Sunday, July 31, 2011

CA to CO - Harris Ranch to Prescott, AZ

Preflight and Fueling

The next morning we were back at the airstrip at 8 after the breakfast of champions - cereal, milk and coffee. We were well rested and excited to start the real business of the cross country flight. I was particularly interested in seeing how much fuel we burned in our flight there from RHV as I was doing the fuel logging and wondered how accurate my calculations and records were.

We pulled the plane uphill to the fuel pumps (swearing the whole time next time we will turn on the plane and taxi to the pumps .. that is one heavy plane!). Jeff fueled the plane while I got some Gatorade and snacks for the trip. I got back and Jeff gave me the official word. I predicted we would need 7.4 gallons in the left tank and 5.0 in the right. He refueled the bird with 7.4 gallons left tank and 5.2 in the right. Not too shabby :)

We cleaned the oil off the windscreen. This plane burns about 2 quarts of oil every two to four hours and much of it ends up on the windscreen. Jeff programmed our next set of legs into the Garmin 696. I set up the oxygen bottle for easy use and hooked up two cannula for us to use for this leg of the trip. We were likely to be going over 10,000 feet and wanted to make sure we had the oxygen ready if needed.

Off We Go
Preflight, preparation and fueling complete. Jeff went through the remaining checklists and turned the key on at 0923 PDT. We ended up taking off much later than planned, but we had a relatively short flight planned for today so we thought we would make Prescott OK. In spite of the fact that we had the flight plan programmed into the GPS I planned on following our flight path with paper sectionals and using my eyeballs. It would be good practice for me.

We climbed to 7,500 ft for the initial cruise. We picked up flight following over the Gorman VOR and then climbed to cruise at 9,500 feet as we neared the Southern California mountain ranges.

The air was relatively smooth so Jeff gave me the controls and he stretched out his legs a bit and relaxed. He also demonstrated the big difference the placement of weight makes on CG. He slid his seat back from the firewall and I felt the plane tilt nose up as he moved. We also listened to XM radio from the Garmin. It was nice to have the music to pass the time. Whenever a transmission comes in over the com lines or if either of us said something, the com system would immediately mute the music. Then after some silence the music would slowly raise volume back to normal levels. My only gripe.. can't sing along with the music (without moving the mouthpiece away from the mouth anyway).

Before we knew it we were flying over the Colorado river with Lake Havasu in the near distance. We could see the haze of humidity in the air ahead of us (or at least what I thought was humidity) and clouds were starting to build a bit. We climbed to 11,500 at this point and both of us turned on our oxygen to see how well that worked. We had a pulse oximeter with us and saw a definite difference in the oxygenation of our blood with and without the oxygen. Comforting to know I had the system hooked up correctly and it would be ready for us if needed.

I talked to Norcal, Oakland Center, Joshua Approach, Los Angeles Center, and finally Albuquerque Center on our way into Arizona. It was amusing to listen to the different controllers struggle with saying the tail number of our plane without stumbling. It is hard to say "niner seven seven seven yankee". Most controllers would say "niner seven .... seven seven yankee" and once in a while they would get it wrong by skipping one of the sevens for instance. I don't blame them. We listened closely and hoped they would abbreviate our tail number for the sake of all involved. Some did, some didn't. No matter what, the flight following proved its value several times. We had a couple times where ATC pointed out traffic to us on a converging course. We were able to spot the traffic eventually but once it was only after we changed our altitude to ensure we wouldn't collide. It is always helpful to have those extra eyes looking out for you when you can.

Approaching and Landing at Prescott

We were over the surprisingly green northern Arizona mountains and ready to descend toward Prescott valley. In the distance we could see some rains beginning. The air was getting more turbulent as we descended of course. Nothing terrible, but not as glass smooth as we had earlier. We terminated flight following and began the steps to prepare enter Prescott's airspace and land.

As we tuned to Prescott Tower after listening to ATIS we heard many calls for "Embry" planes. I told Jeff Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University operates out of that airport. I think that made both of us nervous. There we many MANY planes practicing in the pattern. We couldn't see the airport but we knew where it should be based on the GPS data we had. So Jeff called in to the Tower with our position and intentions to land. The tower instructed us to enter right pattern for 21R. I was surprised because Jeff said he figured we would be straight in on 21R based on the weather and where we were.

