Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A lesson with the master ...

Life can be random. Life can be serendipitous. Sometimes life can feel quite ordered and planned. While I don't think there are hard and fast rules to what life can be like, there are definite adjectives that seem particularly well suited to explaining the unique flavors of our conscious experience. Yesterday, life ran in parallel. Regan, my old instructor, has moved out of town. So I had my first lesson with Dick Yates who owns the flight school. He actually took me up for my first test flight months ago to see if I could handle being up in the air. But having a lesson with someone is much more involved and intimate than a demonstration.

Regan was an excellent instructor. In fact, I think he was perfect for me at the time. But my lesson with Dick yesterday was of a slightly different nature. Clearly, he's been teaching people to fly (as well as flying himself) for a very long time. Fortunately, the fact that I hadn't flown in more than two weeks didn't impact my flying. Everything came back to me. Pre flight inspection was fine, engine run up no problem, and takeoff smooth. I didn't fumble talking on the radio. I had to taxi in back of a larger jet airliner, taking care not to get too close less he blast me with jet exhaust. Right off the bat, I got a reassuring sense of "old wisdom" that I always welcome. I'm talking about advice like, "Point to each gauge on the checklist rather than just look at it. It reduces the chance of your making a mistake."

It was a picture perfect day for flying, about 50 degrees with clear skies.

Being up in the air was fantastic. Weather aside, my comfort with the plane and controls has remained. We basically practiced steep angle turns around a fixed point. Pretty fun stuff for me at this level banking the plane at 45 degrees and going round and round, trying to keep myself at a fixed distance and height from somebody's grain silo. Dick quickly noticed I was spending too much time looking at my instruments. He reminded me that the maneuver is properly executed with eyes outside the plane. I can tell what a 45 degree angle is by looking at the horizon. Plus the better I get at reading what the plane is doing in terms of pitch, yaw, and roll ... from the outside ... the more intuitive control I'll have of the aircraft. Seems obvious, but there's enough going on in the cockpit to help you forget. I love the strength of simple wisdom.

Then things got kicked up a notch. I had practiced stalls and simulated engine failure before, but not like this. We stalled the plane. I mean really stalled it. I got to feel what the wind buffeting the air frame was all about. Stalling is when the plane no longer generates lift. The stall warning siren (which no longer cracks me up) comes on a bit before you actually stall. We took it quite a ways past that. My altimeter began to show clearly that we were losing altitude. Scary for a second, but reassuring to know what the plane and I are capable of in that situation. Even more important is knowing how easy it is to get out of and remain calm.

Engine failure is bad. You never want it to happen. But it does. When it does you want to be able to land the plane safely. Without an engine, you don't have quite as many options in terms of speed, altitude and distance. Dick gave me a very real demonstration of what to do. We cut the engine, he picked a landing spot (somebody's farm) and we took the plane down to what felt like just above the tree tops. His ability to control and move the plane is astounding. Once again, it's not so much about the gauges and dials. It's more about getting the plane to where you need it and in the proper attitude. Dick demonstrated "sliding" the plane on a turn. It's what you might guess. You bank the plane, but are flying slowly enough where too much bank will lose altitude. It would be like driving on a banked turn covered in ice and sliding down towards the bottom of the bank. Neat stuff. I'm sure we'll be practicing more of it.

It feels good to get some real practice with emergency landings. I was a bit nervous about only having dealt with the situation very casually. It's the type of skill I appreciate can be life saving. It's where our mastery of nature and gifts for engineering understand their limits, and show respect to the forces greater than us. It's the direct opposite of hubris. I think it's what Christians really mean by "fear of the lord." We do our best, which is all we can do, to develop skills and techniques to give us a fighting chance in the face of death itself. At no point during any of these maneuvers was I afraid. No need for ginger gum either. It could be due to the fact that I've faced the grim reaper a few times already in my life. It could also just be that I'm starting to form a solid bond with my flying machine. Grim is not to be trifled with nor provoked (ie., riding down the center lane of a two lane road at full speed on a bicycle). He'll come visit you often enough on his own. When he does, he can be met with calm, steady, practiced determination, even a brief wave hello before you help him fade back into the future.

My landing and approach were relatively smooth. Again, Dick had a slightly different take, given that this was his first time landing with me. Rather than come in on standard approach where you do a 1/4 circle around the airport from the right, we made a direct approach where I had the runway in sight for about 20 miles. It did allow me to focus a bit more on the mechanics of landing. Although I've done ok with the standard method too. I didn't make the smoothest touchdown, but I'm getting there. Turbulence picks up when you get close to the ground and it's a challenge to keep the sucker perfectly level, floating on that cushion of air.

I'm going up again on Sunday and am looking forward to it. Hopefully mother nature will be kind. Dick prefers to fly earlier in the day so the spirit of Bacchus will have to be as well. I'll leave you with some pictures of my plane having a drink. It's a much more delicate and deliberate process than filling up your car.

The plane must be grounded to the truck since a spark can ruin your day, not so much on the ground but by the accumulated charge while flying.

I like aviation fuel. It's always interesting for me to get fuel on my hands, which can happen easily during various parts of pre flight. It is after all liquid energy. Compared to gasoline, when you get it on your fingers it evaporates even more quickly and does not leave a permanent all-day odor. I wonder if they make it in a men's fragrance.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

If you can't take to the sky ...

Take to the road, preferably in a machine that will allow you to move as quickly (and safely) as possible. I'm a huge believer in the power of transportation. It transforms our world and lets people reach beyond normal definitions of space and distance. Imagine if we could get to Iraq in 30 minutes. I bet we'd all have a ton more Iraqi friends.

Like most technology the rewards have come with trade offs. But tonight I'd like to write about one of the positive sides of technological evolution, a new love in my life, my 2003 Saab 9-5 Aero. She's the most amazing car I've ever owned.

Let it be known, I loved my old 1999 Saab 9-3 SE. She was a fantastic machine: 200hp turbocharged inline 4, sport exhaust, SAS swaybar, front wheel drive, excellent ergonomics, and a rear hatch that gave her more cargo room than some SUVs. Many car enthusiasts contend that the Saab hatchback was one of the original utility vehicles. But as is often the case with machines and perhaps sometimes even with people, she got old. Little bits and pieces were starting to break, rattles were cropping up here and there. She's still a very worthy and capable machine. In fact she's still a beautiful, wonderful car. With 140k miles, her engine still growls and pulls like new. I simply found myself at a crossroads, invest about $2k in a new suspension and other little odds and ends, or get something else. Thanks to the recent economic downturn, nobody is selling cars these days. So there are some great deals out there. Who knows, maybe subconsciously I was wanting to get myself a really amazing holiday gift.

I went to bring my "old lady" in to the shop last week for a broken electric window motor. There in the lot sat this beauty. I had actually seen her before and even took her for a quick test ride. But I hadn't really thought seriously about buying the car. I never envisioned myself getting behind the wheel of a steel gray sedan. But this machine adds new depth to the phrases "silent by deadly" and "still waters run deep." Who knows why but I asked my mechanic to let me take this car home as a loaner so he could work on mine at his leisure.

I don't know how in the world I thought I wouldn't end coming back with a check. It's like going home with a woman, getting naked, going to bed and saying, "It's ok honey, we can be naked and *not* sleep together." The rest is history. I drove her up to NJ for Christmas.

