Friday, December 18, 2009


The Preflight check on an airplane is absolutely essential. Apparently there are people out there who scoff at performing a thorough preflight check. I am not one of them. Finding a problem on the ground is much preferred over finding a problem in the air. There's that old saying that takeoffs are optional, landings are mandatory and that alone should be a big enough incentive to make sure your plane works before you take off.

I could write an exhaustive article on preflighting, but the fine people of AOPA Flight Training have done it for me. Click here and you'll see an excellent general review of preflight procedures.

Of course, every airplane is different, and it's important to use the appropriate checklist for the airplane you will be flying.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Impossible Turn

Saw this at the AOPA air safety seminar in Tampa this evening. You could have heard a pin drop...and then at the landing, applause. The odds of making it back to the field in one piece after an engine failure on takeoff? Not good. Listen to his breathing. That is the breathing of a man who is terrified. I'd be crapping my pants if it was me.

This is some skilled flying by a pilot who knew his airplane and knew what to do. Kudos, pilot man...kudos.

The AOPA lecturer recommended that to practice for this scenario, you climb to a safe altitude and set a "floor." Practice taking off from the floor and simulate an engine failure, then try to maneuver back to your starting point. It will familiarize you with your plane and let you know how much altitude it takes to make "the impossible turn."

They call this "the impossible turn" because making a turn back to the airfield with no power from low altitude is usually not something that can be done with any expectation of survival. My training for power failure on takeoff is to pick a soft patch of ground and aim for it as gently as possible, which is entirely survivable; pilots die when they turn back or change plans midair. Pick a spot and try to be gentle, unless you know for sure that you have the altitude to go back.

The pilot in this video made the impossible turn and survived. He did it because he knew his plane, he knew his capabilities, and he had a plan and followed through.



12/8/2009. GIF to GIF. Four basics, climbs, descents, turns, power off stall, traffic pattern entry. 1 landing. 1.1 hours.

12/8/2009. GIF to GIF. Four basics. 0 landings. 0.7 hours.

Grand total: 18.2 hours

I got hours! I got to fly! What an exciting day. After months of wanting to do it I was able to sit in the left seat and fly. It felt good to be reintroduced to the airplane and get reacquainted with the skies.

The view from the right seat, on my second flight of the day.

I drove out to Winter Haven this morning and managed to find my way to the FBO my instructor operates from. After some wandering around and nodding at people like I knew what I was doing, I found the front desk and completed some paperwork just in time to meet my instructor coming through the door.

My CFI is a local fellow named Bryan who has flown as an airline pilot in the past. He left the airlines on his own accord to change things up a little, and now flies as a CFI while pursuing his CPA to eventually open an accounting business. We made our introductions, grabbed our flight gear and headed to the plane. I was very excited to get to use my new headset, which I purchased at the AOPA summit in Tampa this fall, and it only took me two tries to figure out how to plug it in.

Bryan started the lesson with a vital component of every flight: the preflight. With flight school airplanes there's usually less to watch for since the planes get flown heavily, but it's important to check all flight controls and as many components as possible before getting airborne.

We began by inspecting the engine oil level and draining the carburetor to make sure no water or other impurities had accumulated in there between flights. We checked the prop and looked inside the cowling for bird nests, mice, snakes, or any other abnormal things that may have decided to make the cowling their home. Moving on we inspected the wing and the control surfaces, and also inspected the fuel tanks to make sure we had enough gas. The fuel gauges in planes only need to be accurate on "Empty" according to regulations, so visually seeing how much fuel is in the tanks is an important part of the preflight check. The empennage (the tail assembly) is checked as are the rudder and the elevators. The wheels are inspected to be sure they aren't square or flat, and the brakes are examined to be sure you can stop when you come back to earth. The remainder of the preflight is visually inspecting the outside of the plane for dents, dings, missing screws, and so on.

