I’m a member of the Denham Flying Group (DFG), a loose formation of mostly Denham-trained pilots flying anything from PA28s to various twins. I’ve been flying PA28s, C172/182s and the like from Denham for the last seven years, have 530 total hours and am accustomed to the Garmin 430 GPS.
Two of our group members have taken to the Cirrus aircraft and have been anxious to share their enthusiasm with other members of the group. So, one of my PA28 flying companions Roy Harrop and I accepted group colleague Colin Ferns’ invitation to experience his new toy. We opted for a cross-Channel ride, which the weather on Thursday 26 October dictated would not go beyond Ostend. What follows is simply my impression as a rear-seat passenger on the way out and as a front seat passenger on the way back.
We reported to the aircraft operator TAA-UK’s operations room at Denham (North side) at 09.00 where Colin was already doing his paperwork. This consisted (see my ‘Flying Abroad’ article elsewhere in this issue) of the usual CA48 Flight Plan to Ostend, and a GAR to ensure our re-entry into the UK – Ostend is a ‘designated’ customs/immigration airfield. The flight plan was faxed direct to Heathrow FBU for an 09.00 UTC departure and was re-issued by fax within minutes to TAA-UK Ops and to Denham Tower. The GAR was filed through Denham Tower following the airfield’s local rules.
Colin checked the aircraft and taxied to the fuel pumps after loading our life jackets and a dinghy. Ten minutes later we climbed aboard and the journey started. Sitting in the back behind P2 I had a good view of the two 10 inch display screens.
After start-up Colin taxied away from the pumps and parked to go through his on-screen check lists on the right hand display screen. There seemed to be a number of display options. After obtaining Tower clearance Colin taxied out to runway 24 and made his run-up checks using his on-screen check list. The mag checks are made manually but the propellor checks are automatic. He then checked his engine parameters on a separate presentation option. As we moved towards the threshold Colin’s quick, and slick, call to Northolt Radar set up a radar information service after take-off, with a pre-allocated squawk. Then it was out onto Denham’s 760m runway against a 12 knot 30degree crosswind, running up to 2000RPM before releasing the brakes and using right braking to establish good directional control of the castoring nosewheel up to rudder effectiveness speed before applying full power with plenty of right rudder.
Before we reached the VRP at Chalfont St Giles some three miles from the airfield, Colin had said goodbye to Denham and reported to Northolt to pick up his radar information service, stating his intention to climb to 2000ft initially on a heading for Lambourn – we would be routing the LAM, DVR, KOK VORs. He must have engaged the autopilot at about this time and set up a 300 ft/min climb to 2000ft . Northolt directed us south of Elstree to stay clear of their ATZ, which Colin achieved by over-riding the autopilot. Safely past Elstree, he let the autopilot take over once more to return us to our planned track. That’s where the first surprise hit us passengers – the autopilot banked the aircraft at a ‘racy’ 40degrees, overshot the planned track then corrected onto track in the same ‘sporting’ way. It seemed to us passengers that the autopilot programme had been written by a fighter pilot. In IMC, this rapid banking movement felt disorientating and I had to refer to the instrument panel to check which way we were banking.
Once we got under way we were in intermittent IMC at 170 knots and further height and rate of climb selections were made through the autopilot. The right hand screen was in north-up map mode at 20nm radius and we began to pick up the TCAS indications of other transponder equipped aircraft (Modes A, C & S) – TCAS does not ‘see’ non-transponder aircraft. Transfers to Southend Radar and Manston Radar came up quicker than usual and before we knew it we were coasting out at Dover for Koksilde at 5500ft VFR. We changed to Ostend Approach mid-Channel who limited our descent in VFR to 3000ft because Koksilde military airfield was active. Once clear of Koksilde we were instructed to descend to 1000ft to join downwind for runway 26 and transferred to Ostend Tower. Before we reached 1000ft we had the airfield in sight and were turning inland for our downwind leg. Colin’s landing in a 16 knot crosswind was smooth and uneventful and we headed for the GA apron. Before going into town we filed our return flight plan for 14.30 UTC to get us back to Denham about 16.30 local.
After a very decent lunch of moules/frites and some good coffee in Ostend’s cathedral square , we made our return to Denham. The take-off on Ostend’s 3200m runway was ‘sparkling’ and we were at about 1000ft before the far end of the runway. The flight back in VFR conditions was equally quick, smooth and uneventful. From the TCAS information displayed we were able to identify then spot an Airbus approaching Manston at 6000ft across our path as we coasted in over Dover VOR at 5000ft. Later, Thames Radar passed us over to Northolt Radar for our approach to Denham and since we were routing directly over Elstree Northolt asked Colin to climb to 2400ft to avoid their ATZ. He initiated a climb using the autopilot but this was not quick enough for Northolt who asked him to expedite – which he did by over-riding the autopilot and ‘jumping’ from 2200ft to 2400ft in a quick hop losing about 20knots airspeed in the process.
I was curious to see Colin’s low-speed control of the aircraft which is pretty ‘slippery’ and requires 75-80 knots on the approach. All I can say is that it was very good and the landing into an 11 knot crosswind using just over half of the 750m runway. The aircraft is also very nimble on the ground.
Was I impressed? YES. Forty years ago I was buying military aircraft equipment which did most of what the Cirrus does at vast expense and considerable technical complexity and unreliability, not to mention weight. I also witnessed some of the Trident automatic landing development trials and experienced from the flight deck of BEA Trident G-ARPB totally automatic ‘hands off’ landings in thick fog at Gatwick with the ledgendary John Cunningham at the controls – that was impressive in 1965!. For us ordinary Joe’s to be able to do anything like that today in such small aircraft is remarkable indeed.
Do I want to convert to the Cirrus? NO. I’m a late-comer to piloting, retired and 71 years old. I have all the time in the world to indulge my flying hobby and the longer it takes the more satisfying it is. My joy is in travelling – I am never in a hurry to arrive.
I can see the attraction for the busy flyer, especially one travelling on business.
I can imagine push-button pilots losing touch with ‘real’ flying. Perhaps that is why so many airline pilots fly simple aircraft as a hobby. It may also be why Colin Ferns’ other aeroplane is a Chipmunk!!!!!