28 December 2010


My final stage check was scheduled for this afternoon.  This is a dry run for the practical test, and if I do well, they will let me take the actual checkride.  The surface wind at Dulles was forecast to be 10 gusting 20 knots, but the actual conditions at HEF turned out to be less than that.  It was another story at 3000 feet:  the wind speed was almost 50 knots.  When I arrived at the airport, my regular CFI had just returned from a lesson and he warned me that I would be tossed around.  Pilot Reports (PIREPs) confirmed that:
I finished all of the computations for my cross-country flight plan with the current weather.  I had computed a +24 degree wind correction angle today, given the strong winds aloft: that's quite a crab.  The senior instructor performing the stage check pointed out clouds that appeared to be lenticular in shape, a clear indicator of strong turbulence.  As it was noon, the afternoon heating was just going to make it worse. So I opted to get the oral portion of the check done today, and I will fly tomorrow afternoon.

I learned a few new things today from the test (apologies for the long list--it is really for my own benefit as it helps me to remember if I type these things out):
  1. The winds aloft forecast doesn't list the temperature at 3000 feet, my cruising altitude in this case, but they do at 6000 feet. I need that temperature for density altitude calculations, though. I usually estimate the temperature at 3000 feet by adding 6 degrees centigrade to the forecast temperature at 6000 feet (this assumes a -2 degree centigrade per thousand feet lapse rate).  The instructor said that the forecast temperature is usually wrong, and that I should just extrapolate from the actual observed surface temperature instead. Good to know.
  2. The invisible 20nm outer ring of Class C airspace is where VFR pilots are encouraged to contact ATC for RADAR service (traffic advisories).  What I didn't know is that inside this ring, you are guaranteed to get RADAR service if you ask.  In most areas, VFR traffic advisories or flight following is provided on a workload-permitting basis by controllers, and they can refuse if they are too busy.  I've never been refused flight following, but I was dumped once on the way back from Charlottesville (the controller said, "RADAR service terminated. Squawk VFR. Frequency change approved.")
  3. When trying to spot Class D airspace on a chart, look for the bracketed square containing the ceiling altitude of the surface area as this is clearly visible.  Sometimes the blue dashed boundary of Class D will be difficult to see when buried underneath Class C airspace markings as KNGU is here.
  4. FAR 91.211 states that supplemental oxygen is required above 12,500 feet MSL (as in 12,500 feet not inclusive).  You can legally fly around all day at precisely 12,500 feet without supplemental oxygen.  Just as the Class E airspace begins at 1,200 feet AGL (the title of this blog, incidentally), Class G ends at 1199.99... feet.  I really need to study which regs are written as "up to but not including" before the test.  The lawyers just couldn't be consistent when writing these things.
  5. During the practical test, I should say altitudes to the examiner just as I would to air traffic control over the radio ("one thousand two hundred" not "twelve hundred," and "flight level one eight zero" not "flight level one eighty"). Sounds more squared-away, I guess.
  6. I had not seen the taxiway ending marker before.  I'm not usually stumped by signs, so I'll be sure to review them before the test.
  7. It is my responsibility to remember to bring a hood--a view limiting device--with me on the flying portion of the checkride. I'll surely fail if I forget: this has actually happened at my school.
  8. When picking a cruise RPM/power setting for the checkride flight plan, just keep it simple by choosing a round RPM number (e.g. 2200 RPM) and figure the power setting directly from a table entry in the pilot's operating handbook (POH).  I had done what I'd likely do in real life: start with a power setting of 65% and then interpolate the RPM from the POH based on the density altitude.
This hour of ground instruction was enjoyable. I'm looking forward to flying tomorrow.

23 December 2010


I called off the Stage Check today because the winds are out of my comfort zone (over 30 knots):
KHEF 231935Z AUTO 32022G31KT 10SM SCT048 05/M07 A3005 RMK AO1
KIAD 231952Z 32022G32KT 10SM BKN046 04/M07 A3004 RMK AO2 PK WND 32032/1951
KDCA 231852Z 32024G37KT 10SM FEW045 SCT250 06/M08 A3001 RMK AO2 PK WND 33037/1844 SLP163 T00611078 $
KIAD 231720Z 2318/2424 32020G35KT P6SM SCT040 SCT100
     FM232100 32015G25KT P6SM FEW040
     FM240000 32010G20KT P6SM FEW100
     FM241400 32012G25KT P6SM SCT250
     FM242100 33010KT P6SM SCT100 BKN250
I was listening to Dulles Tower (134.425 MHz) on my handheld radio earlier today. Several aircraft reported gaining and losing anywhere from 10 to 20 knots on short final. I prefer not to mess with wind shear.

