19 December 2011

First tailwheel transition lesson

Yesterday, I made my first takeoffs and landings in an airplane with a tailwheel--otherwise known as a conventional landing gear--rather than the tricycle configuration of the Cessna 172. The Super Decathlon is like nothing I have flown so far: it is nimble, climbs like crazy in the cold air, and sinks like a rock when slowed below best L/D airspeed. And I love the Hooker harnesses in this plane: they are so comfortable and I wish we had them in the gliders.

FAR 61.31(i) requires training and a logbook endorsement before I can fly a tailwheel airplane as pilot in command. This regulation was instituted in 1991 to address the disproportionate number of landing incidents and accidents in taildraggers. I'm taking this training as a means to improve my stick-and-rudder skills and to gain the tailwheel proficiency I'll need if I ever want to tow gliders as all of my club's tow planes are taildraggers. I'm a long way from fulfilling the FAR 61.69 and insurance requirements to tow--it will be awhile before I'll can accrue 100 hours of airplane PIC time--but you have to start somewhere...

04 December 2011

Niwot's Curse Thwarted (for now)

Last weekend, I had planned to fly from Gaithersburg, MD (KGAI) to Boulder, CO (KBDU) in a Cessna 182E. This would have been my longest cross-country trip to date at 1,300 nautical miles. The owner is a flight instructor (CFII) and the trip would have given me some experience flying in actual instrument conditions. I would have earned a high-performance endorsement as well. Mechanical issues and weather forced us to revise our plan and, ultimately, to cancel the flight; Chief Niwot's curse be damned.

I started my public transportation journey early Saturday morning using bus, metro, and taxi to get to Montgomery County Airpark in time to meet the airplane, which was enroute from Boston. Unfortunately, the airplane's transponder failed in flight. Potomac Approach could not allow it to enter the Washington D.C. Special Flight Rules Area in which GAI resides without receiving a secondary radar return from the airplane. The owner was forced to land in Frederick, MD (KFDK), outside this airspace.

22 November 2011


Flying has been a source of joy in a year otherwise marked by professional upheaval and disappointment. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to learn to fly and experience so much in one year. Never have I met so many wonderful people (you know who you are). The quality of humanity in this aviation community continues to amaze me.

Here are a few things that I was fortunate enough to do this year:
  • Earned my Private Pilot certificate (ASEL)
  • Flew my first airplane passenger as a private pilot
  • Went upside down and spun an aircraft
  • Joined a soaring club, learned to fly gliders, and added my glider rating. I've sure got a lot to learn, but soaring has gotten into my blood. 
  • Flew in mountainous terrain and in high density altitude conditions in Colorado. The instructor also taught me a whole lot about the art of flying and life in general.
and in the last three days:
  • Took my first passenger up in the ASK-21 who had never been in a glider before.
  • Flew a Cessna 182 Skylane (incredible airplane)
  • Got my first 0.6 hrs of actual IMC 
  • Shot my first ILS approach (with lots of help), breaking out of the clag at about 800ft.

07 October 2011

Mountain Flying in the Rockies

Last week, 27-30 September, I took a mountain flying course out of Rocky Mountain Metro Airport (KBJC) taught by John Bowman of Western Air. I had never been to Colorado prior to this trip; it was the first time this flatlander so much as laid eyes on the Rocky Mountains. The experience was life-altering.
On the ramp after landing at Leadville (KLXV)
The terminal building at Leadville, elevation 9,927 feet MSL

07 September 2011

Another glider flying Friday

The airport was a convenient stop along the way to my Labor Day camping trip; what better way to break up the drive than by flying for a few hours? With scud obscuring the ridge, operations got off to a late start.

I took off in the ASK-21 with a solid tailwind blowing. I hadn't flown the "K" from the front seat since my checkride over a month ago. I popped off tow at around 2,000 feet over the ground to keep a comfortable distance from the clouds and went hunting for the weak thermal we passed through 30 seconds earlier. Finally settling for a not-quite-zero sink rate, I orbited as long as I could to allow the Pawnee to take off.

The windsock indicated that the wind had picked up, though the 1-26 was in the pattern to land in the grass beside runway 28.  He was safely down when I made my downwind entry for runway 10. I intended to carry a few extra knots of airspeed, surf the length of the 3,000 foot runway in ground effect, then stop on the piano keys so that the glider could be pushed off and turned around quickly.

Not so fast, Slick: the ship ballooned, partly due to a wind gust and mostly due to my ham-handedness with the spoilers. I recovered--held pitch attitude, careful not to PIO--but bounced on touchdown. And we're flying again. I set it down easy, but after all of that, there wasn't enough energy left to roll to the end of the runway. Meanwhile, the tow plane was entering the pattern, so I had to push the glider into the grass and suffer the indignity of a tow back. By far my worst landing in months, it was ugly but thankfully not rough on the glider.

28 August 2011

Friday Soaring

With hurricane Irene threatening to disrupt weekend plans, the club had a healthy quorum of Friday flyers. I was happy to get some stick time as the storm remnants canceled my first tailwheel transition lesson in the Super D this morning.

The early afternoon lift was cut up and challenging to work. Cloud bases were fairly low at around 4,000 feet. Some days you have to work for every foot of altitude. I'm beginning to love that about soaring: nothing is guaranteed, and you don't know for sure what you're going to get until you're in it. My first flight in the SGS 1-36 was only 26 minutes. 

After a re-light, I eeked out a 1 hour and 9 minute flight. Less than 30 seconds before I'd need to break off to land, I found some weak lift and scratched back up. The altimeter appeared frozen for several minutes, then it slowly began to wind up. Once at an altitude where it was safe to leave the weak lift, I headed off and eventually felt the welcome jolt of a 3 knot thermal. Later, I witnessed a student's first solo flight take place below me. I briefly shared a thermal with the hottest ship in the club, an ASW-27. I'm still hesitant to fly in gaggles, and I can't help but focus more on the relative position of the other glider than my position in the lift. I eventually fell out and landed on the pavement of runway 10.

