29 November 2010

More Chilly Morning Maneuvers

My minor milestone for the day:  I broke 40 hours of total time during this morning's lesson.  Having now checked off all of the FAA's "aeronautical experience" requirements in 14 CFR § 61.109 for a single-engine airplane, my mission now is to demonstrate to my flight instructor, the chief instructor, and myself that I am ready for the practical test (checkride).  I still need to take the FAA written test, too; I'm hoping to get signed off this week to take it.  It would be great to earn this certificate before New Years so that I can start 2011 working on an instrument rating...

As usual, I've gotten ahead of myself.  My instructor and I noted a litany of deficiencies in my flying today that I need to fix:
  1. Checklist usage.  Up until last week, I thought the proper way to run a checklist was robotic line-by-line execution and that performing the steps from memory for non-moving tasks like the engine start and before takeoff checklists was somehow wrong.  It is much more efficient to do the steps, then refer to the checklist to make sure nothing was missed.  I'm trying to adjust to this workflow now.  I still managed to miss the cruise checklist a couple of times (engine RPM in the green arc, elevator trim set, lean mixture appropriately).  This checklist has to be run after all of the maneuvers (stalls, slow flight, steep turns, etc.) during the examination.
  2. Preflight Briefing.  The law states that passengers must be briefed on the operation of the seatbelts, how to exit the airplane, emergency procedures, etc., just as is done by flight attendants on an airliner.  The examiner expects a passenger briefing, and I neglected to do it during today's mock test.
  3. Forward Slips.  These still haven't clicked for whatever reason.  The orientation is still awkward. I wasn't using enough aileron to effectively hold the runway centerline and I had a tendency to let the nose rise too high when doing them today.  They are fun, though: in a forward slip with full flaps, power off, the Skyhawk sinks like a brick.
  4. Clearing turns. A 360 degree clearing turn must be executed before every manuever to ensure there is no traffic in the area.  I caught myself skipping this once today, and then I did two stalls in succession without a clearing turn.  That would have busted my checkride.
  5. Short-field landings.  I hadn't done one of these in weeks.  I forgot that the approach speed was 60 KIAS on short final rather than 65 and came in fast and a little high.
  6. Soft-field takeoffs.  Though the last example of the day was good, I let the plane get too far off the runway in ground effect during my earlier attempts.
  7. Power-off Stalls.  Again, I forgot the procedure and failed to go to idle power before inducing the stall.   I held about 1500 RPM, so it wasn't quite a power-off stall.
  8. Power-on Stalls. I can't explain why I did this--I know better--but I delayed breaking the stall and let the left wing drop violently.  That was probably the closest I've even remotely been to a spin entry. 
  9. Trim for level flight.  I now religiously trim the airplane after leveling off or changing power settings. But no matter what I did today, the airplane would start climbing if I looked down at my chart for more than a second.  I need to be more precise with that elevator trim wheel.
I'm hoping the weather will cooperate this week so that I can fly the final Stage Check with my instructor--it looks like we're due for high pressure Thursday through the weekend.  If he's happy with my performance, he'll sign me off to take the end-of-course test with one of the senior instructors.  Only after I make it through that gate will I be allowed to schedule the checkride.

It was another chilly morning lesson:

KHEF 291235Z AUTO 00000KT 10SM CLR M07/M07 A3052 RMK AO1
That's -7C / 19F.  Again, I was grateful that the airplane was waiting for me in the hangar.  The air at 3000 feet was perfectly smooth, though.  And I think that is the highest altimeter setting I've used yet.

Flight time this lesson: 1.9 hrs dual
Total time to date: 41.1 hrs total, 30.9 hrs dual, 10.2 hrs PIC

28 November 2010

Solo Maneuvers on a Chilly Morning

The AWOS on field at Manassas read -6C / 21F at 7:15 this morning, about the time that I got the keys to the airplane.  We've been spoiled in Northern Virginia with a mild Fall, and this was the coldest I've been out flying so far.  I was grateful that they put the plane in the hangar overnight--I bet starting the engine would have been difficult, otherwise. Two shots of the primer and it started on the first attempt.

