Sunday, November 9, 2014

One More for the Road

Winter is coming and so will my trips to Canada.  Less time at home and cruddy weather meant I wanted to get one last short flight in today.  Luckily the weather system at hand is a slow-moving front at the center of a low pressure zone.  Lots of overcast and cool temperatures, but for now the winds were light, and a fairly consistent direction.  Good enough day for a quick flight around the neighborhood.

I took a passenger this time and we stayed low, just about 1,000 feet above the ground to stay out of the bumpy winds up higher.  But a great altitude for just putting around and visiting the Billings airport for a couple of touch-and-gos.

The entire country experiencing fair fall
weather except for our Northern Rockies
Like the past few flights, I concentrated on the pattern, approach, and landing.  Fly pattern at 90 knots, then reduce power abeam the touchdown point (not the end of the runway), maintain 80 knots to the base leg, then more flaps and reduce to 70 knots.  Keep 70 all the way down final and save the last notch of flaps for the last 50 feet.  Let airspeed drop to 60 over the threshold and power to idle.  Then a nice, smooth flare to touchdown.  Sounds so simple.

It all clicked again today, and though we kept it short to stay out of the weather, a great flight before what will likely be another dry spell for a while.

The cold - it's coming.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Weekend Triple Play

Based on my last flight’s debrief, I tried to get more time in sooner rather than later.  Last weekend didn’t work out, but I was able to get in this Saturday.  Again based on my last experience, I wasn’t expecting anything too great.  Figuring I needed a lot of work to get back in the groove, I focused on a few key areas knowing I would be back in a 172:
  • Being established in the pattern and timing power and trim changes for landing
  • Keeping the nose up in the turn
  • Recalling the sight picture for landing
So I did my homework.  The plane would be a newer model 172 – in fact one that I had flown before – so I downloaded the POH to study speeds and procedures.  I also found an excellent resource specifically for late-model 172s published by ATP.  Since they are a well-established academy with standardized procedures and a fleet of 172s, they have put together a manual just for that specific plane.  Rather than the more general handbook advice you might find elsewhere, this one has specifics like power and flap settings for the pattern.  Reviewing it changed everything.

The plan of the day was to obtain a rental checkout.  At this school, the requirement is to perform three touch-and-gos with the instructor.  But I wanted more to get me where I wanted to be.  So we set it up to be a similar set of airwork exercises as last time – some slow flight, stalls, and steep turns as well as pattern work.

Happily, the weather was clear and the air was smooth.  I’m sure it helped, but compared to the last flight, this was completely different.  The review of procedures and the short time between flights made for a totally opposite outcome.  Stalls were crisp, steep turns were right on, and I managed airspeed in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been able to do.  Everything came back together.

So now the test – how were my landings?  Let’s put in this way – there were just a couple of points to work on after the first try.  Get the sight picture right and keep the speed up.  Using the ATP manual as a guide sets up a slower approach than the school here likes to have.  It essentially was a short-field approach – completely OK but removing some of the margin of error, and an easy fix.

Now that I had my trim adjustments and power settings more dialed in, adding 10 knots to the approach speed was easy.  On the next circuit, suddenly the sight picture snapped into place as well.  This was turning out great, and the last landing was even better.  I was very happy with the outcome – to the point that I wasn’t ready to stop.

But we did; the instructor had another student.

However, this plane was still available for another few hours.  Enough time to run home, pick up any interested passengers, and take another flight.

An hour’s tour around the area and, though the winds had picked up a bit, another great landing.

And?  The plane was open on Sunday as well.  Would the wife like to take a flight as well?  Yes, she would.
A very nice, cool morning awaited.  A cold front was on its way in, and I knew we didn’t want to be in the winds with a fairly new passenger.  But the morning looked good and we got out and back before it shifted to a gusty crosswind.  

All in all, three flights in two days.  Granted they were short, but the reinforcement of skills was and continues to be very important.  I’m hopeful this is a turning point that allows me to fly a little more often than I’ve managed in the recent past.  If so, there’s no doubt my flying will only get better.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Exploring North Carolina

In case you're looking for a benchmark for how long is too long between flights, I'm going to say one to two months.  The several months that lapse between my own is way too long, and even the latest spell of four is enough to be starting behind the curve.