25 August 2011

More back seat time

Saturday: yet another instance where several pilots had extraordinary flights and I was back on the ground in under 30 minutes. At one point in the afternoon, the club had 9 gliders and 2 tow planes simultaneously aloft. I took off around 1 pm, released from tow over the ridge, and hooked up with good lift. The Grob 103 was flying elongated patterns in the strongest lift over the rocks. I had an interesting time keeping the 1-36 in a safe opposing position while also remaining within the thermal.

14 August 2011

Soaring Friday

Friday, 12 August, was a great soaring day. The thermals started working at around 1pm, and I launched in the 1-36 shortly thereafter. I could smell the smoke in the cockpit from the forest fire burning between the ridges just south of Signal Knob. Strong thermals quickly lifted me up to a little over six thousand feet MSL, and then I went off exploring, making it as far east as the edge of Front Royal, then over Linden VOR where an airliner passed overhead. Since I don't yet have my Bronze badge, I'm not permitted to stray out of gliding distance from the airport. That's fine for now.

I took my Camelbak along for the first time, threading the straps of the glider's safety harness through the shoulder straps of the Camelbak so that it sat across my lap. That worked well; I was happy to have water during the 2 hour and 50 minute flight.

01 August 2011

Win some, lose some

I had my longest flight to date in the 1-36 on Saturday: two hours and 12 minutes. That's certainly nothing to brag about, but I'll take it. All I could find was strong sink after releasing from tow and I made it back to the 45-degree traffic pattern entry point at about 1,500 feet AGL. I was just about to start my Before Landing checklist and had the fish story ready to explain my embarrassingly quick return to the airport when I stumbled into a booming thermal that carried me up to 5,000 feet MSL. The lift got stronger and stronger; I could have stayed aloft the rest of the day. But I forgot my water bottle. After two hours in the hot sun, I was dehydrated and convinced that I should get this giant winged beer can back onto the ground so that I could get a cool drink. I made the initial radio call and the duty officer replied, telling me to stay up for a few more minutes so that I could claim the coveted "flight of the day." Unfortunately, I couldn't understand him.

23 July 2011

Glider rating checkride and first passenger

The ASK-21 that I flew during the test
On Wednesday morning, 20 July, I took the practical test for my glider rating in 97°F heat. The high density altitude and tailwind on takeoff made the rope break maneuver on the second flight interesting. Overall, I was disappointed with my performance. I flew sloppily, but everything was within PTS and certainly safe. I never seem to be at my best during a checkride, and I suspect that lack of sleep the night before was a contributing factor.

I am so happy to have earned this rating. Now I can start learning how to better keep the glider aloft and actually go places. I have begun reading Helmut Reichmann's wonderful Cross-Country Soaring (Streckensegelflug) which recently went back into print.

15 July 2011

First Flying Anniversary

One year ago today, 15 July 2010, I took a demo flight in a Cessna 172, my first time sitting in the pilot's seat of an aircraft. I earned my private pilot/airplane rating in March and started working on my glider rating immediately thereafter. My Google Docs logbook/spreadsheet says that I've accumulated 123.7 total hours so far, 26.9 of which have been spent flying sailplanes.

Today I practiced for my upcoming glider checkride. I made one flight in the K-21 beneath a broken cirrus ceiling. There was no lift, but the smooth air was ideal for working on the PTS maneuvers.

Later on, the winds aloft whipped up and south/southeast surface winds made for squirrelly takeoffs, sporty aerotows, and turbulent trips around the traffic pattern. My first takeoff in the 1-36 today was so bad that it rattled me: after releasing from tow, I just wanted to get the glider back on the ground rather than working the thermals.  

14 July 2011

Glider Flying at Burner Airport (VG55)

The 1-36 landing following cross-country aerotow from FRR
On Saturday, 9 July, I had the privilege to fly out of Burner (formerly Woodstock) Airport, a beautifully manicured 3,000 x 100+ ft. private grass strip. My club held an "away day" there. At one point I counted 8 gliders, 3 towplanes, innumerable pilots, and a record number of family on the field. Soaring is inherently social; you can't do it without teamwork.

I wanted to make the first flight with an instructor to be sure that I'd get the approach and landing right at an unfamiliar-to-me field with a sloping runway. The high density altitude made it unwise to tow the heavy Grob 103 loaded with two people using the Aviat Husky, so I took the 1-36 and just gave it a shot solo.

13 July 2011

"B" Badge

I flew four consecutive days, July 1-4, in order to start practicing for my upcoming glider rating checkride. On Friday, July 1st, I managed a 104 minute flight in the 1-36 Sprite, which was good enough for my SSA "B" badge. A club member was waiting for the glider and I didn't want to be rude, so I opened the dive brakes at 3,500 feet AGL to get the ship back on the ground quickly.

I found decent thermals on Saturday afternoon during a solo flight in the club's Grob 103. I wound up with an hour-and-13-minute flight, climbing to 4,700 feet AGL while attempting to fly triangle courses around the airport. These numbers are really nothing to be proud of, but I'm content to take one small step at a time. The lift seemed to shut down on me so I beat upwind back to the airport. Near the initial pattern entry point, I joined a gaggle with a couple of gliders in a "house" thermal. The distances still seemed too close to me--I'm still getting acclimated to flying in close proximity to other gliders--so after a few turns, I decided to land.    

27 June 2011

(Statute) Mile High

I had my best solo flight to date yesterday, 27 June: 49 minutes in the SGS 1-36 Sprite. I released from tow at the customary 3,700 feet above sea level (3,000 feet above the ground) and climbed to 5,600 ft. MSL thanks to a few thermals north of the airfield. This was the first time I've encountered well-defined thermals while flying solo. Those numbers are hardly worth mentioning--the duration isn't quite good enough for even the "B" badge--but it felt great: the air was comfortably cool above 5,000 feet and the vario's consistent staccato beeping--indicating lift--was a welcomed change from the last month-or-so of flight attempts. For the first time, I was able to sit back while circling in a 35-degree bank beneath the shade of a dark-bottomed Cu and just take in the view. Despite my appalling lift-hunting skills, I am utterly and completely hooked. This is flying, pure and simple, as written on our club T-shirts.

