Sunday, September 27, 2009

Beauty and the Beast

It was a gorgeous Fall day here in central Virginia, 70 degrees, crisp and sunny with a gentle breeze. This was such a stark contrast to the dreary rain of yesterday. I was concerned last night as I've been trying very hard to fly at least twice per week as I wrap up my flight training and focus more on preparing for my written test. It's important to keep those chops current. Novice Jedi magic grows weak if you don't practice regularly. Bad weather would have been an annoying monkey wrench.

The lovely sunshine and puffy clouds took some time to make their appearance today. So I rescheduled my flight twice, from 11am to noon then finally to 2pm. At around 1pm the weather seemed near ideal. As usual, I checked the weather for CHO and surrounding airports. Nothing serious was on the horizon. I was really looking forward to flying on such a spectacular day.

After making my ritual pit stop at the nearby Autozone for touch up paint and bug remover (I keep my plane as clean as possible) I proceeded happily up to the airport. When I arrived, I checked the weather again. Winds were 270 at 6. That means they were blowing from a compass heading of 270 degrees (West) at 6 knots. This isn't completely calm but within my ability. So I proceeded to taxi out to the runway still very excited to fly.

Pilots use several memory tricks to help keep the massive amount of information correct, and quickly at hand. Right before taking off I remind myself of a few key things to check with the phrase, "Lights, camera, action!" The action of course is the application of full throttle. So down the runway I went, properly compensating for the crosswind component of the breeze. The sun was shining. The puffy white clouds were smiling down upon me. The blue sky above appeared to be basking it its own deep beauty.

No sooner did my wheels leave the safety of sweet mother earth when a gust of wind made its presence known. "Holy shit!" a little voice inside my head erupted. "Ok, calm down." another voice replied. It's not uncommon for there to be some bumps on takeoff. Then the control tower announced, "Winds 270 at 12." "Holy shit!" again. They had doubled in strength and were having lots of fun bouncing my plane all over the place, making full use of all three axes. I called the tower to let them know it was too windy and I was coming down.

Facing the specter of death is sometimes like being cut very quickly by a razor sharp knife or pierced by an infinitely small, yet incredibly powerful, laser. It happens in a flash but like it or not you're now bleeding profusely. The blood in this case is adrenaline. Clearly, it's a reflex reaction my monkey brain has inherited from millions of years of evolution. Generally, I'm sure it works well to keep me alive and encourage me to avoid doing foolish things. But up in the air, in a cockpit where you can't just step out, pull over, or press pause, it serves little purpose. In fact it can become a lethal enemy. So today I became quite proficient at (among other things) putting that little voice back it its box very, very quickly. It, however, appeared to retain occasional control (ie., shaking) of my left leg.

My first landing attempt was a bust. With full 30 degrees of flaps I wasn't able to get the plane down due to the headwind component. Things were way too bouncy for me to try and really force the nose over and land in an unusual attitude, likely with far too much speed. Even worse, I was having a very tough time keeping the plane lined up over the runway as the wind was winning the little tug of war over which lateral direction I was moving. So I called the tower and told them I was going around to set up for another attempt. When in doubt, go around. No shame in that. But man, I really wanted out of that plane.

As all this was happening, I overheard another pilot up in the air struggling with the same issue. He had already tried several times to land. In fact, I saw him try to land while I was taxiing. He was still at it. Granted, his plane was smaller and much more difficult to maneuver in wind than mine. But the fact that he was asking for weather information at nearby airports elevated my level of concern. If that weren't enough, the tower then announced, "Wind 280 at 14, gusting to 20. "Holy frrrrreaking shit!."

A useful motto in flying is, "Do it different." Basically, since my first landing attempt didn't work, I needed to try something different. So I set up the plane a bit West of the runway. In case my efforts to compensate for crosswind were insufficient, I'd at least be blown in the right direction. That part of the plan worked. But once again, I wasn't able to get the plane down to an acceptable altitude in time. So I went around again.

