31 July 2010

First "real" aborted takeoff

I rescheduled Flight lesson #5 for this afternoon.  The weather was gorgeous: winds at 3000 and 6000 feet were light and variable.  The lowest cloud layer was scattered at 5600 feet, well above the usual 3000 ft altitude for stall manuevers.

I started the takeoff roll on runway 16R and noticed that our airspeed was indicating zero.  My CFI made the decision to abort the takeoff and we turned off at A-3, which is at about the midpoint of the runway. There was plenty of pavement ahead of us--no risk of an overrun.  The tower called to ask if we needed assistance: nope, just an inoperative airspeed indicator.

Insects or some creature may have climbed into the pitot tube, blocking it and rendering the airspeed indicator useless.  As I was filing my flight plan, I heard that this happened to another student earlier in the day in the Cessna 172 that I usually fly, though I had scheduled  a different C172 today. As I was leaving, they told me that it also happened to a third pilot. Very strange. 

I was lucky enough to have aborted the takeoff, since at this point in my training I'd have a hard time making a safe landing with no airspeed indicator--I'm sure that my CFI would have taken over if we had gotten airborne.  Also, my school's policy is that I am not charged for the Hobbs time if the aircraft doesn't take off due to a maintenance issue.  This is a good safety-oriented practice, and I have so far been impressed with the professionalism of my school.

It was good experience, so I am not too bummed that I couldn't fly today.  I'll be interested to hear what happened to all three airplanes. 

28 July 2010

No flying today: low cloud ceiling

Earlier this morning, I preflighted the Cessna 172P and started the engine.  We tuned up the ATIS frequency (125.175 MHz at Manassas) and they reported a broken cloud layer at 1200 feet.  My CFI called the tower to confirm that observation and promptly pulled the fuel mixture to idle-cutoff. The engine stopped.  No flying today.

This was my first weather cancellation, so I've been lucky. The traffic pattern altitude is at 1200 feet so there was no way we could keep 500 feet below the clouds, the VFR minimum for Class D airspace.   An instructor for another flight school was flying with a student, and I'm not sure how they were allowed to do that.

I took a look at my training record from last flight.  A 1.5 score is actually good.  So I guess it was less of a disaster than I made it out to be.  I took a lot away from that lesson, anyway.

26 July 2010

Lesson Four: Emergency Procedures, Lousy Flying

Ugh. Today was rough, relatively speaking.  It can only be so bad, though:  I was fortunate to to go flying in a small airplane on a beautiful sunny day and learn new stuff.  But I did so many things wrong, and my flying was generally lousy.  I never expected this training to be easy, though. I flew with a different instructor today, someone who is clearly very experienced and thorough.  I managed to get completely flustered at the outset--overwhelmed by all the changes to the usual routine--and I let that affect the entire lesson. 

I arrived early and filed my SFRA flight plan. While I asked for NOTAMs and TFRs, I didn't get a standard weather briefing. Usually, we just look at the METARs, TAFs, and satellite imagery on the computer.  I asked for an abbreviated weather briefing, since I had looked up the weather conditions before I got there.  Wrong.  We stopped and took a detailed look at the weather, which was good, because we had fairly low cumulus clouds, significant winds at 3000 feet, and a crosswind at CJR.  I'll ask for the winds at 3 and 6 thousand feet from now on, and will check the conditions at RIC and EMI for relative comparison.

Then there was the preflight.  The preflight checklist in the Pilot's Operating Handbook (POH) didn't mention the belly drain: there's a new one to check.  I didn't know to twist the pushrods on the ailerons and flaps, or to check the tension of the cables connected to the rudder.  I had never done a final walk to the back of the airplane after fully completing the checklist--another good thing, because you can double-check that the fuel caps are secured without climbing up to the wing.   After looking at the preflight checklist in my Private Pilot Manueuvers manual, all these extra preflight checks were listed. All good to know. I will make a new checklist to supplement the one in the Cessna 172 POH.

I hadn't used the primer--a plunger that shoots vaporized fuel directly into the engine cylinders--to start the engine before since we hadn’t needed it. Don't dawdle before cranking the engine after using the primer.  On the pre-takeoff checklist, I learned to turn off the alternator to verify that the ammeter goes negative, indicating that the battery is draining. I usually just check that it reads zero.  Another item for the list.

