Sunday, February 22, 2015

She Chose Wisely

20 minutes before this picture was taken it was blue skies over Oceano Airport

A "routine" flight on a beautiful winter weekend becomes a bit less than routine when weather intervenes. Last weekend Jeff and I and our friends Kim and Criag and Randy and Karen decided to head to Oceano for Valentine's Day weekend. We all had the weekend off and Monday off, we had time and airplanes were available. Randy made the initial plans and we all agreed to join. Randy and Karen and Craig and Kim flew down Friday evening and Jeff and I flew down the following Saturday evening after my lesson. Saturday evening's show and dinner were great and we were all tired when we got back to the hotel and decided to meet after everyone slept in the next morning for breakfast and then departure back north to RHV.

The next morning I slept as late as I could (8am!) and finally had to get up. I took my shower and made a cup of the hotel room "coffee" which I drank as I walked out to the airport, enjoying the sunny skies and light breeze. I did a quick pre-flight of my plane, loaded a bit of luggage and checked out the spinner on the plane Craig rented. That plane had begun leaking oil out the spinner on the prop and the A&P said it would be best not to fly it back without repair. We were down to two planes and 6 people but between the two planes we had plenty of capacity to fly everyone back.

I checked the tank times and fuel burn rates I recorded for the flight down to determine how much fuel we had left in the plane and how much fuel we would need for the flight back. The Arrow POH doesn't indicate the amount of fuel to allow for engine start or taxi so I assumed two gallons for that activity. Based on my calculations we would need to stop for more fuel if we didn't take on any fuel before takeoff. We wouldn't be able to carry both Craig and Kim with us if we added fuel. That wouldn't a problem however, King City airport was ideally situated and a fond memory for me. That would be my fuel stop.

I thoroughly enjoyed taking care of the plane and preparing for the upcoming flight in the cool morning air and bright sunlight. I think my favorite aviation moments are pre and post flight alone, on the ramp, with the aircraft. Eventually I wandered back to the hotel room where I found the other two couples were awake and ready to eat. Four of us checked out of the hotel and loaded the rest of our luggage into the aircraft. Then we all walked to a nearby diner and had a leisurely breakfast, deciding how we would split Craig and Kim between planes. We decided to put Craig in my plane and Kim in Randy's so we could add fuel to my plane before takeoff and remain within gross weight limits.

With breakfast done four of us went straight to the airport to complete pre-flight and waited for Randy and Karen to check out and grab their luggage. As we waited we watched with growing anxiousness as a very low cloud layer started to approach from the ocean at the West end of the airport property. In 20 minutes the skies went from clear blue to overcast. The last corner of blue sky disappeared just as Randy and Karen arrived with their luggage.

Everyone Else is Doing It

That was it. Conditions went from great VFR to low IFR in less than an hour. I was the only instrument rated pilot out of the four pilots in the group. My husband had just fueled the plane to the point where we couldn't take both Craig and Kim with us so our fates were all tied together. We would have to wait if we were all going to take off.

It was a hard wait.  We stared at the skies and looked for a hole large enough to fit a plane through. We watched as two planes took off into the low clouds and reported the tops were only 600' with clear skies all around the airport. It would be easy to take off and climb through a layer like that. Easy but not legal under visual flight rules (VFR). I doubted the planes that took off actually got an instrument clearance. As an instrument rated pilot it would be a very easy departure for me and just climb through that small cloud layer. I had no doubt I could do it but I decided not to. There was no fire burning at the airport or people threatening us with guns if we didn't take off. We had the day off the next day so no need to push it.

We sat at the airport a while longer, looking at satellite views of the area and hoping for a hole that we could take off through. The hole never came and eventually we gave up and reserved a night in the nearest Motel 6. Reservations made, the six of us turned it into an extra day of vacation by walking on the beach, getting some great BBQ and going out to see a movie.

