Sunday, December 26, 2010

Night Flight

Night Flight is a small but integral part of flight training. To get a private pilot's license, one must fly 3 hours at night, including one cross-country of 50 or more miles. I did my night cross-country from Winter Haven to Melbourne and back, and since then I've made an effort to stay night current as it is handy.

Flying at night is different from daytime flying. Obviously, one's visibility is much lower, but if there are no clouds and a good moon you can get a surprisingly nice view of the world. The streets are lit up, the airwaves are quiet, and it's just you and the engine up there looking down on the grids of lights.

The view inside the cockpit of my rented C-152 at night.

Our most recent night flight was from Albert Whitted field back to Winter Haven. We had departed Winter Haven in the sunny late afternoon and flown over the suburbs southeast of Tampa, crossing the bay to St. Pete and making a somewhat bouncy respectable landing on the southerly runway. A nice walk past the marina, a cup of coffee, and then some time walking a rock jetty on the water and before we knew it it was dark out.

Facing east as the sun sets over St. Pete's marina. Control tower is visible.

A small high-wing plane landing at Albert Whitted.

The late-afternoon sunlight in St. Pete.

We headed back to the FBO at Albert Whitted and checked out our plane. Last time we had flown at night the landing light had been broken, which was inconvenient, but this time all the lights shone true and we were cleared for a departure East over the water by the tower.

Flying over water at night can be especially dangerous. There is not a clear visual horizon, so one can easily be confused and end up in an "Unusual Attitude" if not careful. Over Tampa Bay, there are the lights from various bridges and the suburbs on the east side of the bay, which is nice; but I found myself focusing heavily on the attitude indicator and the heading indicator.

While overflying the bay, we tried to contact Tampa Approach. The first controller bounced us to a different frequency, who bounced us to a third, who ignored us altogether. Technically ATC does not have to talk to VFR traffic (which is what we are) but usually they at least have the courtesy to tell you to go away. However, this time I simply monitored the appropriate frequency and flew on my way, saying hello to the controller at Lakeland as we flew over on our way home to Winter Haven.

At Winter Haven, we flew into the traffic pattern and completed a semicircle around the field to land. The landing was long as I had come in high, but I'd rather be a little too high than a little too low.

Looks like the next time I'll be able to fly will be January 9, almost 3 weeks out of the cockpit. I'll go solo and stay in the pattern at the airport to get my wings back, but maybe I'll have a fun story to tell you then.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fun to Fly!

Today I took Melissa for her third flight in a small airplane. Her first flight (chronicled here) was awhile ago, and I took her up again for a trip to Florida's west coast a couple of weeks ago. But today was a first for both of us: my first flight to another airport since getting my pilot's certificate, and her first flight to another airport ever.

We flew from Winter Haven airport to Albert Whitted, in St. Petersburg. Whitted is a small general aviation field in St. Pete that's right on the waterfront, and I had flown there before with a friend of mine who owns an airplane. There are a lot of places to get coffee or food, and the airport is a five-minute walk from several nice parks and a marina.

Airport Information at

We took off from Winter Haven around four o'clock and flew West, into the afternoon sun. We climbed to 3,000 feet and flew over the Lakeland airport before turning South and calling up Tampa Approach. Melissa made a great co-pilot, looking for other air traffic as we flew along.

About a half hour after leaving Winter Haven, we turned across the bay and were handed off to the controller at Whitted. We landed smoothly on runway 25, and as we looked out the window, Melissa couldn't believe how close the runway was to the ocean. "It's practically in the water...looks like dolphins are going to jump over the runway!"

View Larger Map

I taxied into the FBO and shut the airplane down, pushing it back into a parking spot and tying it down. We left the FBO and walked down the road to a pilot shop where Mel did some secret Christmas shopping, and then we took a leisurely stroll through downtown St. Pete before stopping for a late-afternoon coffee and a snack at a Starbucks.

We got back to the airport just after the sun went down and signed out, heading out to the ramp and giving the airplane a quick preflight. Much to my dismay, the landing light--the light on the front of the plane that acts like a headlight on the ground--was inoperative. Luckily my beacon light and nav lights worked, and after a quick runup and a weather check we called the tower and were on our way over the bay.

Tampa Approach cleared us to 3,000 feet and we cruised East, looking down at the city lights and the roadways and up at the stars and satellites. It was a perfect, clear night with no clouds...great for flying. Mel asked questions about the instrumentation on the airplane and on the things that the controller and I said to one another, and I gave her a lesson on airplane instruments and communications.

Back at Winter Haven...

View Larger Map

...we landed successfully despite our inoperative landing light. Taxiing was a bit tricky as seeing where we were going required peeking out the side window and moving very slowly, but I made it to the ramp and we tied down the airplane.

Going home, Mel and I talked about the day...we flew to an awesome airport, had a nice leisurely afternoon, and then flew home. No traffic, no stop signs, no aggravation, just us and the air-traffic controllers. Flying in a general-aviation airplane, you get a new perspective on the world, seeing the lakes and the neighborhoods and the people from the sky. You get the unique combination of intense focus on what you're doing and the ability to explore whole new perspectives.

We flew from Winter Haven to Whitted in half an hour, a drive that would take at least an hour and twenty minutes even without much traffic. It was a fantastic day. Soon we'll go back to Whitted to eat at the airport diner, and we have many other flights planned out to take soon. Someday we might even get to own our own airplane.

Melissa and I in a Cessna 152, over the Western beaches of Florida.

It's fun to fly!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

My wife's first flight

One of my first flights after getting my private pilot's license was taking my wife up with me. I had had it in my mind while learning to fly that it would be a fun thing to do to bring her up for flights; she loves to go out for a drive and see the sights, and seeing them from an airplane is much more fun than seeing them from a car stuck in traffic.

That being said, I want flying to be fun for her, not something that she reluctantly does because I like it. I briefed her on the flight before we left for the airport and repeatedly assured her that this was for fun; if she ever felt uncomfortable, or wanted to turn back and land, or just did not want to go, I would never hold it against her. This was something that I harped on in my passenger brief: I didn't want her to come away from her first flight, or any flight with me, feeling frightened or anxious.

So it was that we drove to the airport on a bright, sunny Central Florida day. The weather looked perfect for flying, and I called the ASOS from my cell phone as we drove through the gates of the airport. Skies clear, visibility 10 miles, winds calm...perfect.

We walked into the FBO and I signed out the aircraft we were renting for the flight, an old Cessna 150 that I had spent a lot of training time in. We walked out onto the ramp, and passed by dozens of airplanes: new Cessna 172's, some Warriors, even a couple of Lake Amphibians. And all the way at the end of the flight line we found the little 150, parked next to its more luxurious cousin the 172.

"This is it," I said, gesturing at the mighty 150.

"Really?" said my wife. She seemed shocked that I could fit into it, and intimated to me that the thought of me and my 6'4'' instructor both cramming into the 150 was pretty humorous.

We preflighted the plane, re-checked the ASOS, and taxied out to the end of the runway. I did the runup, giving her a basic explanation of what was going on, and started to move onto the runway.

"Wait! Stop!" she said to me. I stopped just outside the hold-short line, off the runway.

"What's wrong?"

"I...I just feel like I need to say a prayer before we take off in this thing."

"Do you want me to go back? We don't have to fly today if you don't want to."

"We can go, me say a little prayer first."

I stopped and let the fan turn at idle for a moment as my wife uttered a brief prayer. Now divinely insured, she gave me her go-ahead and we taxied out and took off.

The first few minutes she felt a little nervous, but as we got to our house and did some turns-around-a-point so she could see it, she began to have fun. We flew over some local landmarks, and then turned and flew back over some scenic buildings before returning to the airport.