Something wasn't right. I kept looking at the HI and saw a heading of 12, if we were going to do a straight in, our heading should have been 21. However, we had been setting the HI to compass and the compass in that plane is almost 15 degrees of on Eastern headings. I knew the HI wasn't accurate and so did Jeff. I've never seen Jeff wrong on an approach before. Jeff called back to the tower and stated what he thought he would be doing. The tower was very nice, gave us a squawk code to verify where we were on their radar and just instructed us to report when we had the airport in sight on downwind for 21R. They obviously knew something we didn't.

Well, time to recover from that error. We continued to where we knew the airport should be with our eyes very open for traffic, the airport was very busy with people training in the pattern as we approached. We finally spotted the airport and we were in position for right traffic for 21R. We reported on downwind with the airport in sight. The tower offered us the longer, wider 21L runway if we wanted it, it was also the runway closer to the FBO where we were going to park the plane for the night. Jeff took the runway change and brought us in on 21L for a beautiful landing. The second excellent landing in our trip.

We got clear of the runway, went through the after landing checklist and switched to ground as instructed... ground gave us instructions to taxi to Legend Aviation, a local FBO. They met us near the taxiway with a "follow me" car and lead us to their parking. Then they arranged for Hertz to bring our rental car to us, pushed the plane back into the parking spot and made us feel very welcome. We rented our car, found the nearest Sonic for lunch, visited with the people at the FBO and the Pilot Shop and then went to the Embry-Riddle bookstore to get some shirts and cool pilot stuff. Then we checked in to our motel room (scarey). I took a shower and we headed to the towns of Jerome and Sedona, AZ for a bit of sight seeing.

In the end this leg of the trip took 3.4 hours from start to shutdown. I calculated we would need 26.4 gallons in the left tank and 19.6 gallons in the left when we refueled for the next leg. Prescott, Jerome and Sedona were worth the stop and the overnight stay and we were safely on the ground when the rains and thunderstorms started to pick up around the valley.

CA to CO - San Jose to Harris Ranch

We started our "epic flight" in the Bonanza, N9777Y, from California to Colorado the evening of Wednesday, July 27th. The plan was to fly from our home airport, Reid-Hillview (RHV) to Harris Ranch Wednesday night so we wouldn't get stuck at RHV waiting for the standard morning "low clouds and fog" to disperse. Then we would fly from Harris Ranch to Prescott, AZ Thursday before the afternoon desert thunderstorms kicked up and finally go from Prescott, AZ to Centennial Airport in Denver, CO on Friday.

Jeff would obviously be PIC for the trip. Jeff did the flight planning and planned our route for the trip out using a combination of VORs, GPS waypoints and Airports to guide us on the route. His main job was to fly the plane and navigate. He managed programming the flight plan into our Garmin 696. My job was fuel planning and radio work. I also tracked the VOR frequencies we would use and programmed the NAV/COM unit as we went. He would do all of the radio work in the airport environment, I'd talk with ATC when we request flight following, look for traffic, etc. When I was doing the talking on the radio, he did the dialing of the new frequencies given to us by ATC. It worked rather well. I would also keep track of time on each tank, record actual fuel burn and time and keep track of how much fuel we had in each tank as we go.

We left work as soon as we could, which turned out to be around 4:30PM and met each other at the airport. We ended up taking off around 6:30 PM and headed downwind on a very familiar route to Harris Ranch. In what seemed like no time we were slowing down and then entering the pattern at Harris Ranch. Jeff flew the approach into Harris beautifully and we touched down lightly in the golden central California sun.

There is a nice side benefit to landing at Harris Ranch, the Harris Ranch Restaurant and Harris Ranch Inn. Harris Ranch Restaurant is supplied by Harris Ranch... a mass of cows that carpets several acres of land and covers the area within 5 miles with a sometimes visible stench. In spite of the stench, Harris Ranch
is a popular fly in spot with a great hundred dollar burger, steaks, etc. We shut down and secured the plane. Then we grabbed a night's worth of clothes from our bags and headed to the Inn and Steak House.

There was a sign near the gate for the runway with a phone number to call for the shuttle to the Inn. We were hungry, so we thought we would eat first. Then as we rounded the corner of the Restaurant we saw a building that looked very much like an Inn. So we walked over to the Harris Ranch Inn at the other end of a very large parking lot. It was H O T and smelly, but when we walked in the door of the Inn, the stench was completely blocked by the door and the A/C was wonderful. The main lobby was very nicely appointed too.

It turns out the Inn was completely booked because the California Tomato Task Force was in town and Heinz was inspecting the local tomato crop. The lady at the front desk checked a screen and went back to the back room and came out and back a couple more times. She said they had a last minute cancellation and had a room available after all. So we checked in. On the check in form there was a slot for vehicle information that she wanted us to complete. We told her we flew in and didn't have a car, she said well, just put the make of your plane then. So we did.
The room was great, especially for the price. We have paid much more for a much worse room in Napa, and this room was right where we needed it and right next to the Restaurant.

