Saturday, February 22, 2014

Its Hard to Fly

I found out today how hard it is to fly with tears in your eyes and a throat choked by emotion. It is possible, but it is not easy and I wouldn't recommend it. As a matter of fact, next time, if there is a next time, I have to fly to a check ride I think I'll bring another pilot. Just in case.

I was hoping by now to be a newly minted commercial pilot. Instead, right now I feel like a newly minted two time failure. I did my Commercial Check Ride on Feb 20. Just as planned. The ride, the oral, the preflight, briefing, slow flight, stalls of all types, performance maneuvers (we did lazy 8s and steep spirals), emergency decent, simulated emergency (engine fire was chosen), ground reference maneuvers, specialty take offs and landings, go arounds were all great. Right up til I had to do a power off 180 and ended up going long. It was the second to last maneuver, and I blew it. I did a go around, which the DPE said was the right choice, but I failed because a Power Off 180 is supposed to simulate an engine failure, so there is no "go around and do it over" for that maneuver.

Even after I failed the check ride I flew the plane back to RHV and, when I was told to do a short field landing and put it on the numbers I put the plane exactly in the middle of the numbers. In spite of being upset. The DPE was just as sad as I was about me failing it seemed. I was bummed but very happy with my performance for the rest of the flight so I figured I would fix my problem and pass next time.

So today, I went back up again, to do one maneuver and pass the check ride and earn my commercial license. Just the Power Off 180. I rented the plane for the day and practiced power off 180s at three different airports, ending at the airport that I'd be doing the test at, South County. At each airport I did a power off 180 well within spec. I did it on my first try at South County. I parked the plane for a couple hours and spent time with my friends. I met up with the DPE, did the required paperwork, paid the retest fee and off we went.

Take off, climb upwind to pattern altitude, turn cross wind, turn downwind, pull power abeam the numbers, glide to a landing, short. 20' short of the threshold. Failed again. Taxi back, get a second notice of disapproval in 3 days. Ask the DPE how many times people are allowed to fail before they can't try anymore. He said he didn't know of any limits. The lady working at the front desk of the FBO was sad for me. Some guy walked out of the FBO and saw me with the DPE and said "Success?" and I said "No." "Oh... " and he walked away. The DPE shook my hand, said to let him know as soon as I was ready to go and he'd work with me to get this done ASAP. He was very encouraging.

I left a voice mail for my CFI with the news, texted my friends who were all waiting for the good news and watched the DPE fly away in his plane. Then I had to fly myself back to RHV. The FBO was closed for the day so I sat on the bench and refocused on the task at hand. I figured I should get back before it got later and more dusky and, therefore, harder to land. I shut down my phone for the trip so I could focus and not have to listen to text messages come in.

Waiting to take off from E16. Headed home.
I was alone now. I pulled the plane out from its parking place so I wouldn't get the cars parked behind it sand blasted with the prop wash. I sat down in the plane and closed the door. Then I used the checklist to ground me into the moment. As I went through the checklist I was able to forget, just then, what happened. I started the engine easily (hot starts are hard in that plane but I have a trick). Then taxied to the run up area. After I did the run-up, using the checklist to center me, I had to sit and wait for two twin engine planes and an experimental to land. That allowed me to think again.

I decided to prove to myself I can still fly to commercial standards and set the flaps for 25 degrees. When the three planes landed I announced my intentions in a choked voice and took the runway for a soft field takeoff. I executed it almost perfectly, I probably let the plane come up about 2 feet higher than perfect, but it was very good. Even better than my check ride. I was flying again and I was able to forget until I leveled off and got the weather for RHV. Then I had a couple minutes to think.

I loaded the instrument 31R Zulu GPS approach for RHV into the GPS and practiced intercepting and tracking the final approach course to keep my mind busy. I hadn't done that in a while but the old skill came back easily. It was getting dusky/hazy at my home airport and the extra GPS info was nice to line me up perfectly with the runway.

I was cleared to land and landed well in spite of the haze. I didn't worry about doing any "special" landing that time, I just landed. But it was good, light and on the center line. That's one thing that comes naturally for me now, after years of practice, I land on the center line almost every time. The tower switched me to ground and I pulled clear of 31R and did my after landing checklist carefully. I switched to ground and taxied back to Squadron2 hoping no one would be there to see my face and ask "Success?".

After I finished shutting down the plane and carefully putting it away and making sure I had everything together I went into the club. A pilot I vaguely recognized was there checking out the plane. He saw the look on my face and said nothing. We ended up chatting briefly about his planned flight. He was flying down to Van Nuys. I told him how nice Bob Hoover Aviation at that airport. That was the FBO I visited last summer. That's where he was going. It was good to talk about flying in general. It reminded me why I'm doing this.

Tomorrow I'm going to fly. Not to practice, just to fly. I'll go with my daughter and my friend and fly to Castle Air Force Base. There is an awesome air museum there that I haven't seen in 4 years. It will be good to just fly and, once again, remind myself of why I'm doing this. I need some extra motivation to keep going.

It will be very hard to face my CFI, and all of the people at the flight club that know me, they almost all do because I'm always there flying. It is a blow to the ego to fail a check ride, it is a huge blow to the ego to fail twice. And now I'll be facing the question over and over from people wanting to know how my check ride went.

I know eventually I'll look back on this as a valuable lesson. Eventually I'll probably be one of the best power off 180 accuracy landing pilots around. But right now, it is very, very, hard. It's hard to even imagine a path forward from where I sit. I'll sleep on it and hopefully tomorrow, I will be ready to move on.

Monday, February 17, 2014

I Can Feel It

I hear the strains of that Phil Collins song, In the Air Tonight, drifting through my head when I say that. "I can feel it." In this case I'm not feeling something coming through the night though... I feel the end is near :) The end of this phase of my flying adventure. The end of my pursuit of my commercial rating is near.

