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.

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