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.