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!