Jagged Thoughts | Dr. John Linwood Griffin

September 23, 2012


Filed under: Aviation — JLG @ 1:41 AM

The weather cooperated (somewhat) and I indeed got to fly last weekend for my second solo cross-country flight:

JLG cross-country solo over Newport, RI, September 16, 2012

By the end of the flight I was positively giddy; as I walked back to my car I texted Evelyn the above picture with the caption “I LOVE FLYING”.  Almost all of my flight training has left me grinning from ear-to-ear, but this flight was by far the most fun I’ve had yet.

(Almost all of my flight training has left me grinning:  The required night landings weren’t nearly as much fun as I thought they would be, especially since my instructor chose to test my performance under pressure — asking me to fly an unfamiliar approach to the runway, while simulating a landing light failure, all during a rushed and chaotic situation — and I didn’t handle it particularly gracefully.  But “trial by fire” was the whole point, and I feel that I learned from the experience and am better prepared to execute emergency landings at night.  I also did manage to land the airplane despite the chaos, though I’d drifted off the runway centerline and was still drifting as the wheels touched down.)

The cross-country flight was spectacular.  All the more so because I didn’t think I’d get to fly due to the weather:  There was a cloud layer (“ceiling”) around 4,000 feet along much of the route, well below the 5,000 foot minimum required by my flight school for cross-country flights.  Also, the surface winds were gusting to 16 knots at KBED and 18 knots at KGON, both above the 15-knot limit that my instructor chose for my original solo endorsement.  But my instructor waived both limits for the flight, citing his comfort level with how well I’ve been flying lately, and off I went at 3,000 feet.

It felt as though everything went right:

  • My navigation was great.  I chose to navigate primarily using VOR navigation, with dead reckoning as backup (following along on my aviation chart and looking for outside ground references to verify my position and course) and GPS as backup to the backup.  In the past my VOR navigation has been shaky, but this time it was rock solid — thanks to my instructor’s advice to set up the navigation radios before I even taxied the airplane, instead of hurriedly trying to dial them in when I need them.  My route was KBED to the GDM (Gardner, MA) VOR, to the PUT (Putnam, CT) VOR, to a landing at KGON (Groton, CT), thence direct to a landing at KEWB (New Bedford, MA), and back to KBED.
  • My landings were great.  Approaching KGON I twice asked the tower for a “wind check” to verify that the winds were still below the maximums to land; I was concerned both with the wind gusts and the “crosswind component” of the wind.  (Pilots prefer the wind to blow steadily and directly down the runway.  The winds at KGON were both gusty and at an angle to the runway; if the crosswind component of the gusts was greater than 8 knots then I was not authorized to land.)  I was prepared throughout the landing to abort if the winds started gusting, but ended up with a landing so smooth it felt as though there were no wind whatsoever.
  • The views were great.  Here are some pictures:

3,000 feet over Newport, RI

Wow.  Also:

2,500 feet over Waltham, MA (view towards Boston)


Boston, MA. Our house is off-frame to the right.


This weekend I passed my private pilot knowledge test, scoring 54 correct (90%) out of 60 questions.  (A passing score is 70% or above.)  The questions I missed were on the following topics:

  • Hand-propping an airplane.  Engines without electric starters require someone to go out and manually spin the propeller “old-school” to get the engine going.  Since I don’t do any hand-propping I hadn’t even read the section of the Airplane Flying Handbook that explains the recommended procedure (“Contact!” etc.)
  • Tri-color visual approach slope indicator (VASI).  Does a tri-color VASI use a green, amber, or white light to indicate that you are on the correct glideslope?  I answered white (I suppose I was thinking about a pulsating VASI) instead of the correct green.  A tri-color VASI doesn’t even have a white light!  I’m not sure there are any airports in the Northeast that still have a tri-color VASI in use, but if so I’d love to see one.  EDIT: There are two nearby!  Falmouth Airpark (5B6, Falmouth, MA) and Richmond Airport (08R, West Kingston, RI) both report tri-color VASIs in use.
  • Characteristics of stable air masses.  One of the neat things about learning to fly is that you learn a lot of arcane or obscure facts about weather systems, fog, etc., that generally are only going to be useful to you if you plan to fly through ugly weather.  Apparently I didn’t learn enough arcane or obscure facts; I missed two weather-related questions.
  • Dropping items from the airplane.  It turns out it’s totally legit to drop things from an airplane!  (I incorrectly answered that you are only allowed to do so in an emergency.)  FAR 91.15: “No pilot in command of a civil aircraft may allow any object to be dropped from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property. However, this section does not prohibit the dropping of any object if reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property.”  During my post-exam review my instructor mentioned that he has returned car keys to his wife using this method.