This time *I* asked for wind information at nearby Lousia (LKU) airport. I really didn't want to fly out there and risk whatever turbulence lay between but I needed to consider the options. Winds were 230 at 3 out at LKU. Ok, I thought, if I can't get down on this attempt I'd need to head over there. It would be a pain but it would be much safer in theory. LKU, however, uses an automated weather system. There's no control tower. So the wind that had just picked up might have very well decided to follow me like a giant, deadly, puppy rottweiler. Worse still, I may not have found out about it on the radio until after it actually arrived giving it ample time to bite me in the ass.

Besides, I wanted to land. I really wanted to land. In fact, I don't think I've ever wanted to land so badly in my entire life. I wanted to park the plane and run to a nearby bar for a drink. I wanted to go home. I wanted to GET ON THE GROUND right now.

So I bucked up. It's not like I have absolutely no practice or knowledge of what to do in this kind of situation. I decided I'd only use 20 degrees of flaps, which would give me less lift. It worked. I was finally coming down. The VASI lights indicated a proper approach. That sounds all fine and well except that the wind was continuing to play with me, trying to make me wet my pants or worse. I fought back with as much crosswind correction as I could muster. But it's not easy landing a plane tilted sideways 20 degrees. Nor is it very ... um ... comforting.

The runway passed beneath, I entered ground effect and the plane did its normal float. I had to fish a bit for the flare, but finally managed to get the plane on the ground without breaking anything on the aircraft or myself. Insert a big sigh of relief right here. Funny, even hours later, I can still recall the feeling of that 1/10000th of a second of terror. How potent a moment.

Charlottesville remains such an ideal place to learn to fly. The manned control tower, wind socks, real time weather updates, VASI lights, long, relatively wide runway, and perhaps a dozen other things all made my experience today that much less threatening. I suspect they also made it much more safe.

My wrestling match with mother nature lately has mainly been with rain, clouds and storms. It's been a long time since wind alone was even an issue. Well, lesson learned. Wind is far more dangerous and frightening particularly when you don't see it. On such a gorgeous day looks can definitely be deceiving.

Time for that drink now...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Precious Metal

Scheduling flight time with mother nature remains a challenge. Lately, I've been trying to complete my solo cross-country aeronautical experience requirement with very little luck. Last week the plane was in the shop for an extended service. This past Sunday the weather was too iffy. Today the weather is downright miserable. I'm hoping for a break in the clouds later on or hopefully tomorrow, but I'm not holding my breath.

Being a fan of efficiency, I try to use flight downtime for other things. Last night I had lots of fun creating some nicely (if I say so myself) marked up maps. Hopefully I'll get to use them soon. On Sunday the weather was good enough for me to practice takeoffs and landings at a nearby air field (KLKU - Louisa County). That same airport hosted an air show the previous day (Saturday) where among other things, the flight center sold plane and helicopter rides. Here's some video from the event. Aside from the helicopter and beautifully restored bi-plane, can you spot any other familiar flying machines?


When I'm not doing ground school or some other land-based aviation related activity I enjoy cleaning and fixing various bits and pieces of the aircraft. It's a never ending process as I also try to upgrade components that I can afford to improve. So it's also a fascinating (and difficult) exercise in self restraint.

My particular plane has an avionics device called a multi function display. Specifically, it has a KMD-550. Simply put, it allows other avionics equipment to display information in a clear, bright, easily accessible format (ie., GPS map data, weather info, traffic, etc...). Since I've owned the plane it's been missing a knob on the unit. The road to replace this little round piece of metal has been both surprisingly long and expensive. The knob itself isn't very different from one you'd find on a car radio. Yet, it costs $85 and requires two very tiny set screws for an addition $8 ea. Those screws, in turn, required the purchase of a special spline wrench. It's taken me months to get everything ordered and purchased. I finally got the knob installed this weekend and broke my fancy new wrench in the process. The metal was either forged incorrectly or is just plain cheap. Stay tuned for an update.

Just to give a sense of scale I took a picture of the screws (and the wrench ... before it snapped in the line of duty). At $8 each they must be some of most expensive little pieces of metal in the world (pound for pound).

