Friday, September 12, 2008

The Checkride

After having a hard time falling asleep Wednesday night, I awoke at 6am on my 22nd birthday to numbers flying through my head: V_r = 50, V_x = 54 (aim for 60), V_y = 67 (aim for 70), 121.5 & 7700 for emergencies, 122.0 for FSS, fuel is 6lbs per gal. I tried going back to sleep and thinking about something else, but it was useless. By 6:30 I climbed out of bed with at best 6 hours of sleep and a very big test in front of me.

I'd left my half-finished flight plan on the coffee table, so I sat down, called FSS (Flight Services, 1-800-WX-BRIEF) and got the weather. It was supposed to be a good day for flying, and I logged all the key weather information. Using it I did more work on my flight plans before deciding at about 7:30 to drive to the airport. I didn't eat breakfast before leaving, but my mom made me a bagel and drink so I wouldn't be hungry during the test.

On the way in I listened to music and managed to let my mind wander for a bit. I reminded myself that failing wouldn't be the end of the world and that if I had any problems I could certainly try again. Besides, I reminded myself, Chris is probably just freaking me out so that when Royal shows up, the test is a lot easier than I've expected. I still had my doubts, but managed to nibble on a third of the bagel and take a few sips before I got to the airport.

I walked through the terminal to Classic Air (the company Chris works for). He had let me borrow a key last night in case I beat him in this morning, since my test was to start at 9am. Unfortunately, the key he gave me was the wrong one. The outside door didn't open. I went around through the unlit hanger to the main door. Nothing. I tried the back door. That got me as far as the back workshop, where a bunch of the tools are kept. Luckily the key I had gotten worked on the two remaining doors too. For a minute I thought I was going to be finishing my flight plan from the terminal, or the cockpit, while I waited for Chris to arrive.

I was finishing up the details of all my flight information, including printing out more weather information from when Chris and his uncle (the expert mechanic) came in. I wrapped up and Chris made sure everything was in order while I ate as much of my bagel as I could. Then we wandered around until Royal arrived.

Royal flew in on his own plane, a blue 172, kept in great condition. When he walked over and shook my hand all I could think was "Mr. Rogers" - he was short, at least 67 (probably closer to 75), white hair, glasses and a big smile. He introduced himself and we went inside. Chris immediately peeled off as Royal started asking me ice breakers: when did I start learning to fly, when was my first solo and how did it feel? It was obvious to me that these were prepared questions intended to calm me down. Knowing that, I tried to let them work - and they did a little.

Once we were done chatting, he logged onto the computer and we registered my exam using IACRA. (If any future pilots are reading this, make sure your IACRA is complete before you take your test or it doesn't count. I cannot over-stress this.)

Then we returned to the table and the questions started out easy: show him the flight plan and explain it, show him the weather forecast and I had to decide if we could make today's flight (yes, we could). Then some of the harder questions came out: which instruments would fail if the vacuum pump died? I didn't know, and I wasn't about to bullshit. I misunderstood the vacuum pump as the static port at first, since the pressure difference (as you would find in a vacuum) is what the static port measures. He corrected me, at which point I figured out the answer. Still more hard questions: what would you do if you HAD to land and at Oxford but had a complete electrical failure. Using logic and reasoning I deduced that I wouldn't be able to talk to the tower since my radios would be dead, but I wouldn't be able to communicate my radios were dead by turning 7600 on my transponder either, since my transponder would be dead. Even though you're no supposed to break class D airspace without talking to the tower, I said I would be forced to, and hope to see light signals coming from the tower as I came in to land. I was correct. When he followed up with "what light would you hope to see from the tower?" I knew it: "green."

The questions went on for a while, including a detailed coverage of the sectional, including several things on it I'd never noticed. Regardless, he said "you seem to understand everything just fine, now let's go for the flight and see how you apply it." I had passed the oral, the part I was most nervous about.

For a fleeting moment I got excited: I had thought that if I passed the oral, I would certainly be able to pass the flight. Then I got myself in check thinking to myself: ok, the oral's done, good. That doesn't mean it's over: you still have the check ride to worry about. This was it.

We went out to the plane and I informed Royal that I had performed the pre-flight prior to his arrival, which I had. We got into the plane and he reminded me that I was the pilot-in-command (even though I technically wasn't), and that I could do things on my pace. If I had any instruction for him, I was to issue it as I deemed fit. This was my flight.

I used the checklist and got the engine started. For some reason I had to pump it more than usual because the first attempt at starting failed. (In hindsight, it could have been because Chris's uncle had done one last minute bit of work on it between my flight last night and my check ride.) Either way, Royal didn't seem phased by the start. I had him perform a break check and instructed him to put his shoulder harness on - something I think he was waiting for me to instruct him on.

