Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sono un pilota

It's been a long time coming but has both thankfully and finally happened. I passed my private pilot check ride earlier today. It feels a bit anti-climactic to be honest. But the FAA examiner told me that is actually as it should be. Thankfully my flying was apparently quite good. I was told that too was "as it should be" with more than one hundred hours in the cockpit.

Truth be told, my first landing at KLKU was one of the finest I have ever made.

This entire process has been an amazing learning experience on so many levels. The ever nagging imperatives to study, prepare, and practice (while illuminating) have led to some unfortunate side effects. Isn't it odd how even doing things we love can sometimes become a chore? For the past several months there has been a persistent voice in my head always quick to remind, "You shouldn't ____ because you should be studying instead!" A frequent fill in for that blank has been posting on this blog.

It will be so wonderfully refreshing to continue learning without the looming imperatives. In the meantime you can call me "Captain Cool" because that is an accurate description of how I feel.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Speed of Time

It feels both trivial and impossible to talk about time without some mention of paradox. Science fiction movies have been eternally milking the subject down to the last tachyon. In my particular case, I find myself often trapped in a temporal loop of perpetually preparing for my private pilot checkride. I do think, however, that there's light at the end of this particular runway. All the CFI's I've been flying with keep telling me I'm ready, to which I reply that I still haven't even reviewed the textbook material ... and the cycle repeats.

For reasons that I can't completely fathom, my ability to sit and read the material from a textbook has all but vanished. Instead I've been trying to enlist the support of 21st century technologies in order to help me learn a bit more interactively. Either that or I just really, really, really like using Paypal. I've now purchased an entire private pilot's video course (King Schools), all the Gleim textbooks as well as their written test software, Dauntless Software's checkride prep software and just this morning both an e- and audio book series reviewing all the material for the checkride. I was surprised at how well the latter went along with driving six hours from VA to NJ.

Some of it is finally starting to sink in. I'm also enjoying the multiple facets of flight once again. The data set is pretty well defined and the topics of weather, aerodynamics, FAA regulations and the rest are starting to carve out permanent niches in my synaptic pathways.

It's amazing to think how long I've been at this. Yet if I take a step back and look at the process it doesn't really surprise me that it unfolded somewhat differently than I may have initially envisioned. This was, after all, a bit of a new adventure for me. It seems to make sense now that I have more than 100hrs in the cockpit (the minimum is 40). Taking the slow road to the sky has and continues to involve learning other things about both aviation and myself.

Plane ownership is a door I didn't even expect, let alone one that I would have anticipated opening for me. It's been extremely rewarding. I genuinely enjoy keeping the plane in good shape. This past week I had a secondary GPS device installed that receives satellite weather. It's a bit of a different world when you "hitch a ride" with some other pilots dropping off another plane at the same shop. Despite calling shotgun, I sat in the back seat as Shane and Tom flew an older (1959) Piper Apache over to KLKU for some check ups by the excellent crew at Meridian Air.

Flight remains magical. A currently popular comedian, Louis CK, had some wonderful perspectives on flying during an interview with former Late Night host Conan O'Brien. I had the treat of being able to reflect similarly last week while flying on an absolutely perfect, calm, warm Spring day. When not preoccupied with scanning instruments or properly implementing a maneuver with the correct combination of control technique, flying is nothing short of sublime.

I shot the following clip on my way back to Charlottesville (in the foreground) while coming back from what we call "the Southeast practice area."

I can't help but wonder what it must be like to do it at ten times my current velocity. Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration. I think these military trainers only fly at about five or six times my Cessna's maximum speed.

In any case, I hope the learning process for jet engine certification won't take me proportionately as long.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Flock of Red, White ... and Blue

Celebrity if nothing else sometimes forces us to think. Exactly what we might be inspired to think about is of course totally subjective. But every so often the rarity intrinsic to fame itself can lead our thoughts to coalesce and focus. Today was that kind of day for me.

I've been trying to get on the flight schedule at least twice per week these days. If I'm lucky that means I get to fly once per week. This week I was very lucky, especially today. The windwas particularly strong this afternoon gusting to 20 kts. That's a bit too blustery for me to fly solo in. But it was perfect for me to practice crosswind technique with an instructor. Lately I relish the opportunity to practice flying in tricky situations. It both helps condition me against panic and improves my ability as a pilot on many levels.

Before going up this afternoon my instructor (Fax) pointed out that we had a famous guest visiting the airport. A very large Boeing 757 was doing touch-and-go's around the runway. What's so famous about a 757? Well there's one particular jet of this line that's about as famous as you can get. It was Air Force Two! Apparently they come down here to CHO to practice every so often.

It was a majestic site to see such a large aircraft going around the traffic pattern. It also posed an additional challenge for me: wake turbulence. All the better. Practice is good and more practice is even better. Plus I felt privileged to be chasing and following Mr. Vice President's private plane.

