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.

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