Friday, December 27, 2013

Special Flights

Sunset Behind the Golden Gate Bridge
I've done a lot of flying this year, but some flights stand out as special. Tonight's flight is one of them. I took my good friend, Karen Dean, up for a sunset Bay Tour.

The skies were cloudy but I had a feeling that, with Karen on board, we would be treated to a great sunset. Karen is one of those special people in the world that brings light to everyone she meets. If anyone would get a wonderful sunset, she would.

We took the runway under cloudy skies and the plane levitated itself off the runway in fine style. There was a layer of haze up to about 1500 feet but we flew above it. The haze added an air of mystery to the hills of the peninsula. As we approached San Francisco we could see the edge of the cloud layer above. Sure enough, the sun ducked underneath it to give us an amazing show.

We cruised over the city of San Francisco as the sun coated the hills in a pink and golden light. The city started to sparkle with its lights and the Golden Gate Bridge was coming alive. I flew directly over the bridge and then circled Angel Island so Karen could see the trails we've both run on now. Back towards the city and it looked beautiful in the twilight, some circles over Alcatraz and another loop towards Angel Island. Karen looked around with obvious joy and took pictures. I requested a Bravo transition back down the peninsula using the lower altitude route, going from control tower to tower as we flew south back home. It was full dark by the time we landed and it was a nice landing too.

Flights like this, where I get to share the simple joy of flying with someone who doesn't fly are so special. I've been so fortunate to be able to take my brother, Rob, my sister, Kelly, Craig from the UK, Chris and Karen flying this year. The way their faces light up when we take to the air and they see the world from my perspective is just wonderful. Being able to share this joy with others reminds me of why I fly.

Experiment Fail or Was It?

The march towards my CPL continues. Yesterday I met with my CFI to start reviewing the oral/knowledge portion of the check ride. This is something I normally do extremely well in the actual practical test.

This time is a bit different. I did all of the knowledge study on my own for this rating, most of it from June to September as I waited to start the CPL flight training. I had a great result on the written and my CFI knows I study well so he wasn't worried about it. I was wondering though, what gaps do I have from not having done much "ground school" with my CFI this time. I figured I would find out.

Since the day before my flight lesson was Christmas I decided to read a book, not aviation related for a change, instead of studying. I would go into the oral test run cold and just see how it would go.

Yeah... ummm... it went about as well as could be expected. The first question he asks me is what are the privileges a commercial license would allow me to exercise. I stumbled and stammered through the answer. I knew but I couldn't explain it clearly and concisely. He emphasized how important it would be for me to answer those particular questions well. I need to make a very good first impression. He described a very simple way to answer that question.

I got through the recency and currency questions OK and was able to explain the rules around the medical certificates and how long they last, etc. I also knew what logs a pilot needs to keep. Then we got into the Airworthiness Certificate and Registration. Should be easy, I answered. He dug in and I stumbled again. I got the KOL (kind of operations limitations) confused with the Operating Limitations that have to be on board the plane.

By this time I felt I had to explain my "plan" for the lesson and the way I didn't study. He laughed and said, "So how's that workin for ya?" I said I'll definitely study next time.

On to required equipment. I start off strong, then we get into determining if specific INOP equipment is required in different circumstances. I had the answer right for the plane I fly, but he pointed out this is a commercial license. The expectation is I would be flying many different airplanes and being commercial operations, the MEL (minimum equipment list) is king.

We covered maintenance and inspections. I knew the answers in general but didn't have them memorized. I asked if the expectation would be that I do have them memorized. Yep. Commercial is different from private yet again. I need to step up my game. We spent considerable time going through the maintenance logs for the plane I would be using for the check ride. We had many questions and had to piece together where some old and new ADs were done. I learned a lot going through those.

In the end we spent about two hours almost covering the pre-flight knowledge portion of the oral. We had a couple of good laughs at my ineptness and I assured him I would definitely be more studied for next time. 

Next time would be weather and cross country flight planning. I remember I really struggled on the weather the last time my CFI and I covered that preparing for my instrument check ride, but I did extremely well on the actual oral. Since my instrument ride I've developed my own pre-flight weather briefing process that I do for every cross country that actually goes through the same process I learned for my check rides. I should knock that out of the park next time. Cross country flight planning, I'm very good at that as well, though this one will be interesting. From RHV in San Jose, CA to Las Vegas, NV. The direct route goes right over the Sierra Nevadas. The long way is south of the sierras and then east and north but it avoids most of the mountains. I wonder how my CFI will evaluate the flight plan I'll provide him.

I got home last night and spent a couple hours updating and editing my study notes. I found the stuff I didn't know was in my notes already. Studying would have helped. Then again, I learned a key piece of the commercial pilot puzzle, commercial flying is rarely in only one plane, so I need to expand my thinking to many types of planes and types of operations, not only for the check ride, but for my future career as a pilot.  That is very important lesson to learn.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Flying Dinosaurs

Flying with Dinosaurs by mymindcircus
I remember a brief snippet of a conversation I had with my boss the day after I earned my PPL. He is a former military helicopter pilot. So he understood my exultation at finally earning my wings. He mentioned something in that conversation that surprised me though, something I remember to this day. He told me I am one of the last of the dinosaurs, the last of a dying breed. Someone who trained with so-called steam gauges for instruments instead of a glass panel.

I have to admit, sometimes I do feel a bit like a dinosaur. I have limited interest in the latest apps and aviation technology.  For VFR flying I could care less if a plane as a G1000 or a G430 or just a magnetic compass.  I prefer to look out the window over watching a screen. For IFR flying I care more about the GPS and other avionics and navigation aids in a plane. I would not fly in IMC without a fully functional IFR certified GPS in addition to my steam gauges. I know the steam gauges well and I know how they will fail, what they will do when they do and what I will do to continue the flight safely in that event.  I do use auto-pilot in IMC if my plane is so equipped but I turn the auto-pilot off between IAF and FAF, sometimes because I want to and sometimes because I don't know why the auto-pilot is doing what its doing but I do know how to fly the approach by hand correctly and safely so that's what I do. The thought of having a plane fly an entire approach "for me" does not excite me at all. I fly planes because I want to fly, not to be a passenger along for the ride.

When I look in the cockpit of new small jets and light planes with glass cockpits all I see is a faceless, blank pane of glass. No personality, no life to it without electricity. A plane with steam gauges has personality. Each plane is set up a slightly different way; every instrument with its own idiosyncrasies. The way the attitude indicator tends to lean to one side or the other when the gyros aren't running appears to be a plane at rest but with potential for flight. The other instruments seem frozen in time but ready to move at a moment's notice. I don't get that impression from a glass panel plane.

This doesn't mean people who fly glass panel planes don't love flying. I have a good friend with a very nice glass panel cockpit that loves flying just as much as I do. However, I do think there are new pilots, or even experienced pilots, that focus so much on flying the video game in the cockpit that they are missing out on the so called stick and rudder skills that are so important to safe flight. Especially pilots who have advanced autopilots they rely on to fly for them most of the time. Those pilots are really missing out and are becoming increasingly likely to have an incident or accident in the event of a systems failure or just a system not being set up right because they don't exercise the skills required to fly safely without the auto-pilots flying for them. A very painful case in point is the Asiana Airlines crash at SFO ( NTSB investigation site | wikipedia ) in July 2013.

From light GA planes with G1000 glass panels to complex passenger jets like the Boeing 777 that clipped the seawall at SFO crashed and killed 3 people in the process, pilots are in the cockpit to fly the plane, not watch the flight. If we don't want to become dinosaurs and eventually extinct as a career, it would do us all well to remember that.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Lesson in Taking Control

Disclaimer: The flying exercise described here worked for me to push through some real fears I had. I definitely do not recommend doing this without having an experienced flight instructor in the plane who can help ensure the exercise can be accomplished safely.

One of the reasons I write this blog is to capture particularly meaningful, painful, fun or frustrating flights. I realized there is one flight I didn't write about yet. One of the most impactful training flights I did with my CFI as I was training for my PPL. While that flight lives in my memory as clear as day today, I know with age and time, memory will fade and this is one memory I don't want to lose. So I'll share it with you today.

Two years ago I was struggling my way through the end of my PPL. I had all of the basic learning done, cross countries completed, and it was down to working on PTS maneuvers. I took a week off from work and spent most of that week at the flight club, flying with my CFI and, when I wasn't flying with him, practicing. By the end of the week we were both frustrated. I had plateaued thoroughly and was not making any progress. I just wouldn't do what he was telling me to do. I couldn't make myself do it.

The last day of this week, after the last flight I finally broke down and admitted I couldn't do it because I was scared. I had scared myself landing the 172 a couple months before and I hadn't gotten over it. That fear was keeping me from changing my behavior and progressing. I was afraid of being out of control of the airplane over and on the runway. Especially afraid of swerving to the left side of the runway. That information gave my CFI something to work with. He promised to come up with something to help get me over this fear on our next flight lesson.

I faced my next lesson with some trepidation. My CFI started the discussion explaining two things (1) he had no intention of creating any additional paperwork for Mike, the owner of the flight club and (2) he firmly intended to go home to his wife and kids that night. So I would have to trust him that what we were going to do would not harm either of us or the plane. We were going to practice what he called unusual attitude recovery - over a runway. The intent was to show me just how bad you can set up for a landing and still be able to land safely, not just show me, but make me do it. We would head to Hollister for this exercise because that airport has a runway twice as long and wide as Reid-Hillview giving him the opportunity to repeat the exercise many times in each pass over the runway.

