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RMH pilot CV
Miles Hilton-Barber's blog


News release: 10 Apr, Penang










Two nights in Bangkok gave me the opportunity to do a bit of maintenance so while Miles stayed in town doing bank things I was out at the airport.

The Tango Squadron museum, our hangar, contained our machine, a Gulfstream 450 getting an emergency engine change and all sorts of interesting stuff in various states of disrepair gathering dust, even a real but very incomplete photo reconnaissance Spitfire.

About the only things which looked like they actually worked were two similar but not identical Travel Airs both painted up in 'Miss Siam' colours. The original was the first privately owned aircraft in Thailand and was the first aircraft to be flown from Thailand to China in 1932 by Luan Phongsophon who had learnt his trade barnstorming in the USA before returning home.

The Burmese fuel had made the spark plugs go a very nasty chocolate colour so I changed them along with the oil but our support person, Jon, has left spare oil filters along with some important maps somewhere so I'll have to leave that for somewhere a bit further down the line.

In the afternoon I had to taxi the machine half way round the airport in a rather too strong wind for a large crowd of press and blind people to see and feel the machine. It was unusually clever of the bank to have got them through security.

You-know-who had planned for the next leg direct to Phuket; beyond our range. Mike Grey had managed to get the routing changed to go there via Surat Thani just in time. Miles' father had flown Spitfires in the second World war so he had a good feel of the one in the museum before we got dressed up for departure.

Shortly after takeoff ATC asked me to recycle my transponder. It looked to me like it was working OK but apparently they could see nothing on their radar. They were all for us returning immediately. Of course at that stage I had no idea what the problem was but I wasn't keen at all to return as from now on we must start as early as we can to avoid the thunderstorms which are inevitably going to develop later in the day. Going back would mean we'd then have little chance of making Phuket that night which in turn would put our next appointment in Penang in jeopardy. The argument continued until we were safely out of radio range.

It was a pleasant flight down the east coast of southern Thailand; at one stage we were only 10 miles or so from Burma which shares the same peninsula. Visibility was great for a change but I couldn't see much to the west except bigger and bigger clouds as the day progressed. We were in nice calm air just out to sea. Wouldn't it be nice to have a swim at Phuket, said Miles.

Five and a quarter hours later in Surat Thani: yes, we have AVGAS, but you must buy a 200 litre drum. Damn!

We only needed 20 or 30 to get to Phuket, but with 85 total capacity I was b******d if I was going to give away more than 130 litres of the stuff, so I whipped out the reserve tank and headed off to the fire station to see if they could help with a lift to the nearest petrol station. They could, and for a change it was only a couple of miles away and the pump was clearly marked 96 octane. Back at a deserted airport I got the airport fees and stuff paid in record time. Obviously aware that the transponder hadn't been working all day they showed me a NOTAM which clearly said 'non transponder equipped aircraft not permitted to land in Phuket'. Back at the machine I quite quickly discovered that a kick from one of the children who had sat in it for the press in Bangkok had dislodged the antenna lead which you-know-who had never attached properly.

With little further delay we were off to Phuket with a fine chance of arriving there before it got dark so long as we didn't encounter any big clouds as we crossed to the west side of the peninsula.

I switched over to Phuket radar fourty miles out, they had me identified immediately, the transponder was working again. On the flight down Thailand I'd been wondering where those famous James Bond islands were; I think they must be the ones in the Phuket area, there's lots of them. In the evening light incredibly spectacular. I had to hold for a few minutes just south of the airport while a jumbo full of tourists flew in from France.

No hangars at Phuket so there was the usual messing around trying to find a sheltered parking spot. No space in the unusually luxurious fire station, which even had a built-in koi carp pool, but I found a spot round the back and tied it down to some old and very large fire engine tyres.

No hotel had been laid on for us at Phuket but the Airport Resort sounded good. Miles and I got some strange looks as we marched off to the beach in the dark just as it started to rain. We had a lovely swim in a warm sea in a thunderstorm. I wondered if you could be struck by lightning while swimming, we weren't.

With two hundred and something miles of sea to cover we were at the airport early feeling surprisingly refreshed; that was until I was presented with a landing and parking fee of US$ 1000 which rather spoilt my morning.

Of course it had to be argued, but the trouble is with these people is they really do have you by the goolies; you're there, you can't get out any other way so no pay - no go, it's as simple as that.

After a bit of firm negotiation I managed to get them to reduce it by nearly half to $600, mostly by getting them to knock off various services and facilities which they patently hadn't supplied, but no amount of persuasion like "you're stealing the sight of 10 blind children" would make them reduce it to a more reasonable level overall; I had to pay. It was by far the most expensive airport charge of the whole trip.

So what do I think of Phuket now? My advice is that it's much overrated, don't go there; it's populated by a bunch of thieves and robbers.

Miles asked if he could do the takeoff. With very little wind and a great big runway, I thought what could he do wrong? He took control and I opened the throttle.

We careered down the runway well past takeoff speed and I said "push". Nothing happened, the side of the runway was coming up fast. "PUSH", I yelled. He pushed, we took off.

We immediately started to slide sideways back to the strip. "LEFT a bit" I yelled, slightly panicky now, remembering why I never want to be an instructor. Miles did nothing. I gave the bar a shove to correct the drift - but I couldn't move it - Miles was locked rigid on the controls like an Egyptian mummy! "LET GO" I yelled, the adrenaline pumping now. He did, we got away. Definitely the scariest part of the flight so far.