So I’m inexorably closer to being done!  I have a couple of in-school checkrides coming up with another instructor — the fifth instructor I will have flown with during my flight training — and if the weather cooperates I could take the final FAA oral test and checkride as early as October 10.

September 10, 2012

Left-brained flying

Filed under: Aviation — JLG @ 11:30 PM

I’m almost finished with flight training for my private pilot certificate!  That’s actually a little disappointing, because I’ve been enjoying the training so much; I probably won’t fly nearly this much after the lessons are over.

Two weeks ago I performed one of my two required solo cross-country flights.  When I first heard about this requirement I hoped that cross-country meant a flight from Boston to Seattle (cross country) or even to Winnipeg (cross countries) but it turns out it just means, in the exciting parlance of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 61.109(a)(5)(ii), simply:

one solo cross country flight of 150 nautical miles total distance, with full-stop landings at three points, and one segment of the flight consisting of a straight-line distance of more than 50 nautical miles between the takeoff and landing locations.

I’d also hoped that I would be able to pick the airports for my cross-country training flights, but that choice too is regulated, this time by the flight school.  For my first flight my instructor assigned one of two approved routes, in this case KBED-KSFM-KCON-KBED — Bedford, MA, to Sanford, ME, to Concord, NH, and back to Bedford.

(Astute readers will calculate that route as only covering 143 nautical miles.  Although that distance doesn’t meet the requirement above, it’s okay since the school requires students perform a minimum of two solo cross-country routes; the next one will be a 179-mile trip to Connecticut and back.  I suspect the school chose those airports for the first “solo XC” because SFM and CON are both non-towered airports that are easy to find from the air — meaning good practice and confidence-building for the student — as well as because the student has flown round-trip to SFM with an instructor at least once.)

The most memorable aspect of my first solo cross-country flight was that everything happened so quickly!  Without an instructor around to act as a safety net, I had an ever-present feeling that I was forgetting something or missing something:

  • Oh shoot I forgot to reset the clock when I passed my last checkpoint; where exactly am I right now?
  • Oh shoot I haven’t heard any calls for me on this frequency lately, did I miss a message from air traffic control to switch to a different controller’s frequency?
  • Oh shoot I’ve been so busy with the checklist that it’s been over a minute since I looked outside the cockpit…is someone about to hit me?  Am I about to collide with a TV tower?

There were two genuine wide-eyed moments on the flight:

  1. Traffic on a collision course.  While flying northeast at 3,500 feet, air traffic control informed me that there was another plane, in front of me, headed towards me, at my altitude.  Yikes.  I hesitated while looking for the plane, until ATC notified me again, a little more urgently, that there was a plane in front of me at my altitude — except that it was a lot closer than it had been a moment before.  I (a) asked ATC for a recommendation, (b) heard them recommend that I climb 500 feet, (c) did so, forthwith.  Moments later I saw the plane, passing below me and just to my left — we would have missed each other, but not by much.
    Lesson learned:  What I should have done was immediately changed altitude and heading as soon as I got the first notification from ATC.  I delayed because I didn’t comprehend the severity of the situation; it’s pretty rare for someone to be coming right at you — this was the first time it’s happened to me.  Given the other pilot’s magnetic heading, that plane was flying at an altitude contrary to federal regulations, which would have been small consolation if we’d collided. (Sub-lesson learned, as my Dad taught me when learning to drive:  Think of the absolutely dumbest, stupidest, most idiotic thing that the other pilot could possibly do, and prepare for him to do exactly that.)
  2. Flight into a cloud.  During the SFM-CON leg I flew (briefly and unintentionally) into a cloud.  Yikes.  The worst part is I didn’t even see the cloud coming; visibility was slowly deteriorating all around me, so I was focusing mostly on the weather below and to my left, trying to determine when I should turn left to get away from the deteriorating weather.  All of a sudden, wham, white-out.  At the time I was flying at 4,500 feet with a ceiling supposedly at 6,500 feet in that area — at least according to my pre-flight weather briefing — so I’d expected to be well clear of the clouds.  (The clouds probably had been at 6,500 feet two hours before when I got the weather briefing.)
    Flying into clouds without special “instrument meteorological conditions” training is (a) prohibited by the FAA and (b) a bad idea; without outside visual references to stay straight-and-level you can pretty quickly lose your spatial orientation and crash.  During flight training you’re taught what to do if you unintentionally find yourself in a cloud: Turn around! is usually your best option:  Check your current heading, make a gentle 180-degree turn, keep watching your instruments to make sure you’re not gaining or losing altitude or banking too steeply, exit the cloud, unclench.  Fortunately, an opening quickly appeared in the cloud below me, so I immediately heaved the yoke forward and flew down out of the cloud, then continued descending to a safe altitude (safe above the ground and safe below the clouds).
    Lesson learned: I should have changed my flight plan to adapt as soon as I noticed the weather start to deteriorate.  First, I should have stopped climbing once I noticed that visibility was getting worse the more I climbed.  Second, given that my planned route was not the most direct route to the destination airport, I should have diverted directly toward the destination (where the weather looked okay) as soon as the weather started getting worse instead of continuing to fly my planned route.