On the way there I was very tense. He kept reminding me to breath and stop clenching my hands. I remember the calm tone of voice he used as he tried to explain why I didn't need to be afraid, but I don't remember what he said. I just remember being very very uncomfortable. He explained we would fly to Hollister and fly an approach to the runway, on short final he would take the controls and put the plane in a bad attitude or location and then show me how easy it is to get the plane back on the centerline and land it, no matter what attitude it was in. After a couple with him demonstrating I would have to do it.

We got down to Hollister and he had me set for a normal approach (in 172s it was always a power off approach). On short final he took the controls, added power and put the plane right over the right edge of the runway with a nose up attitude. Then he swung the plane back to the centerline and landed it gently, easy as can be. Powered back up, swung the plane to the left, then pointed the nose right and down and flew it sideways down the runway, then landed again, light on the centerline. Powered back up, swung the plane to the side and pitched it awkwardly, gave me the controls and told me to land it on the centerline. I pulled power, put the plane over the centerline, aligned it with the direction of travel and pitched up carefully to bleed off airspeed. I landed it gently.

We taxied back, took off and did it again, this time he put the plane in the unusual attitude and I had to land it, on centerline, every time. He knew I was most uncomfortable with being to the left of the runway, so, of course, that's where the plane would start most of the time. I did some of my best landings in a very long time during that exercise. The last pass focused on handling the plane on the ground. He landed the plane deliberately off the centerline and had me steer the plane on the ground, quickly, back to the centerline. Pop the plane off the ground, land it again in another spot and I'd have to get it back on centerline. By the time we were done I had forgotten about being afraid and was having fun making the plane do what I needed it to do, no matter how weird it got.

I flew the approach back in to Reid-Hillview and it was a bit breezy. On short final there was a sudden gust that made the stall horn squeal for a second and the plane jumped to the side (another thing that had scared me months before). Without thinking my hands and feet moved instantly to put the plane back on the spot I needed it to remain lined up with the centerline. I did one of my best landings in months.

That specific flight lesson was a real breakthrough for me and helped shape the pilot I am today. It taught me I am never helpless in a plane, ever. I do not have to be a passenger along for the ride... I have the controls and I am in control of the result, be that by controlling the plane or allowing the plane to control itself. In both situations, it is the pilot who makes the decision, consciously or unconsciously, to either take or relinquish control. When I choose to take control, I am capable of creating the result I desire.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Taking Time to Polish

I spend a lot of time at the flight club... and spend a lot of time flying. People there know I've been working on my commercial rating for 3 months. They're starting to ask when my check ride will be. I keep telling them that I'm in the polishing stage of flight training. Just polishing off these maneuvers and tasks to PTS spec is what I was thinking. Recently I've changed my mind about that.

In this phase of my training, my CFI is taking some real time to help me really refine my skills. Not just to get to the point of passing a check ride, but to get to the point of real "mastery of the aircraft". He's been excited to see flashes of me demonstrating real mastery of the airplane I'm flying. I've been even more excited to do it.

I love to fly. I love flying with precision, with mastery, even more. Flying a precise instrument approach. Feeling the airplane levitate itself off the runway. Pulling power and gliding to land on a particular spot and using the flaps in just the right way to get the extra lift I need. Managing the tradeoff between airspeed and altitude to fly the plane to exactly the spot I want - without focusing on that spot. The pleasing scrch of the mains as they touch down gently on the runway, on the centerline of course. And my favorite, flying Lazy 8s with precision and grace, a maneuver that I will never use as a commercial pilot but on that is very, very fun!

I could rush this phase, push hard to get just good enough to meet the PTS specs and then push my CFI to sign me off for the checkride. To be honest, if I have a good day I could most likely pass a checkride today. Or, I can take advantage of this opportunity to work with the expert aviator pilot that my flight instructor is to really polish my skills. I'm going to take advantage of this opportunity. The checkride will come in its own time.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Of Passion and Failure

Some of you may have detected a note of desperation in my last post. A feeling of being at the end of my rope and unable to diagnose and fix the problems I've been having with a particular maneuver. In a moment of particular loneliness and hopelessness... feeling I just may be unable to "do this" I sent an email to my brothers and sisters expressing my frustrations. None of my siblings fly, but they all understand my passion for flight and, it turns out, in their own passions...  be that music, math, parenthood and family, motorcycles, hacking or learning how to fail successfully... they've hit similar learning plateaus and had similar frustrations. They reached back out to me and sent me notes of support and understanding from their own experiences.

One note in particular brought tears of joy and relief to my eyes. I share part of that note below... I hope my brother won't mind but I think this is particularly inspirational to all who have a passion for what they do and are hitting one of those plateaus. So I share it with you...

A lot of successful people are asked advice for choosing careers.  The most common response I've read is "do something you're passionate about."  What is often left out of that sentiment is the reason *why* you should do something you're passionate about.  I believe the reason is that when you start hitting the inevitable brick wall, you need an irrational reason to keep going.  No one sane will keep hitting their head against the wall.  They'll give up after a few reasonable tries.  But the passionate, the ones who have some love behind it, will keep going.  And they'll eventually get through.  And that what makes them successful.  When everyone else turned around and gave it their best, the successful kept going.

You're going to learn more through this failure, and this stumbling block than anyone else who gets it right without any problems.  You're going to walk away with a better understanding of what's happening, and why.  This is going to make you a better pilot, and a better teacher (not that you're going for being a teacher) - precisely because when you encounter a friend who's having the same issue, you'll have a better chance of knowing what's actually going on.  Or at least some empathy and a history of things that you tried, with an understanding of what worked, what didn't, and ultimately why.
After receiving the notes of support from my siblings, I met with my flight instructor. I was very candid with him about my frustrations and feeling of just not "getting it". You can tell I'm not the first person who's had this type of issue. He listened very carefully to what I said and what I didn't say. He recommended instead of trying to land on a spot, we would focus on the process of the approach. 

While we were flying he had me focus on the balance between airspeed and altitude and power and altitude. He had me practice giving up one to gain the other... for instance, if I was trending lower on glide slope and had some extra airspeed, I could pitch up, which would both gain me some altitude momentarily and decrease the airspeed to where I needed it to be. Or if I was high, don't pitch down (unless I needed to gain airspeed), instead pull power. Then apply power if I need to. We also worked on my visuals for what was high or low on base and identifying where the current trajectory of the plane would put the plane on the runway if conditions were maintained. 

In the end I was placing the plane on the numbers, often within feet of the place I thought I would. I need to work a bit more on managing and keeping the airspeed I require. Also, there's a trick I can try right before landing of pitching up just a bit more to either cushion the landing or get myself another 50 feet before landing if needed. This new way of thinking of managing and using airspeed and altitude and power to get the plane to go where I need it to go will help me with all of my flying, especially all of my landings. Before today I understood the concepts of aerodynamics that rule us in the sky but now I feel I am starting to really know how to use those forces.

These are things I would not have learned yet if I could have just mechanically managed to get these landings before now. As my brother said... these perceived failures... are making me a better pilot and my passion will help me keep pushing through these plateaus of learning when reasonable people would walk away.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and today I am very grateful to have the support of my delightful, talented, loving, smart, funny and cool siblings. That my parents are still with me and love me too.  I am grateful to have a fantastic CFI. A flight club with well maintained planes that I can afford to fly. A job that funds my flying. A passion that carries me forward day to day. Friends that celebrate in my passion even though it has taken me away from some of my old haunts and running habits. A husband that loves me and got me into flying in the first place and the friendship of my 15 year old daughter. 

Wishing you a very Happy Thanksgiving where ever you are, and, if you ever feel like you are you hitting one of those stumbling blocks please look back at the wise words of my brother and feel solace. You are not alone and you will not remain where you are if you don't give up.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Just Land it in a Football Field

I'm watching Sunday night football right now. Earlier today I practiced commercial maneuvers solo for almost 2 hours, 1.9 hours to be precise ... and I'm always precise. :) The weather was perfect ...  sunny clear skies, cool, not too cold, light winds aloft, calm winds near ground level. The last few weeks I've been focusing on various take offs and landings - mostly soft field takeoffs and short field landings. I was struggling with them. Today I wanted to do some air work too, just to make sure I still remembered how to do things like lazy 8s and chandelles and then try out my CFIs suggestions for some of the maneuvers I needed to work on.


I requested a left downwind departure, did a really sweet normal takeoff, stayed below 1500 feet, ducked under San Jose's Class Charlie shelf and headed over to an area with a couple fields and a golf course to do 8's on pylons. They were much easier than the last time I did them.. this time I started at the right pivotal altitude. I nailed it, first try. Good start.

Next, move further away from Charlie and do chandelles to gain some altitude. About half way through the first chandelle I realized the attitude indicator in the plane was different from the one that I had gotten used to. It was missing the 20 degree pitch mark. It was then that I realized how much I relied on the AI to validate the pitch at the top of of the first 90 degrees of the chandelle. I had to adjust quickly.  I struggled with picking my visual references but was just within spec. The next one was better and the one following that was even better.

I decided to reward myself with some lazy 8s. My favorite maneuver... I got lined up on some great visual points and started the first portion when I saw a small plan just off my nose, not close but I wasn't sure where he was going. I stopped the 8 and tracked him until I was sure he was no factor. I turned back around and started again, when I came out of the first half of the 8 my airspeed was too high. Hmmm... ok, need to bring the nose up sooner. Line up again, lost track of my visual reference points. OK, try again, better this time. Within spec but not as good as I was doing them the month before. Goes to show practice makes perfect and no practice makes for less perfect.

