Landing is Not Optional

Learning to fly in Moscow

Interview with Michael Gibson by John Harrison.

Why did you learn to fly here?

I have always wanted to learn to fly. It was always a kind of boyhood dream, and at 16 I joined the RAF Air Cadets, with the intent of learning. I was a bit put off by the ‘RAF’ness’ of that institution and didn’t stay long enough to actually get to fly. About 30 years later I found myself in Moscow, with my son in a boarding school at basically the same age as I was when I started to learn. He told me that he has been flying with the RAF, that he has been doing barrel rolls and some somersaults and loop the loops, flying upside down, and all sorts of things. So I thought: “Right, it’s now or never.”

‘Now’ meant learning in Russia, and where better to fly than in a country with an illustrious aviation history and many of the worlds most iconic aircraft, so in many ways I am very happy that I learned here. They do have a more rigorous programme, which means it is harder but you become a better pilot. My instructor, who is Russian and FAA certified, always says that in the West you basically give a pilot situation A and then solution A, situation B and solution B. So you lay everything out and you give solutions. In Russia, he says, we tend to give you solutions and you sort out which one to use in each situation.

I now know that when landing, for example, there are many different techniques you can use. If you are flying a commercial airliner you use what is called a ‘stabilised approach,’ you come in to land from a great distance and you come in gradually, making it as comfortable as possible for the passengers. But in fact, you can drop a plane on a runway; not a commercial airliner of course. You can land aircraft on aircraft carriers in the middle of an ocean, on a runway which is way too short, and it’s insane. I have discovered that there are certain things I like doing and things I don’t like doing, and the instructor has given me all sorts of options out of the tool set that he has given me.

What is the relationship like between you and your trainer? Do you feel comfortable with his style of teaching?

I have to say that Pavel, my instructor, is fantastic, and everybody else who has been up with me in the plane has said the same thing. He is very calm, which is the kind of thing you want. He never flaps, and he never criticises. If I really screw up and I say: “If you weren’t in the plane I’d be dead.” He says: “That’s a lesson. Now what have we learnt? Now you know what you should have done and will be prepared for next time.” So he turns that situation into a positive learning experience.

In the UK, we are particularly concerned with health and safety. In Russia, that kind of approach is not so relevant, and you should be ready for anything. Here, for example, you get to fly in a great variety of weather conditions, like in an ice cloud, and in general the Russian winter presents stuff which makes you think in a different way. Back in the west, such winters are an abnormality that you encounter every now and then, whereas in Russia it happens for 6 months of every year. Everything changes. Even taxiing out to the runway, everything feels different, so you just go into winter mode. You learn never to use full flaps in icy conditions for example, because you might ice up the back wing, which could cause tail plane stall; when you can flip over because you lose balance of the plane.  In the West you might be thinking – ‘oh it’s icy I should be concerned about the front wings,’ but you should actually be aware of all sorts of possibilities and dangers. Learning to fly in Russia certainly gives you a broader outlook.

Is there a lot of technical information that you have to learn?

Yes, there is an awful lot of technical information that you have to master when you learn to fly in Russia or anywhere for that matter. There are in fact all sorts of issues with private aviation in Russia. Historically, you have civil aviation and military aviation. In the West you have a third actor – private aviation. Vast Russia has only approximately 500 private airfields whereas America has over 15,000, and this is a multibillion dollar industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people. The private aviation sector in Russia is trying to find its way through new territory, and, inevitably they have had setbacks. They simplified the rules at one point, so when private pilots started killing themselves, they had to work out how to deal with that. They are trying to ease up now on tough regulations which they brought in, but they are finding it hard to establish quite how to do that. So at the end of the day, it’s complicated getting a private licence here as there are only certain schools which are able to give you the official training. The way round that is either to do the final bit in the West, or at special flying schools here, which are heavily controlled.

Is it the same qualification that you can use on the West?

Yes, for most countries it’s a basic Private Pilot License (PPL), which is what you need to fly a single engine propeller plane in. If you have that you can get yourself on a conversion course for the relevant version of the PPL in that country. You can always fly with an instructor from any private airfield. They understand what you are capable of very quickly; often even before you get a plane up in the air, just by how you taxi to the runway, and the way you behave in the cockpit. One of my fellow students, when abroad, finds a local air club, explains he’s a trainee pilot, and then flies and explores the area with a check pilot. It’s a great idea when he’s visiting somewhere with a dramatic scenery or a lovely coastline.

