Flying VFR is wonderful, we get to see the real world, and we get to enjoy sights that make us smile. When I get asked why I never pursued a career as an airline pilot I have a simple response 'why be a bus driver when you can be a racing car driver!'
I know that the speeds of our aircraft are often around 20% of that of the big birds, but our pleasure and grin factors are much greater thanks to the environment in which we fly - and we do fly - hands on, looking out the window navigation and feeling every nuance of the weather. Flying in a small plane provides so much more bio-feedback than the big ones - and I have flown a DC8 and a fighter jet, so I can tell you from my personal experience that flying small, low and relatively slow is a zillion times more rewarding that the heavy metal.
Having said all of that, from time to time we are forced to go 'VFR On Top'. It is cool for a few moments, being up in the sunshine, looking down at the clouds, pretending to be an airline pilot. But only for a few moments. It really can get quite boring. Fortunately, we are only 'officially' allowed 'on top' when there are visible holes to go through to retain our 'in sight of the ground' conditions.
On a recent extended mission (we flew nearly 8 hours in one day) over rain forest, the only safe way out in the morning was to go 'On Top'. The previous day the rain had been very heavy and that means a lot of low lying cloud the next morning. Cloud base is around 500' and cloud top around 1000' agl. Due to crossing ridges and hostile terrain it was safer and more prudent to hop over the clouds.
Normally we are 'On Top' for less than fifteen minutes, but this week the rains had been heavy and the broken layer of strato-cumulus was more extensive than normal. Patricia was on the controls whilst I managed the navigation and hole spotting. Another of my tasks was monitoring the terrain clearance. Using the Garmin 495 we always knew our terrain clearance from the GPS, but we can also work it out from the map and the shape of the clouds. The clouds burgeon up over the ridges and small hills along the way, rather like a bed-sheet with holes in draped loosely over the countryside.
The thinly worn patches of sheet-like covering provide ghost like images of the terrain below, providing confirmation that we are still in the right place, and reassurance that there is still a way down to Terra-firma should need arise.
The 701 is fantastic to fly in these conditions - you know you can spiral through the tiniest hole in the cloud - and with the 495 on board you have a turn-coordinator and VSI that respond to the smallest change in roll or pitch so as to enable a few seconds of limited view should it occur as you pop through the cotton wool.
We stayed 'On Top' for over one hour - the tedium only being relieved by the hole-and-thin-patch-hunting. Flying just three thousand feet off of the ground, and knowing that we would be lucky to get one thousand feet between cloud base and a landing area, we were reassured by our known ability to land the 701 in under 20m, should the need arise. The substantial T6 undercarriage visible from the window, the fat tires looking freshly blackened against the white clouds below, the risk being calculated and the hunt for a let down in the target area growing.
Having 140 litres of 95 RON (91AKI) Mogas fuel on board, and knowing that we are comfortable for 8 hours in the air plus a good reserve, is a magnificent feeling when in these parts. The Rotax 912 UL spins at around 5,000 rpm all day. The set-up with the Warpdrive giving an interesting response curve. We eco-climb at 5000rpm and normal cruise at 5000rpm. From the cruise to the climb, if you pull back the engine rpm drops almost instantly to 4700, a quick adjustment to 5000rpm and the climb is clean (we normally add power first, as per the book, but this is to bring the point home). Likewise, at the end of the climb, we push the nose over and the engine rpm quickly rides up to 5400 rpm, and it is time to reduce the power once the cruise speed is regained.
The ample baggage area has three empty fuel containers (60litres), a Mr Funnel filter funnel and a standard 'carry-on' bag from airline use. The bag contains a large survival knife, first aid equipment, a rope (for tie down but also could be used in case of a landing in a tree), hi-vis vests, a change of clothes and shoes (wet shoes are not good to get out of the rain forest with - so change then and keep your feet dry), biscuits, in flight relief systems (a bottle for me and a Travel-John gel with ladies attachment for Patricia) - all the usual things you put in a carry on! In addition there are six bottles of water, a bag of candies and maps of a large area. We add to the 'carry on' bag after each flight - as we realize the additional needs.
The mission today is not a humanitarian one, not directly. We are looking at the edge of the rain forest reserves and farming activities around them. It is a way of raising cash for our new accommodation units for up to 24 girls to learn in. As a sort of 'joint venture' between MoM and WAASPS we have started a school for girls. Called the AvTech Academy it provides a four year programme for girls to learn about aircraft, engineering, airfield operations, first aid, computers and machining. It is an ambitious project. We can only support up to six girls per year. All of the girls have different needs and this year we have taken in four candidates. Lydia, Juliet, Emmanuella and Ciara. They are all fantastic and all full of life. In the short term we have rented a room in the nearest town, but we are working tirelessly to raise the funds to get them accommodated at the airfield. We are not good at asking for donations - or people are not good at giving to aviation based causes - I am not sure which it is, therefore we use our aircraft to raise funds by working for the cash. It is not a lot, but it is enough for us to make a difference.
The accommodation blocks will be available for pilots to rent during the Academy holidays - so, in the long term, they should be self funding.
It is the drive of providing the necessary facilities for these youngsters that keeps you focused as you fly over some of the most hostile terrain around - but it is magnificent.
The rain forest to one side, the small plots of cocoa and oil palm splattered across the decreasing tree-lines towards the roads and villages. The fast moving muddy waters of the river gushing below, sweeping near daily another villager to their death. The life below is more harsh than I can imagine.
We fly on and enjoy magnificent views, until it is time to head home. This time, we will fly under the cloud base. It has risen to nearly 3000ft agl - but the cloud top is closer to 7000ft now. Charlie Bravo's are climbing their afternoon stairs to 15000ft, aiming for 20000ft before they unleash their bolts of pure-energy. We know that we need to land before these cells become any more active, their dark shadows blotting out the texture of the surface below. We cross the final ridge and see a few drops of rain on the windshield - just at the field comes into sight.
We are about 15minutes ahead of schedule and our 40 year old tractor is still mowing the main runway. Matthew call us and impatiently says 'Alpha Foxtrot, can you wait a few minutes whilst we finish mowing and clearing the runway'. Without thinking, I agree. Patricia is not happy - she exclaims 'I need to land - I really do'. No explanation needed! I concoct a fly-over and overhead join to gain the ground crew some time and to distract the needs of the P1 (I got to sit right seat - I have enough hours already). As we turned to final, and the speed was brought back to 50kts, the power down to 4000rpm, the tractor pulled neatly onto the apron, the sweeping car driving rapidly between the marker boards for a final FOD check.
As we established short finals, the radio sang out 'Alpha Fox' runway is clear, you are clear to land' - I could feel Patricia relax a little, but not too much, for fear of what too much relaxation might induce...
Despite nearly 8 hours in the cockpit, Patricia brought the plane in smoothly, hovered in the ground effect for a moment before a neat, nose high, touchdown, and a very fast taxi back to the stand - followed by a rapid evacuation of the cockpit!!!
I have flown over 50 different types, and the 701 is really special, especially for what we do. I look forward to getting the 801 operational very soon.
Thank you to the Hientz family, to all at the factory, as well as to all those who have contributed in cash, kind or provided encouraging comments along the way. You are all a part of this adventure - thank you.