Sunday, June 26, 2011

Pucker Factor

Believe it or not.. and you should believe it. I still get a bit of "pucker factor" before I get into the plane to fly alone. I don't have it anymore when flying with my CFI.. I have it a *little* when flying with my husband. I have it more when it's just me.

The pucker factor comes from recognizing the fact that I'm about to get into a single engine airplane to fly. First of all, humans aren't designed for flight. As the pundits pointed out long ago, if we were meant to fly, we would have been given wings. At the same time, we are designed with the desire to fly (some of us anyway). We WANT to be up there. We want it so bad that for centuries we calculated and schemed and designed different ways to fly and didn't stop, failure after failure. Eventually we did it. We fly! So often now that many of us take flight for granted. We fly around the world. We fly across the country. We fly in countless circles around an aiport, taking off and landing over and over. We f'ing fly!

This morning I preflit my airplane, carefully checking everything I check every time I go to fly. I got that little bit of pucker feeling. I was going out to practice slow flight and power off stalls. These two maneuvers are part of the Practical Test Standards that all student pilots have to meet in order to pass their check ride and earn their private pilots license. And, since every single pilot's first license is a Private Pilot License, EVERY pilot has to know these maneuvers and be able to perform them "to spec" for a DPE. Everyone from "Sully" Sullenberger, the captain of the Miracle on the Hudson to Chuck Yeager to Neil Armstrong to little 'ol me. I'm in good company :)

Why pucker? well... for one thing, every time I fly alone, especially out of the pattern, I remind myself I have a single engine. Therefore, a single point of failure. So, what happens when that single point of failure fails? Simple, do as I was trained. I have been trained in emergency procedures. Every approach and landing I do is a power-off (aka "dead stick") approach and landing, just like it would be if I lost engine power. This morning when the pucker happened I reminded myself that I have been trained to handle the emergency if/when it occurs. I also reminded myself the practice area I use is in easy glide distance of South County airport! This makes the landing in the case of a true emergency much easier.

For this particular flight both maneuvers I was planning on doing involve deliberately putting the throttle at idle (as close to turning off the engine as you can get without turning it off completely). Normally you don't do this in flight until you are coming in for landing (and within easy glide distance of an airport that you are landing at). Not a big deal really, I've done it hundreds of times. However, that just gave me a bit of a pucker this morning. Flying is about acknowledging and managing risk. Flying is about risk. But flying is also about reward. The reward is worth the risk.

The slow flight procedure for my airplane involves turn on carb heat and putting the throttle to idle, slowing the airplane down, then when at 85 knots, adding flaps 10 degrees at a time until full flaps are deployed, then adding *just enough* throttle to keep the plane at altitude (not descending or rising) and right at the edge of a stall (today that was 50 knots airspeed). Then you fly around at this slow speed, stall warning horn buzzing happily, going left and right using right rudder pressure alone. Finally, you come out of slow flight by putting in full power, slowly retracting flaps until in a "clean" configuration, and finally reduce to cruise power. All while maintaining the designated altitude plus or minus 100ft and heading plus or minus 10 degrees. Strangely enough, this is a lot easier than you would think it is. Its MUCH easier to do than it was the last time I practiced this back in October last year :)

Power off stalls - start off with slow flight. Instead of putting in the power to maintain altitude, keep the power off, pull back on the elevator and make that stall warning horn sing! Keep going, more and more, the warning horn pitch goes up, then the plane shakes a bit and you see the nose fall. (This is a very unsettling sensation the first couple times you do it.) The plane is no longer flying. This is a stall. It has nothing to do with the engine and everything to do with the angle of attack (the angle between the wing's chord line and the relative wind). Exceed the angle of attack and the plane stops flying period. It doesn't matter if you are going fast or slow.

You have to recover from the stall, the right way. Strangely enough the recovery is NOT to pull the nose up. Pull the nose up more does you NO good whatsoever, all that does is increase the angle of attack. No, you push the nose down a little, thereby reducing the angle of attack. Cram (full throttle, carb heat off) increasing airspeed. All of the sudden the plane is happily flying again. Climb - once you have a positive rate of climb and Clean - retract the flaps slowly and smoothly return to your original altitude and heading. (Cram, Climb, Clean is also the procedure you use for a go-around - I've done a lot of those!)

Apparently the point of teaching pilots stall recovery is to give us enough experience in what the warning signs approaching stall look and feel like that we don't stall. Stalls are bad, spins are worse. Spins are stalls gone bad. They are also recoverable, but I'm happy I don't have to do them for my check ride. I think the training works though, deliberately putting the plane into a stall felt so wrong. My instincts were screaming at me what I was doing was bad even before the warning horn started. That's a good thing too. That means the training is working. Chances are very good I won't inadvertently stall a plane, and, if I do, I'll be able to recover quickly.

Now you know in detail what I did today, over and over again. Practicing for my check ride and making sure I could do it "to spec". It was remarkably non-eventful. Non-events are good events for me, in business and in flying! Last May, if you would have told me I would be flying a plane, on my own, and deliberately put it into a stall.... several times.... on purpose. I would have told you to take yourself to the nearest mental health facility for evaluation. I remember telling my husband he was insane when he suggested I would like flying. I told him he was nuts. OK, he was right, but don't tell him that.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Positive Exchange of Flight Controls

According to FAA Advisory Circular AC No: 61-115, all pilots and specifically student pilots, instructors and pilot examiners should use specific procedures to establish a positive exchange of flight controls. Using these procedures both pilots always know exactly who is flying the plane at all times.

For instance, if the flight instructor is giving the flight controls to the student the flight instructor says, "You have the flight controls." The student then takes the flight controls and says, "I have the flight controls." The flight instructor visually checks to make sure the student has the flight controls and then says "You have the flight controls."

If the flight instructor needs to take the flight controls they start the process by saying: "I have the flight controls." Student: "You have the flight controls." Instructor: "I have the flight controls."

While visiting my brother, his lovely wife and their newborn baby in April, I observed how very carefully people would hand the baby between each other. It was never totally clear who had the baby at any given time. So people had to be very careful as they gave each other the baby. My husband and I discussed perhaps proper Positive Exchange of Baby procedures would be helpful in these situations.

For instance, if my sister-in-law were to give the baby to her sister to hold her for a while, she could start the process by saying, "You have the baby." Once the sister had the baby safely and totally supported by her hands, the sister could say, "I have the baby." My sister-in-law could complete the process by saying, "You have the baby."

If the baby became upset and wanted to go back to mommy my sister-in-law could say, calmly but firmly, "I have the baby." at which point the sister would gladly comply by saying "You have the baby." and once my sister-in-law definitely had the baby in hand she would complete the process: "I have the baby."

Think about it... I think this should be taught in all new parent classes ;)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Long Cross Country - Part VII - Postflight

Finally back safely on the ground at Reid-Hillview having just completed what was for me a fantastic landing. I get to enjoy my accomplishment.