My travels take me to North Carolina, which holds claim to being the birthplace of powered flight.  So when I find myself staying the weekend and the weather is pretty decent, I take the opportunity to get an instructor and get up in the air.

The day started normally enough.  The flight school has a fleet of Pipers and Cessnas, and I chose the low-wing Archer.  We spent about 30 minutes inside doing the requisite paperwork and running through the POH to check V-speeds, weight and balance, and systems.  Then out to the preflight.

We climbed into the cockpit for a little overview of the instrument layout, and then stepped out and gave the plane a once-over before getting into the preflight details.

"What's this?" I ask, pointing to a broken engine cowl latch.

"We're not flying today," the instructor flatly replies.

He putters around the plane, wondering what's going on.  We find that all four latches are undone, and that there's an extra 0.1 hour on the engine meter from what's in the paperwork.  We suspect someone is in the middle of some maintenance and testing, but it's not on the books, and the school owner is out of town.  Regardless, this plane isn't flying.

I say, "Well, I've got no problem flying a 172.  I'd rather spend the extra time to get the paperwork re-done and fly."  The instructor obliges, and we carry our gear back inside for another go.

The instructor is different than any I've ever flown with.  Mostly, I fly with younger guys (yes, from my first flight to the present, they have all been male) who, while dedicated and professional, don't have much on this older gentleman.

An aeronautical engineer, ex-Navy flight instructor with time in all types from radial-engine Trojans to modern jets and thousands of hours to show for it, he's been instructing in some way since 1968.  And he brings a completely different perspective to my own flying experience.

Right off the bat, I was set up for a difficult day.  Not only have I not flown a 172 since 2012, but we used an 800-foot AGL traffic pattern rather than a more customary (at least by today's standards) 1000-foot pattern.

This might not seem like much, but when you've trained so far for a certain sequence of events at about the same time and place - throttle back, slow down, flaps, turn, check descent rate and airspeed, more flaps... - and then knock 20% off the altitude you have available to do it, things get busy.

So I wasn't too surprised that my first two landings left a bit to be desired.  It was difficult to hold airspeed, the timing of my trim adjustments was all off, and my sight picture of the runway on the base-to-final turn was not helping.  It was difficult to maintain the glidepath and correct for a light crosswind.

But by the third circuit, the instructor called for a go-around.  Not because anything was wrong, but that was part of the practice and my final approach looked good enough to go try some stalls.

Power-off (also called approach to landing) stalls were no problem.  But the instructor had me do something a little different.  Rather than slow flight with full flaps and right on the edge of the stall, he had me stay at 60 knots with no flaps at first.  That's a challenging speed for this plane, as the controls are mushy, but the plane still responds fairly quickly to attitude changes.  It showed that I still need to work on setting throttle and trim at the right times as I pass through different speeds.

Power-on stalls are always a bit more challenging, as they need a lot of right rudder to correct for the high power setting, but otherwise the mechanics are similar.

Steep turns were also on the menu today.  My turns are acceptable, but I tended to let the nose drop, especially to the right.  This is in fact very common across different pilots and airplanes where the pilot sits in the left seat.

Then a mock emergency landing.  Again, I need a better feel for the airspeed and trim.

After all the airwork, we came back to give my landings another shot.  Though they were better, there was still lots of room for improvement.  This was where my instructor's experience gave me some additional insights.

After a few touch-and-gos, we called it a day.  But the instructor was happy to spend some time doing a debrief, one much more extensive than any other I've had.  He kept notes on all my flying and was able to quantify many of the points I've just glossed over here.

It's too bad my instructor is not a doctor.  Then, I'd be able to say that his recommendation to fly again within a few days is a medical necessity.

Oh, and a few bonus photos of my other aviation-related explorations:

Saturday, July 5, 2014

What Just Happened?

