Thursday, December 3, 2009


From the ubiquitous Wikipedia: a stall is a condition in aerodynamics and aviation where the angle of attack increases beyond a certain point such that the lift begins to decrease.

A crucial element to the discussion of a stall, however, is velocity. Technically speaking, it's somewhat less of a consideration, but since I've decided to stretch this analogy to the breaking point I'll continue to quote ubiquity:

Stalls depend only on angle of attack, not airspeed. Because a correlation with airspeed exists, however, a "stall speed" is usually used in practice. It is the speed below which the airplane cannot create enough lift to sustain the weight in 1g flight. In steady, level flight (1g), the faster an airplane goes, the less angle of attack it needs to hold the airplane up (i.e. to produce lift equal to weight). As the airplane slows down, it needs to increase angle of attack to create the same lift (equal to weight). As the speed slows further, at some point the angle of attack will be equal to the critical (stall) angle of attack. This speed is called the "stall speed". The angle of attack cannot be increased to get more lift at this point and so slowing below the stall speed will result in a descent. And so, airspeed is often used as an indirect indicator of approaching stall conditions. The stall speed will vary depending on the airplane's weight and configuration (flap setting, etc.).

How apt. No matter how you slice it, literally, I'm stalled. Preparing for my written exam has been an extremely powerful gumption sedative that's lasted for the past several months. I've gone on and on about some of the reasons why in previous posts. If nothing else the experience has instilled a renewed appreciation for pedagogy.

I started out flying with my original instructor, Regan. We had a nice rhythm to our lessons. He'd suggest a section in my video course to watch and chapters in the corresponding textbook to read, then we'd fly those lessons. Sadly, Regan left town over one year ago. Since then I've had a few other instructors which really threw the watch, read, and fly cycle off. Don't get me wrong, I've had very good teachers all the way through. But in order to retain the vast amount of information that makes up the basics of flying an airplane, much like any discipline, there needs to be reinforcement.

My brain has been throwing a temper tantrum for a while now at having to basically re-learn such a large quantity of material. So rather than study, here I am posting, whining and complaining about it. Unlike actually flying, I can pause, bitch and moan. If I'm not mistaken, this is my first official blog post as such. But consider that small quote with which I began this entry. Now imagine hundreds upon hundreds of pages of similarly crafted prose.

Ok, I'm gonna go hold my breath now until I'm blue in the face.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard ...

Boy how time flies. Seriously. I can't believe I haven't opened a blog entry with that line yet.

Making time to hit the books and review a year's worth of material for my private pilot written exam remains a challenge. Part of the problem is that the video course I've been using, made by King schools, really isn't my cup of tea. It's a decent product but appeals more to the masses than someone technically oriented. Unfortunately, I've been using it for more than a year.

Thankfully, a fellow by the name of Irvin N. Gleim has an entire line of books and courses which are exactly what I've been looking for. Sadly, it's still a ton of information to review. Given that my first exposure was back during the Bush administration, my brain often struggles to recall distant memories. That being said, I could probably pass the test right now. But I'd rather have a mastery of the subject and not take any chances either on the day of my test or any other day up in the air.

A couple of weeks ago, I took "one zero alpha" up to NJ to celebrate my mom's birthday. It was a fantastic trip from start to finish. Sadly since I don't yet have my license,I hired a friend to actually fly the plane with me as an unofficial co-pilot. Even before we left,things seemed to fall into place. I won the headset I had bid for on eBay. It shipped and arrived on time. The Garmin GPS 496 unit (with XM satellite weather) arrived with plenty of time to get reasonably familiar with using it. The weather, speaking of which, was threatening to cancel our plans. But after much discussion the day before and morning of, off we went.

I've never flown such a long distance in a four seat airplane. The novelty seemed to shift perspective somewhat into the sublime. I mean, having your own private airplane is a level of freedom that's difficult to explain. If I can ever actually get a license to fly, I hope to explain more of it to many people first hand. The undercurrent of natural fear (we were after all in a glorified 2,000lb aluminum tub 8,000 feet up in the sky) and disbelief that we were actually flying on our own to a destination of our choice ... combined like a sweet and sour mix in my soul.

I guess I'll have to forgo some of the details of the flight. Or perhaps add them later. Daniel did a fine job getting us safely to Somerset NJ (KSMQ). The weather was lovely here in VA but got a bit dicey farther north. I got to experience several new aspects of flight first hand. I was blown away at how well the plane's autopilot works. You really can fly the thing by doing little more than twisting some knobs and pressing some buttons. Yet, I also saw how Air Traffic Control (ATC) can vector you all over the place when flying an IFR (instrument flight rules) flight plan. We started out heading towards the Chesapeake Bay, then got routed West of Philadelphia. This zig zagging continued much of the trip along with several denied requests to fly above (as opposed to through) the clouds. The latter makes for a bit of a bumpy, blind ride. I have to give a small plug for the Garmin GPS 496. It was fantastic. The whole flight up we were able to track any semblance of problem weather ... and avoid it.

The flight home was picture perfect. I can't wait to do it again soon.

That will have to do for now. I have several hours of study left ahead for the evening. I'll close with a link to photos from the flight. Click the picture below and it will redirect you to the Picasa web album. Laura did a great job taking pictures during both flights. I hope you'll agree these are some great shots of the Chesapeake, Virginia ... and clouds. Enjoy.

[Click the image below to see the pictures]

Oh and fasten your seat belts, please.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Beauty and the Beast

It was a gorgeous Fall day here in central Virginia, 70 degrees, crisp and sunny with a gentle breeze. This was such a stark contrast to the dreary rain of yesterday. I was concerned last night as I've been trying very hard to fly at least twice per week as I wrap up my flight training and focus more on preparing for my written test. It's important to keep those chops current. Novice Jedi magic grows weak if you don't practice regularly. Bad weather would have been an annoying monkey wrench.

The lovely sunshine and puffy clouds took some time to make their appearance today. So I rescheduled my flight twice, from 11am to noon then finally to 2pm. At around 1pm the weather seemed near ideal. As usual, I checked the weather for CHO and surrounding airports. Nothing serious was on the horizon. I was really looking forward to flying on such a spectacular day.

After making my ritual pit stop at the nearby Autozone for touch up paint and bug remover (I keep my plane as clean as possible) I proceeded happily up to the airport. When I arrived, I checked the weather again. Winds were 270 at 6. That means they were blowing from a compass heading of 270 degrees (West) at 6 knots. This isn't completely calm but within my ability. So I proceeded to taxi out to the runway still very excited to fly.

Pilots use several memory tricks to help keep the massive amount of information correct, and quickly at hand. Right before taking off I remind myself of a few key things to check with the phrase, "Lights, camera, action!" The action of course is the application of full throttle. So down the runway I went, properly compensating for the crosswind component of the breeze. The sun was shining. The puffy white clouds were smiling down upon me. The blue sky above appeared to be basking it its own deep beauty.

No sooner did my wheels leave the safety of sweet mother earth when a gust of wind made its presence known. "Holy shit!" a little voice inside my head erupted. "Ok, calm down." another voice replied. It's not uncommon for there to be some bumps on takeoff. Then the control tower announced, "Winds 270 at 12." "Holy shit!" again. They had doubled in strength and were having lots of fun bouncing my plane all over the place, making full use of all three axes. I called the tower to let them know it was too windy and I was coming down.

