Monday, July 28, 2008

Cross Country & Rain

Well, the rain went away in time for the weekend! In fact, the weather forecast for Saturday was "calm winds, clear below 12,000' and visibility greater than 10 miles." In other words, perfect conditions. When I got to the airport though, Chris seemed skeptical. He showed me and showed how everything was great -- except the dew point. You see, the closer the tempature and the dew point are, the more hazy the conditions are. Well, turns out they were pretty close on Saturday.

After telling me we weren't going to Groton (which has only 1 "T" in it, oops!), Chris said we could still go up and possibly divert somewhere else. So we went, using the flight plan I made the previous night.

The ride was smooth (except under one cloud), but hazy the whole way. I kept waiting for Chris to tell me to divert to another airport, but I kept finding my checkpoints en route and he seemed pleased with that. He showed me how to use the VOR, which I grasped the basics of, and we used that until Groton was in sight. I got ATIS and called the tower. The guy there was CRANKY! Chris warned me that all ATCs are like this, and that the guys at Oxford are just really cool. Great.

There was a lot of traffic at Groton, and the ATC's voice was speaking faster than I could listen. As soon as I finished talking to him, he'd already be on the radio again talking back to me -- so fast that I'd miss the "984" that he'd start his reply with to indicate he was talkign to me. I had to turn to Chris a few times and ask "was that directed to us?"

We did our landing and taxiied back, giving me a chance to see the airport a little. There are two runways (and a third that had been closed down) which cross each other to make an "X", runway 23/5 and 15/33. We landed -- and took off -- on runway 23, right over the water. After we climbed to 1000' we turned right and Chris made me fly back with no navigation tools: no flight plan, no map, no VOR and without the digital system (which basically acts like a digital VOR). All I could use was my eyes and memory. I made a mistake at one point of thinking Meriden was Waterbury, but corrected it as we got closer.

My big mistake of the flight actually took place within the traffic pattern. We were #2 to land, so I was extending my downwind before turning to base. Then I made a stupid mistake -- part out of stupid reasoning and partly out of just not thinking -- I extended my base. Here's a visual:

The problem is that the traffic patter isn't just flown to the left of the runway, but to the right of it too. Sure enough, I flew into the right side when I extended my base, while there was traffic there. I never saw any, so I couldn't have been about to hit it, but Chris took the controls and jerked the plane to the left. I don't know if it was really as dramatic as he made it seem, but you can be sure I won't forget a sudden 60 degree bank left just before landing. That's a mistake I'll be thinking about more when I'm in the pattern from now on.

We landed and Chris told me that (aside from that stupid mistake) my navigation was great. My radios with Groten could have been better (I called them "Oxford" before take-off, and told them we were North-East -- when we were really North West -- when entering their space, though I corrected myself on that one), but overall he was VERY impressed. He sincerely didn't expect us to make that flight, but I had done well. If the weather on Sunday was good, I'd be making the trip solo. I was nervous at the idea of that, but if Chris trusted me, I could too. He has pretty high expectations.

I left that afternoon praying for good weather.

That night I woke up between 4 and 5 am to pouring rain and sounds of thunder. "Shit," I thought. "Flying's off." When I woke up around 9:30 (what good's the weekend if you can't sleep in?) the rain and thunder had passed, but it was cloudy and wet outside. Chris called and we agreed to meet anyway, but not go flying unless it really cleared up. Thirty minutes later there was signs of the sun and Chris called again. We were flying. I called 1-800-WX-BRIEF to get a forecast to Groton, and they warned me of thunderstorms on my route. So we were flying, but I wasn't going to solo even if Chris let me.

I got to the airport and things were looking down again. Any signs of the sun had hidden behind the clouds. Chris and I sat down and he explained VORs to me in more detail -- how they work, how to read them, etc. Then he pulled out the "pre-cross-country solo exam." I wasn't prepared for this; I quit studying after I passed the written. I filled it out as best I could, certain I failed. After I handed it to Chris he informed me that the score didn't matter: I just had to go over it with him. In fact, he thought a few of the questions were wrong as he graded it, but it was done, and that was the important thing.

We checked the weather and he suggested a few touch-and-gos. I informed him I would not do them solo, but that if he was up for it, alright. So we went for "three landings" Chris said. When we got to pattern altitude (1700' at Oxford) visibility was 5 miles at best. I made a tighter turn from base to final to not repeat past mistakes and came in for the landing. Chris told me to perform a go-around, so I gave it full throttle, carb heat (I was thinking of the Goodspeed incident as I did it) and the first notch of flaps up. Chris radioed that we were doing the go around. Second and final notches of flaps, sequentially. I nailed it.

Just before turning to base some rain appeared on the windsheild. I asked Chris if we should land it, cause I wasn't looking to fly through rain. "Nope, we do one more," he said.

While on final it was raining more. I wanted to touch-down and stop. "You sure?" I asked.
"Positive," Chris said. So we did the touch-and-go.

Upon the final turn to downwind I found myself entering a cloud (which Chris called "fog"; I don't see a difference) at 1700'. We decended to 1600' to get clear of it, but I had had about enough. The visibility must have been down to 3 miles and it was still raining. We performed the final landing (worse than the previous one) and taxiied back.

Overall it wasn't too bad. Chris said I "freaked out", but I just don't think Chris has ever seen me freak out. I thought I was using good judgement to say "hey, let's not fly through rain." It wasn't until we finished that Chris said it was good practice in case I ever find myself in that situation. Good point. Thinking about it that way I wish we'd done more practice. He's always got a good reason for what he does -- I'm just a little to slow to pick up on it sometimes.

The next flight is schedule for 6pm on Tuesday. Weather pending, I'll solo to Groton then. Wish me luck.

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