Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lesson 5: Cumulonimubus! and Low Approaches

Flight #4. My first encounter with really interesting weather that threatened to cause us to scrub the mission. The METAR (current aviation weather report) read: 19006 6SM OVC035CB A2994.

Betsy provided the translation: "Winds out of 190 at 6 knots, visibility 6 statute miles, sky is overcast with the ceiling at 3,500 feet and there are Cuuuummmmoooolllloooo NIMmmmmbus clouds!" I wish I had a recording of her doing this. She pulled up current weather for several airports around and whenever she saw the CB notation she would put on her scary scary voice and eerily announce that there were Cumulonimbus clouds in the area. Apparently, this is a Bad Thing. The basis for thunderstorms, hail, lightning, wind shear, tornadoes, generally stuff that doesn't get along well with light aircraft (or any aircraft for that matter). They are to be avoided.

The METAR just an hour before read OVC045. Ceiling 1,000 feet higher and know scary thunderheads. She turned this into a lesson on thunderstorm formation. Here in NC throughout the summer we consistently have conditions primed for "pop-up thunderstorms". They're not associated with a weather front, they just spontaneously form, are short lived, but are very violent. They sound very annoying too. They're responsible for lots of last-minute flight cancellation. They're something we just have to deal with.

So can we fly or what Betsy? She laid out the ground rules: we can go up. We'll stay in the pattern. If we see lighting, a towering cloud, or one drop of rain on the windshield, we land immediately. I'm good with that. Off we go.

Well after all that scary talk I actually got to do something quite fun. I can actually pretty much state that this is the most fun thing I've ever done in my life: low approaches. And not just once, but we did this 5 times.

Betsy explained that we'd takeoff and then enter a standard landing pattern. We'd do everything except land. I'm good with that. I expected we'd turn onto final approach, descend down toward the runway, and when we were a few hundred feet above it we'd climb back to pattern altitude. Yeah. I was wrong.

What we actually did was way cooler. We turned onto final approach and she showed me how to aim at the numbers at the end of the runway. This felt weird as I had to push the nose down and "dive" toward the runway. Then she tells me, "You're doing great, now start to level off and I want you to enter straight and level flight about 10 feet above the runway." Ten? She means One hundred right? No, ten. Alrighty then...

I get above the numbers and level off at maybe 20 or 30 feet. She says reduce power til I'm at 10. Okidoke. Down we go to 10. There is a plane on a taxi way. I pass above him. I see the other pilot smiling at me. I note that he's wearing an Izod shirt. I think, I'm way too close to the ground, well we'll do a "go around" in a sec and we'll be off. Bzzz. Wrong again. I'm so bad at this predicting Betsy thing.

She then tells me to trim for level cruise at 65 kts and fly down the length of the runway at 10 feet. At this point I just go with the flow and enjoy the ride. This is something I've done only in video games before. Oddly it feels completely safe. For once, and despite the scary weather all around us, the air is dead calm and I find it easy to maintain altitude. Similar to my first flight. Smooth air makes everything much easier.

The runway is 6,500 feet long. So I fly along for about a mile at 10 feet and 75 mph. At this altitude I can really feel the speed. It's just like driving down the interstate. As the trees at the end of the field begin to loom we finally apply full power and climb back to 1,000 AGL. Then we do that again 4 more times. It never got old.

Finally, on the 6th approach we announced we would be making a full stop landing. I asked her how I would do that exactly, she said, "I'll talk you through it. Just do exactly what we just did 5 times in a row.. you did those fine." OK then...

I made another low approach and leveled off at 10 feet above the runway at 65 kts. She then told me to reduce power to idle. I knew that I couldn't maintain altitude (all 10 feet of it!) without power. She then repeatedly told me, "Do what you need to do to maintain 10 feet... don't let the plane descend..." so I pull back. We get slower and slower, at about 50 kts the plane starts dropping ever so slowly. We're over the landing threshold now at about 5 feet. Betsy keeps repeating "Don't land... don't land don't land... Do Not Land... C'mon don't let it descend.... don't land don't land... pull up... don't land." We're now about 2 feet above the runway, I feel like the plane is standing on its tail, the stall horn begins to wail, we're below 50 kts... this can't be right... and I feel the wheels touch the ground...

"Steer with your feet, don't land, don't land... keep the nose up". But the nose comes down despite my best efforts. Betsy says, "Congratulations, you just landed."