My ride is confirmed for this Thursday, February 20. I've put together three good flights after three bad flights. I've grown used to the new engine, propeller and propeller governor in the plane that I've flown for the majority of my commercial training. The weather is looking promising.

Yes, the end of my pursuit for this particular rating is near. All I have to do to ensure the pursuit ends successfully is study, fly, remain calm, and do my best to demonstrate my knowledge, good judgement, finesse, professionalism, and mastery of the airplane to the DPE. I can feel it. I can do it. Soon!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Planning a Spring Adventure

I'm planning a flight this spring to the Minneapolis area to meet up with my brother Chris. Then I'll fly with Chris to Idaho Falls to meet with my other brother, Rob. Chris would fly himself back from Idaho Falls to MSP commercial and I would continue back home directly from Idaho Falls. I'm allowing myself three days of travel time to get to the Minneapolis area, two days of travel time to get from Minneapolis to Idaho Falls and two days for Idaho Falls to CA. I know it can be done quicker, even in the Cessna 182 I'm planning to fly, but I am allowing for diversions and Murphy's Law in my planning.

The rough route I'm thinking of right now can be found at the link below. I hope to visit my friend near Salt Lake City on the way out to Minneapolis this time. After I cross the mountains east of Salt Lake City I'll be flying in what I call "the land of the great flat". This will be my first flight as PIC east of the Rockies. Chris and I will be flying near Devil's Tower in Wyoming and around the Grand Tetons in Idaho on the way to see Rob. I'll find a CFI in Idaho Falls to do a quick familiarization flight with the Grand Tetons before I try to tackle those mountains directly.

Flight Plan at

I've been researching general weather trends in both the midwest and Idaho for that time of year and it seems to me there's a 50/50 chance of being able to make this full trip in any specific week in the spring and probably a 75% chance of being able to make the Idaho / CA only trek. Aside from early spring thunderstorms, late winter blizzards and lower freezing levels than I am accustomed to, I wonder what other potential adventures await!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Weather Does What it Does

Weather strikes. We have a very wet system coming to the Bay Area this weekend. Originally I was hoping the storm would start late Saturday, after my check ride. However, forecasts have been trending generally worse and worse for that prospect. Today I contacted the DPE to reschedule the ride. My new date will be either the 20th or 26th. I'm going to make sure to use this delay to my advantage!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Confidence at a Low Ebb

I forgot to mention to you all. My check ride is scheduled for February 8, this coming Saturday. In general I have what I've come to expect for my pre-check ride state. I've proven I can fly all maneuvers and perform all tasks to spec. I've passed my CFI's oral testing. Got the written test done with a great result. As usual, we are both confident in my ability to pass the oral. We both know I can pass the flight portion of the test, the question is only if I will.

This is where the confidence comes in. It's been a couple weeks since I've had a really good flight where I did well on all maneuvers. The mock check ride we did before scheduling my ride I was not having my best day at all and would have failed on 3 of the maneuvers we flew. I try to look at that positively and consider if I'm not having a good day I did all but 3 to spec, I should expect if I have a good day I should do well enough on all of them.

How does one ensure they will do well on something? They practice doing the something. A LOT. That was my intention. Last week I was out of town for three days, and then the plane I usually fly was scheduled down for maintenance for 3 days. It was supposed to be back on the line last Friday. I scheduled the plane for a flight Friday, two Saturday (one solo and one with CFI) and one Sunday. Then Friday rolls around, not only is the plane not back on the line, it was taken off the schedule until next Wednesday. Only three days before my ride.

The other Arrow at the club with similar wings and characteristics was out for the weekend, leaving an Arrow with shorter wingspan and lighter weight that I've never flown before. I went up with my CFI in this different Arrow and he summed it up this way, "You flew like you hadn't flown in a week and you're in a plane you've never flown before." In other words, it was not a good flight. Two hours we spent and the main thing I learned is I screwed myself by trying to visualize and walk through lazy 8s while out of town. I was doing it wrong on the ground and translated that to the air. It took a lot to break me of the habit that I created for myself - visualization is a powerful thing, use it wisely! By the fourth and last landing I finally had that dialed back in. However, I left feeling very down. My CFI advised I fly as much as I can before my check ride. I think that just might be a good idea!

Next problem, work has become crazy, as I expected. As I type this I'm flying back up to Seattle for a day of work (via SWA, not Arrow!). I'll be back tomorrow (Monday) around 11PM. I should be able to squeeze in a flight Tuesday afternoon in the Arrow that has similar characteristics to the one I'm used to flying. Wednesday I'm booked all day but I might be able to get in a flight before dark in the plane that I am used to flying, 55X. If it is done as promised. Thursday is impossible. Friday I'm scheduled for one more flight with my CFI in 55X.

Of course, to add to the tension, the weather patterns are changing. The incredibly great flying weather we had almost all of January is breaking down. Good for the state's water supply, I hope. Potentially troublesome for me. The weather is predicted to be OK for the work week but what might be an actual storm is forecast for the weekend. If there's one thing I've learned since I've started flying its forecasts are rarely right. So I'm trying not to give that too much worry, but I'm not being very successful.

I just hope that I can get in at least one good flight before my check ride. I want that so I can go into the check ride with greater confidence than I have now. I guess if I don't get one I'll have to try to look at it like getting out all of my mistakes before the ride. I normally do have one bad flight before a ride and that's the way I try to frame it. Unfortunately, this time most of my flying has seemed subpar recently. I really want to break that trend before I go up with a DPE.

Anyway, my friends, wish me luck, good weather, a fully functional plane, good studying, and good flying if you are so inclined. I'll need it these next 7 days if I'm going to pass my check ride this coming weekend!