Screw being professional... I let out a loud WHOOP! of joy, right there on the runway. No not over the radios, but it was loud in my headset. After this long trip and especially after my difficulties at Lodi and awkward landings, and potentially crazy winds, I was thrilled to be home and to make my final landing in a style that made me (and would make my CFI) proud.

The tower directed me to exit the runway at Delta and taxi via Yankee to Echo and then contact ground. I read back and did as instructed. When I got to Echo I did the after landing checklist and, still smiling, contacted ground to taxi back to Squadron2. Ground instructed me to taxi back via Zulu, so I read that back "Taxi via Zulu, Five Zero Niner Three Kilo, Thanks!" and another voice piped in "Do that zulu you do so well." No idea who said that, but it did make me smile. Someone else was happy too.

I taxied back to my parking spot. Shut down, did appropriate final checklist and climbed out of the plane. I saw a friend of mine pre-flighting another plane and I ran up to him and told him I just did my long cross country and I landed GREAT! I earned a hug and he said he'd back me up on the landing report :) Then I went back to the plane, and pushed it back into its spot. It was much lighter with 20 gallons less fuel. I was careful to secure the plane properly and double check the master to make sure that was off.

I packed up my stuff and caught my CFI as he was grabbing a drink from the coke machine before taking off for another flight. I told him he was wrong, I was back 50 minutes early. :) He asked me what I thought of the winds.. so I told him how I got a wind check and it turned out fine. He said he was worried I'd get back and wreck on landing here if the winds really were as reported. So was I! I got a quick congrats and a smile and he was off to train my friend.

So there you have it, my friends. 3.6 hours on the hobbs, over 261 nautical miles of travel, over 20 gallons of avgas, two bottles of water, one breakfast bar and many awesome experiences later I was at my home airport, relaxing in the flight club and basking in the glow. Another milestone my student pilot journey completed... It started off a bit rough. I made some big mistakes at the beginning. Ones I won't make again. But I shook them off and continued the flight and each leg was better than the last. I got to see and experience some beautiful things. I got to have to experience a real world, possible divert scenario, that I didn't have to divert for.. and I landed safe and sound. I'm happy and ready for the next step on the journey.
Its a good thing a "good pilot is always learning" because I'm enjoying the learning I don't want to stop!

PS. If you want to see something sorta cool. Check this out. I reprogrammed my running Garmin for flying (my running friends despair) :) and the above link is the track of my flight from Colusa to RHV, the "laps" are the time between checkpoints. You can even see the wide downwind at RHV (and the wind blowing me away from the runway on base). You can compare this against my planned route (to the right) and see how well the plan and the reality worked.

Long Cross Country - Part VI - Travis AFB to RHV

This is part VI of the story of my long cross country solo flight.. what happened as I left Travis AFB and returned to my home airport, RHV midafternoon.

The final leg
After I crossed over the runway at Travis, it was time to turn in a western direction for a bit so I descended from 5500 feet to 4500 feet until I reached my next checkpoint, Buchanan airport. From there another descent from 4500 feet to 3500 feet as I turned an easterly direction again. This would set me up well for my final descent when I got over Calaveras into the Silicon Valley. As I leveled off at 3500 I cruised just east of Mt. Diablo peak. I was concerned the air would be turbulent near Mt. Diablo, but it was smooth.

I had no problem finding Livermore (once again I was worried about finding stuff in that particular valley). And the landmarks worked exactly as I expected... there was a valley with a reservoir that pointed directly at the airport. This picture was taken directly over Livermore. You can see the valley and the reservoir I used as pointers to the airport.

I had no problem finding the right dip in the hills to find the Calaveras reservoir. This was another place I was concerned would have turbulence if the wind forecast was correct. I was less worried about it as I approached it though. So far the winds aloft were just fine. As I flew over Calaveras there was almost no turbulence aside from a bit of a bump from wake turbulence of a Southwest jet flying over that area shortly before I arrived. (It is cool sharing the sky with the big boys - and definitely more comfortable doing it when I have flight following.)

KRHV 132147Z 26016KT 10SM FEW030 24/15 A3001
Since I was over Calaveras it was time to get RHV weather and contact the tower. I was still pretty deep in the mountains there, so the weather was "static-y" at first. I thought I heard winds of 290@16. That means the winds are coming from a magnetic direction of 290 at 16 knots. The runways at RHV are aligned to magnetic 310/130. That meant I thought the winds were 20 degrees off straight down the runway and strong. This could be a problem. So I pulled out a crosswinds app I have on my iPhone and thought I was just w/in my signoff, 5.5 knot crosswind. If I landed like I did on my first solo cross country I would be fine. So I'd just have to do that and if I had any problem lining up with the centerline I'd be ready to go around and try again.

As I got closer to RHV the weather transmission cleared up. Then I heard the winds were 260@16! Uh oh. I KNEW that wouldn't work. I didn't even need an app to tell me that. That meant a crosswind component over 12 knots. I had a miserable time attempting to land in a 10 knot cross wind with my flight instructor. There was no way I would attempt to land with that sort of crosswind at this point in my flying "career". I started thinking about plan B.. I figured if winds really were like that now, when I approached the airport, I could go down to Hollister and wait out the winds there if I had to, one of the runways there would be OK.

Time to find out what the winds really were. I contacted the tower, reported my location over Calveras and that I was inbound for landing. I was directed to land on 31R. Then I requested a wind check. (A wind check was were you could ask the tower for the conditions at that moment, instead of conditions 20 minutes before.) The tower reported current winds of 290@12. That was only a 4 knot crosswind. THAT I knew I could do.
I feverishly hoped the winds would stay that way when I actually landed and re-affirmed to myself if I had ANY problem I would go around, and if the winds stayed beyond my abilities I'd go to Hollister.

The tower directed me to do a wide downwind to allow a Seneca to take off on a downwind departure. I saw the Seneca and slotted in behind him. I was cleared to land and began the process, turned base and was blown a little away from the runway. Turned final, focused hard on maintaining correct airspeed and track and alignment with the runway on the centerline, used ailerons and rudder and... landed GREAT!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Long Cross Country - Part V - Colusa to Travis AFB

This is part V of the story of my long cross country solo flight.. the first half of the third leg of the journey from Colusa to Reid-Hillview. Travis AFB airspace was interesting enough to warrant its own "section".

Its funny, I planned this route assuming I would be doing better (more accurate headings, better handling of winds and airports) on the way out than the way back. How wrong I was. In the end, I did much better on the way back in all aspects. On the way back I finally dialed in the wind adjustments I needed to make from the headings I calculated. Not by recalculating but by turning to the planned heading, identifying the landmarks I needed, then keeping on track to the landmarks while adjusting for winds. (How do you do this when flying Instrument? You don't have landmarks to look at?). I found all of my checkpoints, held altitudes very well and kept my eyes on all traffic too.

