Copyright © Hamish Reid
“Bankstown information delta, wind 180 at 25 knots gusting 35, crosswind component mean 14 max 20, heavy rainshowers in vicinity of the airport, QNH 1023…”
I’m sitting in the left seat of a SOCATA Tobago TB10, getting ATIS on the ground as another heavy winter rainstorm sweeps across Bankstown (Sydney) airport. My Australian instructor Tim Gerrish, sitting in the right seat, confidently predicts the rain will clear in a few minutes. He’s probably right, but what about that crosswind? No worries, he says, the Tobago’s certified to 25Kts max crosswind. Fine, I say, but I’m not, it’s the strongest crosswind I’ve been out in. Well, now’d be a good time to learn real crosswind techniques, wouldn’t it? he grins. Never mind that I’ve never flown a TB-10 (or any other constant-speed prop airplane) before, or that this is the first time I’ve sat in the left seat of a GA plane in Australia, or that I’m still reading up on the Australian ATC and airspace procedures. Or that I’m a (very) low-time US PP-ASEL C-172 driver 12,000 km from home.
First lessson: unlike the Bay Area, Sydney has real weather: thunderstorms, dust storms, sudden gales, quickly-changing cloud cover, etc. I’m going to have to get used to this….
A few weeks before visiting Sydney in July 2000, I discovered that the Australian equivalent of the FAA — CASA — will give you a special pilot’s certificate based on your US PPL. In its simplest form, this lets you fly day VFR in Australia after filling in the paperwork and doing what amounts to a BFR with an Australian CFI. This special license is valid as long as your US license and medical are valid. I had enough time between visiting relatives to fill in the forms and get the certificate, and maybe get some sightseeing flying done as well. So I ordered a bunch of charts and the Australian equivalent of the AIM from Australia, and contacted a recommended FBO in Sydney (Basair Pty. Ltd., Bankstown) to get a rental checkride in a Cessna 172 and a lesson or two for the BFR.
But when I called to confirm the bookings after arriving in Sydney, I discovered that the 172 I’d booked was down for the week, and that the only suitable plane available was one of their Tobagos. I’d never flown a Tobago — in fact I’d never been PIC in any sort of low-wing plane, let alone one with a constant-speed prop — and I’d need to spend a couple of hours getting familiar with it and being checked out for insurance and rentals. But it seemed like a good time to learn to fly something like this, and any time spent flying is enjoyable. So I signed up for two familiarization / checkout flights, with a separate BFR at the end of the week. Of course, nothing went as planned….
“Bravo X-Ray Victor cleared for takeoff runway 11 left, crosswind departure, wind now 190 at 20 gusting 25“.
We spend the first flight (Monday) dodging rain and clouds and coping with heavy gusting crosswinds over the Sydney area. We fly up the VFR corridor under Sydney International Airport’s (YSSY) class C airspace to Patonga then back to the training area out west towards Warragamba. I have a bit of trouble at first with the radio procedures, but by the time we’d landed again I was in control — it’s really not that different from here in the States, just a few minor differences in phrasing, terminology, and readback requirements. Airspace usage is familiar enough that I didn’t cause any major international incidents; we were in class G airspace most of the time except for the GAAP zone around Bankstown, which is class D in all but name and the required use of restricted entry / exit lanes and reporting points. What really caused me problems was the whole separate prop / manifold pressure thing, compounded by the Tobago’s unfamiliar instrument layout. Still, by the time we returned to the airport I’d almost mastered the “pitch up, power up / power back, pitch back” procedure along with the most common settings well enough to smoothly synch prop and pressure and avoid having Tim scream “we’re all going to die!” too often.
Touch and goes at Bankstown were another matter. We were cleared for “circuit ops” (read “pattern operations”) on 11L, with winds as mentioned earlier. It rained on us several times around the circuit, but it was the wind that got me: I’ve never seen such a crab angle, and keeping a wing-low approach on final took all my rudder strength. The gusts didn’t help…. By the 5th T&G I sort of had it under control, but my pattern flying was all over the place (and repeatedly pulling the pitch control on final when you meant to pull the manifold pressure doesn’t help the confidence). After 1.5 hours airtime I decided to call it a day — I would never have flown on my own in conditions like this. Still, I didn’t kill anyone or bend any bits of the plane, and I learned a hell of a lot. I booked another flight for the next day and Thursday, and went back to study the manuals, charts, and procedures.
Sydney’s main GA airport is Bankstown, YSBK, in Sydney’s western suburbs. It’s roughly equivalent in size and traffic to North Field Oakland, being one of the busiest GA airports in the world after Van Nuys and Oakland. It’s a short drive or train / taxi trip from where I stay in central Sydney, and it’s got a good supply of FBOs, schools, clubs, repair shops, etc. For what I was trying to do, it was ideal.
It rains, with solid very low overcast and heavy gusting winds Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. No flying. Friday dawns clear and sunny — with cold, dry, 40 knot winds gusting 55. I drive out to Bankstown to at least do the paperwork for the Tobago checkout (just like the club’s, except more detailed). While I’m there the airport is temporarily closed due to the wind, now officially “gale force”. It doesn’t look like I’ll get any flying today, either — and I’m leaving the following Monday. But after an hour or two filling out the checkout and CASA forms, the wind’s dropped to 25-35 knots, with a crosswind component of “only” about 15 knots. Still gusty, but flyable, with a further drop in wind speed forecast for the next hour or two. Tim says that we’ll go out to the training area and do stalls, steep turns (60 degrees in Australia), etc., then come back and do circuits. If I can do all this without much intervention from him on a day like this, he’ll sign me off for the Tobago. I’m keen….
