Friday, August 29, 2008

Back to Basics

Last week Chris and I decided we were going to go flying in the next bad weather, so he could take me up IFR. Then I could both see what it was like, and get my remaining instrument time in (the stuff I used the foggles for previously). Well, the weather didn't cooperate: the past two nights have been clear blue skies with almost no wind. Well, I can't complain!

With my check-ride scheduled, Chris and I had to go over the basic maneuvers to give me a refresher. It's been a while since I've done the basics; you don't really use "turns around a point" or "power-off stalls" when you're doing the cross-countries (at least, not if you do them right). Wednesday Chris decided it was time for us to go over stalls.

During the engine run-up prior to take-off, Chris told me I couldn't use the ailerons to take-off. I laughed at what I thought was his joke. He wasn't joking. I ended up taking-off with the trim wheel, which was a lot harder than I'd expected it to be. The planes tips back and forth a bit, and Chris insisted I could correct it with rudder only. I tried, but it wasn't a great take-off. I was just glad it was done. Then we were on to stalls.

There are two types of stalls: power-on and power-off. The idea is to simulate what it would be like if the airplane stalled while you were taking-off (power-on) or coming in to land (power-off). In both cases, the stall is created by having a combination of airspeed and angle-of-attack (that's the angle between the wing and the relative wind) such that the air no longer flows smoothly over the wing and basically means the wings aren't generating [much] lift. In both power-on and power-off, this simply means you need to have the nose too high for the speed you're going. Since you're going so much faster during a take-off, the angle is much steeper, whereas flying level can be enough to induce a stall if the power is off.

Chris decided to start with power-off stalls, the harder configuration to get into. Since it had been so long since I'd done them, I didn't remember the procedure. When I started touching the controls, Chris corrected me:

"You need to do clearing turns first."

Clearing turns are basically turns used to make sure there's no traffic or other obstacles in the way. A 90 degree turn to the left, then a 90 back to the right would work, but Chris said he generally likes to do one 360 (either to the left or right). I did it his way, just to try it.

Once I'd gotten that out of the way, Chris demonstrated the configurations, but so quickly that I didn't get them. Once I thought I knew what to do, I tried it. While I was eventually able to get the stall, I was losing a lot of altitude first and it took me a while. Chris was rattling off instructions the whole time, correcting me and telling me what I was doing wrong, then reminding me I had a time limit to induce the stall. With all of the warnings and directions he was spewing out, I felt certain I had screwed up royally. I tried it several more times and got better and better, but never great. Hell, I didn't even think I did good. If Chris had asked me "did you think you would have passed with how you just did?" I would have replied with a strong "hell no."

Power-on stalls I felt a bit better at. I still found myself in the situation with Chris directing me every step of the way, including "more right rudder! More! If you reach the secondary stall and don't have enough right rudder we could induce a spin." Needless to say, I was a bit nervous, and did reach the secondary stall at least once (but with enough rudder that we were plenty safe). The stall warning horn goes off inside the plane when you're anywhere near a stall, at which point I usually fix it. Trying to induce it is counter-intuitive, and left me feeling stressed. That, plus the fact that the secondary stall occurs within a fraction of a second of the primary stall made me even more uneasy. The lesson was not going well, I though.

Throughout the whole lesson Chris would catch me staring at the instruments that I wasn't supposed to be. "The only way you'll fail this test is if he catches you doing that. I promise you that." Since then I've been reminding myself: don't stare at the instruments! Glance!

As we finished stalls, Chris decided to try some unusual attitudes. These I liked, since I'd always been good at them. How they work is simple: I close my eyes and Chris puts the plane in an odd position, such as "steep right bank with the nose too high." For that example, I would turn it left to even out the bank, give it full power to prevent a stall, and nose down to correct my angle. We did one of those, then another one with the nose down this time. Same idea, but this time I made the mistake of putting the power in again, causing us to be diving down at about 155mph and stressing the engine more than I should. Oops. We did it twice more (both nose-down) and I pulled power -- as you should in that situation. I was feeling a bit better about myself, though stalls still were pissing me off.

As we came in for the landing on runway 36, Chris told me to land without ailerons. I wasn't keen on that idea, because I knew that if I didn't manage to flair the plane correctly, we'd smack the runway pretty hard, or possibly even prop-strike. And while I trusted Chris, I wasn't sure he'd let me abort and start using the yoke. Instead he told me he'd demonstrate, then have me do one next time we went flying. On final Chris looked like he was going to do it. We were all lined up, he was talking me through what he was doing and giving it nose-up trim as we came in over the runway. Hmm... we were still descending. More trim. Still descending. Isn't there supposed to be a flair in here somewhere?


We smacked down on the runway pretty hard before bouncing back into the air. I think Chris pulled the yoke back, but only for a second. When we came back down it still wasn't a nice landing. I told him he botched it, and that he cheated. Claiming it had been a while since he did that, he showed me the trim wheel which was giving as much nose up as possible. Clearly it wasn't enough.

Before I left he gave me a list of things to use to make a lesson plan for Thursday. I was to decide what to do.

About the same time on Thursday I arrived. When Chris and I got into the plane he asked what the lesson plan was for the day. Having totally forgotten about it -- though not having time to do it anyway -- I apologized. Chris said that today was going to be ground reference then, which I was OK with.

Again, Chris wanted me to take-off without touching the yoke. After yesterday's decent (though not great) take-off, I was willing to try again. This time I did much better. In fact, I believe that if I'd have had passengers who didn't know that I was supposed to be touching the yoke, they wouldn't have had a problem with that take-off.