Facing the specter of death is sometimes like being cut very quickly by a razor sharp knife or pierced by an infinitely small, yet incredibly powerful, laser. It happens in a flash but like it or not you're now bleeding profusely. The blood in this case is adrenaline. Clearly, it's a reflex reaction my monkey brain has inherited from millions of years of evolution. Generally, I'm sure it works well to keep me alive and encourage me to avoid doing foolish things. But up in the air, in a cockpit where you can't just step out, pull over, or press pause, it serves little purpose. In fact it can become a lethal enemy. So today I became quite proficient at (among other things) putting that little voice back it its box very, very quickly. It, however, appeared to retain occasional control (ie., shaking) of my left leg.

My first landing attempt was a bust. With full 30 degrees of flaps I wasn't able to get the plane down due to the headwind component. Things were way too bouncy for me to try and really force the nose over and land in an unusual attitude, likely with far too much speed. Even worse, I was having a very tough time keeping the plane lined up over the runway as the wind was winning the little tug of war over which lateral direction I was moving. So I called the tower and told them I was going around to set up for another attempt. When in doubt, go around. No shame in that. But man, I really wanted out of that plane.

As all this was happening, I overheard another pilot up in the air struggling with the same issue. He had already tried several times to land. In fact, I saw him try to land while I was taxiing. He was still at it. Granted, his plane was smaller and much more difficult to maneuver in wind than mine. But the fact that he was asking for weather information at nearby airports elevated my level of concern. If that weren't enough, the tower then announced, "Wind 280 at 14, gusting to 20. "Holy frrrrreaking shit!."

A useful motto in flying is, "Do it different." Basically, since my first landing attempt didn't work, I needed to try something different. So I set up the plane a bit West of the runway. In case my efforts to compensate for crosswind were insufficient, I'd at least be blown in the right direction. That part of the plan worked. But once again, I wasn't able to get the plane down to an acceptable altitude in time. So I went around again.

This time *I* asked for wind information at nearby Lousia (LKU) airport. I really didn't want to fly out there and risk whatever turbulence lay between but I needed to consider the options. Winds were 230 at 3 out at LKU. Ok, I thought, if I can't get down on this attempt I'd need to head over there. It would be a pain but it would be much safer in theory. LKU, however, uses an automated weather system. There's no control tower. So the wind that had just picked up might have very well decided to follow me like a giant, deadly, puppy rottweiler. Worse still, I may not have found out about it on the radio until after it actually arrived giving it ample time to bite me in the ass.

Besides, I wanted to land. I really wanted to land. In fact, I don't think I've ever wanted to land so badly in my entire life. I wanted to park the plane and run to a nearby bar for a drink. I wanted to go home. I wanted to GET ON THE GROUND right now.

So I bucked up. It's not like I have absolutely no practice or knowledge of what to do in this kind of situation. I decided I'd only use 20 degrees of flaps, which would give me less lift. It worked. I was finally coming down. The VASI lights indicated a proper approach. That sounds all fine and well except that the wind was continuing to play with me, trying to make me wet my pants or worse. I fought back with as much crosswind correction as I could muster. But it's not easy landing a plane tilted sideways 20 degrees. Nor is it very ... um ... comforting.

The runway passed beneath, I entered ground effect and the plane did its normal float. I had to fish a bit for the flare, but finally managed to get the plane on the ground without breaking anything on the aircraft or myself. Insert a big sigh of relief right here. Funny, even hours later, I can still recall the feeling of that 1/10000th of a second of terror. How potent a moment.

Charlottesville remains such an ideal place to learn to fly. The manned control tower, wind socks, real time weather updates, VASI lights, long, relatively wide runway, and perhaps a dozen other things all made my experience today that much less threatening. I suspect they also made it much more safe.

My wrestling match with mother nature lately has mainly been with rain, clouds and storms. It's been a long time since wind alone was even an issue. Well, lesson learned. Wind is far more dangerous and frightening particularly when you don't see it. On such a gorgeous day looks can definitely be deceiving.

Time for that drink now...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Precious Metal

Scheduling flight time with mother nature remains a challenge. Lately, I've been trying to complete my solo cross-country aeronautical experience requirement with very little luck. Last week the plane was in the shop for an extended service. This past Sunday the weather was too iffy. Today the weather is downright miserable. I'm hoping for a break in the clouds later on or hopefully tomorrow, but I'm not holding my breath.

Being a fan of efficiency, I try to use flight downtime for other things. Last night I had lots of fun creating some nicely (if I say so myself) marked up maps. Hopefully I'll get to use them soon. On Sunday the weather was good enough for me to practice takeoffs and landings at a nearby air field (KLKU - Louisa County). That same airport hosted an air show the previous day (Saturday) where among other things, the flight center sold plane and helicopter rides. Here's some video from the event. Aside from the helicopter and beautifully restored bi-plane, can you spot any other familiar flying machines?

When I'm not doing ground school or some other land-based aviation related activity I enjoy cleaning and fixing various bits and pieces of the aircraft. It's a never ending process as I also try to upgrade components that I can afford to improve. So it's also a fascinating (and difficult) exercise in self restraint.

My particular plane has an avionics device called a multi function display. Specifically, it has a KMD-550. Simply put, it allows other avionics equipment to display information in a clear, bright, easily accessible format (ie., GPS map data, weather info, traffic, etc...). Since I've owned the plane it's been missing a knob on the unit. The road to replace this little round piece of metal has been both surprisingly long and expensive. The knob itself isn't very different from one you'd find on a car radio. Yet, it costs $85 and requires two very tiny set screws for an addition $8 ea. Those screws, in turn, required the purchase of a special spline wrench. It's taken me months to get everything ordered and purchased. I finally got the knob installed this weekend and broke my fancy new wrench in the process. The metal was either forged incorrectly or is just plain cheap. Stay tuned for an update.

Just to give a sense of scale I took a picture of the screws (and the wrench ... before it snapped in the line of duty). At $8 each they must be some of most expensive little pieces of metal in the world (pound for pound).

Avionics jewelry anyone?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Tao of Plane

From a Chinese folk tale about an old man called Sai:

"One day his horse ran away. His neighbours commiserated with him over his misfortune, but Sai said “How do you know this is not really good luck?”. A few days later the horse returned, bringing another horse with it. His neighbours congratulated him on his good luck, the old man said “How do you know this is really good luck?” Some while later Sai’s son while riding the horse falls and breaks his leg. This in turn was good fortune because when all the men of the village are ordered to join the Emperor’s army. Sai’s son doesn’t have to go since he has a broken leg."

I try to keep that old proverb in my head these days. As I come up on the one year anniversary of my first test flight, and
consequently the marker of how long I've been at this particular project, I can't help but feel the weight of time. Lately it seems as though the effects of weather, scheduling, and most recently mechanical failure frequently conspire against my will and desire to get a private pilot's license. Ironically also about a year ago, I fell off my bike (horse) and broke my hand.

But seemingly failed attempts at progress provide other opportunities to channel energy in other directions, right?

This past
weekend I was very excited to complete my long solo cross country flight requirement by flying a solo circuit from Charlottesville to Lynchburg to Farmville and then back to Charlottesville. It was only a week prior that I finally completed my night flying requirement by making a round trip to Richmond. So it was starting to feel like I was on a roll. I had all my charts ready and even bought a used color printer to format them perfectly for my knee board.

