly, Fly, Fly. I want to fly, I want to fly, and I want to fly. All through primary school, teens, late teens, early 20s, nothing but I want to fly. All I talked about was flying – still do. Even when I knew nothing about flying or what it takes, I spoke about it. But I was also absolutely convinced that I’ll never ever live to see myself fly a plane or that I’ll never be good enough to go solo. It’s way out of my caliber.
It was always the same feelings and thoughts for all the other training flights I’ve had prior. Reservation then comes knots in my stomach followed by weak knees, fear of unknown and not prepared enough. I walk into school with the same 5 feelings on that day. Monitor showed the days’ schedule with my name and next to it – Circuits. I video-called home for a bit and then headed out to the aircraft to do my pre-flight checks. My instructor and I got in and I started my circuit practice by doing several touch-and-go maneuvers. My instructor occasionally giving me pointers.
Then a strange feeling called Phobia of Success set in. Like in my case, will I not want it anymore if I ever go solo, how far will this take me in life, how long will I take to attain it if at all, is it worth it, so many questions.
I think I was about to do my 4th touch-and-go maneuver when my instructor asked me to vacate the runway and pull up to the Northern Apron.
Immediately I thought I did something wrong.
Instructor: "Hold the breaks, I’m going to get out first."
Me: "Ok I have the breaks (propeller still running on idle), what happened?"
Instructor: "You are ready for your solo. Fly the plane like you just did. It’s going to be fine. You are in control."
He shuts the door and I got serious. I didn’t even allow myself to get excited or feel any sort of euphoria for fear of getting distracted and uncoordinated.
Air Traffic Control cleared me for take-off at 0902 hrs and my First Solo lasted just 18 minutes.
At 0920 hrs ATC said the following: “Congratulations to you TANGOFOXTROTROMEO on your First Solo.”
Me with a huge grin on my face: “Thank you very much, TANGOFOXTROTROMEO”
ATC: “Vacate runway on your right and hold short RWY 24R, Well done mate”
After having landed and shut down of the engine was completed, it was indeed a bittersweet moment as I stepped out of the plane. Eternally grateful to be able to fulfil and experience this moment – my First Solo, but at the same time my love ones aren’t here with me to share my accomplishment. The excitement of having done my very First Solo quickly died down. I didn’t even ask my instructor to help me take a picture beside TangoFoxtrotRomeo and mum would have cooked a special meal of sort. I did however call home and told that I had just landed and completed my First Solo, although I couldn’t hold out the conversation for long, my body still slightly jittery from the adrenaline of having gone solo. They were so happy for me.
I drove to a small Singaporean owned Malay café/restaurant, sat down, bought myself a plate of Chicken Briyani and a glass of Bandung, shared the good news with the owner, had my meal and drove back to Kardinya to pull a long face for the rest of the day. As I’m writing this I just realized that the saying of ‘you will remember your 1st solo for life’ just happened to be true.
I have to admit though, I didn’t like my landing. I have been flying the entire time with my instructor, that I didn’t really know how to take into account that the aircraft will be much lighter because now he’s not seated beside me. So the aircraft bounced slightly when I flared for touch down. Quickly engaged a little bit of rudder action to stop the yaw. – What a complete newbie, I thought I was.
The next day I was feeling much better and decided to treat myself proper, in celebration of my First Solo on the 27/11/2017 I took myself out on a picnic at an aviation museum. I heated up some leftover rice, grilled a few spicy chicken drumsticks that I had in the fridge and made soup. I packed the food with a spoon and drove to a car garage to get the car serviced first. Soon after that I drove to the museum called; AVIATION HERTIAGE MUSEUM OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA.
There I was given a student pilot discount and only needed to pay an entrance fee of $7.50. I literally had the entire museum to myself apart from this one other local guy who was taking pictures. The place was huge. There were two buildings, a North Wing and a South Wing. I have no idea how they got all these huge primarily war planes and many other smaller ones too into the building but no doubt they were all flying at one point in history. I was like a kid in a candy store. A huge grin plastered over my face even though no one was around. I video-called my sister to accompany me while touring the museum. Narrated what blade that was, how the inner wooden skeleton of a wing was assembled, I even saw the actual baggage container belonging to Ansett Australia! What a find that was. I was in there for hours. Circumambulating a Royal Australian Air Force DC-3, admiring dozens of vintage biplanes I then chanced upon a rather ordinary looking decommissioned engine. The more I looked at it the more I was drawn to its amazing engineering, inspecting its cylinders and the history behind it. It was part of NASA’s Lockheed C121G Super Constellation Aircraft. I’ll spare you all the details and notes that was attached to this engine.
The Super Constellation regularly visited Perth during the Gemini Space Program to provide calibration checking for the Carnarvon tracking station North of Perth, W.A. The Connie would hold overhead Carnarvon at 9000 ft for hours, flying precisely calculated elliptical patterns simulating a spacecraft’s orbit around earth.
After buying a few souvenirs from the gift shop, I strolled out of the museum, set up my food on the cold metal table that was right in-front a helicopter and enjoyed my meal.
A Widening Crossroad The lack of a heated abode really made me feel miserable especially at night. The washroom light blew its fuse and I was still sleeping in the room with the hallway light on.
Thinking about my legal status in the country brought with it its own added worries and uncertainties. I was on a visitor visa and the school told me 3 months into training that they now cannot officially consider my request for a student visa – and their reason was ‘we don’t really feel like dealing with any added cost of accommodating an international student, so just continue staying on your current visa and if there is anyone who can sponsor you maybe you can try that’. Now set in a mild limbo and thinking if I should look for another school that does provide a student visa, but what if I lose all that I have learnt and clocked in. I’d have to fly out of W.A every 3 months as I was already half way into my training. I didn’t want to risk being complicit in the eyes of immigration. That December I flew back to Singapore for about 7 days and returned to Perth on the night of Christmas. Scoot would literally become like a feeder service I’d take from the MRT station to my home, except that this was between Singapore and Perth for a total of 8 times over the course of a year.
Upon my return I found out that the hallway light blew. I moved my pillow and blanket to the hall which was right next to the kitchen, nights were still rather cold and in a stroke of genius I switched on the stove and let it glow bright for about 20 minutes. Right then I completely dismissed the idea of buying a portable heater.
next week I’ll be talking about my other 2 circuit solo flights, almost getting into a head on collision with a car, how I had to run away from Kardinya, sleeping in my car the night before my 4th solo check ride, reality of missing events.
“….. Sometimes he would come knocking on the window really loudly at night. It turned into harassment and after he left at 8p.m that night, I started packing.”