On the flight north towards the practice area I asked him to define ground reference. I had thought it was "recognizing things on the ground while flying from one place to another", but Chris corrected me: ground reference is turns-around-a-point, box-turns and S-turns.

We started with turns around a point. Again, Chris got to the point where he was giving constant instructions. I was doing a better job this time, but still not great. After one turn around a point, between 600-1000' above it (I was trying to hold 800' above) we moved on to box turns. About half-way through I got that: enter at a 45 degree angle into the downwind, steepest turn, level flight straight, medium turn into the next leg, shallow turn, straight, medium, straight, steep. That may be confusing, but just remember that you need to bank into the winds as they try to blow you off-course. That's all the varying angles of bank are for.

Finally we did S-turns. Those are turns making an S-turn over a straight line on the ground. Again, you have to enter from down-wind. The trick here is both altitude, and making sure your wings are level as you cross-over the line on the ground (in my case, telephone wires). After a few turns I was certainly getting better, but still didn't think I was good enough to pass the test. When I finished, Chris had me fly due west (staying at roughly 2000' AGL) to show me a grass airstrip.

I was flying along when suddenly the engine died. Normally, Chris pulls the throttle back and says "engine died", but not this time. No one touched the throttle or the mixture. Instantly I knew what was wrong. Jokingly I said, "uh oh, well, better pick a place to land!" as I reached down between us and turned to Fuel Shut-off Valve back to the "on" position. Chris had warned me since I started flying that someday he'd pull it on me, so I always check it once in a while, even on solo flights, just to be safe.

This time, as soon as I put it back on, Chris pulled the throttle. Clearly he wanted me to practice an emergency. I didn't have a field already picked out, like I should have, so I scanned for one. I saw one off the left wing and picked it. As soon as I did I thought "what the hell? you picked the field by the power lines? are you an idiot?!" I pitched the plane to 65kts (Best glide speed, though I should have done this AS I picked the field) before Chris said "there's a great Field under me." I looked, and sure enough there was a nice one there. I changed my mind and said I'd go there instead, but Chris said I'd never get set-up to land into the wind before suggesting another field straight-out. I changed my mind to that one again.

Finally Chris put the power back in. He was disappointed; that was the worst I'd messed up in a long time. When you pick a field, you STICK WITH IT! He warned me that my examiner would try to get me to pick another field. Don't! He warned me he may even throw a pen by my feet while I'm flying normally and ask me to get it. The correct response is "I'll get it when we land."

We made our way back to Oxford. Chris told me to tell him when I though we were close enough to make the runway. When I told him, he had me pull the power out and try to make it. We certainly cut it close, but managed to land past the take-off arrows (which mark the part of the runway you can take-off on, but not land on). Chris said I should've waited another 30 seconds before I said I could make it, but that I did make it, so he couldn't fault me.

When we got back inside, he told me that I would've failed. I wasn't surprised. But then he told me something else: if I hadn't had that one bad emergency, I would have passed -- both today and yesterday. I gave him a stunned look, to which he replied, "yeah, it really is a joke." Apparently all students go through what I am. Me being rusty at the basics isn't unique to me after all. Even just telling me that made me a lot more confident that I'll be able to get better before my test.

Chris gave me some homework: write down everything I know about flying, including every maneuver, etc. He also gave me a book to study during my long weekend. When I get back next Wednesday, Chris owns me until I get my license.

Less than two weeks. I can't wait to be a certified pilot.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Check Ride Sheduled

Just a short update, since there has been no flying:

After speaking with Chris yesterday, it looks like I won't be flying tonight or tomorrow either: the runway at Oxford is getting patched up. Apparently this happens twice a year: once before winter and once after. Anyway, it's going to be two days before I can fly again.

In the meantime, I did schedule my check ride with Royal Griffin (an aside note: really cool name) for my 22nd birthday at 9am. So if all goes well, I'll be a private pilot on September 11th, roughly 10 months after I started training with Chris.

That's it for now. More updates once I get another chance to fly, which will be Wed or Thurs. Until then!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Long Cross-Country Complete!

Now that the weather in New England has gotten better for flying, I went from delaying my solo cross-country to Groton for 2-3 weeks to completing both that flight and my solo long cross-country within 26 hours of eachother. Since I've alreadt recapped on the first one, let me detail the Oxford-Groton-New Bedford-Oxford trip now...

A few minutes after 4pm yesterday I arrived at Oxford, where Chris was ready for me. I did my preflight, then we went inside to review the flight plans and everything while the plane got fueled up. Chris asked for my flight plan, which I have maticulously detailed: one page for the OXC-GON flight, one for the GON-EWB leg and the third page for the EWB-OXC return flight, all complete with airport diagrams, checkpoints, radios frequencies and notes as needed.

Chris asked me: "what's your plan for Providence airspace?"
"I plan on staying south of it from Groton to New Bedford, then flying over it at 4500' from New Bedford back to Oxford."
"How will you know you're high enough before you enter their airspace?"
I pointed to the notes section on the third page of flight plans and read it outloud: "If not at 4500' by first checkpoint, circle and climb to 4500 feet. If needed, call Providence (134.5) below 4100 feet."
Visibily impressed, Chris replied, "ok, yeah, you're all set then." I love it when my hard work and attention to detail shows and is done correctly.

