A Gift Of Flight
Logbook entries distil the action, and even chaos, of every flight into one tiny, perfect rectangular sequence of numbers, abbreviations and coded notes. Any pilot can look back at an entry and recreate exactly what happened on a particular flight in their past. It’s like the numbers and codes talk to them, comfort them. They tell them that while lots of things can change, some things do remain the same.
And so too, when I look back through my logbook, the memories of flights rise to the fore and what had seemed long forgotten is refreshed anew. Each unique story an invisible yet intrinsic part of the tapestry of my life.
Few of these entries speak to stories of wider impact. Even fewer tell the story of the circumstances of their existence, and yet, for me, one does just that.
Early in my logbook, there is one flight entry that stands out from all those around it. Like them, it states that it both started and finished at Cranfield Airport – it was an EGTC to EGTC flight. But in all other respects it is anomalous and blatantly so: It’s written in different ink to the entries above and below – I suspect deliberately so. It records a different type of aircraft to that which I was learning to fly on – a Beagle Pup rather than a Grumman AA-5A Cheetah. The captain’s name is not my usual instructor’s or my own. But more than that. It is anomalous because this entry speaks of a story that goes far beyond the actions and circumstances of that particular flight on the 4th November 1995.
It’s all there in that one line: a deceptively simple story that entwines the past, present and future; that marries the professional with the personal, and couples the academic with the practical.
For me, flight is a deeply ingrained passion that embraces both its natural and human enabled forms. Frankly, if it flies, I’m interested! So when I embarked on my MSc in Air Transport Management at Cranfield’s College of Aeronautics in the autumn of 1995, I had already decided to take full advantage of Cranfield’s unique asset – the gift of flight. And so, on the 24th September 1995, just before the start of the academic term, I began training for my PPL(A) and took to the air for the first time in one of Cabair’s Grumman AA-5A four seat aircraft – G-CCAT.
Even then, it wasn’t lost on me how fortunate I was to do this. And I wasn’t blind to the fact that it would be a hard act to balance, especially given the intensity of the MSc course. Fortunately, I already had some basic flying experience under my belt, having previously flown RAF Chipmunks of 4AEF Exeter and Viking gliders at RAF Locking. I also had an inkling of what an aviation career might entail, thanks to the wise words of friends and family working in various capacities within the industry. In fact, it was Guy Halford-MacLeod (then a director at Air 2000) who first recommended Cranfield to me.
Cranfield is unique, but most especially so in the industry focus of the work that you do there. You’re thoroughly prepared. On our course, part of that meant being dropped right in the deep end of analysing and understanding aircraft performance. And that meant that we got to go flying just over a month into our studies.
We undertook the core flying in groups in the college’s HP137 Jetstream Mk1, and if I recall correctly, ‘Dodge’ Bailey was the test pilot. Prior to our first flight I remember having to sign a liability waiver – presumably because of the nature of the flights and the proximity of sharp-edged equipment frames supporting the instruments we were monitoring throughout from engine start to shut down. I say ‘presumably’ because I’m pretty sure we all signed it blind. Let’s face it, were any of us not going to get on board that aircraft?
Our three flights Foxtrot, Bravo, and Delta took place on the 1st, 8th and 15th November 1995, respectively. For each we climbed out eastwards towards The Wash, at varying rates of climb and speed, where we levelled off at 18,000 feet. Throughout we recorded the true airspeeds, outside air temperatures and fuel flows from each tank during the climb phases, hold phases, descent and landing phases. At some point Dodge shut down one engine for drift down.
It was enormous fun, and spending the subsequent Christmas holiday analysing the data, calculating the aircraft’s long range performance, high speed performance and one engine inoperative ceiling etc. was hugely rewarding. For me, writing the whole thing up into a succinct, and well received, report was the icing on the cake.
In between the Jetstream flights, each of us had an individual trip in a college light aircraft. These complemented the Jetstream flights beautifully, and for those of us already with flying experience afforded opportunities to sample some less familiar manoeuvres.
My flight, that flight, was on the morning of Saturday 4th November 1995. The aircraft was the Beagle Pup G-AXIA and the pilot in command was captain Sawyer. He knew I was doing my PPL and that I’d experienced some aerobatics with the RAF so he demonstrated the required manoeuvres including stall, spin and recovery, phugoid flight and Dutch roll, with me following through. I also took control to practice some exercises from my PPL course. It was brilliant and truly enlightening. I really liked the Cheetahs, but the Beagle Pup was a more powerful beast with crisper controls.
As our time in the air drew to a close, Sawyer, noting that the circuit wasn’t busy, asked if I fancied experiencing a full practise forced landing on the grass. Of course I would! So instead of the customary downwind circuit join, we flew in for an overhead join, something that I hadn’t previously done. Then once in the overhead he pulled the throttle. I remember following through all his movements, consciously trying to remember the feel of what he was doing. But I think I lost a bit of focus as we finally came in to land.
Fair to say, it was the sight of birds feeding on the grass ahead of us that distracted me. With the engine idling, the birds were clearly deaf to the approaching aircraft. Sawyer wasn’t concerned, and as we got closer and lower, he would briefly pull the nose to trigger the stall warner. This alerted the birds but did not compromise our flight profile. When we finally touched down, he maintained the pressure for a while, ensuring that the stall warner continued to blare until it was appropriate to release it and open up the throttle to taxi away.
I remember the aircraft’s gentle motion as she bounced over the grass and how that contrasted starkly with the hard, clinical feel of the tarmac taxiway. But above all, as we taxied in, I remember Sawyer turning to me and explaining how he wouldn’t normally float an aircraft down onto grass like he had just done. That he had only done so to get the birds out of the way. What an unforgettable lesson in airmanship – a gift of flight.
A list Of The Aircraft That I Flew Whilst At Cranfield
Beagle Pup B121 (COA)
Grumman AA-5A Cheetah (CABAIR)
G-PING (Now in the Cranfield Flying School Fleet)
Grumman AA-5B Tiger (CABAIR)
©️ Imogen Mann 2021