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.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Warmin' the bench ...

I was a good boy last night. Didn't drink too much and got plenty of sleep. I even showed up on time to flight school. Unfortunately the winds were too strong for us to fly (15kts). Too bad. I was looking forward to my first cross country flight and had reviewed the relevant material last night. I was down and ready to be the big pimp in the sky.

Instead, I sat with Shane as he gave me a bit of a private lesson on the different types of airspaces. The land above the ground is strictly controlled and carefully partitioned. There are entire sets of rules for every class of space (A through G). Here's an aeronautical chart of the DC area I bought at the school today. Thankfully, my time spent as a boyscout and video gamer have left me with pretty decent map reading skills. I don't play games anymore but I do still like maps. Charlottesville airport is the blue diamond in the lower left hand corner of the map. Dulles lies within the larger ring towards the center. Lots of rules, regulations, map icons and legends for me to learn.

It all works out for the best anyhow. The C'ville plague has been making its way through friends and colleagues lately. I've had it twice already and have been fighting off the remnants of round three recently. Pseudofed, I'm finding, alters my mental state more than I recall it doing in the past. So despite my efforts to be bright eyed, bushy tailed and ready to go, my physiology wouldn't have been at 100% regardless.

The weather has been spectacular here this weekend with temperatures in the sixties. So yesterday I dusted off "macchina due." I did once give it a name, "Siu Long," which means "Little Dragon." When I first got the bike, I found that it felt almost serpentine. Similarly, being a decent sized v-twin, it had a growl that would become somewhat ferocious at higher rpms. I go back and forth on the gender of this machine. Who knows why. I'm actually somewhat enamored with the whole notion of dragons. Not so much in the new age bookstore, kitchen magnet collecting, glittery t-shirt, grown up kid who still plays dungeons and dragons kind of way. Rather, I'm interested in the history of the beast and its relationship to serpentine energy, our ancestral history that we all carry in our spines, the primitive brain, cycles, cyclical movement, sine waves, seasons, periodicity, things along those lines. So I appreciate dragons as more of a concept or allegory.

I had an interesting experience taking the bike in for inspection. She hadn't been since last September. Getting a motorcycle inspected in Charlottesville is one of the many perks to life in white man's paradise, meaning that it's incredibly easy. Ok, I shouldn't be so harsh. The reason it's so easy to to do has really very little to do with "white men" in any pejorative sense. It has much more to do with a very nice fellow name Darren at Frys Springs Garage who also rides. For the past seven or eight years I've taken this and my previous bike there for inspections. Almost every time it's on a Saturday, many times after they've closed. Every time I've been in and out in less than half an hour. That type of local, good natured, friendly, kind man to man service is part of what makes Charlottesville so special. I'm writing about it a bit more at length here because, I'm sad to say, Fry Springs Garage closed yesterday for good. In a way I was proud to get my bike inspected there on their last day of service. I'm not sure if this is an economic sign of things to come or merely the end of an era. Regardless it's a bit sad.

Why bring up the notion of a motorcycle here in a blog about flying? Well, there are no hard and fast rules to this blog and even if there were, I write them. But there actually are some interesting relationships between flying and riding a motorcycle. On a bike, you have what you might call two and a half dimensions of control. Unlike in a car, you need to do more than just turn the steering wheel in order to change direction. On a bike, you lean. The amount of lean varies on your speed, angle and a few other factors. Getting turns right on a bike takes quite a bit of practice. Leaning the bike is somewhat like titling the wings and pressing hard on the handlebars very much like keeping rudder pressure. One huge difference here is that there's no evil little ball. Instead, there's you and the road, which you really don't want to hit.

So as I sit home warming my chair this weekend I get to reflect on things like this and lay out a road map for my next few lessons. The focus in coming weeks will be about flying out to Louisa, perfecting my skills on the radio, takeoff, and landing ... all on the road to my first solo flight. As I went through some of my textbook last night I was reminded of a syllabus given to me in an intro to Western Philosophy course when I was at Cornell. The professor had set the reading schedule so that we'd have finished all the readings mid way through the class. That way, we could begin re-reading the more difficult material for the second time while we talked about it together as a group. I've always wondered how many actually did that. Sadly I didn't.

My textbook doesn't always line up sequence wise with what I've been practicing with my flight instructors. So I've been jumping around a bit in the material. Perhaps the best course of action is to forge through all the chapters then review as needed later. I can definitely see how in learning to fly there is more of an imperative to go through material over and over. The more I learn this art, the more I see how much more there is still to know.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Magic and the Sting ...

Sometimes stories don't have a nice consistent theme. It feels much harder to write about flying when the relevant aspects of it are somewhat scattered. I'm getting towards the middle of my training, so lots of things are becoming important to learn and master. Yet being nearer to the front end of that timeline, I'm still much more the novice.