Despite these eye-opening moments, the flight went really well.  My landings were superb — I am pleased to report that, now that I have over 150 landings in my logbook, I can usually land the plane pretty nicely — and once I settled into the swing of things I had time to look out the window, enjoy the view, and think about how much fun I’m having learning to fly.

Unfortunately I haven’t yet had the opportunity to repeat the experience.  I was scheduled to fly the longer cross-country flight the next weekend, but the weather didn’t cooperate.  I was then scheduled to fly the longer cross-country flight the next next weekend, but the weather didn’t cooperate.  So I’m hoping that next weekend (the next next next weekend, so to speak) will have cooperative weather.  Once I finish the second cross-country flight I will then pass the written exam, then take “3 [or more] hours of flight training with an authorized instructor in a single-engine airplane in preparation for the practical test,” then pass the practical test.  Then I’ll be a pilot!  Meanwhile, whenever I fly I am working on improving the coordination of my turns (using rudder and ailerons in the right proportions), making sure to clear to the left or right before starting a turn, and remembering to execute the before landing checklist as soon as I start descending to the traffic pattern altitude.

Overall, flying is easier than I expected it to be.  The most important rule always is fly the airplane.  No matter what is happening — if the propeller shatters, just as lightning strikes the wing causing the electrical panel to catch fire, while simultaneously your passenger begins seizing and stops breathing — maintain control of the airplane!

  • First, the propeller shattering means that you’ve lost your engine; follow the engine failure checklist.  In the Cessna Skyhawk, establish a 68-knot glide speed; this will give you the most time and most distance to land.  Then, look for the best place to land [you should already have a place in mind, before the emergency happens] and turn towards that place.
  • Now, attend to the electrical fire.  First, fly the airplane — maintain 68 knots, maintain a level heading, continue heading toward your best place to land.  Meanwhile, follow the electrical fire in flight checklist by turning off the master switch to turn off power to the panel.  Are you still flying the airplane?  Good, now turn off all the other switches (still flying?), close the vents (fly), activate the fire extinguisher (fly), then get back to flying.  (It may sound like I’m trying to be obtuse here, but that’s really the thought process you’re supposed to follow — if you don’t fly the airplane, it won’t matter in the end what you do to extinguish the fire.)
  • Now, ignore your passenger.  Your job is to get the airplane on the ground so that you can help or call for help.  Unfortunately you don’t have a radio anymore — you lost it when you flipped the master switch — so once you’re within range of your best place to land, execute an emergency descent and get down as quickly as possible.

My new instructor often tells me that I’m flying too tensely, especially on the approach to landing — he remarks that I tighten my shoulders, look forward with intense concentration, make abrupt control movements, and maintain a death grip on the steering wheel.  This tenseness is what I think of as “left-brained flying:”  I am too cerebral, utilitarian, and immediate in my approach to maneuvering and in handling problems in the air; it gets the job done (I fly, I turn, I land, etc.) but doesn’t result in a very artistic (or comfortable) flight.  I am working to be more of a “right-brained pilot,” reacting to the flow of events instead of to single events, making small corrections to the control surfaces and waiting to see their effect on my flight path; and in general relaxing and enjoying the flight instead of obsessing over the flight parameters.