Chris signed off everything in my logbook, then wrote a quick note for me on a small piece of paper. He folded it in half and wrote "In case of emergency" on it before folding it in half one-more time. He then told me:

"I've done this for all of my students for this flight - all nine of you. Don't open this unless there's an emergency. You can open it when you get back, but not before then."
Curious, I half-jokingly asked: "What is it? Identification in case I crash? I have my driver's license on me."
"Haha, yeah, that's fire-proof paper," Chris laughed.

I promised not to open it until I got back, and while the tempation to peak was hard, I kept my word.

When I climbed into the plane I turned off the VOR to prevent radios problems like those from yesterday's flight. Chris hadn't flown this plane since I tied it down last night.

Everything went perfectly smooth during run-up and take-off. Chris was in front of me on the taxi-way, flying his brother to Hartford. His take-off and climb out were flawless, of course. Mine weren't bad, I noted as I accended. I've certainly gotten much better at holding center-line.

Having just made this leg of the flight the prior day, I forgot to use my flight plan until I was already passing Waterbury (my first checkpoint) and onto my second. Two-three checkpoints later I stopped looking for checkpoints: I knew where the airport was, and I had the "digital VOR" which was quickly becoming a favorite tool of mine. (Chris had told me I could use anything in the plane to make this flight; every tool was at my disposal.)

When I got to Groton, everything went smoothly. I took a few photos and a short video of the airport (and a close-up on my face - by mistake - of me saying "Welcome to Groton" over the sound of the engine) as I taxied back to runway 23 for a take-off. Still the only runway at Groton I've had the chance to use.

Before requesting take-off for the second leg of the trip I reviewed my flight plan and sectional (which had flight paths and checkpoints marked): what was my heading going to be? what altitude was I flying at? what was my first checkpoint? how far out was it? etc. Once I felt relatively confident about flying to an airport I'd never seen before, I got clearence to take-off and depart northeast.

During the take-off roll on the runway birds were flying out of the way, which is usual, but I came within feet of striking one on the lower-right side of my plane almost as soon as I took-off. I'm not sure what would have happened, but I was able to remain calm and focused, which I proud of. There's not a whole lot you can do with a sucidial pidgeon when you're flying -- just don't get yourself into trouble trying to avoid hitting it. Sort of like when you have to avoid running over a squirrel in a car: do your best to avoid it, but don't choose to run into an oncoming truck to save the squirrel. Aside from that the climb out was both smooth and BEAUTIFUL. I took more photos and another short video clip, which will be posted eventually (my apologies for not posting all my promised photos yet!).

The flight to New Bedford (EWB) was calm. I found myself almost completely ignoring my flight plan, and just using my marked-up sectional to figure out how to get there, and how to make sure I was clear of Providence airspace. Again, the "digital VOR" was helpful too. The most exciting part about that leg of the trip (aside from the stunning water scenes below me) was a small Diamond (a type of plane) that passed below me, but he was well clear of me. The fact that I was able to scan and find other traffic successfully felt good though.

On the route I finally figured out how New Bedford got such a weird airport tag of "EWB": New Bedford -> newbedford -> nEWBedford -> EWB. That helped me remember both the name, and the tag, of the airport.

Coming in for landing everything was going fine. I finally was entering the downwind leg of the pattern, meaning I could do a more "typical" pattern landing in terms of when I put my flaps down, etc. I was coming in so high that I made sure to decend rapidly. When I got to pattern altitude (about 1070' there) and was setting up for landing on runway 23 (yes, 23 at EWB too) I was still decending. I slowed my decent a bit, but still opted to make tighter traffic once I was cleared for landing. As I'm making my turn base - then final - I heard the tower clear someone to take-off on the runway. I slowed my flight down and thought about radioing the tower "Uhh, tower, comfirm 987 clear to land runway 23?" but decided it might rub the tower the wrong way; besides, I was perfectly able to space out a bit and land clear of the departing craft.

I made my landing smoothly and tower asked where I wanted to go. I requested "transient parking" which I thought was the name of "temporary" parking at an airport, but the tower asked me to repeat. I used the word "temporary" this time to make sure my intentions were clear, and stated that I was unfamiliar with the airport. (Despite having a crude diagram on my flight plan I'd certainly never been there before, and was by no definition "familiar" with where to park.) After all, there's no point in using the correct terminology (assuming "transient" even was) if it doesn't get the idea across.

The tower gave me instruction to taxi via bravo to parking, though I didn't understand where he instructed me to park. I decided to try to find out myself before asking him, but first he had me hold short of crossing taxiway alpha as a jet came towards me and took alpha to the runway. He then instructed me to continue to parking once the jet was clear, where I found a young man directing me where to park. I was approaching him, but didn't turn when he apparently wanted me to. Clearly I should have gotten more familiar with hand signals. He made a gesture to explain to loop around into the parking spot, which I did. Upon turning off the engine I apologized and told him I was a student pilot - the only person I told the whole trip. He was very understanding, and directed me to the bathrooms.

I tied the plane down, had some crackers I brought along and called Chris as I was instructed. He congradulated me and told me he wouldn't be there when I got back, but to call him again then. I made another call to a friend, but ended up leaving a voicemail. I used the bathroom, got some water, took a few photos (they'll come, I swear!), then checked my fuel. I had enough, but there was no reason NOT to put more in, so I had Paul - the guy who helped me park - put in 4 gal in each wing. Since the cost of fuel was built into the plane rental, I got a reciept so I could get paid back.

