Bi-Annual Flight Review (BFR)

AFRWell the time came again – all too soon – for my PPL medical and bi-annual flight reviews. I can’t believe it’s two years already since the last one… they tell me the speed of time passing is something to do with age, even though I don’t feel a day over 40!

First, the medical. At my age, I have to do a PPL medical every 2 years. My previous doctor, who did about 3 or 4 medicals for me over the years, has decided the demands of CASA are too great and so I had to find a new ‘DAME‘ (designated aviation medical examiner) to go to. Although I left 2-3 weeks before my old medical expired, it was still a bit of a push to get an appointment before the expiry. LESSON 1: leave plenty of time to book your medical!

On the due day, I arrived at 08:30 in the freezing cold and pouring rain of a typical Melbourne winter morning – note: the sun was shining by midday and the temperature was up by about 10 degrees.  I did all the usual tests – eyes/eyesight, ears/earsight (or should that be ‘hearing’?), reflexes, colour vision, peripheral vision, height, weight, blood pressure, and more. In preparation, you now have to fill in an online medical questionnaire on the CASA website and the doctor checks this all through with you. Interestingly, I didn’t have to undergo the dreaded ‘rubber gloved finger’ test this time. I understand that this check is not as reliable as once it was believed to be.

Everything was completed OK and then the doctor told me I had to get an ECG done, as I hadn’t had one in a while. Conveniently, there was a cardiology place almost next door. Indeed I haven’t had an ECG since I can remember and it’s amazing how much the process has changed over the years. The cardiologist wires you up and switches on the machine, which then automatically goes through the individual traces and beams it all via the internet to the central cardiology analyst. It must all have been OK because the medical was issued.

Total cost for the medical: $110 plus $75 CASA processing fee – less than the $210 annual cost of renewing my RA-Aus membership. The ECG was bulk-billed. LESSON 2: the annualised cost renewing your PPL is less than half as much as the annual cost of belonging to RA-Aus.

Next my bi-annual flight review – which I have always called a BFR – but I’m told is officially now called an Aeroplane Flight Review or AFR. Here, at least, some sense has prevailed at CASA and RA-Aus because you can do your AFR in a general aviation VH-registered aircraft and, as well as revalidating your PPL, the same flight also revalidates your RA-Aus Pilot Certificate. LESSON 3: make sure your instructor is both PPL and RA-Aus rated if you want to do just one AFR covering both categories. (If you don’t want to search the CASA website for information on AFRs – a should destroying process – click here for the relevant information; then click the link to download the ‘ratings’ pdf)

I was originally aiming to do my AFR in my A32 Vixxen demonstrator, but a few weeks ago, a flying school made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I was in the tandem-seat tail dragger Interstate Cadet.

I pre-flighted the aircraft and double-checked the weight and balance (the instructor sits in the back) to make sure we were well within limits. Typical of Tyabb, the wind that day was exactly 90 degrees across the main runway, so first test: which is the preferred runway direction in these circumstances? LESSON 4: check ERSA and/or the rule book for your airfield before your AFR.

We taxied out behind a couple of spam cans (sorry, Cessnas) and waited our turn at the holding point. After take-off (watch for that cross-wind!) we turned and climbed out towards French Island, a largish area of land in the middle of Westernport Bay, notorious for its own climate. But above a couple of thousand feet everything was smooth, so we did a few ever-increasingly steep turns and an engine-out forced landing (without actually touching down!). We then trundled over towards Port Phillip Bay – a bit bumpier here, even at almost 3,000 feet and then back towards the naval college at Cerberus. All the time, the instructor was asking me questions, sometimes about the aircraft, sometimes about its flying characteristics, sometimes about the controlled and restricted air space around the area, all gently checking my airmanship and knowledge. LESSON 5: relax, the instructor wants everything to be OK too!

Eventually after almost an hour, the command came to return to Tyabb. We could hear traffic on the radio, so joined down-wind, this time for runway 17. Because of the recent rain, the grass at Tyabb was unserviceable that day so we were landing on the bitumen – not my first choice in a tail dragger with a stiffish cross-wind breeze from the east, which makes for a nice little bit of turbulence as it comes over the hangars on that side of the airfield. Should I 3-point or wheel it on? Decisions decisions… With someone in the back seat, the Interstate likes to 3-point, so in spite of the cross-wind that’s what I opted for. In the event, the wind gods were with me and the landing was OK – not my best greaser but certainly quite acceptable. So we taxied in and shut down.

The AFR is really quite straightforward, particularly if you fly regularly as I do. I guess if you haven’t flown for a year, you’ll need to do a fair bit of swotting to make sure you have the answers and a few circuits to re-awaken your flying skills before the AFR!  There’s no pass or fail with an AFR – just useful reminders, even lessons, to keep you flying safe. Thanks to Nick Caudwell at Peninsula Aero Club for his advice and signing my logbook! Thoroughly recommended – 5 stars.