21 June 2011

Happy Summer Solstice

Here in the Washington D.C. metropolitan sprawl, we will enjoy 14 hours and 54 minutes of daylight today, the longest of the year. It is officially summer. The long days are great. The heat, humidity, haze, and afternoon thunderstorms are already here. Anything above 6 miles of visibility will be a luxury until fall.

I went glider flying on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of this past weekend, racking up a total of 11 short solo flights in the SGS 1-36 Sprite. The conditions on Friday were sporty with a nearly direct crosswind from the southwest. The turbulence off of the tree line tossed the 1-36 around enough during takeoff that I hit my head (lightly) on the canopy on the third flight of the day. Now I really cinch down the straps of the 4-point harness, starting with the lap belt.

14 June 2011

First Flight in the Sprite (SGS 1-36)

On Sunday, 12 June, I got my logbook endorsement to fly the club's Schweizer 1-36 Sprite and promptly made two flights in it. This is the first time I've flown solo in something without going up with an instructor beforehand (you don't have that luxury in a single-hole aircraft). Here's a video of the first sortie:

Glider Flying at High View Farm (61VA)

On Saturday, 11 June, my soaring club held an outing at High View Farm Airport, a private grass strip near Berryville, VA and Summit Point, WV. Many thanks to the owner for giving us permission to conduct glider operations there. Two of the club gliders were ferried to the airport by cross-country aerotow in the morning. The runway is tricky to see from the air, and the duty officer successfully used a signal mirror from the ground to help the arriving pilots locate the runway; it was surprising how well that worked.

I had never taken off from a grass runway before. It was a great training opportunity to make an approach and landing on an unfamiliar field. The runway is 2,600 feet long with trees at both ends and tall grass to each side. It slopes up, then down again past midfield. I got the first dual flight of the day in the Grob 103. This turned out to be fortunate because the density altitude eventually exceeded 2,500 feet (field elevation is ~600 feet), which put a stop to dual flights in the afternoon for safety. The heavily loaded trainer, high density altitude, sloped runway, and slight tailwind all contributed to increase the length of the takeoff roll.

09 June 2011

HEF to PVG and back

Future Pilot
On Tuesday, 7 June, I made my longest cross-country flight to date: Manassas Regional (HEF) to Hampton Roads Executive (PVG), a 133 nautical mile trip each way. That is admittedly not a very long journey by airplane, but I'm content to take one baby step at a time. My brother and two-year-old nephew/godson were there to meet me when I landed.

10th Glider Solo Completed

I spent the last two weekends flying gliders. As of Sunday, 5 June, I've logged the requisite minimum of 10 solo flights per my club's rules to transition to the Schweizer SGS 1-36 Sprite, a single-seat glider. Hopefully I can get checked out in it soon, as that will allow me not to compete with flight instruction activity in the club's two seaters. I'm told to expect some pucker factor on the first takeoff because it is very sensitive in pitch and prone to PIO. Since there is only one seat, you learn to fly it on the first attempt.

Lynchburg Airshow

On Sunday, 22 May, I drove down to Lynchburg, Virginia (KLYH) to see the airshow. The threat of thunderstorms in the afternoon and an uncertain departure time following the show prevented me from flying in. My source of rental aircraft prefers that I not fly at night until I have a few more cross-country hours logged, and I agree with that restriction.

18 May 2011

College Park Aviation Museum

After dropping off the paperwork required to fly into CGS and learning the airport operating procedures, I decided to check out the adjacent College Park Aviation Museum. I'm glad that I did. I had no idea how much history took place at this airfield:

  • Wilbur Wright trained the first two Army aviators at the field (they soloed in under 4 hours, if I remember correctly)
  • It was a stop on the first airmail route
  • The precursor of the ILS was developed and tested there 
  • The Ercoupe was test flown there

10 May 2011

First Glider Solo

On Sunday afternoon, May 8, I flew my first solo in an ASK-21 glider:

It felt great, especially after some pretty poor flying on my part in the past two lessons. I'm grateful for all the patient flight instruction that I've received since joining the club in late March.

06 May 2011

A Passenger (Ballast) Today. Photos and Canopy Glare

I decided that I'd much rather spend the day at the airport than work on items (e.g. yard work) from my ever-growing list. It is a sickness.

I don't yet have a solo endorsement for gliders and there was no instructor on duty today, so I was content to help out with ground operations, not intending to go flying. Only three of us and the tow pilot showed up, so we just pulled one glider out of the hangar. With my ground handling duties diminished, I happily seized the opportunity to serve as human ballast on two flights. During the second sortie, the thermals lifted us to 7,400 feet MSL (about 6,700 feet AGL)--the highest I've been in a glider so far--with climb rates briefly exceeding 1,000 feet per minute. The air brakes were required to maintain a legal clearance beneath the clouds and to descend before the hour reservation was up; we could have stayed aloft all day.

This was the first time I took a camera with me in the cockpit. Unfortunately, the glare from the canopy spoiled the majority of my pictures.

Reflections from the canopy spoiled this one

26 April 2011

Frustrating day of glider training

During and after the storm
Before Solo Checklist:

  1. Pre-solo written test: Complete
  2. Boxing-the-wake manuevers: Lousy. It got pretty bumpy over the ridge, but I won't hide behind that excuse again.
  3. Crosswind landings: Subpar. Winds were out of the south (nearly direct crosswind from the left). It got squirrelly below the tree line, and I didn't sort that out quickly enough before the instructor intervened.
The weather on Sunday, 24 April was interesting. In the afternoon, the duty officer spotted a storm cell on the RADAR and called all hands to put the gliders away. A few minutes after the last sailplane came to rest safely in the hangar, the precipitation rolled over the ridge and drenched the airport. About ten minutes later, the sun was shining again.  