More Choices

The next morning dawned cloudy again but the ceilings appeared higher than before and we saw hints of blue. I decided over night that I would be leaving by noon, clouds or no clouds. After all, that's what I got my instrument rating for, to depart airports when they were clouded in on otherwise nice weather days. I was ready. The night before I reviewed the rules for departing IFR from a non-towered airport with no takeoff minimums. Basically the rule was the pilot had to maintain their own obstacle clearance.

I developed my own "departure procedure" for the airport - planning to take off over the ocean and climb on a heading of 270 to 2500' before turning North on my route. I filed a flight plan for an 11:30 departure and was ready to go. I could take passenger in addition to my husband. The others would either drive or wait for a hole again.

When we got to the airport there were at least 3 other pilots all staring at the skies, waiting for a hole. Two were instrument rated but they had removed all of the "instrument stuff" from the planes they were flying. A local suggested taking off east and "as long as you clear the mesa at 500', someone could follow your beacon out". The ceilings were definitely higher than the day before, but without any weather reporting I wasn't going to assume that ceiling was actually higher than 500'. As we waited we saw a plane take off east and disappear into the distance. We didn't hear a crash so we assumed he made it.

The local bi-plane pilot started up his engine in preparation for air tours along the beach. That was a good sign, I thought, since he could only do a tour in VFR conditions. I forgot, for the moment, VFR for class G airspace was 1 statue mile and clear of clouds.

I called flight services for a weather briefing for my flight. The briefer said the cloud tops should be 500' in our area and aside from the low clouds on the coastline it was a beautiful VFR day.  I considered once again not getting an instrument clearance on the ground and just taking off and climbing through what should be a few seconds of clouds. It seemed like a lot of work to contact ATC and pick up a clearance, possibly waiting for some time to get a release, just to fly through a hundred feet of cloud. On the other hand, I thought, I hadn't gotten a clearance on the ground at a non-towered airport since my instrument training. I decided it would be good practice for me even if I was only actually in the clouds for a couple seconds.

It was decided that Kim would fly with us and we'd depart IFR as scheduled. Craig would ride with Randy if a hole opened up or rent a car and drive back to meet up with Kim. I let the other waiting pilots know that I'd radio back a clouds and tops report after take off. We watched as the bi-plane pilot loaded up his passengers and taxied towards the end of the runway and then pulled out my plane for start up.

I started up the plane and prepared to taxi to the run-up area. We saw the bi-plane take off and fly out over the water, just under the clouds. The clouds were definitely higher than the previous day. In the run-up area I completed the run-up and then contacted ATC for my instrument clearance. I was cleared as filed and told to wait up to 5 minutes to allow an instrument approach to complete at the nearby San Lois Obispo Airport. The bi-plane did a low pass over the runway and then came back and landed. About the time he landed I was cleared to take off with a clearance void time 3 minutes later.  It was that quick and easy.

We took the runway and climbed straight into the clouds. The bases were about 600' and I stayed on instruments and waited for the tops which I was sure were soon. I contacted ATC when over 1000'. The tops didn't come as quickly as suggested by the briefer. Less than 3 minutes after I took the runway we did break out of the clouds at 1600'.  I continued to climb to 2000' and then turned north direct to the Morro Bay VOR as my flight plan dictated. Once I had a break I radioed back to the pilots waiting in Oceano with the base and top report. I hoped that report that would keep everyone from trying to take off unless they actually were instrument rated. That cloud layer was deep enough that someone could kill themselves if they didn't know what they were doing.

With my rating and clearance it was a non-event but I imagined how stressed I would have been if I had taken off, expecting a 200' cloud layer, finding a much deeper layer and trying to pick up a clearance in the air. I remembered a Raiders of the Lost Ark movie where the ancient knight judged adventurer's selections of the appropriate grail cup. When someone chose poorly they died. When someone chose wisely, they lived. Yes, I thought, I chose wisely.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Advanced Ground Instructor

Keep your friends close and the FAA closer. 
I visited my local FSDO (that's Flight Standards District Office - or you can think of it as the local branch of the FAA) today. I had an appointment at 8:00 AM and all I had to bring with me was my pilot certificate and the original test reports from two written FAA tests, the Fundamentals of Instruction (FOI) and Advanced Ground Instructor (AGI). In order to earn an AGI you have to pass these two written tests with a 70% or more. I earned 96% on the FOI and 97% on the AGI. Definitely qualified according to the FAA. 20 minutes later I walked out the door with a temporary airman certificate for GROUND INSTRUCTOR with an ADVANCED rating.