Before getting cleared to taxi I performed a break check and had him do the same. I then got ATIS and made my radio call. I missed part of what the ATC said -- I thought he said use runway 36, but Royal said something about 18 that corrected me. I wasn't sure if this was a test to make me mess up, or if he was helping me. Realizing the wind was coming from the south, take-off on 18 would make a lot more sense. I guessed he was helping and taxied onto 18, to taxi-way C as instructed (which I was pretty sure was on that end anyway).

I did the engine run-up and everything fine. I was instructed to do a normal take-off and start my cross-country towards Groton. I made fine radio calls and remembered to set my heading indicator, perform my checklist and set my altimeter. Take-off went well, as did climb out. Despite best climb for time being 67 knots (V_y), Royal told me to put the nose below the horizon to check for traffic. He taught like Chris did. As I came up to 1400' (300' shy of pattern altitude) I turned left to start my cross-country.

Then I started making mistakes.

As soon as I was turning left to head east I realized that I didn't have my flight plan up front; it was behind my seat in my headset bag. I tuned the LORAN in to Groton, but Royal had me reach back to get it anyway to look up the heading. I kept my eyes in front as I reached back. Forgetting it was mistake #1. Not how I wanted to start. Even once I got my heading, I had a hard time maintaining it; I kept finding myself too far south since I took off on runway 18, something I'd never done prior on a flight to Groton.

As I continued my climb to the 5500' I had planned (currently at almost 3000') we were passing Waterbury, the first checkpoint. Royal asked how long it took and how long my flight plan had predicted. That was when I realized I forgot to note what time we took off. Another mistake. I estimated to myself, and gave him a time. He was happy with it. Continuing to climb, however, I noticed the clouds were getting lower above us. Royal asked me what altitude I estimated them to be at: 3500'. So then, he asked, what altitude should we fly at instead of the 5500' proposed? Noting that the east/west odd/even thousand foot altitudes didn't apply below 3000', I would descend to 2700-2800' and continue flight there. He was happy, so I was too. I descended and maintained that altitude, but kept drifting south.

During the descent I realized I had forgotten the emergency instructions prior to take-off (where we'd land in the case of an emergency during take-off and where we were going). I told him I forgot it and apologized, to which he simply replied, "OK." He pointed out I was drifting south a few times, so I'd correct. Eventually I found MMK, Meriden Airport, which was my next checkpoint, and continued on towards the one after it.

Royal had me demonstrate how VORs worked as we headed towards Chester Airport. VORs were tools I liked, but had only used briefly before; I was nervous as I used it, but got it right. He then asked how much longer towards Chester and where it was, so I told him. He then informed me I had demonstrated enough of the cross-country and it was time to demonstrate some maneuvers. Suddenly I got nervous again.

The first maneuver I was to perform was slow flight. I performed clearing turns first to make sure the area was clear, then made sure I had an emergency place to land, then made sure we weren't above houses. Finally it was time to do slow flight. Carb heat, a little power out, first notch of flaps, visually confirm down, second notch, visually confirm down, third notch, make sure the nose stays down until pulling more power and pitching for 40 knots. We were in slow flight. "Turn to 270," he instructed, so I did, with a very shallow bank. I explained as I turned that it was shallow so that the vertical component of lift, which was already minimized by my slow airspeed, would remain strong enough to keep us from stalling, whereas if I banked over too far we'd lose that vertical lift and stall. He gave me a few more headings to turn to, then I was done with slow flight.

Next up was a power-off stall. Shit. These were probably my least favorite. I confirmed that the area was still clear (but made sure it was OK with Royal that I didn't perform more clearing turns) before turning the carb heat back on. Half-way to turning it on, I put it back and clarified: "do you want me to perform this until the first buffet [the bumpy feeling of a plane about to stall] or to actually induce the stall?" He replied, "full shall." Damn it.

I pulled the carb heat (which turns it on), then a little power. First notch of flaps, visually confirm, hold the nose down. Repeat for the second and final notches. Then: pull the power to idle and maintain altitude until stall. I was doing it, but the plane started losing altitude. I pulled back harder, thinking come on, come on, STALL ALREADY! Finally it came - a good, solid stall. I recovered and reset to normal flight. Normally with Chris I couldn't feel the stall before he'd push the nose over; that time I felt it loud and clear. It may have even been the secondary stall, but Royal didn't look at me and say I failed, so I kept going.

Next was the power-on stall. Double-crap. I knew the theory behind this one, but had only just learned exactly what to do last night. Here went nothing. I told him I would get the plane to 50 knots for V_r, as if I was taking off on the runway, but I doubt I ever got it below 65 before I gave-up on 50 and went for the stall. I pulled the power to 1900RPM and held the nose up. This time he said just do it until the first sign of a stall - even the warning horn would do. Easily I pitched back and got the horn to go off before recovering. That ended up probably being the most simple thing I'd do during the whole test.