We enjoyed a very good steak dinner and went back to the room to make final notes and plans for our flight Thursday. We also simply enjoyed each other's company. The next day would be a long day so we got to bed relatively early and planned on leaving Harris Ranch around 8 AM.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ups and Downs - The Ups

Many have heard the old saw about flight training... "It has its Ups and Downs". Today was a great example of how flying has its ups and downs, and not just in altitude.

Today's plan was for me to get practice normal landings, then go to the practice area and practice steep turns and stall recovery. Then after up to two hours of me flying, Jeff and I were going to fly the Bonanza up to Chico or somewhere else far away as a bit of a "shakedown" flight, figuring out how we will log fuel burn, switching tanks, etc. when we fly to Denver later this week. Well, half of the day went as planned.

Idiot Convention at Redding Airport

After a rocky morning Jeff and I flew the Bonanza, N9777Y, or "niner seven seven seven yankee" (say that five times fast!), to Redding in far Northern California. Redding is at the northern tip of the central valley, just below the foot of the mountain range with Mt. Shasta as its peak. This pic is of Mt. Shasta. Awesome! Jeff was pilot, I was flying right seat this time.. which was just as well because I was still rather shaken from my morning experience. That and I'm no where near ready to pilot a complex airplane like a P35 V-Tail Bonanza! My job on this trip was to monitor fuel burn on each tank and do some radio work as needed. The main purpose of this run was to get me used to the Bonanza and practice monitoring fuel and switching tanks.

On the outbound trip I just monitored the fuel burn. I didn't really feel like trying to talk to ATC at the time. The flight to Redding was relatively mellow and MUCH quicker than it would have been in a Cessna 172. We had flight following on the way to Redding which is always nice. When we started our descent Jeff called out to Oakland Center that we were starting our descent, but they didn't hear us. Then as we got closer and closer to Redding we tried calling several times with no response.

We were getting within 11 miles of Redding so we contacted Redding tower. Well... Jeff contacted Redding Tower, but he called for "RedBluff Tower" (because we just passed over RedBluff - one of our waypoints), Redding Tower responded saying they were Redding Tower and asking why we weren't responding to Oakland Center. Jeff explained the situation and we got cleared to enter their airspace and report on midfield downwind for Runway 16.

We got closer to the airport and both of us thought the tower told us to report on downwind... so we did. The tower corrected us say we were told to report MIDFIELD downwind. We said we would. By now we're feeling pretty stupid. The tower spotted us and cleared us to land before we could report again. The downwind was OK but the base and final turns became one basefinal turn. Either way, Jeff landed the plane well and the tower instructed us to exit at the first turn and contact ground.

We exited, taxied clear of the runway, did the after landing checklist and contacted ground. Ground cleared us to taxi to transient (and the restaurant!) via Delta, Bravo, Cross Runway 12 to parking south of the tower. We did that OK, but taxied right past the transient parking ... ground called out to us that we passed it and we turned before taxiing right in front of the commercial terminal! .. Now we were feeling REALLY stupid. We heard on the radio another plane contact ground for taxi and the pilot of that plane did it wrong too. By this time we figured the good people of Redding thought there was an idiot convention in town.

The Restaurant is Closed but the Lounge is Open

In any case, we parked at transient, shut down and secured the plane (noting the time of course) and headed for the restaurant. We were both starving. As we walked to the restaurant we both waved to the tower, sort of sheepishly... but hopefully they saw us and saw we were grateful for their help.

We walked into the glorious A/C of the commercial terminal and happily headed up stairs to Peter Chu's Skyroom. The place was supposed to be good Chinese food. But, as we went up the stairs to the Skyroom we found the actual restaurant was closed for the afternoon. Only the cocktail lounge was open. Oh No! We are so hungry.

We went into the lounge and it was empty aside from an older Chinese gentleman sitting in the corner. He assured us he was open. We ordered two cokes, we ordered just about every appetizer he had available. He said, "that's too much". But we had him go ahead and bring it. We ate it all. He ran out of coke syrup so he gave us a 2 liter bottle of Pepsi to pour for ourselves as we ate. All in all, it was a nice, if strange, experience to scarf down Chinese appetizers with a 2 liter bottle of Pepsi in the airport terminal for Redding, CA. It hit the spot.

