Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Value of Flying on the Ground

I've been thinking back on the critical phases of my flight training so far, and have to say that there was one thing the flight school and airport owners offered up the very first day that has been truly invaluable: Sitting in an airplane while it sits on the ground or in the hangar while the weather prevents actually flying the airplanes.

It's very true that traditional "hangar flying," a term that's used to describe sitting around and talking shop with others in the aviation and piloting community, is an valuable part of learning to fly and staying current. It's also an important part of joining a truly close-knit community. But the non-traditional "flying" I'm referring to is more often than not performed solo, on your own time.

If your slight school or FBO has planes sitting on the ground, ask if you can sit in the airplanes (without the keys, so they don't have to worry) and "dry fly" the airplane. Don't pump fuel into the engine with the primer or mess around with the throttle too much, and definitely don't run down the batteries by sitting there with the master switch on continuously. But do get in an airplane of the type you're training in (the same one if possible), close the doors, put on your headset, get out the checklist and your maneuvers handbook, and use this calm and quiet time to go step by step through everything you need to be learning, over and over. Muscle memory is helpful for procedures you need to perform repeatedly while flying, and muscle memory is built by repetition of the proper movements. Take breaks when you start to overwhelm yourself. Ten minutes walking around looking at airplanes or trees or whatever can do a lot to make you mentally ready to start ground flying again.

The little things in flying can have a substantial impact. When I first started flying the Cessna 150's, my brain was completely stuck when it came to the simple task of operating the accelerator control, which is a push/pull knob mounted in the lower center part of the instrument panel. For some reason, every time I was supposed to reduce power, I pushed the knob in, which actually accelerates the engine. I was consistently doing the opposite of what needed to be done, and was having a truly hard time changing my habit. It's not good to inadvertently apply more power when you're supposed to cut power just prior to landing. It took a few lessons, but mostly it was the repeated dry-flying of the airplane that got my mind to change gears so it knew to pull the knob to reduce power and push it in to increase power. I even used some analogous memory aids: For example, my boat has a similar throttle lever - you push it awat from you to go faster, pull it toward you to slow down. I believe strongly that letting my mind find its way though this little mental block on the ground, in the airplane but not under the divided-attention stresses of being in the air, made a huge difference. And there have been a variety of other similar procedures and tasks that improved substantially for me as a result of taking the time to "fly" the airplane on the deck.

Another thing I did a couple times was invite a friend along with me to the airport for the dry flying time. I was excited about flying and wanted to share it anyhow, and my friends were interesting in seeing what it's all about. I mean hey, who doesn't like airplanes? I explained everything I was learning to them, out loud and carefully. One of my friends patiently let me explain the pre-flight walk-around inspection and then sat in the small C-150 with me for almost an hour while I pretended to fly and tried to make it as verbally graphic as possible. It has to be tedious after the first ten minutes, but he was a saint. I'm grateful for good-sport friends, heh.

More than once the Twin Oaks Airpark owners commented that they wished more students would show up at the airport and sit in the airplanes to practice like I do. It's free, is a great use of bad-weather time or spare cycles between errands and meetings, and really does make a difference.

No news is... Well, no news!

The weather has been particularly "challenging" in Oregon recently. As a result, I haven't been able to fly recently. The ice, snow, rain and fact that my instructor is out of town on a much deserved vacation combined to keep me on the ground. I've been snowed in a portion of the time, without any electrical power another part of the time (for three days), and VFR conditions have been few and far between (and not when I'm available).

So, I have been trying to spend some time studying for the written test and making a list of things I need to review in the air some more before I complete my flight training, in order to gain the comfort level necessary to believe I'm ready for a check ride. I know my instructor will tell me what he thinks of my skills and abilities and that he'll only release me for the examiner when he knows it's time, but I also want to feel confident myself. I'm getting there, but there are a few areas that need some more attention.

I promised I'd write about some technology stuff, and I have a lot to write. It's coming. Unfortunately, the power outages, technology failures and "snowboundedness" have conspired against for for the past couple weeks to keep me from getting almost anything done.

More to come soon. Anyone who knows how to do the VFR Weather Dance, please feel free to do so. :)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tech and gadgets for the pilot

I'm an uber-geeky software and gadget freak, as is plainly obvious to my instructor, Kelly pretty much any time we're doing training. I have my audio and video recording setup, which hooks directly into the intercom system for the airplane. I have my iPhone, which runs a whole bunch of great apps especially for the pilot (new or experienced). And more recently I've started using some great electronic log book software, which is integrated between my iPhone and Mac apps.

The fact is, just like modern GPS and glass panels in the cockpit, there are a whole slew of technologies out there to make planning and flying easier and (when used appropriately) safer.

Over the next several days I'll start posting descriptions of some of the different apps and technologies I'm leveraging, so people can see what I'm using and (if you like) suggest others.

Perfect flying conditions, but that runway's not flyable

Ah, perfect air today: stable, cold and dense. And not a cloud in the sky. But unfortunately the airport's runway isn't usable due to an unusual snow and ice layer. That night cross-country will have to wait, once again. Meanwhile, I'll just study for the written and go out to dinner instead.

I found a great video-cast series on the EAA web site where a guy is chronicling his training from beginning to end as he works toward his Sport Pilot certificate. It's excellent, and does a great job of showing the training process. Highly recommended.

Check it out at: http://www.eaa.org/apps/blog/learntofly/

Friday, December 12, 2008

More solo practice in stronger winds

On Thursday I flew for just over 2 hours in one of the Cessna 150's at Twin Oaks Airpark, which is where I am training. I was on a solo flight day again, and spent my time first at the Portland Mulino airport, where I did two takeoffs and landings into a strong quartering headwind. The crosswind component on approach was a little stronger than I had expected due to some gusts that came up, but I handled it pretty well. My crab angle to fly the right lines in the pattern was extreme due to the winds aloft. On the ground the wind was not as pronounced, but was still plenty strong enough to present a good challenge.

From there I few over to Aurora State Airport, which is not too far away. I got there quickly since the wind was at my back. I crossed over the runway at midfield about 2000 feet above the traffic pattern, flew west a little ways so I could lose some altitude, and then did battle against the wind while turning back toward the airport to enter the traffic pattern. I did three or four landings at Aurora, all touch-and-go's. The wind at Aurora was also a very strong headwind, coming slightly from the right side. On climb-out, once the aircraft reached about a hundred feet above the ground the airplane would climb like crazy thanks to the strong wind, and my indicated airspeed would quickly reach 90+ miles per hour while the GPS showed my groundspeed was only 68 miles per hour - quite a difference. I kept the nose a little low since it climbed on its own and I wanted to be sure to avoid propellor stall problems at a high angle of attack.

After playing in the winds at Aurora for a while, I headed back toward the hills between there and my home airport. I did a few ground reference maneuvers and then entered the traffic pattern at Twin Oaks. I spent the rest of my time doing several landings and takeoffs, practicing flying in the windy conditions on the smaller runway and working to clean up my landing routine a bit more. By the time I did my last few landings, I had improved things quite a bit, and the last landing of the day was as soft as they come.

The one thing I was not able to work on (due to the high winds aloft) was practicing stalls and recoveries. So, I will have to do that again sometime soon, since I have yet to practice them solo. It turns out I now have exactly ten hours of solo time, so I don't need a whole lot more before I complete my private pilot training, but regardless I need to practice those, either in another solo practice session or perhaps while on my long solo cross country. I have a night cross country left to do with my instructor, Kelly, as well as my solo trip and a small amount of additional dual instruction "under the hood," simulating instrument flying conditions.

I totaled up my pilot's logbook today, to see where I'm at in terms of accumulated flight and training hours. Here are the results:

Total Flight Time: 38.7 hours
Flight Training Received: 28.7 hours
Solo Flight: 10 hours
Cross-Country Flight: 4.4 hours
Night Flight: 0.6 hours
Day Landings: 148
Night Landings: 3

I've had a number of people requesting that I post more cockpit video. I have some new video from portions of my last couple flights, but I need to get it transferred to my computer, which takes some time due to the cheap-o software I have. I will post some edited video in the near future to show some more of my flying activity. What the heck, everyone loves watching cruddy landings on video, heh.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Working on the things that need working-on

The afternoon weather on Wednesday allowed me to get into an airplane for an hour, and I used the time to fly around the pattern at Twin Oaks Airpark and practice and work on improving some flying skills, some that I feel a little weak on and others that are relatively new to me. In addition, I needed to practice some maneuvers on my own that I had only performed with my instructor up until now. I'm approaching the end of my private pilot flight training (or so I am told), and now is the time to refine some of these core flying skills.

