Thursday, March 29, 2012

Smells like Sunshine

Its been a while since I flew an actual airplane instead of a simulator. Three weeks to be precise. Today the stream of storms broke a little while and I was able to carve an hour out of my work day to go down to the flight club and fly... just for half an hour but it was better than nothing.  

I fly because it frees my mind from the tyranny of petty things. At this point in my life and career there are many petty and not so petty things on my mind. However, when I walked out to the plane to start my preflight process, my mind was free from the concerns of the world and I was wholly present in the moment of preparing for flight. It felt like forever since I've done a preflight on this plane, old 93K, but today I smoothly went through the process. Like a pro. Like someone who has logged hundreds of hours of flight time. Everything clicked. It was nice.

The first thing I notice when I open the door to the plane is the smell. I don't know if all planes have a smell but this one does. A good smell. A smell that I associate with hours of learning, challenge, adventure, frustration, ultimately success and joy in this particular cockpit. I started to wonder as I plugged in my headset and inspected the cockpit.. How can I describe this smell? What does it smell like?

As I ran my fingers along the seat rails and checked for loose items in the cockpit I saw some broken pieces of ancient, sunburned plastic. They had fallen from the antenna that is no longer used that sits at the top of the windscreen. I remember when that antenna first started to shatter... I guess it was shattering more. But how to describe the smell?

I verified fuel was on both, set the trim wheel for takeoff and tested the alternate static. Hmmm... that smell. It smells of fabric seats and ancient plastic, I thought. I checked the breakers, removed the control lock, turned on the beacon, flipped on the master, set the flaps to full, saw the fuel gauges read full and the beacon was working. Master off.

I went outside and did the rest of the preflight inspection. I opened the door again. That smell again. It smells a little of avgas, I thought, but that's not all. At the end of a flight there's always the hot metal smell of the engine too. But there was something else missing... then it hit me.

The plane smells like hours and hours of sunshine. 

Sitting out on the ramp, up in the air at 1100 ft in the pattern or 7500 feet on a VFR flight. It smells like sunshine. I'd better not tell my CFI this one. He already thinks I'm crazy about flying... He's right! But I'll share this smell with you. The little Cessna 172N that I've spent most of my flying career to date in smells like many things, fabric and plastic and avgas and hot metal, but most of all, it smells like sunshine. If you ever wondered what sunshine smells like, come fly with me!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Embrace the Mistake

My instrument training is going rather well, I think. Things seem to be progressing quickly and I'm learning something new every time in the sim and before and after. I've progressed from basic attitude flying to VOR, Localizer and ILS approaches, most recently DME arcs all in less than a month of instrument training. I've been wondering when I'd have one of those lessons where things fall apart a bit. For one of those "great learning experiences" my CFI is so fond of. I used to dread those lessons during my PPL training, those learning experiences that etched certain knowledge into my brain. Now I know the value of those lessons.. they are the ones that taught me things I won't forget.

It was with some anticipation, instead of dread, that I waited for the first instrument lesson where things would fall apart a bit and I'd get a great learning experience. Sure enough, in my last lesson, for the first time, my instrument scan fell apart. I had to refocus my scan again, and remember how to use the attitude indicator and grab data off the other instruments and the radios and VORs, etc. When I did that right, everything seemed to slow down and it became easy to "fly" and practice the new skills.

Something I've noticed with this phase of my flight training I am much less upset with my mistakes and quicker to listen to the inputs I'm being given and try the recommendations quickly. As a result the mistakes become events that help me learn even better.  This is good... I'll try to maintain this attitude. It makes flight training much more fun. :)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Drinking from the Fire Hose

Today's IFR lesson... create a quick flight plan, get the clearance and fly (in simulator) from RHV to Stockton, shoot the ILS approach, execute the missed approach and hold... and...  do the radio work, tune the fake radios, tune the navaids, etc., etc. And.. I almost forgot ... do all of the above while keeping the "plane" right side up, on course and on altitude in spite of winds and turbulence by reference to instruments alone.

The main thing I learned, you have to stay one step ahead of the game at all times. Before take off have every navaid and frequency you can tuned. After you get past one navaid, tune and identify the next. Write down every frequency and clearance. When you are preparing for the approach, prepare for the missed too. Need to twist the OBS when turning in a hold on a VOR radial, then twist again when you turn again.