It was to be a more-or-less routine flight – except that I haven’t flown in about eight months.  If you read accident reports, you know that aircraft owners all too often ignore these dry spells, hop in for a “quick flight” and find out too late that their skills aren’t quite up to the task.  So it’s nice to have the excuse that I need an instructor checkout anyway for the rented plane, but I wouldn’t have thought I would push my luck like that.

Nonetheless, I had enough confidence that I thought I could take my kids up for a ride after the checkout, so invited them along.  I therefore put myself in the position of hundreds of other accident victims who face a flight with too many external pressures – the need to arrive somewhere on time, the expectations of family or friends, or the weather turning bad just at the wrong time.

In these and many other situations, pilots constantly evaluate the “Go / No-Go” decision.  Do I take this flight at all, do I keep going even as conditions change, and when do I need to make the final call that this just isn’t going to work out? 
My typical DA-20 panel
DA-20 with G500 panel - more info in different places

Today was in fact not a bad day for flying.  A little warm perhaps, but the winds were fairly light with only a minor crosswind.  I was flying with a different instructor, and he didn’t realize that I hadn’t flown a DA-20 with the G500 digital display before.  I had actually flown a similar setup in the Tecnam Eaglet, but I’ve grown accustomed to the round dials in the Diamond.  Again, faced with what is technically an unfamiliar aircraft, would most pilots hop in and figure it out later?  Perhaps.  But the NTSB files are filled with pilots going up in planes they have few hours in – leading to poor use of the resources at hand.  

With all this in mind, I took the high road.  As we began the preflight, I let the instructor know that I had never flown this particular model before.  I personally felt very comfortable with him in the right seat and had no problem taking this plane out for the checkout, but wanted to know if he’d be willing to switch it out if I had any doubts about the rest of the day.  That was it – a very good, honest conversation about the conditions and risks.  I valued the opportunity to get some experience with the G500 anyway – if this had been just a checkout flight and no more, it would have warranted not much more than a passing comment.  

But my plan for subsequent passenger flights changed the equation.  I needed to know what my options were and the instructor should be aware of what I’m planning on doing without him – how else could he evaluate whether I would be safe up there?  And, by the way, he was quite willing to leave it up to me.  If I wanted a different plane, being completely open to pulling another out of the hangar for me – that’s quality service right there and reinforces my choice to use this particular flight school.

The flight itself turned out not bad – at first.  We did some stalls and a couple of steep turns, some slow flight and …  Though my maneuvers weren’t as crisp as they once were, they were passable.  As usual, my radio calls impressed the instructor.  So we decided to call it a day and to a few runs through the pattern.

By now, the wind had picked up.

Keep in mind, these wind conditions should not be a factor for someone who flies regularly.  Maybe a few knots of crosswind and no significant gusts.  Flying-wise, a pretty benign day.
But those eight months had led to the expected skill-atrophy.

A crabbed approach to correct for crosswinds
My patterns, headings, turns, descents, and final approach were right on (despite being the more difficult right-traffic).  But the transition from a crabbed approach to flare and landing really weren’t that great.  My timing and sight picture were off.  Granted, the instructor never had to take over, and these weren’t terrible landings by any stretch, but they were just sloppy enough that it was apparent to both of us that I needed more practice – much more to be able to carry passengers in these conditions.

By the fourth trip around the pattern, the instructor said he’d be happy if I could get two smooth landings in.  But I said, “Look.  I’ve already prepared the kids that their ride is not a sure thing.  Even if I get two landings, it would be more luck than anything else.  They’ll be disappointed, but let’s just do one more and we’ll call it a day.”  He offered one more time, but I could tell I just wasn’t as far ahead of the plane as I wanted to be.  Compounding this is that by focusing so much on the flight, this was a more mentally (and physically0 taxing flight than if I had done the same thing with more practice.  Any further flying would be adding more stress and just didn’t serve a particularly urgent purpose.  

So we wrapped it up, and I gave the kids the bad news.  “But we’ve been waiting TWO HOURS!”. 
“I know,” I said.  “But I want to make sure I’m safe to take passengers, plus it’s hot and bumpy up there.  Let’s save it for another day.”