I've only recently been introduced to short- and soft-field takeoffs and landings, so practicing those was one of my goals. I did a couple of each, and the short-field ops were pretty solid for me. The soft-field takeoffs were a little more challenging, getting into ground effect and staying there before climbing. The plane just wants to get of the ground and I really have to hold it down, and on the Twin Oaks runway, which slopes downhill slightly as you roll down the runway, it's a little extra challenging.

My landings on Wednesday were a lot less spectacular than I wanted. Some days I'm "on," and other days a little less so. On all but one landing I didn't quite get the timing of the flare worked out, and I really need to figure out what I'm doing wrong. I believe it's a combination of flaring slightly too soon and pulling back a little too much (and a lack of patience in letting the airplane run out of airspeed), but really what I need to do is get back out there and just fly a bunch of landings. I am hoping to get a chance to do that on Thursday afternoon.

Another thing I did Wednesday was fly some simulated engine-out landings. In the past I've only done that with my instructor in the airplane, but after my last flight with him, Kelly had directed me to practice those on my own. I did engine-out drills from the pattern as well as one from 2500 feet directly above the field, which required me to fly in a circle over the airport so I could reduce my altitude, then enter the pattern in the downwind leg and fly to an engine-out landing, which went well. All in all, I was happy with my engine failure drills.

A couple of things I didn't get to work on, because the cloud ceiling was a little to low throughout the region for me to get sufficient altitude, are stalls (and stall recovery) and steep turns. So, I hope to get to work some more on those if I'm able to fly on Thursday.

I've been studying for the written knowledge exam (which is actually computer-based), and I need to get that done sometime in the next week or so. I'm balancing that with some consulting-related work, so it's taking a little longer than I'd planned, but I'm getting there.

I shot video of Wednesday's flying but I haven't had a chance to look at it yet. If there's anything on there that I decide I want to post (most of the landings were not exactly sources of pride for me, heheh), I'll add it here at a later date.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Cross-Country Landing and Run-Up Check Video

I've posted a video of my landing at Lebanon on my first solo cross-country. The second half of the YouTube video is my pre-departure run-up check when I left the airport to return home. In the audio track you can listen for me using the call sign 66589 (six-six-fiver-eight-niner). There are a few other pilots on the radio channel, too. They were at a different airport in the area. A larger version of the video can be viewed on the YouTube site.

By the way, if you're wondering why I'm talking to myself so much when I'm the only one in the cockpit, there are two reasons. First of all, speaking steps out loud works well for me and I stay organized and perform the required procedures accurately that way. The other reason is simply that the camera is running, so in some places I'm narrating. But mostly it's because reciting the steps as I do them helps me doing things well.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

My First Solo Cross-Country

Today was a pretty great day - and a long one, too. It started at about 6:00 this morning, when I woke up quite a bit earlier than normal for a Saturday so I could meet a friend for breakfast at the Experimental Aircraft Association's monthly pancake breakfast at Twin Oaks. The day started off pretty well, even at such an early hour. As I left my house, this was the view from my front porch:

We went to the breakfast, the first time for both me and my friend, then spent about an hour walking around in the cold air looking at the army of planes that had flown in for the event. The Van's Aircraft air force was on-hand, and it was true airplane geek's event. You see a whole lot of Van's RV's around these parts, since the factory is located over at the Aurora airport. We also got to see a bunch of other planes, from a couple Beavers to a World War II warbird and a whole slew of others.

After breakfast and airplane watching, it was time to get to work. I got a weather briefing on the phone from the flight service weather folks, and then I finished my flight planning for my first solo cross-country flight. There's a bit of math work that's required in order to complete the plan once you have the weather info.

I calculated I'd have a headwind that would require me to "crab" into the wind and would slow me down about 10 knots or so on the way down, and that if the winds stayed the same I'd have a bit of a tailwind on the way back. The weather forecast was pretty much perfect, a dry cool day with only thin clouds well above 12,000 feet. There was a ton of blue sky and sun, not bad at all for a Saturday in December in the State of Oregon.

As I already mentioned, this was my first ever solo cross-country flight. My route was to take me from Twin Oaks Airpark, my "home" airport, south to Lebanon, Oregon, which is located south of Salem and east of Corvallis. From there I'd depart and head to the Salem airport, which is a tower-controlled field, and make a landing there before taking off and flying back to Twin Oaks. I filed a flight plan with the FAA for the trip down, and made some last checks on my planning to make sure I had not made any errors.

My instructor, Kelly, met me at around noon and reviewed my flight plan. The Cessna 150 I had reserved - N66589 - was in use by some people who teach kids about aviation, and since I determined I had more than enough time available in the afternoon to make my trip I volunteered to let them have the plane for an additional half hour, so they could get all the kids' flights done. In the end, I got off the ground about an hour later than I'd planned, which meant I'd be back at Twin Oaks sometime around 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. - Perfect.

I activated my flight plan with the flight service station on the radio while still on the ground, and then lifted off. I flew over the Newberg VOR and called Portland Approach to ask for flight following on their radar. I was soon handed off to Seattle Center for radar tracking, and they kept me advised of other airplanes near me almost all the way down to Lebanon. I flew past Salem and a number of other landmarks on my magnetic heading, which worked exactly as planned with my wind corrections: I was flying almost exactly where I'd drawn the line on the map by using the calculated heading, so the winds were pretty much exactly as they'd been forecasted - a 20-knot or so headwind quartering from the left and knocking about 10 knots off my speed over the ground. Once closer to Lebanon I was handed off to Cascade Approach for the last bit of radar tracking.

Before too long I was flying past Albany and a sawmill I'd noted on the chart. As I approached the area of the Lebanon airport (I'd never seen it before today), I found the airfield just off to my left and noted that it was close to the base of a small mountain that sticks straight up out of the flat ground. I overflew the airport at 1,000 feet above the traffic pattern altitude, saw there was no wind on the ground, and decided to fly a loop around the mountain and descend in the process, which would put me in a perfect position to enter the traffic pattern on a 45-degree line for the downwind leg, to land on runway 34. There was only one other airplane in the area.

I flew the pattern and put the Cessna down nicely just past the numbers, remembering to look all the way down the runway as I flared (and not stare at the pavement right in front of me). It's amazing how much smoother my landings are when I remind myself to do that.

Here's my transportation on the ground in Lebanon:

After closing my first flight plan and filing a new one for the return flight, I departed Lebanon to the south, and again circled the mountain while climbing out to my target altitude of 4500 feet. That's a bit extreme for the rather short trip to Salem, but it would be good practice doing a controlled climb and descent from that altitude. I activated my new flight plan from the air and set up the compass heading to fly to the Salem air field. Next I dialed in the frequency for the recording of Salem's current airport information. When I reached about ten miles out, I called Salem Tower and let them know where I was and that I wished to land there. I was given instructions to proceed to a right downwind leg for runway 16, and descended from my flight level of 4500 feet to the pattern altitude. I then flew a right pattern down to the runway for another decent landing. I parked on the ramp and ran into the restroom briefly before hurrying back to the airplane to leave. I'd need to get off the ground soon so I could make extra sure I'd be back to Twin Oaks with plenty of daylight left. Here's the plane on the ramp at Salem, and you can (probably) see the tower in the background over the wing (as with all the images, you can click for a larger view):

I started the airplane, ran through the checks and called the ground controller for permission to taxi for a north departure. After my run-up checks, the tower controller cleared me to take off on Runway 34. I pulled onto the runway, applied full power and lifted off.

I climbed straight out from Salem and headed directly for a large ridge off in the distance that Twin Oaks sits behind. It's recognizable because over on the far left end of the ridge (as viewed from the south) is Bald Peak, which is prominent and easy to make out from the air. I noticed while returning on this leg that the tail wind that had been forecasted had disappeared. My air speed and ground speed were pretty much exactly the same.

As I flew to the ridge, the sun started to get low in the sky. Mt. Hood was off on my left and glowing in the evening sun. I crossed the ridge and entered the pattern on the upwind leg, flew around the airport, noted the amazing sunset that was starting to form in the high clouds, and put the plane down on the runway. This last shot is my plane back on the ground at Twin Oaks after I cleaned my stuff out of it, framed by mother nature:

I really couldn't have asked for a better day, and I'm very pleased with how my first cross-country on my own turned out. There's still quite a bit more to do, learning-wise. I hope to be able to knock it all out this month. That's a pretty aggressive goal, so we shall see if the weather and schedules allow that, but hey - it's good to have a target to aim at. Onward and upward from here!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Dual Cross-Country to Corvallis

After a few cancellations over the past couple weeks due to weather, Kelly and I were finally able to fly my dual cross-country solo I'd planned to Corvallis Municipal Airport and back. I did all the flight planning, including the weather and winds (actually I did it for the third time since I'd also done it before on the occasions that got scrubbed). I also filed the VFR flight plan with the FAA flight service station this morning while I got the en-route weather forecast.