CTAF stands for Common Traffic Advisory Frequency. This is the frequency pilots use to talk to each other when flying at non-towered airports. We do this to keep each other informed about what we're doing and to help avoid hitting each other :). Its not required, you don't HAVE to announce what you're doing on CTAF. But its a good idea. Its sorta like driving the racing line when racing even if you're the slow guy. If everyone else knows what you are doing and going to do, they are able to plan what they need to do to avoid hitting you. Same thing here. Another interesting comparison, many pilots and student pilots, myself included, sound a little lost on CTAF sometimes when they try to figure out what they're supposed to say as they talk. Jeff told me once he did a particularly bad radio call and when his CFI stared at him he simply said "I'm clearing the airspace!". In my mind an awkward radio call on CTAF is like a rookie plate on a race car... it lets everyone else know the pilot/driver may not be expert at these things and to give them extra room. Not a bad idea.

On approach to Colusa I was listening on the Colusa CTAF frequency, 122.8. And I got to hear what was going on in Colusa (nothing), Willows (ag pilot) and Placerville - over 60nm away (pilot practicing in the pattern). This is because there are very few CTAF frequencies available, you end up with overlaps and hearing traffic at other airports. It can be confusing to the uninitiated.

On takeoff I stayed on the Colusa frequency for a while and got to hear someone come for landing at Willows, less than 20nm away (I remember thinking I should have pushed for a trip to Willows, I could have had a pie at Nancy's Airport cafe!) The guy did all of his radio calls right, except one thing. He kept saying "Watsonville Traffic" and then correcting and saying "sorry, Willows Traffic". The way "Watsonville" rolled off his tongue it seemed he was very used to flying at Watsonville (just south of Santa Cruz) and not so used to Willows. I wanted to radio up and tell him it was OK, they both start with "W" :) but I kept it professional and kept my mouth shut. For now. I imagined this guy was another student pilot in his long cross country flight. Maybe he was, or maybe it was just his first trip to Willows to get a pie at Nancy's Airport Cafe. But it made me smile to hear him.

Playing with the Big Boys
I got flight following once I reached my cruise altitude over the Williams VOR and eventually I was flying in the Travis AFB alert area. Alert areas are such because they have high volumes of unusual or military air traffic. In this case, the volume was very high. I was listening to Travis Approach managing DC-10s and jets and Cessnas and Barons and other smaller GA planes flying into and out of the area.

At one point Travis Approach pointed out traffic at my 11 o'clock, same altitude, opposite direction. I looked and saw two small military jets flying in formation and then they quickly disappeared behind my left wing. I contacted approach and confirmed with him the traffic he was referring to was two jets. Yup, that was the traffic.

Then I see a large jet passing left to right in the distance. I was watching that jet when a larger jet, another DC-10, slowly flies into view. He seemed really close but Travis Approach didn't say anything, he was flying left to right and away from me. So I figured that's why I didn't get a warning. The thing was HUGE. I felt like a minnow next to a whale. And I wondered how on earth that thing could fly at all.

Eventually the DC-10 started turning left, Travis called it out to me then and said he was maneuvering to land, I said I had him in sight (how could I NOT?). Then I got to watch as this giant whale of a plane slowly and gracefully turned in front of me and descended towards the runways. I told Travis that I was planning to cross right over the runways at 5500 ft, they said the ATC equivalent of "go for it" :). I crossed the runway just as the DC-10 landed directly under my little plane.

I wish I took a picture or video of this ballet of planes. I think this was the high point of my flight. Me, flying a little plane and playing a small part in the dance in the sky. The careful orchestration of all of the players in this small airspace, the interaction with ATC and through ATC with the other planes. I was up there and just as important and involved as any other plane or pilot. Me. The same person that a year ago was terrified of touching the controls of any plane, playing with the big boys, and doing it well.

Looking back over this text.. it doesn't capture the beauty or awe or just amazingness of the experience. I guess you had to be there. Maybe you will come join me for a flight some time so you can feel and see it too?

Long Cross Country - Part IV - Lodi to Colusa

This is part IV of the story of my long cross country solo flight.. the second leg of the journey from Lodi to Colusa. After a bit of a rough start I settled down to some fun navigating and talking with ATC.

I took off from Lodi and climbed to 4500 feet for my next leg. This leg would be rather long with no real easy landmarks to below me, I had to rely on heading and looking at the coastal mountain range and looking for a big gash in the mountains where a river comes down from Lake Berryessa.

As expected, I never saw the Franklin airport which was my first checkpoint. I believe I was still climbing when I passed over it. I got flight following after I leveled off at 4500 feet and used the chart and my notes and the mountains and the compass to fly the right heading in spite of the winds. I found my next checkpoint Yolo cty airport without issue thanks to the big picture landmarks.

ATC asked me if I was going direct to Colusa or some other route, they had to figure out who to hand me off to. I told them I the direction I was going (which cut though a corner of the Travis Alert Area). The controller handed me off to Travis Approach and they stayed with me most of the way to Colusa.

I found found all of my other checkpoints. I chose this particular route because it pretty much follows the route I've driven four or more times a year for the last 11 years, the route up I 505 and I 5 to Willows and Thunderhill raceway. That familiarity gave me a bit too much confidence in finding Arbunkle. Arbunkle was just a postage stamp town along a road with other towns that look just like it from 4500 ft above the ground.

Fortunately, I planned for that too. I had notes in my flight plan recording what radial from the Williams VOR Arbunkle was on so I tunedandverified the Williams VOR. Dialed in the appropriate radial and used that to verify the little town I was flying over was the "right" little town. There was, of course, Sutter's Butte right next to the Colusa airport (another reason I chose that particular airport because it would make it hard to miss), but I wanted to fly the plan. I was very happy with the way that backup worked. It showed I finally understood VORs well enough to use them creatively.

Once over Arbunkle I turned towards Colusa and started descent as planned and called in 5 miles when over the Williams VOR. I found the Colusa airport slightly north of my heading, the winds were stronger than I had planned for there. Fortunately, I had my extra landmarks to help find it.

I flew to the airport, crossed midfield at 2000 feet, turned left to go right for runway 31. This time I didn't go an INCH below pattern altitude and I landed OK, not my best by any means, but not horrible and better than Lodi.

I stopped there and took a break and some pictures. I made it almost. I landed at two airports I've never seen before and got over a bit of a scare from my first leg to fly well to Colusa. Something I really like about flying is the way it takes so much focus to do, while much of the focus becomes subconscious (I don't have to think about holding an altitude or *how* to turn to a heading) I'm still new enough at this that I have to think and double and triple check what I'm doing. I hope I keep that habit going for a very long time. I think it will make me a safer pilot.