Royal then took the controls (we did a positive exchange of controls, which is one of the things he was supposed to check for) so I could get the BAI (aka. "foggles") on. He gave them back to me, then had me get certain headings and altitudes. After just a few of these I was good, so we transitioned to unusual attitudes. Correction: these were the easiest part of the test. And my favorite. I put my head down closed my eyes while he made the plane do something - well - unusual. I brought my head up (goggles still on) and noticed we were aimed way too high, potentially going to stall. I gave it full power to prevent the stall, lowered the nose to straight flight and leveled the wings before pulling the power back to a cruise speed. We did it one more time, this time diving the nose down. I pulled the power to idle and leveled us out again before applying power. I was done with the foggles - I'd done well.

Next was steep turns: one to the left, one to the right. Left first. I kept my head out the window and turned sharply: 45 degree bank. With the proper rudder applied, and me calling out everything I was doing we whipped around pretty quickly. The turn the the right found me starting at the attitude indicator a little too much, so Royal covered it with special covers he'd brought. (He's used them a few other times too, but this was the one time I really remembered.) I had almost didn't go steep enough to the right (which is odd, since normally I go too shallow to the left), but did fine. It looked like I passed steep turns as well.

At this point Meriden Airport was to the north of us, so Royal had me look up their information on the sectional and enter the traffic pattern there for runway 36 (left pattern, which is traditional). I made my radio calls and entered the pattern. As I came in to perform a short-field landing I was way too high. I dumped in the flaps, but wasn't set-up well. "How about you do a go-around?" Royal suggested, so I did. On the way up another plane was taking off runway 18, and said he had me in sight. I told royal I heard him, but didn't bother to call back on the radios.

I extended pattern this time, but made it too wide. Royal commented, "learning at Oxford they make those wide patterns. You should bring it in closer here." I understood and agreed, but said I still intended to extend my down-wind leg so my final would be longer this time. Royal nodded, but apparently disagreed when he told me to pull my power (unlike Chris, who would pull it himself). Time for an emergency landing!

I made the radio call: "Meriden traffic, Cessna 48984, turning left base for short approach, Meriden traffic." As I came in for the emergency short-field landing I touched down a bit hard, then veered to the left. Royal pointed it out, but I was already aware. "Right rudder" I said and I stepped on it. He pointed out the wind-sock (technically it wasn't a wind-sock, but it did the same thing) and that the wind was gently from the south, so I did a 180 on the runway and was about to perform a short-field take-off, per his instructions.

Holding the breaks I gave it full power. I let go of the breaks and we started rolling -- quickly. I pulled back at 50, took off at 54 and climbed out at 67 (once clear of the trees Royal pointed out). We were off. Royal then had me head back towards Oxford, but on the way picked a cell-phone tower for me to do turns-around-a-point on. I said, "well, the wind is coming from the south right? So I should enter down-wind on the other side." He said "assume you don't know - figure it out as you perform the maneuver." Tricky man.

I got down to 800-1000' above the ground (1000', since there were buildings in the area) before starting the maneuver. I made sure Royal was sure as I pointed this out as a "congested area" even though there were plenty of fields close by. He said OK, so I performed my turn to the left, keeping it off my wing the whole time, but getting pushed inward when I held a steep bank during one part of the turn. Oops. Royal pointed it out, but when I observed and corrected it he said nothing more about it.

I climbed to 2500' (appropriate for the heading) towards Oxford and called to request a stop-and-go. (A stop-and-go, Royal told me, was a touch-and-go where you come to a complete stop. Sounded like fun.) We were denied due to painting operations on the ends of the runway, so Royal had me request a landing-taxi-back instead. Denied again: "I can't allow pattern work right now," the ATC said. Instead we requested a landing full-stop, but Royal said he'd have to figure something out.

I came in for another short field landing, hoping to have a better one this time. It wasn't. Right before we touched down I meant to add power to help the flair during this type of landing, but we touched down (hard) and too soon, so I ended up giving it power (somewhat accidentally) while we were on the runway. What a dumbass move that was. That, and I started veering to the left again. As I slowed Royal asked why I kept doing that (nicely), to which I explained "I don't know - I'm normally MUCH better at landing than this." He also asked about the power, so I gave him the honest answer: I fucked up. I explain what I'd intended to do, and he seemed forgiving.

We started taxiing back when I slowed to a stop once clear of the runway. Royal called the ATC and explained, "Oxford Tower, 984." He did it the old-school way: call the tower, then wait until they ack before stating your request.

"984, go ahead" Tower called.
"Could you fit us in for just one more landing? If not, I'll go shut-down then start it right back up, 984." Royal was obviously going to get his landing. I began to realize what this was: one last shot for me to do a good landing.
"984, yeah, I just don't want any pattern work, but I can fit you in for one more landing. Taxi to 36 via hotel for take-off, perform a tear-drop turn and land 18. Winds are calm."

Well, this was all new, but I was game. This was my last shot, and I knew it. Royal didn't have to say anything.