Despite not being at all in the spirit of the season this year, objectively speaking I made out like a fat rat: the car, ValentineOne radar detector and Garmin Nuvi 770 GPS system. Driving up this year was an amazing experience. The V1 detector provides excellent information (including direction, strength, and radar type) to help you decide if the bogey is real or fake. I'm not sure if I just got lucky, but suffice it to say I managed some impressive velocities and not a ticket to show for it (eg., Cville to NYC in 4hrs 20min ... with one stop). The Garmin GPS system is simply magical. It talks to you. It talks to my cell phone and lets me use it as a wireless hands free speaker. It plays mp3 files and can transmit via FM on any station. It tells me when there's traffic up ahead and re-routes me if it thinks it will save me time.

But I shouldn't really start by talking about the electronic countermeasures I use while driving. I should talk a bit about the car. Forget the fact that she has barely a scratch on her or that the leather interior still smells new. It's hard to explain the grace and power this machine offers. The engine purrs, yet can thrust you back in your seat like a roller coaster. The wheels glide over the road. The chassis feels capable of moving in any direction at any speed without ever coming unglued, all while maintaining the purr and glide. It's a Saab. It was born from jets. It's also not just any Saab. According to some Saab fanatics (of which I am one) 2003 was the best year for the 9-5 Aero. It was the last year before GM bought the entire company. [Correction, GM bought the rest of Saab in 2000. But I have been told by several that '03 was the best year.] It also has insane bells and whistles like auto leveling bi-xenon headlights, rain sensing wipers, backup infrared sensors, auto dimming rear view mirrors and an air conditioned glove box.

The Aero series is the top of the line performance model powered by a 2.3 liter turbocharged four cylinder engine that outputs 250hp and 258lb-ft of torque. Generating more than 100hp per liter was a feat once only achieved by the likes of Ferrari and Porsche. Times have changed. That turbo also helps her get 30+ mpg on the highway when cruising at reasonable, double digit speeds. She has a fully independent sport suspension that allows her to maneuver like a gazelle on crack. The car is rock solid and provides such incredible feedback. Once you mate to it by sitting in the driver's seat, starting the engine and engaging the clutch, you quickly become superman on wheels.

My old car also had a powerful engine too but it was mated to a split semi independent suspension (rear) which is quite simply inferior to the fully independent setup. Body roll and torque steer are virtually eliminated now and cornering stability vastly improved. I can take exit ramps and turns at literally twice the speed I used to. The 9-5 was designed after the 9-3 (aka the NG900). Saab engineers took to heart many of the complaints people had about the 9-3/NG900 platform and went way beyond to design a truly amazing machine.

It's nice to reconnect with a childhood passion. I've always loved machines. Like most young teenage boys, cars quickly became a prime focus for me. My first car was a 1973 Pontiac Firebird. I had to mow a ton of lawns in my neighborhood to buy that car. I never did much work to her as I was still a novice mechanic. I also didn't have money to buy aftermarket upgrades. But she was my first and I'll never forget her. Then I saw this car, a 1970 GTO RamAir IV which actually belonged to my cousin's husband. It was love at first sight. I had to have it. It was the greatest car ever made (to me at the time). Truth be told, it was the stuff of American automotive legend; a huge V8 jammed into a large chassis designed to go in a straight line as fast as possible even if it took several gallons of gas to do so. It was loud, candy apple red, and ridiculously fast. That's when I started working at (no joke) Joe's Garage. I worked for free one entire summer in exchange for help working on my car at night. They were good times. I could write an entire entry about the GTO. It was Pontiac's take on Enzo Ferrari's original idea ("Gran Turismo Omologato", Italian for "Grand Touring Homologated") to make a real race car that you could drive on the street. The car even has its very own song from 1964 written by Ronnie and the Daytonas. It's why we have cars now with suffices like GT or more appropriately, Aero.

The thing people sometimes forget about machines is that they're made by people. We design them. We anthropomorphize them. Ever wonder why cars have two headlights (eyes) and a grille (mouth)? We imbue them with power and meaning that somehow transcend the designer's and builder's original intent. They are to a large degree extensions of our collective selves. We love cars. Hopefully we can make ones that run on electrons and not fossil fuels ... soon.

So what does this have to do with flying? Not a whole lot. My car is made by a company that also makes planes. But the commercial hype exaggerates the influence. She is blindingly fast. I can move at close to the same speed as my Cessna, but not completely. Nor am I moving in a straight line. The cockpit offers a ton of information to help me navigate and avoid "obstacles." Like a plane, my car is a machine that helps me get from point A to point B quickly and safely. But perhaps most notably, I've not been able to fly for the last two weeks due to weather. So I had to write about something.

Pray mother nature grows kind soon before I start blogging about sweaters and socks.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Ugly, the Good, and the Bad ...

It was a bit of a late night yesterday which didn't leave me in the best physical shape to fly this afternoon. But it's been three weeks since I last flew. Given that smacking into a car didn't stop me from flying for the first time months ago, I figured a mild hangover shouldn't today. A word to the wise though, the g forces of flying don't mix well with hangovers. They can in fact make a very ugly cocktail.

Despite my sub par physical condition, walking out onto the tarmac to go and inspect my plane was still a wonderful experience. I enjoy being alone with the other aircraft. The wind was kicking up more than usual. But it still felt so incredibly calm, quiet and clear. The crisp chill air created an acoustic and physical stillness as the sun's rays pierced through the cold undisturbed, arriving straight and true to their final destination after eight long minutes in space. The planes sat quietly waiting soaking up the sun.

One of my favorites, the Avanti, was parked out front. I've taken photos of this plane before, but it would take hundreds of pictures and hours of film to even come close to presenting the feel of how this plane looks. To me, this machine could easily be taken directly out of (or put directly into) a Science Fiction novel. But it's here right now. So many things in our world are human dreams come true.

My preflight routine went well. That's good as it's been a while so I'm glad to see I've internalized what needs to be done. I actually enjoy inspecting the plane. It gives me a chance to get excited about the fact that I'm about to go fly, an appetizer of sorts. But this time of year the wind will quickly numb your ears and remind you to keep moving if you start taking too long.

I spoke for the first time on the radio today. I know, big deal. I feel like a little kid writing about it like this. But it's a thing. Speaking on the radio is very structured and sounds only semi intelligible to the non initiate. It's not a chat room. I would have thought that all my public speaking experience (and sexy voice) would have made it a no brainer. Well, it wasn't exactly hard, but the opposite seems true. It's so easy you feel like a complete idiot for screwing it up. I mean ... I just screwed up ... talking! I actually found myself a bit nervous. One of my flight videos comments on how people get more apprehensive about talking on the radio in the early stages than landing the plane. Thankfully, I didn't audibly fumble the ball. "Charlottesville tower, this is Cessna 13508 with information x-ray in front of the flight school, request permission to taxi." I did, however, freeze up when the tower told me I could. Thankfully, Regan bailed me out.

Flying was fantastic. We practiced turning maneuvers. Specifically, turning around a fixed point and "s turns." I took some time to finally get my seat positioned properly with respect to the yoke and most importantly the pedals. I've had some trouble in the past maintaining right rudder pressure and letting the plane skid a bit. Not today. Being able to keep my heel on the floor made it very easy to set rudder pressure with my feet that wasn't fatiguing. Making things easier on my feet allows the rest of my brain to focus on the remaining two axes of control. All in all a very nice bang for the buck.

