Training to Take to the Skies

The MAF Flight Training Centre based in Mareeba, Queensland aim to train their students to become safe and competent pilots. One lesson in the program teaches the students about short field and soft field take offs and landings on a grass airstrip at Atherton.

The importance of short field take offs and landings in Pilot Training

The MAF Flight Training Centre based in Mareeba, Queensland aim to train their students to become safe and competent pilots. One lesson in the program teaches the students about short field and soft field take offs and landings on a grass airstrip at Atherton.

The MAF Flight training centre at Mareeba exists to train skilled and safe pilots. Some of these pilots have never flown a plane before, others are experienced pilots who need extra training when changing aircraft types or relocating to a new place to work.

On the 17th March, MAF Flight Training Centre Instructors, Andrew Little (MAF Flight Training Centre, Head of Training), Andrew Jenkins and Bridget Ingham took the class of class of Commercial Pilot License students on a field trip. The group flew two of the training aircraft, VH- MAO and VH-WMC from Mareeba Airport, where the MAF Flight Training Centre is located, to nearby Atherton aerodrome.

The Lesson

Despite the short distance, only 12 nautical miles, or eight minutes flight time, the Atherton airport has very different conditions for the student pilots to master. Atherton airport is 900 feet higher in elevation than Mareeba, the airstrip is less than 1200 metres in length and the runway is grass, unlike the sealed one they have previously used for training. This lesson was held in Week 8 of the pilot training and only three weeks after the students had flown solo for the first time. So for most of the students this was also the first time they were flying with passengers on board, other than an instructor, another new challenge for them to grasp as part of their training. While these changes to the airport and flying conditions seem minor, it is essential that the students learn how to operate the aircraft safely in many different conditions.

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Pilots, especially those working in MAF Programmes, need to be able to safely land and take off from all types of runways. Runways can be grassed, rocky or sealed. They can be flat or have a sloping gradients. Runways can be in remote places or in the middle of a township, where the children use the space as soccer field. A good pilot must be taught how to evaluate all of these conditions and risks to be able to fly safely. The MAF Flight Training Centre includes all of these variables into their training.

The Day’s Activities

Bridget, one of the flight instructors explains the day’s activities in more detail, “We were teaching two variations on take-off and landing techniques – soft field and short field. Short field is trying to take-off and climb above obstacles in as short a distance as possible. In a soft field landing you are trying to touch down with as slow a speed as possible (anticipating that the surface is going to be soft, so you are trying to protect the propellor and nose gear from impact). Both techniques are necessary for MAF operations as we often fly in and out of short airstrips, often grass, which can be wet or soft. In MAF our standard take-off is a ‘short field’ take-off, so it’s an important technique for MAF pilots to master.

In this training session, each student got to fly for about an hour with an instructor. Those who were waiting did some ground exercises  – calculating the theoretical take-off and landing distances for the conditions on the day, which included making allowances for wind, barometric pressure, altitude, temperature and the surface (dry grass), then they measured out their calculations on the airstrip to see how the aircraft behaved. The results were pretty close!”

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Short field landings and take offs are an important part of flying as a mission pilot with MAF. In Arnhem Land the shortest airstrip that pilots regularly fly to, Howard Island, is only 700 metres long. With a strip of this length, calculations about how many passengers can be safely carried to take off with a minimal length of runway becomes critical. If these factors are not calculated correctly, the aircraft may not take off safely.

In Papua New Guinea, the shortest runway is half that length again, at only 340 metres long. The strip named Aziana, located in the Eastern Highlands of PNG, is often used for cargo flights to transport loads of coffee beans to the larger towns for sale. This airstrip is on the side of a hill and has a 14% slope to consider as well.

Enjoying the Challenges

While these students, are not experienced enough yet to tackle airstrips like Howard Island or Aziana, they are enjoying the new challenges their training includes. Shan, one of the students explains, “I really enjoy doing short field take offs and landings. It is the best part of flying I feel.”

Another student, said he enjoyed the challenge of flying enroute with a low cloud base. “Finding the airport and then once we got there sharing the airspace with the “Ag Planes” (crop duster aircraft). It was a completely different environment and was awesome. And doing the soft field take off was really cool as well, it was a very abnormal phase of flight, but a fun kind of exercise and technique to do.”

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