It was a fun and rather relaxed flight. Compared the super choppy winds during last night's night flying session, today was a breeze (pun intended). Actually, there was almost no breeze. We flew at around 3500 feet and our air speed and ground speed were pretty much identical, so there wasn't much wind going on most of the flight.

Probably the most complicated part of the flight was the first ten or so minutes, just because there was so much to do. We got into the air and flew over the Newberg VOR. Kelly took the controls for a couple minutes while I dialed in frequencies to activate the flight plan, listen to weather, and then change over to the Portland approach frequency to request VFR flight following (which puts us on the screen of air traffic control's radar, allowing them to keep an eye open and let us know about other airplanes or things we might need to know). Then I noted our time of departure and over the VOR, from which I needed to determine our approximate estimated time to the checkpoints along the way and to Corvallis, which is a lot more complicated in the air than I'd realized it would be. Basically I just needed to add 30 minutes to my pre-recorded ETAs since we departed a little late and crossed the VOR 30 minutes later than I'd originally planned.

Once I got all the logitics work done, it wasn't too hard. I activated the flight plan (which I think I'll do from the ground next time, just to keep the in-air work a little simpler), got on ATC's radar, and then used the VOR radio to track my flight path along a radial that would take us down to Corvallis. After a little experience seeing how easy it is to drift off course using VOR radials, I started to get a little better and to maintain a straighter track. We set up a track on the GPS unit's screen as well, so I got to compare how the two work side by side. Looking outside, I was able to visually find all my checkpoint landmarks that I had written into my flight plan, passing curves in the river, towers on hillsides, and airports on either side along the way. Before too long I was able to see the field at Corvallis off in the distance.

There was a slight haze covering the area, but by the time we were 15 or so miles away you could see the big runway pretty well. I set up for a straight-in approach since there did not appear to be much other traffic active in the area (just one other Cessna), and because I need to see and practice how that works - descending straight in from a longer distance. It's not the same as flying a standard pattern, which is pretty easy to do. On a long straight-in (or direct) approach, you have to figure out how much time you have left to fly, how much altitude you need to lose, and from that information at what rate you need to descend. I was at about 3000 feet before I started riding downhill and I needed to get to the field elevation of 250 feet. After setting up a descent rate of about 600 feet per minute I felt like I was doing pretty well. At the end of my trip to the pavement I needed to add a little extra flaps to get down a bit faster, and I put the airplane on the runway. I completely forgot that this landing was supposed to be a touch and go, and started to do a full stop to pull off onto the taxiway, but Kelly had me turn back to stay on the runway and depart directly from there. I'm sure it looked pretty funny, but it worked. I told him that was a touch and go practice for "I just landed, but then I realized the airport was under attack, so I changed my mind and decided to hurry up and leave."

Once in the air again, Kelly asked me what we needed to do next. I thought about it and said "Find Independence airport?" He said that was our next stop, but was there anything we needed to do at Corvallis? I thought again for a couple seconds and realized it was time now to close out our VFR flight plan, so the FAA and Civil Air Patrol would not be out looking for us. I called up McMinnville flight service on the radio and closed the flight plan, and we answered some questions the flight service controller had about the visibility and meteorological conditions at Corvallis. He had automated sensor readings showing the conditions were IFR (meaning Instrument Flight Rules, or unsafe for visual flight), and we were able to tell him it was definitely VFR conditions with greater than ten miles visibility and no clouds. I remember a couple weeks ago when I got my first weather briefing for this trip that there was a notice to airmen (NOTAM) that stated the automated weather reporting at Corvallis was unreliable. Apparently it still is. I wonder if it was the light haze that caused the automated sensors to be in such substantial error.

We departed the Corvallis area with the plan to fly under basic VFR, without filing a flight plan, back to Twin Oaks. We also planned to make a stop at Independence Airport, which is just about 10-15 minutes north of Corvallis. I flew another straight in approach, and my descent was pretty good but again I was a little high and had to drop some extra flaps there at the end before the airport lights told me I was on the glide path. It's a medium sized runway, and is situated next to a huge neighborhood of houses, of which most seem to have hangars for garages. Sure enough, when we parked on the ramp and walked around a bit, there was a man puling his airplane out of his garage/hangar attached to his home, which he taxied down the airplane version of a street and onto the taxiway. It looks like some of the "roads" are aircraft taxiways and others are for vehicles. Cool place. Looks like fun, and a lot of money.

Unfortunately the restaurant was closing as we walked up so our plans to eat lunch were foiled. With grumbling stomachs we looked at a few other airplanes parked there, then got back in the airplane and prepared to get back in the air and on our way home.

The remainder of the flight I flew with the Garmin 296 GPSMap for navigation, which is an amazing device. If I ever own an airplane it will have one of these, without a doubt. There's so much information in there it's just awesome, and it makes a lot of the work you have to do with folding charts and looking things up in books and reference sheets much simpler, so you can focus more of your attention on flying the plane and looking outside. You still need to be able to do everything by hand (what if your GPS breaks), but having the modern technology is pretty terrific. Hard to get lost with one of those.

We flew directly back over the Newberg VOR on the ridge south of our home airport, and a couple minutes later I entered the Twin Oaks pattern. As I was finishing my downwind leg and about to configure for landing, Kelly pulled the power on me and said I had an engine out. I turned short for the runway and dialed in some flaps, missed the push-to-talk button trying to call on the radio, fixed that problem, checked my speed and maintained it, and descended to the runway, where I touched down fairly well after a steep-ish approach.

All in all, it was a very good day. Great weather and flying conditions, especially for this time of the year. I had fun and learned some new things, and got to do some new stuff on the radio. I also got to apply all the navigation skills I've recently learned and see how things really work.

Next up for me is a "short" solo cross country (meaning to an airport more than 50 miles away), which I hope to be able to do on Saturday. the weather forecast has been changing a lot over the past 24 hours, and right now it looks like the weather might just cooperate, but tomorrow I'll know for sure. I'll be flying to Lebanon State Airport and back for that trip, but I plan to also write a plan for an airport somewhere to the north just in case the weather doesn't support flying down the Willamette Valley tomorrow - It's known for harboring some stubborn fog at times. Now that I'm done writing this, I need to go put those plans on paper. I'm excited and looking forward to it!

Also, I'm getting up early in the morning because every first Saturday of the month is when the Experimental Aircraft Association chapter based at Twin Oaks holds it's 8 a.m. Pancake Breakfast, and it sounds like a lot of fun. A friend is meeting me there. She's never been to the airport before, so I'll get to do the nickel tour, too - Fun!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Four hours of solo flight and first night landings

After a couple weeks of fairly wet, foggy, misty and cruddy (for flying) weather, some east winds started to scream down the Columbia River Gorge yesterday, drying out the air and leaving us with clear skies and great visibility.

On Thursday morning I jumped in my truck and drove to Twin Oaks Airpark. I had scheduled a large block of time in one of the C-150's today, so I could do some assigned solo flying to a few airports in the area. All told, I flew 3.9 hours solo during the daylight hours, as well as .6 hours at night with my instructor, Kelly.

I can't really type details about four hours of flying, and it wouldn't interesting to read anyhow. But there are a few things that stand out in my mind.

First of all, the C-150 climbs a lot faster with one person in it. I'd noticed that when I did my first solo flight a few weeks ago, but today I was able to experience it flying short flights between airports.

Kelly has signed me off with approval to fly to several airports in the area on my own: Mulino, Aurora State, McMinnville, Sportsman, Hillsboro and Scappoose. I made it to landings at all of those airports today, except Hillsboro. I just ran out of time, so I'll go there the next time.

My landings are not as good as I want them to be. I seem to be flaring too early frequently on larger (wider) runways. I think it's because I'm used to landings at Twin Oaks on a narrower runway, so in my mind the same "sight picture" of the runway means a higher altitude on the larger one, so I tend to flare before I should. I need to really concentrate on looking all the way down the runway to judge my altitude before landing, rather than falling trap to the sight picture, which will always be different.

Anyhow, after some stronger wind landings at Aurora, I went to Mulino and did some more practice approaches, landings and departures. From there I flew to McMinnville, where I did a couple touch and go's before flying over Bald Peak to get back to Twin Oaks for fuel and lunch. The winds crossing the ridge at Bald Peak were quite surprising. I flew over a lower spot on the ridge right next to the peak, and the contour of the far side of the ridge causes that wind from the Gorge to funnel right through the gap. It was a headwind, but it was pretty intense and a bouncy ride, for sure. In other words, it was pretty fun. As soon as I passed over the top of the ridge the ride smoothed out and I turned to land and Twin Oaks.