It was a bouncy practice session. There's basically no way to be graceful when mother nature is tossing you around like a feather. But it's reassuring to know that you can actually fly in windy conditions. I'm learning that the trick is not to worry so much about which way the plane is pointed at any given moment. Easier said (mind) than done (nerves).

Wrestling with the wind proved somewhat exhausting. So after a big lunch and some strong coffee I went about the rest of my day; the back of my mind processing my flight instruction this morning, and over the last couple of weeks. There has been a distinctly "American" theme lately. In all likelihood, CHO's proximity to several air bases is the main reason I've been seeing so many military aircraft. Yet, I've been flying for more than a year and I can safely say that I've seen more in the past couple of weeks than ever before.

I've been flying with a few different instructors lately too. So I'm feeling very much like an adolescent child in some type of ancient tribe preparing for a rite of passage. As I think more on this notion of "tribe" it occurs to me that this is a special one indeed. I would even go so far as to say it's a distinctly American one. We did after all invent flight and thanks to our European cousins starting WWII we refined it to an amazingly fine point likely undreamed of by our ancestors.

I've waxed on about my national pride before. Too bad it's somewhat of a sensitive subject these days. I do not bear blind allegiance to the flag. Like some, I'm keenly aware of our shortcomings, vices, even our sins. It often makes me uncomfortable that I spend more money each month on cable internet (or flight lessons) than some families in the world do on food for a year. In some sense the dream for me is that one day those with good fortune can and will share it with everyone else.

I love the notion of the global village. People talk about the transcendent experience of viewing earth from space. There's even an institute dedicated to the idea. But like it or not we haven't gotten there yet. Nationhood seems to both consistently and regularly stand in the way of a planetary family.

So until then I take some joy in being part of a somewhat smaller tribe. Or more appropriately perhaps I should say a flock.

I managed to get my iPhone out just as these geese flew overhead the other day. Let's hope they bring warmer weather in their wake.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The boss may not always be right ...

But she's still the boss.

A video is worth a thousand pictures.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Slowdown Snowdown

The holy grail of my quest to become a private pilot remains elusive. Like much of the East Coast lately, I have been simply trudging along with little help from mother nature. Before the holidays I managed to pass my written exam. Yay me. But preparation for the subsequent check ride (road test) has been equally slow going. Regardless, I celebrated by visiting some friends in Belgium and ringing in the New Year in Amsterdam, something everyone should do at least once.

Due to weather and holiday plans I ended up not flying for over a month. Trying to fly solo afterwards proved an unpleasant experience. It feels as though I've slipped back a bit in terms of raw piloting technique. My landings remain quite polished. But the other skills, however, feel and look quite rusty. So I've been flying with Dick Yates, the owner of CFC and senior CFI. He's had many useful tips. Last time we flew, practicing slow flight, I managed to fly the plane at an astonishingly snail-paced ground speed of 20kts!

Besides the drudgery of reading and reviewing manuals that explain in detail every precise component of various maneuvers ... the weather has been extremely uncooperative the last couple of months. Virginia has seen record snowfall this Winter. While I'm enjoying finally having a fourth season here in the South, the local infrastructure is somewhat ill equipped to handle this much frozen precipitation. Plus, flying in the snow is a no-no.

Today was one of those special days where the snow and ice start to melt enough so that you can actually see entire road surfaces, driveways and sidewalks. Sadly, the winds were too strong for me to practice even with an instructor. I'm not sure if mother nature is mocking or teasing me, perhaps a little of both.

On the bright side, I am getting lots of good experience. My patience, however, is pretty much gone in terms of actually becoming a private pilot. Although it's not like I'd actually be flying anywhere right now. Just the same, I'm anxious to wrap things up. Once I do get my certificate, however, I'll be much more experienced than your average newly minted PIC. Both Dick and Shane claim I'm ready to take my check ride right now. My feeling is a bit different. I want to feel a sense of mastery over the plane not just a high level of proficiency.

Ahh. Nothing like a blog to get your whine on. I've said it before and I'll say it again, "It's tough being a white man."

Thursday, December 3, 2009


From the ubiquitous Wikipedia: a stall is a condition in aerodynamics and aviation where the angle of attack increases beyond a certain point such that the lift begins to decrease.