The FAA has blurry printers too.
In a month or so I'll get a hard card similar to my commercial pilot certificate as my permanent Advanced Ground Instructor certificate. In the meantime I have a paper certificate that will allow me to provide ground training for all certificates and ratings issued under Part 61 in the Federal Aviation Regulations with the exception of ground training related to instrument flying.

Am I going to start teaching ground classes? I'm not planning on it right now. At least not a wholesale private pilot ground school. For a couple reasons: 1) my lesson plans are designed around the idea of a flight immediately re-enforcing what was learned during the ground lesson and, 2) I'm really busy learning how to be a CFI! But this does give me the opportunity to legally charge for the knowledge I've earned over the years and demonstrated by passing those tests. So I will keep my eyes open for opportunities.

It is sorta funny though, when I went to pick up the certificate I was thinking of it as just a formality. But now that I have it, I'm pretty darned proud of what I've accomplished. Yes, there are young men and women who go from no flying to AGI and CFI in 250 hours and its taken me over 4 years and 600 hours of flying and I don't know how many hours of studying to get where I am today, but, I've accomplished a lot and it is great to have another certificate that validates my efforts to date. Not to mention, I want to be a Gold Seal CFI when I get enough experience and to do that you have to have an AGI or IGI certificate!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Bounce Back

"I've failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed." - Michael Jordan

Funny how messages show up in your life when you need them most. This quote was on my phone when I woke up yesterday morning. Which was good, because I was feeling like a failure and expecting to fail again. I was planning on doing the flight my CFI recommended that evening and not sure what result I would get. The only thing I was sure about was, if I sucked as bad as I had previously I would be taking a couple weeks off. The ego could only take so many blows before it had to have a break and my flying ego was pretty battered. 

Before I went out to the airport I heard great news from my husband and bad news about my daughter. My emotions seemed to cancel themselves out when I went out preflight the plane. I went through the process of inspecting and preparing the plane for the flight. It was getting late so I made sure the lights were working too. Preflight always soothes me and focuses my mind on the task at hand. Checklists help with that too. Going through those familiar steps, making sure each is done, helps me center at the worst of times. And, while I wasn't feeling my most confident, I recalled this was far from the worst of times. 

I got some help pushing the heavy plane uphill out of it's parking spot and settled in to the right seat. As I taxied by the "instructors bench", a place where there used to be a bench that flight instructors would sit on as they watched their students on their first solo, I recognized one of the CFIs sitting there. I waved and he waved back. It reminded me of a day, before I got my private certificate, that I was doing pattern work solo and my CFI was in this same plane instructing the CFI sitting at the bench for HIS initial CFI. I smiled. 

I requested a downwind departure and headed for South County airport. I figured if I was going to practice takeoffs and landings I didn't want anyone to see it if it went poorly. I didn't know what to expect on this flight, so I planned to just fly the first pattern as normal and see what happened. I was distracted on the downwind looking for traffic that was in the pattern and forgot to put down the gear until I was abeam the numbers. That threw me off a bit but I came in for a good landing, on the centerline. Which was something I'd been struggling with since I moved to the right seat. 

My next time around also resulted in a nice landing - on the centerline and on the numbers. I noticed I needed to add power on short final as I usually did so I decided I'd see what I needed to do to fix that next time around. I decided to talk through my next pattern and see if I could talk and land at the same time. I did that and on the next pattern I decided instead of reducing power to get on glide slope, I'd be OK with being above glide slope as long as my aim point wasn't moving up or down on the windscreen. I talked about that to myself and found I only had to add a tiny bit of power. 