23 April 2011

Annual Inspections

What lurks beneath the pilot's seat in a Grob 103
Today I participated in the annual inspections of the club's two-place gliders. We removed the seat pans and inspection panels, vacuumed out all the cruft that had accumulated over the past year, and otherwise prepared the birds for the A&P/IA's inspection.

I was happy to get a look at how sailplanes are put together. It was comforting to see that the flight control linkages are composed of very stout and reliable pushrods. Now I know that capacity flasks really exist--I counted three of them in the Grob--and are not just figments of the Glider Flying Handbook's imagination. Though I know nothing about aeronautical engineering, I found the overall design of the ASK-21 to be extremely well thought out. For example, the holes in the seat pan allow the safety belt buckles to just barely fit through, making disassembly easier than it otherwise would have been.

These gliders are simple compared to powered airplanes, and simple is a virtue: the actual inspection process took only a few hours. After a tailwheel tire replacement on one and an air brake adjustment on the other, both gliders were back in service and flying this afternoon.

22 April 2011

Two Weekends of Glider Training

The ceiling was too low on Saturday, 9 April, to support glider operations, though I did get to sit in on the ground portion of another pilot's flight review, which was a good overview of relevant procedures and regulations. Sunday didn't look much better, and I had about an hour of ground instruction while waiting for the clouds to rise. Fortunately, they did, and I got a great training day in.

15 April 2011

Touch and go

After it became clear that I wasn't going to be needed to work on Thursday 14 April 2011, I took a look at the weather forecast and quickly scheduled one of the Cessna 172P's for a two-hour block. The online scheduling system showed lots of reservations, which was unusual for Thursdays when I was training over the winter. Lots of people either had the same idea--it promised to be the nicest day in the past week--or the fair weather pilots are beginning to emerge from hibernation. Either way, it is great to see more folks out flying.

08 April 2011

Weekend of Glider Flying

I went out to the field last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (1-3 April) for a full weekend of flight training with two different instructors.

 On Friday, the conditions were too turbulent to perform the maneuvers that I needed to practice, so I didn't fly. I got practice running wings and ground handling, but I'm still rather clumsy at that right now. It was pretty cool to see standing lenticular clouds (lennies) along I-66 on the drive in, but none appeared around the airport. These clouds indicate that the conditions may be right for mountain wave soaring, but that didn't pan out. The wind direction was 300 degrees at about 20 knots, which is also usually good for ridge soaring, but there was no lift to be found.

07 April 2011

Cessna 172 Pattern Work

After getting some practice landing the glider and learning the sight picture, I wanted to make sure that I could still land a Cessna 172. So I scheduled an hour in my favorite C172P last Tuesday, 29 March, to bash around the traffic pattern at KHEF.

I managed to get 4 takeoffs and landings in before the pattern started to get busy and the wind picked up. I called it a day at 0.7 hours on the Hobbs, as I am trying to keep proficient and current while being parsimonious with my remaining flying funds.

05 April 2011

First glider takeoff and landing attempts

Fortunately the weather was flyable on Sunday, 27 March. I hopped in my car and headed to the field shortly after receiving the email nod from the duty officer that flight operations were on. There wasn't much lift to be found--my longest flight of the day was just 17 minutes--but the conditions were good for training.

31 March 2011

"Don't Circle in Sink..."

The instructor that I flew with on Saturday told me that; he said it was true in soaring as well as in life. Sound advice.

On Saturday, 26 March, I got my first taste of soaring conditions. From a tow to 2,500 feet AGL, we climbed to 5,200 feet MSL and stopped there to maintain legal VFR minimum cloud clearance. The flight lasted about an hour and a half. Based on my reading of the vario, we briefly experienced a climb rate of 1000+ fpm while circling a thermal. I was amazed.

20 March 2011

First Glider Flights

This past 7 days has been full of personal flying firsts. Today, I joined a local soaring club and took my first two dual glider flights.

First Acro Ride

Yesterday, I had one of the coolest experiences of my life so far. I strapped on a parachute and a hopped into the front seat of a capable, purpose-built aerobatic airplane. A friend of mine offered to take me up in celebration of my finally passing the checkride.

First $100 Hamburger (HEF to JGG)

Well no actual hamburgers were consumed and the tally was over a hundred, but I made a lunch run from HEF to JGG (Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport, in Williamsburg, VA) on Thursday to break in my newly acquired Private Pilot certificate. We had lunch at Charly's. With two restricted areas to avoid, I flew a conservative route, not knowing if I could file for the GRUBY or BRV gates and exit the Washington SFRA near Quantico.

17 March 2011

Temporary Airman

I passed my checkride re-test on Monday afternoon. I hadn't planned on taking it that day. I had gone up for a review flight earlier and was all set to schedule the test. The examiner happened to be at the airport and was available, so we just hopped into the airplane and got it over with. I didn't have the opportunity to become nervous. I could not be happier.

08 March 2011

Udvar-Hazy Center

I wish the Cessna that I flew had rockets (and an O-470) like this Bird Dog
On 24 February, I finally made it to the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center, adjacent to Dulles airport. I've had this on my want-to-do list for years (I've even resorted to using Gmail Tasks to manage that list now).

The hangars are enormous, housing the Enola Gay, a Concorde, an SR-71, and inummerable other cool items. If you have a long layover at Dulles, go there. You won't regret it. I've even seen evidence of a shuttle bus running between the airport and the museum.

07 March 2011

Gravelly Point Park (DCA)

On 19 February, the surface winds were gusting over 45 knots. After hearing a couple of go-arounds on the radio, I decided to head out to Gravelly Point Park at the end of runway 1/19 at National Airport (KDCA) to watch the professionals handle the conditions.