I checked the planes fuel after paying for it, but that was the extent of my preflight since I'd only landed 15 minutes ago. I untied the plane and got cleared for take-off back towards Oxford. Nothing usual about it, but still AWESOME that I was in Massachusetts - after crossing Rhode Island - alone in a plane. I focused and commanded the plane to climb to the 4500' cruise altitude I'd chosen for my flight back, clearing Prodivence's airspace at 4100'. I made it to the altitude as planned, without having to circle over my first checkpoint like I'd read to Chris, but I still wasn't comfortable. See, Providence is a class C airport - which is pretty big, like Bradley in Connecticut is. Even though I was 400' above the top of their airspace, I knew there would be traffic - BIG traffic - in the area, and I didn't want to risk dipping 500' and getting in trouble. I decided to call Providence approach.

"Providence approach, Cessna November 48984 with request." After a minute with no reply I repeated. That time I got an answer.
"November 48984, state request and location."
"November 48984, departing New Bedford, flying west towards Oxford-Waterbury, request flight following."
"48984, squawk 0444, ident"
"November 48984, squawking 0444"
Once I changed my transponder from 1200 (for standard VFR flight) I pressed the "ident" button to confirm the change. They then called back: "November 48984, got your ident."

They were very busy, as was Bradley approach during my one experience with Chris. I noticed a Boeing 737? 747? decending about 7-10 miles in front of me, so I went a little further south to stay clear. In fact, it wasn't until I got much closer that I even realized I was passing over the path a Boeing just took. Awesome! I was a little concerned, however, that approach didn't warn me about that traffic, so I kept my eyes peeled for other traffic, not wanting to rely on approach. It was tough though, since I was heading west -- directly towards the setting sun like last evening's return flight.

"November 48984 Airbus 6000 at 11 to 12 o'clock" they called me.
"November 48984, could you repeat the altitude?"
"6000 ft, 1000 ft above you, between 11 and 12 o'clock" he repeated. If he was annoyed, it wasn't clear.
A moment later "984, traffic in sight." Let me tell you, those things are HUGE, even when you're 1000' below and not directly under them. I knew I was clear of him though, so there was no worry, and I was almost past the busy area, having only seen the two jets.

About 10-20 miles later I requested to terminate flight following. This one took a second call again, but was then granted. I realized I was well south of my flight plan's path, but using the "digital VOR" and my sectional I realized I didn't care about the flight plan. I knew where I was, I knew where I was going, and I knew what I was doing. It was pretty cool being so confident in my ability.

Most of the rest of the flight back included me snacking on peanuts (all long flights have peanuts, don't they?), singing to myself ("Whole New World" was still in my head), taking photos (mostly of the sunset) and relaxing (including barely touching the controls). It was a nice, though at moments boring, flight back. I tried to figure out breifly how to turn on the AM radio Chris once showed me that the plane had, but gave up quickly. I decided it was best not to start twisting a bunch of knobs I thought was the radio only to find out it was something critical.

As the sun crept behind the final peaks of the mountains out west, I knew it was going to be another twilight landing. Having just been through one yesterday, and today confident in my tools and abilities, I was unfazed. When I finally got to Oxford I made all my radio calls, spotting the traffic I was to follow and set-up my landing perfectly. I noticed as I decended on final that I love the way an airport looks at night: like Christmas with all the little white, red, green and blue lights adorning the runway and taxiways. With all my flaps in - something I hadn't done for either previous landing that trip - I was coming in nice and slow. Like yesterday's landing back at Oxford's runway 36, I noticed ground effect almost worked in opposite again: instead of hovering for a few seconds above the runway the plane felt like a giant magnet was dragging it down. I kept applying back-pressure, but not fast enough, so I jerked it. Oops. I definitely stopped decending, but I was now doing the "burp" that often ends in a less-than-smooth landing. I pushed the nose over and managed to flair slightly, making for a smoother landing, but still not the best of the day.

The ATC cleared me to taxi back to Classic Air (he must be so familiar with 48984 by now that he knew where I wanted to taxi to) and I took a few photos of the sunset behind the tower as I taxied in. I turned off the plane, logged my time and tied it down. I left Chris a voicemail and was finished. My long cross-country was done.

On the drive back to my house, Chris called and congradulated me again. He told me to call him back on Sunday to plan what we'll do next, but until then he'd text me the number of the guy I'd be taking my check-ride with to call Friday (today). In 2-3 weeks, I will be taking my test. My next lesson will be sometime next week, so you can expect my next post then. Until that time though, I think I'm taking a break - I'm exhausted after flying 4.7 hours solo in a 26 hour span. My flying this week is done.


I stopped for gas en route and pulled out my wallet. I almost forgot about a small piece of paper that was folded up inside it, reading "in case of emergency." Having kept my word to Chris, I finally opened it. It read:

Emergency huh
To bad
Figure it out!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cross Country Solo - Finally!

After getting back from my week-long vacation on Saturday, Chris's schedule and the weather haven't played along. Finally last night things came together, and I made my solo cross-country flight to Groton.

I got to the airport just minutes after 6 and was all signed-off and behind the yoke by 6:30. During the preflight I noticed some water got in with the fuel, but I managed to drain it all out and have Chris confirm I was clear to fly. I was. My instructions were simple: fly to Groton, then fly back. If I felt uncomfortable with the landing, do a missed-landing (which is generally the same as a go-around, though a go-around implies you'll try landing again). I could do some touch-and-gos there, just land and taxi back for another take-off -- whatever I wanted. Chris said he wouldn't be there when I got back, but to call him and let him know I got back safe. Walking away he wished me good luck, and issued a final - less than reassuring - command: "don't die."

