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.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Happy 50th Birthday, NASA ...

Just a short note ... and link to a very nice article from one of my favorite websites:

Sad quote from the article: "Despite consuming a fraction of a percent of the annual budget, NASA is forced to beg for every penny."

Inspiring quote from the article: "When Apollo 11 landed on July 20, 1969, one fifth of the world’s population watched the moonwalk on television." That's about 600 million people. Remember that not nearly as many had TVs in 1969 and there was no such thing as cable.

To help put it in perspective, the IRS was founded in 1862. Their annual budget last year was about $11 billion compared to $17 billion for NASA . I wonder what the Feds do with all their money, which is being spent so ... they can collect money. Maybe they're waiting until their 150th to really hit a stride.

Of course no budget commentary is complete these days without reminding everyone of the $12 billion per month we spend in Iraq or the proposed $700 billion bailout plan for ridiculously wealthy executive screw ups, which could have instead funded NASA for the next 41 years.