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.