Once cleared for take-off, he had me perform a soft-field take-off: never come to a complete stop and keep as much pressure off the nose as you can. I did fine, but I was nervous as I realized that 10 months of training was about to come down to a single landing.

Once at 1600' I started the 180 degree turn to complete a tear-drop shape in the sky. "Steeper. Steeper. Really bank it!" Royal egged me on. We must have been at 60 degrees or more (which technically requires a parachute to be allowed to perform), but as I came around and got straight he said, "just keep center line." My rudder was going crazy again. I kept forgetting which to give: right rudder? left rudder? no rudder? too much? too little? Suddenly...

Thunk! I touched down. My flair was short and the landing was hard. As I rolled I slammed the right rudder. Must. Keep. Center line. I wasn't even sure it mattered after that horrible touch-down, but I wasn't about to give up. I held center line alright, but it was still, in my book, a horrible landing.

We taxied back and I left the airplane out since it was too crowded to bring it much closer. Royal thought that was safe. I performed the shut-down checklist (even though I hadn't used the checklist for almost any other part of the flight - another mistake I realized) and turned the engine off. We took off our headsets before he turned to me:


I don't remember the rest of what he said. Some combination of the words "private pilot", "demonstrated" and "well done." I was in my own world. I passed. Somehow, with all those mistakes, I passed.

We got out of the plane and I made sure the control lock was in and peto tube was covered. I cleared out the backseat and left the plane in a good condition. Chris had warned me that he would fail me if I didn't shut it down correctly, even if he already told me I passed. It didn't matter: I left the plane in fine condition, time logged and everything. Then we went inside.

We filled out the paper work, he told me about a fly-in happening in Simsbury (where he's from) and gave me my temporary certificate. The real license will arrive in the mail in 2-3 months. Meanwhile, this paper is good for 120 days. I apologized for those landings and invited him to come up with me any other time; I insisted I was better than he got to see. He assured me it was nerves, and after a little chatting, he left.

I hung around until Chris got back from an intro flight with a new student, and when he finished with him I acted like I failed before telling him the truth. We hung out for some time before I finally left the airport. I'd be back - and soon - to get checked out on the Piper Warrior. But for a few days I decided I was taking a break. I was a private pilot now, and I could do whatever I wanted. It's a great feeling and it's still sinking in:

I'm a pilot.

The Night Before

Wednesday night I went to the airport right after work as planned to go over last minute test prep prior to my Thursday lesson. I brought every book Chris had loaned me, with dozens of post-its with writing marking the pages I might want to reference. I also brought my books, a flight plan to Provincetown and the normal equpitment, such as my headset.

Chris sat me down and told me about the IACRA, a form that MUST be completed for a checkride to take place and for a pilot's license to be issued. As he filled out his portion on the computer I asked him the 10-15 questions I had come with.

Once we'd gotten the first bit of review done, Chris looked at my logbook and noticed I didn't have enough solo time yet: I needed 10 hours and I had less than 9. So he told me to go fly. I could do whatever I wanted, but had to just put some time on. So I went.

During the run-up at the end of the taxi-way I noticed the left magnito was dirty. (The magnitos keep the engine turning, and you need to check both prior to take-off. When one is dirty, the RPMs drop more than they're supposed to when performing a check - max drop should be 125 - and the engine sounds like it coughs.) I pumped the mixture as Chris demonstrated in a previous flight where we'd had that problem, and that cleared it out. I took-off on runway 36 to fly to the practice area and work on some basics, talking (out loud) my way through everything I intended to do during tomorrow's flight.

Everything went just fine, but it was getting late. I decided to head back to Oxford and requested a touch-and-go. I was cleared for the option, which means I could do whatever I wanted, but had to follow a Gulfstream in. I set up for a long final to make sure it had plenty of room, but ended up possibly giving it more than I needed to. Better safe than sorry, I figured.

As I came in I called the tower back and requested to change the touch-and-go to a full-stop, since it was getting dark. I had really wanted to practice short and soft field landings, but I was running out of time. The tower called back and - sounding a little like I was stupid - reminded me I was clear for the option. I knew I was, but I wanted to give them the heads up. As a pilot you need to let ATC's comments not effect you personally; just let them slide right off. (Actually, as I was flying to the practice area I heard the controller telling another pilot off: "Next time let me know what you intend to do before you do it. We don't just do whatever we want to around here." It was harsh, but the pilot clearly didn't didn't sound too upset.) This isn't to say ATC should be ignored; just have thick skin if they're rude.

I performed my landing and taxied back to parking before getting out to finish studying with Chris. We had already reviewed my flight plan to Provincetown and figured out that the weight and balance of the airplane wouldn't allow a flight that long with full feul, so I was going to make a stop through Groton to fill back up to 15 gallons on the way. Chris also showed me how to compute take-off and landing distances, something I had read about before, but he and I never went over.