After taking a 45 minute break for lunch and to top off the fuel, I took off again and called the Hillsboro tower to request a transition across their airspace to go to Scappoose, an airport over in Columbia county. While there I did a number of landings and take-off's, and also had a video camera set up in the back of the airplane looking out the front window. I'll probably post some of the video in the next few days.

By the time I returned to Twin Oaks (I flew around Hillsboro's airspace on the way back rather than transitioning though), I was ready for a longer break and some dinner. Flying's a lot of fun, but it can take a lot out of you.

I drove into town and went to Home Depot to find a flashlight with a red lens or LED for night flying, and then grabbed dinner and some gas for the truck. By the time I got back to Twin Oaks it was getting dark. Kelly and I met for a few minutes in the classroom to discuss night flight and some of the important things to know After that we headed out to the airplane and I did my first night takeoff. It was a little different, but doable. About the time we reached 900 feet altitude, a sudden layer of strong winds from the north started whipping us around. It was amazing how different the winds were a that altitude as compared to the winds on the ground. As I flew the pattern (in the dark) the winds continued to abuse the airplane. It was flyable, but on my first night flight it was a little weird.

My first landing I dropped onto the runway a little harder than I liked, and Kelly couldn't help but laugh a little. I'd approached high and a little fast. He explained that Twin Oaks is quite likely the most difficult airport in the state to fly into at night, and that everyone does that on their first landings, even him. Okay, so I felt a little better, but still... Heh.

Landing at Twin Oaks in the dark of night is a bit like flying through a black hole to land on a small rectangle marked by low intensity lights. On the approach there's a large area of pure darkness that feels like there's nothing there.

On my second landing I put it down a little easier, and the third landing was substantially better. WIth the intense winds throwing us around while flying in the pattern, we called it good for the evening and parked the plane.

Out plan for Friday is to finally complete a dual cross-country trip to Corvallis, Oregon that I've had planned out for a couple of weeks. The weather for Friday and Saturday looks like it will probably cooperate. Assuming we get the flight done on Friday, I'll be doing a solo cross country flight on Saturday. I'll need to pick my destinations and plan the flight. I have a few ideas, but the weather forecast will dictate a lot of what I can do.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Simulating Altitude & Soft Field Takeoffs and Landings

Today I flew with my instructor, Kelly Wiprud, over to the Aurora State Airport as well as a small strip nearby called Lenhardt. The plan was to learn soft field operations, as well as simulating takeoffs from high-altitude airports (or what they call high pressure altitude).

It was a little hazy today and we had to fly under a broken ceiling that was hanging at about 1700 feet above the ground along the flight path from Twin Oaks over to Aurora. The ceiling lifted as our session went on, and once over near I-5 and the Aurora airport, the ceiling was broken and the lower clouds were scattered.

Kelly had me do a short-field landing and takeoff, followed by another short field landing on Aurora's Runway 35 (which is actually a huge and long runway, but this is just practice). We then taxied back to 35 to take off a third time. For this departure he told me to set the throttle to only 2,000 RPM for the takeoff roll, which is well below the typical full-power setting of around 3,000 RPM. The purpose was to simulate taking off from an airport at a much higher elevation, say around 5,000 or more feet MSL.

I set the throttle as instructed and we slowly started rolling. It was a very soft and sluggish feeling, and it took a lot of runway, but sure enough the airplane eventually gained speed, left the ground and slowly climbed out. After climbing a while to experience what high altitude performance feels like, I applied full power and the little airplane took off like a rocket (well, not really - a Cessna 150 is a bit of a slug performance-wise - but you could definitely feel the performance increase in a big way, relatively speaking).

We departed the Aurora pattern and headed the four-or-so short miles over to the Lenhardt strip, a privately-owned-but-open-to-the-public airport. This small facility has a paved strip similar to the one at Twin Oaks (even the runways numbers are the same) as well as a grass strip alongside the asphalt one. Our target today was the grass.

Kelly took control of the airplane as we approached and showed me the approach and landing procedure for a soft field. The approach is similar to a short-field approach, except you don't come in as low on the final. The approach is conducted with full flaps on the final leg, but rather than "dragging it in with power" as you do in a short-field approach, you approach the end of the strip on a fairly normal path, start the flare and then apply a little power to float the airplane slowly to the surface with the nose high, and then once you touch down you hold the nose high until is lowers itself with the slowing speed. Then you keep the pressure off the nose by pulling back on the yoke and exit the strip.

While taxing on a soft field, it's important to get the carb heat shut off so as to avoid sucking anything being blown up from the ground into the carburetor, and you want to try to keep moving. Stopping, on some very fields, could mean getting stuck. That would be bad. Our field was very well maintained, but it was still a little bumpy.

The takeoff for a soft field is fun, and very different than other takeoffs. During the taxi you configure 10 degrees of flaps before you start your takeoff roll. The takeoff consists of pulling back on the yoke to get the nose high, applying full power, and holding the nose wheel off the ground while the airplane builds speed and starts to fly. As soon as you're in the air, the air speed isn't high enough to climb yet. So, you hold the nose down and fly just above the strip, in ground effect (which is a pillow of air that is generated between the wings and the ground when flying just above the surface). When in ground effect, the airplane floats along and accelerates pretty quickly. Once the airspeed is fast enough, you can climb at an angle that results in the maximum climb rate speed (Vx).

After Kelly showed me the procedures, He handed the plane back to me and I flew the patterns to and from the grass runway. It really is fun - and a bit of a mind stretcher - to fly in profiles that are so different than the standard takeoffs and landings.

After my successful soft-field practice, we headed back to Twin Oaks. We transitioned south of Aurora and Kelly pulled his signature move, turning off the GPS (which I really hadn't looked at more than twice the whole session anyhow) and having me eyeball my way back to Twin Oaks. It's not the easiest airport to find if you don't know where it is, but I'm getting pretty familiar with the area, and am starting to get better and knowing where to look when referencing the paper chart (map).

Looking ahead, I have a lot of flying over the next few days. Thursday will be a big day for me. The weather is forecast to be good, with some winds, so I have a plane scheduled to fly solo for a couple hours either side of lunch. My pan is to fly to some assigned airports within 25 miles of Twin Oaks in the morning and to go to a couple others after lunch, plus practice some ground reference maneuvers. After that I'll take a break and then meet Kelly back at the airport at about 5:00 for a lesson covering night flight operations. It will be a busy day!

Field Trip: Tower Visit at Salem Airport

I was driving to Salem yesterday for a work engagement, and since I was going to be near the Salem airport I decided to give the tower staff a call on my way down, to see if it would be possible to drop in and see how a tower operates. The tower manager, Cindy, took my name and said I could drop by.

When I arrived, she "buzzed" me in the door and I hiked up the stairs to the big angled glass room. Actually, it's not really that big, but it's roomy enough for the three or four people working up there. When the tower is open (it closes at 9 p.m. each day) there are at least two people generally working - One person focused on ground traffic and the other dealing with traffic in the air to and from the airport. A special phone system lets the controllers speak quickly with Seattle Center or anyone else in the system they might need to work with receive or hand off traffic. The ground controller also records the weather and airport information that pilots listen to on the radio (ATIS).

Hanging from the ceiling on some springy lines are the light guns that controllers can use to shine colored light codes to aircraft that they can't contact via radio. The air controller has a power pair on binoculars and is looking out for aircraft to in the area that he may or may not be talking to on the radio.

I asked what information they thought pilots need to know, the things that make their jobs easier and the skies and airport safer. Cindy said that letting them know where you are and where you're intending to go as early as possible is important, and that the accuracy of your position information (distance out and especially direction from the airport) is quite important. There's a big difference between saying you're north of the airport vs. northwest of the airport, for example, when the runways are at 160 and 130 magnetic headings.

It was an interesting quick visit. I think visualizing what air traffic controllers are doing and getting a brief view into their world is helpful in terms of understanding what that faceless person on the other end of the radio is doing, and why. I'd recommend a tower visit to anyone flying who's never done the field trip before. I appreciate being allowed the opportunity in Salem.