Helicopters Have Idiots Too

As we returned to the plane we stopped to watch a helicopter do his run up and take off from the helipad near transient. The rotors started to whine louder and louder, then all of the sudden they spun down a bit. The right door of the helicopter popped open and out comes the pilot. He walked around to the left door and closed it(!) He got back in without looking at us, then completed his run up and taxied down the taxiway for a straight out departure, from the taxiway.. Helicopters operate under different rules.

Bonanza Flying at 11 Thousand 5 Hundred

Jeff and I agreed he would talk to Redding Ground and Tower since they knew him so well and I would take over on the radio work when we contacted Oakland Center for flight following. With only a few minor radio missteps and a sincere thank you to the good folk of Redding Airport for their help, we exited Redding Airspace and headed towards Mt. Shasta to take a quick look at the lakes before turning south to home.

We continued to climb up to 11,500 feet MSL and leveled off for cruise. I contacted Oakland Center for flight following. I have to admit, it was a little unnerving to be cruising at 11,500 feet. Some part of me was saying, "are we supposed to be up here, in a plane?!" *laugh* After a while Jeff wanted to look at the fuel performance charts so he gave me the controls and I got to fly a Bonanza for the first time. While I was flying Jeff took this picture.

We cruised along and both of us noticed how we were suddenly yawning. Jeff said if he moved his head too fast or had to think too hard he recognized his thought process didn't work very well. He also had mild tingling in his fingers... these were the first signs of hypoxia. I was yawning, but felt no other ill effects. While I flew the plane I worked on my calculations for fuel burn and helped Jeff switch tanks at good times to ensure equal weight/fuel in each tank as we went as well as possible. Eventually Jeff said he wanted to go down to 9,500 feet to get more oxygen. I contacted ATC and requested a descent to 9,500 which they approved of course. It was good to know what Jeff's reasonable limits were. We determined we should fly no higher than 10,500 pressure altitude without oxygen based on the limitations of our particular bodies. For our flight to Denver we will be carrying oxygen and using it when needed!

Jeff took the controls for the descent to 9,500 and the rest of the flight. I continued to manage the comm work and the fuel. I also worked out when we should switch tanks "on the fly" to end up with a close to an equal fuel load in each wing when landing as we could get. This picture shows my "fuel logs":

In the end, my fuel calculations were only 2.4 gallons off from what we actually burned based on the fill up we had done when we returned to RHV. Not too bad considering my high tech methods for calculating and tracking fuel burn!

Back at Macho Grande

I handled the radio calls until we were handed back to RHV tower. Then Jeff took over again. We came in for landing and Jeff landed very well, VERY well. I was nervous on the approach but the great landing helped. We taxied back to the shelter where N9777Y was stored. Before we parked the plane completely I took this picture of N9777Y and his Pilot, Jeff (don't know why but 9777Y is a boy).

In the end this was a cool trip, I got to get a bit more familiar with the Bonanza, I got to FLY a Bonanza (pretty easy actually - yeah, just straight and level but it seemed to do that easier than niner three kilo does) and practiced fuel monitoring. And it reminded me why I want to fly. Days like today. With the ups and the downs, this is why I fly.

Ups and Downs - The Downs

Many have heard the old saw about flight training... "It has its Ups and Downs". Today was a great example of how flying has its ups and downs, and not just in altitude.

Today's plan was for me to get practice normal landings, then go to the practice area and practice steep turns and stall recovery. Then after up to two hours of me flying, Jeff and I were going to fly the Bonanza up to Chico or somewhere else far away as a bit of a "shakedown" flight, figuring out how we will log fuel burn, switching tanks, etc. when we fly to Denver later this week. Well, half of the day went as planned.

The Downs

I went up in niner three kilo to do some landings, we were using runways 13 again (which is unusual for this time of year but we've been using runways 13 a lot recently at RHV). The winds were reported calm, and the temp wasn't too high yet because it was still morning. While the winds were "calm" it was very bumpy and unsettled in the air over and around the airport. Not the worst I've flown in, but not what I would call "calm". No big deal though.. that's flying sometimes.

The first time around I was too low on approach and did a go around. The second time around I was doing good on the approach but a cross wind came up suddenly right before round out and pushed the plane sideways and lit up the stall warning horn (weird).. so I did a go around. The third time around the approach was good, airspeed good, landed very lightly on the mains, then suddenly the plane was on one wheel (or felt like it). I got it back on all 3 wheels and just did my best to slow it down by making sure the power was out all the way. I let the plane slow itself down some more then got on the brakes and stopped it. Screw directional control.. I felt like it was everything I had to keep the plane on the runway. That scared me, a lot. So bad I requested to terminate and go back to parking. So that's what I did. I parked the plane and cried. I'll admit it. That's what I did...

