Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Some other lessons flying can teach

Someone told me, probably my CFI or maybe I read it in a book, that the process of learning to fly teaches someone just as much about themselves as it does about flying. I know that is true. Big time. The majority of my struggles as I've been learning how to fly aren't about stick and rudder skills, flight planning, learning aerodynamics and weather, FAA regulations, etc. etc. Its been with myself. I've recorded many of those struggles and reflections here. My apologies to those of you who may be sick of my musings about my own personality traits. In any case this journey of flight has been a wonderful and sometimes painful experience of discovery.

Another beneficial side effect for me is greater empathy for my daughter. She's been struggling in school this year... and now she's failing Social Studies, not because she does bad work, but because she often doesn't turn in her work. So we're doing the makeup work scramble tonight. (I can't imagine what it would be like to have to handle this type of thing for two kids at once... my hat off to all parents of twins or more than one kid!) I was trying to calmly explain what she did wrong and how she has to fix it and she said "I'm TRYING!" I'll admit, my initial reaction was, "No! You aren't trying because obviously if you were trying you would do it!"

Ahhh... reminds me of a slightly different conversation.

"Get your ass on the center line!"
"I'm trying!"
"No, you're not. You haven't adjusted once for the winds."

Just one of many times I've "tried" and failed. And it isn't like I don't intend to do as I know I need to. I just don't do it. Even though I'm trying. *sigh*

Yes, I emphasize with my daughter. It doesn't mean she's off the hook for not doing her homework. Any more than I'm off the hook for not having my ass over that center line. The DPE won't care if I'm "trying" or not. Neither do the teachers. Trying only gets you so far. Doing is what's required. In grade school and in flying.

Monday, May 30, 2011

And we wait ...

Maybe 4th time will be the charm? who knows.

Due to unusually wet and cool weather this spring (our weather here has had temps and conditions more like winter than almost summer), my last three attempts to do my first solo cross country have been canceled.
  • First time, mountain obscuration, low clouds and the runway at my destination airport were closed that day.
  • Second time, winds too strong.
  • Third time, ALMOST happened. But the clouds came in and by the time the clouds were supposed to clear out the winds were predicted to be too strong.
I suppose it is good news that my assessment of the situations agreed with my CFI's and I didn't think I should go when he said I shouldn't. He won't sign me off unless he knows I can complete the flight safely under known conditions. That probably means he's being at least as, if not more, thorough checking the weather conditions for my flight as he is for his own. It makes me feel good to have an experienced aviator watching over my shoulder for this decision making process. It also means I got exposed to another really useful piece of weather data, the "Area Forecast Discussion". It is a mostly plain language discussion of current and forecast conditions, in general, and with data specific to aviation and marine interests as well.

My next attempt is scheduled for a gap between two unseasonably wet and cool cold fronts coming through the area this week. If the weather isn't good enough to go to King City I'll most likely be able to use the opportunity to work on cross wind landings some more at my home airport. I feel sorta like the space shuttle :) need conditions to be just right or the flight is scrubbed.

Anyway, I think I've mentioned before, sometimes being a pilot has more to do with not flying than flying. Hopefully I'll have a long career of flying and waiting to fly!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A really cool flight - simulated instrument and finding myself

This is the story of my first simulated instrument flight and a little exercise in finding myself. All I knew about this flight before we took off was we would do some simulated instrument work, and I needed to have my sectional and AFD available.

Some Background

Some background... a Private Pilot License allows you to fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) which means, simply enough, you have to be able to see to fly. You can't fly in fog or clouds because you can't see to fly. You have probably noticed commercial flights don't have that issue, they under fly Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) which means they can fly "by instruments" instead of looking out the window. This is where ATC comes in... they see where all of the IFR planes are via radar and they ensure planes don't hit each other or solid objects.

There is the problem of "continued flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC)" that causes many pilot deaths. This is the most common cause of pilots flying into terrain, called "controlled flight into terrain" or CFIT. IMC = clouds, fog, dust storms, heavy mist, anything where you can't see a horizon to fly by. When you fly into IMC, your senses cannot reliably tell you up from down or left from right or if you are turning, descending or going up. Spatial Disorientation its called. This is what the NTSB believes killed Robert Kennedy years ago.