My next tower visit will need to be to the one at the Portland-Hillsboro airport. The Hillsboro tower is very busy and is the closest one to my home airport (just a few miles to the north), plus they have radar service there (which they don't have in Salem), so to see some additional and different aspects of ATC.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Coordinated FlightCast: Short-field audio episode added

I've published a link (and RSS enclosure) to the MP3 file for my second "flight-cast" episode. It covers the lesson I wrote about in the Short-Field Takeoffs and Landings post a couple days ago. You can visit the previous post to download the MP3 file and listen in. Monday's scheduled solo flight session was scrubbed by yours truly due to the weather conditions. For a few hours it was almost good enough -- but almost is never good enough. In order for me to fly solo, the conditions need to be higher than 3,000-feet cloud ceiling, five or more miles visibility, and no more than a 7-knot crosswind component on landings. Everything was good except the cloud deck, which was at about 2,700 feet. I'd rather have quite a bit more than 3,000 for a good safety margin at this point. But hey, that's the way it goes. I'll just fly sometime later, whenever the weather allows.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Trying some flight video - Flying the Twin Oaks pattern

This is just a quick test with some mounted-camera video. It's pretty obvious when you watch that there are some serious issues with the camera's shutter and how it interacts with the propeller. But, I decided to publish this particular lap around the pattern at Twin Oaks Airpark because it was the last circuit I flew with my instructor before he jumped out and told me to fly three take-off's and landings on my own for my first solo back on November 16th. I didn't have the camera running for the solo landings because the batteries died right after this one. At the very end of the video you can hear Kelly telling me what I'm about to do.

The camera is a Kodak Zi6 compact camera set at 60fps/720p, and mounted with a homemade bracket on the top of the dash with parts sourced from my local Home Depot (Velcro tape and straps and a couple metal angle brackets). I need to do some experimentation and try the camera at 30fps to see if the prop weirdness is still there, as well as at a lower resolution maybe. I also plan to test a more advanced camera when I fly next time, one I have that will let me record the audio from the intercom on the video's audio track, similar to the audio-only recording I did the other day.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Cross-Country Scrubbed - Short and Soft Field Landings Instead

Audio from this lesson is available in Episode Two of my flight-cast, click here to download the MP3 file.
My dual cross-country trip to Corvallis that was scheduled today was scrubbed due to a late heavy fog that reached from around Olympia, Washington all the way down the Willamette Valley to the northern border of California. By the time things started to clear up in the afternoon, it was too late to start the trip. Besides, I watched the weather and I don't think it ever really cleared up down in Corvallis.
So, while the fog and clouds were obscuring everything more than a mile away from and about 500 feet over the airport, Kelly and I went over a bunch of ground schooling on the topics of short and soft field takeoffs and landings. There are a bunch of additional and changed steps when you're on a shorter runway or a soft strip of grass or something similar. After we went over the procedures and discussed them, the skies started to clear so I get the paperwork and book for the airplane I had reserved and after Kelly extricated it from the hangar I pre-flighted the airplane, hooked up my audio recorder and got ready to go.
We flew our practice at Twin Oaks. Kelly showed me a couple short field take-off's and landings and then the plane was mine. The sun was right in my eyes on departure so I asked Kelly to help me "see" the indicated speed (meaning read it to me). My landings with full 40 degrees of flaps were a little sloppy in terms of flaring (I was a bit early on the flares), but overall went well. You can really make that airplane get down and stop if you have to, it's quite cool.
He showed me one short field take-off, but the sun in our eyes was getting so bad we decided to turn it into a standard landing, which I flew. But he covered the wind speed indicator, told me it was "dead," and a short time later he covered up the altitude indicator, too. So, I had to fly the pattern and approach based on look and feel: Look outside and get a good sight picture, reference speed over the ground and fly to the runway. I made it there just fine and floated it a bit before landing.
After the lesson, Kelly signed me off to be able to make solo flights to a group of other airports in the general vicinity (within 25 miles). So, on Monday I have some time scheduled and if the weather allows I'll be flying on my own, which will be fun. Not much to record on those flights I imagine, but I'll probably record the audio anyhow - You never know, maybe it will be interesting to listen to.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Short Cross-Country Practice to Salem

The audio for this blog entry is available as a MP3 file, linked here.

I woke up this morning to thick fog and wet weather at my house, which is actually about 45 minutes north of the Portland area, in the middle of the little hump at the northwest corner of Oregon. It was cold, wet and nasty. I couldn't see half way down my driveway. But the weather report I got via the 'net said things were improving south of Portland and that the nice weather down that way was already blowing its way to the north. With my firm faith placed in the National Weather Service and a variety of others who put together the forecasts, I headed out the door for my noontime lesson.

Sure enough, the farther south I drove the more the cloud ceiling lifted. The cloud layer became thinner and higher, and the world a little brighter. I got to Twin Oaks Airpark and the proverbial Murphy (who, they say, was an optimist) stepped back into my life once again, in the form of another flight without the Cherokee 180 we'd reserved. Optimism, yeah right heh. I really want to fly in that airplane, but it just doesn't seem to be in the cards quite yet. It's stuck up somewhere near Seattle in the fog. Apparently the people who rented it have been waiting for safe flying weather for the past couple days. By tomorrow it should be better, it looks like. But for now, they're doing the right thing and waiting to come back until they're confident it's safe to do so.

So we scheduled an available C-150, tail number N16058 (the same one I flew on my last flight). It has a fancy Garmin moving map color GPS that does all sorts of fancy things. But my main goal today was to learn to better use the VOR navigation instruments and navigate visually using ground-based landmarks.

By the way, I was able to hook up an audio recorder to the cockpit intercom before we departed today, so I recorded the entire flight. The MP3 file is located here and is also listed as an enclosure if you're subscribed to the RSS feed. I've edited it down to include some of the more interesting moments (and to cut out some of the less-flattering and dead-air, heh). Even after editing it's still 30+ minutes of audio. You'd be quite bored listening to the whole thing without the edits, although for me it's useful to hear all the questions I asked and to think about the what's and why's, and to refresh a few key points in my mind. Let me know if you like that kind of thing. If people want to hear it, I'll do more. I'll also shoot some video sometime soon - I need to work out a couple technical camera kinks first. Turns out video camera and propellers don't always play well together.

We departed Twin Oaks after a couple helicopters crossed the field on their way to the Portland-Hillsboro airport. There were a zillion geese in the departure area, so we waited an extra 30 seconds or so, then got into the air after opening our VFR flight plan with the flight service station. As we flew east, it got a little darker so we stayed well out of that area and flew at 1200 feet, well under the cloud deck, around the hills and into a much more open area weather-wise. The forecasted weather was about what we saw, and the ceiling was too low to allow us to safely fly directly over most of the ridges.

As Kelly told me, he was acting primarily as my passenger today. He was there to help but I was flying, navigating, figuring things out and doing the work. The GPS was turned off for the flight to Salem, so I had the compass and radio navigation equipment to use, as well as the chart and visual reference to the ground. He wanted me to show him I could plan the flight, find my way to an airport I'd never seen before, land there, and then come home. Safely, of course. He helped me with some radio stuff and kept me honest on a few things as I did the visual pilotage navigation and followed my plan. I discovered there's a lot to pay attention to, and that I had way too many checkpoints in my plan - If I was to keep track of them all and the time between them, I'd have almost no time for anything else. But better to have them and skip a couple here and there than to not have enough. No one wants to get lost.

I used the VOR for the first time formally in flight after making sure I was hearing the correct transmitter via the morse code it transmits. Once I had the correct station, I was able to line up on the correct radial and fly my way to Salem. I discovered the river topography was easy to follow on the chart compared to most other landmarks, since I was over the river here and there along the way. As I flew over the big curves in the river it was easy to find them on the chart and from that determine my location.

In a small airplane like the 150, there's not much room to store stuff if two people are occupying the seats. You have to stuff things between the seat cushions and other creative places. I need to remember to keep a pen handy, since it seems that every time I need to write something down I don't have one. I just picked up a kneeboard I can strap onto my leg and keep stuff easily available, and I'll get that set up better before my next flight. Once I get it figured out I will make a list of how to be all set up with the kneeboard. That should help me have what I need right when I need it.

At any rate, after listening to the terminal info recording for Salem on the radio, we dialed in the Salem tower frequency and let them know we were about 10 miles to the north and inbound to land. We were cleared for a straight-in approach, which I actually have never done, so that was cool. That means I didn't have to fly a pattern, I was already heading toward the runway so all I had to do was slide to the left a little bit and descend.

I was told to contact the tower and report when I was at about 2 miles out. That's hard to determine when you're just learning to judge distance. I actually told him I was two miles out when I was probably closer to three miles or so away, and there was another airplane closer wanting to land, so Kelly jumped in and updated the controller. I flew the direct approach behind the faster airplane and floated it in to a pretty darned nice landing (if I do say so myself).