I am trying to fly as frequently as possible to get prepared for the checkride.  This morning, I was on a solo mission to knock out steep turns, stalls, slow flight, and some pattern work.  The airplane climbed like a rocket in the cold morning air.  I lowered the nose and climbed out above the best-rate-of-climb airspeed so that I could see ahead of me.  I tracked to Casanova (CSN) VORTAC and then climbed to 3000 feet when well clear of the Dulles Class B airspace.  No sense in getting intercepted by F-16s like the student pilot out of Warrenton experienced last week.

My steep turns were still a little sloppy.  I was trying to hit altitude, airspeed, and heading exactly using the mountains as visual references.  Airspeed and altitude control was better but my heading control needs work.  I had been practicing these more as instrument maneuvers up to this point, which I now realize is not the preferred way to do them. I used 90 knots as an entry speed, and I found that with just one in the plane and with the low density altitude, only about 2000-2100 RPM was needed to hold that airspeed in level flight (the very bottom of the green arc).

Then I induced a few power-off stalls west of Culpeper airport.  Today I was trying to enter a Vx (best angle of climb airspeed) ascent immediately after recovering from the stall to simulate being low to the ground.  I forgot to retract the flaps to 20 degrees immediately after recovery, so I did a few more to drill that into my head. 

I tried to remember the enroute cruise and descent checklists, but it turns out that they weren't printed on the skinny laminated card in the plane.  I might need to make my own checklist sheet which includes them.

I flew back to Manassas to do pattern work, paying close attention to descend below the Class B airspace and then to traffic pattern altitude so as to maintain a leisurely descent rate of 500 feet per minute.  Manassas Tower gave me a base entry for runway 34L as usual.  I was experimenting with different power settings to do a constant 500 fpm power-on descent in the traffic pattern as was suggested during the last stage check, only I didn't have the room.  On final, I was power-off with full flaps and still high.  I tried a forward slip but couldn't get it sorted out, so I went around.  I suspect my CFI has been silently helping me with those, so now I really need to practice them.   Manassas tower had me change my transponder to the SFRA pattern work code (1234) before I made the crosswind turn.

I set up again for a steep power-off approach with a really short base leg.  I need to work on widening my patterns just a little bit.  I touched down before the stall horn went off, so I decided to taxi back and try again.  The next landing also could have been held off longer.

I've realized that I still have a lot to work on before the practical test.  I'm going to focus on flying these maneuvers more precisely in the next lesson.

Flight time this lesson: 1.7 hrs solo/PIC
Total time to date: 39.2 hrs total, 29.0 hrs dual, 10.2 hrs PIC

27 November 2010

Maneuvers on a Windy Day

Earlier terminal forecasts for Dulles airport today predicted winds of 15 knots with gusts of 28 knots, so it was unlikely that I'd go flying.  The forecast changed slightly over the course of the day, though:
KIAD 272057Z 2721/2824 30021G27KT P6SM SCT050 
     FM272200 30012G17KT P6SM SKC 
     FM280200 31004KT P6SM FEW060 
     FM281400 30006KT P6SM SKC
I called my instructor at around 8:30am to make sure that I wouldn't drag him out to the airport only to cancel the flight due to weather conditions.  CFIs don't get paid for their time unless a lesson transpires.  Since he was going to be there anyway, I kept the lesson scheduled and would do ground work if we couldn't fly.
We reviewed checkride topics on the ground before making the go/no-go decision this afternoon.  Winds at Manassas were brisk (18 knots gusting to 25):
KHEF 271955Z AUTO 32018G22KT 10SM CLR 07/M06 A2999 RMK AO1
KHEF 271935Z AUTO 30018G25KT 10SM CLR 08/M06 A2997 RMK AO1
but fortunately they were blowing nearly straight down runway 34L.  An AIRMET (Airman's Meterological Information) for moderate turbulence below 12k feet covered the area.  I had seen a few pilot reports (PIREPs) for moderate and severe turbulence earlier in the day at altitudes near our usual 3000 feet:  moderate around BWI and a severe turbulence report near Roanoke (over 130 miles away).

After reviewing the weather again and calling the AWOS phone number to get up-to-the-minute conditions, we agreed to make the flight and took off around 1945Z.  It was a little bumpy, but not nearly as bad as my night flight back from Richmond; I didn't experience any large altitude excursions as occurred during that trip.  

