Thursday, 25 July 2013

Poke me, prod me

So, yes.


Been a lovely day, and I've spent it working from home. Or, as it is also known, sitting in the garden soaking up some rays, and I 'ave been mostly lying with my eyes skyward, watching the vapour trays cross cross above my head as aircraft do their thang. And so, a post about flying today: to wit, Sense and Insanity, or The Inherent Madness of Trying to Prove You’re Not Going to Cark it Mid-Flight.


If you want to learn to fly in the UK, at some point you’re going to have to go solo. At some stage during your training, after maybe 15 or 20 hours, and after a few take offs and landings on the day just to get you warmed up, your instructor will suddenly say something like ‘I need to pop to the loo, carry on without me,’ and then promptly walk off, leaving you entirely surprised and, more worryingly, in sole charge and possession of a marvellous flying machine.


At the risk of getting side tracked, there ain’t no feeling like it. These aren’t very large aircraft, or particularly complex ones. For the most part you learn to fly in a winged wheelbarrow to which someone’s attached a rather pathetic lawnmower engine, and they don’t weigh much. That first time rolling down the runway all on your toddle you’re so paranoid about getting something wrong, and you're concentrating so hard at flipping the right switches, carrying out the right checks, making the right radio calls, watching the right instruments, pulling back on the yoke at the right time and just flying that you don’t pause to think about what effect having only half the weight as usual inside the aircraft might have.


Until, of course, you take off. As the wheels leap from the ground (much earlier than you expected) you rocket into the air like a, well, rocket. You realise that what your instructor has been patiently telling you for the past 15 or 20 hours is true – the aircraft wants to fly. As you climb you run through everything you’ve been taught; gain speed, raise the flaps, attitude for 70 knots, trim, left turn at 800 feet, check your temperatures and pressures, left turn on to downwind at 1,200 feet, level off, find 85 knots, trim, call downwind… and look around. No one to your right. Nothing but an empty seat. You're entirely, completely, wonderfully, alone. You are officially flying the plane. You. Little old you. Licence or not, you’re a pilot now. Biggest. Brightest. Cheesiest. Grin. Ever.


But. Before your instructor is ever likely to allow you anywhere near an aircraft on your own, you need to get yourself a medical certificate. For private flying, it’s a class 2 certificate. Relatively simple to get, relatively cheap. A basic (ish) examination designed simply to ensure that you’re not going to keel over from a stroke the first time you’re let loose alone in an aircraft above a populated area. If you ever want to get a commercial pilot’s licence, however, it’s a coveted class 1 medical certificate that you need, and that one is not as cheap, nor quite so simple to get.


I may have mentioned before that I’ve been wanting to get myself a commercial licence for years, and so you won't be surprised that I'm no stranger to the class 1 medical exam. I’ve made the trek to Aviation House at Gatwick, a rather austere, modern office block where the CAA's special men in white coats live, twice now, and both times I've spent the best part of a day being poked, prodded and punctured for the greater good. I've had my blood taken, I've had my brain waves scanned, I've had monitors strapped to my chest to test my heart, I've filled a number of specimen pots ('what, from over here? Har har. Please put that needle down'), I've had my eyesight and hearing examined. And in both cases I've passed every test, leapt lightly over every hurdle, except one: I have a condition, see. An 'issue' with my eyesight. I have anisometropia, which is a very difficult word to say, and an even harder one to spell, but which simply means that the sight in one of my eyes is different to the sight in the other. I'm very slightly short sighted in my left eye (-1.25 diopters), and quite a bit more short sighted in the other (-3.75 diopters). The limit for anisometropia (the difference between the two eyes) for an initial class 1 medical certificate is 2.00 diopters. 

Oops. No class 1 certificate for me, then. I'm the proud, if somewhat disappointed, owner of a class 2 certificate instead. Well, a lapsed one. One that expired in 2006. 

Except that now things might - might - be about to change. The CAA's own guidance notes now suggest that a failure to satisfy this particular, if I may say slightly odd, requirement (particularly when you bear in mind that the limit leaps to 3.00 diopters on any renewal of the certificate) isn't necessarily the end of the road. Instead, the CAA can now refer you to an ophthalmologist who has the ability to say to the CAA "don't be so silly, he's fine." So on Monday I'm going to book an appointment with my friendly local CAA man-in-a-white-coat at Gatwick and pay an extortionate sum to submit myself to yet another round of poking, prodding and puncturing. Wish me luck.