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!