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ILAFFT

My old Aeronca Chief, G-BPRA, pictured in 1991

My Aeronca Chief, the first aircraft I owned. I bought her in 1990, but had to sell her two years later when I could not afford to run her. She is still flying safely and well, several owners later, to this day.

Her call sign would be: 'Golf Bravo Papa Romeo Alpha' but just 'Romeo Alpha' for short. Although you can ask for out-of-sequence registrations for vanity reasons, registrations go up sequentially, so the 'Bravo' part in 'G-BPRA' means a plane registered somewhere in the late seventies and eighties and a bit of the nineties. As of 2020 we've just moved to the 'G-DAAA' etc registrations.

The 'G' is a designator for Great Britain, and unlike in the States, no registration is ever reallocated - but you can wear spurious registrations for historic replicas, so long as you fill in the correct paperwork.

Given my love of aeroplanes, I am astonished this is the first one in Jasperland. I am acutely aware how boring it is to talk about flying and being a pilot to non-aviators, so I avoid it all costs. There's this joke, but it works equally as well for vegans and people from Yorkshire: 'There are two hundred people in a room, and one's a pilot. How do you find out who they are?' The answer is you don't have to - they'll tell you.

'ILAFFT' stands for 'I learned about Flying From That', a popular feature in aviation magazines. I learned to fly in 1984 out of Denham near London. I was living in a narrowboat at the time, and we had a summer mooring near Black Jack's Lock on the Grand Union Canal - right under the circuit pattern of the light aircraft going in to land at Denham.

I learned to fly on Grumman AA5A's at the Cabair school of Flying, and once qualified, switched my flying to Cessna 152s out of Shobdon in Herefordshire. Flying was as expensive then as it is now - if you don't own a simple aircraft and the 34 per hour rate in Herefordshire was cheap by London standards, where I would have to pay 70 for the same hour. (Today, you'd have to pay about 140 and 180 respectively) I did about the minimum legally required to maintain my licence until I became freelance in 1990, and bought the Aeronca Chief pictured above. This was relatively cheap flying, as it was a very simple aircraft: No electrics so it had to be hand swung to start, minimal maintenance costs and sipped only about 18 litres per hour. It was in this aircraft that I had the following incident.

NB: The 'circuit' is the pattern you fly when you are intending to land or have just taken off at an airfield. It's large and rectangular and each side is named: Crosswind, Downwind, Base and eventually, when you can see the runway dead ahead of you, finals. For safety, all aircraft are expected to follow the same circuit pattern to avoid any conflicts, and at the same height. Instructions from the Tower are mandatory or advisory depending on the airfield, and it's normal to use only the last two letters of your callsign after identifying yourself at first radio contact.

"..I don't have many 'There I was' flying stories, something which probably results as a sort of natural airborne cowardice. However, the following yarn demonstrates just how easily a potential disaster can appear from nowhere.

I was flying my Aeronca Chief into Shobdon and had joined the circuit and then called Downwind on the radio. I turned base, then on to finals and called finals to land. It's prudent, nay essential to keep a good look out in the circuit but I couldn't see any other traffic, nor had any announced itself over the radio. The advisory radio service at Shobdon had acknowledged my calls, but did not report any other traffic in the circuit as it did not appear as though there was any.

All of a sudden, a very alert Tower called: "Romeo Alpha (me) Break LEFT, Alpha Charlie (them) Break RIGHT!!!" I did as I was told, looking out of the right window as I did so to see a Cessna 152 far closer than I even like to get to them on the ground. 'so you can count the rivets' as the saying goes. Needless to say the other aircraft didn't break right and carried on to land as I did a go-round.

As I bibbled off around the circuit (hours, sometimes, in the Aeronca as they are so slow - I always joked I had bird strikes on the trailing edge of the wing) and I wondered just where the other traffic had appeared from and presumed he was doing one of those silly 'bomber' circuits that students sometimes do - or someone with a radio out - but if it was a radio out then he should have joined overhead and kept a good look out for me.

I landed after my 'go around' circuit and once on the deck the truth soon came out although the culprit was nowhere to be seen - he had scuttled off rather than risk a bruised nose in case I was a nasty 6-footer with a volatile temper (I'm not). He was a mature PPL just qualified who knew no other way to join than to go all the way to Leominster (about six miles away) and take a reeeeeeeeeally long final approach talking and listening to no-one. He had pulled this sort of stunt before and had just been torn off a strip by the Airfield manager who was ex-navy and presumably knew how to do this sort of thing.

I was apologised to and assured that the PPL would be asked to take some sort of refresher course. (I heard later he gave up flying and went back to gardening or something)

"How close were we?" I asked.
"You were about to land on top of him," was the reply - "from where I was sitting, I could see no sky between you at all."

So what's the moral of the story, and what did I learn from this? Well, I was in the right, clearly, but being right is no good to anyone when the last thing you see before working your way through eternity are oil stains on the underside of someone else's aircraft accompanied by a tearing noise. No, what I learnt from this was that every other pilot is a potential idiot - and that there's no such thing as a quiet circuit. No radio does not equate to no traffic - and keep a massive good look out, always, always, always.

Recalled 29th May 2020

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