At about 9:30 I left to go back to my house. I had to review the manuevers, remember the V_x (best speed for distance climb), V_y (best speed for time climb) and V_r (speed to pitch the nose up for take-off) and calculate the flight plans (with weather) and weight and balance. It was going to be a long night. I finally stopped working around 11:40, but didn't fall asleep until at least midnight, probably a bit after.

Thursday was the moment of truth.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Night Cross-Country

Monday night I finally completed the night cross-country flight that is required of a private pilot. I believe that was the last of my requirements, and I am now technically prepared to take the test.

I got to the airport just after 6pm and Chris and I started going over Oral Exam questions. The test is two parts: the actual check-ride and an oral exam, where Royal (the examiner) can ask me basically anything at all related to flying. Luckily, for this oral exam I don't need to know everything, but I do need to know the basics, and how to look up information I don't know.

Chris started asking me questions that I hadn't had time to get to yet, and I didn't know the answers and instead attempted to bullshit my way through it. Bad choice. When I don't know something on this test, admit it. Chris warned me that Royal will catch me and call me out on it; better to admit it and look it up, he'd have more respect of my decision making that way. Unfortunately still, these were some of the most basic questions, the kind I shouldn't be looking up. Clearly I still needed to do a LOT of studying.

Once it started getting dark, Chris and I went out to the plane for take-off. I did most of the pre-flight talks that I'm going to have to complete during my check-ride (such as telling my passengers what to do in case of any problems and using the proper checklist), then we taxied down to the runway for take-off. I'd prepared a flight plan to Orange County Airport (MGJ), an untowered airport with two runways in NY State, west of the Hudson and just west of Stewart Airport, which was in class D airspace.

We took off runway 36 with almost no winds and head left. I made the mistake of not starting my turn until 1600', when a turn should be started "within 300' of traffic pattern altitude." Another mental note for me.

Using my sectional and my flight plan I navigated us over the first checkpoint before quickly learning my lesson: navigation during night flight is much harder. (The "digital VOR" that I often mention, technically called a LORAN, was turned off. Chris knew it would make the flight too easy.) The checkpoints I'd picked out would have been great for day flight, but at night things like small airports and lakes were almost impossible to locate. As I maintained my heading and altitude (4500') I tried to figure out how far along my course I was. I kept staring at my sectional, then trying to find the landmarks outside. This was a mistake, and one Chris let me make to teach me a lesson. Once I thought I'd figured out where we were, he told me I was wrong. What I should be doing is picking things from OUTSIDE, then finding them on the sectional, not the other way around. I'd read that before, but in flight forgotten to practice it. If you do it the wrong way, you'll convince yourself you're somewhere you're not, and that could cause troubles.

Without warning, Chris asked me where I would land in an emergency: I had no clue. This wasn't a surprise to me, as I'd thought about it before and didn't know where to land in an emergency at night. Chris pointed to the highway I'd just found below us and said, "that's a lighted runway in an emergency; there nothing better at night except an airport." He followed up by asking me if I should land with - or against - traffic. With, of course. Then as cars see a plane about to land in front of (or behind them) they can get out of the way, whereas a head-on situation would give them much less time to react.

Eventually I figured out that the city in front of us was one of my checkpoints, and Stewart Airport was right past it (and the Hudson), exactly as I'd expected. Chris pointed out the bridge crossing the Hudson and made a final note about emergency landings: "never, ever land on a bridge. I'd pick the water before the bridge. Bridges have ropes and beams that hold them up, and you're very likely to hit them coming in for a landing there. Avoid it." Good advice; I'd made a mental note to avoid all bridges since my encounter with one at Goodspeed.

I flew over Stewart, making sure to stay clear of their airspace, before I found Orange County. I'd told Chris my options: contact Stewart to enter their airspace as I descend to Orange County, or overfly Orange County before descending in the free airspace to the west of it. Chris had me chose, so I went with the latter.

Being uncontrolled, Orange County doesn't have a tower to talk to, but a UNICOM. A UNICOM is a "UNIversal COMmunication" radio: everyone around that airport should just announce where they are and what they're doing, and anyone in the area can talk with each other. It's a simple idea, and it works pretty well, but I don't have a lot of experience with it. When a helicopter was flying over the airport, Chris took over the radios and controls. Apparently I had just reported that I was entering right down-wind for runway 21 (when I had MEANT to say that I INTENDED to enter right down-wind for that runway). He informed me of my mistake and said "you have to descend pretty quick if you just told them you're entering right down-wind right now," as he banked the plane about 60-70 degrees in a tight turn to descend fast. I asked "couldn't I just correct myself?" Chris said I could, but we were already there by then.

Coming in for landing was fine, though I did it very high intentionally. Chris had warned me that we were going to be flying right over a mountain that I'd never see at night, so I wanted to make sure I was clear of it.