Sadly, one of the flight instructors called me on Saturday morning to inform me that my plane had been stranded in Manassas. The starter had apparently given out. It happens. He planned on having someone "prop start" the plane and fly it back on Monday for its scheduled 100 hour maintenance. I was a bit discouraged at not being able to fly Sunday, but I knew going in that this business had a heavy random component. So I sucked it up.

Then I got another call on Monday from Dick, the owner of the flight school, telling me that the starter had damaged the flywheel and that my plane would be up in Manassas a bit longer. It would also cost more to get her fixed. My inner child began to jump up and down in a temper tantrum ... but only for a few moments.

Recently, I've become an active member of The Cessna Pilot's Society. This past weekend I started a thread on how to refinish my dash "eyebrow." The responses and replies I received have been invaluable. One of the members actually posted asking what my verdict was finally. Here's a snip from my reply:

and the verdict is" -BP

"Well, my plane's starter just ate my flywheel ... so this project is going to have to get put on hold. Just when I was gonna have some $$$ in the kiddie. Seems like either DYI or getting the leather wrapped option are the best ones. No need to go new it seems. Thanks for all the replies, they are invaluable." -DT

"We welcomed you to this small society, and now by this you are initiated to aircraft ownership." -DM

"How to tell you're having fun in aviation: You're writting checks.
The more checks you write, the more fun you're having." -TM

As a result of all of the above, I've finally had the chance to catch up on my video coursework which I had been falling behind in. Once I finish my flight requirements, I have a written test to take. Even when I'm done with the coursework I still have quite a bit to review. Much as I hate to admit it, not being able to fly the last week provided me a unique opportunity to get down to other business. I now know lots more about microbursts, fog, turbulence, thunderstorms, icing, flying at night, and how to use my plane's GPS device.

Here's some eye candy which will hopefully make up for my lack of posts over the last few weeks.

This is a Soviet military trainer. Sadly, I haven't been able to find the make and model (it's late). Interesting and different take on aircraft design. The landing gear seem a bit more delicate, but also longer and potentially more versatile than some US designs I've seen.

If you look closely, you can see the hammer and sickle on the front cowl. If I didn't have so much respect for Russian engineering, as well as have a Russian friend bring me real vodka recently, I'd be afraid. Ok, maybe not. But I do remember a time when that symbol was loaded with much more frightening meaning.

The Eclipse 500 sits at the opposite end of the spectrum. In a sense, it represents a pinnacle of US capitalism. Not only in terms of its price, performance, and luxury but also due to the fact that production was halted in mid 2008 as the company filed for chapter 11. I wonder if any GM execs flew to DC in one?

It's a small jet but very sleek and elegant. With a cruise speed of over 400mph it is in my opinion one of the most perfect personal transportation vehicles. If I had a few million dollars to spare, I'd grab one in a second.

Last but not least, here's some footage of Charlottesville at night from the air. We had some extra time flying back from Richmond so Shane took the controls for a minute as I snapped the following:

As they say, onward and upward. The cycle of fortune continues to turn and I get to continue practicing my chops at Tao.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bright Lights, Not So Big City ...

The mountains of my childhood were giant, man-made, glimmering structures that were lit all day by the sun and all night by various flavors of electricity. The Manhattan skyline is still a thing to behold. I think many people love dusk and watching how as the sunlight dwindles, darkness rises and luminosity is redefined. Things don't look quite the same as light begins a different dance. They say the majority of our brain is devoted to processing visual input, so it's perhaps no coincidence that the daily cycle can at times hold a magical fascination.

I finally managed to spend a Sunday afternoon with N5210A (aka, the plane) gluing down various loose panel stripping, cleaning bits and pieces, and generally making sweet sweaty love in a strictly platonic, engineering kind of way. Machines are happier when well cared for. Ever notice how your car feels faster after you wax it or change the oil?

So after a long hot day of twisting my back, arms and fingers into odd positions, I did a quick polish up then realized I had some daylight left. There wasn't enough time to fly anywhere in particular. But I am a big fan of practice making perfect, especially landings. So as the sun sank beneath the mountains, I called my CFI and got approval to do a few runs around the block. The sky was gorgeous as nature put on her evening night gown.

Here's some video taken while flying around the airport. You can see Charlottesville in the distance shortly after takeoff then the rising moon pass by. A clear veiw of 29N follows snaking its way towards DC. As I come around to land, Chris Greene lake passes beneath and the pretty lights of runway 21 lead me, billboard style, home.

Lights are pretty even when they're not part of a big city.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Guess what?

Flying continues to go well. I've been very busy with some secret side projects related to flying and aviation. Sadly, it's a bit too late right now to go into any detail about them. The following photo should speak somewhat for itself.

The private pilot's license is getting closer and closer. Currently, I'm logging instructor based "cross country" time. That's basically any flight longer than 50 miles. Today we flew from Charlottesville to Lynchburg and back. Lots to learn about charting, setting checkpoints on a map, using visual queues, radio navigation, and "dead reckoning." Interesting Wikipedia read on that term by the way. I did pretty well for my first time implementing several of the techniques.

Soon, I'll be logging my own cross country flights. I was fortunate today to get as close as legally possible to some cloud formations. I've always enjoyed flying among the clouds on commercial airlines. I didn't anticipate how magical it would be to do so in my own flying machine. Clouds feel as though they are very real yet angelic airborne life forms. Like whales, they float along in graceful silence wondering why we humans fuss about so many things in our world. Their beauty so powerful that it demonstrates instantly and precisely, the utter lack or need whatsoever to prove any point or have any agenda.

Yes, we can take lessons from them. Right now, however, I have more a mundane curriculum to attend to so that I can spend more time soaring among the white angels of the air.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Back to the rub...

Flying in a plane alone for the first time like any other "life first" will remain an unforgettable experience. I think I've been background processing it for a while. When Shane initially informed me that I'd be soloing soon, I found myself carrying around a profound sense of excitement for days and days. Then, when the day actually came, I found myself getting a bit nervous. The perils of flying alone, without anyone to answer various questions about correct procedure and/or bail you out of you have a random muscle spasm with the flight controls, seemed to become all the more ominous once reality added its voice.

In order to even make an attempt, I needed to be cleared with another CFI (certified flight instructor) first. Dick Yates, the owner of the flight school, took me up and had me execute a few procedures. All went relatively smoothly. The winds were a bit squirrelly so he suggested I come back later in the day to make the actual flight.

That evening, Shane went back up with me to ensure I had the right stuff at that particular moment. Unfortunately, my first few landings were somewhat less than graceful. After three bouncy touchdowns he told me I had one final chance or else we'd have to try another day. I dug deep and brought out my A game, nailed a perfect landing, then dropped Shane off at the flight school, gave him my video camera, and proceeded to nail three more perfect takeoffs and landings. I don't think I've felt quite so cool since riding a bicycle without training wheels for the first time. As I few around the pattern, mother nature flexed her muscles with storms in the distance that seemed constantly threatening to ground me and thwart the effort. Thankfully the fates were kind and I snuck in under the radar, literally.

My subsequent lessons have involved getting cleared to solo beyond the confines of CHO airport. It's taken some practice to navigate flying to, finding, and safely landing at nearby Orange (OMH) and Lousia (KLU) airfields. But practice does make better, if not always perfect.

