Saturday, December 31, 2011

Joy - 2011

Today is the last day of 2011. I celebrated the end of the year the best way possible... flying! I flew my husband on a Bay Tour  up to one of our favorite places to fly in and eat - Santa Rosa Charles M Shultz Airport's Sky Lounge. The weather here has been in a basically stagnant pattern for a month.... cool hazy conditions with an occiasional wind blowing out the haze, then hazy conditions once again. Today was a clear day, light winds, minimum haze. A beautiful day for a trip around some of the Bay Area's iconic spots.

We flew up the peninsula past Stanford University, Crystal Springs Reservoir, San Fransisco Airport, directly over downtown San Francisco. Then we turned towards the ocean to fly in to the Bay over the Golden Gate Bridge (that's a view no one sees from the ground), we flew out to Angel Island and around it, then back towards downtown San Francisco over Alkatraz Island. Another turn towards the Marin Headlands and we were ready to go eat. We didn't take pictures, we took video of the whole flight.. once the video is done I'll post highlights to share.

We then flew up to Santa Rosa and I did my first approach and landing to a airport with a control tower that wasn't my home airport... it was amazingly easy. We parked and went into the terminal to eat. When were were done we hung out on the ramp to watch an Alaskan Airlines flight come in to the terminal and take pictures of a Grumman Albatross that was parked there.

That's when we got into a bit of trouble. The airport operations manager drove up in his truck and explained we should not be on the ramp except to go to and from our plane. We apologized and started to head for the plane. He told me to go ahead and take a last picture... he said "Hey, you're here, you got caught, you may as well take the picture!" We laughed, thanked him, took the picture and headed back to the plane.

But this little adventure isn't really what this post is about... or maybe it is exactly what this post is about. When I started training for my PPL, the term "joy" entered my vocabulary. I'd never used it  to describe my life or my wishes for others before.. but now I know joy. My joy comes from flying... from all aspects of it. The little adventures, the risks, the rewards, the amazing views of the world from above, views that no ground bound person can see. The challenges of flight training, my frustrations, fears, every down has had an equal up. When I fly I feel so alive, the world is new and immediate and challenging and demanding and soft and friendly at the same time. I get to feel and experience first hand the air under my wings. I get to interact with the same air traffic control that the big jets that carry hundreds of passengers do. I've met new and interesting and awesome people. I've become a part of a community of a very small percentage of the population that can fly. I'm part of an even smaller percentage of that group that are women.

When I look back at 2011, my view is through the lens of the joy of flight. The joys and frustrations and triumphs of my year of training that resulted in my PPL in November and the fun flights I've had since then enjoying the freedom's I've earned. The other highlights of my year were being able to spend a week with all of my brothers and sisters for the first time in many, many years and meeting my new niece and nephew, running the St. George Marathon in spite of not training for it, many parties and celebrations with my friends, teaming up with some other former student pilots to kidnap our CFI for a beer to thank him for granting us the gift of flight, feeling closer to my husband than I ever have before. There were many disappointments this year too... sprained ankle, work continued to be a struggle and my running suffered due to my flying. However, overall, I will remember 2011 as a year of joy. A year where I earned my wings and now I can exercise that joy whenever the weather and scheduling gods allow.

This next year I hope to use my new wings to visit my family more often. I'd like to start and finish training for an Instrument Rating so I can fly safely in the clouds. I'd like to somehow gain more peace at work. I'd like to grow closer to my teenage daughter and continue to explore the world with my husband. I'd like to run more and spend more time with my close friends who sacrificed their time with me so I can gain my wings. I'd like to take them with me on flights so they can see first hand the joy of flight.

My wish for you, my friend, is that you find your joy in 2012, whatever that may be. When you find that joy, share it with the people around you. Maybe together, we can spread joy in the world and there will be more joy, peace and love for all. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

- AB

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Willows Finally!

I finally flew to Willows today. It was a day of a couple firsts... my first flight to Willows (WLW) as PIC. My first cross country in a 172SP. My first aborted takeoff requested by a tower. My first non-training night cross country return. Today was my last chance to get in a cross country flight before the Christmas break and a trip to Houston to visit family. I was anxious to be able to complete a flight before the time away.

Our rented SP at WLW. Ready to go home.
About the trip.. I got to exercise the new skill I learned last week, the aborted take off. This time because the tower cancelled my take off clearance after I started my takeoff roll. A Citabria landed on the parallel runway and didn't read back the hold instructions the tower gave them not to cross my runway. So the tower had me abort to be sure of no crash. I was ready for that to happen because I heard the lack of response from the Citabria. I was ready to abort myself if the other pilot didn't stop. In any case, I brought the plane to a very nice stop and exited on Delta.. then taxied back to try again.

128kts ground speed for
115 kts IAS. Not bad :)
The flight to Willows was mostly uneventful. We got flight following of course and had a lot of traffic pointed out to us on the way. The air was rather hazy in the valley but the flight was smooth and it was a very familiar route.. part of why we picked that destination. I was flying a plane I wasn't familiar with so I wanted to reduce the number of unfamiliar variables I had to deal with (that and I've been wanting to fly to Willows myself for months, literally!).  We had a headwind on the way there but we took off with full fuel so that would not be a problem at all.

As usual I had no problem with radio work, or the cruise portion of the flight. My pattern needs help though. I keep forgetting to pick a target point when I turn base and I find I am rusty on power off landings still. In any case I got us on the ground with a smooth landing and we enjoyed the food at Nancy's Airport Cafe and watched the Broncos play on TV for a while. We ordered a slice of pie for our daughter and then headed back out to the plane for the trip home.

For the return trip I opted to take off on runway 16 since that pointed us the direction we'd be going. I announced our intentions over CTAF and was in the runup for 16 when a blue taildragger took off on the same runway in the opposite direction. Welcome to the world of the non-towered airport. People aren't required to use radios at these airports. That plane was a good reminder of why we have to keep our eyes peeled for people who aren't listening or talking about where they are going.

This plane has a very well lit panel.
On the way back it got dark.. as scheduled. I found this plane is a pleasure to fly at night. It has a very well lit instrument panel. Strobes and separate landing and taxi lights in addition to the required navigation lights and beacon. I felt a bit safer with those stobes going as we approached the busy Livermore to Calaveras corridor where planes approach from all over the central valley to transition into the bay area proper. I wanted to fly into the bay area over the Sunol grade, but I spotted a cloud bank that I would have to fly around if I took that route. So I switched to come in over Calaveras reservoir.

I got to do my first night landing in that plane too .. I almost forgot to turn on the landing lights, but I did on short final. Because of that momentary distraction I let the airspeed go down below the normal approach speed. As a result I ended up landing a short field landing. I was wondering how to do a short field landing in a plane with only 30 degrees of flaps. Turns out the answer is easy, fly slower.

I definitely need to practice more on many of my flying skills.. power off landings and learning this particular plane are two of them. At the end of the day I'm just happy about the flight, about being able to fly and spend time with my husband in the plane. I finally made it to Willows as PIC and got to log more cross country and night cross country time too. I hope for many many more days like this one.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Aviation and Life

Two small instances where my involvement in aviation (and specifically my flight training) have improved my life.
  1. My work life is being upheaved at the moment. The group I've been working in for the last 3 years or so is re-organized, I have a new boss and more responsibility and less people to help with it. However, for some reason I've had three different people that I've worked with over the years come up to me and say stuff like "I don't know what you are doing but keep doing it. You've always been on top of things but you are handling this so well. You really are in charge this time." I can only blame my flight training as when the *#$&@ started hitting the fan I sat myself down and told myself. "Just fly the airplane." I am focusing on what is important and prioritizing the rest. The other thing "I'm not helpless." This time I'm not going to let people assume I'll just take on more work. Even when I CAN do it, it isn't my role or responsibility any more. I will do what it takes to make sure the work gets done, but it will not be me doing it.
  2. This one is bit more fun... when I was in the middle of a 6:30 AM conference call this morning with another 5 hours of conference calls to do and my husband texted me asking me to bring him something in town. I was able to reply back with a single word "unable" and he understood exactly what I meant. 
Bonus points for people who know where that "I'm not helpless" quote comes from. :)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

More Ups and Downs

Last Friday, Dec 9 - An Up
Friday was an exciting day... my day job was starting to sort itself and I joined the team at work volunteering at 2nd Harvest Food Bank's warehouse in the Silicon Valley.. sorting oranges and filling 775 3# bags of oranges for the hungry. Another of my CFI's PPL students (another problem child like me) passed his checkride and I actually helped him a bit in the process. And, I went up and flew at night for the first time since my night cross country back in March.

I went up for the required 3 take offs and landings to a full stop 1 hour after sunset. The pattern was busy that night, it was calm and clear so many people had the same idea I did to get night current. I watched as other planes seemed to float most of the way down the runway and felt proud of myself for not having the same problem. I also re-learned how convincing those night optical illusions can be. At one point it appeared the plane I was following in the pattern was headed straight for the ground. I was literally waiting for the fireball! It turned out he was descending earlier than I expected and while I was watching him I was climbing.. the resulting change in visual angle made it appear like he was descending steeply. He wasn't. Another re-learning... if you are going 100kts you need to make a much steeper turn than you use at 75kts if you want to start and finish the turn at the same point. Or.. even better, turn earlier, or go slower. Yeah, I wasn't perfect but I was feeling pretty cocky after that flight.