May 19, 2012

Solo nobody can hear you

Filed under: Aviation — JLG @ 11:15 PM

JLG's first solo flight, Lawrence Municipal Airport, May 19, 2012

If you weren’t in sixth grade choir you might not have heard the joke:  “May I sing solo?”  “Sure, you may sing solo…solo nobody can hear you!”

I flew my first solo flight today!

My pilot friends made a big deal of the days leading up to my solo.  One friend said: “Mary told me you are about to solo.  Congrats.  Next to your wedding day and births, it is the best feeling in the world.”  Another: “Good luck Wednesday and with your solo.  Let me know when you solo. That’s a big deal.  Nothing like it.”

At first I wondered, “Is this really such a big deal?”  Before today, the upcoming solo flight just didn’t feel like it would be extraordinary.  One of the things I like about flying is that it’s not stressful, difficult, or onerous — I feel well prepared for each flight (a combination of the flying lessons, ground instruction, and my instructor’s preflight briefing) meaning that I feel comfortable with my decisions aloft and confident in my ability each time I emplane.  So I figured today would simply feel like another fun day of flying.

But when the time came, it was a big deal.  As I taxied N3509Q (“zero niner kaybeck” on radio calls) away from the hanger door, away from my instructor standing in the door waving, a wave of emotions surged through me and my heart started racing.  It was exciting!  It was thrilling!  I felt the pride of accomplishment, especially since it reflects my efforts for the first three-and-a-half months of lessons.  It was very strange being alone in a moving cockpit!  I wasn’t scared, but I knew I’d feel like a chump if I landed in the Merrimack River or pulled a ground loop or crushed the nosewheel and firewall or basically anything that would result in a timid call to the insurance company, so I wanted to avoid those outcomes.

In addition to it being strange being alone in the cockpit, it was also strange how the airplane handled without the extra weight of my 240 pound instructor — in short, the plane went up faster and down more slowly.

It was a beautiful day to fly:  clear visibility, light winds, high pressure. My instructor prefers to have his students fly their first solo flight at Lawrence Municipal Airport (LWM), about 10 minutes northeast of Hanscom Field, to avoid the usual heavy weekend traffic flying the pattern at Hanscom.  (For later solo flights we’ll stay at Hanscom to practice solo flight under more hectic circumstances.)  So I pulled the Boston terminal area chart and LWM airport diagram out of my flight bag and flew us up to Lawrence at 2,500 feet.

One of the amazing things about flying is just how quickly you can get from point A to point B when you’re flying at 120 MPH in a straight line — the 45-minute drive from BED to LWM takes 10 minutes by air.  Of course, those 10 minutes don’t include the time to plan the flight, or to perform the preflight inspection, or to taxi from the parking ramp to the runway and test (runup) the engine, or the hours of delay you might have to wait to take off if the weather is uncooperative.

The first three solo flight lessons at my school are “supervised solos”: 3 or more touch-and-go landings with an instructor, then 3 landings solo.  The goal of these mixed dual/solo lessons are to bolster the student’s confidence (“I was just able to land with my instructor, so I should be able to land fine without my instructor”).  After taking these three supervised-solo flights I’ll be able to take a plane out anytime I want in order to practice landings at Hanscom, and later to practice maneuvers in the practice area.

My three pre-solo landings with my instructor were great; taken together they were easily my best landings to date.  Then my three solo landings were fine, not textbook but still good:

  • The first one was a little flat.  During the pre-touchdown flare you’re supposed to pitch back more and more (lifting the nosewheel higher in the air relative to the main wheels) before the mains touch the ground.  I didn’t pitch back far enough on this landing.  It wasn’t a bad landing — just not a textbook landing — and importantly I didn’t strike the nosewheel first, which would have been very bad.
  • The second one was a little fast.  When you cross the runway threshold in the Cessna 172 you should be flying about 65-70 knots.  I was probably going 75-80 knots on this landing, so I floated down the runway for a while, bleeding off speed, until the wheels finally sank down.
  • The third one was a little high.  As I was taking off for the third circuit the tower asked me to fly a right pattern because there was a banner-tow plane circling to the west of the runway.  While making the right turns I misjudged the base turn and turned too early, meaning I still hadn’t descended enough by the time I had to turn final.  At that point I had several options: I could panic, or I could execute a go-around, or I could execute a forward slip, or I could add more flaps in an effort to go down and slow down.  Since KLWM runway 5 is 5,001 feet long I decided to add flaps since I had plenty of distance to burn off the extra height.

