28 August 2010

Stage Check I: Passed

One of the landings from my first solo
The oral test was no problem. I learned the significance of the "Zero Fuel" weight limitation that some airplanes have (it limits stress on the wings and airframe that would otherwise be caused by a heavily loaded fuselage with little weight in the wing tanks), where to look for the usable runway lengths during Land-and-Hold-Short (LAHSO) operations, the significance of the asterisk in aforementioned A/FD entries, and generally how to handle the oral portion of the FAA practical test. All very good stuff.

It was pretty choppy, probably the choppiest air I've flown in, yet. The sky was full of puffy cumulus clouds, which guarantees there will be some turbulence.  I usually fly early in the morning, and the ground hasn't had time to heat and form convective currents.  I will try to schedule more afternoon lessons to get more experience in chop. 

I didn't get lost or get anywhere near busting the Dulles class B airspace and SFRA, which were my primary concerns.  And I tried to keep my head on a swivel for traffic.  But the maneuvers were really bad: I couldn't maintain heading control due to insufficient right rudder during slow flight.  I made the mistake of pitching down to break the power-off stall, which you absolutely don't want to do because the manuever simulates a stall occurring close to the ground in a landing configuration (you must minimize altitude loss).  My steep turns were passable: I held my altitude, but I overshot the heading on the first one because I intended to do a 360 instead of a 180 degree turn. 

My landings at Warrenton and Manassas were atrocious.  The approach at Warrenton was awful--airspeed control on the base turn again--and at Manassas, I initially locked on to runway 34R before turning final (that's the fourth time!). 

I don't know how, but I passed without requiring any additional remedial instruction or restrictions (you really have to work to outright fail).  That feat was accomplished by the skin of my teeth.  I'm frustrated because I think I should be more competent during the final approach and landing at this stage of training.  I will persevere, though.  There is no doubt that flight training is one of the more difficult things I've attempted.

Flight time this lesson: 1.1 hours dual
Total time to date: 0.5 hours solo, 13.7 hours dual, 1.0 hours simulated instrument

25 August 2010

No Stage Check today: low ceiling

I scheduled my first stage check for this afternoon.  The stage check consists of an oral knowledge test and flight test given by a senior instructor consisting of all of the maneuvers that I've learned so far, a 3-4 hour ordeal in total.  If I pass, I'll be allowed to make solo flights into the practice area (around Warrenton and Culpeper).

I had been watching the weather all last night and this morning.  The area conditions were all marginal VFR with a scattered cloud layer at 1500 feet and a 2500 foot overcast layer above.  Some of the maneuvers, like stalls and steep turns, are usually done at 3000-4000 feet MSL, but the requirement is at least 1500 feet above ground (AGL).  The 1800 UTC forecasts showed the overcast layer increasing to 4000 feet, which would support the check flight.   I hadn't gotten any phone calls, so I took off work a little after 12pm and drove to the airport.  I like to give myself plenty of time in advance of the lesson to check the weather, file flight plans, and preflight the airplane--I'm definitely not my best in a rush and I was going to be graded on this stuff, after all.  So I wasn't too surprised that I got the phone call canceling the flight while sitting at the weather terminal in the FBO.

The instructor apologized for calling so late, and frankly I was a little bit relieved because he told me the things that he was going to be looking for during the flight test.  Situational Awareness was the number-one item, which happens to be my biggest problem in the August haze:  knowing where I am. There is no GPS in the airplanes that I fly, and I am happy about that: it is forcing me not to become dependent on GPS for navigation at this stage of my training.  You better believe that I'll be cross-checking my landmarks (powerlines, antennas) for the SFRA and Class B, D airspace boundaries with VOR/DME radial/distance fixes. Maybe I'll even tune up the ADF...

21 August 2010

First solo

At 0900 on Thursday, 19 August 2010, I flew my first pattern solo. My CFI graciously recorded some of it:

The weather at KHEF was beautiful: better than 5 miles of visibility and calm winds. I did one hour of pattern work (3 takeoffs/landings and 2 go arounds) with my instructor. These landings were a big improvement from the last lesson. I discovered that it really helps to get more than 5 hours of sleep before these early morning flights, and now I schedule them 30 minutes later.

After the dual takeoffs/landings, my instructor endorsed my logbook and medical cert, checked that I had my driver's license (just in case there was an FAA ramp check), and hopped out of the airplane. When the main wheels left the runway during the first takeoff, it sunk in that I was really doing this and there was definitely going to be a landing, one way or another. Then I just did what I had done over thirty times before, though I checked the engine oil pressure and temperature gauge more often than usual. As you can see in the video, the landings weren't my best work. I don't think I had enough elevator back pressure at the end of the second landing. I ballooned a little bit on the third landing and came down harder on the main wheels than I would have liked.

Even though it is a very small step in the grand scheme of things, I view this as a major personal achievement. I feel silly mentioning that, especially when loads of kids fly solo on their 16th birthdays every year, but it is one of the more difficult things that I have done. When I was a kid, I had a fear of heights and was terrified on my first commercial flight to Disneyworld in 1986. I'm pretty clumsy by nature, and I've realized that there is fine kinesthetic component to flying that Microsoft Flight Simulator just can't do justice (especially landings). The technical aspects of flying and regulations come easily to me, but the forced division of attention does not. I am grateful to my CFI for all of his help and patience over the past month.