According to my notes I landed at 1:23PM (2023Z). In any case, I had one long leg left to fly and it was getting hot. So I opened and started drinking my next bottle of water, snacked on a breakfast bar, used the restroom and wandered briefly around the Colusa airport. They had good facilities there for an airport in the middle of nowhere, bathrooms and a pilots lounge with comfy chairs and a soda machine. I wished my friend was in town so I could say hi. But I guess that mean's I'll have to come back again some time. I'd like to visit that airport again and fly around the big butte and see what it looks like from all sides. After I get my license, I can do that any time I want and weather allows :)

You can see more pictures from the Colusa airport and my return trip here.

Long Cross Country - Part III - RHV to Lodi

This is part III of the story of my long cross country solo flight.. the first leg of the journey from Reid-Hillview Airport (RHV) to Lodi. I'll refer to different checkpoints, if you want to know what order they come in, refer to part I of the journey. I made some mistakes on the way, or, as my CFI says, I had a great learning experience.

After a careful preflight inspection of the plane, going through all of the appropriate checklists and requesting flight following via ground control at RHV. I was in the air and on the way to Lodi! This picture shows the first leg of my trip.

As expected the winds were nothing like forecast in the Bay Area, knowing that I focused more on flying pilotage to ensure I was going the right way instead of blindly following a heading. I would turn to a heading, try to see something in the distance I should line up with, or some land marks I had identified before hand to orient myself and the keep adjusting my heading to stay on course.

I didn't get lost. It was a real relief to be able to fly into the Livermore area and not get lost. That is where I got totally lost two months before, one of those great "learning experiences" that is not fun to experience, but I did learn. I was leery of going there again, but I think I chose Lodi airport, in part, to force myself to face the uncomfortable memories and prove I could do it right.

Scott's tips about Byron and Stockton helped.. Byron was hard to see, but I identified it by looking at the lake and the canal leading to it. Then did as I planned and looked for the big town with the break and the smaller town to the right and found the Stockton airport OK.

Between Byron and Stockton I had a bit of a scare, the engine RPM kept creeping up (I wasn't descending, I checked), so I kept dialing it back down to 2400RPM which was my planned cruise power setting. Now I don't know why I did this but this is what I did... the engine seemed to be running slightly rough, like it was too lean, so I kept enriching the mixture a bit - I was probably moving the knob the wrong way and thereby causing the roughness I was trying to fix. Finally I moved the mixture too far the wrong way, the engine ran REALLY rough. (If you lean the fuel mix to far, you starve the engine of fuel and eventually it will stop running, not a desirable condition for flight.) Immediately put the mixture to full rich, the engine smoothed out again, I re-leaned and left it *alone* until the proper time to mess with it on descent.

Flying from Stockton to Kingdon I flew the calculated heading and used the roads and tracks to ensure I was going the right way. I found Kingdon much easier than I thought I would and turned towards Lodi airport. I called in 5 miles out and started descending. I didn't see the actual Lodi airport until I was almost over it (it was much smaller than I thought it would be) I crossed midfield over 1400 ft. I got to this point before the parachute planes started working. Then things got weird.

I crossed midfield, leveled off at 1400 ft as planned. I went away from the airport to what seemed far enough out and turned left (to do a right pattern for runway 26). I was trying to get to 900 ft pattern altitude and kept thinking I was high. I got on the 45 and turned downwind as a larger plane took off with parachuters on board. He announced what he was doing on CTAF and I let him know I could see him. Something just looked wrong and I couldn't put my finger on it. It was rather turbulent too.

The wrongness bothered me, so, instead of turning base, I kept flying downwind, away from the airport. I announced my intentions to fly away and try again on CTAF so the other plane knew what I was up to. Finally as I flew away I realized what was wrong. I was reading the altimeter wrong! My mind was saying I needed to go lower, my subconscious just would NOT go lower, which is good. When I finally realized what was going on I realized I was about 500-600 ft. AGL (above ground level)!! Fortunately, this airport is in the middle of a field so I wasn't low over people or structures, I was low over fields and trees. That explained the extra turbulence, the trees blocked the winds.

I climbed back UP to pattern altitude, re-entered on the 45 and everything looked "right". I flew the pattern normally and came in for landing.... and got sucked in to an optical illusion. The runway at Lodi is much narrower and shorter than I'm used to. I flared late, bounced twice, but held the plane off and let it settle to the runway safely (if not stylishly). I was down and very glad to be there.

The runway there is not "smooth" at all, but it was good enough to land on. I taxied off the runway, announced clear on CTAF, cleaned up, and went through the checklists. Going through the checklists helps me get centered again, and ensures I don't miss anything! I stopped there on the taxiway with the engine running and drank some water, re-organized my notes and navigation log for the next leg. I probably sat there for 5 minutes just shaking off what just happened. I also got to watch some parachutists land in the field next to the airport.

I had stalled long enough and had no desire to spend any more time in this place. Shake-off complete, pre-take off checklist complete, I announced I was taking the runway and took off for Colusa.

Do you want to know what I'm talking about when I say "on the 45" or "downwind"? Its all about where you are in the traffic pattern. Long time readers will remember I came up with a document with everything I know about the pattern. You can view it here, share the knowledge, share the joy of Pattern Work!"

Long Cross Country - Part II - Preflight

This is part II of the story of my long cross country solo flight. Preflight, before every flight there is preflight. If you get preflight right, you may have an enjoyable flight :)

Before a student cross country flight the flight instructor has to review the student's flight plan and certify, in the student's log book that the plan is correct and the student can make the flight safely under known conditions.

There is a lot of work that goes into getting that endorsement. As you saw in my previous post, first you need to plan your route and determine the course and distances. A big thing for me is to go beyond just the calculated course and use the chart to figure out what big picture landmarks I should use to supplement the calculated course/heading data. You saw my notes on that in Part I. You also need to learn and record important details about the destination airport (Pattern altitude, runway altitude, length and width, where's the windsock, do they have fuel, where is transient parking, etc, etc.), and what radio frequencies (for weather, CTAF, ATC, etc) to use. Here's a pic of some of my notes for the Lodi airport.

Of course you have to take into account airspace, terrain and the runway you think you'll be using. You also need to develop your climb, cruise, comm and descent plans. They don't have to be complex, but they do have to be well thought out. This is what I had for Lodi. You can see some last minute erasing was done.

You can do that days or weeks ahead of time. And, you can review that with your flight instructor ahead of time as well. They may provide additional pointers as to what to look for or what you might see as you fly.

Weather or not
Then comes the biggy - weather. The day of the flight, preferably a few hours before planned take-off, you get a full weather briefing from Flight Services and learn the likely conditions of your flight. The winds, the temperature, clouds, rain, fog, smoke, dust, the dreaded mountain obscuration, etc... all of which can make you adjust or cancel your flight depending on safety.

