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.