Sunday, Dec 11 - A Down (aka Learning Experience)
Today I was in a different plane, a 172R instead of the 172N I've been flying for months. It was my first time flying in this particular plane as pilot (I've flown in it as passenger before). I wanted to do a short cross country flight today but the weather didn't cooperate. So I decided to do a couple times around the pattern to get used to this plane. My hubby and his friend hung out in the flight club and waited for me to finish.

I'm going to skip most of my miscues with the plane and get to the really exciting one. One bit of background, as I did the preflight on the plane I noticed the previous pilot left the plane trimmed almost all of the way nose up. The trim tab wasn't set at the "take off" position marked on the trim wheel. So I put the tab back on the take off position marked on the trim wheel. I did the normal runup and verified controls were free and correct, etc. Then it was time to take off. I got my clearance and rolled on to the runway. Full power and the plane surged forward with more enthusiasm than my usual 172N. As the plane rolled I felt the nose gear shimmy like it would if there was downward pressure on the nose wheel. I applied a bit of back pressure to correct for that and all seemed fine. 55kts came and went. 60kts and the plane wasn't taking off. I couldn't figure out why so I aborted the take off. Pulled out the power and mixture and braked carefully but aggressively. I was running out of runway so I steered for the final taxiway and piloted the plane across a grassy strip and finally came to rest on another taxiway.

I took a deep breath and notified the tower of my position. They had me talk to ground. Ground asked my intentions and I said, of course, that I was going to have to restart and go back to parking. Because of my unfamiliarity with the fuel injected engine I quickly flooded it and wasn't able to start. So ground sent over a crew to help me push the plane clear of the taxi way. Then I was told to call the tower. Uh oh. I called the tower and the controller there and his supervisor talked to me. They wanted to make sure there was no damage to the plane (there wasn't).. nothing fell off the plane on the runway or in the grass. No prop strike. No one hurt, etc.  They took my contact info and told me everything was fine.

I had to call my husband to help me restart the flooded engine (embarrassing!), then I taxied it back to its parking spot. I was upset, mostly because I started to figure out what happened and there was most likely nothing wrong with that plane... it was me. I had the plane trimmed "for take off" which was probably too far nose down for the fact that there was nothing in the back of the plane. And, I didn't apply the back pressure necessary to make the plane take off. I only applied what I was used to using for my usual plane, which had a habit of dancing off the runway on its own at 55kts. 

My CFI happened to show up at that time to talk with somebody at the club.. I told him what happened and what I thought caused it. He asked a couple questions and said that was the only thing he could think of. He reminded me that I'm so used to one plane I'm going to have to be careful and forceful with other planes. If it doesn't take off, make it take off he said. He said I'm going to have to get more and more used to dealing with that type of thing as I fly different planes. Then he congratulated me on a very powerful learning experience that fortunately no one and nothing was hurt for me to gain the experience.

*sigh* I don't like those types of learning experiences. I suppose the good thing is, this time I'm not scared, I'm annoyed with myself. Very annoyed. When I got home I filed an ASRS report. Hopefully someone else can learn from my mistakes. I'll go back out in that plane later this week with my husband and make that thing take off. Next time I fly well.. I don't think I'll get so cocky either, another "great learning experience" could be right around the corner.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Flying and Enduring

I do have a life outside of flying. When I'm not flying I volunteer and do Race Control ...think ATC for race cars... with the National Auto Sports Association (NASA). I also run a couple marathons every year.  NASA puts on a race called the 25 Hours of Thunderhill every  December. The race is held at Thunderhill Raceway Park.  Last weekend I "survived the 25" again in Race Control. I shared a link with some excellent pictures and stories with some of my flying friends. One pilot friend said quite simply... "Cool pictures, but I just don't get it."

So I tried to explain the draw in terms of flying that maybe a pilot could understand... so, for all of you pilots out there who just don't get why someone would do a 25 hour car race, or run a marathon for that matter, here is my explanation. And for those of you who do 25 hour car races or run marathons and don't understand why fly... this may bridge the gap for you as well. 

The best way I can try to describe the experience of a 25 hour endurance race, or a marathon or  running race control to you is to try to relate it to flying. I think there is a small correlation.

The reason why I enjoy marathons, endurance racing, and running race control is because each pushes me mentally, physically or emotionally or any combination of the three right to the edge of my capabilities. The fun comes from the realization that I can actually DO these things and do them well when most can't or won't. The fun comes from intellectual stimulation and challenge... All of these activities are mind games in the end. Mind over matter to get to the finish line, stay awake and manage chaos. I get similar stimulation from flying. At first I was fully challenged by just flying at all, then being able to fly a pattern and not be scared, then it was to gaining some skill, then maneuvers, then flying a cross country, etc etc each step challenged and stretched my capabilities ... The best thing about flying is the learning and challenge haven't stopped yet and I doubt it ever will!

For the people that do this particular race, some are professionals, most are amateurs. The pro teams come to win or to test for the 24 Hours of Daytona or verify the reliability of a new engine, etc. The amateurs come to push themselves ... to really push themselves in a way they probably never... ever... do.

For those of us "in control" it's the mental, physical and emotional challenge of controlling the chaos and boredom of 80 cars on the track for 25 hours. Handling car fires, rolls, life flight, passing under yellow, grouchy racers and crews all while listening to the course workers in one ear, paddock marshals in the other and race directors and event directors in both.  Pilots - imagine the busiest you've ever heard an ATC tower. That's probably close. Then do it for 7 hours straight from 11PM to 6AM after a 3 hour break after a 5 hour shift. Then imagine doing that paired with some if the most competent and compatible people you know. The combination of self challenge and teamwork is it's own rush... And reward.

The bottom line is when I push and challenge myself, mentally, physically and emotionally I feel the most alive. I've called it the Exhilaration of Exhaustion.. type E (for endurance) personality.. but now with flying I know its not the exhaustion that is the thrill necessarily, its the challenge and being up to the challenge. I get the same exhilaration from an hour flying that I do from a great run or a 25 hour car race. 

My dear friends I don't know if you would ever enjoy these things as I do. But I think if you imagine it in the context of challenging yourself and pushing yourself and finding yourself up to that challenge... You can understand.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Eagle

My dear IRs, I'd like to introduce you to my eagle. I got this tattoo yesterday in celebration of finally earning my pilots license and my place among those that fly with eagles. I promised myself long ago that I would get an eagle tattoo after I got my license. To me the eagle is the perfect symbol of a pilot, proud (yes I am proud of my accomplishment so far and the greater things I will be able to accomplish), soaring and powerful and free.

Free from those surly bounds of Earth, free to touch the face of God, free to play among the clouds, winds, stars and sunbeams, free to view the wrinkles and bends of the earth, rivers and oceans as only the birds do, free to enable friends and families to get to places they would never consider accessible in a couple short hours, free to continue to challenge myself to be a better, safer, more skilled, more knowledgeable pilot, free to learn.

Yep, I love this eagle and all it represents. As its shape and colors took form on my leg, I knew it was right. Just as me flying is right. This eagle belongs on me just as I belong in the sky :) It is good.

Watch for Falling People

Well, so far we are zero for many on getting up to Willows for a cross country. Today, the last day of the Thanksgiving holiday before we go back to work, my hubby and I planned to fly cross country to Willows, not to buy pie, but to return the pie tins from the last pie purchases there. No joy. Thick fog predicted for the central valley for most of the day. Time for plan B.

Plan B was a trip to Oceano Dunes. If the central valley is totally fogged in, that usually means the coast is clear (literally) ... sure enough all current and forecast weather sources indicated clear on the coastlines. Oceano has a really good BBQ joint about 3 miles from the airport so that was enough for the other half to approve the trip. The only possible damper to the trip is we'd have to be on the way back by 3PM or no later than 3:15PM in order to be on the ground before night fall back at RHV. Neither of us is night current.

RHV weather was fogged in most of the morning and finally got up to MVFR with haze by noon. We got down there and I called for a weather briefing to ensure my interpretation of the weather matched the experts. The briefer mentioned the AIRMET for fog in the San Francisco Bay Area, and how the satellite showed it burning off. Then he said there was an AIRMET for moderate turbulence just south of our destination. Finally he mentioned there was a NOTAM for parachute jumping right over Oceano airport so make sure to monitor CTAF so I wouldn't have to dodge falling people. Aside from the that the weather along the route was predicted clear.  As usual they asked if I had any questions and I just said, "OK, to summarize, watch for falling people, don't fly into fog and hope the turbulence stays south of my destination." The briefer laughed, agreed that was a good synopsis and wished me a good flight.

Jeff and I took off around 12:45PM a little later than desired. Before we took off I told Jeff that he was not allowed to touch the controls unless we discussed it first. He asked me if I thought he would do that. I said no, but just in case, we should be clear on that. He agreed, of course. Nothing really exciting happened on the flight there. We had flight following, Jeff managed switching the radios when we needed and programming waypoints into the GPS but aside from that he just relaxed in the right seat, pushed all the way back and played with his electronics.

I found out the plane feels sluggish with 285 lbs in the right seat rather than the 170 or nothing I was used to sitting there. It doesn't fly as fast on the same power setting with the extra weight either. I found if I just let go of the controls the plane would roll right, towards the heavier weight, so I had to correct for that the whole flight. I learned I should verify I have the right charts for the entire flight.. I only had the San Francisco sectional with me and Oceano is on the Las Angeles sectional. Fortunately we had an up-to-date GPS to leverage and a flight plan to follow.

