First time in the cockpit

by Stephanie Cowan on Nov 02 2017
Despite having been in the simulator cockpit for the Dash 8 Q400 for the last few weeks, there was still a sense of everything being slightly unfamiliar and new as we stepped – or rather stooped down, the flight deck of the Q400 is a bit of a challenge, even for all 5'4"of myself - into the "real" flight deck of the Dash.

It was day one of "Base Training" for myself and fellow MPL (Multicrew Pilots Licence) trainee; Ailsa. We'd been sim partners for the duration of our type rating with Flybe after finishing off the MPL course at L3 Airline Academy, and it was our first time behind the controls of the real aircraft – so we'd have a bit of practice to finesse our landings before taking on any fare paying passengers!

Once all this preparation and the checklists that go along with it are all finished we can - finally – get to the fun part! It's time to fly.

I speak to ATC (Air Traffic Control) to obtain permission to start engines and have the ground crew use the tug to push the aircraft back from its parking stand. It's a slightly surreal feeling to have my hands on the controls as the 5000SHP turboprop engines start up. With engines running, it's a (very) short taxi onto the runway for our imminent departure from Southampton. The captain taxies the Dash into position, lined up on the runway centreline as we await take off clearance.

"Now remember, it's a light aircraft so she'll climb like a rocket", I nod at this last bit of advice from the captain and reply to ATC, "Jersey 8PG cleared for take-off runway 20" And off we go!

The captain is right, as I rotate the aircraft at take-off speed and rise the nose into the air, I can feel how light and powerful she is, and there is just enough time to appreciate the high rate of climb before I have to reduce power to meet the altitude restriction of 3000ft given to us by ATC.

As ATC gives more instructions to the captain on the radio for us to continue on our way to Newquay, I can barely keep the smile off my face. It's a surreal feeling to know that the last two years of training have culminated in this first flight. To know that I'm sitting here, in the right hand seat of the Q400, looking out as the pretty south coast disappears below is fantastic. The training has been intense and a lot of hard work and a lot of hours have been put in to get to this position, but that first taste of flight in the Dash is just as exciting as the first time I was ever up in an aircraft solo. And it's something that I still find myself feeling at work now, as I get the chance to take a moment to look out those cockpit windows and appreciate how much I love my job.

There's just enough time on the short flight to Newquay for me to savour the excitement of flying the dash for the first time before we start to prepare for the arrival and, for my first landing. I glance round to Ailsa, who's sitting on the jump seat just behind, she can't keep the smile off her face either. Although it is a little daunting thinking about the process of landing the plane safely for the first time, for real, it's something we've both prepared and trained for so long that it would be criminal not to enjoy the moment flying.

As we get an update on the weather for Newquay it's confirmed that we'll be landing with a crosswind of 20knots, just over 20 mph, which does present quite a challenge. I run through the process of landing in a crosswind in my head and almost rehearse what I'm going to do with my hands and feet before I have to do it for real.

We have a fantastic view out across the coast as we line up with the runway at Newquay, for this first one we land with our highest flap setting, flap 35. This means that in the Dash we have a low nose attitude, unlike a jet we approach with the nose of the aircraft pointing below the horizon. It means too that you definitely get the sense of momentum behind you as you literally point towards the tarmac. With the crosswind, the nose of the aircraft is also off to the side of the centreline of the runway, which, as the last moment I will have to use the rudder to align the nose with this centreline – so called "kick the rudder straight".

We're all lined up and configured with flaps and gear down for the landing and the captain instructs me to disconnect the auto pilot so that I can get a feel of how the aircraft is handling in the conditions.

We're only a few thousand feet above the ground now and I focus on making small adjustments on the controls to keep the aircraft in the position I want it to be. The Dash can be an unforgiving aircraft and you definitely have to man-handle her sometimes to get her to do what you want, it's a case of fly the plane otherwise the plane will fly you!

The automated voice calls out our height in feet above the ground;
"100"......I start to press on the rudder to bring the nose straight......."50".....dipping a wing into wind to compensate for the crosswind...."40" "30" .....I start to "wiggle" my fingers back on the power levers to reduce the power back a little and at the same time lift the nose from below the horizon to a few degrees above, all the while keeping the inputs on the rudder and aileron controls. "20" "10" the aircraft touches down, with a bit of a clatter, not too bad for a first attempt!

But there's no time to savour the moment as the captain takes over the power controls, and I keep the aircraft straight as we accelerate down the runway to do it all over again!

Even now that I've been flying with Flybe for the last six months, I can still remember almost every detail of that first flight from weeks ago. It was a fantastic way to finish off the MPL training course and being able to see how just under two years of full time training had paid off. And even now, at the risk of sounding a little cheesy, I still find myself smiling away as I look out the window at a beautiful sunset or after a particularly smooth touchdown!

*Photographs courtesy of Stephanie Cowan