Afterwords I talked to Jeff about what happened. He assured me I did the right thing, both by stopping the plane without hurting it or myself and by parking when I was upset. Part of me kept saying I should have gone back up there and faced the fear immediately. Or maybe I should have gone back up a hour later. But I didn't. There is no point in second guessing it now. The good thing is I have a flight lesson tomorrow so I have one more chance for a good flight before I go out of town for 10 days (on the trip in the Bonanza).

Jeff and I did our shakedown flight shortly thereafter. When we got back from that flight I was a little afraid when we came in to land at Reid-Hillview, but Jeff did an awesome landing. One can't be afraid of landing at one's home airport, so this is something I'll just have to get over. I'm not willing to give up on my dream of flying over this.

I remembered talking with another student pilot (now a certificated private pilot). He was saying how he had an awful landing... I asked if the CFI had to take the controls, he said no. I asked if anyone was hurt or if the plane was hurt, he said no. Then I said, sounds like an OK landing to me. So maybe I should be listening to my own advice. As they say.. any landing you can walk away from.... its time for me to walk away from that one landing. I'm not giving up, so I'd better leave that one behind.

After Jeff and I got back from our flight I went out to niner three kilo and opened the door to the cockpit, I looked around and touched and smelled... it looked and smelled and felt like a Cessna. It felt comfortable and like a happy place. I've spent many, many hours in that cockpit. I smiled, closed the door, ran my fingers over the leading edges of the prop and patted the spinner. The plane looked beautiful in the late afternoon light. It will be OK. I will be OK. I will earn my own Private Pilot License too some day.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

You know you're a pilot when ... (Part II)

You know you're a pilot when...

any small plane crash or off airport landing that makes the evening news within 100 miles of your home results in panicked texts, emails and FaceBook posts from your family and friends.

you have an intense desire to ask the passenger in the right seat of the car to take the controls if you have to adjust your seat, read a map or do other more intensive tasks.

partially sunny is not a detailed enough forecast, you want to know if the clouds are few, scattered or broken and how high they are.

you can tell a stranger in town what the typical temperature, cloud cover and winds are for your home area morning, noon and afternoon, summer, winter, spring and fall.

you think of the cost of an item or activity in terms of hours of flying (e.g. my husband wanted to buy a pump for the hot tub for $399 and my first thought was "That's three hours of flying!").

every time a plane of any size flies within ear shot you stop and look for it.

you critique the landings of the pilots on commercial flights (OK everybody does this but not as well as other pilots).

you actually enjoy spending hour after hour in an always noisy, sometimes smelly, usually hot, 30 year old piece of machinery flying and learning and flying and learning.

My Way

I said to my CFI once, "There's a right way, a wrong way, and my way, which is usually neither of the two."

Tonight I raise my glass to my CFI, Scott... Once again you are right, sir. Once again I had to bang my head on a wall for a couple weeks/months before I finally figure out, my way, what you've been telling me for months.

Don't know what it is about me that I can hear something a dozen or more times, understand intellectually, but not actually understand and implement until I "figure it out" myself. I would have certainly saved myself thousands of dollars in flight time and training time if I could just do what Scott says the first or second or fifth time he tells me. But, I have to do it my way. I suppose that's OK. It means once I learn something this way it stays learned.

So today I figured out if I keep flying the plane and focus on the end of the runway, not only are landings smoother, I am able to maintain directional control (in other words, keep the plane going straight after landing). If only my CFI told me that.. but wait, he did! *laugh*

Oh well, I can be upset that it takes me extra long to really learn some times, or I can be happy that I DID learn and I'm that much closer to my license. I choose happy. Another step on my way to becoming a pilot. If you are an aspiring pilot, listen, really listen, to what your CFI says. He/she can save you a lot of time and money if you do. Or you can be like me and do it your way... either way, it works as long as you never, ever, give up.

Keep on flying!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Dreaming of Flying with the Big Boys

My husband and I flew from San Jose to Ft. Lauderdale last weekend... commercial. On Southwest Airlines to be specific :) We had a stop over in Phoenix both directions of course. While there I chatted with a Southwest Airlines pilot for a bit. He was a friendly guy, he seemed surprised to have a stranger walk up and talk flying, but happy to talk.