It was quite windy and bouncy today. That combined with my modest hangover kept my eyes very much more outside the plane. Looking inside allows your stomach to "think" too much. Well, I've been trying to focus on keeping my eyes outside the plane more anyhow. Perhaps since it's been a while since I flew last, I was able to focus more on that and not be overly concerned with some specific aspect of flying I covered last time. While it is important to check gauges, I find I fly much better when I am able to look outside and "fly."

A fixed radius turn is precisely that. You fly in a circle. But in windy conditions you have to bank at different angles in order to keep your distance constant. Today when flying into the wind air speed showed about 130mph while ground speed was closer to 80mph. That's some decent wind. Regardless, I was able to turn like a champ if I say so myself. Keeping my eyes looking around and really getting a sense for where I was in 3d space made it both fun and more precise. The bumps and turbulence pass. "S turns" are similar, except you carve out 180 degree turns around a line. The same rules basically apply but you really have to get your angles right or you'll still be turning once you fly over your line instead of being flat and level. Tons of fun. I look forward to picking it all back up next week. I can see where flying solo and practicing this stuff on my own is going to be an incredible experience.

The best way I can describe flying today is by relating it to music, specifically when you begin to finally master a song on an instrument. Initially, you rely on the sheet music and plod along getting the basic gist. Then, over time you become more familiar with the notes and if you're lucky start to identify with the emotional content underneath. Eventually you start to express some of this emotion in subtle gestures. I don't have much experience with learning dances, only some. But the aspect of movement comes very much into play here. The thing that makes all of this so beautiful to me is the synergy. It's more than just moving the controls so that the plane will fly the way I want it. As I carve out turns in the sky and maneuver through the air along a trajectory I'm envisioning in my head, something else happens. I'm learning in some sense, a new mode of being, a new mode of expression, a new language. It's nice finally being able to speak a few words even if my vocabulary and pronunciation are still limited.

So, you may be asking, what was "the bad?" Sadly, my flight instructor, Regan, is moving on to brighter and greener pastures. Bummer for me. Good for him. He's been an excellent teacher and I can only hope my next one is half as good. Learning to fly is still, from my perspective, very much like learning a craft or trade skill must have been in ancient times. Wisdom is imparted from human to human. The person doing the imparting makes a big difference to both the person receiving and the wisdom that makes it through all the dense matter in between. Ironic that such a high tech industry still relies so fundamentally on very old, deeply human traditions.

So I'll leave you with a short video of Regan demonstrating part of an s turn. Not exactly the same kind of footage you might recall from Top Gun but it does give you some feel for what it's like being in a small plane.

Live long and prosper, Regan.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Bittersweet ...

Damn. For the second weekend in a row I've been grounded. Last Sunday it was raining. Today it was too windy. On the one hand I'm glad to feel the effects of aviation's proud safety history. On the other, I'm bummed at not being able to fly. In theory, it should give me (once again) a chance to catch up on the books. Theories ...

It's likely a good thing my lesson was canceled today. I went on a flight of sorts last night helping a friend finish a bottle of this particularly interesting beverage, Firefly "Sweet Tea" Vodka. Despite having a ridiculously powerful sweet tooth, I find the iced tea they serve down here (aka "The South") sickeningly sweet. So I never order it. This beverage accurately replicates the taste at 70 proof, genius. For some reason my anatomy is drawn to sickeningly sweet beverages combined with alcohol. So I was more than happy to help. As they say, "A friend in need..." I could be wrong, but I don't think I would have enjoyed flying around with a hangover this morning.

Fate might also be suggesting I start scheduling weekday lessons. Apparently they become particularly important when learning to land, which is what we're slowly gearing up for. I've been trying to juggle several projects lately and it feels as though I should make flying more of a priority. It is after all the most fun.

Of course, I'm referring to flying airplanes ... sober.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Rain, rain, go away!

So many people claim to love rainy days. You get to sit in and curl up with a good book, clean your house, fire up a wood stove, even play in the rain. But I'm starting to hate rainy days, at least rainy Sundays. It means I can't fly, yet. When I have an instrument rating (IR) this will be a non issue. But that's sadly a ways off (50 hrs more after I finish the PPL). Even when I complete my PPL I'll have to fly under visual flight rules (VFR) which will still keep me grounded in the rain. The term itself suggests to me the relationship between a parent and a teenager. It may be hubris for me to consider myself that old. I hope hubris doesn't need a hyperlink too.

It's interesting how my desire for an IR grows in direct proportion to mother nature's thwarting of my plans. Man sometimes seems obsessed with conquering nature. It often leads to folly. The delicate balancing act between living with nature and conquering it hit mainstream media long ago. But I'm not sure you can have all of one or the other. I mean, I'm sitting here in my house all nice and dry. Yet, the construction and maintenance of my home and the energy it requires consume natural resources. Sure, I could in theory build a more energy efficient, "greener" home, etc... But that would consume more resources. The same can be said for so many components of modern day life. Clearly I find myself with too much extra time on my hands, not being able to fly today. So it would seem as though I'm whining along instead in some sort of verbal masturbation. Please excuse the mess.

I guess the balancing act is something I (we) can at least strive for. Perhaps catching up on my flight manuals would be a good way to do that. Meh, I'm feeling quite the adolescent today. Good grief, I can actually hear a Cessna overhead right now. Must be somebody training for an IR. *sigh*

Balance ... schmalance.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

If it's cool enough for a two year old ...

Without a doubt, blogging has added another dimension to my flight training. I suspect many bloggers notice as well. Foreknowledge of writing about an experience at a later date affects the experience itself. Conversely, feeling compelled to write regularly about a subject can often put a strain on the Muse's structural integrity. So when in doubt, exploit small children. My most recent photo download included shots from today at the airport as well as from a party I hosted last night.

This is my friend Matthew's son, Barrett, showing me his toy plane and how it flies. He's two years old. He understands that there are machines like this that like birds, fly. He thinks they're cool, not as cool as trains perhaps but I suspect in the top five of all things cool. Granted he's smarter than the average cub. But still, good enough for me. At the very least his raw senses of wonder and simplicity are some things I should occasionally strive to keep more in the forefront of my mind.

I remember attending a welcome speech at Cornell back in 1987. The speaker, a senior, was quoting from a recently published book, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." He included bits of wisdom like: share everything, play fair, don't hit people, etc... I think you get the idea. While effective rhetoric for incoming college freshmen, I've always remained a bit uncomfortable with some of the implied logic that glosses over the inherent complexities of most situations. Surely the subject is one for debate. Keeping simple rules in mind can often serve us well. I remember learning a design technique in computer science: KISS (keep it simple stupid). In fact, while flying I might do better to try and remember some of the simple rules. But the fact is, there are MANY simple rules that need to be remembered at the same time in a type of mental rotation. If you forget them you can (in the worst case) kill or severely maim yourself and other people. That's probably not a good thing to tell kids in kindergarten and I doubt Barrett would want to hear about what happens when a plane really crashes. I guess balancing the child mind with all its potential for awe and wonder with the adult mind that understands responsibility and consequence is at the very least an interesting mediation for me to consider practicing more.

I have no idea why I'm ending all my paragraphs with conclusions about things I "should" do or do more often. Maybe I'm feeling subconsciously that if I repeatedly tell myself the right thing to do, next time I'll do better. I guess blogs can be a form of self-help, literally. I suppose it's better than me telling people what "they" should do. Take it all with as large a grain of salt as you need.

