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.

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