I talked to him about preparing for my check ride and asked if he had any tips. He said to get a good night's sleep. *smile* He also said, in his opinion, the Private check ride was the hardest just because everything is so new. He asked what I was going to do with my license and I told him my plans. I also told him how I'd love to fly jets but I figured I must be too old to get started now. He actually told me they just hired a pilot who was 53. Yes, you need a thousand hours of turbine time before they'd hire you, but I could get that in 12 years! (OK, maybe I'm dreaming *grin*)

He asked where I fly and I said Reid-Hillview right next to San Jose Airport. Then he said he was going to be flying into San Jose on Sunday. I asked if he has ever been on approach from the south over the Santa Cruz mountains and had maneuvering traffic below him pointed out by ATC when he was at about 6000 feet between South County and Watsonville. He said, "Yeah". Then I said, "That could be me!" I always want to wave to the jets when ATC lets them know I'm down there, practicing PTS maneuvers when they fly above on approach to San Jose.

I get the greatest thrill when I'm interacting with other planes in some way or other. When I'm communicating with ATC, acknowledging and spotting traffic, when I hear ATC call me out to other planes. When I look out the window of my little plane and see a big plane in the distance, but perhaps at the same altitude or just a little higher. Or when ATC calls out a pair of jets and a DC-10 as I fly through Travis airspace. I love being up there with the big boys and even with other little fish like me.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The end of an era and the beginning

Yesterday I watched the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Unfortunately I didn't watch it from Florida, or even from one of the many viewing parties, but on CNN coverage on mute with closed captions in the break room at work. I have to admit, I skipped half a meeting to do it. :) I watched as the count down proceeded, when it stopped at 31 seconds, then when it continued and the orbiter slipped the surly bonds of Earth for the last time.

Unlike many pilots, I didn't grow up dreaming of flying, I didn't get bit by that bug until I flew. I grew up dreaming of space, the idea of traveling TO space didn't really appeal to me, but the idea of being IN space ... THAT was my childhood dream. And the first shuttle flight when I was 11 was the spark, I think, that made me think space was actually possible.

I distinctly remember the launch of Columbia in 1981. I avidly read and watched everything I could find about that space craft. I did countless "science projects" on the shuttle and the shuttle program. I studied the specs for the orbiters, did papers on their capabilities and made models of them.

I was 12 in 1982 when Columbia had to divert and land at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. My dad woke us up at 3AM and we drove from Albuquerque to White Sands to view the shuttle as it sat there. We were kept what seemed like 5000 feet away from it. There was no "close up viewing" but it was worth every minute just to SEE the shuttle in person.

I remember the exactly what I was doing when Challenger died. I was 16 and sitting in my high school math class and someone interrupted the class to tell everyone about the disaster. I remember later that day going to my little hang out spot on campus, called "The Bridge", with my friends and we talked about our fear that space exploration would end because of the disaster. We hoped the human spirit would push out to space in spite of the cost.

I went to college in Houston, TX at the University of Houston to study Space Architecture. I wanted to design space stations. My admissions essay was about how I thought it was so important for humans to go to space in order to unite the human race and relieve the pressures on the Earth. I didn't finish my degree.. my dream of being involved personally in space travel died. But I never stopped dreaming of space and watching the shuttle launches and what they did.

When I was 20 I worked at a job testing smoke stacks for emissions. I was testing the emissions from the backup generators for the Goldstone Complex in the middle of the Mojave desert. 123 degrees in the shade and I was on a hot tar roof. The particular generators I was testing were near the Mars dish. This dish was used for communicating with the Hubble telescope. We had to leave the complex for a couple hours one day.. the shuttle was up by the Hubble, "fixing its lenses".

I remember when Columbia burned up over Texas in 2003, shortly after passing over California. I cried that day. That particular flight still brings tears to my eyes. Maybe because the pain is fresh or maybe because they were so close to home. I don't know why and, frankly, it doesn't matter why.

So as I watched Atlantis rocket into space for the last time.. I cried a bit. I'm sad the shuttle program is done. When I was 11 and the first shuttle launched I never thought I would see the last shuttle launch. When you are 11 you never think of endings.. only of beginnings. I'm sad the US Government no longer has the inspiration to pursue the dream directly any more. I wonder what will become of NASA.

I'm glad there are people like Burt Rutan and Richard Branson and all of the dreamers and entrepreneurs who put their money, time and lives on the line to reach for space for us all. I'm happy there is an actual Space Port being built in New Mexico, just off the same highway my dad and I drove down when I was 12 to see the space shuttle sit on the desert floor.