Time for steep turns, last time I didn't maintain altitude well. CFI suggested add some power if I'm going to do that 50 degree bank. So I did. It worked great. I had to constantly adjust to remain in spec but it was possible. Good. Steep spiral time. I just recently learned how to tell what I was turning around from high altitude, so this time I practiced actually adjusting bank to keep my turning point in the right spot. That seemed to work but I know I need to work on that one some more.

Pattern Work

Alright, now to practice what I was learning the last couple weeks in the pattern. Manage airspeed and land the plane within 100' of a touchdown point. When you stop and think about it, 100' is 1/3rd of a football field. A football field is big. It should not be hard to land in the first 1/3rd of one. But that is what I was struggling with.

I was monitoring CTAF for South County. Winds were calm but most planes there were using 14 so I set up for an approach there. I was high on base, put in extra flaps, slipped it on final, and landed long (for a short approach). I got off on the first taxi way but wasn't happy with the approach or the landing. I wasn't sure what I did wrong aside from being high.

I put it out of my mind... I figured it was time to do a soft field takeoff, my most recent nemesis. I set the flaps for 25 degrees, made sure the plane was trimmed and took the runway holding the yoke back. Aligned with the centerline, feet on rudders, accelerate smoothly with control pressures back, when the nose starts to come up, relax that back pressure. Plane in the air, smoothly keep the plane low in ground effect and accelerate. Fast enough and allow the plane to climb and take up the gear. The plane shoots into the sky. THAT was nice. I wondered if I could do that again.

The next few rounds I kept missing the mark on the short field but I did good to great on the take offs. So I figured I would do a power off 180 or two. My first 180 I was way too high... it was then I remembered I needed to think about the winds, the winds were calm. I was turning at a good time for a 10 knot headwind. My second power off 180 I extended just a bit longer after pulling the power and made it. I thought I did it within the 200' distance allowed. It's hard for me to tell.

I tried one more short field approach and landing, that one seemed just a bit better, definitely good enough for private pilot, but I wasn't sure about commercial standards. I had done 7 laps in the pattern at South County, an hour in the air doing maneuvers. I figured it was time to call it a day. I left South County and flew north back to Reid-Hillview.

I was annoyed, this shouldn't be this hard! All I have to do is land in the first 1/3rd of a football field and football fields are big! Oh well, time to see how I could do on the return to RHV. I decided to do a "normal" landing at RHV and see if I could put the plane down in the first 200'. I was careful to manage my airspeed and brought the plane down nicely and was off by Charlie but I still don't know if it was "to spec" or not. *sigh* Maybe I need to take out my GoPro again.

Beautiful Day

In the end, it was a beautiful day no matter what my landings looked like. I was frustrated with not making progress on the landing front, but pleased with the progress on the soft field takeoffs front. I had been very frustrated with the soft field takeoffs earlier this month. So, I decided, if I can do more and more good soft field takeoffs after how bad they had been, I can do good short field and normal landings too. Somehow.

I have to admit I don't like this stage of flight training.. that fine tuning time that I'm working through now. I got through it on my private .. I can get through it on this one. I just have to not give up. It will come.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Starting to Be the Pilot I'm Going to Be

It's odd. Sometimes it is in not flying that I start to feel my flying come together.

Since I last wrote I went up and practiced flying power off 180s, steep spirals, chandelles and soft field landings. Steep spirals worked, chandelles I needed help on, soft field landings were good. The power off 180s were cool. The first time I was too aggressive in applying the flaps and didn't quite make the runway. The second time I fixed that... and just made it. The third time I did even better. Perfect in fact. It was so fun! Being able to put the plane where I wanted it to be just based on knowing what I have to do to get the plane to do what I want it to do given the conditions we were in. This is a skill I have long envied in other pilots and finally, I am developing it too!

Next flight with my CFI we spent time fixing my chandelle problem, that took about 20 minutes. Then the rest of the planned flight was introducing me to turning accelerated stalls. He knows me well and told me it I won't like it but I'll just have to do them. He thought he would demonstrate a couple then I would call it a day. What he didn't know is, I had already determined I wouldn't let it bother me. Not to mention there was no way accelerated stalls in an Arrow (a plane that *really* doesn't want to stall) would be nearly as "snappy" as the accelerated stalls in the Extra 300L I practiced a couple months before.

He demonstrated one, then I volunteered to do one. Then another and another and another and another. I kept working at refining them (trying to do the stall in a level turn instead of a climbing or descending turn). Eventually my stomach decided it had enough turning and Gs and I did have to call it a day. Did I like them? No. Did they scare me? No. I still need to work on them a bit more but I am not afraid of doing it.

Next flight was solo practice again, the winds aloft were forecast for 25 knots. I hoped the forecast was wrong, but it was right. The winds were strong and there was enough mechanical turbulence in the practice areas that it would be a waste of time trying to fly to spec there. So I flew back to the airport and did a soft field landing, almost perfect... so I went around another time and overestimated the strengths of the winds and turned base way too early and was high as a result. I used my new found skills and brought the plane in smoothly for landing on the spot by cutting power and gliding to the runway. Not my best flying but I liked the way I was able to put the plane where I wanted it.

Today, I was supposed to go up with my CFI again but the winds were strong. He just finished a flight so he knew how rough the air was. We decided to do ground school instead to start getting me ready for the oral portion of the commercial check ride. I learned how to decipher the FAA regulations on commercial pilot privileges and limitations. I am sooo grateful I have a CFI that can turn those FAA regulations into something I can understand.

What does this have to do with being the pilot I'm going to be? Being a pilot is more than sitting in an airplane and getting it into the air and back on the ground in one piece. Its an attitude, a feeling, an intimate knowledge of cause and effect in the physical and mental world, and learning how to control self and plane in a constantly changing and sometimes hostile environment. Today, as I drove the hour commute home, I reflected on the events of the last week or so and I felt it start to "click" in me. A recognition that I am starting to be the pilot I want to be, the pilot I'm going to be. I wish I could explain it better... maybe I will be able to some day, perchance I can be the writer I want to be too *grin*... Until then, I'm happy and looking forward to my further evolution as a pilot and a human blessed with the ability to play in the sky.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

You'll Be a Great Dog One Day

Compliments come in strange forms.... as I flew with my CFI this afternoon we were working on power off 180s which I had been having some trouble dialing in. [For those of you following at home, a power off 180 is a commercial maneuver where you cut the power to the plane abeam your landing point and you have to manage your airspeed and drag to land within 200 feet of that point, without adding any power.] My CFI quickly identified what I was doing wrong after the first time around. Next challenge, help me do it right. He started suggesting different techniques and quickly adjusted his suggestions for what was working for me. After three or four times around it was starting to click. After five or six times I was starting to get it.

A couple more time around he started talking about the golden retriever puppies he and his family have raised. He said something about how puppies start off a little unruly and he and his wife would have to console themselves by telling the puppy, "You're gonna be a great dog one day." Eventually the puppies would grow up and be great dogs and they could say to the dog, "Great dog!"

We did another touch and go after a particularly good power off 180. I'm accelerating the plane to Vy and retracting the gear. I heard the grin in his voice as he said, "You're gonna be a great power off 180 pilot one day." I smiled. By the time we were done flying that hour, I had transitioned from being consistently short to consistently making the runway. I discovered how much fun it was to adjust the glide and the radius of my turn towards the runway, using the flaps a little or a lot, or slipping aggressively to bleed off a lot of altitude or slipping a little to bleed off a little.

Yeah, I believe he's right. I'm going to be a great power off 180 pilot (and not only that) one day and that day is not far off at all!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

400 Hours Later

Today I flew my 400th hour. Fittingly, that hour was spent in the pattern with my CFI working on commercial pilot maneuvers. This is the same CFI I've worked with for all of my ratings so far. Another thing made this particular hour special. This was the first hour I flew after I made up my mind to stop worrying about my doubts and instead just be the pilot I know I can be. We both enjoyed the flight and I'm looking forward to practicing again on my own at the end of the week. I'm even looking forward to doing accelerated stalls the next time my CFI and I get together! It really doesn't get much better than this.

Here's to 400 hours and looking forward to 400 more :)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Pilots Just Know Pilots

On the way home from a business trip today a Southwest Airlines pilot put a big smile on my face. I was boarding the plane to head home and said a cheerful hello to the flight attendant standing by the door. I'm always cheerful when I'm headed home.

As I turned down the aisle I heard a male voice behind me say,  "She'd rather be flying." He must have seen the I'D RATHER BE FLYING tag I have on my backpack. I turned around and saw the plane's captain standing there... grinning. I grinned back and said, "Yep." He asked, "Do you fly?" and I said, "Yeah, but much smaller planes than this one."

A woman in line behind me overheard the conversation and as I walked down the aisle I heard her ask the captain, "How did you know?"  His response, "Pilots just know pilots."

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Reflections on Doubt

Trail to Forester Pass - 13,280 feet
Sometimes my path seems very much like the trail in this photo. What is immediately ahead is relatively clear, but the trail disappears in the distance, I have no perspective to tell me how much trail remains, and the goal is hidden around the bend.