We practiced the cross-country routine of intercepting the course line and tracking time between waypoints, only there really wasn't a course--I reused my HEF-CHO sheet from a solo flight.  I didn't realize this was going to be part of the exercise ahead of time, so I hadn't recalculated a wind correction angle and ground speed.  I was guessing at the crab angle, and wound up sliding over Warrenton airport.  I used pilotage from there to get to Culpeper and Mitchells (abeam a tower on a hill), and then we simulated a diversion to Culpeper.  I forgot to simulate opening a VFR flight plan with Flight Services (since I hadn't really filed one).  I also neglected to run through the enroute climb and cruise checklists.  This is easy to do because there really isn't much to do: the fuel mixture stays full-rich below 3000 feet in cruise for a C172.  The checklist mistake is a checkride buster, so I won't let that happen again.

My steep turns were mostly within the FAA Practical Test Standards (PTS) , but they were not as good as I want them to be.  In one of the unusual attitude recovery maneuvers, I didn't close the throttle before recovering from a dive--first time I've botched that one--but the airspeed was still well below Vno when I recovered.

The landing at Manassas was interesting with the strong, gusty headwind.  I didn't use any flaps and started the approach a little high, carrying more power than usual.  I pulled the power back and quickly developed a high sink rate, finding myself low in a hurry.  I had to add full power for a bit, needed some coaching getting the crosswind correction dialed in with the gusts, and landed long.  It wasn't pretty.  The approach profile with no flaps and a strong headwind felt foreign.  More practice is clearly required.  Fortunately, the weather looks good tomorrow so I am planning to fly solo for more practice.

Flight time this lesson: 1.3 hrs dual
Total time to date: 37.5 hrs total, 29.0 hrs dual, 8.5 hrs PIC

21 November 2010

Lesson #23

On Saturday, November 20, I flew Lesson 23 from the Jeppesen syllabus.  This was a dual review flight to work on executing the maneuvers to better than PTS minimums in preparation for the checkride.

It was a beautiful morning, and they had put the airplane in the hangar overnight so that it would be easy to start.  During preflight, I got a slug of water in the bottom of the fuel tester from the fuel strainer drain.  This was a first, and now I know what water will look like in the tester.  After a couple more refills of the fuel tester, it was clear of water.  The engine ran really rough for the first few minutes, but eventually smoothed out.

I executed a soft-field takeoff that was not bad--I'm over with not pushing the nose down enough when in ground-effect.  We flew out around the greenhouse and I executed a simulated engine-out landing on a grass strip next to it (we aborted the landing at about 500 feet AGL).  I definitely had the field made, but I probably added flaps too soon.      

Next was slow flight.  I forgot to do my clearing turn first: that would have busted the checkride.  After the clearing turn, I slowed the airplane to minimum controllable airspeed with the stall horn blaring the entire time.  I think this was within PTS, but it is definitely something I want to keep practicing.  Then power-on stalls.  These were passable, but I still took forever to induce the stall break.  Power-off stalls were OK.

Steep turns caused me some trouble.  I was over-controlling. There was definitely some rust to knock off, since I hadn't done one of these in over a month.

We flew to Culpeper and I tried to forward slip in to runway 4 on final.  I was a little high, so I decided to go-around instead of landing long.  On the next circuit, I briefly let the nosewheel touch on my soft-field landing.  I did another soft-field takeoff and flew back to HEF.

If I can get my act together, I have a few more review flights before attempting the final test to be signed-off for the checkride.  I had my CFI renew my 90-day solo endorsement so that I could get more practice in, if needed. My goal is to get the checkride knocked out before New Years.

Flight time this lesson: 1.8 hrs dual
Total time to date: 36.2 hrs total, 27.7 hrs dual, 8.5 hrs PIC

Another Solo Cross-Country Flight

After two weeks of not flying due to weather, illness, and work constraints, I flew my "long" solo cross-country flight on Monday, 15 November.

My instructor called me Sunday afternoon to ask what had happened to me, and I told him that I was just about feeling well enough to fly.  He said that he'd keep an eye out for good weather.  He called again at 8pm and told me the weather looked good tomorrow (Monday) morning.  I was set to meet the chief instructor for a 7am flight plan review.  This meant that I needed to wake up at 0430 to get to the airport in time to check the weather and wrap up my flight plan.  The trip was to be HEF -> Lynchburg (LYH) -> Richmond (RIC) and finally back to HEF.  I started flight planning after the phone call and soon realized that Lynchburg isn't on the Washington sectional and I didn't have the Cincinnati sectional that I needed (doh!).  Since it was too late to call anyone, I planned to go to the airport, apologize for dragging the chief flight instructor in early, buy the sectional, and reschedule the flight. I hate being unprepared, and scrambling to finish a flight plan is not the way that I wanted to begin this flight. So it goes.

