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My time at Bristol Aviation

The view over the Bristol Channel on a warm August day

There was no denying that Florida had been an exhausting, but enjoyable experience. Arriving back at home, I wanted to take it easy and to catch up with friends and family. I had missed out on a lot of the goings-on back at home and I had so many stories I wanted to share from my 15 months in the sunshine state.

A few weeks after arriving back at home, I found myself craving some flying, and it seemed a good time to start searching for flight schools in the UK. My final week in Florida was spent in a motel, which wasn’t great, so I decided to leave before completing my multi-engine rating (MEP). That was a must in the UK, as was the conversion of my FAA Instrument Rating. Not only would this be the first time I had flown in the UK, but it was also to be my first time flying in a multi-engined aircraft. Unlike Florida, every hour flown in the UK would be under the power of two engines – and what a great experience it was!

Before committing myself to Orlando Flight Training, I made the 4,500 mile trip to Florida to look at the school, because I wanted to be sure that it was the right school for me. With flight training in the UK, I wanted to do the same. I was after a school with a good sized fleet, great reviews, affordable aircraft rates and one that was sufficiently close to home so that I could return each weekend and take my mind off of flying. The search began – and ended – in Bristol at Bristol Aviation.

It was on my mum’s birthday in June that we made the 90 mile trip to Bristol to have a look at the school. I excitedly plugged the Bristol Airport post code into my GPS and set off on our way, hoping to arrive in plenty of time for our 11.00am meeting with the school’s sales and marketing man, Steve. The journey, which should have taken no more than 90 minutes, ended up taking three hours. For the last 8-10 miles, the GPS led us down dirt tracks and through what looked like deep and dark forests, before eventually telling us “you have reached your destination”. Surrounded by trees and still on a muddy road, we obviously hadn’t arrive. We were lost!

Arriving very late for our appointment, it was a relief to discover that we could still be shown around. The afternoon started with tea, biscuits and a video, which introduced us to Bristol Aviation and answered the obvious questions that any prospective students might have. We were then taken on a guided tour of the flying centre, the maintenance facility next door and the apron. I was given the chance to climb inside on of the school’s Piper PA-34 Senecas and to get a feel for the controls, and was later given the experience to fly in one of the two simulators on-site. It had been three months since I had last flown an ILS approach, so it took a little getting used to, and I had the added pressure of two people looking over me!

Despite being encouraged to look at other schools, I knew that Bristol Aviation was for me. The large fleet of aircraft, the modern facilities and the friendly team there convinced me that I wouldn’t find anywhere better. Within 48 hours, my deposit was paid and I had a start date of 19 July – four weeks away.

Probably the biggest challenge in Bristol was finding somewhere to stay for the duration of my training. For those not aware, the airport is situated in the countryside, approximately 8 miles from the city centre, and the regular Bristol Flyer – at £9 for a return journey – meant that finding accommodation in the city wasn’t an option. Without transport of my own, I had to find somewhere within walking distance of the airport that offered great value for money. The surrounding area has no shortage of B&Bs (bed and breakfast accommodation), but at £40-50 a night, I couldn’t even consider them, especially knowing that I was going to need a bed for at least six weeks. With time running out, I started to work my way through the list of recommended places to stay on the Bristol Aviation website, skipping those that were more than a couple of miles away from the airport. It wasn’t until four days before my start date that I tried my luck with John and Ewa Woodcock, whose accommodation was said to be within walking distance of the airport and it was very affordable, too. I was lucky enough to get their only student room in their home, shared with their son and two dogs. I had plenty of space to myself, including a huge bedroom and living area in one, a bathroom and a kitchen, so it meant that I could cook for myself and not have to be eating out at pubs and restaurants every night – another advantage over hotel accommodation!

The accommodation was great, and, for anybody hoping to fly at Bristol Aviation, I would highly recommend it. John, Ewa and Duncan provide one-of-a-kind accommodation for students of the school and they have a genuine interest in what all of their ‘inmates’ are doing and how their flying is progressing. From each of their inmates, they learn something, and they are always keen to share their knowledge with all who stay with them. When you leave, the family ask that you write about your experiences at the school, so that future students staying there know what to expect. The book that holds each student’s account is updated regularly with news of interviews that others have attended, jobs, further training and more.