We got to Oceano 1.9 hours after I turned the key. I pulled off a descent landing considering the unfamiliar weight and the narrow and short runway. Unfortunately, we did not have enough time for us to get BBQ, but we had enough time to get out of the plane, wander around the airport and chat with some locals who came out to watch planes take off and land. There were about 10 planes parked on the ramp in transient and it turned out all of the pilots had the same idea to leave at 3. All of the sudden planes were firing up and taxiing down to the run up to take off. We waited a couple minutes to let some of the planes clear the ramp and then we took off too.

5 mile final for 31R - ATIS says 10SM visibility
We picked up flight following on the way back and enjoyed clear and smooth air all the way up to the Bay Area. Jeff and I noticed the plane running a bit rougher and we lost about 5 knots IAS as we passed over King City airport on the way back. That wasn't normal, but it didn't get any worse. I made sure to squawk that information when we got back. On the return you could see the haze over the Bay Area. ATIS at RHV said visibility was 10 miles, but it sure didn't look like that from 2500 feet and 10 miles away! I wished I already had that Instrument Rating I'm planning on getting. It seemed like there were 5 planes all calling inbound for landing from over UTC right after I called in. The sunset was coming fast and I'm sure many of these planes had pilots that were not night current.. just like us. We were cleared for landing following a Bonanza. I couldn't see the airport, but I could see the Bonanza's anti-collision lights so I happily followed that until I actually could see the airport. Finally about 4 miles out we could see the VASIs and that helped me line up for the runway. Jeff reminded me not to descend too much and I was grateful for his help.

I landed the plane gently and rolled off the runway very happy. Jeff and I flew very well together with me in the left seat. I did good on the flying, navigating and landing and we had no major mechanical issues. Next time we go to Oceano dunes we'll have to make it an overnight trip. I forgot I have a friend down there, in addition to good BBQ to eat! It was a good flight. I hope to have many, many more of those!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

This Thanksgiving I have much to be thankful for. Two weeks ago I passed my checkride and became a certificated private pilot. Today, I flew with my first passenger, my 13 year old daughter, Katie. I had been waiting so long to be able to just fly, to go beyond my 25 NM radius pen, to be able to go flying with my daughter, just me and her. Flying is so special to me and she is my daughter, the most special person in the world. What could be more perfect than that?

The original plan was for Katie and I to fly up to Willows, CA (KWLW) to get pies for Thanksgiving desert from Nancy's Airport Cafe. Nancy's is famous for some of the best pies in Northern California. Willows is about 135NM north of my home airport, normally I would consider that far away for a first cross country after getting a license, but flying (and driving) to and from Willows is very familiar to me. I had my favorite plane reserved and knew the route, but the weather was looking iffy. True to typical Northern California winter, a series of low pressure systems, with rain, were working their way from north to south. I knew the latest system would be working its way south today and was expected to reach our area late afternoon or evening. When I checked the weather Willows looked clear, outlooks were VFR, the winds aloft were strong but not horrible. I felt uneasy though. I kept checking different weather data, prog charts, SIGMETS and AIRMETS, etc, etc. I realized I was trying to find data to convince myself it was OK to do this particular flight. But the "little voice" was insisting it wasn't a good idea. I didn't want to do my first post checkride cross country flight with the most precious cargo I could carry (my own daughter) into a potential storm, even if the storm wasn't supposed to be in the area for many hours to come, and the expected weather could hardly be categorized as a "storm". Finally, I decided not to go on that mission. The "little voice" calmed immediately.

Katie and I discussed alternate plans, I had been wanting to fly towards Monterey Bay and go along the coastline (all summer I'd looked at small planes flying the same coastline with some jealousy) and she mentioned that she would like to see the cement ship sunk off the coast at Seabright Beach. We checked the weather at the small airports along the Monterey Bay coastline and all looked good, in spite of the heavy clouds over the coastal range. When we got to the flight club there were clouds in all directions but south. Perfect. We would take off south, continue that way until we got around the clouds over the mountains, then head west to the coast to see what we could see there. We'd fly along the coastline and view the cement ship and whatever else caught our fancy, then come back. A simple flight, not a cross country, but it felt right.

And it was, the flight went very well. I flew well, I flew the plane with the confidence of my long training. Katie is a fantastic co-pilot. She helped me spot traffic and didn't talk when I needed quiet. She quietly enjoyed the flight and pointed out spots on beaches where she's camped and surfed. She also quickly figured out we had a strong headwind as we flew south... she noticed the cars on the highway were keeping up with us :)  She told me we would have a tailwind coming home. I made sure to do easy climbs and descents so they wouldn't bother her ears and she didn't mind the small turbulence we got, as normal, coming back into the RHV area. Of course, she's been flying even longer than I have. She used to ride along on my husband's primary training flights! As I was flying she was texting her friends... "oh, just flying around Santa Cruz for fun" she says.

There's so much more I could share... the various shapes of the high and low clouds. The fun of flying around them. Being the person flying the plane along the shoreline instead of the earthbound person watching the plane. Deciding the altitude and direction I'd fly... on the fly. Looking at the shapes of the hills, knowing the direction of the winds and predicting the interaction of the two.. correctly. Being able to put the plane exactly where I want it to be. Holding the altitude I wanted... figuring out 95 knots is 2300 RPM between 3000 and 5000 ft MSL. Controlling my airspeed coming back into RHV airspace (something I've struggled with in the past) and even landing a good landing in windy conditions. I felt little pieces of my training clicking into place on that flight. 

All the while my daughter took it in stride. Of course I was PIC of the plane she was in... as she explains to her friends, "my parents are pilots". Both mother and father are pilots. I love the fact that my daughter is uncaring of the old prejudices that used to keep women from even thinking they could fly, and if a woman was bold enough to think she could... others would tell her no. My parents, my mother, never gave me the impression I should be any more or less capable than anyone else because of my gender. My own grandmother was a WASP in World War II and later a math teacher. Not surprising that I'm a pilot now. I hope to give my own daughter the same sense that what she will become is not limited by her gender, her only limits are the ones she creates. Those limits can be challenged and changed.

After landing I made sure to wish the tower and ground control Happy Thanksgiving.  I taxied back and Katie helped me secure the plane. Then we went inside the club to relax. I saw my CFI there and told him that flight made all of the hours of training worth it. He looked surprised at that. I suppose I didn't say it well.... the hours of training gave me that flight with my daughter before she outgrows her mom and dad and leaves us behind. The hours of training gives me the capability and privilege to fly. There will be many more flights like this one to come. Many more people for me to fly with and share the wonder with... and times when I'll fly by myself.  I am now one of the few people in the world who can climb into a machine and fly! That is worth every minute of training, study, joy and frustration.

This Thanksgiving I have much to be thankful for.... and I am. I wish you and yours a wonderful Thanksgiving too!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

My PPL Checkride - Part III - Flight

A newly minted private pilot and her (rental) plane - N5093K
I finished re-checking the fuel in the plane and looked back at the door of the flight club for the DPE. She had disappeared. Hmph. Here I was, ready to go and no flight examiner go to with me. So I went back into the club and got her :) she had just finished catching up on the news of the morning.

We went out to the plane and she asked me some questions about the plane as we walked around it… what is that? comm antenna. what are those? VOR antenna, etc.  Then she went to get into the plane. I reached in the door opposite her and told her I will be doing my passenger briefings before we pull out. I asked her if she wanted one and she did. So I went through my very first passenger briefing. It was thorough (of course). When I was done we pulled the plane out and climbed in. Time to prove not only could I talk the talk, I could walk the walk of a real pilot. I went through the checklists, started the engine, tested the brakes, gave her the controls so she could test them as well. Everything was good.

I got ATIS and requested a Calaveras (NE bound) departure from ground control. This is the departure we would fly in order to start the hypothetical cross country flight. After getting clearance, I started the taxi to the run up area at the other end of the runway. As we taxied she suggested we could stay in the pattern first and then do the departure. I agreed and told her I would request the change in clearance after we got to the run up area and stopped. Got to the run up area, requested the amended clearance and went through the run up and pre-take off checklists. Then I asked what type of takeoff she wanted. Short field. OK, 10 degrees of flaps for that. Reviewed the take off and climb checklists and we were ready to go.

The initial pattern portion was uneventful. Short field take off, flew a clean pattern, landed a good short field landing. Then we were switched to the other runway. Soft field take off next. The tower asked me to line up and wait, she said it would be OK if I had to stop, she knew I knew that isn't part of the soft field procedure. Soft field take off was fine, fly another clean pattern. Then she said she wanted a forward slip to landing. I asked if she wanted a soft field landing, she said no.. just a normal landing. OK then. Set up a bit high on final and did the forward slip to landing. After we landed she flipped up the flaps and had me take off and then request a Calaveras departure. We were done in the pattern.

I did the correct noise abatement turn and then lined up for the heading I calculated for the first cross country leg. Flew the leg but ascended to only 3500 feet because we weren't actually going to fly the cross country. She monitored my heading and altitudes to verify I did that portion of the test right. No problem there. Then came the diversion, the scenario was a medical emergency where she had to get to the Concord airport quickly. I knew in general where Concord was, so I pointed the plane in that general direction, then looked up on the chart the designation for Concord, plugged that into the GPS, gave her the time, distance and fuel required to get there. Then I had to demonstrate the radio calls I would do. I was slow in this process, mostly from messing with the chart, but I did it.