Manassas was socked in with mist and fog when I got there. The chief instructor said that I wouldn't be going anywhere for a while, so finish up the flight plan and get ready to go.  The weather forecast was bad for the rest of the week, so it made sense to try to get this trip done.  It turns out there were no Cincinnati sectionals anywhere in the FBO, so he suggested that I change the plan for Charlottesville rather than Lynchburg. The planning process took me longer than I wanted, but the ceiling wasn't VFR until about 1130 EST so there was time.

I took off around noon and made it outside Charlottesville without incident.  The tower controller was managing traffic in both the right and left traffic patterns for runway 3.  I was #3 in line to land, and the tower controller ordered me to report right base for runway 3.  In a moment of confusion, I thought he told me runway 21.  Several miles out and at traffic-pattern altitude,  I called the tower just to confirm what he asked me to do.  He straightened me out, sounding a bit irritated, and had me do a 360 for spacing.

I was landing immediately behind a Boeing 717. It looked like the pilot was shooting instrument approaches for training:  I think he did a touch-and-go.  I was concerned about spacing to avoid wake turbulence behind this 100-seat regional jet, so I flew a slightly wider-than-normal pattern. While on about a 1 mile final, a Skyventures plane waiting to takeoff called the tower to make sure they hadn't been forgotten.  If I remember correctly, the tower controller said with slight sarcasm that he was behind a "Cessna on 7 mile final."  That was just a bit of hyperbole.  I am sensitive to pilots' irritation with students flying bomber patterns in slow, trainer airplanes, especially after reading recent complaints on the dcpilots mailing list.  I usually try to fly a tight pattern.  My only excuse here is that I don't have a lot of experience sharing the traffic pattern with fast jets.  After landing, I called the tower to apologize and said, "I appreciate your patience."

I was advised to fill the tanks at each stop, so I parked at the Landmark FBO and asked for 7 gallons of 100LL, which should fill the tanks.  It looked like they accidentally spilled fuel on the plane and ramp and it took time to clean up.  The interior of the plane smelled like gas for the rest of the trip, but I looked thoroughly and could find no liquid remnants.  It felt like I was there an hour waiting for my ticket, which put me even more behind schedule.  I had stopped for fuel here during prior dual and solo cross country flights, and it seemed to take a long time to get out of there in both cases.  The people in the office were really nice, though.

Prior to the flight, I was told not to ask for Flight Following on the ground at Charlottesville.  After takeoff, when directed to switch to departure, I should instead switch to Flight Service, open my VFR flight plan, and then contact Potomac to ask for flight following.  This would eliminate the usual request for a temporary frequency change to open the search-and-rescue flight plan. When Charlottesville ground control offered Flight Following without my asking, I didn't think twice about it and accepted. I was given squawk code. After being handed off to departure, I tried calling Flight Service on 122.65 MHz and was told "Standby. You are number 2."  Thinking they forgot me after a few minutes, I called again and was told "Standby. You are number 2."  So I dialed up 122.2 MHz, thinking that might be another queue, and was told, "Standby. You're number 5."  At that point, I gave up and called up Potomac.  I'm not sure what the backup at Flight Service was, as it usually takes less than 60 seconds to open a flight plan.   On initial contact with Potomac, they said they had been trying to reach me for awhile.  Lesson learned:  if they say "Contact departure," do it.  Potomac said that they can activate flight plans as well.  I had assumed they opened it at that point, but it turned out that my search and rescue flight plan never got activated for this leg.