The Woodcocks take only one student at a time and they will never take a firm booking on the accommodation until their current student’s departure date is confirmed. They were very patient with me when I told them about five times that each consecutive week would be my last! It was reassuring to be told that the room was mine until I had passed my check-ride and was on my way home.

After starting at Bristol Aviation, I found out that a Bristol Flyer Pass could be purchased through the school at a cost of £15 (plus VAT), which is a must for anybody without wheels of their own. The pass allows travel into Bristol city centre on a very regular bus service for just £1 each way. The bus leaves from the terminal building – just outside the arrivals exit – around every ten minutes. Without the pass, tickets cost £6 single or £9 return. For a journey of just 20 or so minutes, I found that a little steep! For me, it was a great investment, and I used it at least twice a week.

My first day at the school saw me being thrown straight into the flight training and into one of the Senecas for my MEP (multi) rating. Getting to grips with all of the controls, power settings and check-lists took a little while, but I got to grips with them eventually. Around seven hours of training was necessary to get me to a test standard and I had to demonstrate a number of manoeuvres, stalls, landings and emergency drills. A multiple choice written paper had to be complete as well, with a pass mark of 75% of greater required.

The following week marked the start of the dreaded instrument rating. I had been told by so many people that this training would be the toughest training I would ever go through – and it was. Being a conversion, I could get through the course in as little as 20 hours, but it was clear that a few extra hours would be necessary. My conversion felt more like a full blown course at times, however. The FAA instrument rating I already had didn’t help me a great deal and I found that a lot of the procedures, holds and approaches taught in Florida were of no use here. Much time had been spent in Florida teaching me how to navigate, hold and approach with GPS, but the JAA seemed to be pretty much NDBs and nothing else! Unfortunately for me, I knew nothing of NDBs, apart from what had been taught in the ATPLs last year. Whilst I soon picked up on how to track to and from NDBs and how to use these beacons to fly holds, I dreaded the NDB approach!

The day of my test soon came around and I was as shaky as ever. This was my fourth flight test and all had been passed first time – until now! Following a flight to Yeovil, we returned – going through the general handling on the way back to Bristol – and performed an asymmetric ILS approach. With insufficient rudder on the go-around, the aircraft drifted away from the runway, which resulted in a partial. Being partialled wasn’t a disappointed to me though. I was satisfied with the decision and was keen to work extra-hard in order to ensure that I passed the short re-take a week later.

The re-take of the asymmetric flight section of the test lasted 0.6 hours and involved a departure from Bristol, an engine failure during the climb, a radar-vectored asymmetric NDB approach to runway 27, followed by a go-around into the circuit for a visual landing. There was immense pressure on me! Unfortunately, you cannot partial a partial. The only outcome from today’s flight would be a pass or a fail. If you pass, then great. If you fail, however, you start from scratch and have to do the entire test again! I was determined not to fail.

Awaiting the outcome as we taxied back to parking was nerve-racking and I felt even more nervous than when I was actually flying. I had made a few small mistakes, but didn’t know if these seemingly insignificant errors would result in me failing. Eventually, I received the good news. I had passed! What a relief that was.

Shattered, having been up since 5.00am that morning, I wanted nothing more than to go home and celebrate, but one flight remained – the MEP assessment – and I was keen to get it done. That required 1.6 more hours in the air, performing the manoeuvres, stalls, emergency procedures and landings, and it was a relief to be finished. I was glad to have completed my last flight and to be on my way home with my logbook signed and stamped, ready to be posted off to the Civil Aviation Authority!

Bristol Aviation was definitely the right choice of school for me and I have no regrets about going there. Everybody there was so friendly and it felt like the school was not just taking my money, but also providing me with an excellent service. The staff there – both instructors and behind the scenes workers – were all very friendly and knew all students and their names, which again made a difference. The large number of aircraft at the school, along with two Seneca simulators, meant that aircraft availability was rarely a problem!

For anybody with questions about my flight training or accommodation in Bristol, please contact me using the link at the top of the page.

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