Friday, January 23, 2009

It's All Coming Together: Maneuver practice and passed the knowledge test

The past few days have been positive for me in "flying land." I took advantage of some great weather and approximately 8-knot winds aloft on Tuesday to fly for about an hour and practice all the maneuvers (except those requiring me to be under-the-hood, of course) required for my private pilot check ride. After flying in 25+ knot winds and attempting to do something close to accurate maneuvers the other day, flying them in 7 or so knots was relatively simple. I felt good about everything I flew: stalls and recoveries, slow flight, steep turns, slips, rectangular patterns, turns about a point and s-turns. I also practiced some engine-out checklist drills and did a go-around procedure from the final approach. All went fairly well.

On Thursday afternoon, after some work meetings, I drove over to the Troutdale airport, dropped $90 on the table, and took the computer-based FAA knowledge test, which I passed with a reasonably wide margin. I'm sure glad to get that out of the way, as I've been procrastinating on it for about a month. It's been hard to find the time needed to study for the exam, but I forced myself lately to make the time and knocked it out.

So, now I need to do at least 30 more minutes of night flight with my instructor, which I think we are going to do by flying from Twin Oaks to PDX and back (PDX is a Class-C airport, so that will be a good experience). After that I believe I will technically have more than the minimum number of hours of flight time in each of the required flight categories (like night, dual, solo, cross-country, etc). I think I'll need to do some more check-ride prep flying before being ready to fly with the FAA examiner, though. I want to be truly ready.

I'm getting close, it seems. I know I am feeling better with each flight about my progress and abilities. If all goes well, pretty soon I'll be able to fly with passengers. Wow, how's that for scary eh? :)

Some people have been asking me lately how much this training costs. It depends on the person, as everyone's development is a little different. For my own training, to date, I've listed the numbers below. Your expenditures could be more, or slightly less. I've flown solo quite a bit to practice, so my aircraft rental costs are higher than if I'd just flown the minimum hours - And I'm glad I've spent that valuable extra learning time. These figures are provided in the interest of educating anyone who might be interested in learning to fly (and if you're in Portland, you should call Twin Oaks and Kelly Wiprud to inquire about training, tell 'em I sent ya). There's a real financial commitment, to be sure, but it's not horrific by any stretch of the means. Find a good location and a good instructor, plus be sure to fly frequently, and you'll keep the costs down.

Greg's costs to-date:

  • Instructor time (flying): 34.9 hours @$35/hr = $1221.50
  • Additional Instructor time (ground): $400.00
  • Aircraft rental time: 53.4 hours @$75/hr = $4005.00
  • Books, plotter, E6B calculator and charts: $200.00
  • FAA knowledge exam: $90.00

Total expenditure so far is approximately $5915.00, give or take. Considering I'm close to finishing (I hope, heh), I'd say I'm on par to hit the lower end of the scale as far as how much money and time it typically takes to get a private pilot certification. I have a few more hours of airplane and instructor time still to add on before I finish, plus the costs associated with the check ride and a few other various things.

I also had to purchase renter's insurance during my training in case I ruined an airplane while flying solo, plus I bought a few other things that were not mandatory, like a noise-canceling airplane headset and a few additional study materials online. But those items are all above and beyond the basic stuff that's required.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Solo prep flight and nighttime cross-country to Astoria

Today I flew solo for just over an hour and reviewed the skills Kelly and I worked on the previous day in preparation for finishing my training. All of these are skills I will need to be able to show I can do properly on my FAA check ride, which Kely says he wants to get scheduled soon. Seems like I just started, but I already have more than 45 hours of flight time in my logbook.

The winds were pretty strong aloft in two definite layers, which meant a strong turbulence layer at about 2000-2500 feet of bumpy, kind of crazy air in places. That plus the 30-knot east wind at 4,000 feet limited my ability to do some of the maneuvers I wanted to practice. I decided that trying to do power-off stalls was just not a good idea, even into the wind, so I focused my energy on a few landings and emergency procedures as well as steep turns and a couple power-on stalls. The gusty winds made all of the above challenging, but it was good experience.

I returned to the airport and met my instructor, as we were going to get set for a night cross-country flight to Astoria, on the coast. I'd flown there a couple days before on my solo daytime cross-country flight.

Flying at night is fun. I find it easy to focus, as there are really no distractions to speak of. You have to stay aware of what's happening inside and outside the aircraft, and what you can't see is probably the most potentially dangerous part of night flying. Altitude is your friend.

The winds aloft were still challenging and a couple places near Hillsboro had some quite turbulent layers, which we climbed through as we headed toward the coastal range, which we'd need to cross on out way to Astoria. I had planned the flight to be one that took us direct from the Newberg VOR (UBG), which is located a few miles south of Twin Oaks, to the Astoria VOR (AST), which is located at the Astoria airport. We took off and intercepted the VOR radial I had planned to fly along and headed northwest with the wind at our backs.

Almost immediately I could see a flashing red light on a tower that I had noted in my flight plan was along our route. It made it easy to fly toward the correct general heading. I could also see Astoria's lights off in the distance, which meant the visibility was pretty much unlimited. You could see Portland and well up in to Washington clearly, as well as south toward Salem and southwest toward Tillamook.

We climbed to our planned altitude of 5500 feet, which carried us well over the highest terrain in the area, and then started to descend into Astoria. The winds there picked up as we descended, and I entered a crab-angled path to the north, then crossed the airport mid-field before turning to the right to come back and enter the downwind leg for Runway 8. I raced downwind with the tailwind, then turned to base, and quickly to final. I landed the airplane on the runway with a bit of a bounce and a float, because I misjudged the flare in the dark. I retracted the flaps and applied power and took off, then told Kelly I wanted to do another one because, frankly, that landing pretty much sucked. We flew around the pattern and I did a somewhat better landing before taking back off and departing back toward Hillsboro.

The flight back was uneventful and I tracked the VORs while also using the my GPS. We eventually got back and found Twin Oaks, which is nearly impossible to see at night until you're a couple miles away. As I descended we crossed into the super bumpy turbulence again, and I made an bumpy turn to the downwind leg and kept fighting the bumps as I prepped the plane to land. Once I turned to base and descended a little more the wind calmed down quite a bit and I flew the plane to the runway, where I did the smoothest landing of the evening.

It was a fun flight. I had the video camera set up, but was so busy with winds and talking to Kelly that we forgot to turn it on. Oh well, maybe next time.

Some solo pattern practice and check-ride prep

After my solo cross-country flight on Wednesday, I arrived at Twin Oaks Airpark Thursday afternoon to get in an hour or two of solo practice in the pattern and at a tower-controlled airport. I wanted to spend some time getting takeoff and landing routines a little more refined, and it had been a while since I'd flown the pattern at tower-controlled Portland-Hillsboro airport. The weather was amazing, so I wanted to take advantage of it.

I got back in the same airplane I'd used for my cross country flight the previous day. It had been checked out to confirm the little issue I had the evening before was in fact carb ice and that there we no other issues. I put the video camera in the luggage area and pointed it forward just like I had on the cross country, then turned it on and forgot about it. I wanted to be able to go back and look at my landings and takeoffs and review the little detail aspects of what I was doing. I find it's a tool that gives me better perspective on what I can do better. It also makes interesting video for posting here. I'll likely add it to this post after I get it processed on the computer. I also plan to add a little video from my cross-country flight the other day. I just don't have time right now to get that done.

Once I set up the camera and turn it on, I just let it run. It's completely out of my way and stationed solidly behind the seats. It either quits on its own (by running out of battery or hard drive space) or I turn it off when I finish flying. I don't worry or think about it when I'm in the air, except to talk through everything on the intercom, which record my voice in the camera's audio track. Come to think of it, I talk to myself on the intercom whether the camera is there or not. It helps me stay focused and organized.

I was happy with my take-offs and landings that day. I was pretty much on the money and things were smooth and properly executed. It was fun to fly to Hillsboro and fly the pattern with other airplanes and talk to the tower. That controller stays plenty busy, I can tell you. Someone told me it's the busiest airport in Oregon, even more so than Portland International in terms of the number of airplanes operating daily. That's crazy. They have a big flight school there, which makes up a lot of the traffic.

On Friday I joined my instructor Kelly again and we did what he termed a "check-ride prep" flight. We flew from Twin Oaks out to the east to a safe practice area and I did all sorts of maneuvers and configurations: Slow flight, power-on and power-off stalls and recoveries, steep turns, flying under the hood and doing turns and level flight, and a couple simulated engine failure drills, one of which I flew until I was 500 feet over an abandoned airport before applying power to go-around. We then returned to Twin Oaks and crossed over the airport at 3,000 feet, where he again "killed" the engine (meaning he put it at idle) and I had to perform a spiraling descent over the end of Runway 2 to an altitude and position that would allow me to enter a downwind leg for landing, and then I landed the plane with no power, right on the money.

Next we did a short field takeoff and landing, followed by a soft-field takeoff and landing before calling it quits for the day. Overall I felt good about my progress and performance, and can see I'm getting closer to being ready to fly with an examiner. There are a number of things I want to practice more to be more proficient, but all in all it's going well.

On Saturday I plan to do about 90 minutes of solo flying time to practice the same things Kelly and I did on our "checkride prep" flight, and then after a brief break he and I are scheduled Saturday evening to complete the night cross-country flight that we need to get out of the way. Unfortunately we won't be able to fly to Boeing Field in Seattle as we have wanted to do, since the weather up there is still not cooperating and shows no real signs of improving. We're planning to fly to Astoria and back, which more than satisfies the training requirements. I'm hoping to get to fly with Kelly to Boeing Field so I can get the Class B airspace experience before I finish training, maybe as part of prep for my checkride since that would provide plenty of time and opportunity to review and test my skills, as well.

My Long Solo Cross-Country - The Oregon Coast

The weather turned from completely terrible to amazing here in northwest Oregon this past week, and I took advantage of it in a big way, getting in a bunch of flying while I can.

As I mentioned in the last post, I went with my instructor on Tuesday and was introduced to flying under the hood for instrument conditions simulation. It was the first time day people had been able to fly in weeks, and the weather just kept improving from there.

I also mentioned at the end of my last post that I'm glad for the training I've received, which has been excellent. A good part of training is focused on dealing with the unusual and unexpected. I put it to good use, as you'll read further on.

I'd been doing a bunch of flight planning in preparation for my long solo cross country flight that I needed to get done as I (hopefully) near the end of my private pilot training. I'd planed three different trips, all of them longer than necessary by a safe margin (and a couple of them probably just too long to be realistic for one day worth of flying in a slower plane like the C-150). On Wednesday, I filed a VFR flight plan with the FAA for a three-leg flight from Twin Oaks Airpark in Hillsboro to Newport, a town on the Oregon Coast to the southwest. From there my plan would take me to Astoria, a port town at the northwest corner of the state where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. I would then fly to Woodland State airport in Washington and from there almost due-south back to Twin Oaks.

I arrived at the airport mid-day Wednesday and saw the fog had cleared and the overcast cloud layer was quickly burning off and breaking up - A good sign. I'd planned my flight to leave at noon, but in reality I would not be able to get off the ground until closer to 1:30 p.m. Fortunately (planning-wise), I found out the Woodland State airport runway was closed according to an FAA notice, because it apparently had been under water and was not serviceable yet. It turned out that with my late departure I'd need to find a way to shave some time off the flight in order to make it back before civil twilight anyhow, so Woodland wasn't really an option anyhow.

I departed the airport at Twin Oaks (7S3) and flew to the Newberg VOR (UBG). When I climbed to about 2,000 feet and looked over the ridge to see what the conditions were to the south, beyond the ridge the VOR sits on top of, I was greeted by an overcast cloud deck that surprisingly covered the entire Willamette Valley floor almost as far as the eye could see. I would not be able to fly over that legally or safely as a student pilot, but I had discussed this potential circumstance with my instructor before I left. I observed that a few miles to my west the conditions were clear, and I let the Seattle Center (who had me on their radar and was aware of my flight plan) that I was going to fly a few miles west and then turn southwest over the VFR area to reach Newport. And that's what I did.

My path took me over the coastal range just for a few more miles than would have been the case if I'd done a straight shot from Newberg's VOR to the one at Newport. I climbed to 7500 feet , which was higher than I had originally planned in order to make sure I had plenty of gliding range should an emergency situation occur, and I steered to ensure I had prospective landing spots in view (which is what one should be doing at all times anyhow). I made my way down to Newport just west of my originally planned track and took a look at the city, it's lighthouse and it's distinct bridge from the air for the first time. The airport was east to find, just south of the bridge, and I checked the weather and winds on the automated radio channel and then prepared to land.

The Newport Municipal Airport (ONP) is a nice facility, with two big huge runways (compared to what I'm used to). I set up to enter on a 45-degree entry into the downwind leg for Runway 34. There was a stiff crosswind, partially a headwind, with a crosswind component of probably 7 knots with some light gusting. As I flew the final leg toward the runway the gusts became apparent and I had to really work to crab the airplane into the strong quartering headwind. I stayed on the centerline and straightened out just before touching down, and put it down one wheel at a time (in the correct order even). I had to make sure I was "steering" into the cross wind with the ailerons, just to make sure the winds wouldn't try to lift the right wing.

I fueled up the airplane and shot a goofy little video of myself at the airport in the afternoon sun (you can click on the video to see it larger and in HD-ish quality on YouTube). The temperature was spring-like, which is nice for January. As soon as I was fueled up I got back in the plane and prepared to depart on the next leg of the flight, which would take me to Astoria, about an hour or so north of Newport. My path of flight would take me straight up the shoreline of the northern Oregon Coast.

It was so nice out I flew with the window open for a couple minutes twice on the way up. I saw lot of smaller, interesting airports while enroute and had the chance to see this beautiful piece of our country from a whole new vantage point. I'll be going back there again in the future for some scenic flying, for sure.

When I finally reached Astoria and stated to descend, I was a little worried about the fact that one of the fuel gauges was now reading almost empty while the other one was showing almost full. Now, I know these gauges are notoriously inaccurate, which is one of several reasons why you don't rely on them. Instead we check the fuel level in the tanks manually with a measuring stick and determine how much fuel will be burned on the flight leg by leg. My concern was of the self-questioning type: Had I been a lunkhead and left the right tank cap off when I refueled? I thought back and was certain I had not since I double checked, but at the same time I wanted to visually confirm it was on there. So it was good I was arriving at an airport.

I took a look down below me at the Astoria Regional Airport (AST), which I understand was a military airfield in another life. I crossed midfield 1,000 feet above traffic pattern elevation and determined that the winds were favoring Runway 8. I continued to the north after crossing midfield and did a right turn until I was headed back to the airport and then entered a downwind leg for Runway 8. I made the approach and then an uneventful landing on Runway 8. I eventually found a taxiway, and after trying to figure out where I was I made my way to the ramp to park and look at the top of the wing to see if two gas caps were on there.

Once parked, I was relieved to find both caps properly in place and secured. So it turns out I'm just paranoid, not an idiot. I can live with that. I got out the fuel level stick and confirmed there was still 8+ gallons in each tank. Then I saddled back up and got ready to go. I departed from Runway 8 and climbed out, turning toward Hillsboro, since it was time to get back, and Woodland State was still underwater.

The sun was going down while I flew the last leg, so I got to see a coastal sunset as I made my way home. I was still surprised at how warm the air was as I flew at about 5,500 feet toward Hillsboro. I was getting dusky as I arrived and descended to the small Twin Oaks airstrip. It also got very cold very quickly, as I descended into the inverted cold layer. I'd been pulling the carb heat as I flew and descended, since it was prime conditions outside. I entered the pattern on a descending 45-degree entry leg into the downwind leg and started my downwind run.

As I came abeam the numbers, I pulled the carburetor heat knob out, reduced power to 1500 RPM, and dialed in 10 degrees of flaps to start the landing routine... and the engine quit. It was a little quieter than usual, I remember noticing that first. What the?!?! I pushed the carb heat back in, pulled it again, no go. Checked the mixture, it was okay. Primer knob locked in place, check. Key in the on position, check. Pushed in the throttle all the way, nothing. Got the nose properly positioned for glide and glanced to my left at the end of the runway. I had enough time to try to get the engine back online one more time before I'd have to turn to assure I could make the runway. Checked the fuel valve, it was on. Set the throttle in a few notches and turned the key, noticed the prop was spinning, so I pushed the throttle in again and the engine came back to full-power life. I fed it more fuel quickly and assured it was running and not stopping, confirmed the carb heat was still on, reduced power and tried to calm down a notch.

I was still at proper pattern altitude and in a good position to make my runway landing, engine or not. I reduced power a bit more and turned to my left base leg, then set my flaps, and made my turn to the final approach leg. I dialed in some extra flaps since I was a little high (the extra power surge on the restart/whatever-it-was had caused me to balloon a little altitude), then landed the airplane right where it belonged, about 100 feet past the numbers on the runway.

I have to admit, as irrational as it is, for a brief second there when the engine power was unexpectedly gone, I looked to my right and half expected to see my instructor Kelly sitting there telling me my engine had just died, as he's done so many times in the pattern when simulating an engine failure in almost exactly the same place. My mind just started doing what it does every time he does that. It was pretty much automatic. Not as organized as it could be, granted, but automatic nonetheless.

I taxied to the fuel pump, powered everything off and killed the engine, removed my headset and seat harness, and jumped out and onto the ground. Wow, that was an experience. I was a little jumpy with adrenaline from the experience.

In discussing it with the Starks (who own the airport and have been flying since forever ago) and my instructor there at the airport, we determined that I'd been descending into a prime-for-ice-condition cold, moist layer from a warm, dry layer with the engine running in the lower end of the green operation zone. I'd been applying carb heat periodically while descending to prevent icing, but when I entered the downwind leg and applied power to maintain altitude the carb heat was off. I flew the downwind leg in these prime conditions for carburetor ice and apparently built up quite a bit until I again applied the carb heat. When the ice suddenly melted, it likely entered the engine and cause it to bog down and stop producing power. I don't remember seeing the propeller sitting completely still - It was always spinning, I think. It's not like I was looking at the prop, I was focused on solving the problem and those things I needed to check to get the engine running normally again, and making decisions about when it would be necessary to forget the engine and just glide to the field. At any rate, most likely some melted ice (water) got aspirated into the engine and had to disperse before it would run properly. The airplane checked out okay, and it was basically a non-event, but without the proper good training, it could have been a lot scarier.

The next day I went back out, check on the plane and found out it was fine, then got back in it for a couple hours and flew a bunch of take-offs and landings at Twin Oaks and Hillsboro airports. It was a good day of flying, and I wasn't about to let the jumpy ending of my awesome cross-country flight get the best of me, so I went back out and got back on that horse and kept up with my training.

It was a great couple days of flying. The weather has remained excellent, and I was able to fly again on Friday with my instructor. More on that next time.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Unusual Attitudes and flying under the hood

I wish I'd shot some video of this lesson, now that I think about it. Maybe next time. On Tuesday my instructor Kelly and I went for a flight to do some under-the-hood instrument flying in the plane. It was the real-world version of what I'd "flown" on the simulator the other day. We also planned to do some other maneuvers like stalls and steep turns as a review.

This was my first time "under the hood" in the airplane. For those who are not familiar, the "hood" is basically a set of human blinders, designed to restrict your vision to just the portion of the instrument panel right in front of you, which is where the critical flight instruments are located. It prevents you from looking out the windows, and requires you to fly the plane by instruments only. The whole idea, in private pilot training, is to give you enough experience so you can get out of the clouds if for some reason things should get royally screwed up and you fly into one. Private pilots don't fly into clouds or low visibility without an instrument rating, which involves a lot of training and requires special avionics and navigation equipment in the aircraft.

We flew out to a good practice area and made sure the area was clear. With the hood on he had me fly straight and level, then do a controlled climb, and then a descent. Then he had me do some standard-rate (one minute) turns, which are designed to let you enter a specific bank angle on he turn coordinator and count 60 seconds on the clock (in this plane, anyhow). When the time is up, if you made the turn at the proper bank angle, you'll be flying in the opposite direction. If you turned for two minutes, you'd have done a 360-degree turn and be back were you started. So, if you were flying due south and do it correctly for one minute, you'll end up flying due north when you're done with the turn. The obvious reason for being able to do this as a private pilot is that if you're either unfortunate or stupid enough (or both) to fly into the clouds, going back the way you came is a good idea, and with nothing but cloud outside the plane you have to be able to do it by the gauges. We did a few turns to the left and a couple to the right. I was able to maintain altitude and attitude pretty well, but it was a lot of work.

Your head really messes with you when you start doing turns and other maneuvers without being able to see the outside world and it's natural horizon. I found out quickly that there is no way I can trust what my body is telling me it feels in an instrument flying situation. If I relied on whether I feel like I'm in a turn, or a dive, or flying straight and level, I'll be dead. The human body doesn't accurately inform the brain once you've made a couple turns or other moves. Many pilots have been killed because they trusted what their body was saying. Death trap.

Next we did some turning climbs and descents - So Kelly was mixing things up a bit, having me control every dimension of basic IFR flying with just the instruments. It went pretty well.

Then Kelly showed me some "unusual attitude" recovery maneuvers, first without the hood on. He wanted me to see what they look like in the air before I went into the "dark." By "unusual attitudes" we mean a variety screwed up dangerous attitudes for the aircraft to be in, such as a diving turn or a steep climbing and rolling turn. You have to be able to recognize from looking at the airplane's attitude indicator when you're in a dangerous attitude and how to act immediately to correct it and get back to straight and level flight. We did several of these, including a bunch where he had me wearing the hood and closing my eyes while putting my head down. Kelly would fly the airplane in all sorts of different directions: Turns back and forth, diving, climbing, and any combination of those over and over. They he'd say "Okay, your airplane" and I would look up, determine what the situation called for, and take immediate action. It went well, and I felt like I understood what needed to be done and showed I can do it.

Luckily I didn't get sick (sometimes people do, but I'm not prone to motion sickness). But by the time we were done with the hood work my brain was stretched pretty far. But we had more to do, and I was okay. So, Kelly asked me to set the plane up for slow flight, which took me a little time to get set in my head after the hood maneuvers. I managed to get there, and Kelly told be to do a power-off stall. I got it about half right and almost spun the plane, and realized I was a little overwhelmed with new and old information. Kelly walked me though the steps a little (but not too much), and I was able to do a couple stalls, power-on and power-off, and recover properly. We then moved on to steep turns, which I had not done for a while (in fact I have hardly flown in the past month), and after a couple not-steep-enough tries I got in the groove and did some decent turns.

