Getting your PPL at 67
Learn to Fly

PPL at 67: 'One of the hardest things I have ever done'

Learning to fly and gaining your Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) is hard and doesn’t get easier with age. But the chance came for Tim Clarke at 67… here’s how it went

I was sitting in my office near Stansted Airport watching the aeroplanes take off. At the time I was in the process of stepping down and handing over my company to a new CEO, so decided I needed a project. Flying had been a long-term dream so with time on my hands and resources not being an issue, I made the decision to have a go at getting my private pilot’s licence.

This is the story of how I got there just before my 68th birthday and perhaps some lessons learned and experiences that might interest others.

The raw statistics are that it took:

  • 182.5 hours of flying
  • 15 instructors
  • Three different aircraft types
  • Two training establishments
  • Two covid lockdowns
  • 413 landings
  • 16 solo flights
  • 13 different airfields
  • One scrapped aeroplane

All while renovating a house in Barbados. As you will see, I did take a slightly ‘complex route’ to gaining my PPL!

First flight at Andrewsfield

My first flight was in a Cessna 152 at Andrewsfield Aviation in June 2019, and things were going well until March 2020 when the first lockdown happened.

At this point I had bought into a share of a Piper PA-28 and was being instructed in it. I had also passed all the ground theory exams.

Andrewsfield being a relatively small training establishment, it was not possible to get in all the training time that I wanted. The grass strip would at times be quite interesting to land on, circuits would be restricted or the runway closed. Also I could not easily get the consistency of one instructor. Then the second lockdown loomed and flying was again cancelled.

Meanwhile, the four owners of our PA-28 decided to update the aircraft’s avionics and opted to get rid of the old vacuum driven kit and replace it with two Garmin G5s and a new GPS. We also decided that we would like the benefits of a tarmac runway so opted for Earls Colne Airfield and the PA-28 was moved there in readiness.

Tim and the ill-fated Piper PA-28
Tim and the ill-fated Piper PA-28

By May 2021 with the lockdown over and flying now possible, Nigel Willson at Anglian Flight Centre, the flight school at Earls Colne, checked out the aeroplane and I made some serious block bookings to fly with instructors Darren Fung and David Horridge. I revised all the exams back up to standard using EasyPPL, and with a lot of pent-up energy started the process of learning at Earls Colne.

This is when a minor tragedy occurred with G-ATAS, our PA-28. After an unexplained engine cut-out on the ground and some increased vibration, the aeroplane went back to the maintenance organisation. Unfortunately, undesirable metal fragments were discovered in the oil. On closer inspection it was found that one of the crankshaft bearings had suffered from a lack of oil and had seized so badly that the overheating had damaged the housing.

Effectively this meant the engine was economically a write-off. This resulted in the aeroplane being sold for scrap with all of the nice shiny new electronics barely used. This is when I became acquainted with my third aircraft, the HR200 Robin.

Welcome to Earls Colne Airfield
The sign says it all!

We need to talk about the age thing

I normally don’t like to make any unnecessary concessions to age. I did hear a training captain once say that it takes an extra hour (or similar number) of instruction for every year you are over 30. I cannot remember the detail, but when I did some research, strangely I could find no statistics on the time taken to obtain a PPL.

I foolishly thought that because I had a degree in applied physics – and had spent a lot of time sailing yachts – that I would pick it up quickly. How wrong I was! It turned out to be one of the hardest things I have done. We can unpick some of the reasons later. Here are some of the most glaring mistakes I made:

  • Coming into Cambridge on my qualifying solo everything appeared to be going well, airfield in sight, on the base leg, just one problem… I had forgotten to descend to circuit height of 1,000ft and was happily coming in at 2,000ft. A rapid sideslip descent and a dog leg sorted the problem out, but not my proudest moment.
  • Knocking out a landing light at Earls Colne. After landing I veered over to the left. The reason why… I had my feet on the brake pedals too early so was most likely pressing on the brakes asymmetrically.
  • Failing my first Skill Test in late October 2021, I learned a valuable lesson. The navigation went pretty well but the pressure of the test started to get to me. I lost altitude while executing a rate one turn that seemed so easy before. Having failed this, a number of other aspects were also below par and, rightly, I failed the test.

My lesson learned was to go away and really nail the standard operating procedures by writing them all down and going over them in my head continually. It was not enough to know what is a rate one turn but to have a secure process. This was knowing that in the cloud simulation in the test I would concentrate my eyes on the AI and altitude continually until the reciprocal bearing was reached. I could do it before but not straight off under pressure.

There were many, many other mistakes made in the heat of the moment or after fatigue. Each mistake made and corrected led to being more secure in the right things to do. Having failed the Skill Test I revised everything again and prepared to take the test again in late 2021 but ran out of time due to having bought a house in Barbados that needed renovating.

Robin HR200 aircraft at Anglian Flight Centre
Robin HR200 aircraft at Anglian Flight Centre

PPL Skill Test in two parts

I returned from Barbados for the summer of 2022 and decided to enjoy the garden and the seaside living in Brightlingsea. Once refreshed I embarked on a concentrated period of flying starting in September, having not flown for nearly a year. As my exams had run out I had to take them all again. I decided to avail myself of the CAA option of taking the Skill Test in two parts.

The first part, navigation, I took at the end of September, which was a pass with most things going pretty well… apart from misidentifying an airfield that had crosses on the runway and was clearly disused despite being marked as active on the chart. Beware confirmation bias. Anyway, the mistake was noted and rectified.

What with weather and examiner availability and another period in Barbados planned for December, I almost missed the opportunity to do the final part of the Skill Test. Fortunately, we managed to squeeze in a date, the weather gods were kind and I completed the upper air work section without any significant hitches and obtained the pass on 27 October 2022.

Passing the PPL Skill Test
Yes! Passing the PPL Skill Test

Some things I learned

  1. Keep a small book handy and update it with all the things that you don’t get right every time under pressure. Regularly look at the book and then memorise the processes. Do that at whatever time or place suits you and consider acting out in your mind how to do it. For example, the various phases of the stall section of the Skill Test. You should know exactly what is going to happen before you are asked.
  2. Read accident reports and learn from others’ mistakes.
  3. Realise mistakes are normal and human. It is how you stop the mistakes from compounding that is important.
  4. If you are serious about getting your PPL and have the time, doing regular sessions is more efficient than stopping and starting all the time. Discuss this with your instructor.

Things happen faster in an aeroplane

Why did I find it harder to get my PPL than I thought it would be? General Aviation is far more regulated than yachting with a lot more to learn and become familiar with. My navigation experience helped a bit but normally in a yacht you have time to make a cup of tea before anything changes very much. Things happen much faster in an aeroplane. There is a lot to do and initially your brain pathways and muscle memory have not yet formed so you use up too much capacity to have enough left over for the other functions.

Looking forward to more flying

I belong to a syndicate now based at Earls Colne, and I am looking forward to getting my differences training for the aircraft completed, and then I hope to do some serious flying in the summer.

I enjoyed the experience of the training at Earls Colne, flying the Robins and hope to enjoy many more hours of flying from there in the future. Many thanks in particular to David Horridge who was my main instructor and was very kind to find ways to put a positive spin on some of my worst brain fade moments.

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