The FAA doesn't want pilots and passengers dying in IMC, pilots don't either! So to get your private pilot license you have to have 3 hours of "simulated instrument" training. In spite of the fact that it is illegal for you to fly in IMC without an instrument rating and filing a flight plan and being under ATC control. This means you spend three hours flying with special glasses or a hood so you can't see out of the airplane and all you can see is the instruments. FAA does this to give the average Private Pilot a snowballs chance of getting out of IMC if they end up in IMC and not dying (I think). My CFI says he does it to scare us enough that we never get into it in the first place!

My First Simulated Instrument Flight

Here's how it went, we took off, got a downwind departure, and then my CFI handed me the "foggles" and I put them on. Then all I had to fly with was the instruments... here's a pic of the instruments I'm talking about. The 6 instruments in the box in the picture are the ones you use to figure out if you are going up / down, left / right, what speed, what heading, what altitude, what ascent or descent rate.

Imagine making sure you are flying a plane first of all. Then you are flying straight and level and turning to different directions and ascending and descending all on the basis of what these things say. Well, it was easier than I thought it would be. I flew for a while just going whatever direction or altitude I was told. Then he had me close my eyes and he did weird things with the plane, turned it various directions, etc. I assume the intent of this maneuver was to make absolutely sure I had no idea of which direction we were going. Then he had me open my eyes again and keep flying in "simulated instrument" conditions. We did that for a bit over a half an hour. It felt like an hour!

Finding Myself

He finally asked me where I thought we were and I laughed and said, "Somewhere in the state of California, Northern California I'm sure." Then he has me take off the foggles, I'm flying over a low mountain range with a valley and another range in front of me. This is a google earth view of approximately what I was looking at when the foggles came off.

Then he says "Figure out where you are, find the nearest airport and land there. You can use all available information, except the GPS". (That's because the GPS on the plane has a NRST button you can hit which will give you the nearest airport instantly. Useful for emergencies!) So the to main resources I had were my eye balls, the instruments and navigational aids in the plane, and my sectional chart. Here's a picture of the chart showing the area I was looking at:

Do you know what I was looking at? I didn't either.

The first thing I did was reset the heading indicator (HI to Compass) to the magnetic compass. I knew I hadn't re-set the HI once since we took off and I knew the HI "drifts" more and more from the true magnetic direction you are headed the longer you fly. So I knew it would be inaccurate. I wasn't too surprised the HI was close to 180 degrees off. So I just reset it to the correct magnetic heading (almost exactly due South) and took that as my 2nd data point. I was headed South perpendicular to a low mountain range a valley and another greener mountain range.

The next thing I did was do a 360 degree turn to see what was around me. I noticed the mountain range to the south was greener than the mountain range to the north again. Also saw a road going through the range I was over. But nothing else terribly remarkable. So, I decided to continue on the current heading, South, to see what was in this valley area. Valley's tend to have towns, highways, and rural towns tend to have little airports, so that should give me some clue.

As I flew further into the valley I started to see a couple little towns and a highway going through the approximate center of the valley. I started to get an idea... in Northern California most mountains run mostly north/south, not as east/west appearing as the ones I was looking at. With one exception, as you go south of the Bay area, California's land mass swings east, so the coastal ranges take more of an east/west direction. Also, the mountains in front of me were greener than the ones behind me, typical of a coastal range. So I guessed I was facing what I call the Salinas valley (the valley that extends south of Salinas between the coastal range and the range with the Pinnacles National Park). I don't know what its official name is.

Here's a zoomed in picture of the sectional for the area I was looking at:

I continued to fly South and I saw a town that I thought was Greenfield. So I started to look up the highway for the prison and down the highway for King City (which has an airport). As I got closer to what I thought was Greenfield I realized that town had an airport right next to it (on the north side)! Ah Ha! I pointed to the airport and said, "There's an airport right there!" I turned the plane to the airport. I was planning to overfly it and see if it has its name painted on the taxiway (many do) or at least I could get the runway numbers which would validate it was the airport I thought it was. I was almost 100% sure I was headed straight at King City at that point.

But, my CFI wouldn't let me off the hook that easy. He admitted many airports have their names painted on them but he wanted me to figure out another way to know where I was for sure. So I used VORs to triangulate my position. Those are the pencil lines you see on the chart near King City. The spot where those lines crossed (above the numbers 821) is where I was on the chart. I needed to have some idea of where I was to use the VORs in order to choose two VORs that were close enough to me for me to receive their signals and triangulate. That's why knowing in general where I thought I was, my guess at the valley I was over and the airport I was looking at, helped me pick the right VORs.