I never dreamed of flying when I was young. I dreamed of space. Maybe my reach exceeded my grasp a bit there :) On the other hand, when I think of space, of the shuttle, of humans achieving that amazing dream, the feeling that grips my heart is very similar to what I feel when I fly a small plane over the mountains and valleys of California. So as I follow the shuttle on her last mission and watch the end of an era unfold.. I prepare for the beginning of a new era for me, my own era of flight. I study and practice and get ready for that all important check ride that will enable me to slip the surly bonds of Earth on wings of metal powered by avgas and held aloft by wind.

Good luck, Atlantis as you perform your final mission. Safe flight, blue skies and soft landing to you on your return. Here's to the end of an era and the beginning of my own.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Be the Pilot

This morning I went back to the flight club to try practicing PTS maneuvers again. After my previous flight I was apprehensive and not sure how things would go. I hoped I would be able to improve on Friday's performance, hoping Friday was just a "bad day", but my confidence was at a low ebb. The winds were calm again so I knew I had to face the same conditions that I didn't handle well Friday. (Funny that calm winds were harder for me to fly in than winds, but there you have it.)

Well, no point in delaying, so I went out immediately, preflit the plane and reviewed the procedures for short and soft field take offs and landings (with the hope I'd be able to do some!). I started up the plane, got my clearance and carefully taxied out to the runway. My plan this time was to do one normal pattern and then switch to what I came out to practice.

I took off and this time I nailed pattern altitude, I also extended the downwind right the first time, the approach was just above glide slope where I wanted it. I made sure to use all flaps and came in for landing, but I didn't keep the wings level so landed slightly on one main first, then the second. I was able to straighten out but I wasn't on the centerline. Well, at least I landed that time.

Try again, pattern altitude good. I was following another plane in the pattern and made sure not to fly too fast. Downwind was extended significantly as a result.. so I knew I'd need more power than usual. I felt I was low so added more power, turned final and kept the plane above glide slope. Nice stabilized approach, good. Round out for landing too high, so the plane dropped in for the landing a little hard, AND landed slightly cocked again. Argh!

As I taxied back I was feeling very frustrated. I was wondering if I should just stop and go back for retraining or something.

"I'll never get this right", I whined.

Then I got mad. I hate whining and here I was whining. The last time I whined to my CFI, he did something interesting. He said "I'm going to say something that's going to piss you off..... Maybe you just aren't cut out to be a pilot." He said. That stopped me cold, I thought about it and said, "No. I don't believe that. Not at all." So he said simply, "OK then. Just do it."

I remembered that conversation, right after that conversation I had my best crosswind landings in forever. Because I just would not let the plane do anything but be on the center line. I was mad. I got mad again.

"You think you're a pilot. Then be one! Be the pilot and just do it!" I told myself.

No more stalling. Time to do what I came here to do, practice for my check ride. Be the Pilot.

I got cleared for take off and this time I did a soft field takeoff, taxied out to the runway and took up with 10 degrees flaps and holding the nose high, no stopping. Took off around 40 knots, (the plane veered left because of the greater angle of attack than I was used to - busted) pushed the nose down in ground effect, gained speed and finally pitched for Vy, reduced flaps and turned for noise abatement. The tower had me extend my upwind for traffic.. so I did, I got up to pattern altitude, eventually turned cross wind, then came downwind and stayed AT pattern altitude. I was told I was #3 behind a Seneca and cleared for the option. I only saw one plane, the Seneca, so I verified that was the plane I was following, and it was. I extended my downwind to ensure the Seneca would have enough room. I ended up being much further than usual, so I knew I'd need more power. Came in just above glide slope, carefully controlled airspeed, used 40 degrees flaps, rounded out a little bit later, made ABSOLUTELY sure to remain on centerline and keep flying the plane right over the runway looking at the end of the runway and landed. The right way!

Finally! Just do as I've been trained and don't let the plane get off track and it works. *whew*. OK, stay mad :) I knew I'd have to use more right rudder to keep the plane properly aligned on the soft field takeoff. Got cleared for takeoff and did the soft field procedure, took off pushed the nose over to gain airspeed, used more right rudder and was much better at maintaining alignment. Almost perfect. Nailed pattern altitude, turned base at the right time, but turned final late and over shot the centerline, fortunately I had extended the downwind enough I was able to safely realign with the runway. Good stabilized approach, good airspeed, good alignment, 40 degrees flaps and landed.

"OK, see, I can do this right." I thought to myself. It was getting very hot in the cockpit (it got up to 99 degrees before I left the airport a couple hours later). I was sweating heavily and tired. So I decided to do one more to perfect the soft field take off and do another correct landing.