The taxi, run-up and take-off all went fine. I kept my flight plan to Groton, my sectional, and my baseball cap (to block the sun from my eyes) on the empty seat next to me, along with the return trip flight plan tucked away. I'm a very visual person, and I've been visualizing this flight ever since Chris and I first made it together, so while I did locate every checkpoint on my flight plan, I forgot the first one (Waterbury) until it was behind my left shoulder. I knew where I was going, and could probably make the flight without checkpoints, but to keep the practice up I used them. Past Waterbury though I was getting nervous when I hadn't seen Meriden Aiport (MMK) yet. I had been drifting a little further south than I wanted since the heading indicator kept sticking, but the airport should still be in sight. Finally I came upon it -- I was expecting it to be closer to the ridge I flew over already, but it was further east than I remembered. I confirmed my mistake on the sectional and now I probably won't make that one again.

On the way there the sky was clear, the winds were calm and I had little-to-no work that I really needed to do. I was flying GREAT! Looking out the window - scanning for traffic - check the ground for emergency landings and reference points - glance at the instruments to make sure everything was OK - back to looking outside, repeat. After a little while I started noticing some faint sounds in my headset -- it certainly wasn't air traffic. I listened closer and realized it was definitely a radio station, as in AM or FM radio. I couldn't tell exactly what was being said or played, but once I realized my radios seemed to still work, I was just amused by it. Strangely, it stayed in my headset even when I changed to other frequencies. I just shrugged it off -- at first.

As I got Groton in sight I had been checking their ATIS to make sure I knew what to expect when I got there. They were using runway 23, which was the same one Chris and I used when we made the flight together. I had mixed feelings about that: I'm familiar with that approach and landing which is a plus, but coming from Oxford I'm set up perfectly for a straight-in landing on runway 15. Well, I certainly wasn't going to ask the tower for special permission, so runway 23 it was.

During my flight to Groton I had used the "digital VOR" that I've mentioned in a few previous posts to get my heading and distance to Groton, so I knew when to call and inform them I was close to entering their airspace. I realized after I could have used the checkpoints on the ground instead, since I had measured those distances previously, but I liked having multiple systems to double-check. As I got closer and closer to Groton I wanted to call the tower and run-off all the information I wanted to give them: "Groton Tower, Cesnna 48984 12 to the West-Northwest, solo student requesting landing, taxi-back, with Delta." I made the call, but I knew I was a little more than 12 miles out, despite my report. This was when things got interesting.

Although Groton Tower heard my request, they called me back informing me that my radios were fuzzy and asked if I had another I could use. Not sure what to do, I simply called back, speaking louder and more clearly, asking "984, is this better?"
"984, not really, you're still pretty scratchy, but I can make you out. Report 3 mile right base."
"984, will report 3 mile right base, thank you."

As I was getting closer and lower to the airport, suddenly my radios freaked out. It sounded like the channels on a TV that are only static, with no one talking. As I was getting close to my 3 mile mark I considered calling the tower and asking if they heard it to -- or if they could hear me at all. I worried that my radios had died completely and that I was going to either be making a landing by coded lights (something I'd studied a bit, but wasn't a master at, and certainly wasn't prepared for) and wondered if I should turn my transponder to 7600, the code for "no radios". First, I thought, let me try my call to tower.

"984, entering 3 mile left-- err, sorry, right base."

Luckily, the static died when I called. Then:

"984, clear to land runway 23," they called me back
"984, clear to land," I confirmed.

On the way down I noticed they gave someone else clearance to take off on runway 23 ahead of my landing. I was a little surprised, but I slowed down a little more to make sure he had space. My landing was smooth and I was cleared to taxi back for my take-off. The traffic had really died down and I was the only one currently using the runway, so I was cleared to take off as soon as I'd requested it.

I requested a turn Northwest and was cleared. While climbing I noticed another plane above me to my right -- exactly where I wanted to go. He radioed the tower and was entering a right downwind. A few seconds later tower called me:

"984, I'll call your turn"
"984, could you repeat that?"
[A moment passes in silence.]
"Groton Tower, 984, could you repeat the last instruction?"
"984, I'll call you when you can make your turn out."
"984, waiting for your call, traffic in sight."
"984, you're clear to turn after that traffic."

I love radios. I don't understand why people are so afraid of them; yeah, you might mess-up on it and sound like an idiot, but they really are wonderful tools. And not being too afraid to ask for that command to be repeated could have saved me big trouble had I not seen the incoming traffic.

The rest of my climb to 4500' was smooth, and once I was out of the Groton airspace I called tower requesting a frequency change, and thanked him for his help. Now I was just flying back towards Oxford -- straight into the sunset.

Hmm... straight into the sunset. It was beautiful, certainly, but I couldn't see squat. I took some pictures with my phone (which came out funny due to the prop) which I'll get uploaded at some point. UPDATE: Here are the photos, finally!

I tried looking for traffic, but it was hindered by the glare. Also, as the sun was going down things were getting darker. That started making me concerned, but I reassured myself that I was very familiar with this flight, and that I had the tools and knowledge to get back, even if it was dead night. The fact that the cold air vent was open and blowing on me just made things less comfortable.