The Tobago’s a sleek French-built low-wing tricycle gear four-seater with a 180 HP Lycoming and constant speed prop. About the only criticisms I had were the lack of headroom (I’m hardly tall at 180cm, but I hit my head on the gullwing door / canopy each time we hit a decent bump) and the panel and switch layout (the fact that the RPM and MAP gauges are on opposite sides to their respective control levers caused me a lot of trouble at first). Visibility through the canopy and over the wings was excellent, and the cabin felt roomier than a 172’s. The plane I was flying — VH-BXV — was a 1982 model fitted out for IFR, and with a cruise speed of about 120kts with a fuel consumption of about 42 litres per hour at 1150 Kg gross, 210 litres max fuel. The controls felt a lot stiffer than a 172’s (especially the ailerons and the elevator trim), but nothing felt alien or totally unfamiliar. A nice plane….
“Bankstown tower, Tobago Bravo X-Ray Victor 1,500 over Prospect inbound for circuits with India.” “Bravo X-Ray Victor join downwind”.
We head back to Bankstown for touch-and-goes, joining the circuit for 29R on the downwind with a quick overfly-the-airport at 1,500’ switch to 29L as we get there. Circuit entry in Australia is usually either on the crosswind or directly into the downwind, and never on the 45. This time, despite the winds, I manage to do the assigned landings (no flap, full flap, “glide”, etc.) and go-arounds without causing major bloodshed or damage to ego or aircraft. Cool! Still a mighty crab angle, though. We taxi back to the tie-down, and Tim signs me off for the Tobago. I feel great — I can fly one of these things, more-or-less.
Of course Saturday and Sunday turn out to be rainy and overcast, so I miss doing the BFR. Next time….
In my experience, GA in Australia is a lot like GA in the US — it’s nowhere near as expensive or restricted as in Europe. Most of us are likely to find things pretty familiar, whether it’s ATC procedures, airspace usage, or aircraft rentals. Given the dollar exchange rate, fuel and rental prices are roughly comparable, and landing fees aren’t too bad. Radio calls and procedures are similar enough to cause few problems. And Australians do speak something recognizably like English….
The main differences, for me, at least, were the weather, and the sheer size and remoteness of the place. My old home state of New South Wales — an area at least the size of California and Nevada combined — has fewer than a dozen VORs and only a handful of airports with an ILS. In the greater Sydney area — with a population of 5 million people and an area about the same size as the Bay Area — there are exactly three public GA airports with a grand total of six runways, no ILSs, and two control towers (GA is not welcome at Sydney’s main airport, YSSY). Although there are a lot of (usually private) “bush strips” in the country, you can fly for hundreds of kilometers in this part of Australia without seeing a real airport, let alone a VOR. Pilotage skills, the ability to obtain and understand weather forecasts, and being able to accurately estimate things like fuel consumption and takeoff distances are all crucial if you want to fly any distance away from Sydney. GPS is a real godsend for GA in Australia; NDB’s still play a significant part in serious IFR flying.
Less important differences include the need to get a separate night VFR endorsement before being able to fly VFR at night; the more-strictly ICAO-standard approach to airspaces, charts, radio procedures, and vocabulary (the word “aerodrome”, commonly in use in ICAO land, still conjurs up images of biplanes and pilots with leather helmets and long scarves…); the different use of airspace around airports (you can encounter class D airspace at the core of class C airspaces around some airports, and the GAAP procedures force you to fly what amounts to small mandatory VFR corridors with defined reporting points even in class G airspace); landing fees at most public airports (usually about $10 per landing — a set of touch-and-goes normally constitutes a single landing for fee purposes, fortunately); a more restrictive approach to flying over major urban areas (you can’t just fly over, say, Sydney Harbour or downtown Sydney, or do the equivalent of our Bay Tour); no flight following; the mixed use of metric and imperial measurements (altitude in feet (but based on metric pressures in millibars), runway lengths in metres, wind in knots, etc.); and the prohibition on GA at the largest airports. Other than that, it’s all pretty similar, and should cause no problems to the average US private pilot.
In any case, the whole experience was really enjoyable, even if I didn’t end up with the Australian certificate, and if you find yourself in Australia for more than a few days, I recommend you check it out. You’ll need to bring your logbook and your current US medical and license, and be prepared to spend several hours filling in a bunch of forms at a CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority, www.casa.gov.au) office (there’s one at Bankstown airport). CASA also operates the Flying Australia web site, www.flyingaustralia.com, which has a lot of great information in it. You can order Australian charts (WACs, sectionals, and terminal charts) directly from Airservices Australia, the official ATC providers, www.airservices.gov.au. You should also get CASA’s free “Sydney Basin – Visual Pilot Guide”, an excellent detailed informal guide to VFR flying at the three GA airports in Sydney. CASA will send this to you if you email or call them — it’s essential for GA flying in the area. There are similar guides for Melbourne and Brisbane, the other two large GA cities in Australia. And finally, I used Basair P/L of Bankstown, +61-2-9791-0111, www.basair.com.au for instruction and rental; they’re great and have experience in helping people with foreign licenses get the Australian equivalent, but there are other choices at Bankstown — see Bankstown airport’s own web site.