I flew to Richmond without incident using the RIC VORTAC to guide me in.  It was raining when I entered the outskirts of Richmond and while the visibility was VFR, it wasn't great.  I could see the tower and had my airport diagram in front of me, but I decided to double-check with the controller about the runway.  I made a pretty good landing on runway 20 and taxied to Richmond Jet Center.  The people are great at that FBO:  they began fueling my airplane immediately and I was out of there in just a few minutes. Unfortunately, there was no one around the ramp when I was leaving to give a tip--I really need to learn the tipping protocol.  I was so grateful for a quick turn because my time calculations would have me getting back to HEF at around sunset

I asked Richmond ground control for a run-up since there were planes all around me.  He put me on taxiway Sierra and I had to make a tight 180 degree turn. Now I know the minimum turning radius of a Cessna 172. The ground controller had me taxi on Romeo and hold short of Alpha.  I held short a little too far back, but it was fine because I had to let a United Express ("Waterski" callsign) go ahead of me.  I took off on runway 20 and was given vectors by the controller.  I was told to stay at or above 3,500 feet.

The flight back to Manassas was uneventful, though the visibility was 5 miles at best.  I needed at least 3.3 hours of solo cross-country time to reach my 5 hour minimum, so I did a few maneuvers over Casanova, VA before returning to land.  I asked for "the option" from Manassas tower and contemplated doing a go-around, but after seeing all the headlights on Route 28, I decided it was getting close to sunset and made a full-stop landing.

There are lots of lessons to take away from this trip.  I won't make those ATC communications mistakes again.  Looking at the GPS track, I did a slightly better job tracking the VORs, but I was still chasing the needles in a few places.  I also think I did a pretty good job of staying ahead of the airplane:  I had frequencies programmed well ahead of time, ATIS 20-30 miles out from the airport, an airport diagram in front of me at least 10 miles out, and descended to be at traffic pattern altitude in time.  It was cool to have made this trip solo, and it has been a great confidence boost.  I was on a high for about the next day-and-a-half.

Flight time this lesson: 3.3 hrs solo cross-country
Total time to date: 25.9 hrs dual, 8.5 hrs PIC, 5.0 hrs solo cross-country

Stage Check II

On Saturday, 30 October, I flew my second stage check--a test with one of the senior flight instructors at the school.  The stage checks are intended to simulate checkrides, and a successful sign-off is required before I can make my long solo cross-country flight. This was, by far, the most exasperating flight so far.  The short version: I passed and will be making my long solo XC flight soon.

I had planned a flight from Manassas to Louisa (KLKU) and I got to the airport early to finish it based on the current winds aloft, density altitudes, computed fuel burn, etc. The oral portion of the test was no problem, though I was again warned not to volunteer more information than was asked so as not to dig a hole for myself during the FAA practical exam. Good advice. The instructor scrutinized my flight plan. He told me that I needed to put airport information, including a runway diagram in the remarks section of the flight plan form--another good thing to do.  I entered the course heading in the first departure block rather than the "top of climb" entry.  I realized that mistake ahead of time but forgot to strike it out.  I also mistakenly added the taxi and run-up fuel burn in with the pattern/climb burn. OK, no problem.

We were running behind schedule and the airplane was scheduled right after my flight.  After a complete--but motivated--preflight I took off on runway 16R.  A Cherokee was on base for landing, but the tower cleared me for takeoff.  Though I expedited my takeoff, the Cherokee must have been flying a really tight pattern and I think I heard the tower order them to make a 360 degree turn to make sure I was clear.  I started the course intercept procedure by declaring that I was going to make a 45 degree turn at the usual 900 feet (the traffic pattern altitude - 300 feet).  First mistake.  That turn needed to be at 1200 feet since we were leaving the pattern.  Once at 1700 feet (TPA + 500 feet), I turned 30 degrees past my intended heading to intercept the course.

The CFI told me ahead of time that he would be watching how well I intercepted the course, so I focused on precisely flying to the imaginary course line.  In so doing, I climbed 100 feet above the 2300 feet filed in my SFRA flight plan and continued to climb.  The Dulles class B airspace looms overhead and promises a violation if busted, so I was duly chastised.  I am usually hyper-conscious of the DC airspace, but this CFI was very successful in distracting me and actively adding stress. Errors began to snowball.  That fiasco caused me to forget to cross-check my directional gyro with the compass, though I had done it once during the run-up.  The directional gyro in this particular airplane precesses terribly and one needs to check it at least every 5 minutes to remotely stay on course.