Today was to be my first flight solo from beginning to end. I'll confess I had a healthy combination of excitement and trepidation at taking up the plane on my own and flying around by my self. Nonetheless, I checked the weather this afternoon to see if it was kosher enough for me to fly in terms of cloud height, wind, and visibility. The METARS forecast seemed just fine. But when I got up to the flight school, the actual weather on the ground was a completely different story. The winds were way too strong for me to go it alone. So Shane volunteered to do some takeoffs and landings with me, practicing crosswind techniques. Easier said than done. It was pretty windy and bouncy today. So I struggled to keep things coordinated and elegant. Actually, forget elegant.

So I'm back in the thick of it trying to move up to the next level and be able to fly alone, safely, eventually getting ready to take my practical standards test for my private pilot's license. My next flight will be solo, start to finish. I hope mother nature cooperates.

There have been many beautiful planes parked on the ramp over the past few weeks. Similarly, the skies have been relatively clear and uniquely Virginia pretty. Flying remains a magical discipline for me. I've been spending more time with the books as well to combine my practice with the logical explanations for why everything does what it does and why we have the rules we have up in the sky. This time of year seems to have no shortage of white puffy clouds to keep me company.

Last week, there was a vintage WWII dive bomber parked in front of the flight school: an SBD Dauntless. It is one of two remaining in existence that still fly. Aviation grew by some of its greatest leaps and bounds as a direct result of WWII. Those leaps helped win the war. Combined with the USA's ability to rapidly produce aircraft and quickly innovate designs (I'm partial to the term Yankee Ingenuity) they also successfully insulated us all from having to learn Japanese and/or German as a native tongue.

Sometimes as I've pondered my occasional wrestling with the airplane, wind and weather I've often wondered what it must have been like dealing with all these things using fifty year old technology trying to hit a target in the air or on the ground (as this plane did) all the while with people shooting at you from above and below. As I'm learning, sometimes when you're dealt a rough hand up in the air you just have to deal with it, using everything you've got. I humbly salute all the brave men who brought their A (and I would guess B and C games too) to the task day after day and got the job done.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Solo landing video

Took me a while to polish this up. Shane was kind enough to shoot the video from the ramp, but it can be tough to do w/o a tripod. I also sped up certain sections to reduce viewer fatigue. If you listen really closely you can hear the "chirp" of the wheels as I touch down.

I figured I'd upload this sooner than later then prattle on about the experience afterward.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

O Sole Mio...

More to come later. My first solo flight was both a success and a completely amazing experience. Until then, this will have to be a quick post ... because something needs to be posted. The tradition after a first solo flight is to cut out the pilot's shirt worn and have it signed by the flight instructor:

I chose my t-shirt carefully this morning.
It used to be my favorite on European vacations.

Me with the rest on the cork board at CFC.

My first solo takeoff (cleaned up a bit).

I'd upload more, but that first video above took forever to process. It will have to suffice for now. Phase one complete. I have flown a plane, solo. Specifically, I took off and landed three times. When Shane stepped out of the plane initially I felt a surge of adrenaline. Odd when you're in a plane alone for the first time. On my second takeoff, however, I took a peak around and thought to myself, "Very cool, you're flying!"

Very cool indeed.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Wisdom of the ages ...

The push to solo continues. My latest project was getting an FAA medical exam, after which you receive a ticket that eventually becomes your license. So it's an important rite of passage on several levels. Like an American Express card, you can neither leave home nor solo fly without it. Not every doctor performs the exam so CFC gave me a list to choose from. As a result I had the honor of meeting Dr. Robert Soll last week. He was a lovely older gentleman who I could see right away had a keen, observant mind. As I stepped out of my car he asked me what kind it was. I told him it was a Saab. He then proceeded to tell me about the three or four Saabs he had owned over the years, one of which was one of the first cars to employ "free wheeling." At the same time, his current Chevy Lumina (with about 250,000 miles) was the best car he'd ever owned. I suggested he write in to GM as they might be needing stories like that right about now.

I should take a step back for a moment. There were two reasons I chose Dr. Soll. One was that he was able to see me the earliest. The other was that he (Dr. Soll) was on the way home from a somewhat unexpected trip I needed to make up to New Jersey last week. My old friend, Ray Ashley, lost his multi year battle with cancer on Thursday. Ray was an amazing individual. Apparently he had a very bad reaction to some experimental treatment from which his body was unable to recover. The entire experience of driving up North, picking up another old friend Jim, then riding together to Ray's wake offered potent time and opportunity to reflect. Ray was one year older than I am. He was very full of life and extremely smart. It never occurs to us that death comes for people like that. Or at least it's easy to forget that it does.

When we walked into the room with Ray's body (the family had chosen an open casket) I whispered to my friend Jim, "Are we in the right room?" I honestly didn't recognize the man in the casket. It was in fact, however, Ray. The treatments had definitely taken their toll. To see an old friend of your own age in the prime of life like that is sobering to say the least. I'm sure it will take me quite some time to fully process it.

My heart and mind were undoubtedly primed for meeting Dr. Soll in several ways. I couldn't help but feel like somebody was trying to tell me something. Precisely what I'm not sure. There seemed to be an air of ghosts of Christmas past, present and future blowing about the funeral home and the central Virginia back roads to Dr. Soll's house.

In any event, the medical exam proceeded more or less normally. Some local bar mates here in town warned me that I'd need a prostate exam and to chose a doctor with small hands. It's become a source of good bar stool humor. Naturally within ten minutes of meeting Dr. Soll I took a good long look at his fingers. They were huge, which made me increasingly nervous. Thankfully, it seems as though a prostate exam isn't required any longer for a class 3 license. So I dodged the bullet, literally.

My heart, nerves, eyes and reflexes are all in good shape. The exam itself took about forty five minutes. But my meeting with Dr. Soll lasted a couple of hours. He was, quite simply put, a very wise physician with both educational and interesting stories to tell. I respected his intuitive knowledge of how the body works and appreciated his advice on things like food allergies, cancer, piloting tips, and how to lose a couple of pounds. His wisdom, unlike much of what I experience these days in the medical field, was very analog. No CAT scans or MRIs here. Even his eye testing machine lacked any digital technology. For a moment, I felt like I was in a Norman Rockwell painting. The wisdom and experience he had to offer seemed that much more powerful somehow.

I'm the first to extol the virtues of digital technology and technology in general. But I guess what underlies any of that is a common sense of how things work and type of elegance in understanding old and building new things ... at least for me. If that involves CAD programs, great. If it makes use of nothing more than a hammer and chisel, that's great too.

So it wasn't necessarily the lack of high tech gadgets that made my Davey sense tingle. It was more the fact that it was tingling nonetheless. You see I've had more than my fair share of experience with doctors. As a result I've developed a keen ability to sense their problem solving and communication skills quite rapidly. Perhaps it's not just doctors. It may very well just be my heart and mind paying attention to other hearts and minds, both seeing and admiring those who seem to have a talent for observing the world, solving some of it's problems, and doing so all out of a genuine fascination of it all.

They say old people and children are quite alike. If by that they mean old folks regain a healthy sense of raw wonder about the world then I guess birthdays really are something to look forward to.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The grey and the blue ... and more

I've written before about weather having an effect on flying. I mean, duh, of course. But aside from the obvious, there are seemingly an infinite number of more subtle effects the weather can have on being up in the air. The effect may very well be more on the psyche than anything else. No matter how you describe it, there seems to be something ... more.