After a thorough preflight we hopped in and started the plane up. Taxiing was harder than I remembered and I swerved like a drunk through the parking lot and taxiway, though I suspect with practice it will become easier. Before takeoff we did an engine "run up," where you throttle up about 1/2 way and check the magnetos (magnetic coils that provide power) and the carburetor heat. After verifying that the engine was good, we taxiied into position and took off.

Takeoff was a thrill. I have not taken a plane off in almost a decade, and it was a little bit of a drunken takeoff, something I will have to learn to coordinate better over time. Bryan told me to use smaller inputs on the controls, and after a few minutes getting used to the feel of the yoke in my hands I was better able to coordinate motion. We flew North and practiced the Four Basics: Climbs, Descents, Turns, and Straight & Level Flight.

Climbing and descending is mostly about power management. In a small single engine plane at least, climbing requires full power, cruise somewhat less than full, and descent somewhat less than cruise. Takeoff power is about 2700 RPM, cruise about 2400, descent in the 2200 neighborhood. To manage your climbs and descents in VFR flight, one should find the proper position of the plane, then look outside and hold the sight picture. The horizon should stay relatively in the same position as you change altitude. We worked on power-off stall recovery, which involves pointing down to regain airspeed and trying to get power back. If it happens close to the ground, well, just aim for something flat and try to get what airspeed you can to recover.

Turns are more complex. Bryan talked about vectors of lift, which I will have to research in one of my flying tomes, but basically it is the tendency of a banking plane to want to descend. Slight back-pressure on the controls is necessary to maintain altitude during a turn. We made all turns to a heading, and did both shallow banks and banks with up to a 45-degree bank angle.

Bryan takes us through a steep turn in a Cessna 150.

Eventually the lesson was over and it was time to return to the field. Bryan helped me enter the traffic pattern and then turn, but he performed the landing after I overshot the turn from the downwind to the base leg*.

After the lesson, he took me up again as a passenger in a friend's airplane. I didn't touch the controls, as this was not a flight school plane, but it was neat to review with Bryan the proper procedures and the maneuvers during flight. And it scored me some more time in the air, observing and absorbing the lessons from earlier as we flew around.

Lined up to land at runway 11, KGIF, Winter Haven, FL.

All in all: an awesome day. 1.8 hours total added to the logbook, with the "Basic Four" and some light pattern work. I know I need to work on some things; the takeoff was a bit mushy and I was not paying attention in a descent and took us below the altitude Bryan had requested that I hold. Not too serious, but definitely a mistake I can learn from. I also overshot the turn to base in the traffic pattern, but some rigorous pattern work will help me learn that better.

On the brighter side I built confidence with some turns and some climbing/descending, and Bryan told me he thought I was doing very well; at one point he told me that he had 30-hour students who were having trouble with some of the things I was doing well with. Bryan was an excellent CFI; relaxed but in control, knowledgeable, and friendly. I look forward to flying with him again soon and building my skills!

*I will talk about the traffic pattern more in the future; basically, you circle the field in a set pattern before landing. Downwind is parallel to the landing runway opposite the direction of landing, base is a turn perpendicular to the runway as you descend, and final is the lineup with the runway and final descent.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The METAR reader

I am certainly not a meteorologist. Indeed, my knowledge of the weather is minimal. This will change over time and with study, as knowing how to read and predict the weather is critical for a pilot. I've been told that regulations require a full-on weather briefing from a Flight Service Station prior to any cross-country flights, and even if you are only flying locally, knowing the weather is vital for safety.

All controlled fields have a weather report on a specific radio frequency (known as an ATIS, or Automated Terminal Information Service) that should be monitored before and during flights. Many uncontrolled fields have automated weather observation stations (AWOS) that will broadcast current weather conditions to radio-equipped pilots within range of the field. Even the airport I flew out of in Auburn, Maine had and still has an AWOS station at 118.025 on your radio dial.

Since my flight for the day was cancelled today, I decided to practice reading weather reports. Aviation weather reports come in many forms, but one form that is accessible and standardized worldwide is the METAR. What does METAR stand for? I have no idea; I understand it's an acronym for a phrase in French that has to do with the weather. I think of it as a METeorological Aviation Report, which is not "technically" right but it's close enough.

