“Southport tower: Ready for departure.”

News Article / May 17, 2017

By Second Lieutenant Kurtis McConnell

Second Lieutenant McConnell recently completed his primary (Phase 1) flight training at 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School at Southport Aerospace Centre, located just south of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. The next stage in his pilot training will be Basic Flying Training at 2 Canadian Forces Flying Training School at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, flying the CT-156 Harvard II.

Here’s what it’s like to learn how to fly!

Approaching the hold short line, I pull the power to idle and apply the brakes to come to a stop.

Here end the checks I have practised dozens of times in the simulator or gone over on a print-out of the cockpit I keep in my room.

Nervously I switch the radio from ground frequency to the inner runway frequency. I take a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves, and prepare my radio call in my head. This is only the second time I have ever been in control of an aircraft and the first time I’ve taken off on my own.

I slowly and deliberately clear the airspace leading up to the runway and make sure the runway is empty. “Southport tower: Ready for departure.” Even as I say the words I know that while the Grob 120A aircraft is set up for take-off, and the airspace is clear and ready for take-off, I am not sure I am – or ever will be – ready for take-off. 

Tower clears me for take-off. I taxi out onto the centerline and apply full power. The next couple of minutes are filled with my frantically flipping switches and moving levers at the right altitudes and airspeeds. My mind is racing as I fall behind the plane, looking from instrument to instrument trying to prepare myself for the next check.

“Look outside the plane and only glance in,” I hear my instructor say. I am sure that it would be impossible to complete all my checks and not miss an altitude or airspeed, if I were not looking straight at the instruments. I finally get stabilized at my departure altitude and speed, sweat pouring down my face.

This is the first time I have a moment to just breathe and let my brain catch up to the plane. “That was good for your first time. Next time, let’s work on getting the checks done a little faster,” my instructor says cheerfully over the intercom.

It feels like my instructor has just casually asked me to do the impossible.

Every flight, there is a new sequence of events to learn about from a book and practise in my head until every sequence is committed to memory. The second flight after learning to take off, I am expected to land the plane. On that day, I learn that there is a tremendous difference between being able to recite procedures and talk about techniques on the ground in a briefing room, and actually performing them in the air.

The bravery of the flight instructors is tremendous. They let student pilots fly all the way to the ground, allowing students to make deviations from the ideal in the hopes that they will correct themselves and learn.

The first time touching down as a student pilot is an adrenaline-filled moment. I get over the threshold, pull the power to idle, and float just a few feet above the runway. It seems like forever before the plane settles down onto the runway. I wonder if the plane is broken, stuck in the air forever. I try my hardest to resist the temptation to push the plane into the ground and force it to land. The feeling of relief when I first touch down without instructor intervention is immense.

I make it safely back to the ground.

Days go by and every flight I learn more and more, becoming familiar with the aircraft and the way to approach manoeuvres. At a certain point, I get to do some aerobatics – loops, rolls and spins, all exciting manoeuvres that entertain as much as teach.

But the fun ends when I am faced with the emergencies test. It is a simulator test during which my ability to fly the plane and to handle in-flight emergencies are tested – my ability to identify the problem, resolve the problem, plan for all contingencies, and take the emergency to its logical conclusion.

While every flight is graded, and I can fail flights for not meeting the standard, this is the first flight test of my military career. It is an opportunity for the standards division to assess my progress and to test if I truly meet the standard.

Preparing for the emergencies test was perhaps the most stressful time during Phase 1 training. I went over my red pages—critical emergency checklists— for what felt like a million times. I was confident that I knew them all by heart. We students would take time interrogating each other on what we would do in different emergency situations, all in an attempt to be prepared for anything the tester might throw at us.

Once in the test, all the hours of preparation paid off. I was calm and confident that there was no emergency that I could not handle. During the test, I dealt with each emergency just as I had discussed with my peers, making sure to focus primarily on flying the plane and, once in a stable configuration, looking at instruments and warning panels in order to properly figure out the exact problem with the aircraft.

This part is critical because the difference between various checklists can be as little as checking if a circuit breaker popped. As luck would have it, every emergency I encountered during the test was one that I and my classmates had discussed. I felt very confident completing all the necessary checks and safely getting the airplane onto the ground.

Soon after I am finished the emergencies test, I move on to the pre-solo circuit check. This flight can be just as nerve-wracking as the flight test. The hour and a half is spent in the circuit, doing landing after landing in the hopes of stringing together enough smooth landings to convince my instructor that everything would be safe if I had to fly it alone. The action packed flight gives me almost no time to relax.

Once I prove I can safely navigate the circuit, my instructor starts to let me fly closed patterns. A closed pattern circuit is done much closer to the ground and tighter to the runway, and takes the normal six minutes between landings down to around three. These faster circuits let me practise my landings much more often in the allowed time.

As I am going around to land, my instructor tells me, “This one is for the stop.” Meaning, this will be my last landing of the flight. The pressure is on to nail this landing. A poor landing could spook my instructor into not letting me fly solo.

My heart pounds as I taxi back to the ramp. I desperately think back to all my landings, trying to figure out if they were good enough to fly on my own. I recall every bumpy landing, every “balloon” (which occurs when the pilot puts the nose too high too fast on landing, so the aircraft starts to climb rather than floating down to the tarmac), every mistake I made on approach, the memory of each correction my instructor made – they all fill my mind.

When my instructor starts to brief me about the solo—how many circuits I am allowed, what to do if there is a go-around scenario—it begins to sink in. I am going to get to fly alone! I try to concentrate on the instructions I am receiving, but my face inevitably opens up into a huge grin.

The instructor jumps out after telling me to have fun and enjoy it. I lock the canopy and begin my checks. I take off on my own, hitting all my marks for airspeed and altitude perfectly. I look back, and I am not drifting at all. I think back to my first take-off, when I thought it was impossibly fast, and realize how far I have come in just a couple weeks. It’s an immense feeling of accomplishment and freedom similar only to my first time driving a car without my parents.

The solo lasts fewer than 20 minutes. As I taxi back to the ramp, I can see my classmates gathered outside waiting for me to finish. After parking the plane and shutting it down, I go to the flight operations office and complete the paperwork for my first flight as pilot-in-command.

The moment I am done signing the plane back in, my classmates are upon me, dragging me outside. A pair of them lift me up and drop me into a tub of cold water. This air force tradition goes back a long time, with every pilot getting dumped into the same bathtub after his or her first solo.

The only thing left to do for the course after the solo is to fly my flight test and head home. The relief felt after being told I passed my flight test is incredible. While I enjoyed my Phase 1 training in Portage-la-Prairie, Manitoba, I am looking forward to the next step in my pilot training.

Date modified: