Thursday, December 15, 2011

Use the tools you have available

On an instrument flight lesson yesterday, while shooting a non-precision approach under the hood (at least as I remember it): 

Instructor: "Look at your GPS here, see where you are? Wait, are you ever looking at your GPS?"
Me: "No, I thought I wasn't allowed to."
Instructor: "Oh gosh no, look at it. I mean, you can't use it as primary means of navigation but yeesh it makes your life easier so use it."

Hah. Good point. There I was flying the approach, looking only at the VOR indicators, and he pointed out that there's more info on the panel that I might find useful. In my mind, using the information on the portable aviation GPS (A Garmin 396), which is not legal to use for IFR flight primary navigation, would be cheating. The proper instruments to use, again in my mind, were the IFR-certified ones: The VOR indicators. But in reality, using the information from the GPS (which, ironically, provides more accurate information than the VOR radios and indicators) enhances situational awareness substantially.

For that matter, if my autopilot worked properly (it just came back from the repair shop and is going to be re-installed I think later today), I could also use that to help fly headings and keep the plane going in the right direction, not to mention wings-level.

Conversely, I suppose there's something to be said for using just the basic tools and becoming proficient with those, rather than relying on the extras early in the training. I looked at the GPS a couple times after that, but honestly it still felt like cheating. So, I think I might ask if we can just turn it off sometimes. Call me a rebel... :)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Experiencing the first few instrument flight lessons

I've spent about five-ish hours "under the hood" now flying with my instructors (they're a pair) for my instrument rating training. For those who want the super-short summary version of what it's like, I'll just say this:

"My brain hurts."

Seriously. Similar to the learning "hump" pretty much every private pilot student runs up against at some point in flight training - often just before solo time - my experience in instrument training thus far has been one of true brain drain. The main differences in this phase of training are that instrument flying is much more precise and the hump you have to work over and through comes much, much sooner. As in almost immediately.

I'll have to shoot some video of a flight lesson or two and post it here to try to show how complicated the process of flying the plane with a hood blocking your vision can be. Everything's blocked from sight except the instruments on the panel (dashboard) directly in front of you. There's no option to look outside through any windows. And you're situated like that for quite a long time, too: I've spent a full hour that way a number of times now. Your instructor sits in the seat next to you and looks outside for other aircraft and obstacles, while you fly the plane around in the sky, essentially blind to anything in the outside world.

To add to the complexity, while you're under the hood making turns and climbs and descents, your body completely lies to you as far as what you feel like the airplane is doing vs. what it's actually doing. Think of it as being a lot like when you were a kid, spinning around in circles really fast, getting all dizzy and then trying to walk normally. Add blinders so you can only see the world right in front of you. It doesn't work to fly by feel. And doing so without the ability to see outside and view the ground/horizon can kill you. So instrument flying proficiency is important.

When flying with the hood on, you body (specifically the fluid activity in your inner ear) gets thrown off with the turns, climbs and dives, and your brain doesn't have the benefit of any visual cues to counteract the physical signals going to your brain. So you get "the leans," meaning your body tell you you're in a turn or a climb or a dive (or some combination thereof) while the instruments clearly show otherwise. So, the tendency for new instrument flight students is to "feel" their way around and fly all over the place. One of the primary purposes of early instrument flying with the hood is to train the pilot to overcome the tendency to rely on feeling and sight, ignore the signals that will incorrectly guide you in flying the airplane, and to rely solely on the instruments on the panel, which tell you how fast you're going, ascent and descent speed, turning bank, direction, altitude and other key information.

It doesn't come naturally. And it's a *lot* of information to process while your head and body are sending you false and conflicting information. Hence the brain pain.

But, it's a lot of fun. For me, there's nothing cooler than the technical challenges associated with flying and doing it well. So instrument training, while somewhat intimidating and definitely difficult, represents some serious fun in my book.

And it's a great skill to develop and rating to achieve as a pilot. Not only does the instrument rating allow a pilot to fly though and in clouds (which can open up the ability to make trips otherwise impossible), it also makes people overall better pilots. And that's a good thing.

I'll post some specific flight lesson experiences in the near future, to try to share with others what this second major phase of flight training (after the private pilot phase) is like. Instrument training is pretty much universally described as the most difficult flight training pilots do. So I think sharing some information and details can be helpful. Plus it will help me to reinforce what I am learning and experiencing in my own training process.

Short list of airfields around Portland I have yet to land at

I got out the Seattle sectional this evening and made a quick list of airports in the Portland area (on the Oregon side of the river) that I have not yet ever landed at - which means I need to go there. Turns out the list is pretty darned short:

  • Skyport
  • Sandy River
  • Vernonia

I've driven to each of those, but never flown. All the other airports in the area - at least the ones open to the public - I've flown to at some point (as well as many of the private airfields).

On the Washington side of the Columbia River the list is slightly longer, but not much. I'll tackle those another time.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Considering an interior refurb

I spent about an hour today trying to determine whether or not I can reasonably redo the interior of my not-worth-too-much airplane. Looks like I can do it for a relatively reasonable price and make it much, much nicer inside. Pretty sure interior on the plane is 37 years old - all original.

When the aircraft is worth around $30K (and I paid substantially less than that when I bought it), you just can't easily justify investing thousands and thousands of dollars into seats, carpeting and trim. But if I could make it work on a budget and get good quality for what I would spend, an interior upgrade could breathe a substantial amount of new life into a tired and worn out cabin. The airplane itself - meaning the airframe and engine - are great. It runs strong and is solid structurally. But he seat cushions are old, flattened and worn out, the fabric is faded, plus the window and wall trim is mostly warped, cracked and generally gross. In other words, it looks like it was made int he 70s and has been used since then.

I intend to fly this airplane for years to come, so I'm thinking an interior redo is in order. But refitting teh interior means not doing other things, like avionics upgrades or other changes. At any rate, I'll try to document some of the changes and the decisions here as I go, along with some of my flying experiences.