As we came in to land, Chris made one last radio call and the runway lights went out. Instantly I realized what happened: on untowered airports, at night, the runway lights were pilot-controlled on the UNICOM frequency. When you press down to make a radio call on that frequency, it adjusts the lights. There are four settings: off, low, medium and high. I quickly asked Chris "how many times do I need to press [the radio button] to turn them back on? 5?" Chris gave me his usual sink-or-swim answer: "you tell me." I tried 5: "I think 5 is medium, 3 is low and 7 is high."



Then they came on, to medium. I was right, but it took a few seconds for them to turn on. I made a mental note; not for my check-ride, but for the next time I'm flying at night: don't panic if it takes them a few seconds. Once that was sorted out, I came in to land.

After I touched-down and made my radio calls I started to taxi to what I thought was taxiway A, but was actually grass. Though I wouldn't have made it there before catching my mistake, Chris took the controls anyway and teased me about it. Once we got onto the taxi-way we turned around almost immediately and Chris made the radio call that we were going to take-off the same way we came in to land (runway 3; the opposite end of runway 21). Normally you wouldn't do this because of wind, but with no wind, there was no reason not to.

My take-off was more "by the numbers" (per Chris's instruction) this time. Pulled back at 50 knots and once I took-off I got some speed before climbing at 70 knots. Chris then pointed out the mountain that I never saw: to the left was a huge ridge that extended 600' above the runway to 1000' MSL. A lone red light marked the top of it, but was so small I never noticed it during the landing.

Chris instructed me to climb west of Orange County before I headed back east, so that I wouldn't break Stewart Airspace. He then asked me what altitude their airspace went to, what height I should go to and why. "They go to 3000', I'm going to 3500' because (1) a VFR flight heading east needs to be at odd-thousand plus 500 feet and (2) if a gust of wind or poor judgement knocks me down 50' I don't want to break their airspace." My reasons were fine, but Chris added one more: we hadn't adjusted the altimeter for Orange County, so the air pressure was still set for Oxford. While it wasn't going to make a HUGE difference, it was something to remember, and certainly a good point.

We were still climbing to 5500' as we flew above Stewart, that way we could see more landmarks and have more time if an emergency occurred. Then I told Chris that I'd forgotten to make a flight plan back, but I could use my original one in reverse... to some extent. He told me I should have made it, but wasn't too harsh, since I'd simply not had enough time to make another one. Because checkpoints over this area wasn't too good, Chris reminded me that keeping my heading was my best friend. I had flown to Orange County with a heading of 273, so my heading back should be "140, which is what I'm on now."
"What? Your heading should be 140?"
"Yeah... or wait... 120? No, yeah, 140." I was obviously confused.
"What direction did we fly there with?"
"I mean: we went [almost due] west. So coming back we should go..."
"East! Wait... east is 090... oops!"

I had tried doing some overly complex math in my head instead of doing the simple thing. It wasn't intentional, nor an attempt to impress anyone, just a mistake. I explained it to Chris and apologized that I wasn't thinking. He actually said, "you were thinking, and that's a good thing." True, but I pointed out that thinking the wrong thing was still a mistake. From now on I'll double-check using a different system.

As we got closer to Oxford I spotted Hartford, then the two high towers by Robertson. I knew Oxford had to be coming up on my right at some point. Then Chris took control.

Oxford was just off our right. In fact, it looked like we were just 4 miles out, though Chris pointed out that this was a visual trick of the night. He called the tower and we got clearance to land. I noticed Waterbury, then the tower at the airport, before Chris gave me back the controls. I had gotten lost - which is normal for a first night flight. After I get me license, I want Chris to instruct me so I can get better at it, and eventually be able to do it comfortably solo.

As I came in to land, Chris turned off the landing light, which helps illuminate the runway under the nose wheel. Not comfortable with it, and not sure he intended for me to leave it off, I turned it back on and said "nope, it's on." He didn't hear me, because once we'd landed I repeated it. Apparently he didn't realize I had turned it back on and called me a bum. I told him that during my night training he could make me do touch-and-gos with the landing light off, if he wanted. That's going to be an interesting night when it comes.

After shut-down, Chris told me to just hit the books. There's only three ways I would fail, he said: stare at the instruments, making up excuses, not knowing the basics. The first two are things I'm just going to have to hold myself to; the third I needed to fix.

I've spent almost all my "free" time studying since that flight, and I'll be meeting with Chris again tonight, then tomorrow morning before the 9am check-ride.

I don't know if I'll have time to post before then, but if not: wish me luck! This could be a great birthday :)

Monday, September 8, 2008

More Stalls & BAI + Bonus

It's been a while since I last posted; my apologies. I've been fairly busy with my check-ride fast approaching this Thursday. I had two lessons last week (since my most recent post) and one ground-school lesson too.