Hopefully the weather will cooperate next week.  At least I have a little more time to study the PTS and the POH.

19 December 2010

Just need to make it past the senior instructors now

Simulated Engine-out Landing approach
On the heels of yesterday's bungled emergency landings, I made two successful simulated engine-out approaches today: one to a grass strip (broken off at 500 ft above ground) and another to the runway at Culpeper Airport (KCJR).   
Pattern work at KCJR

The wind at Culpeper was variable with a good shift at about 100 ft AGL.  I struggled with the crosswind correction:  I didn't adjust  the aileron correction  aggressively enough (or at all, in one instance) as the wind conditions changed below the tree line over the runway. I kept trying use rudder to re-acquire the centerline on short final. This is a definite weak point--most of my training has been in early morning light winds--and I just need more practice in squirrelly crosswind conditions.

Clearing turns and 45 degree steep turns
I climbed back to 3000 feet and executed some steep turns, power-on, and power-off stalls.  All were within standards.  I put the hood on, recovered from a few unusual attitudes, and then tracked the Casanova (CSN) VORTAC back to Manassas.  The lesson was finished with a soft-field landing that was slightly to the left of the runway centerline.

My CFI felt that I was ready to face the senior instructors for the final stage check. We completed my IACRA application and he signed the §61.109 and §61.107(b) logbook endorsements required to take the practical test. 

I've got the stage check scheduled for later this week; if I fly well, I'll be allowed to take the FAA checkride.  They warned me that the FAA practical test will feel like a review after this flight. I've seen some of their tricks already, though: I won't allow myself to be distracted, and when challenged, I will confidently stick to my guns with what I know is correct procedure.

Flight time this lesson: 2.1 hrs dual
Total time to date: 51.5 hrs total, 40.0 hrs dual, 11.5 hrs Solo/PIC

18 December 2010

Simulated emergency landings

I was surprised how much the little bit of snow on the ground changed the way things looked from the air.  The golf ball radomes south of Culpeper airport are usually an impossible-to-miss landmark for pilotage. I couldn't spot these giant white antenna balls until about four miles out.  They were hiding above a blanket of white snow.

Someone had taken the airplane up before me, so I was greeted with a warm airplane waiting for me on the ramp.

Today's flight became a review of emergency landings.  I kept trying to fly too close to the landing spot and was invariably too high on final approach.  I had no problem with these in the past, but I'll sort it out tomorrow.

We also did a few ground reference maneuvers, but they weren't too interesting in calm winds.  I kept calling out where the steepest and shallowest bank angles would be for wind compensation, but this ended up being more distracting than anything else.

When we got back, the chief flight instructor was plowing snow off of the tie-down area.  He asked me when I was going to schedule the final stage check.  I'm not quite ready, yet.

Flight time this lesson: 1.4 hrs dual
Total time to date: 49.4 hrs total, 37.9 hrs dual, 11.5 hrs PIC

16 December 2010


From FAA 00-6A: Aviation Weather, 1975.

In a pre-coffee--0630 EST--haze, I confirmed my suspicions and called my instructor to cancel.  Last night's TAFs, Forecast Discussion, and Prog Charts didn't look promising, but if the onset of snow and IFR conditions held off just an hour past the 1500Z predicted start time at HEF, it may have been possible to sneak in a quick practice area flight or some pattern work. No such luck, and it didn't occur to me that I could have gotten a few circuits in with a Special VFR clearance. So it goes.

The METARs from nearby Virginia airports were full of conditions that I hadn't seen before:

KIAD 161552Z 15003KT 1/2SM R01R/3500V4000FT SN FZFG VV004 M07/M09 A2988 RMK AO2 SLP123 P0004 T10671089
What is freezing fog (FZFG)?  Richmond got snow and ice pellets (PL):

KRIC 161854Z 00000KT 5SM -SNPL BR OVC009 M03/M04 A2976 RMK AO2 CIG 007V013 SLP084 PLB48 P0003 T10281039
And Lynchburg's forecast had freezing rain with ice pellets (FZRAPL) and freezing drizzle (FZDZ) on the menu: 
KLYH 161740Z 1618/1718 00000KT 1SM -SNPL BR SCT008 OVC015 
     FM162000 02003KT 3SM -FZRAPL BR OVC007 
     FM170100 34003KT 2SM -FZDZ BR BKN007 OVC040 
     FM170700 30003KT 4SM BR BKN012 OVC040 
FM171200 28004KT P6SM SKC
OK, enough METAR code for now.  I learn something new every day...