Once I was on my way, and realized I couldn't make the plane go a whole lot faster (in an attempt to beat the sunset), I decided to find my checkpoints and fix the things that were annoying me. First, I put on my baseball cap on under my headset to block the sun better. Second, I grabbed the air vent's plug from the back of the plane and shoved it in. Third, I reattached the visor which had fallen off while I was climbing. Finally, I took off my sunglasses once the sun was behind the mountains, which helped clear things up a bit.

As I got closer to Oxford I heard the faint radio music playing. I'm sure it wasn't "A Whole New World" from Alladin, but for some reason I got that song in my head. Appropriate for flying, I guess.

I'd had some troubles with the "digital VOR" earlier -- it was giving me two different headings and distances to Oxford -- but now it seemed consistent: I was 12 miles out with a perfect heading. Wait, 12 miles already? Oops! Time to get ATIS! Got it and called Oxford Tower. I was told to report a 3 mile right base (that sounded familiar), but as I got closer I heard the tower talking with another plane who was going for a straight in to the runway. As tower called me to inform me of the plane ("it probably shouldn't be a factor for you, but I'll call it anyway") I got it in sight and informed the tower. They called back "984, clear to land #2 following that traffic."

I'd turned on all my lights so it would be easier for the tower to see me, as well as any other traffic. The runway was all lit up, though it wasn't technically a night landing yet. I set up perfectly, and finally figured out giving that little push of left rudder as-needed during my landing at Groton (though at Groton I felt like I swerved on the landing a tiny bit; practice will help). As I attempted my flair, however, the plane refused to level out. I just "sat" on the runway. It bounced slightly, though it wasn't a rough landing. Strange. I'm still not sure why it happened, but I was done for the night, so I didn't worry about it.

As I was cleared to taxi back to parking I considered asking the tower if he had any problems with my radios, but decided not to bother him with it. I'd let Chris know when I called him after I tied the plane down.

I parked and performed the tie down and logbook entries, then, as I was walking away from the plane, I got a phone call from Chris. I didn't get back until 8 o'clock, so it was an unusually long flight, though Chris's major concern was because they had actually shut down Oxford's runway for 15 minutes due to a plane that landed with its brakes on. Oops! Strangely, it was actually the Extra (a VERY fancy stunt plane) that did the run-up behind me prior to my departure from Oxford. Anyway, he was glad I was back and safe. I told him about the radios and how I picked up some AM or FM station. Apparently there were two things at play: 1. the actual VOR was left on, which caused interference, and 2. the radio's connections needed to be cleaned. Chris is supposed to have that taken care of today so I can perform my long-cross-country (150 miles minimum) tonight.

Tonight's flight: OXC-GON-EWB-OXC, all solo. And I've never been to EWB before, so I better get studied up! Assuming things go as planned tonight, I'll be making another post soon.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Good, The Bad, and the Kick-ass

Three things have happened to me recently in relation to flying, and while none of them are actual flights I still thought I'd share them in a brief update:

The Good

In an attempt to help both myself and other student pilots to plan flights more easily, I have created three Flight Plan templates. Here's the info, and download link, for each of them:

Flight Plan Print-out Template
This is a simple single-slide Powerpoint. Print it out and it's got a pretty complete listing of all the information used in a flight plan.

Basic Flight Plan Digital Template
This is a single-page Excel document used to fill out on your computer, then print your plan before taking off. A few minor calculations are built-in, but it's minimal. Modeled off the PPT file in the first link.

Automatic Simple Flight Plan
By far my proudest of these. All you have to do is fill out the blue parts (as needed) and any calculations that can be done for you are completed automatically; no flight calculator needed! This is only useful for straight VFR flight, but since that's all most student pilots (including myself) need, it's pretty useful. Otherwise nearly identical to the other XLS file.

If anyone has feedback on these, let me know and I may be making more templates in the future. Also, if hosting gets expensive I may move them to a free server instead.

The Bad

This is the really sucky part: I haven't flown. Yesterday the weather was bad -- rain, thunderstorms and low clouds. Obviously I was stuck on the ground. I was hoping to go today instead, but looking out the window right now I can only see for 2-3 miles, and visibility only gets worse as you get higher. My flight tonight will probably be cancelled, meaning I don't get to go again until after my vacation. While I'm really looking forward to my vacation (Sandbridge Beach, Virginia -- amazing), I always love flying.

I did speak to Chris about it yesterday, and apparently this is how the rest of my flying is going to go: solo cross-country to Groton, then solo long cross-country the very next day (weather pending), then one-two weeks of test prep before taking my check ride. (For those who don't know, a "long cross-country" is one in excess of 150 miles, whereas my Groton trip will be just 50 each way.) I'm a littler nervous about doing a solo long cross-country to airports I've never been to with Chris before, but that makes it pretty exciting, since I don't want to need Chris anytime I want to fly somewhere new. All-in-all it looks like I may only have a few weeks left of lessons once I get the Groton trip done.

Now if only I could get some good weather...

The Kick-ass

Yesterday when I got back from work I was a little disappointed about the weather (no surprise). Luckily, my brother informed me that "a large package arrived" for me. It took me a minute to realize what it was, since I hadn't expected it until tonight, but once I figured it out I was very excited.

You see, after I passed my written exam, my grandparents (and Grandma, I know you're reading this) decided to buy me a pilot's jacket as a "learning to fly" gift. It took me a while to agree, then a bit longer to find a good one, but I picked it out and it arrived last night. Here's the website, which includes a picture:

The jacket is AWESOME! The leather is pretty stiff still in some areas, but it will wear very nicely. I will be taking some pictures and putting them online, though it may not be until after my vacation. Either way, I'll be updating THIS post with the link to the photos, so keep an eye out for the change. UPDATE: The photos can finally be found online here!