We did a turn back towards San Antonio lake to do maneuvers. I did a couple clearing turns and then she had me do steep turns left and right. I turned left, then turned right. Then when I was back on the original heading again I looked at her. OK, slow flight, some turns while in slow flight. Power off stall and recovery. Then power on stall, for the power on stall she wanted a turning power on stall. The idea was the increased bank in the turn should help the plane reach the stall quicker. Maybe it was quicker but it still took a long time. I was glad my CFI had me do a turning power off stall a couple flights earlier. I *hated* doing it, but I knew I could so I just did. It seemed to take forever to get the plane to the buffet, then I took it out of that configuration and recovered. She had me dial in to the San Jose VOR and determine the radial we were on, the radial we would be on if we flew right to the San Jose VOR and how I would know we were over the VOR.

Around this time we were nearing Calaveras again. I was wondering when we would be turning towards Tracy or at least some flatter land than the hills near the reservoir for the simulated emergency. She wanted to do simulated instrument next. I told her I wasn't comfortable doing maneuvers here near Calaveras as it was a main corridor for approaches to RHV. She said it was OK, we just did a clearing turn and we wouldn't really be maneuvering. I said OK. (Now I think I should have pushed back on this. I still don't think its a good idea to do maneuvers in a common approach corridor - nothing bad happened, but it was unnecessarily risky.) Gave her the controls, put on the foggles and we did a descent and a turn. Then she took the controls, I ducked my head and we did unusual attitude recovery.

The flying was going well. I didn't think I had screwed up yet! We were over Calaveras and it was time to call in for inbound if we were going to come back to RHV this time. This was when the simulated engine failure occurred. I wasn't expecting that at that location. OK then. Pitch for best glide, use checklist, troubleshoot, communicate, then come in for the landing. There was a large flat area at the north end of the reservoir where the water was evaporated away. I said that was my field. It was a good field. But I had problems getting to it right, I was concerned about the terrain all around me and the water at the end of the field. For some reason I didn't want to go over the water, and I didn't want to impact the terrain. So I set up poorly for the approach to the field. I initiated a go around at the right time but it was obvious if that was a real emergency it would not have had a good result. I was sure I failed at that point. She asked what I could have done differently there and I told her. And I kept calm, tried hard not to give a *&#R(*& and kept flying the plane.

She said it was time to return to RHV, I quickly got ATIS and contacted the tower for clearance back into RHV airspace. I knew if I hadn't failed yet, I had better be perfect on this approach and landing if I wanted to pass this checkride. I kept the approach airspeed under control, didn't go an inch below pattern altitude and flew a good pattern. We were cleared to land. She had said she wanted a soft field landing. When we were abeam the numbers she pulled the power again. OK, redeem yourself she said. Make the field without adding power. This should be easy, I thought. All of my landings for months and months were power off landings (I forgot the last 5 months of power ON landings practice I had been doing!). So I set up normally and came in on approach, I flew a square pattern too. She didn't like that too much, she wanted to see me set up high on the approach and I didn't do that. We glided in towards the runway and I saw that without power we would make the runway, but not make the threshold. In a real emergency that would be totally OK, but this wasn't a real emergency, so I prepared to add power. At that point she said to go ahead and add power. I added a little bit and then took it out. We made the threshold and I did an acceptable soft field landing.

We got off on Delta and she said we were done. I could taxi back to Squadron 2. I didn't know what to think. But I knew what to do… keep flying the plane. I cleared the runway, did the after landing checklist, switched to ground as instructed, and taxied back to parking. I almost forgot to breathe, I was so nervous. I had done some of my best flying in a very long time and nailed almost every maneuver but I wasn't sure I passed. Then again, I wasn't sure I failed. She hadn't closed the book and told me I failed. So, I just kept my head and took care of the number 1 job which was getting the plane parked safely. As far as I was concerned, this test wasn't over till the plane was chocked and secured.

We got back to parking and I shut off the avionics and shut down the engine. She said, congratulations, you passed, but you really needed to work on judging distances and power off approaches. She asked if I was surprised that I passed. I was. She also talked a bit more about different aspects of the flight. Then she shook my hand, said it was a pleasure and started to go to the club to do the non-paperwork. I asked if she needed my log book.. nope. It was my PIC time to log. Off she went to the club.

I stood there for a second, the plane was still in the middle of the ramp. Well, better secure the plane and get my stuff together. I pushed the plane back into its spot and started to tie it down. As I walked around the plane it started to hit me. I passed. I actually, really, passed. I did it. Woah. Well, I didn't want my first act as a new pilot to be secure the plane wrong, so I made sure to take my time and do it right. I got my stuff out of the plane, patted the nose and headed in. Still just a bit stunned.

I walked in the door and my husband says he's glad he gets to come home from Europe (he figured if I failed he may as well stay in Europe on his upcoming trip because I'd be miserable to live with). I hear the DPE and my CFI, Scott, talking in the office. So I go in there. She hands over the printed out temporary airman certificate for me to sign and shakes my hand again. Scott congratulates me. We all chat some more about kids and schools (all of us are parents of youngish kids) and then she was headed out the door. She shook my hand again and I told her I hope I would meet her again for more check rides in the future. After she left I gave my CFI a big hug. I was still stunned but the glow was starting to hit. I was now a certificated private pilot!  I don't remember what else we talked about right then… He said, when I come down, he wanted a debrief of the ride so he could better prepare future students.

Then he had another student to teach and my hubby and I had to eat something. I started taking my stuff out to the car and Scott stopped me as I went by the office. He says, "Here." and hands me a penny. "I saw this penny out on the ramp, I thought of you and remembered hearing its good luck to step on a penny and pick it up. So that's what I did. You have it."  That earned him another hug. Then he said, "Go fly! Those skies will teach you more than I ever could."

Now in my flight bag, instead of the log book I no longer have to carry I have a little pouch with these things: my government issued photo ID, my temporary airman's certificate, my medical, a picture of a cat bounding over a green field with a smiley faced sun, and a penny. The artifacts of the end of this phase of my training.

The next day it was with some sadness that I removed the weekly flight lessons from my schedule. Time for me to learn on my own for a bit. I've been pushed out of the nest now. I have a license to fly and learn on my own. No worries, I'll be back for much more formal training. I have an IFR rating and CPL to earn after all, but for now, I am going to stretch my wings a bit and see what there is to see out there.

Thank you Jeff, my other half, for patiently waiting for me to see you were right, I really DO love this flying thing. Thank you to my siblings for your magical support and thank you to my family and friends for putting up with aviation on my brain for the last 18 months. Not that aviation will ever stop being on my brain, but I'll have more time for other things for a while at least :) Thank you to all of the people that blog and email and write about aviation for providing additional inspiration when I needed it. Finally, I can never thank you enough, Scott Rohlfing, my CFI, for the gift of flight.

My PPL Checkride - Part II - Oral

I emerged from the bathroom, not refreshed, but determined. I went back to the room my materials were set up in and saw another headset there. The DPE must have found my stuff and knew what was going to happen there :). Time to face the music. I went out to the main room of the club. As I turn the corner I see my CFI, my husband and the DPE chatting. I almost forgot my husband was coming down to the club to support/heckle me. It was good to see the two familiar faces. I introduced myself to the DPE and we all chatted a bit. My husband and I thought this same DPE had done his checkride several years ago, it turns out she did not. His checkride was with another female DPE who doesn't work in the Bay Area anymore.

Preliminary chatting done my CFI and I went to prepare the maintenance logs for the plane I would fly today. By "prepare" I simply mean flag the pages I would need to prove the airworthiness of the aircraft according to FAA requirements (Annual, 100 hour, 50 hour, ADs, ELT, Pitot/Static, Transponder inspections and maintenance). Then it was time to start. The first step was for the DPE to log in to the online application system, IACRA, and put in my ID information and then validate I meet the aeronautical experience and ground and flight requirements for this application by reviewing my log book and endorsements. My husband heckled/helped from the background :) It was very nice to have him there.

Next the DPE, my CFI and I went to the back room to get started on the actual checkride. The checkride encompasses both oral and flight portions and the whole thing is a practical test. My CFI stayed in the room for the "preamble" where the DPE explained the process, her "plan of action" which described the things she would be testing me on, the fact that she cannot test me on anything that is NOT in the published PPL PTS,  the three potential outcomes (pass/fail/continuance), what would constitute a fail, what she would cover in the oral and flight portions, etc.  She said very simply, if we are walking out to the plane, I passed the oral test and if we were taxiing back to the ramp and she had not said I was not within standards, I passed the flight portion of the test. So don't ask her about it if we are walking out to the plane. :)

She mentioned that she had just gone to a DPE meeting where the FAA highlighted specific areas they want focused on in the checkrides. She also said that an FAA person would be coming to observe *her* checkrides at some point soon, but there was no examiner here today. She asked if I believed we would be able to do the flight portion of the test and I said yes. At that point I handed over her fee, $500. Yeah, that is steep… but its worth it.  I believe it was at this point that my CFI left the room after patting me on the back and wishing me luck.