The path is lonely also. There are only about 617,000 active pilots in the US population in 2011. Of those, 62,000 are in California and approx. 13,214 of those have a commercial rating (my current milestone).  A pretty small number. Want to feel lonelier? Be a female pilot. Only 41,316 women pilots in the US, 4,766 in California and, drum roll, only 860 of the women pilots hold a commercial rating. That number is smaller than the count of people in my high school student body and faculty. In other words, not many. Interestingly enough there are almost as many female flight instructors, 753, in California as there are commercial rated female pilots (or 87%). Get lonelier still... be a forty-something tech worker, runner, mom, wife, adult-onset aviator.

Any path is hard when you feel alone. Make the path itself long and winding without a clear outcome in sight, with only a dream to guide you and no one beside you. I expect it is quite normal to have the occasional doubt in that situation. After a particularly rough flight, like my last one, I get some doubts. What am I doing? Why? What's the point? Will I be able to, eventually, trade my high tech career for flying? Am I kidding myself thinking that I can? It seems a bit harder because there isn't exactly a well known career track for 40 something female pilots that don't have a four year college degree who don't plan on going for a job with the airlines.

I remember my good friends who say whenever I set my mind to something, I will accomplish it. And I do know, in spite of my most recent performance at the controls, I absolutely can finish my commercial license training and earn that commercial pilots license. I have no doubt of that. I'm not certain what the next step will be after that milestone. Like I said, there isn't a well beaten path after CPL and definitely not after CFI. All I know is I don't want to stop.

Then again, it is very much like me to forge my own path. I didn't follow a conventional route into the career I'm in, the man I'm married to, the place I live, etc. I didn't come to flying on the conventional routes either. This wasn't something I've always dreamed of doing. I just found myself at the controls of a small plane for no reason I ever could have imagined and fell in love with it. I don't need to follow a conventional route for my new path either. I will just have to have faith and trust my heart.

I know this path is right for me, even when I have doubts. When I look out the window of a commercial terminal and watch the captain and first officer of the jet parked at the gate going through their checklists I feel a sense of kinship and a longing. Or when I think of my solo flight around the desert southwest this summer; the daily rhythm of pre-flight, flight, post flight care of the plane, flight planning, care of self, and sleep; I know flying is where I belong and what I was meant to do. I guess doubt is another part of the journey, some light to moderate chop of emotional turbulence for me to ride through perhaps.

Something else I realize as I write this. I shouldn't think of these phases or goals of my flying necessarily as destinations. Instead I should think of them as waypoints on my journey. A journey that won't stop until the day I stop flying and being part of the aviation community, hopefully a very very long time from now. There are many and varied options in aviation far beyond the standard airline pilot everyone thinks about. Who knows where I will visit or how long I'll be there? One of the very cool things about aviation is, a pilot is not limited to only one type of flying. CFI and contract pilot for instance. Freight, traffic watch, aerial photography and sight seeing. Corporate, charter and business aviation too. I certainly won't get bored. As my CFI said to me a long time ago, the CPL doesn't guarantee anything, but it is a ticket to the dance. This is a dance I most definitely want to attend :)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

One of Those Days

I've been flying for a while now and every once in a while I think I know what I'm doing. Then I have one of those days where its like someone removed half my brain, the important half!

I've been working on my commercial rating for a while now. We are getting near the end of introducing me to all of the required maneuvers, chandelles, lazy 8s, steep spirals, emergency descents, etc, etc. are all going nicely. The exception is 8's on pylons - I think I am going through every possible way to do them wrong but I'll get to doing them right at some point. Today was supposed to be "just" soft and short field take offs to commercial grade and power off 180s.

So I roll out on the runway the first soft field take off with my feet on the brakes! Then I bounced the plane a bit by over-correcting trying to keep it in ground effect. Then I forgot what rudders are for. The rest of that trip around the pattern didn't get much better. Let it suffice to say my CFI said very confidently, "I KNOW you can do better than that!". Yeah, I do too. I got to the point where I was doing good short field take offs with good smoothness. But, WOW! I struggled in the pattern. Airspeeds all over the place. Altitudes all over the place. Didn't get a single stabilized approach in. I even found a new "high" in being above glide slope, I've never seen white over black before!

Well... it was one of those days. My next flights will be better!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

From Fear to Fun

Tonight's sunset from the Lick Observatory.

Thought I would share this picture of my flying stomping grounds from the Lick Observatory Mt. Ham Cam. This is a beautiful sunset shot taken tonight is a reflection of my happy mood after today's training flight. What a difference a little attitude adjustment makes.... it resulted in a night and day difference in my flying.


My last training flight before today was before I took the commercial written. That flight was not a happy one. There was an AIRMET for turbulence before we took off. Winds were strong. I was afraid, very afraid. We were going up to introduce me to Lazy 8's, another commercial maneuver. Its hard for me, today, to describe what I was afraid of, but I was afraid. We went up and my CFI demonstrated the maneuver and it scared me. The turbulence bothered me, the winds were not helping make the maneuver any less scary. At first I refused to do it... I was just too scared. I was on the verge of tears. But finally I said I would try one. I did one and didn't like it. Maybe I tried another one. I'm not sure, but I was not enjoying that at all.

We decided to come back in since the turbulence was bad (not moderate but bad) and I was just not in a state to learn. On the way back to RHV I picked up the ATIS and it reported AIRMETs Tango, Zulu and Sierra. A trifecta of bad conditions... that matched my mood perfectly. I did manage a good approach and landing in the strong winds. "Great time to practice short field landings", my CFI said. I was not pleased. There wasn't much to debrief. I understood the maneuver, I just had to get over my fear. 

How to Get Over Fear

I struggled the next few days trying to figure out how to get over my fear. I knew I just had to do it. I had an old fortune cookie in my log book "Fear and Desire. Two sides of the same coin." it said. I had kept that in my log book for a long time. I decided I should get rid of that fortune cookie. Time to put aside the fear. Strangely when I went to my logbook the little sheet of paper was gone. Maybe it knew it was time to depart. The only thing I could think of to get over the fear was to get as familiar as possible with the maneuver, and try to focus on fun instead. 

I found as I walked through the maneuvers in my living room, I was able to adequately simulate the view of the rotation of the airplane from the 45 to 90 to 135 degree point. That rotation was something I was afraid of doing wrong in the air but on the ground it fascinated me. Then I remembered how, in spite of the turbulence, my CFI made the plane rotate so smoothly that there were no g-forces or slipping or sliding feelings. I was able to make my hands show that same rotation as I walked through the maneuver. It wasn't scarey. It was actually fascinating.  I kept repeating the walk through over and over  to get myself more familiar with what I was seeing. As what I was seeing got more familiar I felt the fear retreating.

From Fear to Fun

Today I finally got to go up again with my CFI and try out those Lazy 8s.  No AIRMETs this time and calmer winds, though not perfect conditions, better than we had before. We went out and made sure we both agreed on what 45, 90 and 135 degrees were. Then I asked him to demonstrate another Lazy 8 while I kept my hands on the controls. It wasn't scary at all. Then I did one with his hands on the controls, not scary. Then I started doing them on my own with him coaching me, sometimes I was pitching without turning, sometimes too much bank, sometimes not enough rudder, other times rolling out too quickly. I wasn't doing bad, not scared at all, I was actually having fun and by the end I was doing it "to spec". It was actually funny, towards the end of the flight I kept saying, "OK, lets do one more." and then "one more" and then "one more" after about the fifth "one more" it really was time to come back. 

We were both smiling on the way back to RHV. As we listened to RHV's tower traffic we heard a Bonanza pilot ask the tower to check their front landing gear. They weren't sure it was coming down. Sure enough, the problem was a burnt out gear indicator bulb. I said I could tell they weren't trained by my CFI. Anyone trained by him would know to check that right away. Time to come in to land, the approach was good, the landing was actually very soft.  I even parked the plane well. 

Yeah, it was a great flight and great transformation from fear to fun. Just as I decided I must do. I'm not sure if I'm more pleased about the successful attitude adjustment or how well I did in the flight but in the end I'll take them both and be happy :)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Why doesn't everyone do this?

Last Friday I got to do a very special flight. My very first flight with a brother or sister. In this case it was my brother Rob who got the honors of "First Sib" in the cockpit with me :) Not only was this a chance to fly with a sibling, it was a chance to land at an airport I've never landed at before and fly a route I've not flown before. So it was something I was looking forward to doing in addition to flying with someone very special to me.

My brother was in town working with a client located in Palo Alto (PAO). He would get off work around 5:30 and then we "needed" (wanted really) to fly up to Santa Rosa (STS) to meet my husband there to give him some clothes and supplies for the race the next day. Santa Rosa happens to be the location of my favorite $100 hamburger restaurant, the Sky Lounge. So it was a perfect set up. I would fly to PAO, pick up my brother then we would fly up to STS, meet up with the husband for dinner, then fly back to Reid Hillview (RHV) and go back to my home from there.

I've never flown to PAO before, its only 16 miles away from RHV so it's never been a place I've needed to fly to. Not to mention there were four air spaces to fly through and one to fly under if you fly the most direct route there. You have RHV's Class D, San Jose's Class C, Moffett Airfield Class D and then Palo Alto's Class D with San Francisco's Class B over the top of it all. In general, unless there's a good reason, most VFR pilots avoid that sort of airspace and an IFR flight to PAO would take twice as long as it needs to be. Now I had the perfect excuse to go!