A crucial element to the discussion of a stall, however, is velocity. Technically speaking, it's somewhat less of a consideration, but since I've decided to stretch this analogy to the breaking point I'll continue to quote ubiquity:

Stalls depend only on angle of attack, not airspeed. Because a correlation with airspeed exists, however, a "stall speed" is usually used in practice. It is the speed below which the airplane cannot create enough lift to sustain the weight in 1g flight. In steady, level flight (1g), the faster an airplane goes, the less angle of attack it needs to hold the airplane up (i.e. to produce lift equal to weight). As the airplane slows down, it needs to increase angle of attack to create the same lift (equal to weight). As the speed slows further, at some point the angle of attack will be equal to the critical (stall) angle of attack. This speed is called the "stall speed". The angle of attack cannot be increased to get more lift at this point and so slowing below the stall speed will result in a descent. And so, airspeed is often used as an indirect indicator of approaching stall conditions. The stall speed will vary depending on the airplane's weight and configuration (flap setting, etc.).

How apt. No matter how you slice it, literally, I'm stalled. Preparing for my written exam has been an extremely powerful gumption sedative that's lasted for the past several months. I've gone on and on about some of the reasons why in previous posts. If nothing else the experience has instilled a renewed appreciation for pedagogy.

I started out flying with my original instructor, Regan. We had a nice rhythm to our lessons. He'd suggest a section in my video course to watch and chapters in the corresponding textbook to read, then we'd fly those lessons. Sadly, Regan left town over one year ago. Since then I've had a few other instructors which really threw the watch, read, and fly cycle off. Don't get me wrong, I've had very good teachers all the way through. But in order to retain the vast amount of information that makes up the basics of flying an airplane, much like any discipline, there needs to be reinforcement.

My brain has been throwing a temper tantrum for a while now at having to basically re-learn such a large quantity of material. So rather than study, here I am posting, whining and complaining about it. Unlike actually flying, I can pause, bitch and moan. If I'm not mistaken, this is my first official blog post as such. But consider that small quote with which I began this entry. Now imagine hundreds upon hundreds of pages of similarly crafted prose.

Ok, I'm gonna go hold my breath now until I'm blue in the face.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard ...

Boy how time flies. Seriously. I can't believe I haven't opened a blog entry with that line yet.

Making time to hit the books and review a year's worth of material for my private pilot written exam remains a challenge. Part of the problem is that the video course I've been using, made by King schools, really isn't my cup of tea. It's a decent product but appeals more to the masses than someone technically oriented. Unfortunately, I've been using it for more than a year.

Thankfully, a fellow by the name of Irvin N. Gleim has an entire line of books and courses which are exactly what I've been looking for. Sadly, it's still a ton of information to review. Given that my first exposure was back during the Bush administration, my brain often struggles to recall distant memories. That being said, I could probably pass the test right now. But I'd rather have a mastery of the subject and not take any chances either on the day of my test or any other day up in the air.

A couple of weeks ago, I took "one zero alpha" up to NJ to celebrate my mom's birthday. It was a fantastic trip from start to finish. Sadly since I don't yet have my license,I hired a friend to actually fly the plane with me as an unofficial co-pilot. Even before we left,things seemed to fall into place. I won the headset I had bid for on eBay. It shipped and arrived on time. The Garmin GPS 496 unit (with XM satellite weather) arrived with plenty of time to get reasonably familiar with using it. The weather, speaking of which, was threatening to cancel our plans. But after much discussion the day before and morning of, off we went.

I've never flown such a long distance in a four seat airplane. The novelty seemed to shift perspective somewhat into the sublime. I mean, having your own private airplane is a level of freedom that's difficult to explain. If I can ever actually get a license to fly, I hope to explain more of it to many people first hand. The undercurrent of natural fear (we were after all in a glorified 2,000lb aluminum tub 8,000 feet up in the sky) and disbelief that we were actually flying on our own to a destination of our choice ... combined like a sweet and sour mix in my soul.

I guess I'll have to forgo some of the details of the flight. Or perhaps add them later. Daniel did a fine job getting us safely to Somerset NJ (KSMQ). The weather was lovely here in VA but got a bit dicey farther north. I got to experience several new aspects of flight first hand. I was blown away at how well the plane's autopilot works. You really can fly the thing by doing little more than twisting some knobs and pressing some buttons. Yet, I also saw how Air Traffic Control (ATC) can vector you all over the place when flying an IFR (instrument flight rules) flight plan. We started out heading towards the Chesapeake Bay, then got routed West of Philadelphia. This zig zagging continued much of the trip along with several denied requests to fly above (as opposed to through) the clouds. The latter makes for a bit of a bumpy, blind ride. I have to give a small plug for the Garmin GPS 496. It was fantastic. The whole flight up we were able to track any semblance of problem weather ... and avoid it.

The flight home was picture perfect. I can't wait to do it again soon.

That will have to do for now. I have several hours of study left ahead for the evening. I'll close with a link to photos from the flight. Click the picture below and it will redirect you to the Picasa web album. Laura did a great job taking pictures during both flights. I hope you'll agree these are some great shots of the Chesapeake, Virginia ... and clouds. Enjoy.

[Click the image below to see the pictures]

Oh and fasten your seat belts, please.