All in all, the first flight with the wife was a resounding success. Despite some initial anxiety, she had a blast, and has gotten excited about continuing to fly. We have a few other local flights planned, and I'm glad that she seems to enjoy flying with me as much as I enjoy flying.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Officially a Private Pilot!

It's official. I'm legit now. As of October 16, 2010, I have passed my private pilot's checkride!

I went through a DPE who works at a nearby FBO and who does a lot of the checkrides at my flight school. I was nervous going in, and the oral exam began at 8 AM, which made me a little more nervous as I'm not a morning person.

The oral went well and was informal, almost conversational. The DPE began talking about a recent flight he had made, and then started drilling me with questions about that flight. He was so sneaky about it that I didn't even realize it was the exam until a few minutes into it, and I think that helped me perform a little better.

After the oral, we went to the flight school and I preflighted my mighty Cessna 152. We took to the skies and flew to the first waypoint on my planned cross-country, where we did some short and soft field operations and a few power failures. The DPE climbed me, had me do a six-stall series, and then put me into some unusual attitudes.

Before I knew it, the wheels squeaked down at my home airport, and I was done. I was a bundle of nerved as we taxied back and I secured the plane; the DPE didn't tell me if I passed or failed, but instead asked me to meet him back at his FBO, which left me quite uncertain.

I drove back to the DPE's FBO, and there he was, filling out the FAA forms to get me my pilot's certificate! I had PASSED! I was absolutely elated. October 16 of 2010 will live in my memory for some years, I suspect.

Since the arrival of my temporary airman's certificate, I've used the privileges granted me by the FAA to take my wife flightseeing over our house and introduce her to the wonder of General Aviation. I have several small trips planned out, and I plan to use the privileges granted to me by the FAA as best I can for the forseeable future.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Stage Check

Today I had my final stage check at the flight school. A stage check occurs before major phases of flight training, and the intent is to have a second set of eyes evaluate the student before they are handed more responsibility. My flight school does two stage checks for private pilot students: one pre-solo, and one pre-checkride.

My stage check today was with an older CFI named Fred. Fred's one of those guys that's been flying since 1903, who has seen it all and done most of it too. He's laid back, but intimidating simply because of the volume of his experience. I was very nervous going in, not because Fred is mean (I've flown with him before and he is very relaxed) but simply because I was afraid I wouldn't meet his expectations.

I showed up at 10 and then waited for Fred. He had forgotten that he was flying with me and gone out for breakfast, but I made the most of it by pre-flighting the airplane and trying to relax. When he did show up around 10:45, I felt much more relaxed and very ready to fly. I re-checked the plane and we taxiied out and took to the skies.

We began with a soft-field takeoff, a special takeoff where one must imagine being on a soft field, perhaps a grass strip. You must keep weight off the nosewheel, and never ever stop. Directional control is very important and can be challenging simply because the nosewheel is off the ground. I aced the takeoff and earned some praise from Fred, which helped me relax quite a bit more.

We then circled the field and returned for a soft-field landing, where one lands slow and keeps the weight off the nosewheel. We took off again, doing a short-field takeoff over an imagined 50-foot obstacle, circling back for a short-field landing over a 50-foot obstacle.

After the takeoffs and landings we began the cross-country portion of the flight, which I had planned from Winter Haven to Sebring. We stopped over the Lake Wales airport for some air work; slow flight, stalls, turning stalls, and some intrument work. Fred failed the engine on me once or twice but I managed to cope relatively well. We did turns around a point over the Bok Tower near Lake Wales, and then went for some S-turns over a road, during which Fred failed my engine again.

The only eventful portion of the flight was when my window exploded open mid-turn. I tried to close it, but the latch snapped and departed the aircraft, leaving me with a window stuck open. Fred shrugged it off, and since we're a non-pressurized, underpowered, low-flying Cessna 152 instead of an airplane where windows matter, it really wasn't a big deal.

We went back to Winter Haven, Fred failed the engine on me again, and we landed uneventfully. All in all, the stage check went well: Fred passed me and my checkride is scheduled for the 16th of this month.

He did leave me with some constructive criticism. Talk to the pilot examiner more, explain what you're doing. Be more diligent with your clearing turns. More brakes and more helm on the short-field landing. Apart from that...I should be good to go on the 16th for my checkride.

We shall see!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Long cross country

Recently I completed my long cross-country flight. I flew from winter haven up to Ocala, then from there to Lakeland and back across to winter haven.

The flight was perfect. Good weather, good scenery, and friendly air traffic controllers at Ocala and Lakeland. I had some time to kill at the end of the flight to meet my time minimums, so at Lakeland I asked for and was cleared for multiple touch and gos. After five nice landings and one right pattern, I departed for winter haven.

A perfect flight! Photos to follow; I'd post them now but I am blogging from my new iPhone And am not sure how to blog a photo yet.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Weather that will kill you

Heavy weather is the nemesis of the VFR pilot. When I finish my private pilot's license, I will be authorized to fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), meaning that the visibility and cloud cover must meet certain parameters or I am forbidden to fly. This is because flying in poor visibility can be disorienting, and without special training and a good amount of experience, pilots can become disoriented very quickly in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC.)

VFR into IMC flight is not just a leading cause of accidents in the general aviation community, it is a leading cause of fatal accidents in the general aviation community. As such it is imperative for pilots to check, cross-check, and double-check the weather before flying. And even if you do, the weather can catch you off-guard.

So it happened that the other day, my instructor and I were debating whether to leave the ground. I was scheduled for a solo flight, but winds aloft were gusting at 20 knots or so and winds on the ground were pushing 10 to 15 knots, which in a Cessna 152 is significant. We checked the weather and saw a storm cell South of us that was moving Northwest, and it looked as though it would track away from us. Wanting to take advantage of the challenging wind conditions to practice ground-reference maneuvers, we took off and flew North, finding a field to practice turns around a point on.

As we descended to 800 feet and began our turns around a point, I noticed the wind stiffening. It felt like we were in a kite; as I turned around the southern point of the circle the wind rudely shoved us North, and as I turned around the northern point of the circle the we skidded and weathervaned with the wind. It was definitely a struggle to keep the maneuver going within the Practical Test Standards, but I somehow managed to keep the plane more or less within the tolerances.

As we transitioned from left turns to right turns, Bryan looked towards the airport and said, "We better turn back." I looked out the window towards the field, and all I could see was a wall of clouds towering into the sky. There was visible rain pouring out the bottom of the clouds, and it was clearly moving toward us.

This was a decision point. The storm was still south of the field, but it was obviously moving over the airport. We could race the clouds back to Winter Haven and hope for the best, or we could stay aloft and wait out the storm, or we could divert to another field, probably Kissimmee. The storm was closing fast and we decided to head for Winter Haven, only two miles away.

That two miles took a loooong time to fly in our tiny 152. We made an abbreviated traffic pattern, entering on a left base for runway 5. I was descending through 800 feet and I knew this was going to be close; the rain was on the other side of a lake that sits off the end of runway 5.

As we turned base to final, it hit the fan--literally. The rain began slamming into our tiny plane, and I went from seeing the runway numbers and being lined up on approach to having zero visibility in strong wind and driving rain. Bryan took the controls and we managed to wrestle the plane to the ground, smacking into the pavement in one of the less graceful landings I've encountered and skidding fast down the runway toward the turnout.

We made the turnout and taxied to parking in the torrential rains. The wind was blowing rain almost horizontally. We tied the plane down and ran back to the FBO, soaked but alive.

Almost as fast as it hit us, it was gone. We walked into the FBO and I paid for the airtime, and in the five minutes it took me to do that it went back to being sunny and clear outside. The storm pushed through and left a wake of peaceful and calm weather behind it.