It was remarkably easy... when I was ready to taxi at RHV I requested VFR flight following to PAO and told them I would also need a Class Charlie transition. I was assigned a squawk code and told to stay out of Charlie until in contact with San Jose's tower. After take off I was quickly handed to San Jose tower. They cleared me direct to Palo Alto and it seemed only 30 seconds later they handed me to Moffett tower. Moffett tower pointed out the helicopter flying in the pattern there and then handed me over to Palo Alto tower in about two minutes. Palo Alto cleared me to land straight in on 32. I flew the straight in approach, landed, taxied clear of the runway, contacted Palo Alto ground, taxied to transient and shut down. Less than 30 minutes engine on to engine off. Cool!

After about 45 minutes of hanging out in the terminal building and talking with one of the employees there my brother arrived. I walked him out to the plane, loaded his luggage and briefed him on flying in a small airplane. He was calm but I could tell he was excited too. We taxied out to the run-up area, did our run-up and were ready to go. I had requested VFR flight following to STS and a "Right Dumbarton Departure" which one of my pilot friends told me was the normal way to cross the bay and head north. We were cleared to take off and accelerated down the rippling PAO runway. That was an unusual but fun experience to ride the ripples until we were airborne.

We turned right at the Dumbarton Bridge and flew over the Bay. Rob looked around and watched the bay and the ground slip underneath our wings. He grinned broadly and started taking pictures. Then he said, "Why doesn't everybody do this? This is awesome!" We hit some of the normal bumpiness as we passed over the Sunol grade and then turned north towards Santa Rosa. He was seemed enchanted, relaxed and happy. After we crossed the delta I handed him the controls and he flew for a little while. He gave me back the controls and asked how long it would take to drive where we were going. Well, I knew the answer to that... intimately... [young readers cover your eyes] "For-Fucking-Ever" I told him. [you can uncover your eyes now]. I have sat in traffic for 3 to 5 hours to cover the same distance we were winging over in 45 minutes. It was wonderful.

About 15 minutes out from Santa Rosa ATC pointed traffic out to me that was "8 to 9 o'clock" I looked and found it at my 7 o'clock and low. I told ATC I had the traffic in sight but I would have to break my neck to keep it in sight. I asked them to let me know if it caught up to me. The controller laughed and said, "Well, don't break your neck! We'll let you know." My brother remarked how friendly ATC seemed to be, not what he was expecting. We landed at Santa Rosa which has a very large runway compared to Palo Alto's. I wasn't too pleased with the approach but my brother didn't care. He loved it. We had arrived at the Sky Lounge 50 minutes before my husband, who drove. Proving once again the great value of flying to avoid traffic!

After a leisurely dinner Rob and I hopped in the plane for the flight back to RHV. It was well after dark and the tower at STS was closed. So Rob got to watch a regional jet take the option of a straight in landing on 32 before we taxied out to take off on 14 going the opposite direction. He also got to hear how pilots self announce on CTAF at non-towered airports. We launched into the air at 9:15PM with a light tailwind to speed our trip back. I knew RHV tower closed at 10PM and figured we would right about the time the tower closed.

Rob was very quiet on the flight back. We both were with the exception of talking with ATC. I took the time to look around and enjoy the beauty of flying at night. As we passed major land marks like the top of Mt. Diablo I pointed out the red lights at its peak. I got the ATIS at RHV and they were still reporting the tower open. When I told ATC I was ready to change frequencies, however, they told me the tower was closed. OK, I would just do the normal calls. At 10 miles out I did a call for Reid-Hillview Traffic with my location and intentions. The tower answered me and told me to make right traffic for 31R. I laughed and told them I was told they were gone. The tower responded, "We have seven more minutes." They cleared me to land and on the landing rollout the tower announced they were closed for the night. It was the first time I've landed right at the time the tower closed.

We taxied back to Squadron2 to park the plane. When I shut down the engine my brother took off his headset with obvious reluctance. He said he was sad the flight was over. I was sad too, but very glad that we did that flight together. It renewed my spirit and joy in flying. My brother is right, everyone should do this!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Best of My Ability

Today I took the FAA Commercial Pilot Airplane written test for the first time. This test is one of the requirements for a Commercial Pilot's License (CPL). To pass you have to complete a 100 question test in 3 hours with 70% or better score. It took me around an hour to complete the test and I got 100% right.

I am pleased but not entirely surprised with the result. I studied for a long time and very carefully for that test. I expected to get at least 90%, most likely over 95%, but I always know its possible to miss a couple questions due to not reading carefully or just questions or concepts I've never studied before appearing in the test. However, I had studied longer for this test using more different methods that I did for the Instrument or Private tests. Especially since studying and preparing for the written test was the one thing I could do to get closer to my CPL goal for the months I was waiting to get started on the flight training. I was aware the questions would not all be exactly what I studied so I was on my toes, paying very careful attention to the questions and very careful that I knew my answers and my reasons for those answers.

Someone asked "Why?" when they heard I got 100% on the test. I don't know if this "Why" was "Why? Was there any question?" or "Why get 100%?". I reflected on the answer to the latter question. Why go through that effort to get 100% on a test that it only takes 70% to pass. 70% is good enough. I could have passed with a 70% two or three months ago. The answer to that question goes to the core of my being. 

I've always believed and lived the ideal that if something is worth doing at all, its worth doing well. If the something is something that I'm particularly passionate it is worth doing the the very best of my ability. If there is one thing I'm very passionate about, it's aviation. Some call me anal or a perfectionist. My husband teases me frequently about it. I have to admit, I do exercise a lot of attention to detail and strive for perfection. Smile. However, I have learned, through the process of learning to fly, I have to strive for perfection yet accept rarely being perfect all of the time. I have to do that without allowing it to limit my enjoyment of the pursuit.

Fortunately for me, it seems I do have some talent in this field. Sometimes the best of my ability can be perfect. Like today when I passed a test that I could have passed with 70% with 100% instead. In aviation I will always strive to fly, learn, train and enjoy to the best of my ability and that isn't so bad at all!

Monday, September 16, 2013

You Know You're A Pilot When #3

You know you're a pilot when...
  • You feel a pang of "uh oh" when, 45 minutes out you realize you forgot to study the STARs, approach plates, and airport taxi diagram for your airport of intended landing, and you are sitting in row 14!
  • You automatically visualize a little miniature runway aligned to the appropriate magnetic headings when you hear 28-10 (and if you hear 28L-10R you visualize two parallel runways). 
  • You say 28 as "two eight" instead of "twenty eight".
  • You mentally compare the pitch or climb angle of the roads you drive with bank and pitch angles of the plane you fly.
  • You can't remember which type of plane you are in, but you sure know the call sign and can hear that call sign no matter how busy the chatter is.
  • You know when you see three people standing by a particular location they must be a flight instructor and family waiting for someone as they do their first student solo. 
  • Any time you see a picture with clouds in it you automatically think about the relative stability of the air that created the cloud and how smooth or turbulent you would expect the air to be in and near that cloud.
  • You find yourself mentally calculating the crosswind component for any wind reported by ATIS on approach as a reflex. 
  • Your daughter catches you walking around the living room holding a trekking pole up in front of you to represent the wings and cowling of a plane as you walk through a chandelle. 
  • Any time you are outdoors you scan the skies looking for airplanes and smile whenever you see one.
  • You can't think of a better way to spend a Sunday evening than fly a friend over the city and bay at night. 

Bonus -
You know you've been studying for the Commercial Written test too long when...
  • You know what Figure 8 looks like and what the fuel burn rate is at 55% cruise power without looking at it.
  • You don't like dealing with Figures 16, 17 and 20 but are OK with Figure 18 and 19.
  • You finally have figured out how to answer all of the ADF and RMI questions. 
  • You know how much weight you will have to shift to the new station to get the desired new CG without even doing the calculation.
  • If given a bearing change and time for the change you can calculate time and distance to station in about 20 seconds, in 5 seconds if the bearing doubles.
  • You know the difference between advection, radiation and steam fog. 
  • You know how many positive G's a normal category aircraft is certificated to handle.
  • You don't need to look it up to know a plane at a 60 degree bank will experience a 2G load factor.
  • You can get through 200 random questions from the test bank in 2 hours with no wrong answers.

Oh it is fun to fly!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Working With a CFI

I started my formal commercial pilot training last weekend. Today was my second training flight for the new rating. It was fun. It was fun because I talked with my CFI candidly about my level of comfort in the plane and my desire to try to keep the flying fun and not fixate on specs. My CFI is a darned good CFI. It seemed he had already detected my comfort level wasn't where it needed to be and when I told him how I am particularly sensitive to different sounds in the plane he decided he would address that as well. I've learned what the Arrow sounds like on normal climb out, cruise and descent. I am not familiar to what the plane sounds like when it is taken through its paces with full power and power off, full prop or prop full back, full power climb and no power descents. Planes making unfamiliar noises set off warning bells in my mind.

Today's flight started with a focus on the different sounds the plane will be making... the squeal of the landing gear horn when the power is pulled back to idle. The bit of a surge the engine makes, sometimes, when the prop is shoved forward or the manifold pressure is suddenly reduced. The changes in the sound when doing steep turns at 18" of manifold pressure. The brief cough in the engine when power is reduced or increased quickly. The feel of the buffet on the edge of a stall, the actual feel of a power on stall and the pitch required to make it happen.

After I got comfortable with the vast variety of sounds and pitches we started working on the components of chandelles. Taking the components one piece at a time worked really well and with increased comfort at the high pitch required for the second half of the maneuver I was able to roll the wings level very smoothly and slowly. The last one I did was to commercial spec without much effort at all.