Due to the strength of the northwest wind, most aircraft were circling to land on runway 33, so the view wasn't as good as with runway 1. Years ago, I visited the park when runway 19 was active. It appeared that the jets on final approach were going to fly right into us, and after they passed overhead I would feel a tiny residue of the jet blast and smell Jet-A. Highly recommended. There is a sign banning kite flying in the park.

KSUT, 60J, KMYR (Myrtle Beach)

I've fallen way behind on updates to this blog.

On 16 February, I took another crack at the squirrely coastal winds and found no shortage of crosswinds to practice in. Each airport--Cape Fear Regional (KSUT), Ocean Isle (60J), and Myrtle Beach Int'l (KMYR)--had wind blowing almost directly across the runway.
Cape Fear Regional Jetport (KSUT)

15 February 2011

A flight over the beach, practice emergency approaches

After two cancelled flights due to weather, I went up today to practice some emergency approaches. It was a beautiful day: good visibility, clear skies, and the ever-present wind along the coast to keep me honest. 

09 February 2011

Flying over the coast

On Monday, 7 February, I flew with a CFI at Cape Fear Regional Airport (KSUT) for a change of pace, something to do while visiting family. I wanted to get some experience flying in the North Carolina coast and continue to tighten up my flying for the checkride retest.

I flew a modified Cessna 172N with a constant speed propeller (the spinner was from a Piper) and a Lycoming O-360 engine putting out 180 horsepower. These STCs made the airplane accelerate and climb quickly. At takeoff, the VSI was indicating a climb rate of about 1300 feet per minute at sea level with an outside air temperature that was a few degrees cooler than standard temperature. It was the prettiest 172 that I have flown to date: the paint and interior were both new, and it even had wheel pants.

This was the first time I had flown behind a constant speed prop, so I enjoyed learning how to manage it and execute the extra checklist items in the before takeoff and before landing checklists. It took a little while to get accustomed to the manifold pressure gauge and tachometer combination vs. just the tachometer in a normal C172 with a fixed pitch prop. 

The airplane had no attitude indicator or directional gyro. I was happy about that: they weren't there for me to fixate on and I had no choice but to keep my head out of the airplane to judge the bank angle and heading visually. This aircraft had a turn and bank indicator rather than the usual turn coordinator as well.

We stayed in the pattern for a few normal takeoffs and landings. The view from pattern altitude (1000 feet MSL) was beautiful. This airplane was much heavier in pitch than an unmodified C172, and the CFI said it was more like a Cessna 182 than a 172 in that respect; it took some getting used to: I had to pull hard on the yoke during takeoff rotation and during the landing flare.

My landings need some work.  I was starting the flare too high, pulling the power to idle too abruptly, and finally touching down with a very high pitch attitude.
It was a fun afternoon, and the CFI gave me some helpful suggestions.
Flight time today: 1.0 hrs dual

25 January 2011

More remedial training

I had mistakenly thought that that tonight's Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) for the state of the union address banned all VFR general aviation flights within the Washington D.C. SFRA for the entire day. This would preclude flying for me, because I train out of an airport within the SFRA. I scheduled time to fly this afternoon once I realized that the TFR was only in effect during the actual address.

Today's flight path
Today the wind was calm. My CFI and I flew again to KHWY to work on engine-out landings and soft-field landings.  I made two decent emergency landings to a full stop and my soft-field landings were OK: certainly within the PTS parameters.  I'm starting to struggle with things that I thought I had down, though, such as forward slips. These need more work.

When we got back to HEF, I came in on the base leg behind a Cessna on the downwind.  The tower turned us on an extended downwind for spacing and we ended up on probably a 4 mile final approach.  I wanted to try another forward slip, and my poor execution caused the airplane to track away from the centerline. My instructor took the controls an demonstrated it, then gave the controls back to me.  We were high on short final.  I should have just done another slip, but I thought I could get the airplane down with no power and flaps alone. I landed way long and crooked to boot. I should have gone around. The chief flight instructor witnessed this and sternly gave me his two cents. He warned me that I had better get the manuevers that I busted to be much better than mediocre before I attempt the retest, because the DPE would assuredly cut me no slack.

The balance in my account at the FBO has enough for maybe two more 1.3 hour flights. I'm not sure I can get myself proficient enough to pass the test before exhausting these funds, given that I must execute these manuevers flawlessly to succeed. We'll see what happens.

Did I mention that flying with an instructor in a Cessna 172 costs almost $3 per minute from the time the engine is started until it is shut down?

Flight time today: 1.4 hrs dual

24 January 2011

Got back on the horse

In the wake of yesterday's fun, I decided to fly as soon as possible to address my proficiency deficiencies and wrap this thing up. The weather was good today (-1C on the field). It felt absolutely balmy compared to yesterday. Another instructor saw me preflighting the airplane and stopped by to offer some encouragement, which was very much appreciated.

I flew to Warrenton (KHWY) to practice engine-out landings and soft-field landings.  The emergency landing was OK. Some of the soft-field landings were pretty ugly:  I was cranking in way too much left rudder/not enough aileron for the crosswind correction and then not getting on the right rudder fast enough when I picked up the nose in the flare. I was also flaring too high and dropping it in today for some reason. More practice clearly required.

Flight time today: 1.6 hrs dual

23 January 2011

Busted Checkride

I busted the flight portion of my FAA Private Pilot practical test (checkride) today. I must make it clear that this was entirely my fault, and the examiner was beyond fair. I'll admit, it really took the piss out of me this afternoon. I was surprised at just how lousy I felt for a few hours to follow. The examiner walked back to the FBO while I was putting the airplane away. News spreads fast, and it was embarrassing walking in there a few minutes later. So it goes.