So I was heading off course and I realized it when we crossed the railroad tracks, but that occurred right when Potomac Approach called to terminate my RADAR service.  I postponed dealing with my course situation for a second to ask Potomac for flight following to Louisa--usual procedure for a cross-country flight-- though I usually ask on first contact with them after takeoff.  So I fixed my course situation with Warrenton (my first checkpoint) in sight.  We passed the tower at Catlett and I indicated my intent to climb to our planned altitude of 3000 feet, so as to reach the top-of-climb point before the first checkpoint. Now, I usually just wait to climb until around Warrenton since it is unmistakenly outside the Dulles Class B airspace, but I was trying to stick to the plan.  My climb profile of 500 ft/min would have put me near the 3000 foot floor of Dulles airspace before we left it.

It was reminded that I had my priorities out of whack (aviate, navigate, communicate), and that I was completely behind the airplane. OK, he's right, and the reason is that I altered my routine to try to pass this test.

I followed the course and made my second checkpoint at the planned time.  I saw a biplane in the distance doing aerobatics.  I began calling out points on the chart that I was looking for to confirm that I was on course.  One was Simpsonville, which I couldn't find.  I said that I think it is a grass strip, to which I am told that it is a terrible checkpoint.  "Not a checkpoint, just pilotage," I say.

I am then instructed to don the hood and fly to the Brooke VOR.  No problem.  I start turning to about 090.  When he asks me what I'm doing, I say this is the rough heading to get there--I learned later that this was one of the few things that I did correctly.  I declare my intention to identify the VOR (listen to the morse code it broadcasts to ensure the VOR is operating and that we're receiving the correct station).  Here again, I'm told my priorities are out of whack: since I have a centered CDI needle, start flying to it and then identify it.  Good advice.  I twist the OBS to center the needle and he asks what radial we're on.  I say "one-zero-zero To" and add 180 to get the radial. My judgement is again brought into question, since the OBS is set to 097, and I had rounded. Don't do that.

We make it to Brooke and I'm instructed to fly to Shannon, which is roughly 6 nm on the 240 radial.  I begin to fly it once the barber pole was displayed in the CDI (cone of confusion over the VOR) and verbally said the time.  I had my hands full and didn't write it down.  I asked if DME (distance measuring equipment) was off-limits and tuned up Brooke.  Once I thought I was 3 minutes on the course, I declared that we should be over the airport.  Nope. We had a few minutes still to go, and my lack of common sense was pointed out because I could have just looked at the DME distance indication. All good stuff to remember for next time.

I was then told to fly to Stafford (KRMN).  I looked on the chart and computed a rough course of about 010.  We approached runway 33 when he pulled the throttle to simulate an engine out.  I pitched up to best glide airspeed and adjusted trim. I wasn't sure we could fly the entire pattern to the downwind runway (15).  I had never been to this airport before.  In a real engine out situation, I probably would have gone to full flaps and forward slip for runway 33 and just landed with a tailwind. I said I wasn't sure we'd make it by flying the pattern for runway 15 (and not without the proscribed steeper-than-standard-rate turns).  At that point we were flying faster than best glide airspeed, I was instructed to check my airspeed.  He then took the flight controls, flew downwind, and made a 30 degree base-final combo and gave the controls back to me before touchdown.  Again my judgement was in question.  I also failed to dial up the AWOS and switch to the CTAF, as there was time to do so.

Then I am to take us home.  I plot a long course that avoids both the MOA and the restricted area.  This is wrong.  I follow a VOR radial instead and we turn to fly through the MOA.  Manassas tower gave us a base entry to land on runway 16R.  I pull power to 1500 RPM and add 10 degrees of flaps at a point where I usually do, but we are a little low, and that move is questioned so I add more power.  I'm getting badgered all the way to the ground while trying to get my crosswind side-slip sorted out and hold about 70 KIAS for the gusts.  We get a little slow--I was probably about 60 KIAS over the numbers and I started the flare too soon.  Stall warning starts.  CFI adds power and we land long.

There were a lot of lessons to take away from this flight.  The first is to act like pilot-in-command, even if that means telling the CFI that you are not going to do what they're asking.  In the future, I will not deviate from my normal operating procedures for a test.  While it wasn't pleasant, I am grateful for the experience.  I am committed to becoming a safe pilot, one that will be able to handle any problems that arise. I passed this stage check, whatever that means, despite doing a terrible job of demonstrating that I am really not a fu**ing idiot.