At the time, I felt lucky to have cheated the weather...not scared, not worried, but simply lucky. We had made a few bad choices and could well have paid the price for it, but luck was on our side. If I has gone solo that day, I probably wouldn't have been so lucky, and while I might have made it, I also might have been another student who encountered the deadly power of VFR into IMC and met an unfortunate and early demise. I could well have been a smoking hole in the ground.

The more I think about it the more I learn from it. Here are the takeaway lessons:

(1) If there is any doubt at all about the weather, don't go.
(2) Even if that storm cell looks like it might miss you, don't take the chance...wait it out.
(3) If you are stupid enough to get aloft in these conditions, don't race the weather back to the field. If we had diverted we probably would have been able to make a more controlled, safer landing in Kissimmee.
(4) While it is important to learn to fly in suboptimal conditions, it's important to learn good judgment so you can avoid those conditions in the first place.

Every pilot makes mistakes, and every pilot should learn from them. I'm glad things went the way they did, and I'm glad that I have the chance to learn and grow from this eventful 0.4 hour flight.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The First Solo

On June 8th of this year, after months and months of training and several consecutive weeks of landing practice, I achieved my first real landmark in flight training: I soloed!

For weeks and weeks before the solo, Bryan and I were shooting landings. We'd take off, stay in the pattern for an hour and just land, land, land. My landings were hit or miss, truthfully, and a lot of them were not the kind of landings I'm proud of. The plane tended too smack roughly into the earth, or to balloon, or to skip happily down the runway without really landing before we'd firewall the power and go around.

The game changer came when we flew from Winter Haven to Bartow, which has a much wider and much longer runway than Winter Haven. The change in "sight picture" from a smaller to a larger runway did something to my psyche, and all of a sudden I could glide the airplane in to a nice landing. The wheels would squeak, the plane would settle, and suddenly I "got it" for landings. We returned to Winter Haven for some more practice, and I felt good about how things were landings weren't perfect, but they were improving and consistently good enough that Bryan felt I could solo.

Before the solo I went up with a crusty old codger for a stage check, to have a different instructor eyeball me before approving me for solo flight. We did some basic maneuvers, a simulated engine failure, and some spins, which were very interesting indeed. After the flight I was approved, and when June 8 rolled around, The Day was here.

I arrived at the airport and Bryan and I took to the skies in one of the school's C-150's. We did a few turns around the traffic pattern, and except for one moment where I let my airspeed drop, things went well. After several touch-and-gos, we stopped, got off the runway, and Bryan exited the airplane.

"You'll do fine. Just be safe, take your time, and try not to screw up...shoot me at least three landings."

My nerves were on fire as I taxied the plane back to the hold-short lines on Runway 5. I took some deep breaths and went through an extensive engine runup, reading the checklist aloud to myself and double-checking all systems. The traffic pattern was empty, so I broadcasted my intentions on the radio, pulled onto the runway, and...

...took off.

The plane was much lighter without my instructor's weight in the right seat. I was elated as the 150 slowly inched its way up into the sky, and I smiled to myself as I went through the traffic pattern. Crosswind leg; watch airspeed, pitch for VY; Watch altitude; Downwind leg, keep a safe distance from the airfield, listen for other traffic, watch your airspeed, begin descent; Base, watch airspeed, remember carb heat, watch your altitude and your sink rate; and before I knew it the wheels were squeaking on the pavement and I was taxiing back to the hold-short lines.

I made four landings that day, and three of them were landings I'm proud of--one was maybe not so good. But the important thing to ME was, I soloed! I finally felt that the months and months of training had paid off. My confidence soared, and I began to feel that maybe someday soon I would have my pilot's license.

Bryan and I shake hands in front of N5307Q, the Cessna 150 I've been learning in.

Alton Brown on Flying

Apart from flying, one of my favorite hobbies is making food. And one of my favorite food-makers is the chef extraordinaire and science geek Alton Brown.

I never knew that Brown was a pilot until I saw him flying in one of his episodes.He was talking about some sort of food and circling a pond in his Cessna 206, and I was delighted: my favorite celebrity chef is a pilot!

I did some research and found an article from AOPA Flight Training in which Brown discusses his training and how, for him, aviation is a tool more than an experience of the joy of flight.

Even though I am on the other end of the spectrum, flying more for the sheer thrill of it than for any utility I can hope to get out of it in the near future, I find common ground with Mr. Brown in the desire to master the art of flight. After all, doing a half-ass job simply is not an option in aviation, and the Gods of the Sky tend to weed out those who do not focus on flying well.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Long time no blog

I have been severely neglectful of this blog for the last several months. Between working hard to earn the money to fly and actually flying, I’ve put zero effort into this thing. I aim to change that now.

Since I’ve been gone, a lot has happened. I got to solo on June 8th for the first time, which was exhilarating.

I got to fly my first solo cross-country from Winter Haven to Ocala and back. the map to see the route.

I dove into night flying, which is a completely different experience from say flying. Beautiful and dangerous, and a lot of fun to experience.

I took my long cross-country, flying from Winter Haven to Ocala and then to Lakeland and back.

And, just yesterday, I took my FAA writen exam for Airplane, Single-Engine Land.

With all that accomplished, I am so close to the checkride that I can practically feel it. Before I get there, I’ll fill you in on all the action you’ve missed in the meantime. More to come, aviation enthusiasts; more to come!

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Despite my neglect of the blog, I have been making some progress on getting my private pilot's ticket. This week I've flown three times, and I've had some exciting new experiences: my first interaction with ATC at a towered airport, my longest short cross-country to date, and my first interaction with a VOR. Also notable was my first encounter with the dreaded Spin Monster.

My first interaction with ATC came yesterday, when Bryan and I flew across the county to Lakeland Linder. It's a short flight, maybe 15 minutes, but that's five minutes longer than the flights I've taken to the practice area or to Bartow. Bryan reviewed communication procedures with me before we called the tower.

Contrary to my expectations, I found communicating with the control tower easier than listening to the CTAF at Winter Haven. The Tower controls all within their airspace, and it relieves a lot of the workload associated with the CTAF. You still have to look for other traffic and keep yourself alert, but the bottom line is that the tower--at least in my limited experience--made things easier. And despite the terror that many students feel, I found the tower controllers to be brisk and courteous.

We did a few tough-and-go's from Lakeland before departing the Class D airspace and heading back to Winter Haven to finish up our lesson for the day. On the way home, we introduced the VOR, a device I'm loosely familiar with from my flight-sim experience and ground schooling.

After our lesson, Bryan told me he wanted me to solo. To do that, I have to get a stage check--where a second CFI flies with me and reviews my skills--and I have to get some paperwork with my medical certificate sorted out. Apparently I got a medical without a student pilot certificate, but I've seen an AME since then and sorted it all out.


Today, I had the stage check. It was a little intimidating. My normal CFI, who is a pretty laid-back guy, sent me up with another CFI from the school just to verify with a second set of eyes that I am solo-capable. The second CFI was an old crusty geezer who's been flying since the dawn of time. Intimidated as I was by his gruffness and experience, it was nice to know that there would be a seasoned pilot in the right seat.

We flew North from the airport to the practice area, where we did some basic maneuvers: slow flight (needs practice), power-off stalls (needs practice), power-on stalls (needs practice), and turns to a heading (acceptable).

After checking those maneuvers with me, the CFI asked me about spins.

"I've done the reading on them, but Bryan and I have not practiced spins yet."
"No? Well, lemme show ya. My airplane." The instructor grabbed the yoke, pulled the power, applied carb heat and swung us up in a climbing arc to the left. "Grab the controls, feel what I do." He stalled the plane, and with an alarming swing the plane began to spin wildly around the left wingtip. Suddenly the ground, emerald green in the Florida sun, was looming in the windhsield and spinning wildly. "Just like you read," he told me calmly, "neutral aileron, full opposite rudder, nose down. Get your power back and stabilize yourself." The plane popped neatly out of the spin, and we climbed back to altitude. My heart was racing: that was terrifying. It was frightful. It was...strangely enjoyable.

