Diary of an aircraft owner
By Paul Jansen
During my compulsory National Service stint in the Singapore Armed Forces I was given a host of things. Thick cotton uniforms. Stiff boots. Heavy iron helmet. An untested gun.
Each item needed to be broken in.
The uniforms did not sit easy until after many cycles of wearing and washing when the threads loosened and air flowed more easily through the cloth. The boots blistered my feet bloody until the leather creased into canyons mimicking the contours of my skin and muscles.
The helmet drove me mad with its staccato slamming on my head whenever I ran – which was often – and made me a candidate for a heatstroke. Though the iron remained unyielding, sponges and an inner lining gradually made the headgear almost unnoticeable, until I needed something to sit on.
The barrel of the rifle, a Colt AR-15, was sparklingly clean and the gun sight fresh from the factory. I couldn’t hit the side of a hanger with it until I had fired it several times at a range and “zeroed” it so that the bullets went where the gun sight pointed.
After a while, these unnatural accessories for a teenager became part and parcel of each day. They became me. Our officers praised us for breaking in our equipment just as they must have patted themselves on the back for doing the same with us.
“Breaking in” is a hard phrase. It implies that the subject is wilful, when the reality is that we will not accept it as is and must make it bend to our demands.
“Breaking in” is not what I am about to do to 9M-PRJ, the Piper Warrior II I have just bought from the Singapore Youth Flying Club. Perhaps “getting acquainted” is the phrase I am looking for.
During my National Service, it was drummed into us that familiarity with our gear would save our lives. But the “familiarisation” was on-going with give and take between my equipment and me: my boots had flexed but my soles had hardened; my shirts had softened but my body had grown used to chafing; my aim had sharpened but only because I had learned to compensate for my gun’s quirks and distance, wind direction and speed, and a host of other factors.
Equally, I now need to work with PRJ. I need to discover if there is any difference between the numbers printed in the Pilot’s Operating Handbook and the actual performance of my 1989 plane. Any gaps between what is stated on the cockpit dials and what is really in the tanks, cylinders and pumps. The time between the movement of my hands and feet and the response from the metal and plastics of PRJ. Only after I have done this, will our relationship transcend hard numbers – which lie – and give me a more accurate feel of what she can do, how far she can go.
In my favour is that I want to get to know this 1,523 lb (691 kg) creation. My investment in time and effort are driven not by fear of finding myself in an emergency and being ignorant of how to get out of it. Rather, it is motivated by wonder.
I am struck by how lucky I am. I have always wanted to fly. My dream was to get a licence. Now I have a plane. And the day is drawing near when I can fly it freely. The day it receives a Certificate of Airworthiness.
I pore through the manuals. I trawl the Internet and forums. I look over the shoulder of the maintenance crew each time they take something apart. But all these are but prelude to the next main event in an owner’s diary – the flight test.
My plane, 9M-PRJ, and two other Piper Warriors, 9M-LEE and 9M-SGI, have to make a trip from Senai airport (WMKJ) in Johor, Malaysia to Subang airport (WMSA) 185 nautical miles or 343 kilometres north, near the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. The company handling our conversion from the Singapore registry to the Malaysian one, aDmal, will continue the process from its premises at Simpang airport (WMKF), a few minutes away by air from Subang.
All three aircraft have received their Malaysian registration. Now, they have to undergo further scrutiny before they can receive their Certificate of Airworthiness (C of A). This is the final stage, and involves multiple activities, before they can take to the skies freely.
Arguably the most important is the flight test. This will be done in Subang airspace by a professional, Captain Kamarulzaman Bin Mustafa. Precision is his livelihood. A former fighter pilot, his current flight assignments includes towing targets for aerial live-firing exercises, a job not for the faint-hearted.
I am looking forward to the trip to Subang. To date, my airtime in 9M-PRJ has been little more than an hour – during a pre-purchase flight test and while ferrying it from Seletar airport (WSSL) in Singapore across the Johor Straits to Senai airport, less than 15 minutes away.