Anyhow, my regular Cessna 172 wasn't available today. Seems like she's having some trouble with her nose gear. Blessing became fortune as I had to fly a newer (2004) model instead, a 172SP. She's newer, has more power, fuel injection, GPS, autopilot, and a spiffy modern cockpit.

She also has five drain plugs under each wing that need to be checked plus three under her belly. That's thirteen total fuel drains that need checking instead of just three on the older 172 I normally fly. Safety means more pre flight time filling and staring at a bottle of highly refined, light blue petroleum product. Perhaps Regan sensed that it was going to take me a bit longer to check out this bird since I was less familiar with her. Either that or he's just coming to accept the fact that I'm sometimes slow. Regardless, I had a few extra moments to snap shots of precisely the kinds of things that we check.

Here's a flap strut. Flaps extend the wing and generate more lift. They're used when flying at slow speed and for landing. You don't want any cracks in these struts and like everything else on the plane all nuts and bolts should be secure and snug.

Here is an infamous "piano wire" hinge. There are three on each wing of this particular plane. They attach the ailerons to the wing itself. It's important that the wire is visible, unbroken and bolted down at the end.

Lastly, although there are of course many more items on the checklist, here is part of the tail elevator assembly. I still haven't braved how to set manual controls on my camera, so please excuse the excessive shadow here.

After a slightly longer pre flight inspection I was raring to go. New plane, beautiful day, ground reference maneuvers here I come. I already know some of the issues involved with flying a new plane for the first time. Gauges and controls can be in different places. Engine horsepower varies. Like many things in life, however, nothing substitutes for the real experience. Regan has commented in the past about potential challenges related to flying different planes. Today I found out about some of them first hand in real life detail.

There was a modest crosswind which I managed to successfully deal with at takeoff. I think I have that one down now. You can simply feel the controls push back to a more neutral position. As always, a light touch on the yoke goes a very long way. This is likely to be a main area of work for me in coming weeks.

One particular maneuver Regan showed me today was steep banked turns. Basically you tilt the plane 45 degrees while turning a full circle. It's fine when you're doing it yourself. But when someone else is, the G forces don't seem to mix well with the chemicals in your stomach. I scrambled for some ginger gum but was a bit late. My adrenaline was up. So while I was more or less able to repeat the maneuver, I fumbled a relatively easy one we tried afterwards.

There are a couple of different types of stalls. One involves slow speed and not enough air over the wing. Another involves full power but too steep an angle of attack. IE., the plane is pointed too far upward. When we tried this maneuver before, I loved it. It's fundamentally a very simple one. Today however, some combination of my raised adrenaline plus the virtue of this plane's dynamics put evil ball in a bad place. So I overcompensated. Overcompensation can often lead to this negative, oscillating feedback loop where you struggle back and forth with the controls eventually leading to very uncoordinated flight. The thing is, a stall plus uncoordinated flight can lead to a spin. Spins are bad, very bad, 'nuff said.

In fact, my main problem was not applying enough right rudder pressure. All the fight instruction videos talk about this. You have to apply pretty constant pressure to the right rudder to compensate for the propeller, engine rotation and slipstream. The 172 I normally fly doesn't require very much. But this plane did. I'm still getting used to maintaining constant rudder pressure. It's a bit like your car's accelerator pedal, but there are two of them and they need constant adjustment. Even more tricky is that the tops of the pedals are the brakes when on the ground. Anyhow, lesson learned, hopefully. A bit more of a relaxed and constant control on the pedals will likely lead to more rewarding flight experiences in the future.

I'll have to ask Barrett what he thinks about all this, skipping of course the details of a spin and any other life threatening possibilities. Something tells me he wouldn't mind putting a plane into a full nose dive. Regardless, knowledgeable yet gentle, even playful control remains an almost zen-like objective for me. There, now my self help prose can go into the new age section. Whatever it takes, as the stakes go up from here.

Towards the end of today's lesson we practiced engine failure. Not something fun to think about but one I'll be glad to have at least rehearsed. First objective, keep flying the plane. Sounds simple right? You'd be surprised how even simple things get tossed out of your brain when you're in a plane at four thousand feet without power. Suffice it to say, there are procedures. I wish I had a video of me flipping through the emergency procedure checklist for engine restart while also trying to fly the plane at optimal lift glide speed and maneuver towards an open field where I would theoretically crash land. Some may have found it quite entertaining. If you were sitting in the passenger or back seat, however, perhaps not so much.

At this point I would imagine at least 50% of those who have expressed an interest in flying with me next Spring (or late Winter) are ready to bail. To them I say, "fortune favors the bold." Yet I also acknowledge that fortune also sometimes squashes the bold like bugs on a windscreen. There's that idea of balance again. Regardless, if we end up taking a road trip somewhere and you end up driving, I reserve the right to chuck water balloons (filled with a liquid of my choosing) from my plane down at you on the road.

Frightening as some of the aspects of flying might be it remains a fundamentally magical thing. I am sometimes very much like a child taking baby steps. So now this is me holding up an adult version of a toy plane for all of you to see.

Somebody had a very nice ride parked outside the flight school. I somehow doubt they even fly it. More than likely they pay someone else to. Ugh. I slap my hand to my forehead. But ...

Look, look, look, look! Jet engine impeller fins!!!!

Look! I said look! Are you looking!?!?!?! LOOK!!!!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Back in the saddle ...

It was exactly two months ago since my wipe out with a Honda. Hard to believe it's been that long. Healing can be such a seemingly endless yet educational process. I remember the doctor telling me that it might be four to six weeks until I could exercise or ride my bike again. That was miserable. Even worse, that estimate eventually grew to even longer. My official "100% freedom of use" date was yesterday. I'm proud to say that I was promptly back on my freshly repaired ride, new helmet, and mended left hand all working seamlessly together ... in forty degree weather! Time and seasons unfortunately wait for no man, nor no man's hand.

Yes this is only tangentially related to flying. But since the irony of the accident coincided with my first "test flight" I feel oddly compelled to follow up. I have some bruises, scars and permanent lumps. But key systems appear to be functioning within proper operational parameters. Here are some follow up shots. I am indeed still snap happy.

Bike all nice and fixed with new rim and seat. Ms. mountain bike also got the bonus from downtime with new v-brakes! She hung in the shop along with Mr. Gary Fisher above. My F500 was the last Cannondale to come with the older style cantilever mechanism. I can't wait to join the ranks of not-so-sore forearms on the downhills.

Shiny new red helmet with removable visor and tension adjustment. Seems like head protection technology has advanced over the last fifteen years. Me likey. If only it had wireless 802.11g and Vonage.

Hand, v 2.0. Seems to be functioning OK. I was able to do my first two handed workout yesterday. It was a little sore this morning but manageable. Small red spot where I smacked the pavement. Did I mention I basically ended up with a stigmata from the accident? Not so much on my left foot but a solid three out of four for sure.

It's a mixed blessing with respect to flying. Being able to actually grip the controls without a cast or sharp spikes of pain shooting up through my wrist is a vast improvement. Yet I can also now grab the yoke a bit too firmly at times and yank the plane in all sorts of adrenaline soaking directions. Mr. Hand needs to re-learn a few things I guess. The whole ordeal has definitely been a powerful lesson in patience. Hopefully it is one I won't have to repeat anytime soon.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Distance ...