We climbed back to altitude, and the old CFI took the wheel again and put us into a spin. "Your airplane," he told me as we nosed over into the spin. I grabbed the yoke, neutralized the ailerons, stomped the rudder, and was relieved when the plane again popped out of the spin. "Good job. That's your intro to spins. Don't ever try to practice them without someone else. You'll kill yourself."

I have no plans to intentionally spin anytime soon, though it was nice to see one in training to know how to get out of it later.

After the spin, we returned to the field and practiced some touch-and-go's. The CFI pulled power on me twice in the traffic pattern to practice engine-out landings. The first one went fairly well, and we set it down on the runway and in one piece before departing again.

The second one I completely botched: I put flaps in, then took them out, and if it had been a real emergency chances are I could have killed us. But I learned from my mistake: no flaps for an engine out until you have made your landing spot! Nevertheless, I felt foolish for my error and I hope I never make that mistake again. We took off again, then came back for a landing on which the CFI killed the engine on me again to see what I'd do. It went better, and we taxied to the terminal and parked.

On the whole, I passed my Stage Check. The CFI told me to work on my stalls and my slow flight, and he advised me to work on my landings to make them smoother. He also told me to tighten my traffic pattern, but despite my shortcomings he felt I was ready to solo.

Now, I have a written exam to complete, and if I do well, the school will let me solo on my next flight. Exciting times!

Saturday, May 8, 2010


"A cloud does not know why it moves in just such a direction and at such a speed; it feels an impulsion, this is the place to go now. But the sky knows the reasons and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond horizons. "

Friday, April 23, 2010

Landings: At Last

Today was a day of breakthroughs. A lot of the pilots I have talked to have told me that there comes a moment in time when suddenly, landings just "click." You grasp the mechanics of landing and suddenly you can put the plane on the ground, no problem. I was eagerly awaiting the click, as I'd been having massive difficulty with the landing process from power management to the deadly flare. It seemed that every landing was too slow, too low, or too fast. I had a scary tailstrike which struck fear into my heart.

On my last lesson, my instructor was tired of watching me struggle, so he took me out to the practice area and worked on rudder control with a series of exercises. He then had me fly the plane back to the airport using only rudder, and then we did a series of landings where we split responsibility of duties. He would do power while I did pitch, and then vice-versa. Those exercises solidified landing in my head, and I ended the day by squeaking out a fairly good landing.

Today, we preflighted the plane and Bryan briefed me. He told me that we'd go for a change of scenery and fly to Bartow, a mere seven miles from the Winter Haven airport. There we would do some touch-and-go's and then head back to Winter Haven for simulated power failures.

Normally, Bartow is a controlled airport, but it was after 5PM and the controller had gone home for the day, so the tower frequency on the radio became a CTAF. We called our position and entered the pattern at a 45-degree standard entry, then circled around to land. The runway at Bartow is much wider than the runway at Winter Haven, and the different sight picture helped me immensely.

I pulled the power, pushed the flaps, executed a passable flare, and squeaked down for the best landing I've made to date. It may not have been a perfect 10, but in MY book, it felt amazing: no bounce, no porpoise, no balloon, just a perfect greaser of a landing. I smiled ear to ear as I pulled the flaps up, pushed the carb heat to COLD and advanced the throttle. The plane soared into the sky and I executed five more successful landings (there was a bit of a crosswind, so they weren't perfect by any means, but they were my best landings yet) before we left Bartow for Winter Haven.

On our return to Winter Haven we entered the pattern, did one touch-and-go, and then Bryan demonstrated a perfect simulated engine failure. He pulled the throttle, pitched for our Cessna 150's best-glide speed of 70mph, and circled the plane in for a perfect landing. We took off again, and I made an attempt at the same procedure, which was scary but which went fairly well.

At the end of the day, I logged 9 landings and 1.2 hours of time. It was the first time I'd flown to another airport, and the first time I made what I felt to be good landings. I felt really good about myself coming home tonight, and I'm excited for the next time I get to go up!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sun N Fun

I haven't had much time to post here lately, but this news warrants reporting: The SUN N FUN started today!

I sat on the patio this morning with a cup of coffee and my binoculars and watched the planes come in. We live just off the holding pattern that the KLAL controllers hold the arrivals in, and so every few minutes a batch of planes would fly over...Cessnas, Pipers, a few Lakes, a Mooney, maybe a Grumman (not sure.) The classics flew over; an old Cub, what looked like a Taylorcraft, and even a Boeing Stearman. I'm pretty sure I saw a rare plane known as the OMF symphony. There were several twins flying over too, and what looked like a CitationJet.

We had business in Orlando, and so unfortunately I missed the arrival of the USAF Thunderbirds. But I will get to see them doing their airshow later this week!

Tomorrow, I will be at the airfield all day, wandering the rows of airplanes and watching the planes in the sky. Thursday I have an errand to run in the morning, and then in the afternoon I'll be going to the Splash-In at Fantasy of Flight. I have to work Friday and Saturday, and then Sunday I'll be at the show all day to see the planes off.

It will be sad to see the planes leave, but while they're here, I'll have a splendid time at the airshow.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Gonna land, gonna land, gonna land

I got to go flying again today. My CFI had encouraged me after our last flight to go up again sooner than at a two-week interval because, as he put it, "learning to land is a critical phase in flying." We took an hour and stayed in the traffic pattern around KGIF, doing a total of eight patterns and landings. I noticed a definite improvement in how I performed this time. Part of it is probably being able to go so close to another lesson; part of it is probably just practice.

Bryan told me that my traffic patterns today were almost perfect: nice turns for the most part, a good distance from the field, good altitude control. He mentioned that I need to watch my airspeed while turning base-to-final, and for some reason today I did struggle with being either too fast or too slow during the turns from downwind-base and base-final. Bryan illustrated this by talking me through one of my approaches:

"The critical thing is not to get too slow on your turn to final. You're making me nervous with those steep turns in to final and you're losing airspeed. If we stall here there's no time to recover. So we're not going to make that mistake any more. See how your airspeed is dropping when you turn in? You need to either add power or drop the nose to gain airspeed." I mulled his words over as we thumped into the ground on another practice landing and revved up for a takeoff.

On the next traffic pattern, I changed my viewpoint. I have spent a lot of time looking down the extended centerline of the airplane, but the issue with that is that the airspeed indicator is on the upper-left portion of the dashboard. So instead of looking down the extended centerline, I shifted my eyes to the corner of the windscreen closest to the airspeed indicator. I found that it helped me monitor my turns, and the fact that such a small shift in vision kept my airspeed indicator in view made an enormous difference. On the last few approaches, I made that change and maintained airspeed as well as flying a better traffic pattern.

The landings themselves are still a little rough. I am having trouble with the "flare" before touchdown where you pull the nose into the air and let the back wheels settle onto the pavement first. I tend to flare too soon, and then "balloon" up into the air before floating back down. The danger is that during a "balloon" you will lose airspeed, and if you have climbed a few feet you could end up crossing the line from "landing" to "crash." Not likely to be lethal, but very likely to be embarrassing and expensive.

The key is to constantly modify your flare. When Bryan flares, he tends to move the yoke quite a bit, making constant minute adjustments to the pitch. When I flare, I tend to make grosser, more outsized movements, which are less likely to lead to a smooth landing. I improved some today, and Bryan tells me it's "practice makes perfect." Landing is scientific, but it's an artsy science, and it just takes repetition to "grease" the landings.

