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.