Long (8 minute) read. Big week for flying. On Tuesday I had the assessment for my flying instructor’s rating, which I’ve been working on since January. Assessment is supposed to be an all-dayer, in which I teach the examiner (who pretends to be an error-prone student) one of the 20 exercises that make up the Private Pilot’s Licence syllabus (effects of controls, turning, slow flight etc) including preflight classroom briefing and air work. While still in the air, I also have to teach a couple of compulsory items including a forced landing without power (PFL) and engine failure after takeoff (EFATO). Then back to base to deliver a ‘long brief’, a 45 minute presentation on a subject with a week to prepare, then give long answers like a mini lesson to a dozen questions out of a possible 250 from the back of the CAA’s Standards Document 10, their manual for licencing instructors. That really worried me because one’s knowledge will be a bit uneven, and the lottery of only getting asked questions I was weak on cost me plenty of sleep. Being strong in one area doesn’t help, because of the wide scope of the questions – being able to draw the vestibular system of the inner ear on the white board doesn’t mean you can draw a float carburettor, airspace classifications have no bearing on propeller physics etc. On top of that, I don’t mind admitting that a pretty easy life – piano player and writer, no kids – has left me uniquely unprepared to face a challenge I can’t just busk my way around, so I was literally shaking with nerves going into the flying school on Tuesday morning.
In the event, the weather was unflyable, 30 knots of wind gusting 37. It was down the runway so we could have got legally airborne but even I can’t talk fast enough to patter the downwind leg of a landing circuit with a 30 knot tailwind. So I did the long brief (‘integrating digital moving maps into pilot navigation’) which went well, and the Standards Document 10 questions were so easy, felt a bit silly for being so nervous (and for studying so hard! joking). Well the aim is to be a knowledgable instructor not trick an examiner so all good. One thing that worried me initially with the Standards Document 10 assessment was the examiner debriefing each of my answers for a good five or ten minutes, making me worry I wasn’t answering in enough detail, but I soon realised she was just giving me the benefit of her 34 years as an instructor. I was impressed by how collaborative, rather than adversarial, the process was. Flying replanned for next week which I’m actually really looking forward to especially now I know the examiner and understand the process a bit better, and classroom stuff all done and all passed. I had fish and chips to celebrate!
Next day, Southend chief flying instructor Pete Shorter and I flew up to Nottingham to fly a Jet Provost, a 1960s jet trainer operated by a training organisation called Swords Aviation. This had been in the works for months and I was super keen to schedule it for the day after my FI assessment. We had to procure Aircraft Type Rating Exemptions (ATRE) from the CAA in advance. I was so preoccupied with study that I spaced on a crucial detail, which is that an ATRE isn’t just a permit to fly, but to receive formal instruction, including sitting on the left and doing the landing if conditions and pilot skill allow.
The jet, registered G-PROV, is basically a Jet Provost 4 but has hard points under the wings for weaponry, almost making it a Strikemaster, the combat version of the JP. It was delivered in 1964 to the South Yemen Air Force where it flew 900 combat sorties (and has a bullet hole to prove it). Not really sure what war that was, will have to investigate. It then flew as a trainer for the Singapore Air Force in the 1970s. 1980s onwards in the UK with private owners as far as I’m aware. Thrilled that it is painted in the original South Yemen livery with a beautiful crescent moon on the roundel and a fleet number in Arabic.
Our instructor Chris was a total legend, flew the Lightning, Hunter (incl display flying), Phantom (incl ejection), and two kinds of Tornadoes. Ejector seat briefing took about an hour then we went over to the aircraft. Pete flew first, and upon his return mentioned he had done the landing. I knew he’d do well despite lacking previous jet time, as he has something like 7,000 hours of instructing and teaches aerobatics and multi-engine ratings and god knows what else, the ultimate pilot’s pilot. I have 340 hours total time, half of it under instruction, half in command. 40 minutes screeching around upside down over the Czech Republic in a MiG-15 in 2015 and one previous flight in a JP doesn’t give you much of an edge either, so I wasn’t sure what I would be permitted to do and what I would just observe (and to be clear, perfectly happy with Chris’s choices on that front!). Strapping in took ages, there’s about 20 different straps so you aren’t going to budge from the seat even in a 30G ejection. I read the checklist with Chris doing the responses, and we were soon taxiing out.