The tower switched me to 31L and cleared me to takeoff, so I rolled on out in proper soft field fashion (nose high, 10 degrees flaps), smoothly advanced the power, more right rudder than usual, off the ground, pitch down to gain airspeed, even more right rudder and I did a perfect soft field takeoff. AWESOME! Got up to speed, removed flaps, pitched for Vy, got to pattern altitude, was the right distance from the runway, right track, right speed. Turned base at the right time, good stabilized approach, controlled airspeed, rounded out a little bit later, was ruthless about staying on the center line, stared at the end of the runway and landed nice and smooth. That was number 5. Good enough I felt. I told the tower I was terminating and got cleared to cross 31R and go to ground.

That felt good. I actually dialed in soft field take offs. AND I got mad enough to be the pilot and just do it right. Something my CFI has told me over and over and over, you just can't let the plane do what it wants to do. If it starts to drift or if you get too high or two low you have to fix it, immediately. Don't get upset about it getting that way, just fix it. Close isn't good enough. Be the pilot. Don't just let things happen.

Boy do I have a lot to work on. But it is starting to make more and more sense every time I bump up against these issues. I'm at that fine balancing act again... that fine line between fanatical perfectionism and not being upset when things aren't right, just fix it. Sometimes I feel like I'm going round and round in circles repeating some lessons over and over. I guess that's what it takes until the behaviors and attitudes I need become ingrained in my psyche. That's what I've got to do to be a pilot. I've got to "be the pilot" to be a pilot.

I'm getting closer to my goal.

Some learning experiences are not so fun.

I'm in the "check ride prep" phase of flight training now. Preparing for the BIG DAY. With my CFI check ride prep involves a couple aspects. One is oral prep, where I study, then he does a mock oral test helping me focus on the specific information I need to memorize vs know where to look up. The other part is working on the maneuvers that I'll be required to demonstrate to PTS standards. This part I do on my own and, if I need help I can get help. After each practice flight I'm to call with a debrief saying if I was able to perform the maneuver to spec or not to spec. That's the plan.

Things went rather well last Sunday doing slow flight and stalls, all were to spec. So Friday my plan was to work on Short Field and Soft Field take offs and landings. After flying was time to meet up with my CFI and do a round of oral test prep.

I went down to the club, preflit the plane and headed out. Pretending I had a DPE in the right seat and making sure to stay on centerline during taxi, do all checklists and use proper phraseology at all times. The winds were calm and the sky clear. A perfect day to fly. I hadn't had calm winds in months, so I reminded myself I needed to extend my downwind further than usual.

I lined up for my first take off, took off, noise abate, turn cross wind, turn downwind, was immediately over 100 ft over pattern altitude. Busted (that would have stopped the check ride right there - out of spec). Ok... fly the plane. Extended the downwind a bit, turned base, turned final and was very high on approach. So high I finally did a go around (that was to spec anyway). Try again.. too high again, extend downwind more (figured that was part of why I was too high), turn base, turn final, too high on approach AGAIN. Damn it! Go around. (Getting good at go arounds).

"If I keep this up I'll get stuck up here," I thought.

Try again, still a bit high on downwind but better, extend downwind more. On final, high, but not as high, so I come in for landing and end up floating more than half of the runway before finally landing. I was instructed by the tower to back taxi and take off again, so I did.

This time I tried a short field take off. I did it, but I let the airspeed get too low (busted), got up quick. This time I stuck to proper pattern altitude, extended the downwind much more, turned base, turned final and finally the approach looked right. Good. Put in 20 degrees of flaps (what I normally use) and still floated down the runway further than I should. I decided I was done for the day. I was certainly not going to be doing what I intended to do.

I stayed around the club waiting for my CFI to do the oral portion. When he arrived he asked me if I was practicing go arounds.. turns out he saw my first three times in the pattern. *sigh* So, we started with a debrief of the flight. He asked me what I did wrong and helped me dissect the flying and figure out what I was doing to get the results I got. That was hard, I really didn't know what I didn't know. But I learned what I didn't know... in the end, I was high on the first 3 because 1) too high in the pattern makes you too high on final if not fixed, 2) I was turning base too early, now I know where to do that, 3) I wasn't using enough flaps to slow the plane down when I came in to land. I needed to increase the drag on the plane (slow it down) mechanically because there was no wind to do it for me. That hadn't even occurred to me. It was upsetting, but at least I learned.

We spent the rest of the time reviewing the oral test subjects, I did really well on some portions, much less well on others. I learned a lot. I was amazed at how much I forgot and blanked on, but that discussion certainly cemented some things in my brain. Overall a great learning experience and a frustrating day.