Those of you who know pilots have probably noticed, we're obsessed about weather. The closer we are to an important flight, the more obsessed we become. Pilots watch the evening weather forecast with critical eyes, carefully noting the placement of the cloud graphic on the weather map. They may groan if the weather man says words like "foggy" or "low clouds" because all of these things can prevent or delay a VFR flight. Some may mutter about how totally useless the term "partly cloudy" is in a weather forecast, it is so inaccurate! Ask a pilot how the weather will be tomorrow on any given day and he/she can probably give you not only the temperatures, but forecast winds and cloud heights and amount of clouds (few, scattered, broken or overcast) especially for the home airport. Pilots start to learn the rhythm of the seasons and things like the way winds tend to pick up in the afternoon in late spring/early summer in the bay area, or how the low clouds and fog usually burns away by 11AM or 9AM if you're lucky. But I digress...

Back to preflight. The night before the proposed flight (Sunday) I checked the weather forecasts online, things looked pretty good, the morning fog was predicted to burn off early, winds looked like they would be generally light. My main concern was the forecast winds at 3000 feet in the SFO area. They were forecast to be blowing at 22knots. My CFI, Scott, had said its not a good idea to fly with winds aloft over 15 knots because that makes holding a heading rather hard for the inexperienced. That made me think my flight might be scrubbed again. However, forecasts being what they are "horoscopes with numbers", conditions were close enough to right to give it a shot and plan to meet with Scott the next morning.

Monday morning I got up extra early and checked the forecasts again. Winds seemed lower (with the exception of the 22knots at 3000 ft in SFO area) and clouds predicted to clear even earlier. Good news! So I drove down to the flight club to get my weather briefing and complete my flight plan.

The briefing was relatively brief. Good old "mountain obscuration" was predicted for the area but the briefer could see on satellite (and I could see out the window) there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Winds were predicted relatively light for all locations and the winds in the Sacramento valley were light as well. Everything looked great except those 22knot winds predicted for SFO area. The briefer mentioned that would be over 20% of my expected airspeed of 110 knots, so that made it an adverse condition for me. [Yes I know 22 is not 20% of 110, but that's that the guy said.]

I wondered if that meant I wouldn't be flying today. I didn't want to go through the 45 minute process of completing calculations for over 250nm of flying if I was going to be canceled. So I called Scott and left a message to see if I should call it off for those winds. He called back and said no, I could go ahead and do the plan. I wouldn't be in SFO area for long, and he was pretty sure the forecast was wrong.

This put me in a bit of a conundrum. To do a flight plan using pilotage and dead reckoning, the wind at my proposed cruise altitude was needed to determine what actual heading I would fly. If the winds were not as predicted, my headings would be wrong, either slightly or majorly depending on how wrong the forecast is. But, it is what it is, so I did my calculations based on forecast and knew my headings would likely not work so I would have to rely on the pilotage part (the big picture part) to keep me on course if the headings did not work out.

Here is a picture of one of the three pages of my flight plan/navigation log:

Eventually Scott arrived and we reviewed the plan. He had me walk him through the whole route to Lodi and Colusa and back to RHV, what landmarks I would use (again) and key information at the airports I was flying to. If I opened a flight plan or if I was planning on using flight following, etc. He insisted I should have at least three different ways to find each waypoint, at a minimum the heading and time I calculated, plus two more landmarks or sets of landmarks for each. He also gave me some tips as to what I would see when approaching a couple airports that are particularly hard to find.

We talked about the winds and what would happen over the Calaveras reservoir if the winds really were as forecast. I have been in a small plane over Calaveras in high winds before it was "moderately" turbulent, meaning things that weren't tied down were bouncing around. He said simply if the winds were that strong, it would be turbulent. I'm definitely more comfortable with turbulence now than I was a year ago, my first cross country had some light turbulence. I was really hoping the forecast was wrong.

I had to redo my descent plans because I planned on getting to 500' over pattern altitude too early. Not surprising since this flight was the first one that I was likely to have to cross midfield and then turn into the pattern, twice. Once at Lodi and once at Colusa. This was a maneuver I've never done successfully before, the last time I attempted it with my CFI I ended up turning the wrong way and getting totally mixed up. He made sure I knew which way I should turn.. and believe me, it was one of those mistakes you only make once. I'll never forget you have to go left to go right and right to go left. But, I was a bit worried about doing that right... I knew though. If I had a problem on the approach, just announce my intentions, fly away from the airport, and try again.

In the end, Scott was satisfied with my plan and endorsed my log book.

This time he suggested I actually get out of the plane and take a break at one of the airports, it was going to be a very long trip. He said he wouldn't be worried about me until after 4PM. I was hoping to be back well before then because I was concerned the wind would pick up in the afternoon, as it normally does. With a parting "good luck, be safe and make sure to clean the windscreen" I was off. Time to preflight the airplane (that was just preflight planning!) and go.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Long Cross Country - Part I - The Plan

I completed my long solo cross country yesterday (Monday). It was awesome... I have much to share, but not a lot of time to type. Not to mention I think its a bit easier to digest long stories in small chunks. This will be the first of several posts on this flight.

My flight had to involve taking off and landing at three different airports, there had to be at least 50 nm between airports on one of the three legs, and I needed 2.9 more hours of solo cross country flight time to meet the cross country portion of aeronautical experience requirements for my private pilot license. I wanted to fly up to Colusa airport because a friend of mine used to manage that airport and I was hoping to see him there. Turns out he was on a cruise in Alaska at the time. Jeff was sure I would not get permission to fly up there because it was far, much further than I would need to go. But I asked anyway.

In the end Scott asked me to describe the route I would use and what I would be looking for to keep from getting lost. So I did my high level plan and emailed him with my checkpoints and plan. This picture shows the plan drawn on a sectional. What follows is my description of my plan. My plan was good enough that Scott agreed I could go ahead and plan to do that flight. All I had to do then was wait for the weather and the schedules to come together right. Fortunately for me, it only took two attempts to be able to do the flight. Last week's scrub and this week's success.

The Plan - Reid-Hillview to Lodi to Colusa and Back

I mention Travis a couple times in the plan. This is because my planned route flew through the Travis AFB Alert Airspace. An "Alert" airspace means there is heavy pilot training activity or unusual activity and you have to be extra alert to fly through. In this case the activity is military training. More on what I saw flying through the alert area in another post.

RHV to Lodi
*LVK > *Byron landmarks: windmills, lake and the peak between Mt. Diablo and Livermore
Byron > *SCK large runways south of large city and north of smaller city
*SCK > Kingdon (O20) train tracks goes straight from stockton to this apt. This will set me up better to arrive at Lodi
Kingdon > Lodi (*1O3) the airport is approx. 5mi north of Lodi the town.
Most likely will have to cross midfield then do either LP for or RP for 26. Watch for planes using 12/ no matter what winds are doing. Watch for parachute drop zone.