Avionics jewelry anyone?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Tao of Plane

From a Chinese folk tale about an old man called Sai:

"One day his horse ran away. His neighbours commiserated with him over his misfortune, but Sai said “How do you know this is not really good luck?”. A few days later the horse returned, bringing another horse with it. His neighbours congratulated him on his good luck, the old man said “How do you know this is really good luck?” Some while later Sai’s son while riding the horse falls and breaks his leg. This in turn was good fortune because when all the men of the village are ordered to join the Emperor’s army. Sai’s son doesn’t have to go since he has a broken leg."

I try to keep that old proverb in my head these days. As I come up on the one year anniversary of my first test flight, and
consequently the marker of how long I've been at this particular project, I can't help but feel the weight of time. Lately it seems as though the effects of weather, scheduling, and most recently mechanical failure frequently conspire against my will and desire to get a private pilot's license. Ironically also about a year ago, I fell off my bike (horse) and broke my hand.

But seemingly failed attempts at progress provide other opportunities to channel energy in other directions, right?

This past
weekend I was very excited to complete my long solo cross country flight requirement by flying a solo circuit from Charlottesville to Lynchburg to Farmville and then back to Charlottesville. It was only a week prior that I finally completed my night flying requirement by making a round trip to Richmond. So it was starting to feel like I was on a roll. I had all my charts ready and even bought a used color printer to format them perfectly for my knee board.

Sadly, one of the flight instructors called me on Saturday morning to inform me that my plane had been stranded in Manassas. The starter had apparently given out. It happens. He planned on having someone "prop start" the plane and fly it back on Monday for its scheduled 100 hour maintenance. I was a bit discouraged at not being able to fly Sunday, but I knew going in that this business had a heavy random component. So I sucked it up.

Then I got another call on Monday from Dick, the owner of the flight school, telling me that the starter had damaged the flywheel and that my plane would be up in Manassas a bit longer. It would also cost more to get her fixed. My inner child began to jump up and down in a temper tantrum ... but only for a few moments.

Recently, I've become an active member of The Cessna Pilot's Society. This past weekend I started a thread on how to refinish my dash "eyebrow." The responses and replies I received have been invaluable. One of the members actually posted asking what my verdict was finally. Here's a snip from my reply:

and the verdict is" -BP

"Well, my plane's starter just ate my flywheel ... so this project is going to have to get put on hold. Just when I was gonna have some $$$ in the kiddie. Seems like either DYI or getting the leather wrapped option are the best ones. No need to go new it seems. Thanks for all the replies, they are invaluable." -DT

"We welcomed you to this small society, and now by this you are initiated to aircraft ownership." -DM

"How to tell you're having fun in aviation: You're writting checks.
The more checks you write, the more fun you're having." -TM

As a result of all of the above, I've finally had the chance to catch up on my video coursework which I had been falling behind in. Once I finish my flight requirements, I have a written test to take. Even when I'm done with the coursework I still have quite a bit to review. Much as I hate to admit it, not being able to fly the last week provided me a unique opportunity to get down to other business. I now know lots more about microbursts, fog, turbulence, thunderstorms, icing, flying at night, and how to use my plane's GPS device.

Here's some eye candy which will hopefully make up for my lack of posts over the last few weeks.

This is a Soviet military trainer. Sadly, I haven't been able to find the make and model (it's late). Interesting and different take on aircraft design. The landing gear seem a bit more delicate, but also longer and potentially more versatile than some US designs I've seen.

If you look closely, you can see the hammer and sickle on the front cowl. If I didn't have so much respect for Russian engineering, as well as have a Russian friend bring me real vodka recently, I'd be afraid. Ok, maybe not. But I do remember a time when that symbol was loaded with much more frightening meaning.

The Eclipse 500 sits at the opposite end of the spectrum. In a sense, it represents a pinnacle of US capitalism. Not only in terms of its price, performance, and luxury but also due to the fact that production was halted in mid 2008 as the company filed for chapter 11. I wonder if any GM execs flew to DC in one?

It's a small jet but very sleek and elegant. With a cruise speed of over 400mph it is in my opinion one of the most perfect personal transportation vehicles. If I had a few million dollars to spare, I'd grab one in a second.

Last but not least, here's some footage of Charlottesville at night from the air. We had some extra time flying back from Richmond so Shane took the controls for a minute as I snapped the following:


As they say, onward and upward. The cycle of fortune continues to turn and I get to continue practicing my chops at Tao.