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.