Flight time this lesson: 0.5 hours solo, 1.0 hours dual
Total time to date: 0.5 hours solo, 12.6 hours dual, 1.0 hours simulated instrument

18 August 2010

Beaucoup Bad Landings

This morning I found a nick in the propeller big enough to catch a fingernail.  After taking the AOPA Engine and Propeller mini-course, I knew to have my CFI take a look at it.  The chief flight instructor and an A&P that I haven't met dressed the prop with a file, and we were off.  Almost. The battery was nearly dead.  This gave me the opportunity to jump start the engine from an external 24/28V power source.

Of the five landings that I made today, three of them were my worst to date.  Not good.  My final approaches were OK--airspeed, altitude, and centerline alignment was fine--but the flares were way off. I had been cheating by leaning on my CFI for coaching up this point--he'd give me instructions during the last 2 seconds before touchdown.  Today was the first time I landed with no verbal help, and it showed.  I had this video of a recent prop strike by a local student fresh in my mind, so I tried to avoid a nose wheel landing by adding too much back pressure too soon, which resulted in a balloon.  Then I overcompensated, came in flat, and managed to land on the nose wheel, resulting in a bounce. 

In addition, I made these inexcusable mistakes today:
  • I let a poorly trimmed airplane pitch up on the downwind-to-base turn, dropping the airspeed well below the 70 knot guideline on the first pattern that I flew. I completely neglected elevator trim today.  I never came remotely close to a stall, which can be a killer at those altitudes, but I need always be cognizant of airspeed when in the pattern.
  • On this same approach, I unknowingly dropped the throttle a few hundred RPM below 1500, causing me to be way low by the time I made the final turn
  • I looked down to double-check that the elevator trim was in takeoff configuration while at full throttle on the takeoff roll and unconsciously let up on the right rudder. The airplane started to veer left of the runway centerline.  I had plenty of time to realign, but CFI's really don't appreciate it when you do that.  All attention forward when taking off.
  • I wanted to line up on 34R on final during the first approach of the day (yet again). 
I scheduled time on Thursday to focus on landings. The first solo flight is on hold, probably until I finish the stage check, which is the lesson after next.  This is disappointing, and it does seem like I've had more poor performances than good ones so far. So it goes. Many people solo well after the 11 hours that I have now, and I'm sure the landing flare will "click" soon.  In the meantime,  I have been reviewing the chapter on landings in Denker's "See How It Flies." What a great on-line resource.

Flight time this lesson: 1.1 hours dual
Total time to date: 11.6 hours dual, 1.0 hours simulated instrument

16 August 2010

No Solo Today

I got a call from my CFI a few minutes ago.  Manassas is currently under IFR conditions, as are neighbouring airports, though it should clear up later today:

KHEF 161035Z AUTO 00000KT 1SM OVC011 21/20 A2996 RMK AO1
KHWY 161040Z AUTO 00000KT 1/4SM FG VV002 20/19 A2995 RMK AO2
KCJR 161040Z AUTO 00000KT M1/4SM FG OVC002 17/16 A2996 RMK AO2
KIAD 160952Z 00000KT 10SM BKN006 OVC012 22/22 A2995 RMK AO2 
I opted to fly tomorrow morning rather than try to wait it out.  I have 10 hours of dual time and 26 takeoffs/landings to date, not counting the demo flight.  If I can do 4 solid landings in one hour tomorrow (reaching 30), I will be at my school's minimums to solo.  My CFI said that if everything looked good on the dual flight, he would endorse my logbook, hop out of the airplane, and I would then do 3 takeoffs/landings on my own.

Review Flight

These are notes from my lesson last Wednesday, 11 August 2010.

Pre-solo knowledge test: Check.  The three test sections took more time than I had budgeted, so I didn't get to sleep last night until much later than planned.  Groggy morning. The exercises were good in that they forced me to finally dig out the massive FAR/AIM book of regulations to answer the questions.  There were was an entire section of airspace questions, which is no surprise given that the Washington DC area airspace is one of the most complex in the country.  Just this past weekend, a Cessna 172 was intercepted by a coast guard helicopter for busting the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ).

The flight portion was a review.  I was still a little bit uncoordinated in two of the power-on stalls.  I need to be smoother with rudder application when nearing the stall, and I noticed that I need to pay more attention to the turn rate indicator than the ball when there are no visible outside references (lousy visibility).  I waited too long to put down flaps on a simulated engined out landing and foolishly tried repeated S-turns to bleed altitude to the runway at Culpeper.  Slow flight was still sloppy, and I have resolved that insufficient elevator trim was part of the problem there.  And finally, I ballooned the last landing of the day but recovered reasonably well (didn't let the nose drop).  It wasn't pretty, but could have been worse.  One of these days it will all come together.