I drank from the fire hose but I didn't choke. I wouldn't have passed a checkride by any stretch, but I didn't "kill" myself either. I got there, did the approach, executed the missed approach and the hold. Had a couple missteps along the way of course, but in the end I got a "great" from my CFI and a great learning experience too.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Flew the localizer all the way to the crash

I started my instrument training a couple weeks ago. The first 15 or so hours of this training will be in a flight simulator (or Flight Training Device to be more precise). The simulator I'm using now is a Frasca 131. I call it "the box".  Not the most advanced graphics but the instruments are real and the control pressures are accurate. Considering this is instrument training, how good do the graphics have to be to imitate the grey of a cloud?

Anyway, last lesson I was practicing my first localizer approaches. My CFII, same CFI that worked with me on my primary training, was using the localizer approach to do a couple things:
  • demonstrate how important knowing how far away from your nav aid is important
  • demonstrate how sensitive and precisely you have to fly using these nav aids when close to them
  • give me some experience with step downs, lots of step downs (he calls them chop and drops)
There is a lot to think about, airspeed, altitude, distance, when the next step down starts, what altitude to get to, how to get there before the next step down, staying on the localizer, etc, etc. As usual, I do some things better than others.

It was fun... the first pass I made it to about 3.5 NM from the airport before totally losing the approach. The second time I flew the approach all the way to the crash at the end of the runway. Crashing is not a funny thing, but I had to laugh after I broke out of the clouds in the simulator, saw how far away from the airport and airport runway I actually was and then had to try to land. I was actually pretty happy that I got the plane over the runway for the crash.

So far so good... next lesson will be an ILS approach and he's going to be throwing more radio work at me at the same time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dreaming So Hard

My husband gave me this framed picture for our 14th Anniversary. If you look close you can see a row of beds with children sleeping and playing and finally a girl jumping into flight over her bed that turns into a field above which a plane flies. Beyond the fields is a river and more plains and hills with mountains in the distance. 

I love this picture. This girl taking flight. This reminds me so much of me, the other kids remind me of my brothers and sisters. The girl is me.. leaping into the air, arms outspread, eyes on the horizon, wind streaming through her hair, a plane and plains below. It makes me cry.

Why cry? Because this picture reminds me of my lost childhood dreams. It reminds me of my new dream of flight. I am a pilot now. I've slipped the surly bonds of earth as they say. I keep doing that as often as possible. Part of my tears looking at this painting are from fear. Fear that I will have my dream taken away (I know how fragile health can be). Fear that I will spend the rest of my productive life working at some desk somewhere when I would gladly exchange my six figure job for one that would allow me to view the horizon every day.

Beyond fear there are also tears of hope. I believe dreams are things to be worked for. You don't wait for your dreams to come true with a wave of the wand. You do what it takes to put yourself into a position that opportunities arrive and you're ready to take advantage of them. So that's what I'm doing, I'm working on an IFR rating. After that I'll earn my commercial license. After that, who knows? multi? CFI? You can't win the lottery if you don't play they say. So this is my expensive gamble. To put myself into a position to make my dreams a reality.

Finally, I think there are also tears of joy and empathy for that girl. I know what its like to want to launch into the air, eyes on the horizon and fly with wind streaming through my hair. I also know what its like to do just that.  I am so fortunate to have done just that. Right now, I'm dreaming so hard. I hope my dreams come true. I have to remind myself... in many ways, they already have!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Just Point the Plane at Mt. Diablo

A nice day for a flight

I took my hubby for a flight to Auburn today (KAUN) for a late lunch. The weather in Northern California was perfect for flying, crystal clear skies, light winds, warm but not too warm. Just like what you'd expect in spring, not what you'd expect for the beginning of March but I'll take it :)

We flew 5093K, the 172N I flew during most of my flight training. I wanted to fly a 172SP but that plane was reserved before I thought of it. So 93K it was. I started my Instrument Training in a simulator this week, so I wanted to practice my instrument scan and using the VOR instead of GPS. My husband acted as safety pilot and kept his eyes outside the plane as I kept my eyes inside the plane on the instruments. I found my CFI was right, as usual, it is much easier to fly a plane than the simulator we use. After a while we were getting hungry and decided to head direct to Auburn via GPS. The Sierras were topped by snow for what seemed like the first time in a very long time.