Kelly and I had lunch at the restaurant located right there at the airport (great place to eat, by the way) and went over my flight plan for the next trip, which will be to Corvallis. We also talked about airplanes and other stuff. Then it was back out to the airplane on the ramp, we checked the plane and got back inside. Once we got started and contacted the ground controller, we started taxiing to the departure runway. Most of my flying time has been at uncontrolled airports, so it was different to have someone directing my taxi path. We did the run-up check, got into the air and made a couple left turns to head back toward Twin Oaks.

On the way back Kelly tried to get the Garmin 296 GPS to work but it was having a hard time getting itself all figured out, like it had not been used in a long time. Part way though the return trip it gathered enough info to work properly and started updating properly. We had a few minutes, so Kelly briefly showed me all the cool things it can do. In short, it's amazingly useful technology. Of course it will let you know where you are and where to fly to get somewhere else, but it does much more. It has complete airport information including runways and frequencies, will show you about how close you are to terrain as you fly over it, displays detailed airspace info, and a lot more. It's very cool.

Also on the return trip, Kelly pulled a couple brief emergency drills on me. The first one was in a rural area, and he pulled the throttle to idle. I set the glide speed and then found the wind direction, and from there a whole bunch of fields that would be good to land in.

After returning to normal flight we flew a little while longer, and then while near a small airport called Sportsman, he again pulled power on the engine to idle and got on the radio and declared to the area traffic that we were simulating an engine out landing at that airport. Looks like a real drill, I thought. So, I immediately turned to the airport and got the airplane's speed under control, dialed in some flaps since we were pretty darned high, and flew toward the runway. After dumping in some more flaps after the runway was assured, we headed toward the surface. I started to get prepped to touch down, and about 30 feet off the ground Kelly directed me to go-around. I pushed in the throttle and carb heat, then leveled out and got airspeed up while starting a climb. I had to reduce flaps to be able to climb much at all, and I got out of there just fine.

I climbed back up to our low cruising altitude at about 1400 feet and Kelly turned off the GPS again, and told me to find Twin Oaks by ground reference and land. I flew over a valley and around a ridge I am familiar with and then spotted the airport in the distance. The trees have lost all their leaves and everything looks different, but as I got closer I became more and more confident I was looking at the airport and not a nursery or some other location.

I flew the left traffic pattern for Runway 02 and landed the airplane as smoothly as I have ever landed it, maybe even more so. I barely felt it touch down. Wow, my landings are so much better now, it's really amazing.

And that was it. My next flight is tomorrow, and we're flying a longer dual cross-country flight to Corvallis that I planned before. I'll just get a fresh weather briefing in the morning and update my flight plan.

After that, Kelly tells me I'll be flying some solo flights to airports around the area that I'm familiar with (such as Aurora, Mulino, McMinnville, Hillsboro, and several others nearby), and that now is the time for me to pick where I want to fly to for my solo cross country and start planning that. I'm thinking maybe someplace on the coast, that would be fun. Or somewhere in Washington maybe. Kelly says he figures I will probably be done with this before the Christmas break. Wow, really? That would be a great Christmas present to myself, heh.

I'll post some of the audio from today's flight once I have it edited.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Weather: Mother Nature rules our world

Well, today's planned flight to Salem was scrubbed due to the weather conditions, plus the fact that my instructor got a bad head cold. He flew yesterday with another student, and it sounds like it wasn't very pleasant since his cold formed during the day. He sounded pretty bad on the phone today. So, between that and the thick fog stretching for a few hundred miles down the valley we were to follow, no flight today. I'll have to experience the Cherokee 180 some other time. Weather and illness - two reasons that frequently contribute to accidents when people make bad decisions in those areas.

I did, however, get to experience my first two pilot weather briefings on the phone with the flight service station. You call them and let them know who you are, what you're flying and where you're going (and when), and they provide you with a truckload of weather forecasts, winds, alerts, airport notices, and lots of other stuff. It was pretty cool and the people on the other end of the phone were very helpful (and patient).

Needless to say, it was obvious even from last night's briefing that this morning's flight was questionable at best, and this morning's briefing reconfirmed that. It's great that this service is available ad so easy to access. Lockheed-Martin runs the system that handles the calls and feeds the info. Very cool.

So, no flying until probably Tuesday, and even then only if the weather allows. Meanwhile, I study for the knowledge test!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cross country, new airports and wow what a wind!

One of the "benefits" of living in the Portland, Oregon area is the wide variety and unpredictability of the weather around here. In addition, there are a variety of airports of varying classes and sizes, from small grass strips to Portland International and at least a few examples of everything in-between. Plus we have terrain and land features that quite literally make their own weather: The Pacific Ocean to the west as well as the Columbia river to the north and the Columbia River Gorge to the east (with its notorious winds). Mt. Hood is to the east and then there's the Willamette Valley to the south with its winter mist and haze as well as spectacularly beautiful summer days. Fog, rain, mist, rain, haze, winds, rain, more winds, some sun, snow above 1,000 feet in the winter, the occasional ice storm, and lots of clouds... Name your weather, it probably exists somewhere around Portland on any given day.

On Wednesday morning I met my instructor Kelly at the air park for some ground learning and my next dual flight lesson. The conditions were IFR (instrument flight rules) when I arrived, but it appeared the sun was just starting to burn though, so it looked like we'd be able to fly.

I had, per instructions after my solo flight on Sunday, planned a three-leg flight from Twin Oaks east to Valley View airport, and from there north to Troutdale Airport (which is just east of PDX). From there we would cross over the Portland International Airport at mid-field (with permission) and return to Twin Oaks via a flight over downtown Portland.

For the ground lesson portion of things, we discussed the different classifications of airspace and the operating requirements of each type. After a while the mass of information about the different classes of airspace gets to be a little like oatmeal on the brain. There's just a lot of stuff to remember, and it seems to me that experiencing each will be the best way to cement it in my mind. We also discussed tower-controlled airports again and the differences in communication at those airports. Twin Oaks is an uncontrolled airport, as are the majority of the airports across the country.

The weather improved substantially during the ground lesson, and I pre-flighted the airplane. We got underway and taxied to the run-up area, then got into the air. I'd put together the route plan for the day's flight, so I was able to start my climb and line up on the bearing I needed to fly to get to the Valley View Airport in Estacada.

While en-route, we had time to do some extra stuff, such as checking out how to use the fancy color moving-map Garmin 296 aviation GPS in the airplane. It's a pretty amazing device, with great resolution and lots of cool capabilities to make it much easier and safer when flying distances or to places you don't know well. Then I asked Kelly about the airplane's ability to self-correct for disturbed elevator movement when trimmed for level flight. Essentially, if you have the control trim set up for your speed and attitude to keep you flying straight and level and you then push or pull on the yoke to go up or down with the nose, the plane will "porpoise" or oscillate, nose up (climbing) to nose down (faster and descending) and then back nose-up, over and over, until it returns to straight and level flight. Pretty cool stuff.

I learned a lot today, including the fact that sometimes you just can't see an airport until you're practically on top of it. Valley view is a skinny airstrip tucked between the trees. The runway is really long, but it's also very narrow. It's almost impossible to see from a distance, so it was good that the GPS helped me fly right to it. There was no traffic there, but that was more than made up for by the fast, gusting and direction-changing winds. Coming out of the Columbia River Gorge, the winds shifted in the surface a lot, and gusted substantially 1,000 feet above the ground. In fact, I looked at the windsock and decided to land to the north based on the direction of the sock, but once I got down and started my approach, it became apparent very quickly that I was heading for the wrong runway. Sure enough, I looked at the windsock again and it was pointing the exact opposite direction thank it had been a couple minutes earlier.

So, I switched gears and entered a downwind for the opposite runway. I had to fly with my nose turned about 45 or 50 degrees to the right, into the crosswind, in order to track over the ground in a straight line. The base leg was really fast, since it was with the wind, and then I turned to the final approach and adjusted my crab angle to make sure I would stay on the centerline. I got it down low, had to fight shifting and gusting crosswinds, and put it on the runway after a little swinging around. Not a bad landing - I'm getting better at this.

We taxied back and took off, fighting a headwind and some crazy gusts on the way uphill. After another circuit and landing, we took off and got out of there and headed north to Troutdale.

If I thought the winds were heavy at Valley View, I was about to be shown what real winds are like at Troutdale. This airport is right alongside the Columbia RIver, and at the opening to the Columbia RIver Gorge. Winds scream up and down the Gorge all the time, making for some of the best windsurfing in the world and some of the most interesting wind flying of my short career in the air. The runway we were using had us pointing straight up the gorge and into the wind, which was running about 20 knots and gusting to 29 knots. The result was a turbulent approach and a very slow ground speed.