Lodi to Colusa
Lodi > F72 (this will be my most likely miss, so I will look for the highway and if I cross the highway before the set of 2000 ft towers
I'll know I'm probably overshooting the airport, can also use the Sacramento VOR to help find it)
F72 > *DWA (Yolo Cty) - Contract Travis Approach, let them request permission to cut corner.
Landmarks: cut in the mountains at Lake Berryessa, and right in front of that is the town of Winters and the University airport SE of Davis which will be right under my path to Yolo Cty
*DWA > I5/I505 aim for the confluence of I5 and I505
I5/I505 > Arbunkle (next town up the highway from the intersection)
Arbunkle > Colusa head towards the the Butte. I'll use the Williams VOR plus the butte plus the town of Colusa to pinpoint the airport, Colusa has fuel 24x7 and I have personal resources there. Another situation where will have to cross midfield then come back in to land, most likely on 31. Do not fly low over birds to S and W.

Colusa to RHV
Initially I'll fly roads, keeping the mountains on my right.
*1O3 > Arbunkle If I don't see Arbuncle, turn left and fly down I5 once I hit I5
Arbunkle > I5/I505
I5/I505 > Watts Woodland (*O41) First airport in the middle of the V of the two highways
Contact Travis Approach 126.6 and get permission to fly over airport at 5500 ft.
*O41 > Nuttree (*VCB) - this is where I505 and I80 meet and the highway gets closest to the ridge
Nuttree > Travis (SUU - big runways, really big) will see it before the big group of windmills on the delta and to the left of the highways and fairfield
Travis > Buchanan (*CCR): keep ghost fleet on right over the delta, Benetia bridge will point straight at it. It will be just left of highways
Buchanan > LVK Keep Mt Diablo on the left and if I fly the right heading a nice valley in front of me should be pointing straight at livermore
LVK > Calaveras the water in the nice valley in front of me is NOT Calaveras, Calaveras is the next dip to the right. Go for the dip just to the left of the peaks with the towers. Fly the right heading and can't miss it
Calaveras > RHV

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

What I didn't do today

Well, what I didn't do today was fly. At all.

I was going to attempt my long solo cross country today. From my home airport of Reid-Hillview to Lodi Airport to Colusa County Airport back to Reid-Hillview. Trip would have taken approximately 3 hours (including time landing, taxiing, etc. at Lodi and Colusa). We woke up to the normal low clouds and fog this morning, with Airmets predicting mountain obscuration until 0300Z (around 8PM tonight). And the clouds in the Silicon Valley were low and thick. Those clouds typically burn off so I went on down to the club at 7:30 this morning to get the formal briefing and prepare my flight plan.

I got the briefing and there were low clouds and fog almost everywhere on my route at the time, the clouds and fog in the central valley (Sacramento and north) were expected to burn off by 10 AM or so, but the low clouds were still predicted for the Silicon Valley and mountain obscuration ruled the hills. The weather briefer said those magic words "VFR flight not advised" where mountains were obscured. That makes sense, you don't want to fly under Visual Flight Rules where you can't see the mountains you don't want to hit. So I told Scott the earliest I'd take off would be 11. We agreed to meet at 11:30 and see if it was a go or not.

About that time the guy who runs the club, Mike, who I really like, realized my plane needed its 50 hour service and oil change. So he had his guy do the oil change to make sure I could take off today. That was very cool of him, and good for me. The plane was due some sort of oil additive as part of an airworthiness directive, you don't want to fly a plane that is due an airworthiness directive.

Knowing that would be taken care of I hung out around the club and Scott showed up around 9 for his first lesson. He said he was very doubtful about the flight from his experience with the depth of the clouds in the valley. I figured we'd see. I went and washed my car and came back. The clouds were clearing in the Silicon Valley but they were still close over the hills I'd have to fly over to get into the Sacramento Valley. Scott told me the forecasts are posted at 11 but they're available to the briefers a little after 10:30 so I could call around 10:45 and get the latest.

I called for another briefing around 10:50. The latest data still had that mountain obscuration but clearing after 2100Z (2PM) the weather in the valley was predicted to clear up by 2300Z and even what little weather was there was scattered clouds at elevations that should be easily avoided. Especially after 2100Z. Winds aloft looked OK. Not too strong, Colusa was perfectly clear. The briefer mentioned briefly unstable, moist air in the region but didn't discuss any storms or convective activity predicted.

I worked up the flight plan and did all of the calculations for my route, time, fuel, wind correction angles, etc for over 200 nm of flying. I wrote on the white board in the room the current and forecast conditions for each TAF on my route. San Jose, Oakland, Stockton & Sacramento. I wrote the current conditions for Livermore and Concord (two more stops on the route). After noon I updated the current conditions at all. They were all looking better, most showing at least scattered low clouds, but nothing that screamed don't go.

I looked at all of the data and tried to convince myself I should go. I was pretty sure I could go. Especially if I waited until 2100Z. The worst I would have to do would be dodge some small clouds over Livermore or Stockton (remember as a student pilot I'm not allowed to fly OVER a cloud) and even they seemed to be going away. I didn't like the idea of having to dodge clouds directly over or near my checkpoints, especially in the area I was most likely to get lost, which was the central valley between Stockton and Sacramento. I don't have a great record in the central valley. I felt conflicted. I tried to tell myself the clouds would go away or if they were there it wouldn't be a big deal, but I just couldn't convince myself. And something else was bothering me that I couldn't pin point. Finally I made up my mind not to go. (After spending 4 hours at the flight club and taking a day off).

Scott came back in from his flight at this point, he had one student waiting to go, one student to debrief and me. All waiting at once. I grabbed him really quick and told him it would only take two seconds. I told him all of the information I had said I could go, but I felt conflicted so I wouldn't. I was halfway hoping he would tell me that I should go anyway because everything looked fine. Instead he said very simply I should listen to that "little voice". He knew how much I *wanted* to go. But if I felt conflicted I just shouldn't. It was that simple. He said the times he's done that, based on a feeling (and for him when he does that for a corporate flight that's lost money) he's usually been right. Of course, he's been flying most of his life, so his instincts are well developed, I'm sure. I don't think my instincts are quite that sharp for aviation weather.

In any case, the cross country was off for today. I told Scott I'd go up and do some pattern work and slow flight instead since this would be my only chance to fly this week and the clouds had cleared from RHV's area. So, off I went to check out the plane and preflight. I started the preflight and checked the oil and fuel. The fuel wasn't up to the tabs but it was more than enough for a local flight. The oil was so new I couldn't tell where it was sitting on the dip stick. No obvious leaking, flaps extended normally, etc. I got half way through the preflight and I was still bothered. I didn't even feel comfortable doing a local flight today.

Finally I sighed, put the flaps back up, unplugged my headset and put away my kneeboard and decided to put the keys away. I wouldn't fly. I sent Scott a quick text, checked in the plane and ducked out of the club. I felt bad about not flying. Both the cross country and the local flight. I took a day off from work and no fly. So I got an oil change on my car instead, then I went home.

I still don't know if my reluctance foretold a real problem or not. Maybe a storm blew in over the valley. Maybe the winds would have been too strong for me to land (the winds at RVH got to the point they exceeded my solo limitations but who knows if they would have been like that when I came back). Maybe they oil change wasn't done right and the engine would fail on the next flight. Maybe I was just being over sensitive to my husband's remark about how I shouldn't die on his birthday unless its on company time because that would give him 2x the insurance money.