We landed at Auburn and arrived at our real destination, The Wings Cafe & Espresso Bar. As we walked to the door we saw a CLOSED sign, but the patio was full of people eating their lunches. We went in and asked if they could seat us as we just flew in. They took pity on us and seated us. The wait staff were extremely friendly in spite of the time. There was a strong smell of bacon in the air so I asked for a side of bacon with my sandwich. The portions of food were very large and very yummy. We sat together and went over "the numbers" around buying a share in an airplane and watched planes in the pattern at the airport. There was a yellow C152 that was practicing PPL PTS maneuvers, short field take off, soft field take off and the like. Reminded me of my endless hours in the pattern. I'm so glad I'm able to go places now.

Pure Pilotage

Auburn is situated in the foothills of the Sierras. Reid-Hillview is situated South East of the San Francisco Bay. Between Auburn and Reid-Hillview is the central valley and an obvious peak, Mt. Diablo. This mountain can usually be depended upon to poke up above any haze in the central valley. From Mt. Diablo it is easy to identify Calaveras Reservoir and from there, pop into the Bay Area and spot Reid-Hillview. Normally, when flying with GPS, VOR and all of the other navigation equipment, these facts of geography are not necessarily top of mind. They quickly became top of mind on the way home from Auburn on this flight.

We finished our lunch and started up 93K, did the run-up and took off. Everything seemed normal. However, shortly after take off my husband said, "There's something I don't like." He pointed at the ammeter. The low voltage light was flashing every time the plane's beacon lit up. I had dealt with this particular issue before, I kept flying the plane and reset the alternator. The low voltage light went off for 30 seconds or so, then came back on. Well, I'd dealt with that before too. I reset the alternator again, and again, and again. The last time this happened it took 7 resets to resolve the issue. I had discussed the issue with the club owner and he said they'd look at it. This time, I lost count of the number of resets but let's just say, the resets didn't work. We checked the plane's POH but it didn't have anything additional to offer to resolve the issue.

Time to shut down non-essential electronics. We shut down the GPS and kept COM2 and NAV2 on, using a VOR to track towards Sacramento. I had trouble tracking to the VOR and my husband kept trying to help. I started tracking to it but got frustrated with the constant adjustments. Finally I just looked out the window and said, "Any reason we shouldn't just head straight to Mt. Diablo?" There it was, sticking out over the slight haze. We both felt a bit stupid at that point. Why track from VOR to VOR when we could just go "direct" towards Mt. Diablo? We shut down the COM2/NAV2 radio at that point and cruised towards Mt. Diablo at full rental power. Jeff double checked the airspace between us and our destination and ensured we'd not violate any airspace. I was careful to maintain the appropriate VFR altitude and kept my eyes scanning for traffic.

It was fun to fly purely by pilotage... we didn't need to use the compass or VOR or GPS to get there, just point the plane at Mt. Diablo and go. Then the low range between the bay and the central valley came into view we were able to discern the dip in the hills held Calaveras Reservoir. At that point I adjusted our course direct to Calaveras. We were very close to home. When we got over Calaveras the low voltage light came on and stayed on.

When we were over Calaveras I turned COM2 back on and called Reid-Hillview Tower for landing. After receiving clearance for 31R I informed the tower our alternator wasn't working so we could go NORDO before we landed. Jeff asked for the light gun codes from my knee board so we'd know what the light gun meant if we lost communications completely. The tower called me a couple minutes later and asked what the status of the alternator was again. My mind drew a blank, I radioed back and said "the alternator isn't ... ummm... alternating... ummmm. Its INOP." "Roger" the tower said.

We were cleared for landing shortly and repeated back the clearance. Abeam the numbers I put in the flaps and was happy to see them still working. I flew a slightly lower than normal approach with power so I would be able to easily "get down" if I had to, even if the flaps stopped working. Thinking now, I should have stayed on a normal higher approach, I could slip if I had to. The flaps worked fine all the way down but I was distracted by wondering if the flaps would keep working. It wasn't my smoothest landing, but we were down and safe. We taxied back to the club and shut down the plane. Another minor adventure over... Jeff and I handled it well as a team.