Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hangin' with the boys...

This past Sunday's flight instruction was similar to my previous couple of lessons. I flew around the pattern taking off and landing. Both are essential skills, as is the ability to keep the plane on a relatively tight path and at a fixed altitude or rate of climb. Carving through the air isn't really like carving at all. The force of wind combines power, subtlety, and randomness. Imagine trying to slice up a batch of cotton candy into neat geometric shapes with your bare hands. It's one thing to point the plane in a particular direction, make it turn or go up and down. It's something quite different to do so with specific real number parameters for height, angle, position, and speed.

So we practiced, adding some special types of takeoff and landing: soft and short field. They are much like the names imply. A short field isn't as long as a standard runway and a soft field is basically the grass, if you're lucky. Skills at taking off and landing in the latter involve keeping the nose up as much as possible. A ditch can ruin your day as well as your nose gear.

My takeoffs, turns, and final approaches are all looking very good. My landings, however, still need some work. When the plane is very close to the ground, just before making contact, you need to pull back the yoke and pitch the plane up so it lands on its rear landing gear. Pitch too much and you go back up in the air. Pitch too little and you'll bust your front wheel or worse. So getting the correct flare is what I've been working on. It was quite windy this past Sunday so that made it even more difficult. Strangely, NASA has what I think is a very funny video about "The Flare."

Aside from being windy, it was also very busy. I don't normally hear the control tower speak in a casual manner. The few times I have remain in memory. This past weekend, the tower operator was telling one of the pilots landing that it had been much busier than usual. Lots of planes in the air. He wasn't kidding. I had to "hold short" at takeoff several times and wait for incoming traffic. Similarly, I had to queue up behind some other planes as they came in.

As I sat on the runway watching one of the larger jets land, I was hit gently with a sense of camaraderie. Sure, the jet was much bigger than I was and the pilot much more skilled. But he, like me, had to land. He had to bring the same game I did (well maybe more game) and get his speed correct, wings straight, and flare properly. Screwing up had potentially the same (ok worse) consequences for us both. Regardless, getting the bird on the ground was something I felt unite us both. Similarly, I was sitting in this tiny, mostly aluminum machine with my fligh instructor. We both watched anxiously as the other planes came in so it could be our turn. It wasn't just my turn, it was *our* turn. It was almost like this strange alternate universe type of baseball game where we all took our at bats, but were simultaneously on the same as well as different teams.

I wasn't necessarily aiming to nor do I really make it much of a priority. But there it was. I'm sure there were some women pilots up there too. Perhaps I should rephrase to something else. But I can't think of another more gender appropriate phrase so I'm just going to leave this like it is.

For a short while, before I did another one of my oscillatory landings, I felt like one of the boys.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Round and round, old school ...

One of my best and most difficult professors at Columbia was a very smart Greek fellow named Thanasis Tsantilas. He was famous for saying things like "You see, that's trivial right?" Before the age of Powerpoint class was presented using chalk and board. There were nine panes arranged in a three by three grid. Columns were raised and lowered like large windows. He'd begin writing a proof or algorithm starting in the upper left hand corner then proceed down and across. So you had to try and understand what he was saying while simultaneously writing it down correctly. It was quite common for him to get back to the first pane, after filling all nine, and have the class erupt in a mass groan as most were still trying furiously to copy down the wisdom he was about to erase. The notes I took from his classes served as a very solid foundation for my understanding of things like computational efficiency, optimization and runtime complexity. The textbooks were often almost completely irrelevant.

So too is my flying with Shane. He gave me some very simple analog instruction last week, drawing by hand a diagram of the air traffic pattern for Charlottesville airport. I've looked at it. It makes sense. Little did I know I was in for a bit of a flashback yesterday. This stuff has to more than just make sense. It has to become second nature.

It had been a while since I'd flown. I wouldn't exactly say that I was nervous but I was a bit out of practice in terms of what to expect, the natural rythm of learning, and still feeling out a new instructor. Even though Shane explained that we'd be "flying the pattern" it somehow didn't sink in right away. I guess I thought we'd be flying the pattern after doing my normal round of turns, banks and the same stuff I've been practicing for months. It's amazing how you can be paying direct attention to someone and not really get what they're telling you. Then again I might just need some ADHD medication.

We took off, as usual. Then before I knew it, he was telling me to bank, turn, and prepare to land. What he had said earlier suddenly sank in rapidly. We were going to practice flying the pattern from start to finish ... over and over. So we spent both my lessons yesterday and today doing precisely that. It was a very different experience. Things happen much more quickly and landing for me at this point really isn't trivial.

The "pattern" is basically a rectangle consisting of takeoff (upwind), a left turn (crosswind), another left turn paralell to the runway (downwind), still another left turn (base) and then a final left to the runway (final approach). There are specific adjustments that need to be made to speed, pitch, flaps and various other factors at each stage. We flew it over and over. Today, we didn't even return to the runway start but just performed several "touch and gos" taking off again immediately after landing. Fun stuff.

Part of my pre-flight inspection involves looking at the number of hours the engine has been running and checking if it's due for a 100 hour overhaul. Well, my trusty little Cessna 172 hit that mark exactly yesterday. So she'll be in the shop for a while. I had to upgrade to the newer, more powerful 172 SP. I've flown it once before. It's much more pane for sure and one that I'm not completely used to, yet.