In summary: I feel good about today. My traffic patterns were good, my ground handling was the best yet, and the preflight/runup/takeoff have been very smooth. I did forget to check the fuel selector, but that is an oversight that I can correct next time and never miss again. The landings are still a bit rough, but they are less rough than in the past, and getting better every time. It just takes practice. Lucky for me, I love to practice. I can't wait to go again.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Control Shyness, Overcontrol, Landings

Control Shyness, Overcontrol, and Landings

Control Shyness

Today was another productive flying lesson. Over almost two hours in the air, Bryan and I did at least ten solid traffic patterns and focused on learning to land. I identified a number of areas for improvement and felt like I learned something, which is always good.

Because I had not flown in a couple of weeks, I feel like my skill level was not where it was when I finished my last lesson. I am building skill, but it’s two steps forward and one step back with these sporadic lessons. It’s better than not flying at all, but it would be nice to go more consistently.

The first few traffic patterns were sort of drunken. In fact, on the first one up Bryan asked me what exactly I was doing. I was having a hard time focusing for some reason, but with his coaching I was soon straightened out and flying right. There was a slight wind blowing out of the Northwest which created some complications to handling as the active runway is on heading 050, just North of East. Immediately after takeoff it was necessary to kick in a little rudder to compensate for the wind and not drift off the extended centerline of the runway. Turning was a little more bumpy than usual, and I found myself having a harder time than usual holding an appropriate distance from the runway on the downwind leg. Also, when “abeam the number” and reducing power, I have a tendency to drift right. Bryan coached me on all of this, and as the lesson progressed I made an effort to tighten my turns and watch my position around the field.

Another problem that cropped up while flying today was on the base segment of the traffic pattern. Base is when you turn into the field so that you are flying towards but perpendicular to the runway. Turning to the base leg, one should be about 700 feet above ground level (AGL) and the runway should be about 45 degrees off the wing. Apparently, my perception of 45 degrees is incorrect, and I have been turning base much later than I should and flying a huge pattern. Bryan coached me on that and helped me tighten my pattern a little more, which led to better and better approaches to the runway as the lesson went on.

One of the big things I have been struggling with is control shyness. Control shyness is what I call the tendency of the student pilot to be afraid of the controls of the airplane. Sometimes when we are flying, I see that something is askew, but instead of fixing it I tend to ignore it or just live with it. This is incorrect. Bryan emphasized with me that if something is askew, as the PILOT IN COMMAND it is my responsibility to fix it. For example: if I over-turn and am at an odd angle to the runway, my tendency is to sort of “go with it.” This is wrong. There are many things that can go wrong in the air, and by “going with it” I am increasing the odds of instability or loss of control. “Grab the controls and make it right, man,” Bryan told me. “You’re flying the darn thing, you may as well use the controls you have.” He’s right.

The challenge here, though, is that I suffer from another student-pilot tendency: the tendency to fight myself at the controls by over controlling the aircraft. When I take Bryan’s advice and use the controls, I sometimes tend to over-control the airplane. That puts it askew, and then I find myself wrestling with the controls to correct the massive inputs I have been putting into them. The cure for this is to simply let go of the controls, let the airplane correct itself, and then focus on using gentler inputs. On my last three or four approaches, I used smaller control inputs and took some deep breaths to help myself focus. That seemed to dispel whatever it was that was keeping me from focusing well, and it really neatened up my turns and climbs.

In summary: today I learned a lot about control shyness and overcontrol. I learned about my own shortcomings. I learned how to remedy those shortcomings, and I learned to neaten up my traffic pattern and make tighter, more precise turns. Bryan actually suggested that I practice more in a flight simulator, which is something I’m more than happy to do. I learned that I need to ground myself and focus more. I learned that, when I really pay attention, I can fly a perfect traffic pattern, and I learned that I need to cultivate that focus and really polish my skills.


Landing an airplane is essential. Any airplane that takes off will land one way or another, and it is imperative that the pilot be able to make as well-controlled and safe a landing as possible. My landings to this point have been, on the whole, a little rough. I make two mistakes over and over: I balloon the airplane, and I land with all three wheels at once.

A perfect landing goes like this: the airplane has a stable approach to the field. On final, the runway centerline is aligned with the center of the aircraft, and the plane is descending along a glide-path that will place it smack on the end of the runway. As the plane crosses the threshold, the pilot pulls the nose up ever so gently, and the plane mushes gently into the ground rear wheels first, followed by a gentle letdown of the nose wheel.

My landings go like this: the approach is relatively stable. On final, the center of the aircraft is more or less aligned with the runway, though often it is too far to the left. The aircraft yaws its way to centerline, and then just as it crosses the numbers at the end of the runway, the pilot yanks the nose up and the plane floats into the sky. The pilot then lets out too much back pressure off of the yoke, and the plane noses down, then pulls back up, than thumps into the pavement and skids along the runway like a drunk trying to weave cones.

As you can see, my landings are far from perfect. My instructor did his best to coach me today, and by the end of the day, I felt some improvement. As I mentioned in my last post, we spent a lot of time focusing on the traffic pattern and setting up a stable approach. Every good landing has a well-planned approach behind it, and all that practice in the traffic pattern helped my landings.

Noticing my suboptimal landings, Bryan gave me two tips to help me improve. First: on final approach, imagine that there is a yardstick that goes from the dashboard to the end of the runway. Instead of looking at where the airplane IS, look further down the yardstick at where the airplane WILL BE. That helps you to fly ahead of the plane, and helps you to make better control inputs and plan your landing better. Just like driving, if you focus on a point further away you can maneuver better than if you’re driving ten feet in front of you.

The second tip from Bryan: don’t land the airplane. Instead of focusing on putting the plane on the ground, try to get as close to it as you can without touching it. “Imagine that it’s going to shock you,” he said, “and try not to touch it.” When I did that, the plane magically had a better landing than before. The rear wheels hit first, the front wheel came down gently, and things were suddenly a lot less bumpy and turbulent. Amazing!

After a number of landings, it was time for us to stop. I progressed from really bad to not as bad, and I feel like I learned something. Key points for me to remember: visualize your glide path. Visualizing your glide path helps you control the plane, and helps you plan ahead of the plane, both of which are important tasks. Also, don’t land the plane, just get really close to the ground and let it happen. Practice makes perfect; I really hope I can practice again soon.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

High Flight

This poem was written by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a pilot officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force in the early 1940's. Magee was inspired to write this poem while on a test flight at 30,000 feet. He was killed in action in a dogfight over Europe on December 11, 1941, at the age of 19.

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds--and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of--wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.


Saturday, February 20, 2010


Want to read about a hero? Go read about Tammy Duckworth, a helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army who was shot down in Iraq. Her helicopter was shot down by Iraqi insurgents who fired an RPG at her helo. The RPG exploded on the right side of the helicopter, severing Duckworth's legs and mangling her right arm. Since her recovery from her almost-lethal wounds, she works for the VA system and is learning to fly civilian fixed-wing airplanes in her spare time. What a great story!

Eight Patterns, Eight Landings

A photo I took today at the airport. I call it "Freedom Through the Fence" because I am a dork.

2/20/2010 C-150 N5307Q GIF-GIF
Traffic Patterns and normal landing practice
8 landings 1.5 hours
Grand Total: 21 hours

Today was an awesome day to fly. For starters, the weather was perfect: clear skies, no wind, no clouds, nice mellow temperature. It was without a doubt the most perfect flying day I could have asked for.

Despite this perfect weather, the traffic pattern at the airport was less busy than I had expected. With perfect weather on a Saturday afternoon in Florida, I'd expect tons of traffic aloft, but for the first 45 minutes or so in the air it seemed like it was just me and my instructor. A few planes joined us in the traffic pattern later on in the afternoon, but by and large our company in the air was courteous and not hurried--which is good as our little Cessna 150 has about one horsepower and putts through the traffic pattern at a fairly laid-back pace.

