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.