In the end I guess it doesn't matter. Everyone says it's important to listen to one's instincts, even when you know other people would go, and once I decided not to fly at all my uneasiness went away (to be replaced by a bummed out feeling). Next attempt is next Monday. We will see what happens.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A doubly good day! - Part II

We last left our intrepid heroine celebrating her landing on the center line at King City airport... then...

Then nothing special or everything special depending on how you look at it. Rollout (on center line of course), taxi off the runway, do the radio call, after landing checklist (flaps up, carb heat off, transponder on standby - skip this one, lights, etc). DRINK SOME TEA. I can't believe how thirsty I was. The whole flight down my mouth was dry. I was so glad I thought to bring a cold tea with me. So I gulped some tea and prepared for the return trip. Switch navigation logs, make sure the chart is available and in easy reach for the flight back. I had a good strong feeling Scott would be right and those clouds would require me to do my eastern turn closer to Hollister than Watsonville. And, I also figured I should take Scott's advice and not hang out down there. I immediately taxied towards the other end of the runway and prepared for take off.

I made sure I had my heading and intended cruise altitude and power setting firmly in mind. Pre-take off checklist, take off checklist, review climb checklist. Did the radio call "King City Traffic, Cessna Niner Three Kilo taking the active runway two nine for a straight out departure, King City". Taxi onto the runway, set HI to the Compass, quick review of fuel setting and trim, check the wind sock, (still a cross wind), advance throttle to full, full ailerons into the wind, rudder as needed to stay on center line, airspeed at 55 knots, the plane begins to dance a bit.. it wants to take off, pull back on the yoke and we're flying! Relax the back pressure a bit, gain airspeed, the trim and a little hand pressure puts the plane at the right pitch for a Vy climb and off I go.

I climbed up to cruise altitude of 4500 feet for the return trip and go through the cruise checklist. I was listening to NorCal Approach (air traffic control) on the channel I was on during the trip down. I got over the town of Greenfield and called in for flight following. ATC didn't respond. The controller was very busy I could hear all of the planes he was talking to. So I figured I'd wait a bit. I made sure to continue listening to ATC though and I knew when he was pointing my plane out to other planes and used that information to spot other planes around me. In the end I waited so long I later decided it was "too late" to call. Out of my whole flight I think that was the one stupid thing I did. Really, is it ever too late to take every possible avenue to make your flight safer? No. That's one thing I won't do again. Especially on a solo flight. *sigh*

So, I flew my headings and it was quite a bit more turbulent on the way back. I could see more clouds where I had clear sky on the way down. As I approached the Salinas airport again, Salinas weather said the clouds were at 4000 feet, in the same airspace I flew through not 40 minutes earlier at 5500 feet there were now clouds. Looking beyond Salinas, I could see up to where Watsonville airport would be, more clouds, the mountains between WVI and South County, dark with clouds close. As predicted, I wasn't going that way. As I approached Salinas I started implementing plan B.

First, figure out how to get to Hollister. I didn't have a pre-calculated heading for this route, so I had to use other methods. I looked at the chart and figured out what radial on the Salinas VOR Hollister sits on. Dialed that into the nav system and made sure I was going FROM, not TO. Started a descent to 3500 so I would be at 3500 (500 feet below the clouds and at the right altitude for an easterly route) when I got over the Salinas VOR and turned eastish towards Hollister. All the while listening hard for traffic advisories given to other pilots in the vicinity. Oh yeah, and flying the plane :) [I can't express how cool it is to be able to fly like that. It sounds like a lot to do, and it is, but it isn't.]

Turned towards Hollister and the radial I was on took me a little closer than I wanted to be to the top of a ridge line.. and the clouds weren't getting any higher. So I swung north of the radial and went over a lower part of the ridge, maintaining my clearance from the clouds and the hills. I don't think I was ever really "close" to anything, but I like space around me and my plane. It was more turbulent over the hills with the updrafts under the clouds and the hills stirring up the air.

As I flew the plane, watched for traffic, enjoyed the beauty of the clouds and the light and the green hills, and monitored how far off my radial I was going, I marveled at how much things had changed since this time last year when I was avoiding doing my first "Pinch Hitter" flight. I remembered how I was scared to death but willing to try in order to get rid of my fear. I distinctly remember a day when we were at the flight club and Jeff's CFI, Scott (he wasn't *my* CFI yet), asked me if I wanted to go up since he had some time and I dug in my heels and said, "Nope." He spent an hour talking to me about what my fears were and why, then we agreed to go up a week later and that was the beginning of the end of my fear and the start of my love of flying. [Note, as I type this I checked my log book, my first pinch hitter flight was on June 4th, 2010. Almost exactly one year before my first solo cross country flight.]

After a short time I was over flat land again and looking for the Hollister airport. I redirected the plane to intercept the radial, but I couldn't see the airport. Oh boy, this reminded me of that bummer of a flight to Los Banos, when I couldn't find Hollister at all on the way back. But I remembered what I learned too. Look at the chart, look at the big picture. OK, chart, where is Hollister airport? Right by Hollister the city. OK, find the city, find the airport north of it. There was the city. There was the airport. Right where it should be and right on the radial I drifted off of in the wind when I allowed myself to get distracted trying to find the airport. Back on radial, adjust for winds, beeline for Hollister. Amazing how well this stuff works if you use it right.

I got over the center of Hollister and turned northwest. I started descending again to 3000 feet. I saw a plane take off from Hollister going the same direction I was going so I watched it carefully as I descended and swung to his left to make it easier for him to see me as I passed. He did see me and instead of just turning left to head towards Salinas or Watsonville or whatever, he did a turn to the right and climbed high above me to head west eventually. I was so focused on monitoring ATC because I didn't have flight following (I switched to 120.1 when I got back into our valley), I didn't switch to the CTAF frequency for Hollister so I could communicate with the other plane if I had to. I was 2000 feet over pattern altitude so it wasn't required but it probably would have been a good idea. It got the weather from Hollister so I was sure my altimeter was accurate.. but being able to have a better idea of what was going on in that airspace would have been a good idea.

Once I was sure I was clear of the other plane I descended to 2500 and continued to cruise up the valley back to home. I reviewed my descent plan and went through the descent checklist and got RHV weather, and set the tower and ground frequencies for RHV on the radios as I had the time to do it. Get to UTC, call in to the tower. I wanted to say "Hey guys, I'm back from my first solo cross country!!!" but I didn't. I kept it professional.:
"Reid-Hillview Tower, Cessna five zero niner three kilo over UTC with Victor. Inbound for landing."
"Cessna five zero niner three kilo, Reid-Hillview Tower, straight in runway three one left."
"Straight in three one left, five zero niner three kilo."
That's the magic handshake to enter class D airspace. You call and if they respond with your full tail number, you can come in.