I “killed” us twice on simulated emergency landings, though I just about made the field on the second try (flaps at 20 degrees instead of 30 next time).  I came close to a stall on one of my emergency approaches--enough to briefly hear the throaty sound that occurs ahead of the stall warning whine.  I didn’t know where we were half the time, and couldn't find the airport--I had never flown with a Terminal Area chart before.  I totally botched up the radio calls to Potomac TRACON that I usually handle fine.   On several takeoffs I took my hand off of the throttle during the climb out.  This is a dangerous habit that I will break:  the throttle might close on its own at a low altitude.

Then there is the puzzle of elevator trim.  I realize that I want to be flying with a light touch on the yoke.  In one case I needed to maintain a 500 fpm climb at nearly full throttle.  I needed a death grip on the yoke to supply enough force on the elevator to keep the plane from pitching up violently:  I want to use trim to ease the pressure, but that is wrong.  The answer, I think, is to reduce the throttle a little.  On the descent, though, it was OK to use trim to neutralize the yoke. I need to read-up on proper use of elevator trim.

We were pretty late getting back to the airport and the plane was scheduled for another student.  So I was rushing through the after-landing checklist to get the airplane parked.  I missed the mixture idle cutoff step and started heading to the ignition switch, which prompted an unearthly reaction from the CFI.  I won’t make that mistake again, though I think it would take a lot for this CFI to have any trust that I am not going to screw up the most basic of procedures.  Lesson:  don’t rush, no matter what. The dispatcher gave the student another plane, anyway. And I apologized for getting back late.

I caught at least one 1.5 grade on my training record, which I think is the equivalent of “totally sucks,” so I (rightfully) got torn apart on a few items.  Now there were a few things that went alright:  my 45 degree steep turns were passable.  The landings were OK, too.  Instrument flight was better this time and I learned a new instrument scan pattern (the V-inverted V).

I’m ready to get back on the horse and give it hell on Wednesday.

Flight time this lesson: 1.3 hours dual, 0.2 hours simulated instrument
Total time to date:        5.4 hours dual, 0.4 hours simulated instrument  

25 July 2010

Lesson Three: Slow Flight and Stalls

On Friday 23 July, I took my third lesson.  Since my usual runway 16R was closed, I finally got to takeoff and land on the 5,700-foot-long runway 16L.  This is the runway that I have thrice mistakenly tried to line up my final approach on.

After the takeoff climb, I was instructed to put on the hood to simulate flight in Instrument Meterological Conditions (e.g. clouds).  This narrows my view so that I can see only my instruments.  To pass the FAA practical test, I will need to demonstrate that I can perform various maneuvers under the hood.  This was harder than I thought it would be.  My CFI showed me a few instrument scan strategies (hub-and-spoke, etc.) during the pre-flight briefing.  When I was in the air, though, I tended to fixate on certain instruments--like the heading indicator when I realized I was drifting off heading.

Then we moved on to slow flight and stalls.  My CFI demonstrated slow flight, a power-off (landing) stall, and a power-on (takeoff) stall.  For the power-on stall, you slow the plane to rotation speed (55 knots for the C172), apply full power, and hold a high pitch attitude until it stalls.  The stall warning starts whining a second or two before the break, and the nose drops suddenly.   I thought the break was going to be violent and roller-coaster-like, but it was really pretty tame.  My CFI told me that I could make the stall more hairy by entering it with more aggressive elevator pressure.  I'll think I'll work up to that.  I dropped my left wing a little bit during the recovery and need more practice.

We flew to Culpeper Airport and I did two landings and a takeoff on runway 22.  Again, we followed railroad tracks back to Manassas.  With other traffic in the pattern, my instructor took the controls before touchdown on 16L to extend our glide further down the runway before I performed the roundout and flare.  It was a courtesy move--otherwise we'd be taxiing down the long runway forever in that slow Cessna.

Flight time this lesson: 1.5 hours dual, 0.2 hours simulated instrument
Total time to date:        4.1 hours dual, 0.2 hours simulated instrument   

21 July 2010

Lesson Two

Today I filed my first two SFRA flight plans with a phone call to 1-800-WX-BRIEF. I half expected the system to be completely robotic and was pleasantly surprised when I talked to a helpful person.  We needed a flight plan to leave the SFRA through the FLUKY gate to get to our practice area at Warrenton/Fauquier Airport (HWY) and another to re-enter the SFRA to land at Manassas.  After waiting for a few minutes, we were assigned a transponder code by ground control before taking off.  I misheard the code and had to change it during our takeoff climb. Manassas has been having radio issues the past few days and many of their transmissions have been nearly unintelligible.  Manassas Tower then handed us off to Potomac TRACON, and they proceeded to call out traffic in the area for us to find.   This was more radio activity than I was used to handling.