With that the core of the test begins. I get asked standard questions, what privileges can you exercise as a private pilot? what privileges can't you exercise? how long is your pilots license good for? how do you remain current? what are there requirements to carry passengers? what class medical is required? how long does it last? What do you have to carry with you when you fly? What do you time do you have to log?  Have you brought an airworthy aircraft? show me how you know it is airworthy (take out the maintenance logs and walk her through the sticky notes placed in the logbook earlier).  The test seemed to jump around a bit. As I answered a question, something I would say would trigger the next question. The flow of the test made sense and I forgot that I was being tested and just answered questions as I would if any person interested in aviation was asking me questions. Good thing my answers were correct!

We discussed a couple scenarios around required equipment and what you do if it was not functional and what to do if non-required equipment was non-functional. What is required to fly with non-functional equipment? With that the discussion turned to the hypothetical cross country flight plan. Show me your take off and landing calculations, weight and balance calculations. Why does the plane perform less well at higher altitudes? what is density altitude? What route would you take to get to the destination? Walk her through the route and the visual and navigational aide checkpoints. What cruise altitudes would be used? why? How long would it take to get there? how much fuel would be required? how much fuel must you have in reserve? how many minutes of flight are required on reserve fuel? All of this seems daunting if you aren't familiar with the concepts and practice.. but by now, this was relatively easy for me to answer. I had not only my own cross country flights but over 30 hours of cross country flying with my husband in the last  12 months with most of our cross countries recently having me handle nav/comm and fuel calcs.

Tell me about the weather for the flight. Would this flight be a go or no-go? In this case I am very happy with the way my CFI taught me how to go through this. I am not an amateur meteorologist, but I had to demonstrate my knowledge of the weather. The way we did it was relatively easy. I walked the DPE through the weather situation following the same process a weather briefer would (and did!) walk me through it. Hazardous conditions, big picture, current conditions at home base, destination and en route, forecast conditions at home base, destination and en route. I told her my conclusion that I would start the flight and explain to my passenger that we would turn back if there actually were IFR conditions in the central valley.

More scenarios: you are flying to Blue Canyon and the mountains and there's a fire with a lot of smoke. You don't know where you are, what do you do? you realize you will have to offload fuel in order to take off from where you are but you won't have enough fuel to get to your destination, what do you do? a plane is approaching you on a head on collision course, what do you do? What special precautions/equipment do you carry for night flight? You are on approach to a large airport and are cleared for LAHSO, do you have to accept the clearance? how do you find out what runway length is available for LAHSO?

More knowledge questions:  what lighting is required for night flight? when? What color are the lights on the edge of a runway, the approach end, the departure end, the taxi way? What beacon is used for civilian airports? military? explain the requirements to enter and operate within Class A, B, C, D, E and G airspace, what are the VFR weather minimums for each. Point to the chart, what airspace is that location in? what are the rules for that airspace? how do you get information on special use airspace?

Some other questions happened but all of the sudden we were done. She suggested a brief break for her to eat some food, I could go out and verify the fuel truck did fuel the plane and we could go on with the flight portion. I had passed the oral test! Happily, I packed away the extra reference material I had and put it away in my car. Then I picked up the airplane's maintenance log and I was taking that back to the club's owner when I ran into the CFI and student who was Soloing today. My husband and that CFI's other student were there as well.  I greeted all of them cheerfully, after all, I had just passed the oral portion of my PPL checkride.

My husband made a cryptic remark that I'm lucky I'd still be able to fly today. That stopped me in my tracks! "What? What happened to my plane!?" I asked. "Nothing,"  they said. It turns out the student who was going to solo this morning did, but with less than happy results. His CFI had him to do touch n' go landings on his solo instead of full stop landings. On one of his landings, he lost directional control on the touch or the go (I don't know which) and ended up crossing the field, crossing another runway and ended up in a corner of the airport property. Somehow he managed to do all of this without damaging the plane, the airport lights and signs, innocent bystanders or himself. He was one very lucky student pilot in that regard. As a result, while where was some excitement that could have prevented my flight, everything was fine, for me anyway. I felt very bad for that student pilot though. I hoped he wouldn't let that experience stop him from pursuing his dream.

As I went out to the plane to check on the fuel, the DPE wanted to catch up on the happenings of the morning. So my CFI chatted with her and my husband told me our friend, Paul, said good luck. The way he said it made me wonder if they were up to something.. but he said no. Hmmm.. I've known my hubby too long to completely trust him when he talks like that, but I went on out to the plane.

When I got out to the plane there was a note on the pilot's seat (my seat!) on the paper it said simply "Good Luck! Jeff and Paul :) " on the other side of the paper was an idyllic scene in charcoal color, a happy kitty bounding over a green field with flowers, blue sky, a couple puff ball clouds and a smiley face sun. Inscribed in happy script was this quote, "And not a single fuck was given that day."  I laughed. I knew what this was about. This was Jeff and Paul's way of reminding me not to let mistakes fluster me as I do the flight test…. if I mess up, I should not give a *&$(*#. I should just keep on flying the plane. I carefully folded the note and put it in my flight bag.I resolved to make sure not to give a ($*#&$ if stuff happened, as I knew it would. It was a good thing I did.

Part III - Flight

Thursday, November 10, 2011

My PPL Checkride - Part I - Ready as I'm Gonna Be

My checkride was scheduled for 0900 PST, 1700Z on Wednesday, November 9, 2011. Early in the week the weather was looking iffy with a chance of rain or at least an approaching low pressure system with south winds. I didn't worry too much though. I had learned after months of watching forecasts like a hawk no matter what the forecast says, it will change. Sure enough, as the week progressed, the high pressure system over Northern California dug in its heels and stayed put long enough to provide me with very good checkride weather.

The three and two nights before my checkride I started having anxiety dreams... but I felt confident. The day before my checkride, I felt less confident. I met with my CFI one last time. We didn't fly. I asked the A&P to fix the soft right brake pedal of the plane I was going to fly on my checkride instead. We reviewed the route and altitudes I planned to Blue Canyon per the DPEs request. We went over my weight and balance and take off and landing distance calculations. All of that looked OK. We went over a few last minute questions and I talked through the procedure and specs for each of the PTS maneuvers. That was a good move, talking through the maneuvers exposed some holes in my thinking that my CFI was able to fill very quickly.

He asked me if I had any concerns about the oral portion.. I was a little worried if the DPE would ask me in depth questions on the airplane systems. He said that would be easy to handle, unless it is something you have to know off the top of your head while you fly, you can look it up in the POH as the DPE waits. He asked if I had any concerns about the flight portion. I said I was concerned about being able to do a soft field landing as I hadn't done many of those right. This is interesting, he said, "Great!" as he rubbed his hands together. "All you have to do is fly the rest of the flight well, you could bounce down the runway on the soft field landing and still pass. To fail you have to show consistent not meeting of the PTS standards." He emphasized again, the DPE wants to see immediate corrective action and no matter what, don't let her see me sweat. If I screw up, just keep going. As a parting instruction he told me not to bother studying or trying to "cram for the exam" that night. It was time to relax, take care of myself and get some rest and above all... no flying stuff!

Bottom line, he was totally confident that I would pass the oral portion of the test *knock on wood*. So was I. We knew I had the ability to pass the flight portion (he wouldn't have signed me off if I didn't) but neither of us was 100% sure I would. I had performed each PTS maneuver to spec, but was not consistent. Would I be to spec on the big day? We didn't know. I had told him I would step up and "just do it" when the time came. I knew I typically step up and make things happen when the time comes, but, I was a bit nervous.. would this be the one time I didn't step up? The one time that met the most to me?

I left that lesson feeling good, as I usually do after a flight lesson. I worked the rest of the day I got more and more nervous. I think I did the best possible thing I could do. I reached out to my 3 brothers and 3 sisters for support. I sent out the formal request for smart vibes and great flying vibes to my siblings.  My brothers and sisters and I are separated by large distances but we are all very close, whenever one of us has need or desire, we request vibes for whatever it is that we are struggling with or would like support for. So I sent out the request. Within 30 minutes I had three emails of support and utmost confidence from my siblings... I immediately felt much more calm. I went to bed early that night and slept like a baby. I woke up the next morning at 5:15 AM and checked my email, three more emails of support had come in over night. I had full 100% support of my siblings. With their support there was no way I could fail. I was so grateful.

It was time to get up... 5:15 in the morning. I was grateful for the time change the weekend before which helped me feel a bit better about the hour. I took my shower and went downstairs to get the latest weather information for my hypothetical flight to Blue Canyon. I needed to print the pertinent weather data so I could review it with the DPE during the oral portion of the flight and describe my process for arriving at my go/no-go decision for the flight (both the hypothetical one and the checkride). There was an AIRMET for IFR conditions (mist and fog) predicted for the central valley along the route of flight but aside from that the weather looked great. I planned on getting a standard weather briefing when I got to the flight club and to use that for my final flight plan calculations. I made sure I had all of the required paperwork and materials and packed up my car for the hour drive to the flight club.

I got to the club at 7:30 and checked out my plane. The squawk for the soft right brake pedal was still open! Oh no! I found the owner of the club and asked him if the plane was worked on.. he said he fixed it immediately after I mentioned it the day before.. he just forgot to close the squawk. *whew* I preflit the plane and everything was fine. I left the plane's checklist on my seat as a reminder to be sure to do the passenger briefing (my first) with the DPE. I called the fuel truck over to top off the tanks. When I went back in to the club someone else was set up in the room I wanted to use for my oral test... I remembered there was another student pilot scheduled to solo that morning. I figured that was this student and his CFI. So I went to the back room and set up my stuff.