Last Sunday was a dreary, cloudy, misty, and rainy one. Surely, I thought, mother nature was messing with me again and I wouldn't be able to fly. Fortunately, however, the clouds were up at around 8000 ft and the rain was light. It was just at the edge of being too windy but I was able to fly regardless. I flew from Charlottesville out to Orange and then out to Lousia. The last two are smaller air fields about 10-15 minutes away by plane. I hadn't flown in a while so my chops were a wee bit rusty. The wind trying to blow me off course didn't help either. But all in all I managed to get the job done. My many years of playing video games seems to have left me with exceptional map reading skills, so finding the airports wasn't so bad. Figuring out what approach pattern to use and set up for scrambled my brain a bit as the process isn't quite intuitive to me, yet. Runways are numbered after their 360 degree coordinates on a compass, rounded up to the nearest tenth. For some odd reason, I had a bit of trouble putting together the direction of the runway I needed to use as well as remembering what runways were available. I really need a knee board to help out with logistics like that.

While out at Orange I had the good fortune to stumble upon a bunch of parachute jumpers. They announce on the public frequency a countdown to when they're going to jump. Just as I landed, they all did. I looked up and saw about a dozen chutes opening ... pretty amazing. Made me wish, however, that I had a paintball gun mounted on top of my plane so I could go sky hunting. The guys looked like they really knew what they were doing as they came down at steep angles using airfoil parachutes, landing exactly on spot. Shane told me they have massive parties out at their hangar. I responded asking if we really needed to fly back so soon?

My landings overall weren't stellar at either airport. Part of this was due to my semi rusty chops and the rest was a hefty crosswind that seemed determined to make my life difficult.

Sunday's lesson stood in stark contrast to this past Tuesday's. It was a picture perfect day and I had made up my mind to really bring my A game, even preparing a bit with some book time beforehand. Well, the fates aligned and it made for a spectacular lesson. We took off from CHO and headed to the Northeast practice area where I recovered from a few stalls and executed some steep angle turns. This is where those more subtle aspects of weather on flight start to come in ... maybe not just weather perhaps ... praxis might be a better term.

Steep angle turns in the past have been somewhat of a challenge for me. Turning the plane at 45 degrees presents a number of issues. First of all, 45 degrees is half way between level and 90 degrees. So in a small sense there is a feeling of "falling over" down into the center of the turn. Similarly, that steep a bank angle generates more noticeable g forces on your body. Keeping your eyes outside the plane while rapidly glancing at your controls can be a bit disorienting as a result.

Well, I had no such problems this past Tuesday. In fact, I was able to really enjoy making the plane do what I wanted it to do. I now have the internal sense and knowledge that no, the plane isn't going to roll over and fall out of the sky. Nor are the g forces a problem for me any longer. In fact, they're a bonus prize when the maneuver is executed correctly. There's something about leaning the plane heavy into a turn. It's more of an angle. It's more of a turn. It's more cowbell. It's just ... more.

So as I was doing ... more ... so was mother nature. The sun was starting to go down in the sky. Shadows were getting longer. The green of Spring was reflecting a particularly unique shade, with just the tiniest hints of blue, red and purple. The sky was a deep blue that only the sky can be. You might say that mid Spring is the result of nature practicing her craft. Things start out new and fresh then get the refinements of rain, sun and time. It's fun doing ... more ... with mother nature. She makes an excellent practice partner when she's in a good mood.

After our turns and fun, I came back to CHO for some landings. First was almost perfect. So was the second. Then, for fun, as I came in for my third landing Shane cut the engine power on me. "Now what are you gonna do?" The idea of course was to simulate engine failure. I had read up on what to do and was feeling my A game coming on. As I got very near the runway, Shane told me I could use engine power if I needed it. I responded, "I don't need it." and had another almost perfect landing. I'm so cool.

The moral of the story, it would seem, is that flying on warm, bright, sunny Spring days with clear blue skies is much more rewarding than on days with clouds, rain, chill and wind. I guess it's true what my friend Leeroy from Nashville says. I'm just a damn blue bastard.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

News from the front ...

It seems somehow both ironic and appropriate to post an update to a blog about learning to fly from an airport lobby while waiting for a commercial flight. My plane last night from EWR to CLT was delayed past the departure time of my final connection from CLT to CHO. So I spent another night home with family eating tasty Italian food, discussing the state of air travel, the economy, and cannoli price inflation. Sometimes dinner with the family can be a good time to complain and discuss a very wide range of subjects. It's a bonding experience.

In reality, I don't have much to complain about. Apparently, CLT was down to one incoming runway last night. So there were likely dozens and dozens of inbound flights delayed. When I stop and think about the hundreds (thousands?) of flights coming in and out of that airport alone every day and how they need to be coordinated on both ends (ie., the departure airports) so that the timing is within 10 or 15 minutes ... it's amazing we all get anywhere at all.

But having nothing in reality to gripe about doesn't mean you can't gripe. Practice does after all make perfect.

I studied routing and shortest path algorithms as an undergrad learning computer science. There is a definite art to the task. People with the particular talent are compensated quite well by phone companies, GPS navigation manufactures, and generally anyone who needs to figure out the quickest way to get a bunch of marbles from one place on a random , poorly laid out, spider web to another. Given that air travel not only has to plan those routes but also allow for random, unexpected monkey wrenches, all without any human error causing one "guy" on the path from hitting another "guy" I start to become even a bit awestruck at the massively, elegantly coreographed ballet.

Reminders of the aviation industry pockmarked much of my trip home this past weekend. While parking on the rooftop lot at Hackensack Medical Center I couldn't help but notice all the planes landing into Teterborough airport nearby. Talk about tight quaters. I think the tallest building near CHO ... well ... there actually aren't any tall buildings anywhere near CHO just famrs. Charlie, one of the instructors at CFC used to fly into Teterborough regularly. He cautioned me not to get my hopes up of using it as a regular destination for weekend visits. It apparently gets quite crowded.

Similarly, as I went test driving a new Volvo with my mom we drove right by the General Aviation facility at the same airport. There are clearly some Jersey boys with quite a bit of cash. The place ia very hip and posh looking, more like a country club, with lots of sexy planes parked outside.

Lastly, or perhaps firstly, I couldn't help but pay even more attention to what the pilot was doing on my inbound flight, especially landing. I felt (and heard) the flaps come on very much like they do in my little Cessna. I could also sense him slip the plane into the crosswind which was an issue coming into EWR on Sunday. The bumps on the way down didn't phase me at all. I could swear there was a time they did.

Given the delays and other various snags, I remain impressed with what commercial aviation has been able to accomplish. I remain, however, even more excited about being able to come and go more as I please even if at a bit slower velocity and without neatly dressed svelt blondes to serve me ginger ale. But wait, come to think of it, there were neither blondes, anyone svelt, nor even any female stewardesses on any of my inbound flights. I didn't even get to sit next to any hot coeds or prospective runway models being recruited from the South by NYC modelling agencies. Even as I look around me now, most of the people waiting for this flight are businessmen in suits. Perhaps it's just my luck.

I guess both flavors of air travel have their pros and cons. A little voice in the back of my head is telling me being able to pilot my own flights will have some clear advantages. Yet, that same voice is hoping for some svelt blondes on the flight home today. I mean, don't they factor that into the cost of the ticket? I think many of these businessmen around me would gladly pay a premium. Yes, I know, President Obama should hire me as a economic consultant on how to help stimulate the economy.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The calm after the storm ... followed by more storms ...

If you live anywhere East of the Mississippi there is one word you've likely become all too familiar with this past week: rain. Everyone I know is making references to Noah, his ark, and where to line up to get on board. We've had an epic amount of rainfall this past week. While I'm sure it's good for the plants, it isn't quite as helpful for my learning to fly.

