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Tue, Nov 21st 3:33pm 2006: Flying

Over the last few weeks there have been all sorts of things come up that made me think "I've got to blog that" but I'm so massively far behind in everything that it just hasn't happened. So here goes. Time to catch up on stuff that should have been posted ages ago.

A week and a half ago I took the first baby step toward fulfilling a dream I've had for a long time: learning to fly. After years of not really taking the idea seriously I got in the car and drove out to the local airport, went through a pre-flight briefing covering an introduction to the physics of flight along with the basic aircraft controls and their primary and secondary effects, and spent about 45 minutes in the air getting the feel for how it works in reality.

In some ways the whole experience was exactly what I expected and in some ways it totally wasn't. For one thing the aircraft itself was very "agricultural". If you think about the build-quality of a typical car you'll realise that the way everything is fitted together and the level of attention to aesthetic detail is very high. The dash is perfectly moulded and all instruments are neatly labelled. Everything is clean, and if you did something silly like break part of your dashboard somehow you would have it replaced with a brand new identical piece and the car would look exactly "like new" again. Likewise if you dinged the door you would take it to a smash repairer who would fix it so well that you couldn't even find where the damage was done.

In contrast to that the training aircraft I flew had a repair that consisted of a piece of metal rivetted into place on the wing. Switches on the instrument panel were labelled with stickers. A crack in the plastic side window had been reinforced by drilling tiny holes along both sides of the crack, looping wire through them and twisting it tight. The pre-flight check included removing the fuel cap on each wing and poking a piece of wood marked with indicator lines into the tank to check the fuel level.

Now I'm sure these are very well maintained aircraft. The instructors know their lives depend on them and each aircraft is physically inspected prior to every flight: part of the drill was working all the way around the aircraft and checking that a whole bunch of things were working properly, such as indicator lights, control surfaces, hinges, and undercarriage, and the pre-flight checklist is very extensive. Imagine if every single time you drove your car you first had to check that every indicator was working, test the fuel to make sure it wasn't contaminated, check your tire tread and pressure, and do about 26 other checks then sign a logbook stating that you'd done so. It would take 15 minutes just to get out of your carport but you'd certainly have an intimate knowledge of the condition of your car.

So I was left with the overall impression of a very strong DIY culture in the aviation community. It might sound like I'm being critical of the state of the aircraft but my opinion is actually quite the opposite. The value that is obviously placed on a deep understanding of how the aircraft works and exactly what condition it is in gave me a lot of confidence that I wasn't going to suddenly fall out of the sky.

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