Thursday, October 27, 2011

I think it was the seat belt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Oral PTS Prep

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

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

Low to High, Clear the Sky

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

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

Pitot-Static Fun

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

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

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

Sunday, October 16, 2011

First Bird Strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Feeling like I'm making progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Make a tight left turn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Catch

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

Brake Check

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

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

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

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

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

Good catch indeed.