The two-hour flight from Senai to Subang will allow me to get a much better feel for Niner-Mike-Papa-Romeo-Juliet than any manual can give me. Aviation luminary, General Charles “Chuck” Yeager, who was the first man to break the sound barrier, once said: “Most pilots learn, when they pin on their wings and go out and get in a fighter, especially, that one thing you don’t do, you don’t believe anything anybody tells you about an airplane.”
Early on Tuesday, March 8, 2011, Captains Roger Lee, William Lee and I assemble at Senai’s Cargo Complex apron. Accompanying me is Ted Cheng, a newly-minted airline pilot who needs a ride to Subang.
We take off in formation with William in the lead in 9M-LEE and Roger off his starboard wing in 9M-SGI. I take up position on his port wing. With William handling all the calls, Roger and I have more time to concentrate on the performance of our aircraft.
9M-PRJ settles into the northerly coastal route. The control and performance instruments are normal. The Lycoming 0-320-D3G engine puts out a steady beat I can barely hear through my Bose active noise reduction headset but which I can faintly feel through my soles. The Sensenich 74DM6-0-60 propeller whirrs comfortingly in the centre of my field of vision. The engine is a baby, having consumed less than 370 hours of its 2,000-hour life. The two-blade prop is a little older, with 800 hours on its clock.
Both lift an 8,000-hour body through the sky. This flight time for the fuselage is heavier than for a privately-owned plane, but 9M-PRJ was in a flight school fleet prior to my acquiring her.
I nudge the throttle to 2350 RPM and get an Indicated Air Speed a shade under 100 knots. The pitch attitude is right and I use the trim tab to “lock” this. When I take my hands off the control yoke, the aircraft stays straight and level. Ted, who flew PRJ from Seletar to Senai on November 3, 2010, when it was still 9V-BOE, tries the controls again and pronounces his satisfaction.
The coastline slips beneath us and we are past Malacca when Roger makes a request. He asks us to look at the aircraft he is flying, 9M-SGI, as he feels some vibrations. William edges his eponymous LEE for a close look but neither he nor I can see anything unusual: no smoke or damage to the fuselage. So we proceed through the slightly overcast sky, which leaches the colour from the ground but does little to dampen our spirits.
Subang comes into view 1 hour 58 minutes later. We land. Our 21-year-old planes are like debutantes at a ball: anticipating introduction to a new way of life. Before that can happen, Captain Zaman has to give each one his version of an introductory waltz: a thorough in-flight check.
The next day, William, Roger and I meet him at the airport. I am excited and anxious. My flight to Subang gave me a chance to stretch PRJ a little. Now, Captain Zaman will push her much further. If he finds my aircraft performing below par, the maintenance team will have to fix whatever is ailing her, which could cost me anything from a bitten nail to an arm and a leg. Then another flight test will have to be done, the whole process of find, fix, fly, delaying the C of A award. It is now two days shy of five months since I signed the purchase contract and I am looking forward to the completion of the process.
Captain Zaman carries a detailed checklist and we go up with him in turns. As each aircraft is put through its paces, he records speeds, heights, rates of climb, stall speed, and so on. The test is all new to me and I observe his motions intently, peppering him with questions on what he is looking for. At the end of the session, he finds nothing that should ground any of the planes. I heave a sigh of relief.
Captain Zaman will file his report. There is still more to be done before the C of A is awarded. aDmal takes over our planes for this last leg, including checks of the weight and balance, electrical load, radios, conformity to airworthiness directives, and documented approval of all significant modifications done since the aircraft left the factory in the United States 21 years ago.
But we are almost there.
That same morning, immediately after the flight tests, Roger and I leave William in Subang and board a commercial aircraft for Singapore. It is fast. The cabin is spacious and cool. The seats are adjustable. Attractive stewardesses are solicitous about our welfare.
I wish I was aboard 9M-PRJ instead.