Next time around I did even more talking, explaining some of the process in addition to the procedure. I was especially careful on final and used my aim point as the primary measure of my glide slope. As I talked and explained to myself why I was doing that I had a very nice stabilized approach all the way down to land on the numbers, didn't have to add any power at all. On the take offs I was more ruthless with myself about the moment of rotation, making sure I didn't rotate until the plane was ready to take off and ensuring I stayed right over the centerline the whole time. Each landing improved over the previous one. I started working on really fine tuning my approaches and being REALLY on the centerline for all of final. 

I did 6 takeoffs and landings at South County and decided to head back to Reid Hillview. It was getting darker and my landings and pattern were almost perfect as far as I could tell. If not perfect, 200% better than the prior two months. When I came into RHV on the straight in approach I used the same procedure to manage my glide slope and landed a very nice commercial grade crosswind landing back at the home airport. 

I was very pleased. I still am. Maybe I am bouncing out of the plateau? Who knows... but that was a major improvement over my previous flights by far. So I'm not canceling my next lesson and I'll find out if I can duplicate the result with my CFI in the plane. At least now I have hope that I can. 

Thanks, Michael Jordan, for explaining how one of the keys to success is failure! 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Woman Pilots - Some Data

The subject of "why are there so few women pilots" came up again this weekend. It comes up every so often and when it does it is usually someone citing data from 2010 saying only 6% of certificated pilots are women.  The roughly 6% number is correct when you look at FAA data for 2013. However, I think that isn't so dire as it appears. Not to say we don't need more women pilots, but bear with me for a discussion on some other data.  This data comes from the FAA Civil Airman Statistics for 2013.

Women as a % of Pilots by Age Group
42% of active pilots as of 2013 are 50 or older. I believe this fact is important because I believe the majority of pilots in this group came from the military. While the military did employ female pilots for some duties, there were far more male military pilots. When these military pilots retired they became the majority of the US civil aviation pilot population. It's no wonder women are such a small portion of the overall pilot population with the head start men have!

If you look at the number of women pilots when you narrow the age groups to under 50, under 40, under 30 and under 20 years old you find the women as a % of the total pilot population goes up.

Women account for 8.2% of the < 50 year old pilot population and that goes up to 13.7% of the < 20 year old population.

Women as a % of Student Pilots by Age Group
If you look at women as a % of student pilots the picture looks even better.

Women count for 12% of the entire student pilot population, thats almost double the 6.6% of the overall population.

We are 12.2% of the under 50 population and 14.6% of the under 20 population. We're 16.7% of the 14-15 year olds that are preparing to solo today! To me that's a great sign. Young women and teens today are not so hesitant to pursue a flying dream.

In fact, comparing these two tables, student pilots to all pilots, it appears women of all ages are pursuing the flying dream at a higher rate than our % of the general population.

It will be a long time before we overcome the effect of the military pilot surge and the general inertia of the "flying is not a job for women" bias of the early and middle 20th century. But I believe the tide is shifting. We need to work to continue that shift.

The thing I don't have data on, and I think I may have to contact the FAA to get it is, what % of women student pilots actually finish their private pilot training and earn their certificates compared to male students. My flight instructor, who's been instructing for 15 years now, says a much lower % of women finish than men in his experience. Do we learn differently? Do we need more support? More flexibility? Is he bad at training women? (I don't think so) It's a little project I'll do at some point - probably once I've finished my CFI training.

The Plateau

On the Way to Forester Pass > 13,000'.
The pass seems a long, long way away
pla-teau (n)
1. an area of relatively high ground
2. a state of little or no change following a period of activity or progress

Learning Plateau “…in learning motor skills, a leveling-off process, or a plateau, is normal, and can be expected after an initial period of rapid improvement. ...  If the student is aware of this learning plateau, frustration may be lessened.”

Who'd-a-thunk-it?... Learning plateaus are not unique to aspiring private pilots, or instrument pilots or commercial pilots, even aspiring flight instructors can experience them. I've had my share of learning plateaus, especially in flight training. Is it any surprise I'd have one in my training to become a CFI?