I've been switching planes around between my good old 172 and the newer 172SP. The latter is harder for me to fly. I'm still not used to the tighter controls. The older plane is much more broken in (some might call her loose) which makes her feel easier to fly. But I'm trying to work up to flying faster, more powerful planes. Shane told me I need to pick one and stick with it. So I think I'm going to ask around for the best way to lay out a road map that puts me in high performance planes sooner than later. I'm suspecting that getting the maneuvers down first might be the way to go. Then I can try them in a fancier plane later. At least that's my current thinking.

This past Sunday I went back to practicing turns around a point, "s turns," and stalls. I'll confess, I wasn't in the greatest shape to fly. My lesson was a bit earlier than usual and I had some friends over for dinner and a late night music jam recording session on Saturday. Somehow I managed to drink an extra glass of wine or two. It was very windy flying on Sunday so the extra bounces really didn't go well with the particular type of hangover wine provides. I did my best, but I'm learning that there is sometimes little room for mistakes when flying. Panic and fear are enemies. They can cause you to react incorrectly to a given situation. So as I practiced my power on stall, applying full power and tilting the plane skyward, I noticed evil ball slipping to starboard. So I applied port rudder which is totally the wrong thing to do. I continued to apply more incorrect rudder until Shane had to take the controls. Granted, it's not an uncommon novice mistake. I'm not willing to chalk it all up to being hung over as I wasn't that terribly so by the time we were actually up in the air. But the art of flying can at times run on a very tight margin of error. So even a slight bit of sub par physical or mental state can arguably put those statistical odds just a percentage or two out of favor. It would appear that a new area of training for me is to show restraint the night before I fly. Shane had a different way of phrasing it.

I'm learning more and more with each lesson is that flying requires a level of mastery, not just proficiency, over a number of skills. Looking out the window and sensing what the plane is doing is an obvious one. You can make a strong case for that skill being composed of different types of spatial awareness: feeling how the plane is pitching, yawing or rolling as well as noticing the wing's angle in relation to the horizon. The same goes for balancing all the "looking outside the plane" chops with taking a second or two to scan your instruments inside the cockpit. What are those instruments telling you? How do they match up with what you're seeing and feeling? Harder still is the performance not being a solo one. Your band mate, mother nature, has a complete mind of her own and rarely shares what key she's going to start playing in. Her voice is much stronger than any amp or PA system. In addition to all these sensory disciplines, the ability to make the plane do what you want often in response to what you're seeing and sensing is yet another set of skills to master. All of this needs to be parsed and executed often in just a second or two. Perhaps I should check and see if there are performance enhancing drugs for pilots. I suspect, however, that the optimal state for flying has more to do with a clear, rested, limber, well trained, attentive, focused, balanced body and mind.

My steep angle turns were fine. Flying around a point was very hard as the wind was blowing us all over the place. Getting back out into the practice area was fun though as all I've been doing the past several lessons was flying the traffic pattern from takeoff to landing. That's also fun but I definitely needed to get back to other flight maneuvers if for no other reason than to practice. My s turns were a bit difficult too due to wind and the fact that we picked a road to turn across that wasn't exactly straight. All in all I did pretty well. My radio chops are still weak, so I picked up another textbook devoted to the topic.

Next week, I do my first cross country flight. That simply means I'll be flying from one airport to another. The plan is to fly out to Louisa, which has no control tower. So I need to bone up on the rules for landing on an airstrip. It's a valuable skill. There are lots of beautiful, remote places around the world that only have airstrips. I'm gathering that access to these places is one of the fringe benefits of becoming a pilot.

I suspect one other thing that waking up earlier, bright eyed and bushy tailed will help with is remembering to bring my camera. As I spend a bit more time around pilots and instructors, I'm noticing that the ability to identify planes is somewhat of a universally respected skill. So I'm going to continue practicing that as well. There was an interesting bird parked on the runway as I walked over to do my pre flight but sadly I wasn't able to snap a photo.

The Cessna Skymaster is a twin engine plane with propellers arranged in the front and rear in a push-pull configuration. It's an interesting design. I continue to be amazed at the diversity of aircraft species. Human engineering plays such a crucial role in their evolution and natural selection. The same is true for automobiles. But in the case of planes it feels an entire order of magnitude more pronounced.

I should mention that the weather was gorgeous this weekend with clear skies and near sixty degrees. Being alone with all the planes is definitely more fun when it's not below freezing and windy. There really is something so calm and serene about it. Walking amidst such otherwise noisy machines with such awesome potential (ie., to fly) as they lie dormant and silent is still almost magical for me. I guess I'll see if it's magical enough next week.