11 December 2010

Loose Dog

This afternoon, 11 December, I went to the airport for more dual practice.  When I got there,  I saw three or four small dogs--one was an adorable puppy wrapped in a blanket--at the FBO awaiting a rescue flight.  One of the dogs managed to get loose and took off across the ramp.  I heard that it was recovered safely on the other side of the airport, having crossed two active runways without incident.  The Archer carrying the dogs taxied out and took off behind us.

The sun was right in my eyes while flying the cross-country course to Lynchburg (KLYH), and it clearly showed how scratched up the windshields are on these training airplanes.  The haze also helped to reduce the visibility, though the METARs reported 10 statute miles.  The air was completely smooth, though.

I botched another simulated emergency landing. I flew the pattern too tight, and no amount of flaps or slipping would get me down to the grass in time.  I also discovered a new way to screw up soft field landings: I tracked off to the left of the runway centerline after touchdown.  I had been concentrating on making a smooth landing and keeping the nosewheel from touching through the use of throttle, but in so doing, I neglected my feet: not enough right rudder.  Fixate on one thing in flying and it is inevitable that you will mess up another. I thought I had these down a long time ago--very frustrating.  I'm beginning to see why there is an 80% attrition rate for student pilots.

There was no one in the pattern at Culpeper (KCJR) and the winds were calm, so I was able to use both runway 4 and 22 to cut down on taxi time (my school isn't fond of touch-and-go's for some reason).  It had gotten dark, and I had a tough time picking out HEF from the city lights in the background. 

After we got the plane tied down, my CFI asked me what I wanted to do.  I opted to fly one more practice sortie before taking the last stage check.  I want there to be no doubt in anyone's mind, especially mine, that I'm ready for the checkride. The stage checks have been exasperating exercises and I'd prefer not to fly another one before I feel completely prepared.  This means that I won't finish up in under 50 hours, as I had been on track to do, but so it goes. 

Flight time this lesson: 2.0 hrs dual, 1.0 hrs night, 3 night TO/Landings
Total time to date: 48.0 hrs total, 36.5 hrs dual, 11.5 hrs PIC

FAA Written Test: Check

Thursday morning, 9 December, I took the FAA Private Pilot Airplane knowledge test.  I walked out of the testing center $150 lighter and about an hour and a half later with a perfect score.  That was some kind of fluke:  there were three or four questions that I didn't know and just guessed.    

I was warned that the examiner will treat a 100% just like a 70% minimum passing grade, and I will endure extra grilling during the oral portion of the practical test because the examiner will suspect that I memorized the test bank answers. I'll be ready for that--no worries--but I didn't memorize the questions.  I used the King Schools course and took their practice tests over the few days preceding the exam--I can still hear John King saying "ANDS" and "COSUN" in the background.  I also took two practice tests from my school's Jeppesen test book to show my CFI that I was ready for his sign-off to take the test.

The test is administered by computer and is nominally 60 questions long.  My test had 61 questions, one of which didn't count as it was an FAA trial question.  The test software was straightforward and included an on-screen calculator, E6B, and unit conversion utilities.  I brought my plotter, a calculator that I bought at Target the night before for $1.00, and an analog E6B to the test with me.

10 December 2010

Crosswind practice at CJR

On Wednesday afternoon, 8 December, the wind was gusting to 16 knots almost directly across the runway at Culpeper airport.  This was my chance to get some landing practice in something other than the early morning calm winds that I typically fly in.  

We set out treating this flight like a mock FAA practical test.  I realized after taxiing to the runup area that I had forgotten the passenger briefing.  I went through the briefing there, but it needs to be done before the engine is started.  That mistake probably would have caused me to fail my checkride.  I did catch my instructor purposely not wearing his shoulder belt, though. Sneaky.

During the simulated emergency landing, I couldn't spot the grass strip in the area for some reason.  I got down to about 1000 feet AGL and decided to head for another field.  About 200 feet later, I noticed the fence and power lines crossing the center of the field.  Doh!  After breaking off the approach, I headed to Culpeper airport.

The gusty crosswind there ate my lunch.  After the first botched approach, we abandoned our plans of completing a mock checkride and did nothing but pattern work.  I had a hard time holding the runway centerline in a sideslip, and the landing flare felt completely foreign in such a drastic wing-low attitude while being tossed around with the gusts.  My instructor told me to quit expecting to make a soft landing in these conditions: just get the plane on the ground safely.  A gust made my soft field takeoffs interesting, too.  I need more practice in these conditions.

Flight time this lesson: 1.8 hrs Dual
Total time to date: 46.0 hrs total, 34.5 hrs dual, 11.5 hrs PIC

05 December 2010

Four types of Hypoxia

Update 29 June 2011: This page continues to get hits from people searching for hypoxia information, so I thought I'd also list these hypoxia-related resources:   
I scheduled some time today with my CFI to do a mock oral test and go over areas that have historically tripped up students during the practical test.  It also gave me a chance to get familiar with the engine and airframe logs, since I will need them to prove to the Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) that the airplane we'll use for the checkride is airworthy and legal.