My last lesson, however, was a great one. As I drove up the little twisty road to the airport, I was met by an ominous thunder storm. Great, I thought. Mother nature is literally rubbing my nose it in. But since the storm was technically a bit off in the distance I thought I might be able to do some pattern work as it hopefully passed South of the airport.

No such luck.

We sat in the flight school classroom listening to thunder and watching lightning. Another student was there apparently going over some IFR rules with another instructor, Tom. Shane and Tom decided to start asking us both questions about storms. At some point, I do actually have to study some weather science in order to get my license. They asked, "What things do you need in order to have a storm?" The other student answered, "Moisture?" I could only think of one reply, being somewhat miffed about my luck with weather. So I added, "A scheduled flight lesson?"

But after the storm passsed, as Shane predicted, the air was amazingly calm. We took off as soon as the rain was a safe distance away. I nailed four perfect landings and one so-so touchdown. The calm air definitely made it easier. But it's also quite possible that I'm starting to get the hang of it.

The very next day, the monsoons resumed. They've been here ever since with brief periods of sunshine, which by the way seem that much more glorious now that they're somewhat rare. Once Spring settles into more of a groove I should be able to get more hours in.

Ironically, I have an upcoming trip planned to visit family in New Jersey. This is the second trip (Easter being the first) for which a private pilot's license would have been perfect. Alas, I'm not there yet. Patience, or lack thereof, is starting to have a rash like effect on my inner child. My hope is that during the coming weeks I will have a laxative like relentlessness and make the final huge push towards a solo flight.

I'd attach some pics, but the things I just found on Google were quite disturbing, even to me.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Zeno's paradox ...

The ancient Greek philosopher, Zeno, postulated a set of paradoxes that were formulated in part to show that various aspects of perceived reality were (are) an illusion. A paticularly famous one deals with motion and how it is fundamentally impossible. The paradox goes something like this. If I shoot an arrow at you, it must first travel half the distance between my bow and your head (say 100 feet). Then it must travel half the remaining distance (50 feet), then half the distance remaining again (25 feet), so on into infinity (12.5ft, 6.125ft, etc.). Since there are an infinite number of distances (or steps) for the arrow to traverse, it can never really get to where it's headed.

I tried using this argument to get out of a speeding ticket once. It didn't work.

Flying is very much like Zeno's distance paradox for me these days. I'm trying very hard to get hours in but progress is slow. Mother nature in the Spring is fickle. She often thwarts my attempts to get up in the air. Similarly, time is seemingly always tight and making time for my written work often proves scarce. I'm in the home stretch towards my first solo flight. It very often feels like I have a never ending series of infinitely divisible steps to complete. Even worse, when I don't fly, those steps become larger than simply half the previous distance. Variable coefficient exponential functions can be a real pain in the neck particularly when they apply to life.

Ok, well, that's basically it. If you can't complain about stuff on your own blog, then what's the use.

My last lesson with Tom was great. I had three "acceptable" landings and one "greaser." I think I'm starting to get the hang of it. My problems lie in the last few seconds before touchdown. Getting that flare just right and keeping the plane at the correct speed and orientation are still proving a bit of a challenge.

Spring here in Charlottesville has been powerfully beautiful this year. So when I do get to fly there are added dimensions of fresh new air above and budding plant life below. Here are some random shots and videos from the runway as well as one from the hold short line while waiting for incoming traffic to land.

My faithful Cessna 172 SP after some rain.
It was about 65 degrees and the air smelled of dew, even on the runway.

Jet powering down.
Sounds like a Sheperd tone.
Makes sense if you think of what's inside a jet engine.

Jet landing in front of me as I wait to take off.
Cute little thing. Wish I could land like that.

There were a ton of jets taking off and landing that day. Felt like a convention. Gave me a case of "jet envy." Maybe one day I can fly one of these ... and maybe one day I can drive one of these ... and maybe, just maybe, one day she will come to her senses and marry me. Infinite distances indeed.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Slippin' flarin' crabbin' and starin'

Flying continues to be more than just a hobby. Much like flight itself, there's a minimum velocity one much maintain to resist the pull of gravity. I've been trying to fly at least twice per week ever since the return of daylight savings time. But despite my best efforts last week I was grounded three times due to bad weather. Mother nature continues to toy with me.

My past few lessons have been with a different instructor, Tom, while Shane is away on vacation in Ireland. Once again I've had to adapt to the subtleties of a different teaching style as well as the finer points of flying. To be honest, it's nice to have seen multiple perspectives on the art. I've flown with five different instructors now. Who knows, I may just start rotating to keep things interesting.

Initially Tom and I worked again on pattern flying, trying to get my landings down correctly. Unfortunately the weather during our first flight together was quite windy which makes things hard for an experienced pilot, exponentially more so for one in training. So our second lesson together involved practicing "slipping" the plane. This is where you keep the plane pointed along a straight ground reference point (eg., a highway ... or runway) even though there's a crosswind blowing you sideways. Normally, the easiest thing to do in this situation is let the plan "crab" or simply point into the wind and fly in a sideways fashion with respect to the ground. Slipping on the other hand involves tilting wings of the plane so it literally slips through the wind. In this orientation you can ignore evil little ball (who is quite pissed off by the way as you're doing all sorts of horrible things aerodynamically). Tom likes to fly fast. So we did this maneuver at close to the maximum operating speed for the plane (140mph). I practiced following route 250E by keeping it in between my legs as I flew. Keeping the plane in such an unfamiliar orientation (at least for me) made it even more important to keep my eyes outside the cockpit. So speeding up my quick glances at the instruments was a side exercise. Before I knew it, Richmond was close enough for me to reach out and touch in what felt like just a few minutes. Very, very cool. That's part of the magic I've been shooting for.

The drill was designed to help me learn to make the plane do want regardless of what the wind is doing. Shane has been saying that to me forever. You can either fly efficiently, yet somewhat strangely (ie., crabbing) or fly very inefficiently yet seemingly correct (ie., slipping). Ironically, in a cloud the reverse is true. Crabbing feels normal and slipping very much not so, since there are no visual refernece points to indicate the plane's orientation with respect to the earth's two dimensional surface.

Well, Tom's practice drill seems to have worked. My final landing attempt of the day was a good one. I finally manged to land the plane both gently and in a straight line with a perfect flare. I'm sure I'll have to practice it again and again, but it's nice to know my motor coordination is there, at least in theory. Actually, it's more than just motor coordination. Besides the physical technique of putting the controls in the correct position, there's a very zen technique of looking down the end of the runway once you're flying over it. Using peripheral vision, you can see the side lines and gauge how high off the ground you are.

I've been focusing so much on trying to fly and flaring in particular that I've fallen behind in my written work. I have a twenty page take home test full of questions I need to know the answers to before I can fly my first solo flight. Are hobbies supposed to involve so much work?

Flying in the Spring, while challenging due to weather, is lovely here in Central Virginia. Pre flight inspections are my "quiet time" with the plane and the runway. I snapped some pictures of one particularly important step in that process, checking the fuel.

On the Cessna 172 SP I fly now, there are five separate fuel drains under the wing that must be bled into a cup and checked for color, water and debris. If all is well, the fuel is a pretty blue color and you can just pour it back in. The view from above the plane isn't something most people see, but it's important to check that everything is still in order up there too.