The oral exam was no problem. I was prepared. I had that stuff down cold. He nailed me on a long-held misconception, though:  assume there is a strong crosswind component for a particular runway and you are flying the downwind leg of the traffic pattern. You turn base. That crosswind now becomes a tailwind. I thought that the indicated airspeed would drop--ever so briefly--while the airplane accelerated in the now-changed relative wind. Wrong. He seemed to have some fun with that, and it dragged out until I finally gave up and said, "I'm wrong." I figured that this new tailwind would be like flying through a dying gust, and in that case, the indicated airspeed does briefly drop--I've seen it. This is a prime example why you should keep your explanations to the barest minimum lest you unnecessarily expose your ignorance on something. The DPE will assuredly hammer you.  

Shortly thereafter, the examiner declared that I had passed the oral portion of the exam. I said that I wanted to look at the weather to decide whether or not to fly.  The latest METARs at the time showed the gusts were gone and the turbulence AIRMET was no longer covering the flight area:

KHEF 231815Z AUTO 32013KT 10SM CLR M01/M16 A3016 RMK AO1

I solicited a few PIREPs from returning pilots, and the reports were favorable. The winds aloft (3000 feet) were forecasted to be light. I decided to go for it, since I judged the current conditions to be within my capabilities. I soon discovered that the surface winds didn't stay that way for long, though.  Here were the METARs during my flight:

KHEF 231915Z AUTO 33013G19KT 10SM CLR M01/M17 A3017 RMK AO1
KHEF 231935Z AUTO 31018G22KT 10SM CLR M01/M16 A3017 RMK AO1
KHEF 231955Z AUTO 31010G23KT 10SM CLR M01/M17 A3018 RMK AO1
KCJR 231940Z AUTO 35009KT 10SM CLR 01/M13 A3016 RMK AO2
KCJR 231920Z AUTO 35008G15KT 10SM CLR 01/M13 A3015 RMK AO2

Fortunately, the wind was almost right down the runway at HEF. During the run-up, I thought the mag drop might be a little high, so I did it again to confirm. I managed in that attempt to somehow turn the ignition switch to OFF instead of the right mag. This caused the engine to backfire. I've never done that before. It set the tone for the flight. The chief instructor gave me a lecture about that on my return. Apparently you can blow off the muffler that way. Won't happen again.

After a marginally passable soft-field takeoff, I contacted Potomac departure and began to intercept my course. My wind correction calculation and the forecasted winds aloft were good, so I intercepted my course and flew the first two checkpoints without requiring much additional correction.

Botched emergency approach
At 2500 ft. MSL, he asked me to pull carb heat and close the throttle to simulate an engine failure. It was made clear that this was do-or-die: I was to put the airplane safely on the grass strip below, or I would fail the test. I've done this maneuver successfully several times in the past. I set up to fly the downwind leg and spiraled down. I was too close, laterally, to the runway below.  I was shooting to be at 1,200 feet at the key point on downwind, where I would begin to fly a pattern for the dead-stick approach. One problem was that I didn't line up for the downwind--I wasn't where I needed to be. I was in mid-spiral and I didn't think I could make another turn before falling below my target altitude, so I started flying toward the runway way too high. I was worried about the strong headwind causing me to land short, and in my confusion, I didn't get flaps in fast enough and my forward slip was anemic. This made the examiner clearly very unhappy (they really don't enjoy failing applicants).

I hadn't been told that the test was a bust, so I was still flying, but it was difficult to get my head back in the game. The rest of the flight was a blur of utterly embarrassing airmanship. He declared that more training was required on my part at one point, and I took us back to HEF.  I was to do a soft-field landing. This was horribly executed.

In the end, I have to retest the emergency maneuvers and soft field landings. I believe that was beyond generous.  So here is a weird loophole in the FARs: I log pilot-in-command time with a passenger, even though I remain a student pilot. It is otherwise illegal to fly passengers as a student pilot.

The failed emergency approaches demonstrated that I do not yet have the proficiency to perform the maneuvers when loaded up with stress (and believe me, this was a stressful event). A real emergency will certainly be stressful, and I don't want these privileges unless I'm sure that I can use them safely even if an engine failure should occur. I am undeterred, however. I'll practice with my CFI and try again soon. I enjoy flying too much and I have worked too hard to back away now.

Flight time today: 1.4 hrs PIC

Solo pattern work

It was cold: -10C when I went flying yesterday.  During preflight, I found an inspection cover was missing, and looked like it had broken off.  The screws were still there and I could see marks in the paint where it looked like it probably flapped around before it departed the aircraft. I wasn't sure if the airplane was airworthy in that state, and even though I thought I was probably overreacting, I stopped and asked.  The cover was on the underside of the horizontal stabilizer and you would only see it if you crouched down low and really looked.  I wonder how many flights took place with it like that.

The chief instructor told me that I couldn't legally fly in that condition, but that it wasn't a safety issue.  He fixed it, and a few minutes later I started the engine and taxied out.  These guys keep their aircraft in great shape and I never worry about their airworthiness due to maintenance. I do, however, worry about a renter pranging an airplane, not telling anyone, and then leaving it for me to discover at 100' AGL, so I take the preflight seriously. I was content with my meticulousness in this instance, rather than being laughed at for being overly picky.

The engine was fine during the run-up.  I pulled up to the hold-short line and saw a fox running around in the grass beyond the runway threshold. I started my takeoff roll on 34L and noticed the oil pressure needle jump off the high side of the scale.  I aborted the takeoff and taxied back to the run-up area. The engine was not warm enough and the oil was still to thick, I guess.  I did another run-up and all was well. Afterward, I was told that it would have been OK to just go ahead with the takeoff. I'll file that fact away for later.

Running late, I decided to stay in the pattern.  There was about a 5 knot crosswind from the right--it is rare that I've flown in Northeast winds.  I made some pretty decent landings, by my standards, and I tried especially to hold the crosswind correction during the landing flare.

Afterwards, we got the IACRA stuff sorted out. It turns out that I hadn't actually submitted the application, which was the root cause of the problem.

