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

01 January 2011

Happy New Year (and last flight of 2010)

On Wednesday, 29 December, I made several mistakes on my final stage check, so the short version is that I'm not taking the checkride for awhile. It probably didn't help matters that I hadn't flown in 10 days (not for lack of trying), but that is no excuse. I now have almost 53 hours in the airplane, I've completed all of the FAA requirements except for the practical test, and I feel comfortable flying, even solo. I can fly the practical test maneuvers within the specified limits, but evidently not when it matters: when I'm being graded on them. I can't explain how frustrating this is.

The flight didn't start on a good note. I was to make a soft-field takeoff. I had been warned not to let the plane try to climb out of ground effect before accelerating to Vx during a soft field takeoff--the chief flight instructor mentioned to even use the trim wheel to reduce the amount of forward pressure required to keep it from trying to climb.  I had made that mistake before, and I was not going to let it happen under any circumstances.  I overcompensated while leveling out after the wheels left the runway and actually bounced on takeoff--that was a first.  There was far too much thinking going on prior to that maneuver.

All instructors have their own way that they want things done, and the examiner will surely be no different in that respect. The Cessna 172 has a high wing, so you really can't see well above you.  Before turning, you lift up the wing to make sure there is no traffic that you might otherwise turn into.  I usually pick it up a few degrees, look underneath, and move on.  The CFI that I flew with wanted that look to occur with what I'd estimate to be a 20-25 degree bank.  Now that's no problem, and he may have been exaggerating the bank angle to illustrate his point, but it was just one more thing that I had to consciously think about every time I turned during the flight. I foolishly let little stuff like that throw me off and then allowed the mistakes to compound. My problem is, admittedly, a basic lack of skill and proficiency.

I don't have the proficiency (yet) to adapt and improvise the maneuvers on the fly; When I am asked to perform them differently than my normal routine, I have to think about it and invariably screw up. For example, I usually fly the slow-flight maneuver at minimum controllable airspeed (MCA). The pitch attitude is high and the plane seems to hang on the prop while the stall horn blares the whole time.  But on Wednesday, I was asked to fly it at 50-55 knots indicated airspeed.  My usual entry tactic of cutting power, raising the nose to hold altitude and slow down, pausing, then adding flaps didn't work at that speed: the airplane ballooned. It was sloppy.

Another example:  I was directed to fly steep turns back-to-back, where a 360 degree turn with 45 degree bank to the left is executed followed by an immediate roll into a 360 turn to the right.  I hadn't ever done them back-to-back, and I contemplated the transition too much. As a result, I was way off on my exit heading.

The CFI that I flew with could not have been a nicer guy and certainly wasn't out to rattle my cage. If I couldn't get this flight done with him then I don't stand a chance with the examiner. In the debrief, he made the observation that I can't treat the maneuvers like a sequence of discrete steps: they need to be one fluid operation or I am already behind the airplane.  Unfortunately when I need to perform them even slightly differently than I have practiced, my mind does exactly that--breaks them up into steps--and the result is predictably poor.

So I'm back to the drawing board. Part of me thinks that I just need more practice and that I should go work on the maneuvers solo until I can confidently handle any possible contingency. If I haven't managed to learn the correct way to do them by now, then I'm not sure that my instructor can help me. 

P.S. Rereading this post, I can't help but notice that it contains far too much whiny drivel. To put things in perspective, there is no such thing as a bad day if you've gotten to go flying. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to take this training, and I've come a long way since I started. While my performance is not yet where it needs to be, I am sure as hell not giving up.

Flight time this lesson: 1.3 hrs dual
Total time to date: 52.8 hrs total, 41.3 hrs dual, 11.5 hrs Solo/PIC