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.

For the second weekend in a row, I flew Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The conditions on Friday were the sportiest I've flown in so far. The instructor gave me a verbal OK that I could continue to fly solo in the Sprite. Rough tows are part of the bargain for good soaring conditions. The experience was worth it, and I'm glad that I kept flying even though I wasn't skilled enough to effectively use the small, disassociated bubbles of lift very well. One pilot told me that the strong wind was shredding the thermals. Another said that they got into some weak mountain wave lift at about the same time that I was flying.

The winds aloft were from the southwest. Above the ridge we hit very strong, but narrow, pockets of sink and lift which alternately pegged the variometer needle down and up. It was a struggle to anticipate the shocks and keep in position behind the tow plane. A few times, I'd be in lift and the Pawnee would be in sink, and it was all I could do to keep the rope taught and not climb above the tow plane. I'd yaw the glider's nose away to serve as a shock absorber, but there were a few shock loads toward the end of the tow. Fortunately the rope didn't break. 
I have 24 days until my checkride and plenty of things to work on. I took a check-flight with one of the club CFI's on Sunday and he pointed out a few deficiencies:
  1. Before takeoff, I need to reach back and push up on the passenger's canopy to make certain it is locked closed. It is a good habit, especially when flying with non-pilots, and the examiner expects to see me physically check.
  2. I had some indecision about where to land if the rope broke above the point where we could safely land straight ahead but below a safe turnaround altitude (my club teaches 200 ft. AGL minimum turnaround height for students). Depending on the wind, density altitude, and weight of the instructor, there are times where the correct answer is "mush into the trees" (never the S-word). I kept pointing out fields that we could not possibly make.
  3. My box-the-wake maneuver was judged to be within PTS, but I was trying to fly it too quickly.
  4. When performing clearing turns, I was advised to use a 45-degree bank so that I can clearly see any traffic below. In airplanes, I was taught to use no greater than 30-degrees of bank for clearing turns. Time to break that habit.
  5. I attempted to begin a turning stall with about a 15-degree bank angle. The instructor stopped me and said I'd never stall it with that much bank: the turn needs to be surprisingly shallow.
  6. I'd check left and right before rolling into a turn, but I wasn't looking through it as I put in aileron. He caught me looking at the horizon and yaw string as I started to roll. 
  7. I have been flying steep approaches: 800 feet AGL abeam the touchdown point, and an overly tight pattern that often requires full dive brakes on final approach. I was advised to bring that down about 200 feet lower and make the base turn later. The resulting sight picture looks low to me, but ultimately, I think it will be more comfortable for future passengers who might not appreciate forward slips or the dive-bomb technique to quickly dissipate energy with the air brakes.    
He said that he saw no reason why I couldn't be ready for the practical test at the end of July. I want to earn the "B" and "C" badges before then, though.

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