And that’s what we did.  I don’t know when my next flight will be, but it was still a good lesson.  Not just for myself, but for the kids who need to be aware that sometimes flying a light plane just isn’t the same as a regularly scheduled airliner.  Delays happen, trips don’t get done, and weather can always turn an otherwise fine flight into a dangerous situation.  It’s a tough decision, but it was clearly the right one.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Smoothing the Edges

Today was to be a quick flight with two goals: a checkout with the instructor, good for renting solo for the next 30 days, and a bit of local solo flying to keep the skills sharp.

Whether you fly often or sporadically, keeping skills up and making good use of the available time means flying with some purpose.  But, like almost every other plan, mine was virtually moot by the time I arrived at the field.

Though I had anticipated a quick flight as before, this time was more like a lesson or even a basic flight review.  First, the school now has a policy of filling out a written weight and balance sheet as well as a risk assessment for every solo flight.  Personally, I think this is a good idea, and don't mind the extra time.  It's good practice anyway.  Pilots who own and fly their own planes often forgo these steps, citing familiarity with the airplane, the load, the airport, and any number of other things that can yield complacency just when you might need critical thinking.
Example VFR Pilot Risk Assessment
Diamond DA20 Weight and Balance Worksheet
Having checked the weather and planned on a nice, smooth day, I figured on flying with the instructor for maybe a half-hour and then doing another hour or so on my own.  Instead, we did a mini-checkride with some stalls and general flying practice.  After the paperwork was done, I preflighted the plane and we were off.

Not only do skills atrophy with time, but the flying environment can change significantly as well.  Several years ago, the airport installed radar that allowed better ATC services from the tower and handoffs for IFR traffic.  Gradually, the Class E airspace around the field has also changed to accommodate this activity.  More recently however, an approach/departure controller position has also been added.  This affects local training flights by using this frequency for traffic advisories rather than a common air-to-air channel.  Regardless of the details, it's a good reminder of why biennial checkrides are required.  Regulations and airspace can and do change and it's the pilot's responsibility to stay informed.

Once we were in the air, the instructor wanted to see how my stalls held up.  The first, a power-off, went very well.  Knowing that the Diamond is difficult to actually stall (it just sort of mushes rather than suddenly dropping the nose) I kept the nose high and got it to "break" - impressing the instructor that I was able to do so.  Like so many other things, it's as much a reflection of my original instructor (who no longer teaches) as any personal skill.

Then a power-on stall.  

These can be quite difficult to obtain the right result.  It's a simple enough concept: mimic a too-steep takeoff at full power and partial flaps.  Problem is, the Diamond really wants to fly.  Give it nose up at full power and you are recreating Maverick's trick in "Top Gun" - "I'll hit the brakes and he'll fly right by."  

After we settled down, the instructor went through it to demonstrate how slowly you have to raise the nose so as not to rocket up at 45 degrees.  Then it was easy, and just needed to focus on the rudder work.  Contrary to my primary instructor, who made sure I knew how to keep my feet active on the rudder, this instructor kept movements to a minimum.
Nevertheless, when all was said and done, the instructor was happy that I could keep the plane going where we needed it to go and could handle the ATC radio calls.  So it was back in for touch and goes.
Interestingly, it was a single question from the instructor that helped me achieve the best approaches I've had in a long time.  A typical approach starts parallel to the runway, off to one side.  Then, the descent and turns are done at certain points, with a rule-of-thumb of 80-70-60 knots on the initial, base, and final legs.  I had somehow forgotten this little nugget of wisdom, and his simple question of "what speed are you looking for" got me back on track.

This, combined with his tip to not deploy landing flaps until within gliding distance of the runway threshold led to some of the best overall patterns and approaches ever.  If you can time the flare properly, a good approach will almost always lead to a nice landing - and that's just what we had.  He was again duly impressed, as before, and decided that I was good to go for an hour on my own.

Since we did so much during the "checkride" I just took it easy and had a nice cruise around the valley before heading in for a few more landings just for good measure.  This solo work - rather than focusing on any particular flying skills - was more just a reminder that despite all the hard work, flying is fun.