16 April 2012

Flew my first soaring task

My soaring club established a 60 kilometer race course to create some friendly competition: the pilot with the fastest handicapped time each quarter gets a free 3,000 ft aerotow. This is great motivation for me to start learning cross-country soaring techniques and generally tighten up my flying. I flew the course for the first time in the Open Cirrus on Friday the 13th, my first attempt at any kind of task.

With the airport near the center of the course and conservatively high minimum altitudes set on each of the turnpoints (the red sectors in the image below), it is possible to remain within safe gliding distance of the airport the entire time. That's a good thing, because there had better be a good reason if I ever land out in a club ship before I'm signed-off to make real cross-country flights.

My handicapped time was 1:19:06. That's really slow, but I'm content just to have made it around the course. I learned a lot from this flight. It was good to see just how far I could glide at airspeeds well above the best L/D speed (the Cirrus is really spoiling me in that regard). The Fairground turnpoint is also the furthest northeast of the airport that I've been solo. I made lots of mistakes that I'll try to fix next time:

  1. Make a clean start. Shortly after crossing the start cylinder, I hit an area of strong sink and then circled in weak lift to claw back up. This wasted time. After gaining altitude, I should have doubled back. 
  2. Learn proper speed-to-fly. I maintained 60-70 knots indicated airspeed between thermals, which was conservative. Conditions should have safely allowed 75 knots or more in the Cirrus.
  3. Use dolphin flight where appropriate.When going fast through narrow bits of lift, dolphin flight didn't work so well. I'd pull up to slow down after hitting a bump, but by that point I'd blown well past the thermal. I had much better results when passing through larger areas of lift, so next time I won't pull at the first jolt unless it is a booming thermal or sustained lift.
  4. Thermal efficiently. I didn't core the thermals quickly enough, wasting time circling in the weaker lift (and sink) near the turbulent edges of the thermal. 
    • Be more aggressive on the pull to enter a thermal and use steeper bank angles.
    • Judge the best direction to enter a thermal. My evaluation copy of SeeYou tells me that I thermalled to the right most of the time. I'm sure that should have been closer to 50/50 right/left, since turning the wrong way requires 270 degrees of turn to rectify. Many of the thermals were blue, though (no clouds to mark the lift).
    • Don't thermal too fast. In turbulent thermals, I'd add a few knots for comfort so the controls would be more effective, but I suspect I was flying faster than necessary. That can hurt the climb rate. 
I'm still struggling to make a nice approach and landing in the Cirrus. I'm flying far too steep an approach, which sometimes requires a steep dive on final with brakes full out to bleed energy. That's fun, but not elegant.

12 April 2012

Spin ground training

While we couldn't go flying last Saturday, we did knock out the ground portion of the spin lesson. I'm excited for this flight, a self-contained lesson in my instructor's aerobatic syllabus that he also gives to prospective CFIs and others seeking spin training. Even after reading Sammy Mason's Stalls, Spins, and Safety, the briefing was enlightening. I had never considered why aileron control reversal occurred, but it was clear after he pointed it out on the lift vs. angle of attack curve: the downward aileron increases the wing's angle of attack, causing it to produce less lift in the stalled regime rather than more.

I'm looking forward to performing dutch rolls at a high angle of attack, falling leaf stalls, stalls while slipping and skidding, spin entries, incipient spins, fully developed spins, and an introduction to competition spins if time allows. He said that we'll try the falling leaf with some power on to deepen the stall, which makes the airplane unstable enough that it could easily roll to knife-edge. It will be interesting!

09 April 2012

My first non-pilot glider passengers

Waiting for our turn in the tow queue
After reading the 0Z forecast Thursday evening, I texted my friend Jeff that I'd make the decision when I got to the airport in the morning. Though strong winds out of the north seem to create less mechanical turbulence at Front Royal than south winds, 20 knot gusts across the runway could easily create too sporty a ride for first time passengers. I'd hate for them to make the long drive and not get to fly. Or worse, scare them enough that they'd never fly with me again.

I arrived to a blue, cloudless sky and a slack windsock; the wind wasn't forecast to whip up until 10 am. To keep expectations low, I relayed that we'd be able to get a morning flight in, but it might get too rough in the afternoon. Jeff replied, stating they'd just go hiking in that event. Great attitude.

