I think it goes without saying that we’re all a little bit fed up with this virus… The constant news bombardment, added to the constant fights we as frontline providers are having with hospital groups and government with respect to the provision and availability of PPE, the constant threat of infection and quarantine and the effect on ability to earn are all taking their toll. What I’ve found is a major stress reliever is flying. Which has been a problem.
South Africa went into hard lockdown on the 26th of March 2020, after 6 reported Coronavirus deaths. The flavour of hard lockdown chosen here was confinement to home, only allowed to leave to buys groceries and essential goods, no alcohol sales, no tobacco sales. Most significantly, a total closure of airspace apart from rescue and essential flights. No airline traffic. No charters. No general aviation. Initially this was to be for 3 weeks, but it was later extended a further 2 weeks, then relieved slightly for the month of May – but still no general aviation was provided for.
I won’t go into the merits of shutting down personal aviation but suffice it to say that one is more likely to transmit the virus going to the shops or work than by sitting alone in their personal aircraft. After 5 weeks of lockdown, many aircraft owners were starting to express concern about their engines. Aircraft engines like to be used hard and sitting around, unpreserved, is bad news for the development of corrosion.
With this in mind, the AeroClub of South Africa began to petition the CAA to allow maintenance / preservation flights once every 28days. This took some doing and was eventually allowed, provided the owner could produce documentation for their engine to specify a maximum interval between flights in non-preserved engines. For the owners of Lyco-Contisaurus engines, this was a cinch. Not so the Rotax owners. Rotax, helpfully, state in their manual that the engine can be left for up to a year. Not good for pilots. Eventually the Aeroclub convened a panel of experts to write up a preservation manual for Rotax engines stipulating that the aircraft should be flown every 28days at least. Finally!
I was issued with a permit to fly a maintenance/engine preservation flight – <=1hour duration, within 3nm of the originating airfield, clear of controlled airspace and as a solo operator. Heavy restrictions but still better than nothing.
And so it was that I was pulling Miss Daisy out of the hangar for the first time in 77days. To be honest, I felt pretty anxious about this flight. I strongly believe that flying (well) is a perishable skill and I was feeling that this was a flight significantly riskier than many recent outings. I’d decided to be even more meticulous than usual (this is an interesting point – why should it take increased perceived risk to increase meticulousness? – we should ALWAYS be 100% meticulous).
The biggest surprise for me was that she started first time – no flat battery, no flooding. Just the reassuring sound of 115 horses raring to go. My plan was to get the most bang for my buck while not violating the restrictions. The controlled airspace starts 2000ft above the airfield so I took off into the beautiful winter morning and climbed to 7000ft doing racetracks above the field – my rationale being that if the engine quit this would put me in a good place to execute a dead stick onto the runway. At altitude I did a couple of turns to get a feel for the aircraft again, then some steep 60deg turns – which I was amazed I could still do properly. I have been doing a lot in X-plane mostly just to keep the scan going – angle, airspeed,balance, heading.
With the engine fully at temperature it was time for circuits. Best thing about a small airfield during lockdown? Lots of circuits in a very short time. I managed 10 circuits, including 2 glide approaches (180deg accuracy landings) – one of which was so bad I went around at 200ft, 2 flawless landings, 2 50% flap and the rest conventional touch and go’s. I also used the opportunity to really nail the circuit power settings – this has been a bit of a bugbear for me having learned on the Cirrus 20. In the Cirrus, if you set 60% power on downwind with flaps 50% you will fly level at 100kts. I’ve found the Sling a lot harder to lock in using power settings per se.
However, I think I have it figured out now. Downwind speed should be 80kts at 10deg flaps (Flaps 1). The Sling will run away if you don’t pay attention and the Vfe is 85kts. So now, once established at circuit height on downwind, set 20in MAP until airspeed <85kts, select flaps 1 and then increase power to 22.5inches which equates to around 45% power. This was reliably getting me to 80kts. Base leg is flown at 75kts flaps 3 and 20% power (around 18inches MAP) and finals at 70kts then 65 over the fence and touching down 58kts. I’d always thought that the aircraft simply didn’t behave in the same way as the Cirrus but all it needed was more attention. It makes sense of course – the laws of physics and aerodynamics apply to all aircraft…
All in all I was pretty happy with my performance. Now I’m current again and mostly proficient. Unless anything changes in the next few weeks, it will be the end of June before I can wangle another maintenance flight. The thing I miss is the social aspect of the flying – I suspect it will be a long time before we can to group flights to get breakfast again. I did bump into two fellow club members also doing maintenance flights – Matthew in his M20C and another chap, Anton in his beautiful RV-8. Man, I hope to one day get to sit in the back of that thing…