We then headed back and I set up for a landing on Runway 2. You'd think that by now I'd predict and expect engine failure drills in the pattern when flying with Kelly, but again this time he surprised me as I pulled the barb heat and he pulled the engine to idle and told me my engine had just died. I flew the plane at idle to the runway and put it down just fine.

As you'll find out in my next post (how's that for a clever little hook to keep you reading, eh?) there are some very real-world examples of why practicing for failures and emergencies is so critical. Let's just say I'm glad I know the drill. But hey, that's for next time.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Simulator flying, winds and another night delay

Twin Oaks Airpark just acquired and put into service an Elite PI-135 BATD computer simulator, which one can "fly" for $35 an hour (that's a lot less than $70 for a C150 or $99 for a C172). It's cool, and has a yoke and pedals and a whole panel with working controls and switches, plus the computer screen for the live part and for looking outside. For people doing the instrument rating training some of the hours can be flown on the sim, and even for me and my private pilot training, a few hours can be logged on the simulator.

Since I need to do unusual attitudes and "under the hood" time as part of my private training, and since the weather has not been cooperating recently, my instructor Kelly set me up on the simulator this past Thursday. I did 30 minutes of instrument "flying" that way. This was my first actual instrument training, and we were able to cover the requirements for the private license in the 30 minutes. The idea of providing basic in-the-clouds training to a private pilot is to gave them enough skills and experience to make sure they can make a safe turn and fly back out the way they came.

I think it was good to see how the instrument flying works in the simulator first - which is very sensitive and accurate, by the way. I've heard pilots say if you can successfully fly the simulator you can fly the same maneuvers in a real airplane, and now I see what they mean. It's very exact and requires you to be precise in your control of the plane. Next week we'll be doing the same maneuvers in the air, with all the real-world airplane noise and the sneaky tricks your brain plays on you when you get a real aircraft into unusual attitudes.

We did get to fly for a little while on Thursday, as well. Since it was quite windy (12 knots) and the wind was highly variable in terms of direction (changing constantly from crosswind to a headwind for Runway 20), and since the active landing runway is not the typical one, Kelly wanted me to get some time in the air after a few weeks of almost no flying, and to get some valuable cross-wind landing practice.

Runway 20 at Twin Oaks is not the standard-use runway. It's only used when needed sue to wind direction. It requires you approach on the final leg over some taller trees and then drop in a bit to the threshold of the runway. When you add to that the stronger winds on Thursday and how much they were changing direction, it was a very challenging - but doable - environment. I would certainly not fly in those conditions on my own (it would be too much of a crosswind component for me for sure, and is beyond my established solo crosswind component limits right now anyhow), but when flying with Kelly it's a good learning opportunity.

And learn I did: From the first landing the winds were close to getting the best of me. On the first one Kelly helped me at the very end because I was not using my feet nearly enough to keep the airplane pointing straight down the runway. The fact that the runway slopes downhill landing in that direction adds to the complexity: You tend to "float" more, and combined with any gusting headwind you can imagine the process of landing the plane could be interesting. Not dangerous, just challenging.

Kelly flew the second pattern and landing and I followed along. That was good after being out of the seat for as long as I have been. He even had a little difficulty with the winds landing, although not nearly to the same extent as I did, so I didn't feel too bad. I then flew another pattern and did a go-around because the winds pushed me around and I wasn't feeling confident, then landed it a little better, but still not what I would consider good. We were thinking about calling it quits, but I said I thought I should to do one more and try to land it cleaner. Better to end on a positive note anyhow, I figured. Plus, I was improving little by little.

The last landing was far from perfect but given the conditions not too bad. I'd call it a relative success.

On Friday night we were hoping to fly that night cross-country flight to Seattle's Boeing Field that we've schedule a few times before, but once again we were prevented from doing so by the weather. It's just not burning off the way it needs to these days, so we seem to consistently end up with fog, haze and low cloud decks at night at least somewhere along the route, if not the whole way.