Now Land

Position triangulated, airport identified, I was ready to figure out what the pattern was at this airport, how I should approach it, what its CTAF was, weather available, what runways to use, etc. All "on the fly". The sectional gives you some of the needed information, the Airport/Facilities Directory gives you the rest. In the case of King City, there is no weather available locally to tell you what the winds are (winds determine what runway to use). So I dialed up Salinas weather. Salinas is almost 30 miles away, which means its likely the winds at King City would not be the same as Salinas at all, however, it was what I had. Salinas winds indicated I should use runway 29.

I flew away from the airport and descended to pattern altitude... flew back towards the airport and saw a plane take off using runway 29. That made me feel better about using 29. I did my radio calls and approached and landed. The landing wasn't great at all, but it was a bit better than previous ones. Taxi off the runway... and clean up. Then all I had to do was figure out how to get back. :)

I drew another line from the Salinas VOR to King City airport, figured out what to dial the VOR to and took off. Back under the foggles I go for more simulated instrument time. We get back eventually and land at RHV.


As we debriefed after the flight it was apparent my CFI was pleased with the flight (except the landing). He had an interesting question for me. He asked how did I know we were south when I came out from under the foggles when we kept flying headings north and east. He thought I said we were south when I said we were headed south. Ahhh... that explained why the HI was so far off from the actual compass heading. When I had my eyes closed he reset the HI almost exactly opposite the actual heading. But that trick didn't work on me because I assumed the HI would not reflect reality already.

The other thing I though was amusing. It turns out, when he had me take off the foggles over that low mountain range, we were pointed almost directly at King City and its airport. Of course I couldn't see it from where we were. He's a devious one.

In the end ... I got 1.2 hours of simulated instrument time and I am finally approved to plan for my first solo cross country flight. And guess where I'll be going? King City. This time on purpose!

Friday, May 13, 2011

I learned :) and am happy

I learned some great stuff today... or re-learned as may be the case.

Big picture means B I G picture. It means looking out at the mountain range in the distance or the line of hills or cities, not at the road right under the plane. By the time you figure out what the road is its gone. At the speeds you move in an airplane, you have to look OUT, way out to see landmarks that won't change.

Its a process of balance and discovery and don't know what will happen next. I came to the airport this morning with only one real thought in my head, that I didn't know what I was going to do or where I was going to go for sure, but I knew that I would learn something today. And the idea of learning something, instead of achieving some specific goal, is what made me excited and relaxed about the idea of flying today.

One of the advantages and disadvantages of my personality is the way I am very "detail oriented" which is a nicer way to say really anal :) I think in recent flights I was so incredibly focuses on a specific goal and planned so much that I overloaded myself with data. Especially on my last attempted cross country. I spent hours and hours looking at google earth and google maps trying to make absolutely sure I knew where I was going. It got to the point that, before I got in the plane that day, I knew I had no idea at all.

Today we did something different, my CFI told me we were going to go somewhere but he wasn't going to tell me until we were in the air. So he told me to request a downwind departure and go. Then we get about 10 minutes out and he says, "Ok. We're going to Marina." And I had to get us there. He said that means I had to figure out where it was, what route to take, what altitude to fly, how to avoid the Class C airspace the airport sits under, get there, descend into the pattern, do the radio calls and land. Oh yeah, and don't forget to fly the plane. I won't go into detail about the process, but everything went GREAT, except the landing. God I suck at crosswind landings right now.

It was a lot of fun to figure it out "on the fly". And I did well. Also, this is an important skill to have. You never know when you have to divert from your well planned route due to weather, sick passenger, mechanical issue, etc. So its very good to get some exposure to this process sooner than later. And its fun!

On the way back I got fixated on a heading for a bit and forgot I was climbing into (potentially) class C airspace. He stopped us from getting too high and I figured out where I would be safe to climb again and corrected. Then I got to learn about how you have to use those big picture land marks instead of what's right in front of me if I'm going to fly a straight line. :) My approach into RHV was much better this time than my last straight in approach to RHV. Landing sucked again. Too high and fast and I didn't KEEP it on the center line. But I landed safely if not right.

So I think next time we may go and practice (relearn) cross wind landings tomorrow... or maybe he'll pick another random airport while we're en route. Either way I'll be happy, I'll be learning.