In all honesty, I've been trying to make time to get ahead on my reading this week. But it just hasn't happened. I found myself cramming down information last night in preparation for today's flight. Even this morning I was watching videos on ground operations, airport runway rules and phraseology. Cramming is bad, mmmk? I think the mind you bring to a thing makes a big difference on the experience. If that mind is stressed out and worried you're increasing the odds of an uphill event. At least that seems to be how my mind works.

Got to CFC and Regan had that look in his eye that told me even before he had to say a word, "It's bumpy up there." While not directly confirmed, the weather reports suggested some potentially turbulent and changing conditions. My old friend, Mr. Crosswind was also blowing away on the tarmac again. If conditions were good, we were actually going to have some fun practicing the finer points of flying "S" and constant radius turns. I was looking forward to those. Every once and a while it dawns on me that I'm actually learning how to fly ... pausing on each of those last four words like a mantra, meditating on both their individual and whole meaning. As I walk around town these days I sometimes look at birds and just grin to myself.

The weather has been quite rainy here in Charlottesville the last few days. Consequently, most of the planes haven't been flying lately. Today's blustery weather also kept most recreational pilots home. So it was just me and the birds out there. They sat like quiet horses tied to posts, just waiting for someone to ride them.

There's an austere beauty to the General Aviation area of the airport. Being a large, flat piece of land, the sky's presence is very pronounced. Simply being out there near the runway puts you in a different position than you normally might find yourself. You're much closer to the action, near that point of departure where people leave the earth and take to the sky. In a sense, it's like an altar, or shrine, at the very least a place where some kind of transformation takes place. Up in the air today, a majestic army of puffy angels slowly marched overhead inviting me to come play.

My pre flight kung fu has improved. I managed to get the fuel and plane checked in pretty reasonable time. The cold weather and howling wind no doubt motivated an extra spring in my step as I walked around the plane. So I went about my normal pre takeoff business, starting the engine, taxiing to the runway, running up the engine, testing various systems. Still getting used to driving with my feet.

I set up everything for a crosswind takeoff and began to accelerate down the runway. Seems like my last attempt may have had a bit of beginner's luck. Guess what happens if you have ailerons turned into the wind at takeoff and DON'T turn them back in a timely manner? You leave the runway and suddenly the plane quickly rolls to one side, reminding you that the luck your life hangs by is tied to a very short, thin string. Right out of the gate today my adrenaline was jacked. As I rose above the airport, the wind tossed me around like a kernel in a bag of microwave popcorn. Yum, more adrenaline.

I spent the rest of the lesson trying to remember the proper technique for getting out of a stall and generally keeping the plane balanced. Bumpy air definitely makes for a challenge in pretty direct proportion. After a while it all started to come back to me. I think my liver had also processed most of the adrenaline. "S" and constant radius turns will have to wait until next time. Nice to have things to look forward too.

As I calmed down and settled back into my groove I was able to enjoy being close to those puffy angels. They were still a bit overhead but much closer in reach and far clearer in view. Like silent older siblings they seemed to be keeping a watchful eye over the novice yours truly. There is much to learn from their example.

Regan did a great job landing in some tricky wind. I've never been in a plane skidding sideways on the runway. Actually, I didn't know they could even do that. I'll venture to say that most people would prefer to skip the experience altogether.

So it's not always a stellar session. There's lots for me to practice. There's even more for me to learn. I've never kidded myself that getting a pilot's license would be quick. But I think you never really get a sense of how long a thing will take until you start getting into the thick of it, much like running a marathon I suppose. I've never run one but do jog and exercise. Sometimes in those arenas my body sends me messages like, "we would like to stop now" which I almost always ignore. No voices are speaking as such here. But the whole notion that this stuff doesn't come easy perhaps speaks in a related voice. It speaks of an epistemological distance that I think is important to make peace with as I settle in for the longer haul.

My hope is that being aware of the distance will encourage me to be more wary of stupid moves like random sprints and crams at wisdom before lessons, taking deep breaths, even walking a bit if my mental diaphragm aches. I can tell you this, however, a set of running shoes like these would improve ride quality significantly.

This is a Pilatus PC-12. Like a Rolex, it's Swiss made and expensive ($3 million on average ... used) . I'd taken a photo of this plane a while back but didn't know what it was at the time. I also just picked up a Canon Powershot A590 this week, so I'm a bit snap happy. The plane is particularly noteworthy as it's the largest single engine turboprop I (or any private pilot) can fly without special certification. It can take nine passengers and fly at commercial aviation speeds. It's gorgeous, fast, comfortable ... and one that I will likely never fly.

So what. Here's an eight mega pixel shot of my gal.

Just as cute as she ever was.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Behold ...

I originally wanted to title this entry, "Practice makes perfect." But in reality, my success today flying had little to do with practice. Ok, maybe more than a little but given that I only fly once per week and don't use flight simulator software I think there's also something else at work. Certainly going over the same maneuver repeatedly helps, much like learning a language or musical instrument. But it's not like I've done these things hundreds or even dozens of times yet.

Ironically, this past week I had absolutely no time to review my flight lessons, textbook or videos. I was a bit worried about this yesterday to tell you the truth. But towards the end of the day I began to wonder if just really trying to apply what I already know along with some basic common sense might get me farther along. I've been all about "learning" on many fronts these days. I read Java docs, create classes and methods. I yawn my way through old math textbooks. I chuckle along to instructional flight videos. I think often about my world, trying to see where I can improve my kung fu both mentally and physically as well as in many less tangible ways.

The fact is, I knew that today would be a review. I know how to take off, turn, climb, descend, use flaps to fly at a snail's pace, and pull out of a power off stall. I may not know all these things like second nature, but I do know them. So today I decided I would just DO them. If nothing else, I was determined at least to try and do them correctly. I will move the yoke, press the rudder, apply throttle, set trim, and make the plane do what I want, dammit. I am after all the pilot. I think I've actually been over thinking and perhaps a bit overly preoccupied with too narrow a focus towards learning all this stuff.

Driving out to the airport is always a joy. My route winds through some lovely Virginia countryside. After some twists and turns through tree-lined two lane, the road opens up into a vast expanse of sky as you near all the clear, flat land around the airport. The Blue Ridge rise majestically to the West. This time of year through most of the afternoon the sun is usually hanging low in the sky above, making an almost endlessly slow decent. The clouds often paint lovely brush strokes in random directions all over the surrounding sky.

The ante was upped immediately upon my arrival at CFC. Regan told me straight out that it was bumpy up there today. My old nemesis had seemingly returned to spar with my new "just do it" mentality. Even more challenging, there was a crosswind. I already knew this posed some issues for takeoff. Regan explained quite clearly, however, that all it really means is doing everything I have already been doing, plus one more thing. Simply put, you pre-compensate by keeping tabs on the wind's relative direction (the flight compass has a marker for this) and turning the yoke completely into or away from it. It's an odd feeling powering up to full throttle cruising rapidly down the runway with your hand on the yoke fully turned to one side. It triggers the automobile driver inside me who wants to turn the wheel back in order to control where I'm going. Nope. It's all feet. But as the plane accelerates and you approach takeoff speed you start to ease off on the crosswind compensation. The plane is actually pointed somewhat sideways as you leave the ground. You're flying in a straight line (if you're doing it right) but the plane is slightly off axis as you adjust for wind trying to blow you in different direction. Neat.