There was some drama on the radio, however. A flight student on a solo had gotten lost and was asking for directions. My instructor suggested he try to use a VOR* signal to triangulate his position, and the student's instructor came on the radio and suggested he try some orienteering, but the student saw some random field and opted to just land the flight and figure out where he was from the ground. Also of note, another aircraft announced that they had experienced engine failure and would be landing on the inactive runway, but fortunately it was just an engine-out drill. No actual emergency--phew!

We spent the day focusing on traffic patterns and on landings. The concept of the day was to grasp was the "Stabilized Approach," which is to say that while approaching for landing the view from the cockpit should be of the runway growing larger but not moving. A lot of pitch or yaw or roll to correct should not be necessary if one's approach is solid. On my first few patterns of the day, my approach was a touch sloppy and the landings were definitely rough. Bryan coached me through the landing: the objective is to float the airplane and not quite let it land until it's niiiiice and easy. There needs to be back pressure on the yoke to prevent the airplane from touching with the nosewheel first. Keeping the pressure on the yoke also prevents the nosewheel from mushing around and making it hard to steer.

Three problems popped up today. First, my instructor noticed that I wasn't paying enough attention to airspeed. This is a huge problem since losing your airspeed while maneuvering near the ground can cause an un-recoverable stall, which can then cause death. I wish to avoid death, and so after my instructor reminded me of the importance of airspeed I worked hard to maintain it. I think I was too throttle-shy at first, but as the day went on I grew more aggressive and learned what sort of maneuvers require additional power. My recent reading on the power curve makes a lot more sense after all that mucking around with the throttle today. I also focused on pitching for airspeed.

Problem two: I had a hard time steering after landing. Ten years of car driving kick in and I try to steer with the ailerons (the yoke) when it is instead necessary to steer with your feet, on the rudder pedals. I tried to focus on fixing that but my brain was full and so I will try to do better next time.

The final problem: when I am making my power and configuration changes at the end of the downwind leg, I have a tendency to steer the airplane to the right. It's not a huge deal, but Bryan mentioned it to me and I feel like I should work on neatening that up. After all, unintentional changes in attitude while changing configuration can become problematic.

After plenty of practice, with eight traffic patterns and seven touch-and-go's, my patterns were tighter, my landings were better, and I felt like I had made some progress and learned a lot. Bryan told me that my landings had gone from not good at all to a C+ grade, and I feel good about that. The objective is an eventual A+, so more practice is in order!

All in all, a productive day. An hour and a half more in the logbook, eight good traffic patterns, and three unassisted landings that went fairly well. In aviation, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing, but any landing that you can walk away from
and still use the plane is a great landing. In that light, I think that today was a great day indeed.


Finally, I can get back into the air again. It's been a few weeks since I have been in the air, mostly due to my CFI's need for some time off to pursue some professional goals outside aviation. I'll be glad to get back into the air.

Having a few weeks away from the cockpit, though, makes me a little rusty. I have practiced some basics with my flight sim here at the house, though that it not the same as actual time in the left seat. I have also spent a lot of time reading up on the ground school portion of my training, which I feel has been helpful. I've focused a lot on the relationships between power and drag, and on the power curve, which I feel gives me a better understanding of how to maneuver the airplane.

Today, my instructor wants to focus some more on the traffic pattern, and then possibly let me shoot a landing. I have been "afraid of the controls," by which my instructor means I have been a little reluctant to totally take control, but last time we flew I worked on that and I will make a conscious effort to be more assertive behind the wheel. Without being willing to work the controls, making a landing is impossible, and without landing, soloing is impossible, and without a solo flight, the private pilot's license is unattainable; therefore it is important that I learn to take control more effectively and learn how to land.

Off to the airport for a 2:30 flight. More when I return.

Friday, February 12, 2010

More Aeroydnamics!

As part of my continuing study of the ground school materials for my private pilot's license, I have been reading through two separate references. The primary is the ASA textbook for private pilot ground school; the secondary is "The Proficient Pilot" by Barry Schiff.

I have not gotten too far into the text. My last series of notes on aerodynamics is continued here, mostly to reinforce it in my own head but also for your reading if you're into this sort of thing.

Continuing on the concept of drag, it is important to understand that parasite and induced drag will vary in their proportional influence depending in your airspeed. As you accelerate to higher airspeed, parasite drag increases exponentially; a doubling of airspeed quadruples parasite drag. Induced drag, on the other hand, is a result of lift development and varies with angle of attack. At slower airspeeds induced drag becomes a major concern.

This talk of induced versus parasite drag brings us to the concept of the region of reversed command. The term "reversed command" refers to the phenomenon that occurs wherein more power is required to maintain less airspeed. Barry Schiff uses the example of a pilot approaching a mountain airstrip: as the pilot approaches the strip, he notices that he is a little low on altitude, and so he raises the nose to climb. Unfortunately for the pilot, rather than climbing, his airplane slows down and sinks. The pilot reflexively raises the nose again and adds power, but it is too little too late, and he smashes to earth, banging his airplane up and wondering what the deuce happened.

What happened was: the pilot was in the region of reversed command. Flying low and slow, he made the error of pitching up without adding power, which caused him to slow down and fall from the sky, not to climb as he expected. In slow flight, approaches, or other maneuvers requiring lowered airspeed, it is necessary to add power to stay aloft even though your airspeed is lower. Not what you might think at first, but it's important to understand the concept.

The practical upshot of all this: control your altitude with power, your airspeed with pitch. Pitching to altitude will cause you to enter mushing flight and lose the altitude you seek to gain. Especially in low and slow flying, remember this concept.

Continuing on, we come to control and control surfaces. Control surfaces are important because they enable you to, well, control the airplane. A plane is controlled along three different axes:
  • The LATERAL or PITCH axis, which extends from wingtip to wingtip and is controlled with the ELEVATOR;
  • The LONGITUDINAL or ROLL axis, which extends from nose to tail and is controlled by the AILERONS; and
  • The VERTICAL or YAW axis, which extends from the central floor to ceiling of the aircraft and is controlled by the RUDDER.

Control surfaces work by redirecting airflow in a specific manner. When the plane is controlled on the ROLL axis by the AILERON, it will enter a bank attitude with one wing higher and one wing lower than the other. When the RUDDER is activated, airflow is directed around it and the plane YAWS. And when the ELEVATOR is used, airflow will push or pull the tail and PITCH the airplane one way or another.

Pitch control:

Pitch control is achieved by using the elevator, which is the movable control at the backside of the horizontal stabilizer. Control around the Lateral (pitch) axis is also achieved to some extent with the throttle. Increasing the throttle in a low-tailed prop plane will "blow the tail down" by blasting air back and over the top surface of the elevator. A reduction in power will also reduce the pressure on the elevator, which will pitch the nose down. This effect of the propellor on the elevator helps the plane to maintain a stable angle of attack and thereby maintain a stable airspeed.

Roll control:
Roll is controlled by ailerons, which are located on the outer trailing edge of the wing. When the ailerons are deflected, the airplane will "roll" by banking. When one aileron is lowered, the camber and the angle of attack increase the lift of that wing and raise it. At the same time, the aileron on the opposite side is raised, the change in camber and angle of attack will lower the lift of that wing and sink it.

Also contributing to bank and turn is adverse aileron drag. This occurs when the wing of the down aileron is dragged backwards, slowing the turn. Adverse aileron drag is compensated for by the rudder, though some aircraft are designed to overcome this imbalance by equalizing aileron drag.