For the few minutes that it took to reach Warrenton, I finally got a chance to cruise and look around (pattern work leaves no time for anything but preparing for the next turn).  In those moments as we followed the railroad tracks, it sunk in just how much fun flying can be.

We angled in for the 45 degree entry to the midfield downwind leg of the traffic pattern at Warrenton, called out the pattern turns on the CTAF and I did my first landing at a non-towered airport.  And then I did another takeoff/landing before heading back home. 

Arriving at Manassas, the tower cleared us for a base entry for runway 16R, so all we had to do was line up and turn for the final approach.  For some reason I started to extend the base leg as if to line up on 16L.  That's the third time I've done that.

Flight time this lesson: 1.0 hours dual
Total flight time to date: 2.6 hours dual   

19 July 2010

First Lesson

I decided to enroll in the Part 141 flight school where I did the demo flight, and today I took my first lesson. Part 141 schools have a standardized training syllabus, and my school uses the Jeppesen training materials. Back in June I started working through the King Schools Private Pilot course. The King Schools software is good and should help me prepare for the FAA written test, so I'm not kicking myself too hard for buying it ahead of picking a school. So after filling out all of the enrollment paperwork and going over a few ground school topics, I pre-flighted the same C172 from the demo flight, taxied, and did pattern work: 5 takeoffs and 5 full-stop landings. I made most of the radio calls to the tower, and I am starting to get the hang of communications. Taxiing was still a little rough, but better than before. I felt more comfortable with the airplane this time, but I still have lots to work on:
  • During takeoff, I wasn't assertive enough on rotation and skipped the tires once
  • I was pretty sloppy keeping the runway heading after takeoff
  • I had a hard time maintaining a reference on the crosswind turn (wing gets in the way?) So I would just kept turning until it felt about long enough
  • I seemed to always want to make the base turn too soon
  • At one point, I attempted to line up my final approach on the parallel runway Very embarassing. I'd look at the instruments to check airspeed, etc., and lose focus on where I was
  • Landing will take a lot more practice. Without coaching, I don't think I would know when to round out and flare. I was high on final, I was low on final, fast, and slow. I haven't gotten the pitch for airspeed, power for altitude technique down at all: I just leaned on my CFI to tell me when to add or remove power.
Despite all the mistakes, it was a lot of fun. My instructor is very patient. Can't wait until Wednesday, weather permitting. Flight time this lesson: 1.1 hours dual Total flight time to date: 1.6 hours dual

Demo Flight

I went on a demo flight at a local school on July 15 based on a recommendation. I took up the Cessna 172P pictured here. Great fun. We went through the preflight checklist, taxied the airplane, performed a takeoff, go-around, and finally, a full-stop landing. Having never flown an airplane from the left seat before, I was surprised that every movement required conscious thought. Time sped up--it seemed like it was time to make the base turn five seconds after the downwind turn in the traffic pattern. I'd reach over to extend the flaps and the distraction would cause me pitch down. Sensory overload. At one point, I attempted to line up on the parallel runway (it is longer--that's my only excuse). Having read about coordinated flight, I didn't realize how little rudder was required to keep the ball centered when the plane was moving at 80 knots (I swore the CFI was helping me), and how much right rudder was required to keep the nose pointed straight during takeoff. Taxiing was another show. I couldn't keep the plane on the taxiway centerline to save my life. The nosewheel steering takes some getting used to. You steer with the rudder pedals. For some reason, I kept trying to help my turning radius with the yoke. It is an airplane and not a car. The CFI finally clued me in that I could use differential braking to improve the turning radius. My shiny new David Clark headset worked great. It was comfortable, and I'm really happy with it. While I was fairly certain that I was going to enroll in this particular school just based on what I had heard, I'm happy that I took the demo flight because:
  • it gave me a chance to see if I was comfortable with the instructor. I can get along with just about anybody, but thankfully my CFI seems like a pretty easy-going guy
  • the time can be logged (0.5 hrs dual) and the demo flight is relatively cheap
I learned that the DC SFRA is a total non-issue. HEF has a control tower, so when staying in the traffic pattern you don't even have to file an SFRA flight plan--just maintain communication with the tower and squawk 1234 on the transponder. Same thing with the Dulles Class B airspace: we will fly under it (2500 MSL) to get to the practice area. It is probably good practice anyway to train in such an ATC-rich area. Flight Time this lesson: 0.5 hours dual Total Flight Time to Date: 0.5 hours dual

11 July 2010

The Turn

Great article from 1993 by William Langewiesche, son of Wolfgang Langewiesche. I saw this mentioned in Hacker News. Here is footage of Bob Hoover pouring tea during a roll.