Since I've neither posted in a while nor even brought my camera to the last couple of flight lessons, I found myself somewhat snap happy this last time. Plus, I've just recently bought some rechargeable batteries. My Canon A590 seems to enjoy eating them like candy.

Charlottesville Airport is a beautiful spot, located near the Blue Ridge Mountains just on the outskirts of town. I've always enjoyed the area. When I was new to town, I'd often ride my first motorcycle up to the airport and enjoy the mountain views while planes took off an landed. The buildings are also interesting architecturally, most of them being very light, open airy spaces. Undoubtedly, having large windows facing West into sunsets and mountain views has something to do with this. It's interesting to see how the interior design is somehow seemingly influenced by the exterior beauty in which it constantly basks.

Come to think of it, planes seem to reflect this aesthetic design phenomenon as well.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The rub that never ends ...

The more I learn about flying, the more I see how much there is still yet to learn. At almost every given point and with each new lesson, the potentially grim specter of fate seems to shadow any and all knowledge. Fate and its cousin gravity really don't care if you're flying straight and level or spiraling to your death. They will implement the same laws of physics and chance regardless. Performing even the most simple of tasks correctly or incorrectly can mean the difference between life and death. It's both ironic and shocking to think that flying is still the safest way to travel.

My past several lessons have all involved flying the pattern around Charlottesville airport. Shane is trying very hard to drill all the things necessary to take off and land into my head, and even a little deeper. They really do need to become second nature. Several weeks ago, I had an abysmal lesson where I showed up an hour late thinking I had reserved the plane at the wrong time. That led to a cascade of failure. The notion of "getting behind the plane"' is very real. So if your mental state yields a higher likelihood of some error, rest assured that will trigger like a domino another factor to move out of alignment and before you know it you're in trouble.

After resolving to never show up late for a lesson, as well as no longer fly during lunchtime, I've begun to focus 100% on takeoffs and landings, mainly the latter. My last few lessons have been a bit of a struggle. But with each one I've learned and manage to keep some new hardfought wisdom. Sometimes they've been small things like getting the plane level once I fly over the runway numbers on final approach. Other times they're a bit more complicated like the coordinated smooth rollout from level flight into the infamous "flare" and holding that orientiation to a gentle touchdown, all the while keeping the plane centered on the runway.

Today I think I finally nailed them all. The holes in my technique have more or less been filled, they may still need some sanding, but still I managed pretty well on my last (ninth) attempt of the day. I'd say there are dozens of little things that need to happen correctly simply in taking off, going around, and landing again at the airport. All of these should require little or no thought. Control should be done in small increments and the plane should basically be encouraged to fly itself at every step of the way. Of course, you're setting it up to fly in a particular manner via trim, power, and various other controls. But the idea remains ... this fine razors edge that is both highly complicated and ultimately simple.

So I keep flying the pattern, mainly because I enjoy flying. But I keep doing it over and over so that I can do it as safely as possible. On a side note, I've decided to start flying the newer Cessna 172 SP Skyhawk. The tighter controls which I once felt were a hindrance I now find as a blessing. Aside from the plane being much more balanced and stable, the taught yoke and pedals encourage a more deliberate input. They also seem to help prevent my tendency to overcompensate and end up fighting myself (in addition to all the other factors) for control of the aircraft. Tighter controls encourage and allow smaller, finer, more precise feel. The plane also has fancy GPS and other bells and whistles that will come in handy when I actually start renting it to go places on the weekends.

The penalty for failure is very real. I had the chance to see a very old example of this over the weekend. The following are some pictures of the wreckage of Piedmont Flight 349 which crashed into the side of Bucks Elbow Mountain just outside of Crozet back in 1959, ironically on the very night Barrack's Road Shopping Center held its grand opening event. It's a strenuous and interesting hike. Not very well marked and steep, it ends at a beautiful outcrop which is near the wreckage which while not being beautiful per se, makes you stop, pause, and think about a number of things.

It's sobering to say the least that this is the site where twenty five people lost their lives, even though it was forty years ago. Bits of debris of various sizes are still scattered about everywhere.

The largest piece seems to be the central wing section. You can see what I think are landing gear struts rusting away. The airframe is turned upside down.

Any time I see wreckage, hear about a plane crash, or even sometimes when I'm on a commercial flight myself, I wonder what went through people's minds when they realized this was the end. Perhaps they never did and it all stopped suddenly and painlessly. I hope so. But even though we're all aware of this dire possibility we continue to fly. We step onto planes signing an invisible contract of sorts, hoping the engineers, mechanics, and pilots are all well trained and have done their best to defend us against the odds which are completely unaware of our desire to live. I think many passengers may never even think so deeply about it and just hope and assume everything will go smoothly, as it often does. But the reason it does is because so many people have worked very, very, hard over the years on an inconceivably large number of problems, designs and techniques ... that we get to just sit back and enjoy our beverage and peanuts. Like most things human, this speaks to both our astonishing capacity to imagine and invent as well as our tendency to become complacent and ignore, perhaps even take for granted, the magic that lies about us virtually everywhere in our world. I'm not talking about things like fairies and nymphs. I'm talking about things like cell phones and computers ... and airplanes.

Yeah, so I obviously took a few extra "let's get up on a soapbox and preach pills" this morning. It happens.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Winter's Breath ...

When old man winter exhales he creates a number of issues for flying, some good and some not so good. We had a significant amount of snow fall the night before last here in Charlottesville. So my misfortune of last week was made up for this past Tuesday during another lunchtime lesson. As usual, I'm reminded to be careful what I wish for.

There's an airstrip nearby in Louisa, VA which has no control tower. It's a great place to improve radio chops since you still need to call out information during each leg of "pattern" flying. But since fewer people are listening, it's harder to make a public idiot out of yourself. I'm guessing the reduced mic fright helps when learning to speak on the radio. It's also good experience in watching for pilots who may not be broadcasting any location information at all, yet still might be deciding to land at the same time and place.

The snow on the ground was starting to evaporate causing all sorts of temperature differentials in the air. This combined with the natural blustery tendency of early March in Virginia created some very windy conditions. Both Shane and Dick, the owner of the flight school, felt it would be good experience for me. While I didn't have any physical hurdles crop up with the bumps, I have to say I got some healthy doses of adrenaline trying to keep the plane under control, especially during takeoff and landing.

All in all it was a rewarding lesson. I've never landed anywhere else but Charlottesville (as a pilot) before and the scenery along the way was beautiful. I managed to shoot some video of the flight back. I've sped up the mid section of the film so it's only a few minutes long. The trip actually took about fifteen. The clip unfortunately doesn't do proper justice to the snow covered hilltops. But you do get a sense of the view (and some of the bumps) at various points, particularly the hills near Cville. Snowfall converts the landscape into a black and white panorama accentuating contrasts, ground contours and features. The effect of crosswind is quite evident as are my attempts to compensate for it on takeoff as the plane rolls left and right while still relatively (uncomfortably?) close to the ground.

Never forget that Buddhist proverb.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

She's a tease ...

Even on a normal day the view from my cockpit rarely fails to impress. Seeing the land, trees, farms, rolling hills, mountains, clouds and sunlight playing against the weather features offers a wonderful shift in perspective to say the least. Mother nature can be a very talented artist. She definitely flexed her creative muscle this past Fall with huge brushstrokes of yellow, red and orange across the ground.