We went over some of the same routines today. I would like to get quicker at my pre flight inspection so that I'll have more time in the air. At the same time, it's not something you want to rush through. Specifically, it becomes about efficiency. I'd like to remember to take out the stepping stool first so I can check the fuel, pour it back through the caps on top of each wing, then physically inspect the fuel levels. Similarly, I'd like to get a better flow of checking the flaps, then piano wires on the aileron hinges, then look back at the wing's surfaces, instead of going back and forth. I refuse to time myself because that starts getting into the rushed mentality. But the idea of efficient flow is one I'm gonna stick to.

Apparently I did quite well at maneuvering the plane today. Getting the flaps down and flying slowly went well as did pulling out of a stall. Flying is so incredibly analog with a very sensitive and potentially unforgiving interface. But within that sensitivity lies a unique degree of autonomy. You never have full control, nature does. But you do have some input into what's going on. You can use as much of it as you like. So in the face of what you could consider complete helplessness, you also have great power. It will bite you if you abuse it and slap you if you don't. I'm reminded of the phrase from the Upanishads about the razor's edge. Piloting is so very much about precisely that.

I had a real feeling of being at the controls. I don't want to say I was "in charge." But I was determined from the outset and seem to have successfully asserted what the engineers of the Cessna 172 can provide. Move this and go there. Move it more and go there more. Combine those movements correctly, watch what you're doing, and you can actually do it right ... insofar as there is such a thing.

We did practice one new maneuver that was quite fun: correcting for a takeoff made with too high an angle of attack. Thankfully, I perform all my practice at altitude. It is practice after all and having the ground 100ft beneath me would seriously reduce the margin for error. So while up in the air you slow the plane down, then simulate takeoff by applying full throttle and pointing the nose of the plane almost straight up into the sky until the screaming stall warning starts to sing. As they say around here, yee haw. Correction comes simply by pointing the nose back down while maintaining a climb. Easy, and like I said, fun.

My relationship with the evil little ball is getting better. I'm learning more about what coordinated flight really means. It's not just about keeping the plane nicely lined up and preventing it from pitching, yawing and rolling to and fro. It's also, and perhaps more, about giving input through one control and then using another to compensate or compliment what you're trying to do. So if the wind is blowing you one way, forcing evil little ball to one side, you apply rudder to that side AND compensate with the yoke. In retrospect I want to say "duh of course." But for some reason this aspect of coordination dawned on me today much more than previously. In taking action to affect change, multiple aspects of control must be applied.

So all in all a good day. Regan said it was my best lesson yet. I had absolutely no problem with the turbulence. Until next time, nemesis. See what you get for not doing your homework? Well that's not completely true. Sometimes you do your homework in other ways. Sometimes when it's showtime you wing it confidently based on the work you've already done. I guess the trick is knowing when you can in fact do that versus when doing so is potential folly. Sometimes you "just do it" but also need some idea of exactly what to do. As I got the plane set up for landing, not something I can do yet, it started to hit me again that while incredibly fun, rewarding and more wonderful than I had ever imagined, flying isn't a game. Or if you want to call it that, it's a serious one.

Ok, now for the obligatory photo shoot. That sexy Avanti was on the ground as I walked out to inspect my plane. Man, if this plane were a woman, I'd marry it. The picture sadly comes nowhere close. I'm almost tempted to buy a real camera just so I can snap shots of this machine.

But by the same token all planes are beautiful, just like people, right? Ok, maybe not. But my little bird really is. The Cessna 172 that's been helping me learn so much is a cute little gal with no hidden surprises, unlike some I've known. She's got heart, character and class. Never pretends to be something she's not. See for yourself:

What makes her beautiful isn't just the shiny white paint or speedy stripes down her side, but the overall design, built in safety, cotter pins holding nuts in place, vinyl seats, ample engine power, cruise speed of around 130mph, location of the flight instruments, feel of the controls, the fact that she's almost forty years old, still going strong, and has likely taught hundreds of people to fly. Beauty perhaps really is in the eye of the beholder.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Message for Mr. Obama

I've been on the fence about writing anything related to the recent election. Like so many, I'm very glad that Barack Obama will be our next president. But also like a few, I remain cautiously optimistic. What is required to really change so many globally unhealthy directions will take a tremendous amount of work. People (ie., the nation) don't change that quickly. But perhaps "the long road" that Barack spoke of is something we will actually start walking down now. I can only hope the pendulum of our collective short attention span doesn't forget that this will take a long time, longer than one season of American Idol.

A clear, new and bold direction seems both obvious and necessary. FDR helped build highways, bridges and dams. What might be the 21st century equivalent? Perhaps a truly new infrastructure beckons. Wouldn't you like to ride in a space elevator? We need some fundamentally different ways of thinking about technology, energy, people, transportation, exploration, science, and our ability to reach way beyond ourselves. Space is called the final frontier for a reason. Among the most wondrous things President Elect Obama cited that Ann Nixon Cooper had seen in her life were when "a man touched down on the moon" and "a world was connected by our own science and imagination." Please, Mr. President, tap into the latent human energy, inspiration and drive that currently all lay so dormant. Help them give this and future generations even more wondrous and amazing things to see. Help us forge nothing less than our very own mythology. There are millions of jobs to be created (people can more easily afford health care with good jobs), boundless discoveries, innovation for energy, medicine, and countless ways to improve every single glorious facet of our human existence.

Here is one example of what I feel is an excellent start in the right direction.

It's one of the most poignant examples of "thinking outside the box" I've heard about in a while. Aside from the video link above, which I think is amazing, they have a website. The Washington Post even picked up an editorial on the subject recently.

One of the personal reigns I've taken up in the hope that "yes we can" is precisely this, the rhetoric (in the best sense of the term) needed to help people look up to the skies and see more, to get in touch with the deep knowledge that we are a part of that shimmering twinkling tapestry. It is one of our great destinies to reach out to it and explore. As our ancestors stepped out of the ocean and walked on land so must we now resume our steps up to the Cosmos. Quite possibly, if we play our cards right, it might even help us in the process.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

First take off...

Colleagues and I have been out of town celebrating Twenty Years of Play over the last few days. Hence I haven't had a ton of time to review and brush up on recent flight lessons. The inherent mania of helping put on live electronic music shows is also still coursing through my blood along with a few other things I'm sure.

So I didn't feel as though I had my A game on at the outset today while we reviewed flying at slow speed and learned how to pull out of a zero power stall. Yes, that's where you cut power to the engine and the plane actually starts to plummet out of the sky! Ok, just kidding. Stalling is a misleading term. It's when the airflow over the wing is disrupted enough so that it is no longer generating lift. There's an hysterical screaming (analog) siren that announces a stall. I'm sure the sound is actually not quite so funny to most ... with good reason. But the thing does literally start to scream and crackle like a hoarse vocalist the worse the stall becomes.

Neither of these maneuvers are particularly difficult things to do. But both need to become second nature. Getting out of a stall or slow speed flight is basic training for pulling out of an aborted landing. Flying at slow speed is necessary for final approach. I never knew you could fly these planes at a crawling 40 mph.

After run up, where you rev the engine with the brakes on to test some key systems, Regan unexpectedly had me try my hand at taking off. But you see, I'm still learning how to steer the thing on the runway using my feet. The stick and yoke (a plane's version of a steering wheel) have absolutely no effect on what you do on the ground. It's an odd feeling but I'm getting used to it.