So, on average, my first three solo landings were perfect.  And as my instructor points out, the real skill to landing is recognizing and correcting minor problems in order to prevent them from becoming major problems.  Despite flying flat, fast, and high, I felt both in control and comfortable at all times.  I truly enjoyed the experience of flying solo.  It was a big deal!

Each time I fly I find myself looking forward even more to the next flight.  What often strikes me most is just how beautiful the landscape looks just after takeoff — suddenly you can see for miles in every direction, and there’s just so much to see that you find yourself metaphorically gasping to take it all in.  And today, flying in the traffic pattern at 1,000 feet over the gorgeous buildings of the City of Lawrence, Massachusetts, with the town surrounding me like an impossibly exact hobbyist’s scale model, made for the perfect visual accompaniment to an already beautiful day.

After a few more solo flights we’ll start working on cross-country flight (“cross country” means greater than 50 miles), leading up to two supervised-solo cross-country flights then two solo cross-country flights.  We’ll then do some night flying, some more flight by reference to instruments, and I’ll practice the ground reference maneuvers, and pretty soon I’ll be ready to take the final knowledge and practical tests.  Of course, “pretty soon” is relative — I’d logged 22 hours of flight time before soloing, and I can expect to log 50 to 60 hours total by the time I take the certification tests.

EDIT (May 27): My friend Paul replies: “Remember, it’s OK to sing solo I can’t hear you, but don’t fly solo I can touch you.”

March 31, 2012

Keep the blue side up?

Filed under: Aviation — JLG @ 6:40 PM

JLG flying the Super Decathlon, March 30, 2012. Photo courtesy of Will McNamara.

Yesterday I flew upside down for the first time!

My instructor recommended that I take an optional “spin awareness training” flight sometime before my first solo flight.  The purpose of the spin training is:

  1. to experience and recover from actual spins, and
  2. to understand and recognize conditions that could lead to an unintentional spin.

The latter is the most important.  For example, one such condition could happen during an approach to landing if you bank too steeply (and stall) while applying opposite rudder.  It’s bad enough to stall during landing — for example, by pulling back too far on the control wheel — because you will rapidly sink and possibly crash.  But if you spin during landing (a spin is the same as a stall, except you also start to spiral downward) then you will certainly crash.  Hence the training.

A neat aspect of the spin training is that it takes place in an aerobatic airplane.  So, for example:

  • “Would you like to try a loop?” asked the instructor.  Well, yes.  After checking for nearby airplanes, you loop by pitching down and building up speed to 160 MPH, then pulling back on the stick until you discover that you’re upside down.  Take a moment to appreciate the view.  Then keep pulling back on the stick until you’re upside up again.  Wow!
  • Fly a different airplane.  My first 12.6 hours of instruction have been in the Cessna Skyhawk.  It’s an interesting airplane and you learn things like “check all four edges of your door to make absolutely sure it’s closed, instead of just verifying that the door latch is in the ‘locked’ position, or after takeoff you may discover that the door isn’t closed after all.”  The 1.4 hours of spin training were in the American Champion 8KCAB Super Decathlon.  The two planes have significantly different handling characteristics both on the ground and in the air; for example, we experienced a strong crosswind while taxiing and I had to push the right pedal basically to the floor to keep the plane taxiing straight; much more so than I would have needed to in the Skyhawk.  Also the Decathlon uses a surprisingly-responsive joystick-type control stick whereas the Skyhawk uses a control wheel.  I enjoyed the chance to fly something new.
  • Formation flight and wake turbulence training.  We arranged with another pilot to fly briefly in formation, with our airplane just behind the left wing of the lead plane, so I could experience wake turbulence firsthand.  The experience was fascinating — for one, it was mind-boggling to look out the window at 4,000 feet and see another full-sized airplane right there; usually planes in flight are tiny little things off in the distance.  But the wake turbulence itself was also fascinating; one moment you’d be right behind the lead plane, and the next you were smoothly but insistently kicked 50 feet to one side.  During ground school you learn techniques for avoiding the wake of large jets and other planes.  For example, stay above the glidepath (and therefore above the wake) of a large plane in front of you, and land farther down the runway than that plane, because the wake naturally sinks after it’s formed and it disappears once the wing no longer produces lift.
  • Keep your eyes outside the cockpit!   In the Skyhawk there is an array of cockpit instruments that you can fixate on instead of using outside visual references to make decisions.  For example, when flying the traffic pattern I often glance down at the attitude indicator (how much bank do I have in this turn?) and directional gyro (am I lined up 90 degrees from the runway heading bug after turning left base?)  Even while taxiing I often glance at the GPS to determine whether my taxi speed is too fast.  In the Decathlon these instruments aren’t available, so you’re forced to do what you’re supposed to be doing already — for example, figure out your bank by looking at the angle between the horizon and the airplane’s nose.  I am curious to see whether I’m better at controlling the Skyhawk during my next lesson thanks to the forced ‘purity’ of flying the Decathlon.
  • G forces add up.  I was surprised to find that, for all my bravado while walking out to the airplane, I did have a limit to how much aerobatics I could take.  After we did a bunch of spins, loops, and rolls, with me squeezing my stomach muscles as instructed to keep from greying out, I suddenly felt a warm flush throughout my upper body — OK, time to stop.  (I am pleased to report that I didn’t need to make use of the complimentary plastic airsickness bag the instructor handed me at the beginning of the lesson.)  Another aspect of comfort was the surprisingly uncomfortable parachute that we were required to wear by federal regulation — all occupants must wear a parachute in order for the pilot to exceed 60 degrees of bank relative to the horizon, or exceed 30 degrees of nose-up or nose-down attitude relative to the horizon.