Another thing to note on that last chandelle was a 172 was below us doing slow flight. We noticed him and did not get too concerned about it just made sure to "see and avoid". It turns out the Cessna had an ex-DPE we knew in it. He was watching us and caught up to me later to tell me he saw my chandelle and said it was very nice and smooth.

One thing chandelle's do is they make you climb, so, I got to learn how to do a steep spiral to descend quickly. That was fun too... then it was time to go back to RHV. I did a nice straight in approach and landing, ending on a high note for me.

I think a large portion of why this particular flight went so well is me being up front with my CFI about my level of comfort, sensitivity to sound and desires for the tone of my flying. In my opinion, being able to be honest with your CFI, having a CFI that is able to adjust to and address your concerns and needs, and then trusting that CFI and putting your best into whatever they tell you to do critical to successful flight training. It's a relationship that requires both people, CFI and student, to work together for a common goal. I'm happy and grateful to have a very good relationship with my CFI developed over many years of flying together. That relationship will drive my future successes in flying :)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Standing at 13,200 Feet

Here are some brief impressions of a two and a half day trek in the Eastern Sierras. Our trek was from the Onion Valley trail head at 9,200 feet, over Kearsarge Pass at 11,760 feet, past Kearsarge and Bullfrog lakes, down to Vidette Meadow (9,000 feet), and up Bubbs Creek all the way to its alpine lake sources and even further, to stand on Forester Pass. Forester Pass is knife edge ridge between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks at 13,200 feet. It's the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail. We hiked around 35 miles total distance and a few miles of vertical distance as well.


Acclimatization works! I live at sea level. I fly, usually, at 5500 feet or below unless I'm going on a long cross country. There is no reason I should be able to hike with a 20 lb pack on my back at altitudes ranging from 9,200 feet to 13,200 feet without gasping and panting for air. No reason aside from the fact that, three days before our trek, my friend, Chris, and I drove up to Mammoth Lakes and worked and played at 7,600 feet to get our bodies used to the thinner air. The night before the hike we went down to about 4,000 feet at Independence, CA to have easy access to the trail head for an early start.

Trekking Poles

Trekking poles ROCK! They help you use your arms to pull your body up steps, up inclines, across level ground when the legs are tired. They help balance when crossing streams on little stepping stones. They provide extra balance and support for tired legs and knees when climbing down steep inclines and steps. They also double as tent spikes when needed.


If you are like me and don't eat a lot when exercising, and plan to hike from dawn to dusk, pack about 1/3rd of the food you think you need. This will leave you with plenty left over when done with your trek. When you are done and have the finish of the trip made, find a new hiker on their way into the wild and offer them your extra food. Someone will take it and make your pack feel much lighter.

Sleeping At Altitude

It is cold at 10,700 feet at night. Even if the general temperature is significantly higher than it would be on a "standard day", the temp drops significantly when the sun goes down and gets even colder just as the sun peaks over the mountain tops. Bring extra wool socks. Wrap your cold feet in the "emergency blanket" you brought if you are feeling too cold. That works in a pinch. Expect strange dreams and unsettled sleep as your body keeps waking you up to complain about the oxygen you're not breathing. Don't hyperventilate, it wont' help. If possible sleep in a grove of trees or in a sheltered spot so the wind doesn't batter your tent and make you colder. If you happen to have a sunburn you can use the heat from the sunburn to warm your cold hands.

The Sound of the Wind

Gusts at night in the high sierras just sound amazing. They start off as a whisper, then a hiss getting louder, then a whoosh, then a roar and a bang as the gust passes your tent like a freight train. Suddenly the tent is flapping wildly, only to calm again to gentle twitches as you wait for the next gust of wind.

Rods and Cones

If you don't believe what your CFI taught you about rods and cones and the way the night adapted eye cannot see what its directly focused on, try following the motion of a satellite across the sky by looking directly at it at night. You can't. The only way to see that satellite is to look slightly away from it. All of the sudden it will appear. Look at it directly, it will disappear.

Standing at 13,200 feet It Isn't Easy but It's Worth It

Like anything worthwhile in life, reaching the tops of Kearsarge Pass (twice) and Forester Pass was not easy, by any stretch. However, it was totally worth doing and not miserable to do.  I highly recommend it.

What's it like to climb up Forester Pass? Go to the gym. Put on a 20 lb pack. Get on the StairMaster. Set it to random between 50% and maximum grade up and start climbing... for... three... hours. That's where the similarity stops. Here's what's different.

You can stop any time you want for a brief break. You've got your trekking poles to balance you and pull you up. The sights around you are out of this world. The air is sweet and pure and the breeze keeps your body comfortably cool while the sun is comfortably warm. There's usually a creek flowing near by, or an alpine lake sparkling in the rocks, or at the very least amazing vistas of mountains and rocks as far as the eye can see. Every time you stop you can see you've progressed significantly since your last stop. Every time you pause near a large rock you can lean on that rock to take the weight of the pack off your back. And whenever there is a particularly amazing view, you stop a bit longer to take a photo or two and that helps your legs and lungs recover enough to continue on.

After three hours you stand on the knife's edge and peek over the edge of the world. You take off your pack, sit down in the cool breeze, lean back on a comfy rock, and grab a quick lunch. You've accomplished the hard, the difficult, the unlikely and unusual ... and it feels good. Not at all unlike learning how to fly. :)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Smoke and Pop Up IFR

Sunday my daughter and I were flying back to RHV from Willows after a weekend of racing. The enroute forecast reported occasional smoke due to the fires that have been burning around California and Oregon for a couple weeks. I figured the occasional smoke would be either very low to the ground or very high and, either way, being "occasional", not an issue for my flight. My husband was flying another, faster, plane on the same route as well. He took off first, then I did my run up and took off. The sky looked OK from the ground.

On climb out I could see what looked like a wall of smoke, it appeared to start around 3000'. I kept climbing. It looked like I would climb on top of the smoke and be in clear air for the flight. My husband radioed back to say he could still see the ground but there was a lot of smoke. I leveled off at 5500' and it seemed like I was just at the top of the smoke layer. The air in front of me was clear but I could only see the ground looking directly down. The hills to the west were vaguely apparent in the haze and the sun light slanted through the smoke dimly as it set.

Since I couldn't see landmarks ahead of me I practiced my instrument techniques and flew the tracks I programmed into the GPS. The GPS "track" and "desired track" information to guided where I flew. I knew at my altitude I was in no danger of flying into terrain. I was in contact with ATC and under VFR flight following but there were almost no planes flying that night. My husband radioed back to say he was nearing Nut Tree and he couldn't see Mt. Diablo with all of the smoke, or any of the familiar mountain and hill landmarks that we used for flying in the bay area. He was going to stay high until he could see something specific and then descend.

I looked around, the sun was down, the smoke was still thick starting just below my altitude. I couldn't see any landmarks or Mt. Diablo either. I had a decision to make... I could continue the flight VFR (flight visibility met VFR minimums at 5500 feet) and stay high until I could see the mountains and hills. Or I could get a pop up IFR clearance and fly the remainder of the flight IFR. I hadn't flown IFR in that particular plane before, which worried me a bit but I couldn't see the very large landmarks, which worried me even more.

I asked ATC for a pop up clearance to RHV. It was easier than I thought it would be.

Travis Approach, Arrow 55X, with request.
Go head Arrow 55X.
Approach, I need a pop-up IFR clearance to Reid-Hillview.
Arrow 55X, standby.
Brief pause
Arrow 55X, I have your clearance, advise when ready to copy.
I already had "CRAFT" written on my notepad. 
Ready to copy, 55X.
Arrow 55X is cleared to the Reid-Hillview Airport via radar vectors, turn 150 and descend to 5000'. 

I read that back and with that I was "in the system" with ATC helping keep me from flying into any solid objects in the smoke and night. 

I turned to the heading and descended to 5000'. That put me directly into the smoke and true IMC conditions. The good thing was, the air was smooth in the smoke and the winds were consistent so once I dialed in good wind correction angle to stay on the heading I was given I didn't have to adjust it too often. I flew in the smoke for about 15 minutes just taking the headings ATC was giving me and knowing they were flying me east and south. If I had to keep getting vectors they'd probably vector me over the CEDES and then send me in on the approach.

I took my eyes off my scan for a moment every couple minutes and checked outside to see if I could see anything. Eventually the smoke cleared enough after passing the delta that I could see the ground and Mt. Diablo and the hills around the Livermore Valley and Sunol Grade outlined in hazy city lights. That was what I needed to see. I cancelled IFR and turned west towards the Livermore Valley. After crossing the valley I went into the Bay Area proper over the Sunol grade and was cleared to land immediately when I contacted  RHV tower.

After landing my husband met me at the plane. He stayed high as planned and was able to see well enough to descend after he passed the delta. In this case both methods (IFR and VFR) worked just fine. It was a good experience for both of us.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Playing in the Pattern

Its an evolution... a couple short years ago I chafed at being restricted to solo pattern work before I earned my private pilots license. It drove me crazy to not be able to go somewhere, anywhere, but around and around my home airport or to the local practice area to practice Private Pilot PTS maneuvers.

After I got my license I immediately launched on as many cross country trips as I could dream up. On those cross country trips I would have happily flown to whatever destination it was and not landed. I was just happy to be free to explore Northern California and, to be honest, I didn't like landing at new airports. Eventually I found landing at new airports gave me an opportunity to meet new people, see new sights, interact with other pilots and enjoy more of the freedom of flying. Also, the more often I landed at new airports the better I got at it.

