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.