I feel as though I’m doing well in my lessons, though there’s always room for improvement:

  • I generally apply far too little rudder when turning, resulting in uncoordinated flight.  To turn correctly you both rotate the control wheel (deflecting the ailerons) and simultaneously press one of the pedals (deflecting the rudder).  Pilots are expected to develop a ‘feel’ for the airplane — for example, subconsciously noting a slightly unbalanced feeling when not using enough rudder — so I’m concentrating on developing this ‘feel’.
  • During landing I often find myself flying too high and too fast as I approach the runway.  This symptom actually indicates two problems:  First, I often don’t reduce power enough, or early enough, in the descent.  Second, I often don’t trim the airplane quickly enough after making a pitch adjustment, resulting in the speed starting to creep up again as I unintentionally relax back pressure on the control wheel.  Practice, practice.
  • During crosswind landings I have had trouble keeping the airplane aligned precisely on the runway centerline.  Often I will apply too much rudder or aileron input, resulting in the airplane making large movements instead of the small corrections needed to stay aligned.  I landed very well during yesterday’s flight, so I’m hoping to perform as well in my upcoming lessons.

Overall I’m having a ton of fun.  My pre-solo checkride is scheduled for May 2, so my first solo flight will likely be in just over a month!

February 29, 2012

Pitch, power, and trim

Filed under: Aviation — JLG @ 10:43 PM

I made my first three landings today!  (That’s three separate landings, not one landing where I bounced twice.)

The plan for today’s flight was to fly over to the practice area (the Wachusett Reservoir, north of Worcester, MA) and have me work on ground reference maneuvers.  These maneuvers include:

  • Turns around a point.  Here you fly 1-mile-diameter circles around a fixed point on the ground while holding an altitude of exactly 1000 feet above ground level.  Flying in a circle is harder than it sounds because you have to constantly adjust your bank angle to account for wind; imagine trying to drive a motorboat in a perfect circle while on a river flowing at 15 MPH.  The technique you use is (a) make steeper turns when you are in the part of a circle where the wind is behind you, and (b) make shallower turns when the wind is ahead of you:

    Figure 6-6 (Turns around a point) from the FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook

  • S-turns across a road.  Again, the key point is correcting for wind by changing the steepness of your turns throughout the maneuver:

    Figure 6-5 (S-Turns) from the FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook

  • The rectangular course.  This maneuver is especially important because it mimics the turns you (and other airplanes) make when flying around a runway before landing.  Not surprisingly, the key point is correcting for wind:

    Figure 6-4 (Rectangular course) from the FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook

For longer descriptions of the maneuvers, and the theory behind them, see chapter 6 of the FAA’s Airplane Flying Handbook.

We also practiced steep turns with bank angles greater than 30 degrees.  At 45 degrees we experienced a 1.5G force and at 60 degrees it was a 2G force.  WOW was that fun!  (My instructor knows of my interest in aerobatic flying and mentioned that I will eventually have even more fun pulling 3G and up during aerobatic maneuvers.)  The objective of a steep turn is to make a 360 degree turn, exiting the turn on the same heading you start with, all while maintaining the exact same altitude (3000 feet for today’s practice).  Maintaining altitude is especially challenging during a steep turn; the plane naturally wants to descend whenever you turn because the lift from the wings no longer points straight up.