Yaw control:
The rudder is a movable surface attached to the back of the tailfin that is used for yaw control. Like the ailerons, it alters camber and angle of attack on the tailfin, varying the forces on either side of the tail. It is used to offset forces moving the nose of the aircraft from side to side, such as P-forces from the turning propeller.

Since the rudder is located at the far back of the airplane, there is a long lever arm between the rudder and the nose. Small rudder inputs often translate to large movements of the nose. Some planes have shorter tails or a shorter "lever arm" and require greater rudder input. These planes are known as "short coupled" aircraft.

That's about it for control axes. Next up: control and stability!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I Win!

Last night, I drove from my home in central Florida over to Tampa for a free safety seminar hosted by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. Safety is number one when aviating, and as a student pilot especially I feel it is my duty to learn as much as I can about safe flying.

I have been to one other ASF seminar in the past; in November or December I went to a seminar entitled "What went wrong?" which focused on the causes of fatal accidents*. The seminar hosted in Tampa last night was entitled "10 Things Other Pilots Do Wrong," and it focused on the unsafe or annoying habits of other flyers that can affect your safety and the public's perception of General Aviation.

I arrived at the seminar at about 7, turned my registration card in at the door (registration is free--no excuse not to go!), and found a seat just in time to see the beginnings of the seminar. I relaxed, sat back, and absorbed the knowledge as best I could.

Halfway through the seminar, we took a ten-minute break. As we left the speaker reminded us that there would be door prizes given away, five DVDs, three copies of 2010 FAR/AIM, and one GPS locator thingy. As I stretched my legs I thought to myself, "I bet I could win a prize tonight. I'm feeling lucky. Maybe I'll get me a copy of the FARs..."

We returned to our seats, and the speaker drew names. Five gentlemen before me won the DVD, and two copies of the FAR/AIM were passed out. The speaker drew a card from the box, looked for a second, and then spoke my name.

"Hoi!" I surprised myself by jumping up from the seat and waving at the guy passing out the prizes. What excitement! A copy of the Federal Aviation Regulations and Airmans Information Manual for 2010, all mine, for free! I hardly ever win anything, so I was very excited.

I know that not many normal people would be excited by a copy of the legislation that permits their hobby to exist, but dang it, I'm not that normal to begin with. Reading the FARs is maybe a little dry, but knowing what you're permitted to do is vital in this modern age, and the Airman's Information Manual has a lot of great material inside it.

I, for one, am thrilled with my new gift and am grateful to the ASF for handing it over to me.

*Hint: the human factor is the common denominator. Pilots who choose to fly in unsafe conditions, pilots who let themselves run out of options, and pilots who push themselves beyond the limits of what they can safely do in the cockpit tend to be involved in fatal accidents. Humility and a firm grasp on your own limitations is key in aviation.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Apparently, Moths can use some sort of ingrained sense not only to navigate, but to detect and take advantage of wind currents. According to this article from NPR, not only can these tiny little marvels navigate using some kind of internal compass, but they can also detect wind speed and direction and use that information to select the altitude with the most favorable winds.

Amazingly sophisticated, for such a small animal. Makes me feel a little sad that the cats will occasionally eat one of these little silken marvels.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Time for aerodynamics! I bought the ASA Complete Private Pilot, and so I have been making an effort to crack the books and learn the principles of flight. I've got several other supplements, but since the ASA book is reportedly the test prep for the FAA knowledge exam, I've been reading it and taking notes. It's very good and I recommend it to any student pilots out there. That plus Rod Machado's guide should get you ready.

I'm on aerodynamics, which is all wings and lift and Center-of-Gravity and drag. Very important information to know--it's good to understand the unseen hand of lift that will guide you as you fly, because it can reach out and swat you from the sky if you misuse it.

So, to reinforce it in my own head, here are some of the terms and concepts I have been trying to grasp:

Camber: The curvature of the upper surface of a wing.

Angle of Incidence: The angle at which the wing is fastened to the fuselage of the aircraft--usually the Angle of Incidence is one to three degrees.

Downwash: Airflow that is "washing off" the trailing edge of the wing. Related to Newtonian lift, in that "each action must have an equal and opposite reaction."

Chord Line: An imaginary line drawn from the leading edge of the wing to the trailing edge of the wing.

Relative Wind: The wind relative to the flight path. Typically opposite and parallel the flight track. If you are stationary and the wind is blowing from 020 degrees, that is the wind; if you are on a bicycle moving north at 20 knots the relative wind is south 20 knots.

Angle of Attack:
The angle between the chord line and the relative wind.

Mushing Flight: An attempt to maintain altitude with angle of attack alone and no power. Leads to a nose-up attitude with a loss in altitude. STALL IMMINENT IN MUSHING FLIGHT.

In addition to these concepts, I am trying to master the relationship between velocity and lift. According to the text, when you double your airspeed, you quadruple your lift. However when you halve your airspeed, you quarter your lift. The practical upshot of all this is that staying aloft requires speed. Don't slow down lest the ground rise up to befriend you.

Lift is also balanced by drag, which is broken into "parasite drag" and "induced drag." Parasite drag is from protuberances off the airframe (landing gear, antennae, etc.) Parasite drag will quadruple if you double your airspeed, which is the practical limiting factor in attaining high speeds.

Induced drag is a result of the meeting of high and low pressure air off the wing. Rotational forces as air spirals off the wingtips can also cause induced drag, and changes in the angle of attack will increase or decrease induced drag.

Fascinating stuff, no? These concepts are the building blocks of flying. Not as glamorous as slamming throttles and doing loop-de-loops, but by gum it's important to know the principles of flight.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Thought for the day:

"The man who flies an airplane must believe in the unseen."

~Richard Bach

I've just ordered a few of Mr. Bach's highly praised aviation novels. I'll let you know what I think of them whenever I finish reading; right now I'm working on a book about bush pilots (thanks Mom and Dad!) and The Proficient Pilot...but after those finish it'll be high time for Jonathan Livingston Seagull and a few other choice selections.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

No Flying...

No flying lately for me. My CFI is taking a little time off to study for an exam he is taking towards a degree, and so I have a little more time than usual between lessons. I suppose I could go up with another CFI, but I know and trust the guy I'm going with, so I'd prefer to stick with him.

But just because I'm stuck on the ground doesn't mean I can't learn. I've been reading "The Proficient Pilot," and I'm going to start cracking the ASA Private Pilot manual before too long. Not only that but I can refresh my memory by practicing flight maneuvers in one of my flight simulators; not the same by any means, but a good way to solidify procedures in my head.

I have a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator X, which I enjoy, but I also have a copy of X-Plane 9, which is somewhat more realistic and challenging in it's flight dynamics. The cockpits and interior graphics are better in FSX, but XP9 has better scenery and more attention-demanding physics. X-Plane can also be modified to become an FAA-approved Instrument Flight Training device by purchasing another software package, which should speak to the simulation quality.

So, while I can't get airborne at the moment, I can refresh my memory. I've flown dozens of traffic patterns, practiced my stalls and steep turns, and tried my hand at some cross-country using the analog navigation tools--no fancy GPS for me until I've nailed the fundamentals of analog navigation. GPS is an excellent tool but knowing how to use the analog navigation tools such as NDBs and VORs is handy. I could ramble on for hours about the benefits of pencil-and-paper, map-and-compass pilotage, but that's a whole different post.

Anyway. Until I can fly for real, it's practice, practice, practice.

A screenshot from X-Plane 9.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I had another flying lesson today! After my last lesson, my CFI had wanted to work on the traffic pattern a little more and review some basic procedures. After a brief discussion of our lesson plan, we preflighted and took off in one of the flight school's Cessna 150's. Already I can feel a lot of improvement in my handling of the plane; I am no Red Baron but I am less hurky-jerky on the controls and my ground handling has gone from "drunk" to "pretty ok."