Time to step up. Today's lesson was challenging in and of itself. But it was made even moreso by practicing in a plane with both more power as well as slightly different control and instrument locations. I think I may stick with this plane, however, since I eventually would like to get a high performance certification. But I also think there's a virtue in learning on a slightly more difficult instrument. In this case, it forces me to take assertive control of the aircraft. You really have to tell it precisely what to do and it will do it, for better or worse. Shane has been saying this repeatedly. Intentional deliberate action is a large part of what flying is about, assuming of course you're implementing the correct action for the given situation. Paradoxically, the art is sometimes also about acknowledging the very limits of control. But for the most part one does well to act with authority, I mean real authority that is built upon the solid foundation of practice, knowledge, and wisdom.

One thing I'm really starting to love about flying is that it is completely and utterly devoid of bullshit. Sometimes it seems as though so many aspects of my world are quite literally completely full of it. Flying continues to provide more refreshing, positive, yet seemingly minimalist philosophical benefits for me.

Shane doesn't pull any punches and I think that's a good thing. So when he says in a slight Irish accent, "What the hell are you banking so much for?" I take it as the appropriate reminder to buck up. When coming in for final approach the plane is moving very slowly and has full flaps engaged. I still have this tendency to bank a bit much in turns, which can be quite dangerous when flying slowly with full flaps. There isn't a huge margin for error when landing and the stakes are higher. So I'd go so far as to say a slap in the back of the head can even be warranted if you really start to screw up.

Here's a video of one loop around the pattern from takeoff to landing, about six minutes. The landing gives you a sense of how delicate the operation is. The plane doesn't automatically stay level to the ground as you approach. In fact, mother nature seems to enjoy tossing the occasional crosswind gust just as you're about to land. You also get to hear the sound of the screaming stall warning which used to crack me up months ago.


There's still a tremendous amount of information I have to learn and real world technique I need to practice. Flying twice in one week definitely helps the learning curve. But I'm also thankful to have good instructors who are forcing me to get things right, and consistently do so without having to think. I don't think that's an easy thing to teach let alone etch permanently in both mind and reflex. As the pilot of flight 1549 who landed in the Hudson river last week clearly demonstrated, getting it right can mean the difference between life and death.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Miracle ...

News is still coming in about the US Airways jet that just went down in the Hudson river, literally in my old backyard. It seems as though all the passengers have survived. Every story I've read and heard so far has a strong overtone of awe. As well they should. It seems miraculous that 155 passengers and crew would survive a crash landing into the frigid water this time of year. So many news clips these days speak of tragedy, horror, and coming future economic doom. I smile that in some roundabout way the spirit of technology, at precisely the point where it meets the razor's edge of fate, has given us instead something to be very, very, happy about. For a short while at least the news cycle will have a uniquely different, positive tone.

Perhaps it is part miracle. But I'm thinking it has more to do with an exceptional pilot and crew. Somebody did their homework. Somebody paid close attention in flight school. Somebody had the clarity of mind to stare death in the face and say, "Not yet!" while at the same time coordinating what appears to be a double engine failure crash landing. The plane was coming down. It had to go somewhere. Somebody thought a bit outside the box and made the right call. Somebody surely didn't seize, flinch or give up. Sure, somebody also got lucky.

I hope in the hours and days to come we learn more about this exceptional pilot and what may have given him the edge to save everyone's life; that edge which has been sharpened by decades of research, development and training. Hundreds of engineers have spent their lives figuring out how to best optimize airframes so that they'll stay in one piece. Never mind the iterations of detail that have gone into creating an interface that gives a pilot the highest level of control, for lack of a better term, humanly possible. Hundreds were likely responsible for figuring out how to make the plane float as long as it did. I wonder hoe many more were involved in designing life rafts that self inflate so quickly. With even a basic modicum of research, I'm sure these lists could fill volumes. Glasses should also be raised to the fine tradition of flight instructors who have passed down wisdom through the ages of how to land a plane when the engines fail and live to tell about it.

Three cheers to that pilot, his crew, the engineers who maintained, designed and built that plane, air traffic control, rescue teams and everyone who helped 155 people walk away from death itself. Many may be thanking god tonight for saving lives and they may be right to do so. But I humbly contend the ambrosia of thanks should get spread around a bit more.

There are many heroes of myth, fable and fantasy. There are also tens of thousands of whom we never ever hear about.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ho hum ...

Sadly, I don't have much to report these days. Mother nature has been very unkind the last couple of Sundays and I still haven't slotted a weekday for flying. With the days getting a bit longer I may have some more flexibility.

Dick has put me with another instructor, a nice fellow from Ireland whose full name I'll omit until I've asked his permission to use it. It is interesting to see how different people try to explain the art of flying. It was too windy to fly this past Sunday so I went up to the flight school to get some hours of "ground instruction." I normally do that at home with videos and books but it certainly doesn't hurt to have someone teach you either. For example, Shane drew me this diagram of airport landing rules. Looks like part Indiana Jones secret map, part ... something else.

Believe it or not, I find it as useful as anything in my textbooks or videos so far. Strange how the mind processes information.

I'm hoping to fly again this Sunday and start a second weekly lesson on Wednesdays or Thursdays. This should compel me to start watching the videos and reading the books again. I must confess that not flying has made me a bit lazy regarding the project. I never considered how extremely difficult learning a skill that is so intimately linked to the weather might be. Perhaps I've been pissing the gods off lately, it's possible.

With much of my recent downtime, I've also begun fantasizing about partial plane ownership. I tend to think a bit far ahead sometimes. There's a flyer posted at CFC that I've been tearing little contact info strips off of for the past few months. This weekend I finally began an email exchange with the guy. It's like another world. This particular plane, a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza can seat six people and cruise at 160kts (184mph) and go as high as 20,000ft. Here's a fine example of my potential future object of lust:

Hmm, maybe I should have held off on buying the car. I guess we'll see. They say a beautiful woman can motivate a man to do anything. Not sure what they say about planes.