The first lesson was Thursday night. With visibility a little low due to haze, Chris decided we were going to do "stalls and ground reference: one of each, then come back." So my lesson plan was going to include: one power-on stall, one power-off stall, one turn-around-a-point, one rectangular-turn and one S-turn.

We took off and went north to the practice area. Chris told me to do either stall whenever I was ready. I took a minute to compose myself, find an emergency landing and remind myself not to stare at the instruments before starting my clearing turns: a 360 degree turn to the left, explaining out-loud what I was doing and why (looking for traffic). Once I came out of the turn to a north heading, I started my power-off stall: carb heat, a little power out, first notch of flaps - maintain altitude, when clear: second notch of flaps - maintain altitude, when clear: final notch of flaps - maintain altitude, hold nose straight and level until you can feel the stall coming on by "bumps" forming under the plane.

I, however, was not stalling. Chris noted why: "it's hard to do a power-off stall when you're not power-off." Oops. I'd forgotten to pull the power to idle after my last notch of flaps. Once I did, the nose tried dropping, but as I held it to the horizon I felt the stall bumps coming on. I did the maneuver well... once the power was off. Now I'll remember to look for that next time.

I then set-up for the power-on stall. Power all the way in, and just pull the nose back too high. I was giving too much right rudder, thinking back to last time when I wasn't giving it enough. I eased off and tried to keep the wings level. Once I felt the pre-stall bumps under the plane, I pushed the nose over. Much better.

Then Chris asked me to enter slow flight, something I hadn't done in a looong time. In fact, we'd hardly ever gone over it, but I thought I remembered what to do, so I gave it a try. Carb heat on, a little power out, and all the flaps in (one notch at a time). It was basically the power-off stall I messed up earlier, because I kept some power in to maintain flight this time. I pitched my nose up to maintain about 50 knots. I kept scanning outside: "looking for traffic, got an emergency field picked out, airspeed 50 knots, altitude 3500 feet, heading due north, looking for traffic..."

I was doing well, so Chris told me to turn east. I lifted the right wing slightly (checking for traffic) before turning to that heading. I noted that I was doing a shallow turn because I was in slow flight, and a steep turn would cause me to lose even more of my vertical component of lift, making it easier to stall. Chris told me that I would be golden if I could mention stuff like that on my check-ride, so I made a mental note. He had me turn a few more headings in slow flight before telling me that was good and to return to normal flight.

On the way back, Chris pulled the throttle to idle. "Show me an emergency." I picked a field, then pitched to 65 knots (Chris noted that I should have done them both at the same time). I set up for the landing, but was still so high as I flew over it that I went right past and had to turn around. Since the field was perpendicular to the wind, this wasn't a problem, but now I was afraid I was coming in too short. Once I got back to facing the field, I realized I was set-up pretty well. Chris told me to put the power back in and take-off. We had gotten pretty low, so Chris gave me some advice for the check-ride: ask Royal (the examiner) to tell me when give it power again. That way, he's responsible for making sure we stay above the 500' AGL minimum required. Certainly something I'm going to have to remember, because if I get lower than 500', I fail. Plain and simple.

I climbed out and noted that I wasn't pitching for the best climb speed because I was in a "cruise climb," meaning that I was climbing, but not in any rush, and I was en-route to a destination. Another useful thing to tell Royal during the check-ride.

Coming in for landing I was set-up pretty nicely and touched down smoothly. Chris commented that it was a great landing. I noted that I only had 1 notch of flaps, but explained that it was all I needed. Overall, I'd had a very good flight. My biggest fault was not having the power off during that first stall maneuver. Keep studying.

Friday I arrived to the airport early, with clear skies. There was a small airshow visiting Oxford, just showing off some WW2 bombers and fighters. There was a small crowd watching the B-35 bomber start up. Meanwhile I did my pre-flight right next to him on my Cessna 152. Little embarrassing to do that standing in front of an audience, next to an airplane that has at least 4 machine gun turrets on it.

When Chris and I taxied out to the runway it suddenly got very busy. About 5 planes landed before the tower called me back: "984, I haven't forgotten you, it's just busy." Chris noted that the planes were trying to get home before the bad weather came in. He and I weren't going to be gone long, so we were OK to go up. When a break came, the tower gave us the chance to take-off "without delay." I did it fine, but Chris noted that I don't have to accept a "without delay" take-off. In fact, during my check-ride, he advised against it. One more mental note to stuff my brain prior to Thursday's flight. I appreciated any tips I could get.

Chris had decided we would be doing BAI, since I didn't have enough time yet. (BAI is the official name for "foggles" - the sunglasses which make it so all I can see is the instrument panel, as if I flew into bad weather.) Chris had me put them on as we climbed out all the way to the practice area.

