Archive for the 'Flying' Category

Private Pilot Mason

Flying Collage.001

I’m very excited to report that I passed my Private Pilot flight test this weekend! I’m not quite a licensed pilot yet—I still have to do a long cross country flight with an instructor, and then the same flight on my own. This mostly involves not getting lost, though, so it’s more about getting it done than anything else. The flight test is definitely the hard part.

I didn’t ace the test, no pilot prodigy here. In fact I “partialled” the exam by failing one of the exercises. In “slow flight” you deliberately fly the plane at its minimum controllable speed, just above the stall. It’s a great exercise because every time you land you’re doing the same thing. You fly slow, add power, and avoid stalling. Except in my exam, and for the first time ever, I stalled it. That’s an automatic fail. It was really odd, it was quite near the beginning of the test, and somehow it took the pressure off. I passed everything else—including making the field in the dreaded engine-failure forced approach—and when we got back my instructor (and everyone else) was really confused. “He stalled it in slow flight?!?”

Fortunately if you mess up on only one or two exercises you can do a partial re-ride and test just those (although if you fly like crap you can fail on things you had previously passed). So I went back up with my instructor for literally 15 minutes, got permission from Calgary Terminal to do the exercise in controlled airspace, landed, and went and did it again with the examiner. Passed!

The final week preparing for this was unfortunately less fun than the other flying. Everyone at home got sick including me, and I was honestly just barely holding it all together until the flight test. Now that it’s over I feel a huge relief, a sense of accomplishment, and no small amount of sadness. This summer has been a dream come true. I’ve been flying nearly every day, working hard but enjoying it immensely, and now it’s over. In reality this is the start of my flying career but it’s also coming up to the end of my sabbatical and back to “real life.” In a lot of ways I’m sad to go back to reality.

I owe a debt to several people for making this happen. Firstly to my wife Michelle for putting up with the kids while I cavorted around in a dinky little plane for the summer. To the kids, for putting up with Daddy spending all his time flying. To ThoughtWorks, whose ten year sabbatical program gave me the time to actually do this. To Sid Pinney for his encouragement and pilot advice. And finally to Carley, a great instructor who demanded high standards and who is one of my new aviation friends. I couldn’t have done it without all of your help. Thank you.


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mike on September 30th 2013 in Flying

Going Solo


This is a post I’ve wanted to write for a long time.

As a ten year veteran at ThoughtWorks, I’ve been able to take advantage of a three month sabbatical to really focus on the flying. Trying to learn a new thing is pretty tiring. I’ve spent my days both going flying and studying the ground school, and by the end of the day I’m knackered! The good news is that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel—I’ve finished ground school and practice exams and I “just” need to take the real exam now.

About a week ago I got frustrated with progress. I was practicing landings in the circuit, but wasn’t very consistent. I’d have a session where my first landing of the day was awesome, and then they would be really variable. Took a ride with a senior instructor and he told me the secret—any pilot telling you they “greased it” three times in a row is fibbing—no-one is that consistent, everyone has good landings and bad landings. The key is to make sure they’re all safe. Maybe this was the dose of reality I needed, but my landings have been a lot better since then. Not 100% consistent, but some really good ones in there with those that are the “safe but not perfect” variety.

I’ve been held up for about ten days waiting for my Transport Canada medical paperwork. This is required to have a student pilot permit, which enables you to solo. Very frustrating to be stuck waiting on paperwork, but it finally came through. I went up and did some circuits with my instructor, and to be brutally honest the day started off pretty badly! Took me a long time to get warmed up and comfortable, but eventually I got to do one on my own.


Springbank Air Training College has a tradition of “bucketing” students who successfully solo — the picture above is me getting dunked. It was very nerve wracking to be up in the sky on my own, knowing that I’m the person who has to get this thing back on the ground safely. But I made it, and with a pretty decent landing too. I’d give myself 8/10!

I shot some video of the solo, more for my benefit than anyone else’s. It doesn’t seem that fast when you’re coming in to land and looking forward, but this view makes it look really fast. I guess a landing is around 75 MPH.

This is a big step in my training and things will hopefully progress rapidly from here. I’ve got about a month left before I have to get back to my real job, so fingers crossed the weather holds and I can become a real pilot!

First solo thumbnail

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mike on September 3rd 2013 in Flying

flying circuits


Flying is still going great! I am now out of the simulator and have moved onto “upper air work” (slow flight, stalls, spins, steep turns) as well as forced landings in the practice area near Morley, Alberta. This bit has been really weather dependent, and frankly summer has sucked here in Calgary so it’s been slow going. It’s also amazing how good the weather needs to be—it can look like a really nice day, but if the cloud is a bit too low, you can’t get enough height for these upper air manoeuvres.