LSA – register CASA or RA-Aus?

GA or RA-Aus 01 GA or RA-Aus 02One of the commonest questions I’m asked by new Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) buyers is: “Should I register the aircraft general aviation VH- with CASA or recreational with Recreational Aviation Australia (RA-Aus)?”. This question is, if anything, being asked even more frequently now CASA is offering the Recreational Pilot’s Licence (RPL), which allows RA-Aus Pilot Certificate owners to gain a license upgrade allowing them to fly certain larger VH- registered aircraft, even into certain categories of controlled airspace.

The answer(s) are not simple and depend on many variables – but get one thing straight up front: overall costs, based on a 3-year ownership of a new LSA, are pretty much the same whichever route you choose. Yes, you need a licensed engineer to sign your maintenance release on a VH- registered aircraft, and a CASA medical every so often, but these costs are completely offset by the annual aircraft re-registration and Pilot Certificate renewal charges made by RA-Aus.

“Ah yes”, I hear you muttering, “but under RA-Aus I can do all my own maintenance. Under CASA you have to pay an engineer.”

Putting aside the arguments for and against actually doing your own maintenance, CASA/VH- aircraft pilots can in fact carry out a lot of basic maintenance on their aircraft under something called ‘Schedule 8‘. For those of you unfamiliar with CAAP 42ZC-1 of CAR 1988 regulations, a summary follows.

But before you take maintenance matters into your own hands, read the relevant sections of CAR 1988 thoroughly to make sure (a) your aircraft is included in the definitions and (b) you are actually capable of doing the work. When it comes to aircraft maintenance – competency is king, whether you’re GA or RA-Aus.

Under Schedule 8, the main maintenance activities a pilot can carry out are:
– changing the engine oil and filter
– changing the air filter
– changing, replacing and/or gapping the spark plugs
– replacing the aircraft battery(s)
– topping up the hydraulic brake fluid
– changing and repairing the tyres & tubes, providing this does not require jacking the aircraft completely off the ground
– changing or replacing the seats, provided no disassembly of primary airframe parts or controls is required
– replacing seat belts/harnesses
– with some conditions, removing and replacing a door (eg for photo sessions)
– removing and replacing non-structural inspection plates and covers
– repairing/replacing safety-wire or pins, so long as they are not on primary controls
– even installing & removing a glider tow hook!

There are other activities which are also permitted. However, the main no-no is that the pilot cannot disconnect or reconnect any parts of the primary controls of the aircraft – although they can carry out the so-called ‘dual inspection’ of the controls after maintenance by a qualified engineer.

In short, a GA PPL can do most of the day-to-day maintenance on their aircraft, the same as an RA-Aus Pilot Certificate holder. If there is more extensive work to be done – eg repairs after an accident, or diagnosing and fixing an engine problem, personally I’d rather hand that over to someone who is properly qualified – be it GA or RA-Aus!

So, if not for cost or maintenance reasons, what other arguments are there for and against GA/RA-Aus? Sorry, but here I have to answer a question with a question, but it’s an important one: ‘What sort of flying do you really want to be doing?’

1. If you want/need to fly regularly into controlled airspace, at the present time you have no choice – it has to be a PPL/RPL license in a VH-registered aircraft. The same if you want to fly at night, which is currently not allowed under RA-Aus regulations. But there’s one small wrinkle – if you have both a current PPL/RPL and RA-Aus Pilot Certificate, you can fly an RA-Aus registered aircraft into controlled airspace…but not at night.

2. If you already have either an RPL, PPL or higher, then I’d register VH- with CASA. That way you don’t have to do the mandatory 5-hour RA-Aus conversion, and you’ll already be familiar with CASA rules & regs.

3. If you have an RA-Aus Pilot Certificate or no license at all, I‘d register the aircraft with RA-Aus because (a) you already know the rules and regs under RA-Aus and/or (b) the flight training is shorter (read: ‘less expensive’) than PPL training. You can always upgrade to an RPL or PPL later if you want to fly a bigger aircraft or into controlled airspace, which are currently outside the limits of RA-Aus.

4. If you have both an RPL/PPL or higher and an RA-Aus Pilot Certificate, and you don’t need to fly into controlled airspace, it really doesn’t matter how you register your LSA. Either way it will cost much the same and you can do most of the maintenance yourself.

This is intended to be a general summary of the issues around GA versus RA-Aus registration. As with everything in life, there are nuances and circumstances which may sway your own decision one way or the other. But remember – you can always switch an LSA registration from GA to RA-Aus (and vice-versa) later if you want; but make sure you keep meticulous maintenance records in the aircraft log books, and that it will cost you for a new CofA when you change registers.