I got my weather briefing and finished my flight plan calculations and made my decision regarding the go/no-go decision for both the hypothetical cross country and the actual checkride. The briefer mentioned the AIRMET as well but he also stated the satellite and data from airports along the route all showed at most very patchy fog over a small area in the central valley which was predicted to clear by the proposed time of departure. All other weather data showed good flight conditions for the checkride and even good flight conditions for the cross country. I decided the checkride was a go and I would explain to the DPE that I would take off on the cross country with a plan to turn around if the low clouds and fog were worse than expected in the valley. I knew this decision would be the first test of my abilities as a private pilot.

I took one more look at my flight plan, adjusted my reference material and set up my laptop. Then I was headed to the bathroom when I looked out the window and saw the DPE getting out of her car, 15 minutes early! Oh no! She got there before my CFI did and we had to get the maintenance logs for the plane ready. I ducked into the bathroom, took care of business, washed my face and hands and looked at myself in the mirror. "Am I ready?" and I knew the answer. The answer for this was the same as the answer for the same question before each of the 14 marathons I've run. "I'm as ready as I'm gonna be." It was time to go out there and finish this phase of my flight training.

Part II - Oral Test

Monday, November 7, 2011

35 Hours and Counting

The check ride is scheduled: 9AM Wednesday.
The hypothetical cross country destination is set: Blue Canyon Airport
The DPE's weight is provided: 120 lbs (female, smaller than me)
The application submitted online
The plane is reserved: my "trusty steed" 5093K

Just under 35 hours to the start of my PPL Practical Test.. aka, the check ride. I feel strangely calm. Yes, I am having anxiety dreams now. But they don't bother me... anxiety dreams are normal for me before an event that is the culmination of a long effort. Marathons get some interesting dreams. My first 8 mile run got my worst anxiety dream! So I had a couple of anxiety dreams this morning. And in a way it makes me feel OK. My subconscious is gearing up for the check ride the same way I gear up for a marathon. I do well in marathons.

I learned something new flying with my CFI today. Sometimes my approach is actually set up right, and I don't have to fix it... *laugh* I've had a couple instances recently where I had the plane set up great on approach and then I went and "fixed it" when I didn't have to. I suppose I'll get used to things being right eventually :)

I don't have much to say at this point. The finish line is in sight. All I have to do is do it. It really is easy, if I just do what Scott says! Wish me luck, intelligent answers on the oral test, high ceilings, favorable winds and a good flight.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I think it was the seat belt

In the words of my CFI, quoted by another of his students who got his pilot's license recently,
I never taught you to land an airplane...  Eyes at the end of the runway and don't let it land.
 When my former student pilot friend pointed that out to me, it finally clicked. I've been trying to land since I was first shown soft field landings, shortly after I solo'd. I have been getting worse and worse at landing, trying to land. It shows up the most on soft field landings for me because you have to land in a particular way, softly, with the nose up off the ground. I can do short field landings no problem, because there is no time to try to land, you just set up, round out and *plunk* you're on the ground. 

I've never been taught how to land.. I've been taught how to fly a pattern, a stabilized approach, power off approach usually, and hold the plane off the runway 'til it settles to the ground on its own. No wonder I suck at landing. Given that thought, I determined to not try to land next time.

My next flight my CFI and I decided to do another mock checkride. I wanted to go through all maneuvers. When we went out to the plane there were bees on it, very interested bees. I was concerned they may try to get into the cockpit with us. So when I got into the plane I immediately closed the door, at which point I figured out I had sat on my seat belt. *sigh* Well, I decided this time I wasn't going to let it throw me off. One very minor misstep was not going to stop me on this flight. I picked my butt up off the seat, opened the door, pulled out the seat belt and didn't worry about the bees. I just went through my normal start up and got going.

You may be wondering, did the realization about landing help? Yeah.. I think it did. I really do.  I didn't land the soft field landing (my nemesis) because we landed at Tracy (KTCY) on runway 30, which, being 100' wide sucked me into an illusion of being lower than I was so I flared early (KRHV's runways are only 75' wide) In spite of the fact that I dropped the plane on the runway down because of flaring too early... I kept flying the whole way.  That was a big improvement.

After that we came back around on 26 and did a crosswind landing. The winds were 310 at 10 gusting higher. My pattern was really bad, but I did a crosswind landing... I wasn't thinking about landing, I was focused on keeping the plane aligned with the runway come hell or high water. I had the rudder to the stop to do it too. The landing wasn't super smooth and I was slightly off the centerline when I touched down. My CFI just said, "Stop the plane." .. right there on the runway. So I put the plane back on the centerline and stopped.  I thought I must have screwed something else up. He proceeded to spend a couple minutes (it seemed) saying what a fantastic landing that was. How that was what he was looking for for the last six months!

Overall I did well on some stuff, but kept messing up in the pattern at the Tracy airport.. the strong crosswinds kept blowing me off course, I kept forgetting to look for a target to turn to. I had 900 ft on the brain when pattern altitude was 993 ft (almost 1000) so I went over 100' out of tolerance there. I would have busted on that. So on one hand, I screwed up a lot. On the other hand, my CFI pointed out, this time, instead of getting all frustrated and giving up, crying or blowing up at him (I've done all 3 at different times before) I just got more determined to fix it.

We did simulated instrument on the way back to our home base ... and it was relatively turbulent over the hills between Calaveras and Tracy. That was hard. It was much more disturbing to be bouncing around without anything but instruments to keep the plane straight and level or turning, etc. However, I kept it to spec. He said that experience was much more like real instrument conditions rather than what its like when its calm (which is pretty easy for me).

When we came back in to land at RHV I screwed up the short field landing, just a bit. But it wasn't a screw up because I was trying to land.. it was a misjudgement of the power I needed to reach the touchdown point. I had to add a bit of power just before touch down, got distracted and landed awkwardly. I could have pulled it off, but I jumped on the brakes instead of putting up the flaps first. That bothered me a bit, but I know I can do that landing right.

On the taxi back to parking my CFI was very generous with his positive critique of my flying. Not of the flight itself - I would have failed the check ride many times over. But of my cross wind landing and my attitude... how I didn't get frustrated and quit. I got frustrated and got better and more stubborn about making it right. He said if I could just bottle up whatever it was that I did that day and that way, I would be the pilot I could be.

I thought about it more that day.. and the following night.. and today. I've been high on what happened, I think its a breakthrough of sorts. And I think I know what it was that made the change of attitude happen. I think it was the seat belt. The training flight before this one, I had problems with the seat belt, and I let it just snowball and get worse and worse. This time the same seat belt bothered me, but I decided right there, I wasn't going to let it make my day bad. I think, perhaps, that decision flowed over the entire flight. If I can keep that attitude, I believe I really will be the pilot I can be.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Oral PTS Prep

This morning it was too foggy to fly, which was actually good. This morning my CFI and I were going to do "oral prep work". Which simply means he walks me through the questions I can expect on the oral portion of the PTS checkride and makes sure I know the answers.

I found out a couple things.
  • I know my aerodynamics and airplane systems much better than I expected
  • I second guess myself a bit too much, my first answer is usually right
  • No matter if I second guess or not, if I verbally walk through the concepts behind each answer, I get to the right answer
Here's an example of the last item:

Low to High, Clear the Sky

You are in straight and level flight at 3000 MSL and pressure is 29.92, you fly into an area with pressure at 30.08, what will happen?

I got stuck on what the altimeter would read, which is if you remained physically at the same altitude, the altimeter would read lower than you are actually at. This is true. But what you would actually do in the plane is you would climb, as the altimeter reads lower and lower, you would start adjusting your altitude to ensure the altimeter reads 3000 MSL if you didn't re-adjust the altimeter for the new pressure. When I through it through carefully, it made sense. I've heard the "High to low, look out below" thing.. but I didn't quite "get it". But when my CFI explained what you would logically do in the plane as a result of the pressure change, THEN I got it. He also told me something I'd never heard before. "Low to high, clear the sky." If you are flying from an area of lower pressure to higher pressure in "straight and level flight", you will climb... clear the sky.

Pitot-Static Fun

Of course we covered the pitot-static system very carefully. I did well on that. I have a good understanding of the concepts behind it, and, once again, as long as I walked through the scenario I came out with the right answers.

Apparently this was the week of the pitot tube for my CFI. He told me a couple interesting stories about blocked pitot tubes. One where he flew a plane earlier this week, and then two days later he found some interesting mud on the pitot tube opening. So he looked inside the tube and pulled out a dozen or more insect larva!

The fun part was when he was doing his standard drawing of the pitot-static system and then drew a bird with its beak over the pitot tube opening to suggest a bird flew into the pitot tube. What happens in this case he asks? I answer. Then he explains why he was halfway laughing when he asked. He said a couple years ago he was doing his standard drawing and asked the question of another PPL student. The student answered, "That depends. Is the bird sucking or blowing?" That's a very good question :)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

First Bird Strike

You hear of bird strikes taking down airliners - Miracle on the Hudson anyone? causing major damage on planes, etc. Maybe you saw on Flying Wild Alaska when a bird shredded itself in a prop and got smeared all over one of the planes there. Well, I don't know if chances are good for people to have a bird strike just because or what, but I had my first bird strike today. I'm pleased to report my experience was not at all dramatic.