I caught myself today proclaiming that landing in the winds was fun. Yeah, I said it: FUN. Something must be wrong with me, right? Just a few weeks ago the winds were scaring the bejeezus out of me, and today I'm actually enjoying the challenge of maneuvering even bigger winds and gusts. When departing the runway at Troutdale, the wind speed indicator showed we were moving though the wind at 50 knots almost immediately after rolling, and the headwind allowed me to take off after traveling down only about 300 feet of runway. Of course my ground speed was very slow, and in fact I was able to climb to traffic pattern altitude and barely made it past the end of the runway. Another 15 or 20 knots of wind aloft and I could have been hovering!

After playing in the wind at Troutdale, the tower controller there set us up for a departure along the north shore of the Columbia River toward PDX airport, and handed us off the the PDX tower so we could transition right over the big airport at an altitude where we'd be out of the way. It was really cool to fly over PDX and see what it looks like to a pilot. Seeing it out the side of an airliner isn't a very good view at all, but from the seat in the little airplane it was pretty huge and awesome looking.

Once out of the PDX area, we flew over the city and crossed the Willamette River approaching the West Hills alongside downtown Portland. Out my window I saw all the Portland downtown bridges in a row, quite a cool site. I flew us over the West Hills ridge, between two sets of TV and radio towers, and then over Beaverton and toward Twin Oaks.

I entered the downwind leg for Twin Oaks, where it almost calm winds. After a quick run of the pattern, I made what I must say was a pretty nice, soft and silent landing on the runway. A great end to the day. We parked, debriefed, and planned my homework, which consists of reading in the FAR/AIM about classes of airspace, as well as planning two cross-country flights: one to Salem, which we will fly on Saturday during my next lesson, and one to Corvallis, which is for practice and we'll review over lunch in Salem this weekend.

After that, we'll be planning a longer trip and I'll be flying solo in the general Twin Oaks vicinity, practicing my skills and doing some landings at neighboring airports. I also need to pick up my studying for the written FAA ground school exam, which I committed to taking before mid-December. I have my work cut out for me!

Saturday's lesson will be in a Piper Cherokee 180, which I'm looking forward to. It's another of the Stark's rental planes and this will be my first flight in a non-Cessna aircraft. Betty Stark suggested I ask Kelly to take me up in it for a lesson, and he agreed. It has a lot more power and flies like a bigger plane, so it should be fun to experience.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Some days you feel like a failure - Dealing with frustration

I had a conversation with someone I know who described the absolute frustration he felt when his student pilot learning process got a little too overwhelming recently. He wanted to quit. I completely understand. I was there myself a couple times recently, questioning myself and wondering if I could ever "get it."

For me it was all about landings, especially in strong crosswinds. My instructor pushed me a little, and although at the time it felt like it nearly broke my metaphorical back (and like I'd been hit by a truck by the time I left the airport), those were the best lessons in terms of progress and growth. Kelly would tell me I'd really made progress that day, and I just felt like I'd never pull everything together. But looking back I can see how much I learned while flying in difficult crosswinds and in other challenging conditions that pushed me just outside my comfort zone. There's an instructor in the plane for a reason, after all.

I thought I'd post these thoughts since one person already reached out in frustration, and since there are probably others out there who will at some point question whether they want to keep flying. You can do it, and on the days when you feel like it's a lost cause, just go to the next lessons and keep at it. I know in my limited time learning so far, those toughest lessons are the ones that I look back to now as great experiences. You will, too.

If all else fails, reach out to someone you know who's a pilot, or anyone you know who's had to fight through tough times in life. There are lots of good and important reasons to stick to it - You just need to find yours.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

First Solo! (and some other stuff)

I'll get to today's rather fun and exciting lesson shortly, it's a milestone day. But first a quick description of yesterday's lesson for posterity's sake.

The goal of Saturday's lesson was to fly to someplace not too far away, but where I had never flown before. I chose Scappoose, since the weather report was good and it was a new destination. I drive through that town almost every day and I flew there with my friend Dave once, but have never had to navigate there myself and have never landed and airplane there.

We took off from our home airport, Twin Oaks Airpark, and headed north. I eventually managed to get a word in edgewise with the busy Hillsboro control tower and received permission to cross their airspace. Then I flew over the Cornelius Pass ridge and turned left to find Scappoose. Of course it was right where it belonged, and I quickly located the airport on the far side of the town. We did several landings and a bunch of emergency and equipment failure drills, such as engine-outs, flap motor failures, and aborted landings. I made a couple little mistakes, and one big one: starting a touch and go with 30 degrees of flaps still down and failing to retract them while trying to climb out (which is a no-no). I could still climb the airplane, barely, but very slowly and not over tall obstacles like, say, trees. Bad idea, not safe. Kelly taught me the lesson by killing the engine while I was about 20 feet over the runway (with lots of pavement left), which required me to reflare the airplane, get it on the surface, start it back up and exit the runway. Honestly it wasn't until I got onto the taxiway, stopped and looked over at the wings (at Kelly's direction) that I realized my mistake. A good lesson, and well taught. Nothing like having your instructor cut the engine on you over the runway to make you really think. I don't think I'll miss that one again.

After a bunch more landings and drills, Kelly told me he'd have jumped out and let me fly solo if I had the insurance. I told him if he did that today I'd be ordering him back in the airplane, hah. My mistakes, especially the flaps one, had me a little worried, I guess. What else might I forget? He said I was ready, and learning from mistakes is what it's all about.

More insurance... How much insurance does one person need, really? Kelly had asked me to get the airplane renter's insurance set up last week but I spaced it out while traveling. So, before we went flying to Scappoose I went online and made the purchase. There's a wait of one day before it becomes valid. I guess they don't want to start insurance on the same day (makes sense, someone could crash and buy insurance the same day to try to cover it), so the effective date for the policy was one minute after midnight on Sunday.

We departed from Scappoose, and I had to dog-leg to the left on departure to fly around a suddenly-appeared flock of geese that thought they owned the airspace. We headed back to Twin Oaks and climbed to 3,000 feet, where we flew a simulated an engine failure directly over the airport at high altitude. Kelly showed me the first one, then I flew it again. Essentially you locate the runway and fly a spiral over the runway to lose altitude but stay close to the runway until you're ready to enter a downwind and land with no power. Another good lesson. I felt good about the session by the time we were done. Except for the forgotten flaps on the one landing, I'd flown pretty well.

Anyhow, on to today's lesson...

Today our original plans were to fly from Twin Oaks to Aurora State Airport to do some landings. Kelly had told me he wanted me to solo at a large airport, and Aurora's runways are huge (5,004 long x 100 ft wide) compared to Twin Oaks (2465 long x 48 ft wide). Soloing at Twin Oaks for the first time is just a real challenge due to its size. He's had lots of students and only one of them did their first solo at Twin Oaks.

We got in the air and I travelled on the compass heading I'd derived over to Aurora, but once past the ridge between the airports discovered that the low-lying haze over there was simply a little too thick to be safe. You could see down through it, but if you were to fly down into it and try to look horizontally through it, the visibility would be insufficient and dangerous. So, as often happens when flying, we had to change our plans. Kelly pointed out that this was good practice for the FAA check-ride, since I'll certainly get diverted from my planned route. He killed the GPS display and said I was to divert back to Twin Oaks on my own and enter the traffic pattern to land there. We could still do some landing practice, he said. So, feeling a little disappointed but completely understanding and agreeing, I turned back and found the course to Twin Oaks.

I located the airport visually on my flight line and flew the traffic pattern to land. We flew the pattern five times and did one flaps-dead drill as well as one go-around. On the last landing he pulled off his headset, unplugged it and told me I was on my own for this one, no prompts and he would not be able to hear me. Of course, he was sitting right there but you get the idea. I landed it just fine. After completing five landings Kelly called it good and told me to taxi to the lawn next to the ramp and park the airplane.

As I was pulling it up to the parking spot, Kelly told me he was going to jump out, and I was going to fly the airplane alone as soon as he endorsed my logbook. I was caught completely off-guard, since we were at Twin Oaks. I think I said something like "I am?" and he told me I was definitely ready, and that I would do great. I felt surprisingly calm and he told me to rely on my checklists and to take my time and have fun.

He signed my logbook and endorsed it, allowing me to fly solo in the Cessna 150, and said "Okay man, you're ready!" He shut the door and there I was alone in the airplane. Rather the letting panic set in, I picked up the checklist, took one quick deep breath, and found myself totally focused and clear-headed, working through the checklist and starting up the airplane, making the radio calls and taxiing to Runway 20. I did the engine run-up and checked the sky for airplanes, then made the call on the radio: "Twin Oaks traffic, Cessna six-six-five-eight-niner, departing runway two-zero, Twin Oaks." I pushed in the throttle, checked the instruments, rolled down the runway and lifted into the air.