This week I went for a lesson with a senior instructor at the college, something they do before letting me into “the circuit” (more on that later). This is an extra check on my progress and an extra pair of eyes to offer suggestions and help. In some ways it’s also a bit of a check on my instructor, so I was nervous about it because I wanted to do a good job for myself as well as my instructor. It all went well and the senior instructor suggested I go straight into the circuit.


The circuit is where the most critical pieces of flying are practiced. It’s a fairly small loop around the airport that includes takeoff, a rectangular traffic pattern around the active runway, and then a landing. You can request a “touch and go” where you land the aircraft and keep it rolling, then take off again immediately. The circuit exercises one of the tough parts (landing) as well as flying close to other traffic. At Springbank we’re under Air Traffic Control the whole time so we’re getting instructions from the tower and making radio calls, getting clearances, etc. A typical circuit takes about six minutes, so it’s fairly intensive practice. It’s also very real—tower is slotting incoming traffic into the circuit pattern, so you don’t always fly the same exact circuit and you have to listen out for instructions and do the right things in response.

The great thing about the circuit is that you can do it in worse conditions than the upper air work. You only need a 1500 foot ceiling and 3-5 miles visibility for the circuit, as opposed to a 3000 foot ceiling and 10 miles visibility for the upper air work. This means I’m likely to get fewer lessons cancelled due to weather, and frankly it feels like a good milestone and that I’m making progress.


Landing is absolutely the most fun (and nerve-wracking) piece of flying so far. On all my previous flights I’ve landed the plane with help from my instructor, but in the circuit I could tell she was helping me much less with the landings because some of them have been really heavy! Oops. I certainly wouldn’t buy a plane that had had someone like me learn in it! That’d be like buying an ex-taxi when shopping for a car—don’t!

I also got to the end of the first page in my pilot logbook and I feel that’s a big milestone. As of today I’m up to about ten hours in the air, and ten on the sim. Dozens more to go!

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mike on August 9th 2013 in Flying

First Steps to Flying

Calgary Flying Club Intro Flight, July 11th 2013

I’ve always wanted to learn to fly. When I was a kid I watched Sky Pirates, a movie where a bunch of kids battle against diamond smugglers using remote controlled planes. They had awesome stuff like remote controlled dart weapons and stuff, and I was hooked. My Dad got me a real model aeroplane — one of the petrol powered ones for god knows what kind of cost — and I went to the local club a few times for lessons. Sadly when you’re learning you only get to look at a really high up, tiny speck of an airoplane and it wasn’t that fun. My interest waned.

Sometime later I read Roald Dahl’s autobiographical books Boy and Going Solo. This was an amazing tale of an overly tall englishman learning to fly a Spitfire in the second world war, and his adventures in Africa during that time. When I got to uni I was crestfallen to realize the Oxford University Air Squadron only took people with 20/20 eyesight (I wear glasses) and so it looked like I was stymied again.

With my ten year anniversary at ThoughtWorks approaching, I decided I’d try to use my 3-month sabbatical to learn to fly. Today I took the first step, going on a half hour introductory flight with Calgary Flying Club. We flew a Cessna 152, a slightly sportier version of the manufactured-more-than-any-other-plane the Cessna 172.

Taxiing was a new experience. You have to steer with your feet, and I don’t do anything particularly subtle with my feet any more. I learned to drive a manual and in the UK practiced a lot doing things like hill starts without a handbrake, so my clutch control was decent. These days I drive an automatic in Canada and am much less dextrous. Steering via the rudder foot pedals was just, well, difficult.

My instructor let me pull back on the yoke as we took off, and although she was doing most of the work I really felt like I was flying the plane. She said “How’s that feel?” and I replied “Odd!” which I guess wasn’t what she was expecting! Seriously, the minute we got off the ground the thing was bucking all over the place. These planes are not big — they’re like a lawnmower with wings and we seemed to be going all over the place. A totally different experience than riding in a passenger jet that can fly halfway round the world and land itself in dense fog without human intervention. This was flying! I felt a real thrill from the basic, old fashioned ballsiness of what we were doing. Strapped into a tiny plane, hurtling into the sky, for no particular reason other than to have fun.

I flew the plane, pretty much on my own, to Bragg Creek and back. My instructor landed it. I think I’m hooked. I have another intro flight booked tomorrow with a different club. I can’t wait!

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mike on July 11th 2013 in Flying