I was nervous about this flight. It was my first solo flight to anywhere not RHV since my solo cross countries at the beginning of June. As planned I was flying down by South County Airport (E16) practicing flying in that non-towered airport environment. First was flying into the pattern correctly, flying a good pattern and landing at E16. I did good in the pattern, did my radio calls, overshot final a little, but fixed that and landed. It wasn't a bad landing, but it wasn't the soft field landing I wanted. I cleared the runway and taxied back to the start of the runway and took off from the airport to the west.

I flew slightly west of E16 to my usual practice area to practice slow flight and steep turns. In the mock check ride I didn't maintain my altitude in slow flight and I didn't roll out of the steep turns on the right headings. So, I worked on that and got to the point where I nailed it consistently. Which wasn't so hard. All I had to do for slow flight was pay more attention and move a bit faster. For the steep turns, pick a heading that had an obvious landmark to roll in and out at, then it was easy to roll in and out at that landmark.

Practicing done it was time to turn back to E16 and do an approach crossing midfield and then going back in on the 45 and landing again. I did my radio call and just short of midfield I see a couple smallish birds fly by on my right. Then I see another one on the left just as it flew up and into the plane. *THUNK!* I blinked and waited. No blood, no feathers, engine was running normally, prop was spinning normally, no vibration. From the angle the bird approached on I thought it could have ended up in the engine cowling and be blocking the cooling there. I made quick note of the current oil temp and pressure and monitored that carefully.

Well, now what. I'm right over E16. I've practiced emergency landings there over and over recently, so one instinct was to land there now. On the other hand, everything was running normal, oil temp and pressure were normal. My biggest risk was a bird in the engine cowling, if that's where it hit. The longer I flew the more I thought that wasn't the case. I decided to fly the 16 NM back to Reid-Hillview, my home base, more repair facilities there, if needed. If I saw the oil temp/pressure rise I'd return to E16 if I was closest to that airport, or RHV if I was closest to that.

With that decision made, I made a beeline for RHV (nice you can do that in a plane). I kept monitoring the engine and instruments closely and everything remained normal. I did a normal approach into RHV and had a normal landing. When I landed the front wheel seemed to shimmy a bit when I landed, but it stopped quickly. So far so good. Taxied back to Squadron2 and shutdown. I was anxious to see what mess the bird made.

When I got out of the plane I carefully examined the prop, cowling, engine, nose gear. All fine, not a feather, not a spec of blood, not even a clean spot. There was one very minor new looking dent on the lower portion of the cowling at a spot that could have been where the bird hit, but that could have been an old dent too. The plane I fly is a trainer and trainers aren't always pristine.

OK then. I called the owner of the club and let him know what happened, buttoned up the plane and went home. If you're going to have a bird hit your plane, hope for a small bird.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Feeling like I'm making progress

This week was a good week for me in flight training and progress toward my PPL goal. As my CFI and I agreed, we started to move forward on the checkride prep process. Instead of waiting for me to perfect my one final maneuver, we are just going forward. So far I feel like its working :)

I did my first mock checkride Thursday... given my habit of over preparing for things, especially for flying, I deliberately did absolutely nothing to prepare for the checkride. I didn't study the charts the night before. I didn't get my kneeboard ready with info for expected airports easily on hand. I barely checked the weather. I certainly didn't study, I didn't even review the PTS standards before the ride. I just showed up.

The ride went relatively well I thought. I wouldn't have passed by any means, but the things that I failed on are things that I normally do very easily and well. The things that I did well on are the things I had been struggling with before. Maybe I was overconfident on some things and that bit me while the things I was not overconfident on did not? Dunno, but it was ok. Things I did well, the takeoffs and landings, the simulated emergency, power on stalls, power off stalls, maintaining altitude during the steep turns. Things I blew, radio work of all things, getting complete ATIS information.. both of which I normally do so well and have done so well for so long, that I don't even think about it anymore (probably my problem!) I didn't maintain altitude when I went into slow flight - never had that problem before. So yeah, I would have failed, but I failed at things I know I can do.

The thing I really liked, I didn't get all flustered when I made the mistakes. I just kept on going and kept my head. That was the thing I was most wondering if I could do. Of course, it was just a mock check ride, but I've made mistakes flying with my CFI before and gotten more and more and more flustered when it happened. So maybe I've turned a corner with that particular problem.

Today we went down to E16 to see if I know enough about flying in that area to get signed off to practice at a non-towered airport on my own. I'm glad we did that, because it has been so long since I've flown to a non-towered airport under my own direction that I totally screwed it up. There are some basic rules for flying to an airport (#1 don't fly TO the airport once you've spotted it) that I had completely forgotten in the months of flying in circles around RHV. So, I got a very good refresher. We did some simulated emergency work as well. I made the field... just. My radio work was much better today but I didn't look at the windsocks on my first landing so blew that. So much to keep track of up there. But today I'm not worried. I learned/re-learned some things today. In the end I'm signed off to do takeoffs and landings at E16 now. So I'll be able to go and practice a skill I definitely need to improve on. Hopefully tomorrow.

A final cool note, coming back into RHV I was high and fast on the approach. So I put in 20 degrees of flaps and did a forward slip to loose altitude. Then I eased out of the slip right on glide slope and landed. I didn't do the soft field landing I wanted *sigh* but I landed nice.  (Gotta look at the end of the runway to land a soft field landing well - didn't do that.)  When we were taxiing back my CFI commented on the slip and how very well executed it was and what a big difference that was from the first time I did one. Nice to have some airmanship recognized positively and very nice to feel like I'm moving forward.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Make a tight left turn

I was in the pattern yet again (I've spent a lot of time in the pattern!) and was trying to work on soft field landings, and failing. Again. I'm not here to tell you about that however... something more interesting happened that day, something I went home feeling good about.

We had light crosswinds at the start of the hour, taking off and landing on runways 13 (not the normal direction for this airport). The controllers kept shifting myself and a couple other planes between 13L and 13R and the wind was visibly shifting to favor runways 31. My CFI happened to be in the pattern with his CFI candidate student in a Piper Arrow. I knew he was there, and like any student, was hoping I wouldn't screw up with my CFI there. The winds kept shifting and finally one of the other pilots got on the radio and pointed out to the tower it would be a good idea to change runway directions. The tower agreed as I had just turned right crosswind for 13R.

The tower instructed another plane to do a 180 and land on 31R. I turned downwind for 13R and then the tower asked me to do a tight left turn and a 180 for 31L. They wanted a tight left turn because that would be required in order to make the turn without going into Class Charlie airspace. I said "wilco" and started a slight right turn to give myself more room to avoid Class Charlie. I was at pattern altitude (1000 AGL) and flying very slow (65kts with 10 degrees flaps) at the time because I was making certain I would not get too close to the plane in front of me in the pattern for 13R. As I was maneuvering I was thinking.. I'm low and slow. If I attempt a steep turn I'll likely stall the plane. I wondered briefly if I was missing some aspect of aerodynamics or skill thinking I can't make this turn safely. However, it was my ass on the line if I screwed this up.

I radioed the tower, "unable, I need to make a right turn." The tower cleared me to make the right turn do right traffic for 31R. No problem. That I did... I did a couple more take offs and landings on 31R and then shut it down for the day. I knew the decision I made was the right one based on the information I had and my skills. I didn't know if my information was correct... would it be possible for a pilot of better skill than mine to do a tight turn at that low a speed without crossing into Charlie safely? I resolved to ask my CFI about it the next time I talked to him.

So my next lesson, I asked him. Did I make the right decision? was it possible to do that turn? He confirmed my understanding was correct... at that speed, if I were to attempt a steep (45 degree bank) turn, the angle of attack I would have needed to maintain altitude would have stalled the plane. He said my other option would have been to tell the tower to get me clearance into Class Charlie so I could do a safe turn. But he reaffirmed several times I made the right decision. He has a saying  "When a pilot makes a mistake, a pilot dies. When a controller makes a mistake, a pilot dies." So true.

Later that same discussion, he and I agreed. It is time schedule my check ride. Flying in circles in the pattern isn't doing me any good. Its is time to just go for it. So go for it I will do. My check ride is scheduled for 11/9/11. I like that date... it seems like a good date.  A common discussion you hear before a marathon "Are you ready?", "I'm ready as I'm gonna be." and that's about it. I'm ready as I'm gonna be... time to finish this phase of training off. We've got three hours of formal check ride prep flying to do, some more oral prep time, maybe a couple more tweaks between now and then but I'm on my way!

Good Catch

Do you ever wonder what you would do, if push came to shove and you had to make a decision that could be silly or could save your life? Small decisions are made all of the time.. in aviation and in life. I think in aviation the importance of seemingly small decisions goes up exponentially because we really are not designed to fly.  I've read of CFIs telling their students "the plane wants to kill you". While I'm glad my CFI didn't take that approach with me, it is important to remember flying has a lot of risk.. if you manage that risk successfully, you'll be OK. If you manage the risk unsuccessfully, you or your pocket book may not be so OK after all. This is one situation that happened recently where I made a decision that I consider good, in spite of feeling silly about it at the time, as least I am here to talk about it :)

Brake Check

I was headed out to practice again... I did my preflight and pulled out the plane... started up and did the initial brake check. When I did the brake check the left brake felt strange.. the pedal pushed forward at a weird angle. I shifted in my seat and moved my feet about, thinking I was just sitting strange, or maybe it was the sandals I was wearing. Tried another brake check, the plane stopped, but the braking action didn't feel equal. Hmmm... I had checked the brake lines in my preflight inspection, there was no fluid on the lines. I wondered if I was just being over sensitive. I kept the RPM low, let off the brakes slowly, then back on. No, that left pedal just didn't feel right.