The delay arguing fees had eaten into the day so Miles again had to hold up the left side pannier to keep the engine cool on our climb to 5000 ft. Not far out of Phuket we flew over an island with a very nice beach. I supposed this was where they made that film 'The Beach'. Of course it was completely ruined by the several dozen tourist boats which were coming and going with what must have been hundreds of people.

Miles flew quite a lot of the four hour flight to Penang. He can hold a fairly accurate course, within 20 degrees either way anyway if it's dead calm with no turbulence. If, like this sea crossing to Penang, with an off-shore wind with a slight lumpiness to it then he has real difficulty keeping up with what the computer is saying. At one stage I had to advise him that we really didn't need to be going back to Phuket, it's too expensive to go to twice.

As we've been going along we've discussed this weaving at various times and I'm firmly convinced it can be made much better. At the moment his system works like this:

The computer is attached to an ASI, altimeter, GPS, compass and 'angle of bank' sensor. He has a box of switches so he can turn each function on and off. I'm told that if the thing had a screen, then what you would see is each active function being spooled to the screen in a loop, but instead of a screen it has text reading technology which feeds it into one side of his headset. Usually then, he has the compass and angle of bank functions switched on and it says continuously "heading 110, bank 3 right, heading 112 bank 4 right" and so on.

From this information Miles has to try to deduce a correction and a rate of correction to get back on heading. In dead calm conditions we weave along within reasonably acceptable limits most of the time.

Of course it is important to maintain altitude too but if he adds this to the loop then things become so slow he's lost in the more immediate horizontal axis so he has to remember to manually check it from time to time, or more usually I'll pipe up when we're nearing 500 ft adrift from our target altitude.

I have several problems with this. Whilst Miles definitely needs something a bit more positive than a compass to deduce which way the aircraft is turning and the rate it's turning at, I'm convinced the angle of bank thingy is at the very least completely useless, either that or Miles is a hopeless pilot but I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. The problem is that this is a weightshift aircraft and whilst in a stable turn the angle of bank might be giving a more-or-less true reading, it will then give a false reading whilst a correction is being made, which may lead him to believe there is no longer any bank, when in fact there still is, and being a tailless aircraft this means it will still be turning.

Much better would be some sort of rate of turn output, perhaps in stereo headphones to indicate direction more intuitively. This would work well with a tailless aircraft like this as rate of turn is independent of any momentary attitude but will always give a true indication of what the aircraft is doing.

Miles cannot fly in normal midday turbulence over land, indications from his system are so disparate it's impossible for him to maintain anything like a reasonable course. When he's wanted to have a go at controlling the aircraft in such conditions usually I've been pretty patient and only piped up when we're more than 90 degrees off course but it's not much of a way of getting somewhere when you're flying perhaps twice the distance you need to go to get to your destination, and on this flight we've rarely had the range do actually do it!

Even when things are going well, and Miles is holding a more or less steady course then for no discernable reason we're suddenly off, 90 degrees off track, sometimes more. I then get a "sorry" when he notices.

It's taken a while for me to decide why he does this but I think, it's because what he's listening to is incredibly boring and he simply loses concentration after a while.

The next stage of development then is to tweak the software so instead of a continuous loop of information which Miles has to interpret somehow, starting with: ignore it? If not, turn left or right? How much? Etc. Instead, all he needs is information as required to return to the correct track or heading in three dimensions within a tolerance he can set to suit the conditions - in other words if he's flying perfectly then it doesn't have to say anything, the rest of the time all it needs to say is left, right, up, down and the appropriate amount necessary. Combined with a tone in the appropriate ear indicating current rate of turn (not angle of bank) we might get somewhere.

What else is wrong? If we're flying lower than 5000 ft for any length of time the computer gets hot and eventually just stops. This is a direct result of poor preparation from you-know-who and the manufacturer. Miles is supposed to input his GPS waypoints via a Bluetooth keyboard but this has only actually worked a couple of times since the trip began. Both the compass and the angle of bank sensors have failed at least once and have had to be replaced. All of these problems could have been resolved with proper preparation before the flight.

Of course it's also not wired into any other vital aspects of flying the aircraft; Miles has no way of knowing what the radio or transponder frequency is or what the engine's up to. Without the positive actions of either lifting the pannier or throttling back, or both, the engine would have died long ago.

Overall I give Miles' system a rating of perhaps 2 out of 10 at the moment, in other words it's pretty useless. He's been hinting that he's perfectly capable of doing a landing. I can't imagine how, he's not going to be doing one whilst I'm on board.

I could see Penang island from about 20 miles out. They made us hold for 10 or 15 minutes just over the coast and then I charged in between some clouds and rain over the island peak to land. Bank people were there to meet us but as usual no thought had been put to hangarage. There was a nice little aero club but nobody about, eventually we found a safe and sheltered spot behind the control tower and I tied it down to a pile of concrete blocks.

Apparently the bank people have a big press conference lined up for us tomorrow so 'to avoid the paparazzi' we were given the full Madonna treatment and taken in a back door to the airport to do customs and immigration and then driven in a blacked out car to what claims to be a six star hotel where we were sneaked in through the underground garage to our suites. Miles hates his as he keeps on getting lost in it. Mine, rather surprisingly has no hot water. They say they're fixing it now.

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11 May 2007
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