Chris did the takeoff then immediately let me take control and fly it from about five seconds after liftoff, coaching me to skirt around a village ahead for noise abatement then up and out to the practice area to the east, levelling off at 5,000 feet after just a couple of minutes of effortless climb at 180 knots. We kicked off with a couple of stalls (not the engine, an aerodynamic stall is when you slow down til the wing stops flying, then recover with power and nose down to accelerate back to a safe flying speed). The JP demonstrated her incredible agility and power yet totally benign nature, perfect for a high performance training aircraft. Having got the measure of the bird, I did a couple of loops, exhilerating to pull up and feel the crushing Gs (about 3.5) as the ground disappears and then reappears upside down from above.
Weather was quite unsettled and cloudscapes absolutely breathtaking, so after a few more aerobatic maneouvres I was prompted by the stunning views to reach for my phone which I had put in a side pocket of the cockpit while I was being strapped in. Inevitably it had been snatched away by the high G loads and vanished. I rolled the aircraft inverted and gave it a good shake to dislodge, but only a few pens and a checklist fell onto the canopy below our heads. I am gutted, not just robbed of a cool selfie but such a beautiful sky. Sorry everybody! Schoolboy error.
All too soon it was time to head back (best aerobatic maneouvre: Cuban 8). 115 knots downwind at 1,000 feet, gear down, half flaps, then a descending turn to final (no base leg in a jet, just a constant arc thru 180 degrees) with the aim of being on approach at 300 feet. That’s 700 feet to lose (1,000 down to 300) in a 180 turn, 350 feet in the first 90 degrees of the turn and the remaining 350 feet in the second half, so 1,000 - 650 -300. Turned out to be a very useful calculation because it started raining heavily and I completely lost sight of the airfield. What I knew was the profile, so I just stuck to the gauges like glue with Chris coaching me all the way round, and more due to luck than judgement did actually roll out on final approach looking pretty good. I had the runway again, a black smudge in the rain, full flaps, speed down to 90 knots over the hedge, chop the power over the runway and level off, hold it, with Chris still coaching me, resist the sink (pull back), resist the sink (pull back) until we were out of energy and she just settled onto the tarmac as obedient as anything. I wish my landings in the Cessna were that good. Chris taxied us back to the hangar where we shut down. I was able to climb out but walking was definitely a challenge. Hissing rain on the jet pipe at the back was turning to steam — even pushing her into the hangar was dramatic. Phone was located after about 20 mins of searching. I was surprised it was found actually, so many nooks and crannies in that tiny cockpit, I was quite expecting to have to write it off and maybe get a text in six months when the JP went in for a heavy check (“found it!”). After tea and medals it was time to fly back to Southend. What a day.
I have to be honest, I am going to try and get another ride, what an amazing machine. For most of this flight I was hanging on by my fingernails, would be great to have another bash at it and be on top of things and fly it like a pro, not an amateur who can’t believe his luck. Might get that selfie after all! ATRE is valid for a year. Meanwhile I’ve got the flying bit of my instructor’s rating to focus on and study for. After that hopefully I’ll be instructing a couple of days a week, starting with trial lessons and teaching easy stuff like effects of controls. Imagine that, paid to fly aeroplanes and turning up in fancy dress.
Special thanks to Philipp Schaer at MigFlug, Tatiana and Chris at Swords Aviation, and Pete Shorter at the Southend Flying School for turning me into an instructor. Fantastic photos by Viv Porteous