For some reason I just assumed it would be a while before I could actually steer the thing at full throttle down the runway. Trial by fire works sometimes I guess. After all systems checked out, I confirmed with Regan that both he and the plane were in fact insured and away we went. Without any major fanfare or commotion I managed to successfully take off. Before I knew it we were airborne. Cool. It's actually much easier than I thought.

Lots of bright yellow trees on the ground today.

I'm starting to settle in. My routine involves showing up at CFC, picking up the keys and "the can" (an aluminum binder with flight documentation), then heading out to the runway for external pre flight inspection of the plane. Through practice it is getting easier and I'm not so concerned that I've missed some lose bolt or frayed cable. I actually enjoy looking over the plane. It also gives me a chance to spy around and drool. As I strolled out onto the runway today I was met by this lovely bird, clearly marked as a military plane.

I originally thought it was some beautifully restored WWII fighter. But then I noticed the modern looking landing gear and composite material propeller. It turns out this is a T34 Mentor trainer aircraft, a very muscular looking plane. Given that my tax dollars helped pay for the thing I wonder if they'd let me take it for a quick spin?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Ain't so easy ...

They call it "coordinated flight" for a reason. Keeping all three of your dimensional axes both correct and somewhat stable is a balancing act I am definitely still learning. In all humility and despite my recent tackle football episode with a Honda, I consider myself a pretty physically coordinated guy. I've always loved and related to machines intimately: bigwheels, cars, bikes, motorcycles, boats, even my lawn mower. But man, I had a real challenge today keeping things nice and smooth. Granted, it was a bit more bumpy than usual. Maybe I'm just being hard on myself.

I think the main problem is yaw, using the rudder, and this evil little ball. The thing is, you don't get to concentrate on just one thing, ever. It's hard to explain precisely what it's like and even harder to do so in a compelling way that will make anybody care. You see, a car really only has one axis of rotation: the vertical. A plane has three. Even more challenging is the fact that while flying you really aren't "connected" to anything (eg., like the road). You're suspended in a fluid medium that can itself move in any direction it chooses at any time. Yes, it does have a mind of its own. So as you try to point up or bank in a particular direction, other forces are messing with your trying to keep things all lined up and nicely balanced. Bastards. The result is sometimes lots of pitching, rolling and yawing back and forth as you try to control the plane and execute a move, then over or under compensate the correct response needed to make things move where you want. If "they" really don't like you, you are quickly reminded that despite millions of years of evolution humans have not really been physically engineered to fly. The inner ear definitely feels like a bit of a design flaw at times.

I think part of the problem may also be that I can't actually grab the controls properly (yes, I need excuses). You fly with your left hand. Mine happens to still be in a cast and gripping the handle firmly with it isn't easy. I'm hoping the x-rays tomorrow will show enough healing so that I can get the damn thing off. Ok, I shouldn't damn it. It's likely kept my hand properly immobilized enough so my bones can heal. But still, it will be nice to actually hold the stick and have a real feel for the plane.

We took up the little 152 again today. Cute plane but I must say the reduced weight and power make it a bit of a challenge when things get a bit more bumpy. For some reason I'm still shy with the throttle too. Who knows why. Today's lesson reviewed external pre-flight and began my learning internal checklists including engine run-up. I know, fascinating. I also attempted to improve my actual flying chops by controlling velocity while maintaining altitude, using flaps, and trying to keep that cursed little inclinometer ball between the lines. We also practiced steering the plane while on the runway (taxiing). It's done with your feet. No hands, mom. Not at all intuitive for anyone used to a steering wheel.

Maybe I've been reading too much Java documentation. The darn things are mind numbing. Go ahead, see for yourself. Word for word more powerful than horse tranquilizers. Last time I was waxing on about this beautiful dance flying is. I guess mamma nature just felt very much like leading today as I tried out some new steps. I am, after all, by comparison just a little boy with two left feet.

I'll close out with some soft plane porn because blogs need pictures, right? I'm pretty sure this is a Long EZ kit, designed by the aviation pioneer Mr. Burt Rutan himself (of Space Ship One fame) back in 1976. People are still making them. Amazing to think of actually building your own plane from a kit.

So that's about it. Flying takes practice and work, surprise surprise. Having blogged about some of my frustrations I feel better and more relaxed. A famous JFK speech is now beginning to play in my head. "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy..."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rinse & repeat w/ eyes on the prize...

Unlike riding a bicycle, flying doesn't necessarily come right back to you when you haven't done it in a while, at least not at my level. It's been more than two weeks since I've flown last. Didn't bring a notepad to my last lesson and the instructional DVDs are a bit different from Regan's technique. So there were some gaps in my knowledge of pre-flight exterior plane inspection.

Have I mentioned how funny the instructional software and DVDs are? The introductory video clips make me feel like I'm at Disney World. Imagine Mickey Mouse (in human form) explaining "angle of attack." Ok, maybe that's mean. They're great videos. The people at Cessna are clearly dedicated and make some of the finest machines in the world. They've also brought flight pedagogy to new and wonderful levels. I'm just trying to be funny.

Regan's method of circumnavigating the plane definitely passes my own flavor of logical thoroughness, which I humbly contend can at times be formidable. Unlike a car, if your engine (or anything else) fails in the air things can get a bit complicated. So you want to make sure that at least the basics (of which there are many) are in working order. Plus I'm all about safety these days. Much like making a good mint julep, there's the standard recipe and those with subjective modifications to help improve the art form.

The Cessna 172s we normally fly weren't available. So we took up a smaller bird, a 152. I imagine we looked pretty funny, two grown men in leather jackets crammed into this tiny plane shoulder to shoulder. Must have resembled something out of an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon. But it's what we had. Here she is:

Aside from pre-flight routines, I also needed to refresh my turning, climbing and descending skills. I'll confess I didn't remember all the details involving the latter two right off the bat. Eventually and somewhat quickly I think it all came back to me though. The 152 definitely took much longer to climb. At times I could almost hear it saying, "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can!"

But the skies surely made up for what this little plane may have lacked. Today was an after work lesson. So we flew as the sun set over the Blue Ridge. Unfortunately I wasn't able to snap a picture. The sky was gorgeous and the foliage we could see over northern Albemarle County beautiful. Flying remains a joy. Holding the controls and feeling yourself connected to a machine that through extension of your hands and feet gently pushes against the air to let you move in any direction you wish is a unique experience to say the least. You can feel the wind, which is to say the earth, push back. It is truly an amazing dance.

That being said, I keep internally looking ahead. Who knows why. Shame on me. I should learn to be more content with the now. But maybe it's because I grew up in northern New Jersey and my second car was a candy apple red 1970 GTO with enough torque to perform basic chiropracty. Perhaps there's something innate inside all of us that wants to go faster and farther. Who knows, it may just be evolution speaking through every fiber in my being constantly wanting to improve.

Sadly as recent economic events clearly illustrate, this tendency for "more" can sometimes lead to excess. To that I reply with the immortal words of our forty first president.

Read my lips, "I want to fly it." I don't care if it takes new taxes (or a government bailout).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

You can't always get what you want ...

Colors burst from around every corner these days here in Charlottesville. In fact, every time I open my front door.