Wow! I landed an airplane. Yes I did. And now I know the secret. Think "don't land". And the plane pretty much lands itself. This is so cool!

Now, she also let me know that I'm doing things a little out of sequence. She said most students don't get to do low approaches and landing until they've practiced slow flight and done stalls and stall recovery. But here the bad weather caused us to change things around a little bit. She says, that's actually quite normal. Mixing things up that is. We have to work around the requirements of whatever weather we get thrown.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Maintenance Night

Another maintenance night. This time I worked on Warrior 8330S. I worked closely with another club member, Obdulio, who taught me how to refurbish the spark plugs on the engine. We removed the spark plugs, sand blasted them clean, anneal (heat with a torch and then cool in an oil bath) the washers, clean the threads on a grinding machine, then remeasure the spark gap and adjust as necessary, then replace them.

We spent a lot of time on this. I'm not sure I totally understand why this much attention is paid the the spark plugs. I know in my car I have to replace my spark plugs every 100,000 miles. We do this every 50 hours the engine runs on the planes. I've noticed in general though that these planes get much better maintenance than my car ever does. Maybe that's why we can fly planes manufactured in 1981 and they fly just as well as brand new planes. Can't say that of many cars from the same era.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Lesson 4: Rectangular Course

Flight #3. My log book reads: "One normal take off & landing. Four fundamentals slow clean. Rectangular Course."

So this is beginning to become somewhat routine (ok, not really... but I can see this becoming so soon). I preflighted (on my own this time -- Betsy apparently trusts me enough). Radio check, pre-taxi checklist, taxi, pre-takeoff checklist, takeoff checklist, take off, depart the area for the West Practice Area. Got that down pretty well now.

We repeated the Four Fundamentals: turns, climbs, descents, level flight. We then went to the "old Sanford airport" which is now closed. This made it good to practice a "rectangular course". We flew the four legs of a standard pattern at pattern altitude (1,000 feet above ground). This helped me begin to appreciate the effects of wind on the plane as I tried to keep the runway 1/2 mile away at all times. To do this I had to change my rate of turn to compensate for the differing relative wind direction. Likewise, I had to alter my course to "crab" into the wind to maintain a steady ground course. This is, in a nutshell, really challenging.

Three things made this particularly nerve wracking:

1) The air was a little turbulent, plenty of bouncing up and down. I had enough to think about trying to keep the rectangle rectangular, so maintaining a steady altitude was really hard and frankly I kept messing up. I'd be 100 feet out of position before Betsy gently chided me.

2) The land that this airport is on was repurposed and is now used for Fire/EMS. To support their mission there's a 232 foot radio antenna right next to the old runway. Betsy continually reminded me that it would not make a good hood ornament. It was 700 feet below me but when I dropped too low it was suddenly 600 feet away and that makes folks nervous -- especially me.

3) There was inbound traffic for runway 3 at our airport. This abandoned airport was just 6 miles south of our airport. Inbound traffic was passing overhead at 1,500 AGL. Let me tell you, the first time I saw another plane pass me in the opposite direction just 500 feet above me, I thought, wow... that's really close... and he's going really fast. And I realized, hey I'm up here in "slow flight" doing 80 kts or 92 mph. The other guy's doing about the same. So yeah, a 180mph closing speed is something that I'm just not that used to seeing. I guess I'll get used to it. :-)

Finally, we headed home and Betsy landed us again. The landing seemed smooth and easy and I think I could take a crack at it. Hopefully next time.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Class III Medical

One of the requirements for a Private Pilot is a Class III Medical Certificate. This certificate serves as my FAA Student Pilot Certificate also. The club has a relationship with a local aviation physician that comes to the club about once a month to give a basic medical exam. The exam included a questionnaire about any known medical conditions, the a standard breath in, hold it, exhale, cough, type exam. Also gave a urine sample and had a vision test. The biggest surprise was that I also had to do a color-blindness test. Which I passed for purposes of the Certificate, but the doctor had me look at some "advanced" color-blindness testing plates and I got to a few where I could not discern the different colors. He told me he couldn't either and that only a small percentage of the population could. I thought that was pretty interesting.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Maintenance Night

One of the neat things we get to do as part of the Flying Club is perform maintenance on the aircraft. The club members own the aircraft so we can save quite a bit of money by volunteering out time to do maintenance. Club members that do this get a credit on their month club dues. But to me the real benefit is becoming very familiar with he equipment we'll be flying.