I made the takeoff and we flew North to the practice area to cover some more basic maneuvers. We climbed to about 2500 feet, made some steep turns to the left and right, and then practiced a rectangular pattern around a field on the ground below. The rectangular pattern is a simulated traffic pattern over a point on the ground that is used to show students how to set up a controlled descent and familiarize them with the basics of the pattern.

The traffic pattern exists at nonstandard fields to standardize the flow of traffic around the airport. Unless otherwise indicated, traffic patterns are flown to the left of the runway, and they consist of four legs: Upwind or departure; Crosswind; Downwind; Base; and Final. Here is a somewhat illegible hand-drawing:

To fly a pattern in a Cessna 150, these are the steps you must take. My instructor drilled this procedure into my head and it seemed to work perfectly.

1. Takeoff, upwind/departure leg to ~600 feet AGL

This step is self-explanatory. Take off and climb to about six hundred feet above the ground.

2. Climbing left turn 90 degrees, make for 1000 feet AGL

This is called the crosswind turn. Your objective is to turn 90 degrees while climbing to a height 1000 feet above the ground. On the radio you would announce "Winter Haven traffic, Cessna 3507Q making left crosswind runway 5."

3. Level off at 1000 feet, 90 degree left turn to downwind, reduce power to 2000 RPM, maintain 90mph and 1000 feet AGL.

You don't want to be too far from the field when on downwind, but being too close could create a traffic conflict. It's a judgment call and depends on the speed and type of plane you have. Your objective is to be parallel to the active runway, flying in the direction opposite landing. You reduce power to avoid traveling too fast and/or climbing. Radio "Winter Haven traffic, Cessna 3507Q turning downwind, runway 5, Winter Haven."

4. Maintain stability throughout downwind leg. Monitor position relative to active runway and compensate for drift. Monitor other traffic. Announce midfield downwind.

The downwind leg takes time. Use it to stabilize the airplane, look for other traffic, and correct for any dirft towards or away from the field. You are waiting until your wingtip is opposite the numbers at the end of the runway. When they are...

5. When abeam the numbers: reduce power to 1600 RPM. Add one notch flaps. Activate carb heat and control your descent.

Reducing power and adding flaps is the airplane equivalent of taking your foot off the gas and adding brakes. The carburetor heat prevents ice from forming inside the engine. You will begin to descend slightly, and you should be looking for the runway to be about 45 degrees behind your head. When it is...

6. When runway is 45 degrees behind you, turn 90 degrees and announce turning base.

You want to continue descending slowly through your turn. Don't overturn or your final will be sloppy.

7. Add one more notch flaps on the base leg of the traffic pattern. Continue descent. Monitor airspeed; maintain approx. 70 mph and do NOT drop below 60.

Dropping airspeed below 60 could cause a stall. Stalls are usually recoverable but it is never, EVER good to stall with so little altitude. Recovery could be impossible if you are too low.

8. When you are approximately abeam the runway, turn 90 degrees and line up with the numbers. Pick a spot on the runway and aim for it. It should get bigger without moving up or down at all. Double check the active runway to be sure you can avoid traffic conflicts. Call final approach: "Winter Haven traffic, Cessna 3507Q is on final, touch and go, left traffic, Winter Haven." Add a third notch of flaps and control your descent.

Monitor the runway. It should just get bigger without moving.

9. When just above the runway, pull the throttle to idle. Pull back and "flare" the airplane, gliding to a gentle scrape with the ground, main gear first and nose gear second.

10. If landing to a full stop, taxi off the active and announce clear. If doing a touch and go, remove flaps and carb heat and smoothly apply full power. Rotate at approximately 60 mph and climb out. Repeat.

In a nutshell, that's the traffic pattern. Nice and easy. The first two touch-and-gos we did were fairly sloppy; I was overcontrolling the plane and fighting myself. There's a lot to focus on and a lot to remember, and I felt slightly overwhelmed; but after a couple of patterns it suddenly clicked. By the end of pattern number five, my instructor told me I had gone from really crappy to pretty good, and said that the more we practice the better we'll get. I felt like I was improving a lot at the end of the lesson and I was glad to hear him say so too. Next time I fly: more traffic patterns and some work on tidying up and smoothing my landings.

Friday, January 15, 2010

My First Hundred-Dollar Hamburger

I never did follow up on the last post. I will make it a point to do so over the weekend. Meanwhile:

There is a tradition in Aviation known as the hundred-dollar hamburger. You and a friend, or a whole group of aviators, gather together and fly somewhere to get food. Usually the food is diner fare or cafe-style food, sort of the classic American luncheon fare, nothing too fancy. The "hundred dollar" part of the HDH refers to the hidden costs of airplane rental, fuel, and ramp fees. Still, despite the costs ingrained in general aviation, the hundred-dollar hamburger is a fun way to spend an afternoon or a great way to make a day-trip.

A friend of mine from work, a physician, offered to take me up in his airplane. I said that I thought it would be awesome if he wouldn't mind, and we made plans to meet at the airport this morning.

I drove out to the Winter Haven airport and found him waiting in a beautiful Beech Musketeer. I climbed in, plugged in my headset, and with a push of the throttle we were off. We chatted about flying as we made our way to the active, and then with a roar of the beastly engine, we took off and headed West.

The Musketeer has a much better sight picture than the 150's and 152's I have been flying in lately. It also is much heavier. The inside is more plush and spacious. The controls are about the same although the heavier weight of the Musketeer was noticeable to me. Compared to the 150's which zip along around 100mph, the Musketeer cruised around 130-140. This was a kick-ass airplane and I found myself thinking that I could get used to flying in such style.

We headed West and stopped for fuel at Bartow. The doctor showed me how to fuel the plane, grounding it first to prevent sparks and then using the fuel system to pump gas into the wing tanks. There was a minor incident of spillover where some fuel wound up on the wing and the ground, but such is life, and the doctor laughed it off.

We called the tower, got our taxi clearance, and made our way back to the runway. Moments later we were cleared for departure and we lifted off and turned West, flying towards Tampa. We cruised around 3,000 feet, and as we approached Tampa we radioed Tampa Approach to ask for radar following service. The controller told us no, which they are allowed to do with non-IFR traffic, and then told us to stay out of Tampa's airspace. That sounds harsh but the airspace is there for safety purposes and only encompasses certain segments of the sky. If we flew at 1,000 feet we could fly below the Tampa airspace, so we descended over Apollo Beach and then turned right and flew below the airspace towards our destination of Whitted field.

Landing at Whitted, we departed the airplane and wandered along the coast for a few minutes before stopping for lunch at a small restaurant situated next to a marina. We ordered, dined, and chatted. I took advice from him to bring home to Mel about medical school and the madness of exams, and also learned many things from his experiences as an aviator. The Doctor has an instrument rating, has flown all over the nation, and has a few thousand hours logged in his books, and so I absorbed whatever knowledge I could from him.

After lunch, we returned to Whitted and departed East, heading back towards Lakeland. We flew over the hospital, then headed slightly North and circled the apartments where my wife and I live for awhile before turning East again and heading for Winter Haven. I could see the end of one of the runways from above our apartment, and it happened to be the active runway, so we got on the radio and announced a straight-in approach. There was some other traffic in the pattern, but we managed to slip in between a Cherokee making a full-stop and a taildragger doing touch-and-go landings.

The Doctor dropped me off in front of the flight school, and I thanked him profusely. What an awesome experience to get to go flying with a friend. I saw and got to handle for a few minutes an airplane I was totally unfamiliar with, and I got to get to know The Doctor a little better as well. On top of all that, this was my first "Hundred Dollar Hamburger." What an excellent day!
The route we flew shown courtesy of