METAR's come in a standard format. Current METAR for the airport I will be flying from, KGIF, is reported as:

KGIF 041959Z AUTO 33005KT 1 3/4SM -RA =5/8sm)" style="cursor: pointer; ">BR BKN004 BKN024 OVC031 14/13A3002 RMK AO2 P0006

Wow. What a jumble of nonsense, eh? But with a closer look it can make perfect sense. All of these letters and numbers have meaning and come in a standard format that makes interpretation simple and easy. Let's go through the list.

KGIF. This is the International Civil Aviation Organization's four-letter designation for Winter Haven's Gilbert Field. A METAR for my hometown of Auburn, Maine would have KLEW listed here, Orlando International would be KMCO, and so on. Most fields have an ICAO designator.

041959Z. This is a timestamp to let you know what time the observation was taken from. the 04 means this is the 4th of the month; 1959Z means that the observation was recorded at 1959 Zulu (Greenwich Mean) time. Zulu time is used to give a standard time across the make planning and communication during long-distance flights across time zones easier. We in the Eastern time zone are 5 hours behind GMT or Z-time; this observation was sampled at 1459 local time.

AUTO. This means that the report was generated automatically by an ASOS, an Automated Surface Observation System.

33005KT. This is a wind observation: the wind is from heading 330 at 05 knots. Sometimes you will see this amended with a G and a number, such as G15; that indicates gusting.

1 3/4 SM -RA BR. This indicated that visibility is 1 3/4 Statute Miles in light rain and mist.

BKN004 BKN 024 OVC031. This portion of the METAR is reporting clouds. There is a broken layer at 400 feet above ground level, another at 2400 feet, and an overcast layer at 3100 feet.

14/13. This is the temperature and dewpoint in celsius. This not only tells you if it is warm or cold, but the Temperature-Dew Point Spread can reveal whether fog is likely. The dew point is the point at which dew condenses from the air and causes fog. A low spread between temperature and dew point indicates that fog is likely; a wider spread means fog is less likely. Current conditions are conducive to fog.

A3002. This is the altimeter setting. Altimeters work on pressure differentials, and if the atmospheric pressure changes it can cause a faulty reading on your altimeter, which can cause you to fly too high or too low. It is a good idea on cross-country flights to check weather stations along your route and adjust your altimeter accordingly. Current altimeter setting at KGIF is 3002, adjustable in a little window on the altimeter gauge.

RMK AO2 P0006. Remarks: Automated Observation, Total Precipitation .06 of an inch this hour.

And there you have it: the METAR in a nutshell. It is confusing and bulky at first, but once you read a few of them and practice, it gets easier. AOPA members can get their free weather reports at; non-members can still get METARs and aviation weather courtesy of NOAA's Aviation Weather Center.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The weather, my nemesis

At 9 AM this morning I was supposed to go flying in Winter Haven with a flight instructor I have been talking with for some time now. Despite the fact that Florida is rumored to have more flying-friendly days than almost any state except Arizona, today I was rained out. Observe the large threatening blue area with a scary red eyeball over central Florida:

(Image stolen from NWS.NOAA.GOV)

The last several days saw a frantic flurry of emails between my CFI and I discussing the weather, and last night we decided to cancel today's flight and reschedule for Tuesday the 8th of December.

Excited as I am to go up on Tuesday, I would be lying if I said I was not disappointed that I couldn't go up today. I really like to fly, but instead I'll sit and watch the rain and hope for better weather on Tuesday.

On the bright side, the fact that my CFI is in-tune with the weather and willing to cancel a flight rather than push through into potentially hazardous weather is reassuring. I would rather learn from a cautious and reasonable pilot than from somebody reckless or overconfident. Overestimating ones capabilities to operate in any conditions, let alone foul or potentially foul weather, is a good way to get frightened or seriously hurt.

So I will wait for the weather to pass. I have hot coffee and a warm house, and I can watch the rain go by and wait for Tuesday. Soon enough I'll get to go flying. I guess today just wasn't the right day.