Flight time this lesson: 1.5 hours dual, 0.2 hours simulated instrument
Total time to date: 10.5 hours dual, 1.0 hours simulated instrument

09 August 2010

Pea Soup

This morning I flew in visibility approaching the Visual Flight Rules (VFR) minimums for Class D and E airspace: 3 statute miles. The METAR observations around the practice area were
KHEF 091135Z AUTO 00000KT 4SM 22/20 A3004 RMK AO1
KHWY 091140Z AUTO 00000KT 4SM BR CLR 22/20 A3003 RMK AO2
KCJR 091140Z AUTO 00000KT 3SM BR CLR 21/20 A3004 RMK AO2
and a few minutes before the flight the conditions at Warrenton and Culpeper were
KHWY 091120Z AUTO 00000KT 2 1/2SM BR CLR 20/18 A3003 RMK
KCJR 091120Z AUTO 00000KT 2SM BR CLR 20/19 A3005 RMK AO2
The Practice Area (from Washington sectional)
The "BR" indicates mist. I could barely see the outline of the mountains that I typically use for a visual reference in steep turns and instead relied on the directional gyro.

My last power-on stall was clean. I still need to focus on quickly establishing the pitch attitude for the stall break while at full power rather the hanging in a near stall for several seconds. I also need to make sure to keep right rudder applied to stay coordinated during the stall break and recovery. And finally, I need to have the presence of mind to keep on my heading.

I did better this time maintaining altitude during the steep turns, but I still lost a little more than 100 feet on the last one. More up elevator. When I focused on altitude, I overshot my heading. It is all about dividing attention.

At 4000 feet, my CFI pulled the throttle to idle and I started the engine-out forced landing procedure. After pitching for best glide speed (65 knots in a C172), I started looking for a place to land. I saw the road by Culpeper airport but didn't see the runway nearly behind me, and instead chose a field ahead. My CFI asked me if there was an airport nearby. Doh! Once I turned around, we were set up on an extremely high base for runway 22. I called on the CTAF to let traffic know that we were going in for a simulated emergency landing. We circled and overshot the runway several times to lose altitude, and then did a wicked forward slip to drop altitude. I still want to pitch for a level attitude in a slip--this is wrong, especially with flaps extended on a Cessna 172. The nose needs to be down, and the ground rushes up in a hurry.

My landing at HEF left a lot to be desired. I released some elevator pressure after ballooning a little bit, allowing the nose to drop a little. I need to maintain pitch attitude when this happens and just let the airplane settle. This is another bad habit that I will break before my solo.

Flight time this lesson: 1.2 hours dual, 0.2 hours simulated instrument
Total time to date: 9.0 hours dual, 0.8 hours simulated instrument

05 August 2010

Not my best work

I'd performed the slow flight maneuver once before. Today, I did it under the hood. I had a hard time with the high pitch attitude since I didn't properly set elevator trim. Under the hood, the mushy response to control input was not expected. I also did my 360 clearing turn under the hood. I didn't hold altitude very well without trim in a 30 degree bank. One of these days, I will learn.

Then there were stalls. I heard that a student recently failed his checkride because he recovered when the stall horn started blaring--the call of the Chickenhawk--rather than after the airplane actually stalled. So I was intent on making a dramatic pitch break before recovering. Didn't happen. I'd get to about 35 degrees pitch in the power-on stall. When a wing dropped, I'd try to level it with aileron, still holding lots of yoke back pressure to get a clear break. Not good. It was much better when I just broke the stall with down elevator.

I had terrible altitude control performing steep turns without the hood today. Again, the poor results were mostly caused by poor elevator trim. My CFI demonstrated the steep turn with no hands on the yoke, driving home the point that I am making it more difficult than necessary with my death grip on the yoke.

He showed me the emergency descent maneuver, where we dropped about 1300 fpm while maintaining about 100 knots airspeed. Pretty cool.

Monday morning will be better.

Flight time this lesson: 1.3 hours dual, 0.2 hours simulated instrument
Total time to date: 7.8 hours dual, 0.6 hours simulated instrument

02 August 2010

Closed Traffic

When getting the weather this morning, I think the FSS briefer warned me three times that VFR flight over our practice area (KHWY and KCJR) was "not recommended" due to potential fog.  I filed the SFRA flight plan just in case, but we cancelled it before taking off.  We stayed in the pattern and performed simulated engine-out landings. I tended to be way high on the final approach this time, figuring that high is better than low with no engine.  But I was so high that  I couldn't see how to get the airplane down on the runway even with full 30 degree flaps. My CFI showed me the forward slip technique for quickly bleeding off altitude.  That is a fun maneuver.

A Learjet was cleared for landing on 16L (the parallel runway) and the tower gave us the "caution wake turbulence" call at about the same time my CFI pulled my throttle to idle. I made an ugly pattern to the runway and on the following takeoff the tower indicated that they had a question "when able." I said go ahead on the climb out. They asked if I had changed my pattern due to the Lear. Nope, just simulating engine-out landings.

Today was my first time flying in rain. Eventually the broken ceiling dropped enough that the tower made it pretty clear that we needed to land full-stop. A fun day flying.

Flight time this lesson: 1.1 hours dual, 0.0 hours simulated instrument
Total time to date: 6.5 hours dual, 0.4 hours simulated instrument