We scheduled the checkride for Sunday afternoon.  I pored over the forecast that evening: 12 gusting 21 knots from the northwest. That would be almost a direct crosswind on runway 4 at CJR--really pushing my comfort zone. I called the examiner after the 6:35pm EST Dulles TAF was issued to touch base and run down the weather. I said that my go/no-go decision to fly would be made at the last possible moment, following the oral test, due to the projected surface winds. I prepared my flight plan and studied.  I don't think I made it to sleep before 1am (not exactly what I wanted).

Flight time today: 1.3 hrs Solo/PIC
Total time to date:  61.6 hrs total, 43.8 hrs dual, 14.3 hrs Solo/PIC

20 January 2011

Signed-off to take the Checkride

I didn't pull off a great performance this afternoon, but as embarassing as it was, my flying was good enough for the senior CFI.  It all came down to the soft field landing at the very end:  if it was within PTS, he'd let me take the checkride, otherwise I fly again. That landing was a little off the centerline (not enough right rudder) and I was ham-handed with throttle, but I didn't let the nosewheel touch. 

I learned a few things, as always, including a new way to do the short-field approach.  I also learned the correct way to enter a turn, which I should have learned long ago.  Answer: don't lead with the rudder.  And I think I did a constant speed descent for the first time. I also learned  the criteria for Convective SIGMETs--he stumped me there: I didn't know about the 3/4" hail, 50 knot wind, or VIP 4 coverage area criteria.
 Now, I have perfectionist streak in me--a personality defect, for sure--and it has really worked against me during flight training.Voltaire wrote, "the Best is the enemy of the Good." I need to keep repeating that quote to myself before the test, and just do it. I was warned not to try to practice too much before the test in some attempt to perfect the maneuvers, because good enough can quickly become not good enough if I make a bunch of solo flights and pick up bad habits. I will work hard to refine my stick and rudder skills after I have my pilot certificate.

Once I resolve an IACRA SNAFU, I'll be able to schedule the test. The weather looks good Saturday, so I am going to fly solo for practice unless I can get the test set up by then.  I'm really looking forward to the practical test. While part of me doesn't quite feel ready, I know I am a safe pilot and I know I can pass this thing.   

Flight time today: 1.8 hrs dual, 0.3 hrs simulated instrument
Total time to date: 60.3 hrs total, 47.3 hrs dual, 13.0 hrs Solo/PIC, 5.3 hrs sim. instrument

17 January 2011

Solo no-flap landing practice

I logged some solo time this morning to practice no-flap landings, forward slips, and ground reference maneuvers. It was bit dreary due to the overcast, but I was happy for the light winds that came along with it as I can't fly solo in anything over 10 knots by my school's rules:
KHEF 171415Z AUTO 09006KT 10SM OVC060 M01/M11 A3030 RMK AO1  
The wind aloft was light, so I used Route 29 and Route 17 as the reference for my S-Turns.  A nearby silo served as the reference for turns about a point. I was sloppy with heading control on that one.

I headed back to HEF and attempted a no-flap approach on runway 16R.  I had never done these in calm winds or during the daytime before. As advised, I tried to hold my normal approach speed of 65 KIAS. I really noticed the missing drag that the flaps provide: if I pitched down to adjust the airspeed, the clean airplane accelerated quickly.  As a result I was a little fast. Without the helpful drag of the flaps, the airplane floated considerably. This gave the crosswind time to work. I am much better at holding the runway centerline on the approach using a sideslip now, but I still have to consciously fight the urge to land with the wings level rather than on one wheel. I made that mistake today, and had struggled to re-establish the correction right before touchdown.  Consequently, I landed well to the right of the centerline and made the A4 turn off.  Good thing I wasn't being graded on that one.

The next no-flap approach was high and I went around.  Next attempt, I used a forward slip but I released it a bit too early and floated it down the runway. The remaining landings were soft- and short-field maneuvers, and I still was fighting the compulsion to land wings-level.

I used the soft-field technique for all of the takeoffs today.  With less-than-full fuel tanks and just me in the airplane, it was shocking how quickly the C-172P picked it's mains up off the runway. I was also surprised how much control force was needed to hold it in ground effect.

So I have a few things to make sure that I don't repeat during the stage check later this week, but I'm confident that I'll do a better job this time.  

Flight time today: 1.5 hrs Solo/PIC
Total time to date: 58.5 hrs total, 45.5 hrs dual, 13.0 hrs Solo/PIC

15 January 2011

More ground reference maneuvers and short/soft-field landings

I can't remember seeing HEF as busy as it was this afternoon, probably due to the holiday weekend. When I got to the airport, I saw three airplanes lined up waiting to takeoff on runway 16R. A gaggle of people were looking out the window, grading landings in the FBO--they asked me the tail number I was going to fly for reference. The southerly winds were also a welcome change from what I've experienced over the past month or so:
KCJR 152120Z AUTO 21009G15KT 10SM CLR 09/M06 A2995
KHEF 152115Z AUTO 19006KT 10SM BKN120 07/M08 A2996
The wind aloft was a sporty 30 knots, which made ground reference maneuvers interesting. You really get cheated practicing them in calm winds. I didn't establish enough of a crab as I flew through the crosswind section of turns around a point--a microwave antenna--and my circle was slightly lopsided. During S-turns, using the highway as a reference, I carried too much bank in the crosswind portion of the "S" and wound up with wings level well before intersecting the road.  Should be easy to fix next time.

I made some pretty good soft field landings today and my short field landings were really short due to the headwind and Culpeper. I was about 20 feet above the 50 ft imaginary obstacle at the end of the runway, so I went around. It was tricky managing the sink rate near the treeline, but I think I did a better job of it today than I've done in the past. This is probably the second or third instance where I've landed on runway 22 at CJR, and I've made a ton of landings there. On the last takeoff of the day to return home, my CFI demonstrated a really cool variation on a soft-field takeoff.

My CFI says I'm ready to go. I rescheduled the flight portion of my final stage check for late next week, and if the weather holds, I'm going to log some solo time to practice on Monday.