Tonight I did some basic maintenance on a Mooney M20. Being the newbie in the hangar I got the less glamorous jobs of greasing all the control surface hinges which amounted to running around with a can of WD-40 like spray and hitting all the hinges. Then I got to vacuum the interior, put air in the tires, and add 8 quarts of new oil. I also checked the fluid level in the battery. Basic stuff perhaps, but it was all a very new experience for me so it was kind of exciting.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lesson 3: Intro to Turbulence

On my second flight we took off and as we climbed to 3,000 feet it was noticeably choppy. This was particularly annoying since all the weather reports and pilot reports (PIREPs) reported calm air. Not. Betsy explained this is due to uneven heating of the Earth's surface. Different fields, forests, towns, etc. capture and disperse heat at different rates. This differential causes updrafts which bounce the airplane around.

The scheduled lesson was slow flight. After establishing straight and level flight at cruise (100 kts), I trimmed the plane for flight at 80 kt, then did turns, a climb, and a descent at this speed. Repeat these maneuvers at 70kts. Then put out increasing amounts of flaps to slow the plane to 60kts. I could feel the plane get "mushy" -- harder to control. I was getting fairly frustrated as it was very difficult to maintain a given altitude. Betsy told me much of the issue was weather and not me. After a few minutes of trying to get stabilized in "slow flight" she decided I'd had enough and we headed for home.

Still didn't get to land. Looking forward to that. There was significant cross-wind. I got to just "help" handle the controls as Betsy landed us. Then I taxied us back to the ramp, shutdown, and secured the plane.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

2nd Saturday Cookout & Blloon Launch

Every 2nd Saturday there's a cookout at the Club. I took Evan to this one. Trying to gradually get him introduced to the environment. Right now he says he doesn't like airplanes and won't go flying. It takes him a while to get used to new ideas. I'm confident he'll come around.

The fun activity for him was getting to ride in the golf cart. He went on a volunteer mission to carry the trash to the far end of the field to the dumpsters. I think he liked that. On the return trip though he got too close to a Cessna and one of the other board members panicked a bit and scared him a bit. Not helpful. But then the whole world doesn't know about Evan and his autism so I'll need to get them used to that too. For the record, he would've cleared the airplane.

Anyway, we had cheeseburgers and brats and such and I got Evan to walk around some airplanes on the ramp. He wouldn't go in any. But he saw them and he had some fun.

We also got to watch initial preparation for a cluster balloon launch. A guy, an office chair, and about 30 helium balloons. He had a transponder and got air traffic clearance for this launch. His chair even had an "N-Number" (aircraft registration).

UPDATE: As it turned out the balloon launch set a world record. Read all about it here.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Lesson 2 - Airborne! part 2

Taking off for the first time was so smooth I had to look outside to make sure the wheels really left the ground. Before I knew it we were 200 feet above the ground. At this point Betsy was occasionally making adjustments as I struggled to maintain an 80 kt airspeed. As we approached 500 feet, she reminded me to lower the nose so we can see forward and scan the horizon for other air traffic. Seeing none, we continued our climb. At 900 feet a 90 degree left turn. Betsy handled the radio at this point and called our turn to crosswind and then our departure out of the pattern. We headed west to Pittsboro. There she showed me how to get into straight and level. Then we did several turns, climbs, and descents. Finally she taught me how to perform a coordination exercise called Dutch Rolls. This to train the hands and feet to work together. We used Jordan lake to the east and the sun setting in the west as targets.

I have to admit I was getting distracted by the vista and at this point wished she'd just fly so I could gaze out the window a bit. As we turned back toward the airport I was conscious of the fact that this entire experience had a dreamlike quality to it. Was I really doing this? I looked over at Betsy's hands and feet. They were nowhere near the controls. On my own I turned a little left, then a little right just to see what would happen if I did something un-commanded by my instructor, then I peeked over for her reaction with a big grin on my face. She was smiling too. "Fun isn't it?" she said. Yes indeed.

She then pointed out that I had it easy on my first flight. Instead of the air being "moderately turbulent" as was reported. The air, in fact, was dead still. No wind, no bumps, no thermals. It was hazy though and I could see how if it got much worse it would be challenging to make out the horizon. I asked her how I was doing. She said, "Great. You haven't thrown up." High praise.