I made the left turn upon departure that's required at this airport so the neighbors don't get blasted with airplane noise, and noticed that the little Cessna 150 climbs much, much faster with one less person in it. Now I see why people call it underpowered! I leveled out and trimmed the airplane and continued to climb. It was about this time that I has my "holy sh*t" moment, suddenly realizing what I was doing all by myself. Every now and then I look out the airplane window during a lesson and have a little moment of clarity in which I get a little flabbergasted about the fact that I'm leveraging a number of the laws of physics in a metal can burning gasoline to spin a propeller really fast, just so I can overcome the conflicting laws of what mother nature intended. That and I realize the fact that there's a thousand-plus feet of thin air between me and the ground. "There but by the grace of God go I." That's pretty much what I think. Then I usually say something out loud like, "Woah man, this is fun!"

Anyhow, as I was saying... Lots of extra climbing power available without anyone in the right seat. I was able to climb almost all the way to traffic the pattern altitude of 1200 feet before turning to the upwind leg. I made my radio calls as I transitioned around the pattern, and eventually set up to land. Carburetor heat on, throttle to 1500 RPM, 10 degrees of flaps, check speed, trim for the proper speed. I flew downhill a bit, looking back at the runway on my left. When it was time I made my left base leg turn, added some more flaps, and then turned to line up with the runway on final approach. I was a little high, so I added a little more flaps and checked my speed to make sure I was not getting too slow. Then I floated toward the end of the runway, cut the power to idle, crossed the end of the runway and landed just past the numbers after floating a little. That sound of tires hitting pavement... A successful landing!! The insurance company should be so proud, heh.

I exited the runway to the taxiway, "cleaned up" the airplane (retracted flaps and turned carb heat off - the term has nothing to do with bodily functions, heh) and headed back to the departure end of the runway. On my next take-off, I had to sit at the end of the runway for a few minutes and wait for a couple huge flocks of geese to leave the departure area. Geese are very bad for airplanes, and airplanes are also bad for geese, so it's a good idea to wait. On departure, a rogue flock of geese appeared from who-knows-where and I turned left a little early to steer clear of them. Other than that minor issue, all went well. The plane flew great and my landings were good (especially the second one). After my third landing, as directed, I parked the airplane on the ramp, shut it off, and got out.

My whole body started to shake a little as I put my feet on the ground and the rest of the world caught up to me. Kelly walked over, congratulated me and took my picture next to the airplane. I took care of the aircraft paperwork, and then we sat down to fill out my log book. I got to make my own log book entry for the first time: .4 hours of solo time. Nice!

I have to say again, Kelly is a great teacher. He knows how to take advantage of those "teachable" moments to make truly valid, important and memorable points, and he reads me well. He knows when to push me and when to hold back. I'm lucky to have him as my instructor.

A student pilot's first solo only happens once. After that, it's still solo flying, but first only happens one time. I did mine today around and onto a 48-foot-wide runway at an nice little airport owned and run by the some of the nicest people in the world. Not a bad deal. It was a pretty freakin' awesome day.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Breaking on through

After more than a week off from flying (I was overseas for a work conference), I got back home and caught up on sleep over 48 hours, then headed to the airport for a Monday flight lesson. I showed up early and did a little dry flying in the hangar, just to get my mind back in gear.

Sidebar: While I was out of town, my student pilot and aviation medical certificate arrived in the mail. It was in a review state for a month or so, while the FAA requested medical documentation and it sat on a desk. The people on the phone at the FAA office were very helpful, and I'm relieved it's here since you have to have it in place before you can solo (and obviously before you can be certificated as a pilot).

The airplane I'd scheduled for today turned out to have a flat front gear strut (it happens, maybe a hard landing or it just went low), so we parked it on the ramp and got a different airplane so the crew could do the gear maintenance (and so I could land safely). Once in the new airplane (I've flown all the Cessna 150s at the school, so I am familiar with them all), we got the checklists out of the way and taxied to the active runway, two-zero.

It had been a little while since I'd actually flown, and prior to that I was flying two to four times a week. So after getting off the ground I started to get the feel of the airplane and headed out to the east.

I'd done reference maneuvers before on a couple different flights, but never on a windy day. Reference maneuvers include making turns around a point on the ground (you maintain the same distance all the way around and steer to account for the winds that will blow you away) and S-turns (where you choose a straight line such as a road and make turns to fly half-circles on each side of the road - right turn, left turn, wind ahead, wind at your back, etc). After failing to compensate properly on the turns around a point (and getting too close to the target as a result), I finally figured it out and made a couple decent turns. That made the S-turns a lot easier, and I had a lot of fun making some steeper turns on the downwind side of the turns and did a good job getting straight and wings-level each time I crossed the road I was using as my reference.

Next we crossed to the west and headed to the practice area that's defined over Forest Grove. That area had a nice big hole in the clouds with blue sky overhead, and I started my climb to 3500 feet. About half way there, Kelly pulled the engine to idle and simulated an engine out failure. I got the airplane to proper glide speed and checked the fuel and controls, checked the wind (which was coming from my left - or from the south), and pointed into the wind and said I was going to land in that direction. Kelly said good and we reconfigured the airplane to climb the rest of the way to the west practice area.

Next came some power-off and power-on stalls. A stall is simply when the plane's speed through the air is slow enough that the wings stop generating lift, so they "stall" out and the plane starts to fall out of the air. Of course, when it starts to fall the opportunity is there to sly again (as long as you're not too close to the ground). I found I had a tendency to try to pull back on the yoke a little too hard and to rush the stalls as a result, rather than taking it easier and letting the speed bleed off slowly and evenly. You can stall the airplane quickly and steeply, especially with full power applied, but when you do it that way the tail is pointed toward the ground, so when it starts to fall you don't get any elevator control for a few seconds when you start to recover. Once I started to do a better job of taking my time on the controls, the stalls smoothed out and were noticeably easier to control. I think toward the end of the stalling practice I said I wanted to do one more, then one more, then one more. It was good to fine tune the stalls and get them down.

After stall practice, we headed back toward Twin Oaks to practice some landings on the small runway there. Before my travel break I'd had a good experience at McMinnville airport making a bunch of landings, but that airport is pretty huge compared to Twin Oaks (5420 ft. long and 150 ft. wide), so there's a lot of room to "screw up" in any direction in a small plane and still have usable pavement under you. There's plenty enough pavement at Twin Oaks, but the runway is a much smaller target, at 2465 ft. long and only 48 ft. wide. So, the challenges continue to present new opportunities to improve.

We'd gotten an early start (since I was early arriving and so was Kelly) and had lots of time scheduled, plus I was feeling good still, so we got quite a few landings in. My first one was - predictably - a mess. I was too fast, too high (out of trim) and had to try to slip into a crosswind landing the opposite direction from what I'm used to. But I got it on the runway. Betty, the owner of the air park and the airplanes I fly, told me later she saw that landing. I think she cringed as she watched. Luckily the rest of my landings were much better.

My take-offs are really coming together. I can keep it straight and fly it off the runway without unacceptable drift in the winds, I seem to have a feel for setting a crab angle, and I've found if I speak out loud and talk my way through the steps of departure and landing, I'm focused and tend to be on task. So, that's what I do.

The winds on the ground were not too bad, maybe five knots or so initially and they died off quite a bit later, and also shifted from a crosswind to a headwind. As a result, my first landing was on Runway 2, and the rest were on Runway 20 (the opposite direction) as the winds changed. After that first landing I already described, I started to do quite a bit better and with each one I was able to apply the little things I learned on each landing to the next one. I had a high approach and one low approach but was able to correct for them and get to the runway safely.

At some point during the landings we did, the whole process shifted from stressful to fun for me. I think I even said it out loud: "Wow, this is really fun!" Heh. Kelly laughed and said he was just glad to be back in the air, since the rainy weather was pretty terrible the previous week.

We landed at one point, and were coming close to the end of the already-long session. Kelly asked me how I was doing and if I wanted to do one more pattern circuit, and since I had plenty left in me and was making progress, I decided to do another one.

By the time I completed the landing of the day and almost 1.9 hours of flying, I was feeling pretty good about my progress. Kelly said he really thought I'd had some breakthroughs in this lesson. I have another lesson scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, so we'll have to see if the weather will cooperate again. I'm looking forward to it. Kelly tells me he thinks I'm about ready to do my first solo (which consists of flying a few take-off and landing patterns on your own). I told him that with the past couple lessons I've starting to feel substantially more confident about my still-growing abilities. So, now that I have my medical certificate in hand and pretty much everything else required for the first solo, it sounds like it might be coming up sometime soon. Hard not to be nervous - and a little excited - about that.