Flight time today: 1.7 hrs dual
Total time to date: 57.0 hrs total, 45.5 hrs dual, 11.5 hrs Solo/PIC


Today I focused on not focusing on flying the PTS manuevers, if that makes any sense. That strategy of not over-thinking things worked out, and I believe my performance would have satisified the examiner. 

Today's ground track.  The loops are clearing turns and 45 degree steep turns.
There are always a few squawks, though. The afternoon thermal bumps did make heading control difficult during slow flight. Those convection currents also slowly carried the airplane above my stated altitude and I didn't correct quickly enough. I had been trying to keep my head out of the airplane--maintaining level attitude visually--but I still need to keep the instrument scan going to keep tabs on the altimeter. I let the airspeed get a little low during the forward slip portion of my simulated emergency landing (got to get that nose down), and I came in a little bit hot and high on a short field landing.  During the test, I would have aborted that approach but it was time to put the plane away.
I'm trying to move quicker in all activities (preflight, startup, setup for the maneuvers, shutdown, etc.) while still being just as thorough. I have all of the checklists memorized, so I do the steps, then look at the checklist to make sure I haven't missed anything. I definitely feel more confident in my flying, and I am slowly realizing that exhibiting real confidence is a big part of the practical test.  

My goal is be ready for the practical test after tomorrow's practice session and the subsequent stage check re-take. I might also throw a solo practice flight in there, weather permitting. I have some economic realities to face if that doesn't prove true. I've certainly tried to make good use of my available funds by preparing thoroughly--sometimes getting to the airport two hours ahead of time and you wouldn't believe how many flying books I've read and quizzes I've taken--but once the propeller turning, the pressure is on to get proficient fast. It costs almost $3 per minute with a CFI in the right seat and that Lycoming O-320 engine running. 

Looking at my total hours, I've officially exceeded my school's average time of 55 hours to earn a Private Pilot certificate. I made peace with the fact that I am below average by that metric ("well, the world needs ditch diggers, too" comes immediately to mind). 

Flight time this lesson: 1.3 hrs dual
Total time to date: 55.3 hrs total, 43.8 hrs dual, 11.5 hrs Solo/PIC

09 January 2011

First flight of 2011: bumpy pattern work

I was greeted with this TAF this morning on my cellphone as I struggled to wake up and get out of bed:

KIAD 090859Z 0909/1012 31013G23KT P6SM SKC FM091400 30018G30KT P6SM SKC FM092200 30012G22KT P6SM FEW250 FM100200 31008KT P6SM FEW250

I had Dulles Tower playing in the background while I made my morning coffee and I heard the controller call out the winds to a Learjet that had just been cleared for takeoff on runway 30: the gusts were already in the high twenties.  Dulles is the closest airport to HEF that has a terminal forecast and a feed on Live ATC. The conditions at Manassas and Warrenton were markedly calmer than Dulles, though:
KHEF 091055Z AUTO 30005KT CLR M07/M13 A3002 KHWY 091100Z AUTO 29010KT 10SM CLR M05/M13 A3001
I've seen this pattern with strong northwest winds aloft and light winds on the field before, and it usually means there will be some wind shear-like stuff to ride through near the tree line during takeoff and final approach on runway 34L.

I called my instructor at about 6:45am to run down my analysis of the weather to reduce the chance of making a trip out to the airport only to cancel: there is really no ground work left for me to do and CFIs don't get paid for their gas/time if they have to drive out for a canceled lesson. Admittedly, I don't mind making the trip to the airport even if I can't go flying--I'd be content to just sit there and watch airplanes takeoff and land all day long. He gives me the usual "You're pilot-in-command, so what to you want to do?" I said that I probably wouldn't launch solo in this, yet, due to the turbulence AIRMET and incongruous winds, but that I'd like to fly to push my comfort level landing in this stuff; we would remain in the traffic pattern rather than practicing maneuvers as originally planned.

During the flight, the surface winds steadily picked up, but stayed below the 30 knot forecast:
KHEF 091455Z AUTO 31015G23KT CLR M02/M13 A3013 RMK AO1 52024
As was expected, we were tossed around a bit in the traffic pattern. It was wild to watch the ground speed accelerate when I made the downwind turn as the crosswind became a ~40 knot tailwind. For the downwind leg, I held the tach at the bottom of the green arc, a little more than 2000 RPM, to keep the ground speed down.

I made a conscious effort to hold the runway centerline during the approaches and make aggressive corrections on short final. Most of the time the right answer is to make gentle control inputs and the airplane happily complies. Right before touchdown, when the airplane is slow and the flight controls are mushy, is one notable exception: you sometimes must make quick, extreme changes to aileron and rudder to avoid landing with a side load on the gear or with the nose cockeyed when hit with a gust. It helped me to think to myself--my CFI would think I was crazy if I actually said it--"alright airplane, I'm not taking any more sh*t from you. You are going to land on the centerline and point straight down the runway."

In contrast to last week's spectacularly lousy display of airmanship, I was relaxed and relatively happy with my performance today, though there were a few issues (there always are):

  • During a couple of soft field landings, I experienced a gust dying out during the flare.  This resulted in an immediate high sink rate--it felt like the bottom fell out.  My response was to add power and pick the nose up a few degrees, but I was ham-handed with the throttle.  This caused us to land long and with a more forceful touchdown than I'd like.  
  • Given the gusts, my inclination was to carry too much airspeed during the short field landings. This made them less short than they should have been--too much float--but I think they were close to PTS. I also came in a few feet high on one and made a go-around.  I'm told this is something the examiner will scrutinize closely:  the airplane must be no more than a dozen feet or so above the imaginary 50ft obstacle to qualify as a "short field" landing.
After an especially crummy week at work, I am so grateful to have gotten my flying fix today. One way or another, I will pass this checkride.

Flight time this lesson: 1.2 hrs dual
Total time to date: 54.0 hrs total, 42.5 hrs dual, 11.5 hrs Solo/PIC