I've heard stories of what is allegedly one of the most beautiful times to fly, immediately after a snowfall. Well, it snowed here in Charlottesville last night. I woke up this morning pretty excited by the timing. The ground was perfectly dusted white and the town has been temporarily transformed into a winter wonderland. I had grand visions of what it'd be like to fly above the hills and see the white covered ground speckled with trees, buildings and other terrestrial features.

But no, mother nature is a tease. METARs weather shows:

Conditions at: KCHO (CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA, US) observed 1553 UTC 01 March 2009
Temperature: 0.0°C (32°F)
Dewpoint: -0.6°C (31°F) [RH = 96%]
Pressure (altimeter): 30.04 inches Hg (1017.4 mb)
[Sea-level pressure: 1017.5 mb]
Winds: from the NNE (20 degrees) at 7 MPH (6 knots; 3.1 m/s)
Visibility: 1.50 miles (2.41 km)
Ceiling: 800 feet AGL
Clouds: overcast cloud deck at 800 feet AGL
Weather: BR (mist)

I need at least 3 miles of visibility and a 1500 foot ceiling. Mist isn't so great either. So currently, Charlottesville airport is operating under IFR (instrument flight rules). No VFR (visual flight rules) pilots are able to take off or land at the moment. If I had an IR (instrument rating), however, I'd be able to fly. That's approximately fifty more hours of flight time after I get my regular private license. Days like today add fuel to my desire to get the IR, no matter how long it takes.

I remember as a kid sometimes standing at the back door looking out saying, "Rain rain, go away. Little David want to play." It didn't seem to work then either.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

What goes up, must come down ... gently.

I snuck in a flight lesson today at lunchtime. Time constraints often force me to speed out to the airport at somewhat higher than posted velocities. The trip sometimes acts like a "motion sensor." As I exploit my car's taught suspension on the twisty roads, my stomach and inner ear give me a sense of how they're doing. Thankfully they felt ready for action this afternoon.

Shane mixed things up a bit today. We practiced constant speed climbs, descents and steep angle turns. I find tilting the wings to 45 degrees to be a delicate operation. For me, the physical orientation still takes some getting used to. The more the wings deviate from straight and level flight, the less lift they generate. I sometimes wish I didn't know that. So after mid way (ie., 45 degrees) you start to notice the effect as you lose altitude. Wing roll tends to have a momentum to it so it's very easy to overshoot and get yourself almost perpendicular to the ground. Not nearly as fun as it sounds. Over compensating for that tendency (at least for me) can prevent you from successfully executing the maneuver. Gentle moves are key. The lateral acceleration generated by too rapid a change in control input can result in some noticeable g forces. Trust me, being at the controls of your very own roller coaster is a double edged sword. After a few attempts I finally managed a few decent 360 degree steep angle turns. They're lots of fun when you finally get them right.

Then we practiced landing. For reasons I still don't quite understand, I simply didn't have the magic today. Shane contends I'm still not totally clear on radio jargon and my brain is spending time thinking about that rather than actually flying the plane. Getting an aircraft down in a controlled and precise manner involves coordinating several tasks in rapid succession. Altitude needs to be exact as do speed and rate of decent. Flaps need to be engaged at the right time. Position in the pattern must be observed. While all this is happening, there's ultimately that (little) strip of asphalt you need to hit properly at the correct velocity.

We had to abort my first attempt as I came in on final approach way too high. I even botched the recovery by accidentally taking out all my flaps (extensions to the wing that provide extra lift) at once. On my second pass I came in too high again and had to make a rapid descent resulting in some unwanted up and down oscillation before actually touching down. My last attempt was even worse as I came very close to smacking the plane down pretty hard onto the runway which would have seriously bent the landing gear and put a significant dent in my wallet for repairs.

Oh well. I at least feel I learned from these mistakes. I'm going to make some cheat sheets for all my maneuvers, rather than try to execute them from memory and whatever bits of common sense I feel apply. It was a beautiful day to fly and I view part of the struggle today as due to my being more seriously tested on some of the real aspects of flying.

One of my New Year's resolutions is to sharpen my rhetorical skills on the virtues of aerospace and its benefit to humanity. As I walked out to inspect my plane before flying, I passed a concrete (or perhaps I should say mostly aluminum) example.

I think we sometimes take for granted the fact that things like helicopters (and planes) come to people's rescue, often in life threatening emergencies. Take a close look. Even on the surface, this is not a simple piece of machinery. How in the world did we ever figure out how to make one? What a wonderful application of technology, saving human life. The chopper above is dedicated to the task ... so are its pilot and crew.

Then of course there are the somewhat less noble, but to me no less glamorous applications. This jet was parked right outside the flight school and I couldn't help drool over being so close to it. I mean, the thing can probably fly at more than 500 mph. DaVinci and the ancients would look upon it as nothing short of magical. The engineering legacies that jet airplanes sit atop are extreme and profound. Being near machines like this makes them real in ways only being up close and next to them can, much like being in the same room with a person does, speaking face to face. When we normally take a commercial jet we don't get to walk around it and admire the sleek lines. Sometimes we don't see them from the outside at all. So, for your viewing pleasure, here's some "up skirting" of an Express Jet Embraer 145.

"Hey Baby ..."

"Come here often?"

"You're a tall one."

"Nice butt."

Clearly, my rhetoric still needs some work.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Using the force ...

The wind is apparently a very common problem for pilots in central Virginia this time of year. I'm learning this first hand. My past few attempts to fly were unsuccessful due to high wind. Thankfully, I'm becoming somewhat relentless about my scheduling. So even though I wasn't able to fly this past Sunday, I tried today and will again on Wednesday. Hopefully mother nature will respect my tenacity.

My previous lesson, however, was both interesting an unexpected. Shane and I first spent some classroom time going over my progress with the computerized course material. I have software installed on my home computers that shows me videos, gives me tests, and tracks my progress. If you get a question wrong it automatically calls up the corresponding video. What I didn't know, however, was that Shane is able to see all my mistakes. Big Brother is clearly watching.

He was somewhat new to the specific system, so we were mainly just syncing up in terms of what I had been learning via the system and what we've been doing up in the air. Every so often he'd mention that we'd be getting "under the hood" today. I thought to myself, great! I love working on cars and machines. It would be awesome to get my grease monkey groove on with an airplane engine.

Silly me. In aviation terminology a "hood" is a device that limits your vision to only the instruments. It's mainly used to get an IR (instrument rating) but I'm also required to get two or three hours of hooded flying even with my basic license.

So up we went over to the practice area. On went the hood. I felt very much like Luke Skywalker on the Millenium Falcon practicing against the training remote. At first it was a bit disorienting. But then I found myself flying the plane somewhat intuitively using only the instruments. Who says video game skills don't come in handy? We practiced climbs, descents, turns to a specific heading, and combinations of both. I executed the maneuvers almost flawlessly. Yay me. I rule. Even Shane was impressed. He confided that "the hood" is one of those moments that can make or break a new pilot. Seems like I've got the right stuff.

We were having lots of fun so ended up doing a few practice turns around a point and s turns after the hood work then headed home. Then of course the wind picked up. Turning the plane is much harder when the wind is trying to coerce the airframe in an entirely different direction.

As we hit various patches of turbulence, I found myself struggling somewhat to keep coordinated slow flight, altitude in particular. I came in a bit high on final approach so we had to make a pretty quick and steep descent. That's not such a huge problem. But when you finally level out to prevent nose piling into the runway Newtonian physics plays nasty games with your inner ear. At least it did for mine.

Hubris, like training remotes, often dishes out swift reminders.