Well, that's it for now. Expect the next post in a little over a week. Hopefully Sunday the 17th will bring clear skies -- and a trip to Groton.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Finally Solo'd - Just not to Groton

Sorry it's been so long since I updated, but here's a summary of how things are going...

Saturday afternoon I arrived at the airport just before it started pouring. Huge storms were rolling in, so I helped move the airplanes around and tie them down. There was clearly going to be no flying that day; there were thunderstorms all over New England and winds gusting to 60mph. I hung around the airport for a bit, then finally left, scheduled my next lesson for Tuesday, since I couldn't make it before then.

Monday night my plans freed up, but Chris wasn't able to make it when I called him (and he said the weather wasn't good enough anyway), so no lesson then.

Yesterday was looking good. I was worried that the clouds were too low, so I was tracking them all day: 1-800-WX-BRIEF,, OXC ATIS (Oxford's Automated Weather line). Everything said the lowest clouds were 3600-3900' -- just high enough -- and moving up. At lunch I thought "I should call Chris" but upon asking myself "why? To say: 'see you tonight'? I'll just see him at 6."

So I got to the airport a little after 6 only to find Classic Air Services (the company Chris works for) closed and locked. So I called him and left a voicemail. When he called back he confirmed what I expected: he was at his house, and the weather wasn't good enough for me to go. I wasn't too happy, but I knew I should have called him earlier so I wasn't mad with him. He suggested I do some touch-and-gos solo (he wasn't too worried about the insurance; I'm a much better pilot now so he just warned me to be careful), since I was there already. Considering how much I wanted to fly, that I wanted to practice some solo landings and I needed more solo time, this sounded good to me. So I hopped in the plane and went. Have I mentioned how great it feels to be able to do that?

Start-up, taxi-out, engine run-up: everything was fine. I remembered to set my transponder to ALT (so I can be tracked by ATC if needed), something that I've been forgetting in recent flights. As soon as I got enough speed and took off I was climbing FAST. Normally I would be very happy with this, but for some reason it was extra bumpy today. So I gave it some nose-down trim to slow my climb, and made my left-turn cross-wind fairly shallow, using rudder to swing the plane around. During my run-up the airport had gotten VERY busy, so when I called tower to request my first touch-and-go he told me to extend my down-wind so other traffic could come in first. No problem -- I just kept going straight past the airport...

I was starting to get concerned when I was 3 miles away from Oxford (which isn't as far as non-pilots might think, but I've normally turned within half that distance). I was getting ready to call tower and remind them of my position (I was NOT going to turn without their permission; that would get me in a lot of trouble and risk hitting another plane) when finally they called me:

"984, I've lost sight of you. Where are you now?"
"This is 984, I'm about 3 to the Northwes-- sorry, Northeast."
"Ok, I see you. When you get to 4, turn final and report."
"984, will report final turn at 4"

I got a little past 4 by the time I completed my turn to base, but that worked well because when I turned final there were so many people talking (including one person who ATC started yelling at to reply) that I didn't get to call until I was 4 miles out. I called just after ATC had given someone else clearance to land.

"Oxford Tower, this is 984, I'm at a 4 mile final."
"984, you're number 2 to land following traffic turning base. Continue at the slowest possible speed you safely can."
"984, number 2, looking for traffic, slowing down."

A few seconds later I found the traffic and reported it. Once he landed I was clear to land. As I came in I turned on the carb heat and dropped in my flaps. By the time I had it all in I felt like I was going very slow, but my airspeed indicator said I was going at least 80. As soon as I got over the airport it got VERY bumpy. It felt like a crosswind from the east was pushing me left of the runway, but I used rudder properly and stayed calm and confident -- key in any landing. I performed my touch-and-go and was told to make left traffic again, so I did. Climb up was just as bumpy as last time, but now the clouds looked like they were starting to creep down.

Nothing too exciting about that touch-and-go. Traffic had slowed down; the only two staying in the pattern were myself and another student pilot who was landing and taxiing back. As I came in for that second touch-down I heard their conversation:

"Oxford tower this is Hotel 81 holding short of 18 request take-off."
"Hotel 81, hold short."
"Roger that."
"Hotel 81, repeat back the command. State intentions."
"Oh, I'm looking to do 3 more landings and taxi back."
"Hotel 81, no, I mean: when a controller tells you to hold short the pilot is required to repeat 'holding short' back"
"Oh. Hotel 81 holding short. Sorry, student pilot."

I was surprised at how patient the controller sounded. He must have been in a good mood (he did congratulate a previous pilot on his short landing earlier). It was probably Ben, who was in the tower on the day Chris took me up to tour it.

During climb-out this time I was told to make right-traffic, so I did. The clouds on the left looked like they were getting higher again, so it seemed like I was directed to the cloudier side. I knew this was because there was some traffic east of the airport (which was to my left as I departed runway 18), but I still thought it was funny. I'd hardly ever done right traffic off runway 18 before, so it was certainly a good experience to see what it looked like from there. I was going to make this my full-stop landing, but ATC called me before I could contact them and cleared me for another touch-and-go, so I figured I'd go for it.