Next week looks pretty great weather-wise, though and I have scheduled quite a bit of flying: The night cross-country for Monday, my long solo cross-country on Wednesday, a daytime lesson for instrument work on Friday and unusual attitudes, and I'll probably another block on the weekend for good measure.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Right Seat in a Grumman AA-1

I recently met a fellow pilot type named Chris via an online contact. He owns a Grumman AA-1 that he has hangared at Pearson Field across the river from Portland in Vancouver, Washington. Turns out he's also a tech-type (he's a software engineer). I had the opportunity to meet him in person for the first time on Saturday afternoon at his hangar at Pearson.

Chris is a cool guy. He's building a RV-6 at his home, and recently acquired a RV-4 as well, which he co-owns with a partner. So, he's certainly got the flying bug. His dad is an instructor and taught him to fly when he was younger.

He showed me the AA-1, which is a small airplane, with two seats side-by-side. It uses the same engine as a Cessna 152 (108 horsepower), and has a shorter wingspan. It burns fuel about the same as a Cessna 150 or 152 (meaning something like 6 gallons/hour). It has a castering nosewheel, meaning you don't steer with the nose gear (rather, you steer by differential braking of the main wheels).

Chris wanted to get in the air and fly a little and he wanted to get some fuel into the plane, so he asked if I wanted to make a quick flight over to Scappoose with him. I'm not one to miss an opportunity to fly, so I grabbed my headset from my truck and waled around the airplane with him, then jumped into the right seat. We flew to Scappoose, got the fuel in the wings, and then flew back. By the way, 100LL fuel is quite a bit cheaper at Twin Oaks (7S3) right now. :)

The AA-1 is a similar in terms of elbow room to a Cessna two-seater, but it's a low-wing airplane and has a slide-back canopy, so visibility is great and very different than the Cessnas. It flies a little faster, and you have to lift off and land at higher speeds. It was a fun aircraft to fly in. He offered me the chance to do a few turns and feel the airplane. It turns much quicker and tighter than a Cessna, for sure.

It was a fun flight. I had the chance to meet someone new, experience a new airplane type, and see a new airport (including the unusual relationship between the PDX tower and Pearson Field, since the approach and departure pattern routes for Pearson are technically located within the PDX Class-B airspace once you reach 1,000 feet).

One of the things I have been doing some analysis on is whether or not fractional ownership of an airplane might make sense for me, as compared to renting. Depending on how much one flies, it can be better to do one or the other. Aircraft ownership is not exactly a simple undertaking, and there are a number of very real recurring and non-recurring expenses involved in addition to the basic flying costs to consider in calculations. I've found the AOPA web site has a bunch of good resources for pilots and owners that help in the process.

Rusty wings and test prep

I took advantage of some VFR weather on Friday to fly for an hour from Twin Oaks over to Aurora and back. I had the opportunity to fly a non-straight line (vertically and horizontally) in order to maintain proper cloud clearances, and while I only got a couple landings in, it was good to get in the air again after a few weeks of being grounded by weather.

One word describes how I felt in the air after my little flight sabbatical: Rusty. Not unsafe in any way, but a little awkward and squeaky, to be sure. I made the crosswind landings acceptably but found myself having to remember things that I've semi-automatically processed in my mind before. After this flight, I could see what instructors mean when they say flying often is conducive to learning more quickly (and some say better), in that building upon skills is easier if your 41-year-old brain hasn't been provided a chance to do what it does naturally: Forget.

It was an interesting flight since there were widely scattered clouds in the area at about 2,000 feet with a ceiling of broken clouds at around 4,500 feet. That provided the opportunity to fly and avoid the occasional cloud between airport, which was good from a practice and experience process.

I also spent a couple ground lesson hours on Saturday with my instructor Kelly, going over weather and a few other topics in preparation for my written and oral exams. I was glad that for the most part I was able to answer the questions he asked, and I made a few notes for areas I should focus more study time on (specific types of fog is one example, since we deal with all of them around here on a regular basis).