Once we got the to practice area, Chris gave me some altitudes and headings, reminding me to SCAN the instruments and not get focused on just one. I was doing pretty well: talking the whole time, admitting my mistakes, but correcting them. Eventually Chris decided I should start climbing at about 500 feet per minute, and just keep climbing. He gave me more headings, but never had me stop my climb. Noting that this was an otherwise boring flight, he decided: "let's see how high we can get."

Around 9000' MSL Chris saw something: a balloon. Apparently we flew directly over a balloon. I was a little nervous, since hot air balloons were hard to maneuver, and I didn't want to hit it, but Chris corrected me: it wasn't a hot air balloon. It was a regular one, like kids get at carnivals. He took the controls and I removed the foggles for a minute to try to find it again. No such luck. At least we had a cool story, I noted, putting the foggles on and starting to climb again.

Chris had us flying south-west, into the wind (which got even stronger at these altitudes). Flying into the wind gave us a ground speed of "very slow." Nothing normally goes this slow at this altitude. Passing 10,000 feet, Chris joked that the local traffic advisory were looking at us on radar thinking "there's a tiny VFR flight going 3mph at 10,000 feet... is that a bee?" A few jets flew overhead. We were at the point where you could see the atmosphere, not just the city you were over (when Chris let me peak).

By the time we finally got to 12,500 feet, Chris gave me a chance to look again. I could see the shoreline all the way from Rhode Island to New York, complete with the storm slowly moving in. Chris told me to just have fun, flying around and looking, so I did for a bit before he had me return to BAI flight.

As we descended, he gave me a few headings, but mostly just told me to descend faster and faster. My ears and sinuses were feeling funny, which was expected. (Chris and I actually went over medical stuff in Saturday's ground school.) Then came the fun part: Chris told me he was going to have me do a nearly-blind landing. He grabbed the pillow from the back and stuffed it in my windshield so I couldn't peak. He then gave me headings and had me descend at a bunch of different numbers. He commented "giving you this information is as hard for me as it is for you." Understandable. Trying to land a plane blindfolded isn't easy for the pilot, or for the person trying to talk him through it.

Less than a quarter-mile from the runway, with 1 notch of flaps in and the carb heat on, Chris removed the pillow and told me to take off the foggles. "If you can't make it, do a go-around," he said. I knew I could make it, so I aimed for the runway. Chris dumped in the last two notches of flaps and helped push down on the yoke to keep the plane from climbing (which it always tries to when you first add flaps). I made my (slightly bumpy) landing when he told me that I should have done a go-around. "You wouldn't have made it if I hadn't added the flaps." I wasn't sure I believed him, pointing out that the runway is a mile long. Surely I wouldn't have flaired for a mile. "It's also down slope," he pointed out. I remain unconvinced, but took note of his advice. I was coming in faster than I should have, so the flaps were a good idea.

That was it for Friday.

Saturday was ground-school. We just went over the test questions: some of which I knew, and many I didn't. Chris told me what to study and told me to admit when I didn't know the answer. Also: don't be a know-it-all. If I go into detail on a question I could have answered simply, Royal will dig deeper until he finds something I don't know. I need to remember that this isn't a test I need to pass 100% - it's a test where I need to show that I am a competent pilot and know how to find answers that I don't already know.

I won't get into the detailed questions, but two hours of ground school can be just as draining as 6 touch-and-gos when you're as focused as I was.

Sunday came with some excitement. Instead of flying myself (Chris took the day off, and I didn't ask to go solo) I decided I'd go to the airshow at Westover AFB that I'd gotten rained out of on Saturday. There they showed off a bunch of planes (though the only modern fighters were the F-16 and F-18) and I took tons of photos and videos. (They will eventually appear on here, I promise.) After watching one pilot tumble through the air, then dive into the ground on a maneuver I was sure was going to end tragically, I was at a loss for words. These people made the most complicated flights look so easy I could do them. They were amazing.

I also spent some time talking to a Major Dave "CK" Kase, who was standing next to an Air Force trainer. Apparently he instructs the instructors. I joked that he was the CFII of the Air Force, and he was impressed at how much I knew about flying. He was my favorite guy at the whole show because he was willing to talk, and was genuinely nice.

Finally, the Thunderbirds. In what can't really be described in words, I saw, first-hand, the most amazing flight skills that I can possibly imagine. With 3-mile straight-up flight, head-on games of chicken at 1000MPH closing speeds and much more, it was certainly an amazing airshow. Without attempting to describe how awesome it was (since I would certainly fail), let me just say this: if you get a chance to see the Thunderbirds: do. Afterwards they even came out to sign autographs and everything. Instead, I got my picture with them all, except #5, the girl, since they ran out of time. Unfortunately, my camera also ran out of battery (and was low on space on my memory card) so my video clips are just seconds long each, and two of my 5 photos of me with the Thunderbirds are from my phone - much lower quality.

Anyway, that wraps up my lessons thus far (and the bonus). Every night this week I plan to go flying, and my check-ride is Thursday. I'll try to post before then, but if I can't, wish me luck!