How does learning to fly affect your professional life?

I think everyone should learn to fly a plane – it teaches you so much more than flying! It changes many things, for example, the way you think about time and the effects of stress. One of the amazing achievements of aviation is its safety record. About 100 years ago, aviation was killing about 50% of the pilots. In 1915, the life expectancy of 17 year olds joining the Royal Flying Corp was only three weeks. In 2012, out of 3 billion passengers, only 250 people died. That’s a phenomenal figure. A lot of businesses have looked at the culture of flying and seen their own shortcomings, such as ‘blame culture.’ Aviation people try to actually find out the reason behind what went wrong, because when people die, it changes everything. Pilots tend to have a sort of: “By the grace Of God Walk I” approach, rather than trying to shirk responsibility.

Landing is not optional in flying. My instructor does the ‘deadstick’ drill with me. That’s when he turns the engine off to simulate engine failure, and there is only one thing to do – land. He says, “You have the tools, I have told you what to do, now you must land.” It’s about always trying to move ahead with the problem and trying to find the solution in real time, and there is no going back. You can’t redo it, you’ve got to make a decision and run with it. Time is a devious thing, when you have problems, you lose all sense of the passage of time. Several famous aviation disasters have come about because of this; pilots lose awareness of time and even run out of fuel. Something that should be done in 30 seconds, takes 15 minutes, and you’re dead. Time can be very misleading. Recently, we have been studying navigation. My instructor flew me somewhere, it was quite misty, which was perfect as I couldn’t see very far, then he turned the plane around a few times and said: “Find your way back to the aerodrome.” One of the things he said was that you must keep track of time … set a stop watch as you try to find your way back. You need to be aware of every second. 5 minutes seem to go by and you have no idea that it was actually 15 minutes. If you get it wrong you’re in trouble, traveling a different distance than you think. The brain is very interesting in how it perceives and controls time, there are different parts that do different things, and there is no one part of the brain that controls it. A few different parts come together and give you a sensation of time. In a crisis for example, time feels different and appears to slow down.

The other thing is stress. You have no idea until you fly just how screwy stress is. You can do such unbelievably daft things. In a plane, daft things can cost you your life, so flying makes you much more aware of the effect or time, stress, and tiredness as well.

What was it like the day that you flew solo for the first time?

This is called the pilot’s birthday, and it is an amazing experience. You must have done all the necessary paperwork, such as having passed your medical etc., etc. Then you know that the solo flight can happen at any time. The instructor doesn’t tell you so that you are not made nervous the night before. The instructor has to make an assessment of a bunch of things – the weather, the wind has to be under a certain speed, and he also has to be happy that you are rested and not stressed. In my case, it was completely unexpected. One day the instructor did something very odd, he got into the back of the cockpit. I thought he had dropped his mobile phone or something. Then he said: “land the plane and stop.” After we landed, he simply got out and said: “You are on your own now, have a good flight. You will be fine; you have been ready for a while. I am satisfied that you have slept and rested, you have landed without even being able to see me sat in the back of the plane, so you are on your own.” He of course went to join the air traffic controllers and was up there monitoring; they make sure that there are no other planes likely to get in your way. But it feels completely different. You are now the master of your own destiny. The plane is all yours. There is no one to fix your mistakes. It puts the hairs on your chest, you are responsible for all the decisions you make, and you have this toolkit of stuff that the instructor has given you for any eventuality or problem. In the UK you just fly one circuit. Here Pavel, my instructor said: “I’d like you to try and go round at least twice. So you take off, land, take off again and land. If you can do it three times that’d be great, but don’t push it.” I have flown solo a few times now, all at times when I was not really expecting it, slowly becoming more comfortable being alone in the cockpit and gradually developing your own style and routines as the pilot in charge.

My pilot birthday was a great feeling, really liberating. When I landed, everybody came out and applauded, both plane and pilot in one piece, it’s very exciting. I won’t forget that first time, ever.

Where Michael flies: http://www.alpina-avia.ru/