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January 2017 Meeting Report

Life as a Small Plane Pilot by Rita Boniface

If the novels of Nevil Shute or even Antoine de Saint-Exupery made you dream of learning to fly, but the costs put you off, Rita Boniface's talk showed you what you had missed through your timidity.

In 1970 she had been into archaeology and a flight to see a site from the air was what determined her to learn to fly. At the time she was working three days a week and earning seven shillings an hour, and flying lessons cost 7 an hour. The mathematics of this equation remained something of a mystery, but the cost of flying today is probably on the wrong side of 200.

She was encouraged to learn to fly by her husband and especially her young son who accompanied her during her lessons, and afterwards tested her on everything that she had supposedly learned and he had absorbed much better than she. These extra tutorials were of great benefit to her.

To gain a private pilot licence requires much more than just being able to fly the aeroplane. The first requirement is a doctor's certificate, but some mechanical knowledge is also needed so that the engine can be inspected before every flight to ensure that there will be no problems in the air. Navigation and map reading are vital skills that require considerable training and practice, as Nevil Shute enthusiasts will remember. The use of radio is also vital as every flight is monitored by air traffic controllers in each area that the flight crosses. Air law is another area that must be understood and obeyed. For light aircraft this particularly affects the maximum altitudes at which they may fly. Initial training, up to and including going solo, takes place close to the airfield from which one is learning to fly, but once the private pilot licence has been obtained, further training is needed with another pilot to fly further afield.

To maintain the licence there are requirements to have kept flying hours above a specified minimum over a period of time. To this end she made frequent flights with the family to Le Touquet for the children to enjoy the beach and for the adults to enjoy the duty-free opportunities.

Among many other frequent destinations were Headcorn in Kent, which for some reason was a good source of eggs, Elstree, which had a very nice swimming pool, and Dieppe, another foray across the channel.

Before any flight it is necessary to prepare a flight plan giving details of the proposed route, giving compass directions for each section of the flight, wind speeds and direction, and adjustments in compass settings that this would require. For each type of aircraft there is a bible of pre-flight checks which must be followed religiously.

If the reason for this needs any explanation, Rita suffered an engine failure due to an iced up carburettor, which meant she had to make an emergency gliding landing at an airstrip. She clipped the top of a tree coming in and lost a wing. Her passenger got away with cuts and bruises, but she was more seriously hurt and spent a year in hospital.

This has not put her off flying at all, although age and infirmity have made her have to give it up. She finished her talk with a slide show of photographs taken during her flights. It was fascinating to see many sites in London from a completely different perspective.

Jim Butchart

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