Kayla went first, riding in the back of the ASK-21. We towed out to Signal Knob and, suspecting that it would be a sled ride that early, held on until 4,000 feet AGL before she pulled the release. I did my best tour guide impression, pointing out the sights and let her fly for a few minutes. There were narrow bits lift over the east ridge (later on, I was told that it was actually ridge lift). She was a trooper, having no problem with steep thermalling turns or the bumps on tow. We found a few thermals near the Shenandoah river, south of the airport, and landed uneventfully on runway 10.

Thanks to the graciousness of a few club members, the Grob 103 was available a few minutes later and I took Jeff up. Thinking I could get away with a lower tow because of the lift I'd found on the previous flight, we towed out to Signal Knob again. The wind had increased and shifted slightly, and all I could find was 8-10 knots of sink off of tow. I tried to speed over to the south to find a thermal, but we were too low and had to commit to land. The flight was only 12 minutes.

We tried again an hour later in the G103. The towpilot reported that it was really rough aloft, but Jeff was unfazed. We climbed up to 5,000 feet in good thermals before I turned the controls over to him. I had to intervene a few times as he seemed to want to roll to a knife edge and struggled a bit with pitch control, but he did a good job for a first timer. I have a new respect for flight instructors, though.

What a great day. It is an awesome feeling to be able to share soaring with friends.

02 April 2012

Hammerheads and a little bit of Wave

I have no relevant pictures, so here is Hangar Cat.
Despite the forecast, the ceilings allowed for an aerobatics lesson on Saturday. I was happy to get back into the Super Decathlon after two consecutive weather cancellations. First, we reviewed: the loop, half cuban eight, immelmann, and slow roll while attempting to string the figures together in a sequence as would be done in a contest.

I continued to screw up the simplest things, such as adding extra control inputs during the roll in the half cuban and immelmann. Despite being the "easiest" to do, that roll on the 45-degree down line gives me trouble. And for some inexplicable reason, I was caught adding left rudder at the start of the slow roll. I'd never done that before. The three week lapse really showed.

During one immelmann, I started the roll too early--nose way too high inverted--then didn't let the nose fall enough to compensate. The airplane stalled at the end of the roll out. But even the botches are good learning opportunities; it was certainly a new experience to find the airplane not obeying my commands in that attitude.

Then I learned the Hammerhead, my favorite maneuver so far. From level flight in the Decathlon, pull about 3.5 g, then set a vertical line using a distant point off the left wing for reference. As the airplane decelerates, add forward stick to keep it from going over on its back and right aileron to compensate for prop effects. At just the right moment (when the fabric begins to rumble in this airplane), kick full left rudder so that the nose slices through the ground reference point off your wing. Done correctly, the pivot occurs almost in place; in a contest, it must complete within one wingspan. Begin to neutralize the rudder and stop the pivot when headed straight down with a brief touch of the right rudder pedal. Finally, pull out to level.

Hangar Cat looking for a handout or some attention
I was happy to fly a few decent hammerheads on Saturday. My vertical line was mostly vertical and the kick was fairly well timed. It seemed to make sense to me. I need to work on neutralizing the controls more smoothly at the end of the turn, but I'll get there. I did have one good botched hammer, though: I waited too long for the kick and I believe the airplane sort of flopped over on its back. So it goes.

I had to deliver some fiberglass supplies for our tail dolly project, so I drove straight to FRR after my lesson. I managed to get a flight in the Grob 103 while I was there. Weather conditions were unusual: surface winds at about 15 knots out of the ENE and at least 20 knots WNW aloft. There were lenny-like clouds between the airport and the ridge. Flying beneath the leading edge of those clouds resulted in 3-7 knots of somewhat confused lift. Weak rotor? Since I was nearly the last flight of the day, I decided that a half hour was enough. I pitched the Grob over and held over 100 knots when passing through the sink to get back to the airport. I'd never had it going that fast before.

Nothing written on this blog should be considered training or advice. Do not attempt to teach yourself aerobatics. Find a competent instructor and an aircraft suitably stressed for the task.