Needless to say I was anxious to see what the trees would look like from about six thousand feet. The weather seemed perfectly clear without a cloud in the sky. Looks can be deceiving I guess. When I arrived at CFC Regan told me he had just come down and it was in fact very bumpy up there, apparently a level or two beyond what I've experienced before. I tried to suggest this might be a great time to see if I can cut it. But since I haven't flown in about two weeks and had that unfortunate initial episode years ago he decided it was best for me not to fly. I trust his judgement. Another instructor, Dick, who owns the flight school came by later and said the same thing. Most importantly, I'd likely spend the entire lesson fighting to keep control of the plane and not actually learning anything new. I guess the elders know a thing or two.

They call it Clear Air Turbulence (CAT). I call it bummer (BUMMER). I really was looking forward to flying today. Patience, it would seem, can be tested in infinite ways.

But the fates were not completely stingy. I got my flight kit complete with: syllabus, twenty nine DVD multimedia set, textbook, Pilot's Operating Handbook (POH) for the Cessna 172 (kind of like an owner's manual), Practical Standards Test (the stuff I need to know for my "final"), my very own flight log, carrying bag and (finally) my own headset. I know, very exciting stuff.

The reality of precisely how much information I'm going to have to absorb and process is starting to set in. On the one hand, the introductory party is over. But on the other, the main event is about to begin. Apparently if you try sometimes ... you might find ... you get what you need. Like it or not.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Start spreadin' the news ...

Technically, I did fly this weekend. Unfortunately I wasn't at the controls. On Friday I boarded a commercial flight to spend the weekend with family in NJ. As I had suspected, being a passenger isn't quite the same now that I know a bit more about what's going on in the cockpit and with air traffic.

First of all, let me say that these guys really know their stuff. Angles of pitch, yaw and roll were consistently flawless. I guess practice really does make perfect. Either that or they have really great autopilot software running.

While I've always known that the skies above NYC were crowded, I have a completely new appreciation for how difficult and potentially dangerous landing an aircraft in the area must be. I mean, keeping track of and looking for nearby planes is something I definitely pay extreme attention to even here in Cville, especially when the tower makes an announcement. Believe it or not, it's not so easy to spot one. There are dozens if not hundreds more planes in the air above the city that never sleeps.

At night, you would think the task is a bit easier since flight beacons help illuminate position. But the metropolitan night sky is littered with millions of twinkling man-made objects that easily hide a plane's flashers and lamps. I'm surprised (as well as both impressed and thankful) that there aren't more mid-air collisions.

When you really stop and think about it, we all take so much about air travel for granted. Statistically, it's much safer than driving. The machines are sometimes more than twenty years old. Coordinating the entire sequence of events is a ballet with the highest of risks performed routinely with very little observable fuss or muss in all types of weather, sometimes even with blindfolds on. The show always goes on. The industry and people behind it all deserve many pats on the back. Perhaps not the executives, but I think you get my point.

As an aside ... my proud American DNA tells me that I should respectfully remind everyone that we pioneered both this technology and industry [insert cheesy smileyface].

When talking to my folks about my flying lessons this weekend they were both concerned about my renting planes to fly up for future visits. I tried to explain, and think I was partially successful, that there is a significant amount of training necessary before that happens. It's not like getting a driver's license and surely not like driving a car. Even at an accelerated pace, I'm likely looking at several more months. Patience is a difficult, if not necessary, virtue to practice in this case. I hope to schedule a lesson before this coming Sunday so I don't fall too far behind. Plus I'm excited to get my "kit" including texts, flight simulator software and shiny new headset.

The above is a view from my old stomping grounds less than a block from the house where I grew up. I really can't explain how much I'm looking forward to greeting skyscrapers from more of an eye-to-eye level next Spring. Their majesty has been part of my personal mythos since I was born. How often do you get to climb Mt. Olympus and have a chat with the locals?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Gaining altitude ...

Today was another picture perfect Fall day here in central Virginia ... seventy degree weather with barely a cloud in the sky. Flying was absolutely spectacular. It's become the ideal Sunday activity for me. The worst part about it ... is when it's time to land.

Regan walked me through some of the more nitty gritty aspects of being a pilot, namely the pre-flight check routines. It's both reassuring as well as impressive the level of logic and detail that has obviously gone into these checklists over the years. They're such complicated machines and the risks are clearly much higher when you're up several thousand feet in the air. Going through the list was a bit like stepping back through time for me, thinking of all the would be pilots who have gone through this before me and all those who have contributed to the list. The plane we flew today was another Cessna 172, this one made in 1973. She had just been washed and was beaming sparkly white as we walked around her. The picture, sadly, doesn't do her justice. I forgot to save the close up original so I snuck one from outside the runway as I walked to my car.

Our main pre flight focus today was the plane's exterior and things related. You want to be very sure that nothing is broken or cracked, no rivets missing, and all the control surfaces properly attached and moving smoothly, etc... Of course there's more to it than that. I will be getting my very own pilot "kit" soon which will have it all spelled out in great detail ... as well as my very own headset!

Flight was about practicing some of what I learned last time (ie., turning) combined with climbing and descending. Turning was more about picking headings and setting landmarks than before. As I'm discovering, it's not simply a matter of moving the stick, but rather a coordinated sequence of events, that much like a dancer learning new steps must be repeated slowly and methodically until they become more second nature. So, for example, a climb is executed by first altering pitch (ie., pointing the nose upward), applying full power to the engine then adjusting pitch so that your airspeed is between 80-90mph for the most efficient climb. You wouldn't intuitively think of pitch angle as controlling velocity. A descent involves first turning on the carburetor heater (so it doesn't freeze), then reducing engine power, not necessarily pushing down on the yoke. I'm starting to notice more and more the unexpected, cross-linked physical events that happen in 3D space to a fllying machine. Both of these maneuvers also have "finishing moves" that you implement to regain level flight and original airspeed. It's awesome.

Like many new pilots, I began to get into the bad habit of staring more at the instruments than looking out the window. Trying to keep a level turn, maintain rate of climb, etc ... can be tricky to coordinate. The dials help somewhat but as Regan pointed out it's much more fun to look outside. I can after all get the former from any number of software packages. Balancing my eye time between the two (about a 1:4 ratio) will be my goal for the coming weeks. I love the idea of coordinated balance that seems to permeate all aspects of flying. So far so good. I'll leave you with some plane porn from the runway and hangar adjacent to the flight school.

This is a smaller plane used to get a sport pilot license. It's a cheaper license but only allows you to fly this small class of aircraft. Cute little thing.

This next one, the Rockwell Commander, falls more to the other end of the spectrum. It's much more "plane" than the others, has a larger engine, retractable landing gear, a three blade prop, and is generally a larger and a more comfortable aircraft. The flight center rents it for $165 an hour. You can bet I'll be getting my hands on the controls as soon as I can. In many ways it's even more plane than my previous object of lust, the Cirrrus SR22. Sadly, this picture doesn't even come close.

While taxiing from landing we passed one of these, a Piaggio P180 Avanti II. As we say online ... oh em gee. I didn't get to snap a photo but found one easily online. It's an eye tearingly beautiful plane, and apparetnly the fastest prop plane manufactured today (cruise speed of 400mph). I could swear you can feel the Italian design influence eminating from every line. It even has it's own Wikipedia entry.

I wasn't able to get the names of the following aircraft, but they're all cool to me. Planes sometimes strike me as diverse bird species.

I can start to imagine how Darwin felt when he first hit the Galapagos.