I steered us toward the airport. Betsy got us in the pattern and back down on the ground. I can't wait to learn how to land! Patience grasshopper. Once on the ground I taxied back to the ramp, completed the shutdown steps and tied the airplane down. Betsy told me I actually did really well for my first flight. Shortly after we landed she got distracted by the fact that another of her students was just back from his check ride. He passed! Betsy was thrilled. She ran inside to get her camera and asked me to take pictures of her as she pinned wings on her latest success. I asked him how long it took him to get his license and he told me about 9 months. I'm hoping to do this in 6 months and I'm hoping my past experience will help.

I left the airport floating on air even though I'm sure I was in a ground vehicle. Am I dreaming? Did I really just have that experience? Yes, I did!

Lesson 2 - Airborne!

Today I met Betsy again for my 2nd lesson which would turn out to really be my first flight lesson as today we got the plane in the air. But first things first. We reviewed my "homework". Betsy asked if I managed to read chapter 1 in the Maneuvers book. I let her know I finished the entire manual and read through the POH. She stated that I was clearly going to be a good student. We then reviewed the 4 fundamentals of flight and she also spent a good deal of time explaining the relationship between pitch & power. We pitch for a given airspeed and use the throttle as our "up and down lever". Pitch for airspeed, power to climb or descend. Entirely not intuitive, but again, after years in the flight simulator I feel comfortable with the concept.

We head out to the ramp on a bit of a hazy gray day. One of the things I learned last week was how to call flight service to get a weather briefing. I'm beginning to get handy with all the different weather codes in the "METAR" and "TAF" (current weather and forecast weather). I'd been calling for a briefing each day for practice. Today I called and wouldn't you know it there are a few PIREPS (pilot reports) of moderate turbulence today. The METAR also listed clear skies but I don't see any blue. It's hazy. Hmmm. I hope the bumps aren't too bad.

We discuss our mission for the day. We'll be taking off and then turning to the west to work at about 3000 feet over Pittsboro, NC. I'm wondering how much flying I'll get to do. Will she let me touch the controls? We then preflight the aircraft which takes about 30 minutes. Then we load up and she goes over the steps for starting the engine. She has me perform the Starting Engine Checklist. In a few moments I yell, "Clear!" out the window and turn the key. The propeller turns. Betsy fiddles with the throttle as I'm a bit stunned by the amount of noise and wind suddenly coming into the cabin. Wow! I started my first airplane engine. Almost all by myself.

I learn that starting an airplane is more akin to starting a lawn mower than a car. You have to give it enough gas but not too much gas. I'm learning that a lot of instructions I'm getting are like that. Give it enough flaps, but not too much. Bank enough, but not too much, etc...

Then I learn a new mnemonic: BAR (Brakes - check, AWOS - check, Radio check). To test the brakes I release them and give a little gas. We roll forward and I stomp on the brakes. We stop. Then Betsy tests her side. Brakes - check. Next, we tune to the automated weather observation channel and get the current weather conditions. The wind is coming straight down runway 21 so we'll use that for departure. Finally, I get to make my first radio call, "Raleigh Executive Traffic, Warrior Eight One Niner One Seven, radio check." In a moment someone calls back, "You're loud and clear." I respond, "Thank you." That was really fun for some reason.

Next up. Taxiing. My the hits are coming fast and furious. OK, another call, "Raleigh Executive Traffic, Warrior 81917, South Ramp, Taxi to 21, Raleigh Executive." A little gas and we're rolling. Holy cow. I'm driving an airplane. Follow the yellow line. Just like on the sim, right pedal, a bit of right toe to swing quickly on course, then just keep following down the long taxiway Alpha. Eventually we get to the hold line at 21 and stop with the plane turned 45 degrees toward the approach.

Runup. Brakes set, power to 2000 RPM. Vroom. The plane starts vibrating. Check instruments, engine gauges, flight controls, back down to 1000 RPM. Time for takeoff. "Raleigh Executive Traffic, Warrior 81917, departing runway 21, west departure, raleigh executive." I check for traffic and line up with the big white dashed line. Set the Directional Gyro so it is lined up with the runway heading and smoothly apply full power. Check the engine instruments: green, green, green. Airspeed indicator comes to life, we're committed for takeoff. A little right rudder in to compensate for adverse yaw. In just a few seconds we're at 50 kts, then 55... a little back pressure on the yoke and we are airborne!