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, AviationWeather.gov, 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."
"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.