Then I started instrument training - only one landing per flight there. I'd spend up to two hours in the air flying approaches and going missed at the MDA or DA, every approach, every time. Landing became something I would laugh at how bad I got... landing after instrument flying was hard for some reason. My CFI told me everyone has that problem. It was weird.

Instrument training over it was time for high performance and complex endorsements. Learning new planes was a lot of fun and I was doing more flying in the pattern again. This time was different however, pattern work was enjoyable, fun even. Then I went on my very long cross country flight, almost 17 hours of solo flying across the desert southwest. Landing at all kinds of strange airports at strange altitudes in unfamiliar air spaces. I expected to be bored flying alone and instead I really enjoyed the alone-ness in flight.

Now I find myself in a bit of a holding pattern waiting to start training for my commercial license. In the mean time I am flying cross country when I can and enjoying flying in the pattern too. When I fly cross country I enjoy the beauty and fun of cross country flight, but I find myself wishing I got to land more often.  So sometimes I just go up and play in the pattern and enjoy landing and honing my skills there. 

Funny how the cycle turns from student pilot wanting nothing more than to get away from the pattern to pilot finding fun in the same pattern, in play.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pushing My Envelope

I've been thinking about doing some aerobatic style training for well over a year now, on and off. I was wanting to do it to get through some of my remaining fears in flying. Fear of large load factors and spins. I've never done a spin and am sure I will never do one by accident because I know how not to stall a plane and how not to be cross controlled. However, if I ever do want to be a CFI spins (more important, spin recovery) is something I'll have to do.  One thing I've learned in my flight training is if I push out past the boundaries of what I'm comfortable with, the boundaries of what I am comfortable with expand.

Extra 300L - 300 HP of pure fun!
Recently I decided it was time to push out the boundaries some more. I will be starting my commercial training some time soon (I hope!) and found myself feeling that little fear again when reading the descriptions of the commercial maneuvers. Frankly, I'm tired of those little fears.

Fear definitely has its place when flying, but not these fears. Time to move past them. What better way to do that than take things to their illogical extreme and do aerobatic flying with an instructor that specializes in that in a plane purpose built for the experience? So I signed up for "Pilot Confidence Training" through Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety. Its a school founded by Sean Tucker, a world famous aerobatic pilot and it happens to be in King City, relatively close to me.

The Short Story

Saturday and Sunday were spent at Tutima. In a brief summary of what I learned:
  1. How much fun it can be to fly a plane designed for power and precision - the Extra 300L. It was incredible!
  2. What scares me doesn't make me sick.
  3. What makes me sick doesn't scare me.
  4. I hated the spin more than I thought I would.
  5. I liked rolls much more than I thought I would.

The Long Story

The standard curriculum has four flights and about 5 hours of ground instruction. We started at 9AM Saturday morning.  The first flight was control exercises like squares, diamonds, circles, wing rocks, dutch rolls, and rudder only turns and stalls. We used a wing over when we had to turn to stay in the box and that was very cool. The wing over was my favorite maneuver. Pitch the plane up to about 45 degrees, put in a little bit of aileron and the plane quickly turned 180 degrees. It's a low load maneuver that lets you turn around really quick. Great for canyon flying if you get stuck the CFI said.
We did all kinds of stalls. Power off and on, accelerated and turning stalls. Slipping and skidding stalls. I didn't feel sick at all until we did a particularly energetic accelerated stall. That got my stomach upset and we had to stopped shortly after that. The stalls didn't scare me, but that one did make me sick. We met back up three hours later for a second flight but the winds were strong and my stomach still wasn't happy. So we decided to meet back up the next morning. Because I live close there was no pressure to do it all in one weekend.

Sunday morning was more control exercises and stalls, controlled stalls, steep turns (no problem doing 60 degree bank in that plane!).  I was feeling good about how well I flew the plane and how I was able to be precise in the control exercises and the steep turns. The controlled stall (this is a thing where you stall the plane and keep it stalled using the rudder to keep the wings level) was really violent. He demonstrated and the plane bucked and kicked until he finally stopped the stall. That really bothered me and I refused to do the controlled stall right then. 
We also did minimum altitude loss stall recovery. I had trouble with that, my responses were slow and sometimes opposite of what they should be. To be honest I lost more altitude than I did on a regular recovery in the same plane ... one time I put the plane into a major dive trying to recover from the stall but I recovered from my recovery the right way - pulled power and pulled out of the dive and then added power again. Its much easier to do a minimum altitude loss recovery in a 172 I've flown for 10s or hundreds of hours than it is in an Extra 300L I've been flying for 0.7 hours.

Then the spin... I figured it couldn't be as bad as I thought it would be, as what I was afraid of. I was wrong. It was worse. We just did one, he demonstrated it. Power off stall then a kick of the left rudder. Quicker than thought the plane suddenly pointed straight down and the world was spinning fast. The entry into the spin and the spin itself was faster and more violent than I expected. I'll be honest..  I just screamed. I guess I didn't panic because I didn't do anything crazy, just screamed. If I didn't know the spin was to the left I wouldn't be able to tell you what direction it was in... everything happened so fast. He stopped the spin in one turn and leveled off. The whole thing probably took less than 5 seconds. I couldn't bring myself to try one right then.

We went ahead and kept flying and did ballistic aileron rolls. Well, actually he did them. I was along for the ride as he demonstrated but I really liked those. Did one left and right and then a "two point" and a "four point" rolls. Those were really cool. Being upside down and sideways in the rolls didn't bother me at all, and it was really fun.  I want to do those myself and will. I imagined what it must look like to watch this silver plane dive and then point straight at the sun and roll over and over on the way back to level. The way the plane could be pointed directly at the sun and keep on flying was just amazing to me. It was like riding a rocket ship!
That was pretty much the end of the flight, the only thing left for us to do from this lesson was more spins and I didn't want to tackle that right away. Turns out it was good time to go back, by the time we were crossing midfield to land I was feeling sick again and was feeling sicker and sicker until I got out of the plane. 
While I expected to complete the full curriculum over the weekend, I didn't. However, I'm signed up as a student there now I can return at any time to continue the spins and the rest of the course. I will too. This is a fear I want to conquer but it will take one little step at a time. Even though I didn't finish everything I intended, I did learn a lot and, on my next flight, definitely felt more confident in the plane I was flying. Just another step on my journey of flying.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Brain Sparkles

I'm studying for the FAA Commercial Written test on my own in hopes I will have that test done before the end of September. No important date in September, I just think that the end of September would be a good time. In any case, I am going through my first pass of the Gleim Commercial test prep book. I am using this first pass to identify which areas I am already strong on and which areas I need to study.

What I'm finding is, I know the knowledge items related to activities I've done recently or often or have integrated into my regular flying. For instance, I did extremely well on flight operations, aeronautical decision making, aircraft performance, density altitude, weight and balance, navigation, charts, en route, climb and descent time, distance, heading, fuel required calculations and aviation weather. I did good-enough-to-pass on aircraft systems and instruments, ATC and airspace. I need to study advanced aerodynamics concepts and brush up on the old aviation weather services.

This makes sense. I've had to use all of the skills and knowledge I have regarding what I would call flight planning often in the last 3 months with my long cross countries and flying various planes at various weights (heavy and light) in various conditions (low and high density altitude for instance). I've had to actually think about climb rates and time and fuel burn during climb vs during cruise, etc. I exercise ADM on every flight. So the skills/knowledge I've used in real life are the ones that I am strong at. 

Aerodynamics concepts, not so much. Not that I don't have a good grasp of aerodynamics, I do. However, I don't have the correct terminology engrained in my brain any more. I haven't had to use it (the terminology) since I studied for my Private written and oral. The nice thing about going back and re-studying these same concepts now after literally hundreds of hours more flight experience, is the concepts have much greater meaning to me now. When I study different aspects of aerodynamics now, I can mentally visualize and feel what I'm reading about in a way I couldn't do two years ago. I have the experience that goes with the concepts today. As I learn and experience, my understanding evolves. Its like peeling an onion and finding more and more different layers of complexity and simplicity at the same time. It is one of the things I love most about flying, the constant learning and how no matter how much you think you know, there is always more to learn.

My daughter said once, "Did you know? When you think, your brain sparkles."

I can feel my brain sparkling right now and it is pretty fun :)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Flying with an Open Door

Since I started flying I've been listening to LiveATC. This site streams live audio from various airports (tower, ground and clearance delivery) and en-route air traffic control facilities like TRACONs. It is a great learning tool to help a new pilot get used to the terminology and cadence of aviation communications. Particularly interesting, sad or funny audio clips are often captured by listeners and posted to the site for later review.

The Hazards of an Open Door

One recording in particular stays in my memory. It is a recording of a pilot taking off from Montgomery Field in San Diego, CA for a flight. He was flying an experimental and all was normal until shortly after take off. Suddenly he reports to the tower in a panicked voice that his canopy was open and he needed to land. The tower cleared him for an immediate landing on whatever runway he wanted. We never hear from him again. The recording goes on with other pilots that were on the approach to that airport offering to try to find the plane and the resulting search. In the end the pilot crashed the plane and died.