I walked into the FBO with all of my normal gear a few minutes early and went straight into the computer room. My instructor said it looked like I was getting ready to file flight plans, so he stopped and said, "You know we're not going flying today, right?"  Based on the howling noises the FBO building was making in the wind and the fact that it was rattling the doors, he estimated the gusts at well over 30 knots.  I made a phone call to the AWOS and the overly enthusiastic computer-generated dude claimed 28 knots, but I guess the sensors are located on a more sheltered part of the field.  I saw a Travel Air land on 34R as I was driving up, and it looked a bit squirrely.   A Falcon jet landed as I was leaving, and the pilot reported wind shear.  There was none of the usual weekend student traffic today.

So I learned that there are four types of hypoxia. And also how to handle a passenger that can't clear her ears or experiences pain from blocked sinuses during descent:  it might not be a bad idea to throw a bottle of Afrin in my flight bag for that particular emergency.  I need to re-read the aeromedical chapters over closely.  Oh, and now I know that I'll need at least 200 hrs of total time before I can fly and be reimbursed for a charitable flight.

If I manage not to screw up, I'll have one last flight with my CFI next week and then he'll throw me to one of the wolves senior instructors for a final check. They have said that if I can get by them, then the checkride will be a review.  If past check flights are representative then I have no doubts about that. I created my IACRA account this afternoon and my FAA written test is scheduled for next week.

04 December 2010

Practice, Practice

I flew solo this morning to get another hour of practice time under my belt.  It was just a good day to go bore holes in the sky.  I can't describe how great I feel after flying--it is like a runner's high that lasts the rest of the day.  I had no idea before starting this training how much I would enjoy it, despite the difficulty:  I am clumsy, slow, and frustratingly dense at times, but I am determined to become a proficient pilot.

Manassas tower again had radio problems today: I couldn't hear voice on the ground control frequency--only a carrier--but they could hear me fine.  This lead to some confusion. I heard the pilot of a business jet (Lear?) give up and switch to the clearance delivery frequency, so I followed suit.  After I cleared the SFRA and Dulles class B airspace, I did a few stalls and steep turns, but then I just enjoyed the scenery for a few minutes before heading back to HEF for pattern work. 

I feel like rudder-to-the-stop forward slips finally clicked with me and I was able to hold the centerline with a VSI-pegging sink rate.  The wind built toward the end of the flight, which gave me a bit of a crosswind to practice holding the centerline (my goal after last Thursday's botched landing).  I was happy with my soft field and short field takeoffs (two each).
I have the FAA written test scheduled for next week.  It will be great to finally check off that requirement.

Flight time this lesson: 1.3 hrs PIC/Solo
Total time to date: 44.2 hrs total, 32.7 hrs dual, 11.5 hrs PIC

Short field landing on a relatively short field

On Thursday morning, 2 December 2010, I went up with my CFI to practice maneuvers.  The highlight of the flight was landing at Gordonsville Municipal Airport (KGVE): it was a real confidence boost to execute a short field landing on a short field, rather than simulating it on the 3,700 foot runway at HEF. Taking into account the displaced threshold at Gordonsville, there is 1,860 usable feet of rough asphalt available on runway 23 for landing.  The runway is 40 feet wide, the narrowest I've attempted so far. Surprisingly, I had no problems. I chopped the throttle after clearing the imaginary 50 foot obstacle at the threshold and landed with plenty of room to stop.  This was also the first time I had back-taxied on a runway--all the airports I've landed at so far have had taxiways.  Now if only the school's insurance company would allow me to practice landing on a real grass field... 

We did slow flight, stalls, steep turns, a simulated emergency landing on a grass strip, and ground reference maneuvers.  I had done the ground reference (S-turns and turns about a point) a couple of times back in the summer.  No major issues there--I think they were within the minimum standards.  So we head back home, and I botched the landing.  I had wanted to practice a forward slip, but I had already added 20 degrees of flap and the headwind made it unnecessary.  This was to be a soft-field landing so I was focused on keeping the nose wheel off and adding power right before touchdown.  Whenever I concentrate intently on one thing, it distracts me from others: my lazy feet let go of the rudder right before touchdown, allowing a bit of a side load on the landing gear.  Not pretty.  The conclusion was that I need one more practice flight before the last stage check  No argument there.

Flight time this lesson: 1.8 hrs dual, 0.4 hrs simulated instrument
Total time to date: 42.9 hrs total, 32.7 hrs dual, 10.2 hrs PIC, 3.8 hrs simulated instrument