Leaving big international airports aside, how many people are involved in helping you get airborne on your first flight?
A surprising number of people are employed at general aviation airfields to ensure you get into the air safely. We go behind the scenes at our local airfield to show you just some of the people helping to get you in the air.
Air Traffic Controller
The controller at a small airfield is generally only responsible for movements on the ground, such as pilots taxiing from parking to the runway and vehicles moving around the taxiways. Once aircraft are in the air, the controller will only pass ‘information’ to the pilot; there are generally no direct instructions, leaving the decision-making to the pilot. You may hear the phase on the aircraft radio ‘at your discretion’, which is the controller ensuring that the pilot understands that he must make his own mind up. This is seen as safer, as the pilot is the person in the aircraft and ultimately is in the best position to make the decisions.
An Air Traffic Controller’s (ATC) work isn’t easy: handling multiple aircraft (both passing the airfield and training flights), the controller’s work is a bit like a conductor of an orchestra. He or she is the person who monitors all movements on and above the airfield to ensure everyone stays safe.
Every year, an aircraft must go through an MOT (otherwise known as a Certificate of Airworthiness). During this maintenance every part of the aircraft is checked, with the undercarriage coming off, seats removed, and even at times the wings removed. This annual servicing is nothing like a car MOT; unlike a car, if a problem arises in an aircraft it cannot just pull over to the side of the road. For this reason, aircraft maintenance is highly regulated, with engineers being certified with years of training. All parts are traceable right back to the person who made a bolt, and everything is checked by an independent person before the aircraft is released for service.
As well as the annual service, every 50 hours the aircraft is flown it must have a smaller check during which oils and fluids are changed, hinges greased and the general condition of the airframe is checked. You may think that’s it, but at the start of every day the pilot must also check the aircraft for fluids, control surfaces, and any knocks or dents to ensure he is happy to sign the aircraft as flyable for that day.
For an airfield to be licensed for training there needs to be fire crew during operational times. Because general aviation is safe, their skills are thankfully rarely required. At the airfield you may see fire crews helping out with refuelling aircraft, runway inspections, airfield maintenance and assisting pilots with moving their aircraft.
Airfield fire fighters, just like normal fire fighters, go through regular training, with some airfields having mock-up aircraft for practising fire drills. Aircraft fires are very unusual, but if one should occur it’s good to know that your airfield has fire crew on standby, trained in the handling of flammable liquids such as aviation kerosene and jet fuel.
At most airfields there are various different levels of instructor, and for different types of aircraft. Firstly there are ‘fixed wing’ pilots (there are normal light aircraft such as Cessnas) and there are ‘rotary wing’ pilot (these are helicopters). Normally, instructors specialise in teaching one or other of these disciplines; it is very unusual for instructors to teach helicopters and aircraft, though this is normally only because of the cost involved in training to become an instructor in both.
Instructing takes a special kind of person who has gained many hours’ flying, skills, experience and most importantly patience. Taking to the skies for the first time can be a little nerve-racking, but a good instructor will reassure you and within minutes of being airborne will have removed all your preconceptions and concerns, allowing you to look out the window and enjoy the view. Before you know it, the instructor will be letting you fly the aircraft.
Every aircraft needs fuel to enable it to get into the air, so there will likely be a fuel bay on-site at an airfield. Most light aircraft use AVGAS 100LL, which contains lead used to prevent engine knocking (detonation). The LL means low lead, although the amount is about four times what it was in old leaded automotive fuel. The other main type of fuel used is Jet A1, which is for used in jet-powered aircraft and the newly introduced diesel-powered light aircraft. AVGAS currently sells for just under £2/litre, while Jet A1 is less than half this. Refuelling is often carried out by the on-site fire crew as part of their multiple roles on the airfield, though pilots also refuel their own aircraft.
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