I don't know what type of plane the pilot was flying and I don't know if, in that type of plane, a canopy opening is really an emergency situation or something that one can continue to fly on. The thing I do know is, for the planes I fly. An open door is not an emergency situation, the passengers will not fall out and the plane will not fall out of the sky. I resolved a long time ago, probably when I heard that recording, that I would not be a pilot who panics with an open door and dies.

My Open Door

Yesterday I got to test that resolve. My daughter and I were flying back from Columbia, CA to Reid-Hillview in the Arrow. We had just had a fun afternoon eating a fantastic meal at El Jardin Mexican Restaurant, wandering around the little mining town state park and getting some ice cream at a the ice cream parlor with our friend Randy. The density altitude was over 4500 feet when we took off. My recent high altitude and high DA flying definitely came in handy.

Right after take off we heard a loud POP noise. My first thought was I had left the baggage door open, but I hadn't. Katie's door appeared closed, the top was still latched, the plane seemed fine. So I kept climbing out. Then Katie said the bottom of her door was open. I looked near the back of the door and could see from my position about a 1/4 inch of blue sky starting about 1/4 of the way down the door frame all the way to the bottom of the door.

We had two options, return to the airport we just left and close the door or continue the flight. The door seemed secure on the top latch. The plane was flying fine. I knew this was not an emergency. I asked Katie if she was comfortable flying home with the door the way it was. She was, of course. I double checked she had her seat belt on good and tight and kept on course for home. I flew as smooth as possible and enjoyed the extra cool air circulating in the cockpit. Katie fell asleep.

The flight was totally normal until we arrived at RHV. I don't know why but the tower asked me if I would do a short approach. "Unable short approach." I told them. My response was instinctive and immediate. They readjusted whatever their plan was and cleared me for a normal approach and landing. I declined because I didn't want to do any sharp maneuvers with the door open as it was. Especially with my daughter being on the "low side" of the plane for a right pattern short approach which was what they wanted me to do. I knew the way I was flying so far, normal and smooth with no large banks, was working well and I didn't want to find out the hard way if a short approach and the more sudden and steep maneuvering required was a bad idea with an open door. I'll have to ask my CFI about that.

In the End, Just Another Flight

We came in for a normal landing with me putting the plane down on the numbers nicely. Even my daughter said the landing was good. She's become a critic now that she's a landing expert with 4 landings under her belt! Since she asked I let her steer the plane on the taxi back to parking. She even did some flying on the way to Columbia. All in all it was a great day with an uneventful flight with my daughter enjoying flying more now that she's had an opportunity to fly herself. Who could ask for more?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Don't Go By Air

If you absolutely, positively, have to be there... don't go by air. A common joke in the GA community and one that should be taken to heart whenever planning a trip to a place that you need to get to via light airplane. If you really need to get there, especially by a specific time, always have a plan B.

The Plan

In our case we were planning on flying a new-to-us plane from San Jose to Centennial Airport near Denver for the bi-annual family reunion last week. The route was to be similar to the route we flew two years ago. South around the southern Sierras then crossing the Rocky Mountains at either La Veta Pass or near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The plane is a Beech Debonair similar in design to the Beech Bonanza we flew to Centennial two years ago, but a little slower and able to carry a bit less payload. This Debonair was fresh out of annual and my husband had spent almost 4 hours flying it to get acquainted with the plane, none of it in cruise flight aside from brief trips to/from practice areas. This was going to be my first flight in it. While I could legally PIC the plane, being high performance and complex endorsed, I would not be PIC of this flight having not flown a Bonanza in more than straight and level or gentle descending flight and never flown a Debonair. It felt weird not being PIC, especially for a cross country trip, but I suppose my husband should be allowed to be PIC once in a while.

The New Plan

The day of our departure the weather was fine in Northern California but afternoon thunderstorms were building southeast along our planned route of flight and the following day's forecast for the same route seemed worse. The weather briefer suggested going to Reno and staying there for the night and then taking a northern route through Utah and Wyoming into Colorado instead of south towards Needles (one of our possible stopping points for the first leg south) and the rest of our original route into Colorado. "At least Reno has a lot of hotels. Better than being stuck in Needles!" The briefer said.  We also have good friends who live in Reno and liked the idea of having an excuse to visit them. That seemed like a good plan. We were both familiar with the route to Reno so we got into the plane and took off for Reno with no more planning done.

The Flight

I quickly got introduced to the ancient seeming avionics in the plane. They still worked but this was the oldest set of radios I'd ever used. Both of them were labeled COM1 but the top one was COM1 and the bottom was COM2. To switch frequencies we used a three step process. Program the new frequency into the radio not in use, then switch the monitor to that radio and then switch the mike. If you wanted to talk inside the plane you had to switch the radio to intercom.  For someone that is used to radios that have "flip/flops" on each radio and being able to talk inside the plane at all times, this took some getting used to. COM2 had better sound than COM1. I could barely hear what the controllers said on COM1 and we resorted to yelling to each other rather than switching between intercom and radios. Our "system" worked well until the PIC forgot which radio we were talking to ATC on and set the wrong radio to ATIS for Reno. Normally I would have written down the frequencies but I was working very hard at not being PIC and deliberately didn't do some of the things I normally do when I am PIC in order to make sure I knew who was. Looking back this was a mistake. In any case, between the two of us we remembered one recent frequency. We switched to that frequency and then were redirected to the correct frequency.

The PIC asked me to fly the plane as he "worked out some things". We were getting close to the Sierras now and Blue Canyon airport. I was very familiar with the terrain and the route to Reno having flown this same route on my solo cross country adventure less than two months before. I asked him to turn off the auto-pilot so I could get the feel of flying the plane. It seemed reasonably responsive to control inputs and easy to hold in straight and level flight. He kept calculating and recalculating something, but I didn't know what. I did notice we weren't going any faster in ground speed than I did on my prior trip in the 182 and this was supposed to be a faster plane. It was then that I realized that I didn't know what the winds aloft were near Reno. I would know that if I had planned the flight. I didn't like not knowing if our "slow" ground speed was due to winds or something else.  I didn't even know what to expect from this plane as "normal". It turns out our PIC didn't either, but there were other things on his mind.

We were lucky to have smooth air over the Sierras until we started descending for Reno. Lucky for us, if there is one thing my husband is good at is putting a plane where he wants it. We were high coming into the Reno airspace and he was able to easily get the plane down using the gear as an air brake. He was caught a little by surprise by the high ground speed at the high DA airport (Reno is about 5000' elevation) on landing and his hand slipped off the throttle after we landed. He asked me to pull the throttle out as we rolled forward on the runway. I had to quickly determine which of the three "knobs" was the throttle. Fortunately he had already had me work on the mixture during the flight and the blue knob was obviously the prop, so that left only one. I pulled the throttle to idle and the PIC kept control of the plane on the runway and we were good.

The New New Plan

Our friends met us at the airport and we went out to dinner and spent some time hanging out. It was great to have an excuse to spend time with them and we were lucky they were available and had room for us to stay the night. Through dinner and spending time with our friends I could tell something was bothering the PIC. I didn't quite know what it was but something was up. He explained he wasn't sure if the plane was OK for sure. The airspeed seemed off, the oil temperature and pressure didn't behave as he expected on climb out and cruise on the way to Reno. Even accounting for the fact that IAS would be different at higher altitudes than near sea level, something was strange. He was pretty sure the plane would be able to continue the flight but, it was bothering him.

After dinner was over we spent considerable time working out our route to Centennial with plenty of potential stopping places if the weather (or the plane) turned bad. He was still researching what could be going on with the plane when I went upstairs to get some sleep. When I went upstairs I got online and checked for available flights on Southwest Airlines from Reno to Denver. Surprisingly, there were 10 different flights with seats available for the next day. I had credit on Southwest from previous tickets so even the cost seemed attractive.

Exchange between dad and daughter.
He came upstairs finally. I said, "Hey, would you feel any better if I said we could fly commercial?" He looked a bit relieved. "Yeah", he said. "I'm thinking the plane is telling me something and its not happy." Both of us had that instant feeling of "rightness" that comes from making a decision that your gut knows is the right one. We weren't convinced the plane was really having a major issue, but we both felt better not to have to prove it by flying it to Centennial.

Thus we had Plan C. We would all fly to Denver via SWA. My daughter and I would fly directly back to San Jose on SWA when our vacation was done. He would fly back to Reno a week later when his work was done and fly the plane back to home base.

I texted my Dad to let him know about the change in plans. I knew he was worried about us flying out with the weather that was going on and didn't want him to worry any more. My Dad has a PHD in Meteorology so he was not only worried, he was knowledgeable about the weather risks in the late summer monsoon season. This led to an amusing exchange.


Right now, my daughter and I are home safe and sound, the plane is sitting in Reno and my husband is in Denver working. This coming Sunday (or Monday depending on weather) he will fly the plane back to RHV and we'll figure out what the plane was trying to tell us. In the mean time I've learned quite a few lessons from this little adventure:
  • When taking a new plane out for  a long cross country trip, its a good idea to do a short cross country trip, or at least spend some time doing normal cruise flight, before departing. Thus you know what "normal" is. 
  • Even if I'm not PIC, it doesn't hurt for me to do a little PIC-like planning and research on the plane I'm in for a long cross country flight.  For one thing I would be more comfortable and for another I'd be more useful. 
  • And even if I'm not PIC, it doesn't hurt for me to do my normal drill of writing frequencies, knowing the route, etc, etc. for the same reason.
A good pilot is always learning, even when that pilot isn't the PIC :)