A final note about today. I think I do best when I am open minded and don't think I know what will happen. And realistically, even when a pilot has a solid plan, he/she never knows exactly what will happen. There are so many variables at play when you fly, wind, weather, equipment, airspace, passengers, self, other traffic, etc, etc. I think I would be a fool to ever think I'll know exactly what will happen on any flight. Which is good in two ways. 1. If you know what's going to happen all the time, you lose the joy of discovery and adventure. 2. I think keeping that fact in mind as I fly will improve my flights significantly. I close my eyes and my mind when I think I know what's going to happen, and then I fail. Knowing that I don't know, I am open to the inputs coming to me and I respond appropriately AND have an adventure at the same time :) That is very cool.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Good day (and how to loose 5000ft in 90 seconds safely)

Today was a good day. I did a little solo flying, learned a bit there. Took some pictures of the empty right seat even. Made some mistakes but it didn't bother me too much.

But the best part was going "for a ride" with my husband as he worked on his sign off to fly a Beechcraft Bonanza. You get in that plane and say "this is a REAL plane". And it is. A world away from the Cessna 172s I fly. First of all its a low wing instead of a high wing plane, its high horsepower (over 200 hp), its complex (constant speed prop and landing gear), and its just cool. Jeff's learning how to fly it because we want to fly the Bonanza to Colorado at the end of July for a family reunion. The Bonanza is faster and has a higher service ceiling than any other single engine plane in the club's rental fleet.

Today Jeff got to experience/perform an emergency descent. The concept behind the emergency descent is a scenario where you have a fire in the engine or in the cockpit and you need to get the plane on the ground, now. Right now.

Simple... you're cruising along at 5000 ft say. Engine bursts into flame, what do you do? slow the plane down enough to put it into a "dirty" configuration (flaps down and gear down), then put it into a 60 degree banked spiraling turn and descend as fast as you can without going so fast you rip the gear or the flaps or the wings off in the process. It took all of 90 seconds to get down from 5000 ft to land. Oh yeah, you want to turn left so the flames blow away from the pilots side of the cockpit so the pilot can see.

Jeff did it great I thought... he kept calm, followed Scott's instructions and just did it. He kept his head on straight and his eyes on the runway we were going to land on as we spiraled down and down. I did great too I thought... a year ago I probably would have screamed and cried all the way down. I didn't. I actually *enjoyed* the ride. It was so amazing to watch the ground spiral away beneath us and feel the g-forces as we turned. It felt like it took 5 minutes, it took just over 90 seconds before we leveled off and Jeff landed the plane on the runway as smooth as you please.

Jeff made some mistakes during his lesson too and it was honestly nice to watch him try to figure out where the airport was and to screw up his descent plan a bit too. I have tons of respect for his flying abilities and what he's learned how to do. Seeing him struggle a bit helped me feel a bit better about my own struggles. I know exactly what its like to have those problems... and its nice to see someone who has a problem once in a while still do well. Gives me hope for myself.

The funniest thing is, after the lesson Scott asked his standard question. "Do you have any questions for me?" and Jeff's question was "How am I [Jeff] doing?" I almost cracked up. That's exactly what I want to ask Scott when I do my next lesson. How am I doing? I'd just like some assurance that the learning process I'm going through is normal and I will, some day, actually get my pilots license. Nice to know I'm not the only one who wants to know... how am I doing?

So, all in all it was a good day. Next time I'll take video :)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Isaiah 40:31

But those who trust in the LORD will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint.

Those who know me know, I am not one to quote bible verse. But I saw this chapter and verse cited by someone who is struggling in her flight training (like me and so much not like me, she's going through the check ride process to be a CFI, I am just trying to get my license to fly!) and I thought I would look it up.

I am at a low right now, I have not run in a month, I struggle to walk up the stairs without some feeling some shortness of breath, my flight training has been feeling like I'm going backwards rather than forward. I am feeling so close to giving up. But then I see a verse like the above. And I think if I just don't give up, if I have some faith in the process, and hold onto some hope that things will get better, they will get better. I will be able to soar like an eagle with my own pilots license and run again and even walk again without thinking about breathing.

No, I'm not one to quote the bible, and I'm not one who expects the LORD to come up and save me. But I do trust that there is a reason for what happens, there is some rhyme to the universe and I think I've said before, I believe I was shown the joy of flight because that is where I belong - flying. So I'll try to take the appearance of this particular bible verse in my life today as a sign saying "don't give up". And I'll try not to give up.