All of my landings were fine, but during this take-off I encountered serious force pushing me left. I don't know if it was just the force of the prop turning, or if there was a gust of wind too or something. I'd been building up my speed on the runway pretty high before take-off on my previous climbs, but this time I decided to pull back a little since I wasn't keeping center line very well after that force. I should have just corrected with right rudder; I'll remember that for next time. Minor mistake considering I already had plenty of airspeed, but still something to work on.

This time during climb out the ATC called me:

"984, the pattern is clear so you can make any traffic either way. Which do you want?"
"984, I'll make right traffic again, thanks."
"984, right traffic approved."

That was pretty cool, being given an option by the controller. Seriously, whoever this guy was he was my ideal ATC.

I went right to get more familiar with that pattern, since, as I'd said before, I wasn't used to it. At mid-field I called and requested a full-stop.

"984, you're clear to land number 2 following traffic turning left base. Report insight."
"984, clear to land number 2, looking for traffic."
[A moment passes.]
"984, traffic in sight."

I extended my downwind again, but only about a 1/2 mile this time (as opposed to the 3 miles the first time). I came in for my landing and touched down smoothly. (I need to remember to focus my eyes on the END of the runway once I enter my flair, it always makes my landings so much better.)

Then came the best part of the whole evening:

"984, taxi back with me via Alpha. And I don't know if you're a student, but you held your own very well in the unusual pattern today, very good work."
"984, taxiing via Alpha. And yes, I'm a student, and thank you very much! Have a good evening."
"Thanks, you too."

Having an air traffic controller commend you on your flight performance? One of the highest compliments I can think of while acting as pilot in command. I'm still pretty proud of myself for that.

I taxied back, shut down the plane and tied it down, double-checking to make sure I entered the time in both logbooks, performed the shut-down correctly and had properly tied the plane down. Chris had left me a message apologizing for the night's confusion, and suggesting that the weather was supposed to be very good on Thursday. I called back and left him another message, mostly just letting him know I landed safe, tied the plane down and was "go" for Thursday. On my drive out I checked ATIS one last time -- the clouds were now at 1700' -- pattern altitude. I was correct about my observations while flying. Always a nice thing to confirm.

Today it's pouring out and foggy all around. Hopefully Chris's forecast for tomorrow will be correct. Either way I'll be making another post soon. All next week (Saturday to Saturday) I'll be on vacation with my family (and girlfriend) at Sandbridge Beach in Virginia, so Chris and I are trying to get my solo in before then. Thursday looks like it's our best shot.

We'll see soon enough. Until then, here's hoping for good weather.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Danbury, but Not Groton

I still haven't been able to do my solo to Groton; the weather has been hazy or rainy every night that Chris and I have free. (Tonight actually looks good, but neither of us can make it -- go figure.)

On Wednesday we tried again (as I mentioned in the last post). When I got to the airport it was clearly too hazy for me to go solo, so Chris brought me inside and proposed two options: we could fly to New Haven or Danbury to get experience flying to other airports, or we could stay here and do test prep ground work. I'm always weary about Chris testing me - baiting me to want to fly in weather I shouldn't in order to teach me a lesson. I certainly wouldn't have gone solo in this, I noted, but I couldn't turn down the chance to fly, especially to a new airport.

So we went! As we got in the plane, Chris said "I'm just here so you're legal," indicating I was [mostly] on my own for the flight. Before take-off Chris had me find Danbury on the map and request the proper turn-out (west) of Oxford. This also gave me a chance to find ATIS and the tower codes for Danbury on the sectional, since I hadn't prepared a flight plan prior. Good things to do for a flight to another airport -- I made a mental note.

Everything went fine. I had a minor mistake on the radios (when calling Oxford Ground I forgot to actually request the taxi to runway 18) but other than that it was a good flight. On the climb out, Chris and I saw a hot air balloon off the right wing, but we climbed above it, then lost it in the thick haze. We suspect it landed, but were careful not to get too close to where we last saw it, since it has the right-of-way. (The less manuverable aircraft always has the right of way.)

On the way Danbury I saw the city, but started worrying because I couldn't see the airport (and the "digital VOR" I'd talked about previously said it was 5 miles directly in front of me). Finally I saw it (double-checking my sectional helped a lot) about a mile PAST the city. We already had clearence for a straight-in landing (my favorite!), so when tower said we were now #1 to land, we flew right in for a touch-and-go.

I came in high and fast, but managed to slow it down and get low. It looked like a very short runway, but I checked the sectional after the flight: 4400 feet. I can land on half that. I think the hills we flew over on the climb out made it feel shorter. Either way, we did just fine on the touch-and-go and Chris congradulated me on it. (Again I made a minor mistake on the radios though, originally requesting a south-east departure; Chris revised it to north-east during climb out.)

On the way back I made a few minor mistakes (though overall it was a great flight). They were: creeping into the runway at Danbury as we flew back to Oxford, imperfect navigation in the pattern at Oxford (we had to land fast since a solo pilot was coming in for a landing too) and a slightly tail-left landing. I do that landing way too often. I need to ask Chris how to fix it (left rudder??).

Overall it was a great flight. The 0.8 hours put me from 39.8 to 40.6, breaking the 40-hour barrier. (For those who don't know, 40 hours is the legal minimum for a private pilot's license, though I still have more stuff to do.) I got to see a new airport, fly without a flight plan, found it myself, did radios [almost] completely alone and had decent landings all-around. I wish I could do that kind of flight every day!

Chris and I planned for me to come back on Thursday for the solo to Groton, but rain and haze kept me from even wasting a drive to the airport. I'm hoping to go up Saturday afternoon - let's just hope mother nature cooperates this time.