I have to apologise to all of you for such a long break. Unfortunately, this is the collateral effect of excessive work and study. The good news is that finally I found time to publish my review of a fantastic book. This volume, without any question, is now one of my favourite books about aviation and a must-read: “Flying the knife edge” by Matthew McLaughlin.
I cannot recommend enough this book to anyone interested in aviation, regardless whether they have a pilot license or have absolutely no clue about what bush-flying is. “Flying the knife edge” is one of the most comprehensive, entertaining and informative books on aviation.
It is basically about Matt’s experience as bush pilot in one of the most dangerous areas of the globe for a pilot, Papua New Guinea. However, there is so much more to this book: the story about the author’s struggle and challenges to become an airline pilot is accompanied by brief historical and technical insights and also some very funny accounts.
Flying in Papua, before turbo-prop planes became common, meant flying with very thin safety margins between short unpaved and unforgiving landing strips, “on the knife edge” one would indeed say. The descriptions of certain flights flight or approaches will take your breath away and ‘glue’ you to the pages until you know the not-always-positive ending.
Just to give you a flavour, imagine a place with little or no radio navigation aid at all, a deadly territory where entering the wrong valley means having no way out and on some landing strip there’s no go-around as a vertical rocky wall stand in front of you at the end of the runway.
As I said, I loved this book. I loved it because it’s a well-balanced mix of all those elements that I enjoy in aviation: personal reflections about the life and risks of a (bush) pilot, history, technics, beautiful planes and friendship. Also it is always explained in simple terms so that really anyone can read it and enjoy it.
In many parts of the book I thought about the internal dilemma of how much risk is worth taking in order to pursue one’s dream. Depending on your “risk appetite” and most likely what phase of your life you are currently going through you will answer differently.
Also, one may wonder how a new MPL airline recruit would stand compared to an old-school pilot.
Please read it and let me know if you share my opinion.
Aviation is a universe full of very diverse planets. Commercial aviation, for instance, is a highly regulated bureaucratic world where every minute counts, where computers are everywhere and where, despite the beauty and complexity of the machines used, ultimately what counts is to meet the purpose of transporting people and goods from A to B in the most efficient way.
But for some pilots the pleasure of flying comes from the ability to interact with nature, to fly free from ATC orders and, sometimes, to tame a difficult animal. I love all type of planes and all segments of aviation, but there is a particular one that caught my attention and fantasies lately and that’s ‘Bush Flying’.
We generally talk about Bush Flying referring to flights conducted in zones of wild nature, like Alaska or in Africa, and no paved runways to land. I link this to the highest degree of freedom a pilot can experience: fly where you want and land where you want. Because of the difficult terrains, bush planes need to meet strict requirements: they need to have a high take off and landing performance, they need to be robust and their gears need to be sufficiently elastic to absorb the shocks coming from the manoeuvres on the ground.
Private bush flying in Europe is mostly done with ultralight aircrafts, because, according to EASA regulations, General Aviation aircrafts are generally prevented from landing outside certified airports. Differently, Ultralights are not regulated by European regulations and fall under national jurisdiction.
So, I had to decide where to move my first step towards bush flying and the perfect choice sounded like Brescia, in Italy. Indeed, there is a bush flying school there featuring one of the finest pilots (Fabio Guerra, former military pilot, B777 captain and famous bush test pilot and instructor) and one of the nicest bush planes one can find around here, i.e. the Savage Cub from Zlin Aviation.
A nice story about Zlin is that about their appearance at Valdez last summer. Indeed, the ‘Shock Cub’ (an incredibly performing cubber with slats and slotted flaps) of Zlin Aviation made a great debut arriving third in Valdez last summer, but what a lot of people don’t know, is that Zlin’s official test pilot was not available to fly it in that occasion. So, it was flown by a pilot that had practised only a handful of hours before the competition, instead.
The other reasons to choose Italy were that ultralights can land wherever the pilot deems appropriate as long as the land owner agrees and that the beauty and variety of the Italian landscape is unmatched in Europe.
Renato, the President of Scuola Volo Brescia, guided me through the main differences between General Aviation and ultralights and then showed me the Hangar of the school were a nice selection of ‘Cubbers’ were lined up in different set-ups. Proper Bush Flying will start only after I feel perfectly comfortable on the Cub and after the instructor feels comfortable with me being alone on the Cub.
So, finally came the moment to hop on the yellow Savage Cub for our first mission. The set of instrument looked rather minimal to me, but given the weight restrictions and that most flights are local and conducted in good weather it makes sense.
We started training with some taxiing on ground. This is, indeed, the real difficult part of handling taildraggers. The reason is that the center of gravity of the plane is located behind the main gear and this feature makes tailspins easy to happen.
After a few back-and-forths on the runway, increasing the speed to train the control on ground we went for a flight. The Savage Cub is a lovely machine. You feel in contact with every part of the plane: you can feel the RPMs with your fingertips and the drag of the airflow when pulling down the flaps. Fabio showed me the slow-flying capability of the machine which are simply astonishing. With full flaps and maximum power the plane can remain in the air with the airspeed indicator close to 0. When stalling, the Savage Cub drops a wing, but the control on the rudder remains very good.
I performed a few steep turns, which in that plane means being able to circle over a tennis court and then we headed back to the patter for some touch and goes.
Landing on the Savage Cub proved to be the training I was looking for. While most tricycle will forgive you a slightly sloppy alignment with the center line and, once on the ground, the pilot can generally relax the muscles, the Cub demands perfect alignment and until the plane is halted on ground, attention must be kept to its maximum.
45 minutes passed in the blink of an eye. We had a quick lunch in a local ‘Trattoria’ and then headed back to the airfield for another session.
I felt more confident and excited, but the task was made tougher by a quick shower that passed by. The rain covering the windshield and the low contrast of the grass runway made almost impossible for me to estimate the distance from ground. We went around, and at the following round I managed to use some more peripheral vision to calculate the distance and made a rather good landing for the standard of the day.
We trained traffic patterns until the rain became too intense and we had to stop. I was mentally depleted, but I had one of the most satisfying flight training sessions in my life.
I was happy, at intervals I managed to ‘tame’ the Cub.