At seven miles out I started my descent to pattern altitude. I could hear the engine revving higher so I pulled power back to keep the speed under control. Once I was at pattern altitude I was still too fast so I pulled back power to idle, down to 85 knots, 10 degrees of flaps and monitor glide slope. The tower cleared me to land. I was still high so 20 degrees of flaps, then 30 degrees of flaps. Keep lined up with the center line no matter what (winds were at 10 knots 20 degrees off the runway heading, so some crosswind). Keep airspeed at 65, add a little power. Got over the fence, pulled power back to idle, more and more aileron and rudder to stay on center line as I slow down, roundout, stare at the end of the runway, keep flying the plane and ...... touch ...... as light as can be. I was down, on the center line, aligned with the runway, then rolling down the runway **ON THE CENTER LINE** with plenty of room to get off on Delta in a very smooth manner.

I was elated! the tower directed me to cross three one right at delta and contact ground. I read that back, did as instructed. Crossed the runway, taxied clear of runway and did my after landing checklist. Flaps up, carb heat off, transponder on standby (for real this time), time note. Contacted ground and I wanted to say "Hey guys! I'm back from my first solo cross country, and I landed ON THE CENTER LINE TWICE!" but I didn't. I kept it professional. I got clearance to taxi back to the club. Pulled up by my spot, do the securing checklist. Avionics off, mixture lean, wait for the prop to stop spinning, mags off, master off. Now headset comes off and there I was. Sitting by myself in a plane that I just flew, by myself, over 180 nautical miles, over hills, around and under clouds for 2.1 hours. Listening to the gyros spin down and trying to figure out if I was more happy about successfully completing my first cross country or finally landing on the center line in crosswinds *twice*.

In the end it didn't matter. It was just a doubly good day.

[Some other notes. The three training flights I had before this one.. and even the flights before that which I considered, at the time, failures, prepared me well for this trip. Now I'm glad I had that rough time finding Hollister on the way back from Los Banos, and that I had to figure out how to get to an airport I wasn't planning on seeing on the fly, or how to use a VOR the right way to fly from point A to point B. I'm even almost glad I had struggled long enough to get pissed off enough to not let the plane drift off the center line. All of those experiences lead to a successful trip. Next flight I need to do better at getting flight following, hitting the timer when I'm over way points, and flying a ground track accurately in the wind. I did good on the last thing on the way TO King City, on the way back I lost some focus and didn't do as well. There are always things I can improve on. Thus that old cliche, "A good pilot is always learning." My approach to this particular flight was open minded and ready for adventure, and it worked. What a blast!]

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A doubly good day! - Part I

*Note: no chickens were harmed to allow me to fly, this time or any time!

There are four major milestones in a student pilots journey towards the coveted Private Pilot's License. The first Solo flight. The first solo cross country. The long solo cross country. The check ride. It seems a chicken sacrifice may be required for each. I had to do a pre-solo chicken sacrifice.. and, after 3 scrubs of my first solo cross country, my CFI emailed me last night suggesting I sacrifice a chicken or something so we can finally get this cross country done! I found the pre-solo sacrifice chicken (fortunately these things have four lives, one for each milestone) and viola! the weather was *just* good enough for me to do my first solo cross country today.

Today's flight was to from Reid-Hillview (RHV) to King City (KIC) and back. Approximately 89 nautical miles the route I had planned. Before the flight I got a weather briefing and used the winds aloft data to calculate my wind correction angles, headings, ground speed, time between way points and fuel burn. Then I reviewed my flight plan and the weather picture with my CFI.

A rain went through Wednesday, this morning was predicted to be dry. The weather briefer said from RHV south had stable dry air. Oakland north had unstable moist air. He didn't expect the moist air to make it all the way to RHV. My CFI, Scott, had a slightly different view. He showed me the satellite loop of our area where you could see a cloud layer swinging south towards my route, not to get down to my destination but potentially affecting the route there and back. So we talked through my options if the clouds came down sooner than later.

I was planning on flying to South County airport (E16), then swing west over the Santa Cruz mountains to Watsonville airport (WVI), then south to Salinas (SNS), then down the Salinas valley to King City. I would use Salinas airport and VOR, a prison and the end of a mountain ridge and an arroyo for my way points to King City (KIC). At a cruise altitude of 5500 feet. Here's a map of my planned route:

The problematic portion would be E16 to WVI. The mountains are approx 3500 feet with some towers going as high as 4050 feet. The clouds could be as low as 5000 feet over the ridge line. I had to maintain visual reference with the ground at all times, no flying over clouds allowed. According to Scott, it would be unlikely for me to be able to fly exactly the route I had planned. And, if I could on the way out, it would be even less likely on the way back. And, its not a good idea to try to squeeze oneself between clouds and mountains. That often causes a "premature and terminal arrival".

My alternate route would be to continue further south and cut across the mountain range in clear air. Coming back I would do the same thing, but, if I got to Salinas and saw the clouds were lower and closer, I would turn from Salinas to Hollister (CVH) and continue up the valley from there to E16 and then back to RHV.

Scott did three more endorsements for me, one on my medical to say I can fly cross country in an airplane, one in my logbook to say I can fly cross country in a C172 and one in my logbook saying I can fly cross country in a C172 to KIC via WVI and back on June 2, 2011. I think I mentioned earlier, I'm in the endorsement phase of training. With a suggestion to get going sooner than later from Scott. I was on my way.

When I called ground control I requested VFR Flight Following. Flight following is a good thing. It means ATC knows who you are, what kind of plane you are, what your equipment is and where you are going. They give you a transponder code so they can track you on radar. You do this so you have some extra eyes watching traffic for you and with you. ATC lets you know when other planes are near by and where they are and what they're doing so you can "see and avoid" them. You just stay in radio contact with different controllers as you pass through their area of responsibility. Another side benefit is the fact that ATC will notice if your plane suddenly disappears from radar and will try to find you quickly. It's a very good thing.

I wish I took pictures on the way. I had my camera with me, in my flight bag, sitting right behind my seat! The clouds were where Scott said they would be. They were very pretty. I flew around them as I should. I didn't fly the route I planned, due to the clouds. So I flew via "pilotage". Pilotage is basically using landmarks instead of headings to navigate. It worked wonderfully well (and I've had some practice on a couple of my other flights recently!) It was amazingly easy to fly using VOR, pilotage and headings calculated to get to King City.

Coming in to King City I started my descent as planned and it worked out perfectly. I was at pattern altitude 3 miles out from the airport. Did the radio calls, perfect (so much easier to do when CFI isn't there). Flew into the pattern, flew the pattern, and.... landed ON THE CENTER LINE! In spite of a cross wind!!!!!!! It wasn't my smoothest landing, but it was on the center line and that is all I cared about. I was NOT going to let the plane off that center line no matter what.

The flight back was a little more interesting... more on that tomorrow.