I sighed. I've brought planes back for slightly more than normal RPM drops and other minor things .. the A&P always says its fine. I didn't want to delay my flight. I didn't want to look like a silly woman. But.... I told myself to think through it logically. I could go ahead and taxi to run up and see if the braking action improved in the process (by magic?!). But if the brake failed that would not be a good place for a brake failure. I thought about it some more, OK, what happens if a brake fails... well, the place I would find out would be on landing, and if one brake failed on landing, that would be a tough situation to handle. The thought ran through my mind .. "accident caused by student pilot not taking appropriate corrective action when noticing unequal braking action". Well, I certainly didn't want to be in an NTSB report, or make the evening news.

I still didn't want to believe the brake was bad.. but I didn't want to make the news. So, I decided on a course of action, I would taxi the plane very slowly to the area in front of the mechanic's hangar, shut it down and have him check it out and tell me its OK. Before I moved the plane I decided what I would do if braking completely failed in the process (shut down the engine immediately and aim the plane for a fence). I also planned out a route that would have me taking right turns only so I wouldn't be relying on the left pedal to assist. That's what I did.. on the slow roll to the hangar I kept pumping the brakes, that left brake just felt slightly wrong. So I shut the plane down and brought the A&P over.

He jumped into the plane, checked the pedals and said it was fine. But then he paused and pumped the brakes again... he looked thoughtful. He then said the left brake was soft. No problem he said, he would bleed the brake line and everything would be fine. He went to get the kit to bleed the lines and I waited. When he came back I asked if they had worked on the brakes on that plane recently.. normally the only way air gets into brake lines is through maintenance and the brakes should be bled whenever fluid or pads are replaced.  He said they hadn't. But no mind, he'd bleed the brakes and off I could go. He bent down to work on the brake line and said "Uh oh, nope. This line is leaking."

That surprised me, I checked the line for fluid before I started up. But he was right, the leak was happening further up the brake line and instead of dripping down the line, it dripped onto the faring along the strut and slowly dripped down the inside of the faring. The bottom of the faring was sticky and damp with the red brake fluid. "Good catch," he said. The fix for this would take longer. So I pulled the plane back to its parking spot, buttoned it up and returned the key. Not flying that day, but glad that I did what I did. If I hadn't made the decisions I did, I would have found out on landing exactly how bad that brake was, probably with disastrous results.

Good catch indeed.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hey Guys... St. George has a New Airport!

This morning my other half and I took off from RHV headed to DXZ. That is St. George Muni Airport in St. George, Utah. St. George Muni is a new airport, just opened in the beginning of 2011. Nice precision instrument runway, 150 ft wide over 9000 feet long, nice FBO too. But you'd never know it talking to ATC in Northern and Southern California.

We requested flight following from RHV ground so we were in radio and radar contact with ATC for our entire route. As we were passed from controller to controller, we kept getting weird questions. Got to the point we were wondering if we did something wrong.

"Bonanza niner seven seven seven yankee, what is your destination?" or "Bonanza niner seven seven seven yankee, what is the designation of your destination?" or "Bonanza niner seven seven seven yankee, what is your route?"

So every time we were asked, we kept repeating, "St. George, Delta Xray Zulu". Finally, Jeff explained to one of them. "This is the new St. George Muni airport, Delta Xray Zulu. It replaced the old airport Sierra Golf Uniform. It has a new runway and buildings and stuff." To which the controller responded. "oooooohhhhh" That explained it. There's very little reason for ATC in California to know that a small airport in Utah got replaced by a larger airport in Utah. We were the first to expose them to this knowledge. As we got closer and closer to St. George the controllers knew what was up and we got fewer questions.

We flew close to Las Vegas and got to share frequencies with some of the jets flying into Vegas airspace. Talk about a busy airspace. As we approached St. George proper we heard a 172 in the pattern, a Skylane on straight in, us and then a as we came in on the 45 a SkyWest Jet (commuter flight) joined us on 20 mile final.

Another little known fact.. St. George Muni has a new FBO with a courtesy car. They are happy to loan you the courtesy car to drive to the terminal building to pick up your rental car. Transient parking is on the left if you come in on runway 19.

We got out of RHV late because I had a meeting first thing in the morning. I even had to skip my quick planned solo flight. *sigh* Oh well, I got more experience flying cross country and practiced doing the estimations needed for diversions.. another skill I'll have to demonstrate during my check ride. It was a good flight. I love flying to other places :) This weekend is the St. George Marathon, which is why we are doing this trip ... wish me luck!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Landing never felt so good!

My first ever soft field landing! This day I went to the airport knowing exactly what I had to do to improve and I did it and it WORKED!! YES!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An Embarrassing Secret

I write this, not only to get out what I've been feeling and thinking.. but also to hopefully let other aspiring pilots know... Its OK to be above average. There are other people who have setbacks in flight training and who take longer than they think they should to solo or to get their licenses. But no matter what, as long as you never give up, you have a chance at the prize. The only way to fail completely is to quit completely. As Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon runner said, "Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up."

My dear IRs, I will let you in on an embarrassing secret. I've been actively pursuing flight training since July 2010. I have (as of this moment - to be increased tomorrow hopefully) 108.5 hours of total flight time, 74.4 hours of dual instruction time and 34.1 hours of solo time. I've got 13.3 hours of cross country time (thanks to the extra long-long cross country my CFI allowed me to do). 3.3 hours of night flying time (including 10 take offs and landings to a complete stop at night) and 2.6 hours of simulated instrument time. I have logged 369 take offs and 369 landings and only 153 of them happened before I soloed at 40.7 hours of flight time.  I have remaining to complete another 0.4 hours of simulated instrument and 3 hours of checkride preparation with my CFI and god knows now many more hours of re-learning how to land between me and my Private Pilot's License.

For those that are not familiar, the FAA requires 40 hours of aeronautical experience before someone can get a PPL. Average is 70 hours. Average at the airport I fly from is 90 hours (so I hear). My husband took 88 hours. So I'm a bit above average *smile*

I have good friends, both pilots and non-pilots who keep asking me...  When I will get my license? Don't know. When is my practical scheduled? Not yet. How many hours do I have? More than average and more to come.  My husband teases me... if you ever get your license... or this is why you'll never get your license... he means well, teasing and humor is his way to show he cares. I have blown off a summer of running to focus on getting my license (that and recover from a sprained ankle, but the sprained ankle only counts for two months). So much so that I'll be traveling to a marathon in two weeks and won't run it because for the first time in years I don't think I can run the race without injuring myself.

I passed the written FAA Single Engine Land PPL test with 98%. I am convinced I will ace the oral exam. I am convinced I will ace the practical flight, when I get to it. I know I can do it. And yet I fret. I am sad sometimes. I compare myself to younger people or more experienced people or people who aren't me with my unique blend of strengths and weaknesses and find myself wanting. I see the finish line so close and want the end of this journey to be a quick sprint... not the end of the marathon that it really is.

I have fallen absolutely in love with flying, and I am limited to circles around the same airport and non stop flights within a 25 nm radius until / unless I get signed off for further by my CFI. I don't know what he's waiting for... maybe for me to master the last PTS maneuver, soft field landings. I don't know.

I had a set back in my flying but I am back on track again. I think that I am going to be able to finally become consistent on normal landings again and from there do soft field landings - the final PTS maneuver I need to master. My next flight I will focus on rounding out just a little bit later and increasing the pitch angle a little bit more right before landing. I think if I do those two more things I will have landings consistent again and be able to continue on my journey. At least this time I know what I will do.

And, as I go forward, I will remember the wise words of my brother. This is a marathon, not a sprint. And if I run a marathon focusing on what everyone else is doing and telling myself I won't make it, I'll have a miserable experience. I'm a middle of the pack marathon runner.. I've never felt ashamed once for my marathon times, from 4:39 all the way to 6:40. I am proud of every marathon I've run, each 26.2 mile race was a unique challenge and accomplishment. I will be proud of myself when I complete this flying marathon and get my PPL.

Come to think of it, I can be proud of myself right now. Not many people have flown a light aircraft for 100 hours. Not many people have felt their spirits soar on metal wings over and around cottonball clouds, bounced on turbulence and carried aloft by updrafts. Not many have seen the sunset from on wing or the city at night from 2000 ft. or the bright green pillows and black dots that are the Northern California hills in the spring. Not many have talked to ATC over 5 different states just as well as the pros or flew with DC-10s over an air force base. Not many indeed. And, when I do get my license, I'll go from a 100+ hour student pilot to a 100+ hour pilot.

Yes, I can be proud of myself now and I will be proud of myself when I get that PPL. I've earned every line in my log book and I'm looking forward to every additional line I'll add. I am a pilot and some day I'll be able to take you with me and share the joy of flight with you. Until then, wish me luck, blue skies and low cross winds on my check ride day! And, if you are like me and feeling so close and yet so far from your goal... lets make each other a promise... let's keep flying, no matter what. We will get there eventually, we've got plenty of fuel and VFR weather ahead. We'll make it - just keep flying the airplane.