When we took off the weather was good but snow was quickly moving in on the horizon, making us worry that the flight would have to be cut short.  My instructor even made sure to bring the materials he needed in case visibility dropped too quickly, in which case he would need to take over to make an instrument approach and landing at the airfield.  After an hour of practice the weather conditions were still okay but my instructor gave me the choice of continuing to fly in circles or to head back to the airport to try a few landings.  Well, duh!

Part of flight training is to learn how to interact with air traffic control so as we neared the airport I made initial contact with the tower:  “Hanscom Tower, Cessna one one five four golf, ten miles west, for touch-and-go, with charlie”.  This phrase identifies who we’re contacting (the control tower), who we are (a Cessna brand aircraft with tail number N1154G), where we are (about 10 miles west of the airport), and what we wanted to do (land at the airport then immediately take off again for another practice landing).  After this initial contact the instructor took over the rest of the conversation with ATC so that I could focus on flying the airplane and preparing to land without being distracted by the radio.

Neat tidbit: To return to the airport from the practice area we use Walden Pond (yes, the Walden Pond) as a visual navigation guide — we fly east until we’re directly over the pond, then make a left turn toward the airport’s control tower.  The pond is easy to identify from the air and lines us up at the perfect angle for how ATC wants us to approach the airport.

When we approached the airport we didn’t fly directly towards the runway; instead we flew a partial loop around the runway called the traffic pattern.  The traffic pattern helps organize multiple planes when they are all trying to land at the same time.  In the figure below, we started at the “Entry” label (flying in from the left-hand side of the picture), then flew a U-shaped loop while slowly descending (“Downwind”, “Base”, and “Final”) until we were right above the numbers at the end of the runway:

Excerpt from Figure 7-1 (Traffic patterns) from the FAA's Airplane Flying Handbook

As we got closer and closer to the numbers I kept expecting my instructor to announce “I have the airplane” and take over the controls from me.  But he never did!  He made occasional suggestions at various points — reduce power to increase the descent rate, pitch the nose of the airplane down to gain a little extra airspeed — then all of a sudden he said “okay, start the flare now” and moments later we sank down onto the main wheels in what I consider to be one heck of a pretty darned good landing for my first attempt.

After we settled down onto the runway he instructed me to add full power and we took off again for another circuit around the traffic pattern and another landing.  I found it surprisingly challenging to try to fly a rectangle that looks exactly like the diagram above; for example, my turns ended up not being sharp 90-degree angles, and instead of a nice smooth descent during the “Base” and “Final” phases of the traffic pattern my descents tended to alternate between “not descending” and “descending too quickly”.  Nonetheless, we made it around the pattern and, with my instructor’s coaching, I executed another pretty good landing.  I made a small error during the flare — I pulled back too abruptly on the control stick — meaning that we floated up too high and had to correct for that (by adding a little power while holding a pitch-up attitude) to keep from coming down too hard on the wheels.

The third and final landing wasn’t great per se but we and the plane all made it down intact.  I made several errors:

  • I came in too high for the landing.  Coming in too high was a problem in all three of my landings; each time I started my descent at what I thought was the correct time, but I still ended up much higher than I expected to be by the time we crossed the threshold of the runway.  As I tried to correct our height on the third landing I ended up causing the airplane to go faster than the desired airspeed (the desired speed is about 80 MPH) as we neared touchdown.  We were ultimately able to burn off the excessive speed before landing (runway 29 at KBED is 7,011 feet long and the Cessna 172 only needs a fraction of that to land, so we just floated above the runway for a few moments while the plane slowed down) but I definitely need to work on controlling my altitude on future flights.
  • By this time the meteorological conditions were deteriorating and there was an increasing amount of crosswind (wind across the runway) that I was supposed to correct for using the rudder, in order to make sure we were lined up exactly with the runway at the moment we touched down.  I didn’t use the rudder correctly so we weren’t exactly lined up straight when we touched down.
  • At the moment that the main (rear) wheels touch down, any pilot will be pulling backwards quite a bit on the control stick in order to keep the airplane’s nose pitched up.  This pitch-up attitude allows the plane to slow down naturally and causes the nose wheel to slowly lower to the ground.  After touching down the final time I released my back-pressure too quickly, meaning that the nose came down more quickly than desired.
  • As we slowed down on the runway I applied the brakes too aggressively and not completely in tandem, causing us to swerve a little bit as we continued down the runway.  The gold standard is to apply gentle pedal inputs whenever you’re careening down the runway at 75 MPH.

