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.