The last month or so has been rough... my training progress has stalled. The new methods my CFI is using to help me remove the emotion from my errors have worked, so I'm not beating myself up so much for individual flying problems. I'm sure getting good at diagnosing what I'm doing wrong, but I am no closer to flying the way I need to than I was a month ago, in some respects I feel like I'm going backward. Motivation near an all time low, finding excuses to not write my lesson plans, not preparing for lessons and hoping flying lessons would get cancelled. Classic symptoms of a plateau, the worst I've experienced to date. Of course I didn't recognize them.

It took a chat with my CFI yesterday, sharing my frustration and some of the outlying, unrelated,  issues that have been bothering me to recognize it for what it is. Of course he says, "The lesson within the lesson.... You're experiencing a learning plateau." And, like you read in the magazines, blogs, and the Aviation Instructor's Handbook, knowing what I'm experiencing is normal and not some indication saying I'll never be a CFI is good. It helps reduce the angst and doubt. Remembering my past plateaus and that they all ended helps. It doesn't help that I have other unrelated issues bothering me... but talking about those helped too. One thing my CFI said that I like. He recognized my level of determination, even at this stage of frustration and disillusionment. He says I practically ooze determination.

I don't know if my plateau will end sooner or later. I sure hope its sooner! If it's not at least I know I have the determination, I call it stubbornness, to continue. As my brother said once, passionate people keep going when reasonable people would stop. I'm nothing if not passionate about aviation.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


Leaving the flight club today I was finally able to pinpoint a change in my relationship with one of my favorite haunts, the flight club. Since I started flying in 2010 the "pilots lounge" in the club has been my informal hang out. Where I would go because I wanted to get away and spend time with other like minded pilots - or at least if they weren't like minded, at least they were usually pilots so we had something in common. I'd hang out in the club or park myself at one of the tables on the patio so I could watch planes take off over the hangar next to ours and observe the sights and sounds of an airport. The club was an escape to my happy, flying place.

Over a year ago now, the club's owner approached me to help with the club. He saw my passion for flying and love of the club and thought it would be good to leverage that to keep the club going and maybe even growing. The club was stagnant for a long time because he had little time or desire to do more than keep the lights on. So, I agreed to start helping out in a more formal fashion after I finished my commercial rating last year. I've been doing that and, I believe, making a small difference in the club.

A couple months ago a series of events got me to the point where I decided a more major change needed to be made for the good of the club and its members. We needed to get the CFI's at the club talking to each other, leveraging each other's skills for the benefits of their students (our club members) and following basic operating procedures (procedures many of them don't know because no one told them). So I lobbied the club owner and finally got permission to hold a mandatory CFI meeting.

I sent out the word last week about these meetings, the CFIs have to come, and now I'm formally a "club manager". Not that it means I get paid, but it gives me a certain level of power I suppose, and because I am who I am, a lot more responsibility. I noticed in the month that I've been working on the contents for the mandatory meeting, running it past all of the appropriate people, etc. that I'm not so happy to be at the club any more. It is no longer my escape. When I'm tired, which I have been a lot of the time recently, I want to leave there quickly rather than hang out, like I used to.

So it is sad for me... to have lost my happy place in exchange for the responsibility of making it a happier place for the club members. Maybe it doesn't have to be that way. Maybe I can eventually make real improvements that can make being there a joy for all. That's what I'm trying to do anyway.

This realization made me determined to spend a bit more deliberate "me" time running with my close friends. That will re-charge me for the time I spend at the club doing "club stuff". Not to mention I have found I need to do some non-training flights once in a while to remind myself what I'm doing all of the training I'm doing for.... to have a chance to introduce others to the magic of flight.

So much to do... so little time. But if I ask myself would I rather be doing something else, the answer is No. Yes, I wish it was easier and I wish I wasn't fighting so much inertia, but I am not at the point that I don't want to do it. I believe the effort can be worth it. I'm not 100% the effort will pay off, but I'm willing to keep working at it, and, if it doesn't work out here, it sure is great experience for later!