Still, we and the plane all made it down intact.  For the next hour I grinned from ear-to-ear from having flown the maneuvers and especially from having landed the airplane.  During the post-flight brief my instructor conveyed that he was impressed with my performance throughout the flight (although he pointed out the above problems, and also noted that I need to work on applying better back-pressure to the control stick near the end of the takeoff roll).  Overall it was a great day.

February 2, 2012

Discovering flight

Filed under: Aviation — JLG @ 8:00 PM

My first flight lesson was today.  I had a fabulous time.

JLG at Hanscom Field, February 2, 2012

Getting here required the encouragement of private pilot Anastasia (Pittsburgh, 2003), aerobatic pilot Doug (Hawthorne, 2006), sport pilot Tim (Annapolis, 2011), and co-pilot Evelyn (Boston, 2012).  I have long wanted to fly but have long been afraid to start — not because of the flying itself but because of the lifestyle commitment that flying represents.  Various pilots and aircraft owners have warned me that flight is a “use it or lose it skill” and that once you start flying you need to keep flying regularly to stay proficient.

But carpe diem, no?  I’ve been wanting to do this for a decade, and it’s not like it’s going to become more convenient nor less expensive as more time passes.  Evelyn is enthusiastic and exceptionally supportive of the idea of me getting out of the apartment and getting into a cockpit.  So, private pilot certificate, here I come.

There are three general aviation airports within reasonable distance of our place: Norwood Memorial (30 minutes southwest), Hanscom Field (35 NW), and Beverly Municipal (40 NE).  There are at four different flight schools at these three airports, all of which seem fine at first glance.  How to choose?  Unfortunately I haven’t met any local pilots yet to get direct recommendations.  But one of the schools advertises aerobatic training and aerobatic aircraft as part of their fleet — and thanks to Doug I’m very interested in aerobatics — so earlier this week I scheduled a “discovery flight” with that company to meet the staff, try out the drive to Hanscom, discuss the curriculum and training plan, and get up in the air.

The weather this morning was cold, windy, and overcast, which meant hardly anyone else was using the sky; there were only two other general aviation planes flying near us in the practice area west of the airport.  I spent most of the flight grinning from ear to ear.  Some of my takeaways:

  • The aircraft (at least the Cessna 172SP that we flew today) has metallic wicks on the rear of some of the control surfaces to dissipate any static charge that builds up during the flight.  Without the wicks, the buildup of electrical potential could cause communications problems.  Neat.
  • Full throttle isn’t necessarily better.  The concept of “cruise speed” on aircraft has always perplexed me; if the plane can fly faster, why wouldn’t you fly faster in general?  Answer: it’s much louder and much less smooth of a ride, not to mention much less fuel efficient.
  • I should expect my instructors always to pretend that the GPS is always broken.  I’m fairly interested in old-school navigation, be it dead reckoning or the use of VOR/DME equipment, so I was worried that everything would focus on GPS.  The instructor assured me that, other than a 30 minute lesson in GPS (“it’s nice to have when the light is fading and you’re lost”), I would get all the old-school navigation I wanted.
  • Speaking of dead reckoning:  After an hour of having me fly in basically Brownian motion (“ok, now make a steep 180 degree turn keeping your airspeed and altitude fixed but without looking at the instrument panel”) the instructor asked “where’s the airport?”  I’m proud to report that my guess was only off by 90 degrees (I said “east”, the correct answer was “north”).

Most flight schools appear to offer a discovery flight of 30 or 60 minutes (today’s was 60 minutes of flight time as part of an overall 150-minute lesson, including the pre-flight briefing and weather analysis, pre-flight inspection, and post-flight briefing, for $200).  In a discovery flight the student gets to perform the takeoff (yay!) and most of the flying, with hands-on practice in basic aircraft handling: roll/pitch/yaw, trim for level flight, coordinated turns, slow flight, and visual references.  I started lessons today thanks to the discovery flight that Anastasia gifted me a decade ago, plus the ongoing encouragement I’ve received from my friends and family:  Thank you.