Sunday, October 29, 2006

Luck: -1. Experience: +1.

Once again, I've reached into the depths of my bag of luck and made a withdrawal. Tonight I decided to take Nirmala out on a night flight -- it was a really nice night out, and there are a few storms coming through this week so I wanted to get one more flight in the Cessna before not flying for a while.

Things started out a little messy. I accidentally left the passenger headset next to the box of plane keys by the door to the club. I almost left the tail tiedown tied down. And, my flashlight is on its last legs. I probably should've just canceled the flight at that point, but startup went well, and taxi and runup went well, so I went ahead.

We took a left crosswind departure out of San Carlos runway 12, and flew across the bay over Fremont. We did a 180 and came back in toward Palo Alto. Palo Alto gave me a base entry to runway 31, so I took it, and recovered from a high approach to land pretty smoothly. I taxied back, and we were cleared for takeoff so I took off.

Unfortunately, at liftoff, I was only going about 45 knots, way too slow. I pushed the yoke forward, fighting the liftoff forces and trying to gain some speed. I was already in the air, above the runway. At 65 I could do no more, and we were climbing. But why so slowly? I showed normal power, the engine sounded fine, but I was climbing maybe at 200 or 300 feet per minute. I was frightened, but I managed to make about 70 knots and still climbing. I thought about turning back, but I figured that it was just as far to San Carlos as it would be to turn around and get back to Palo Alto. And, I was climbing, just not how I expected to.

I went ahead and switched to San Carlos tower and got a clearance to land straight in to runway 30 -- the winds were calm. I'd made 1000 feet, finally -- it sure took a long time, and the plane would not break 80 knots.

Then I realized.

My flaps were still out. Fully out, 30 degrees of flaps. I just frickin' took off, at night, with a passenger, with full flaps.

I am still reeling from my stupidity; I can't believe I did such a stupid thing as to (a) not clean up the aircraft after coming off the runway, and (b) not check the flaps prior to takeoff. I could've easily entered a low altitude stall, and then we'd have been totally screwed.

My lessons from tonight: 1. Flaps, and the flap switch in the Cessna, are not visible at night. They don't enter your visual scan; you have to make a special effort to think about them. 2. Checklists are your friends. Use them every time, even in the most familiar of circumstances. 3. Even the most friendly, well behaved passengers give you more to think about and make it harder to focus. 4. A Cessna 172SP CAN actually take off and climb with full flaps. Just don't ever, ever do it again.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Piper Archer Checkout Complete!

Two flights, over and out. Interestingly, I needed more than that to complete a Cessna 172SP checkout, and that's coming from a Cessna 172N! Two factors are at play -- for one, this is a classic example of how much more efficient with my time Sergey is than anyone else. He knows my flying, he knows what to look for, and doesn't waste much time. It's very impressive. For another thing, I went into this checkout with a lot of practice, so I didn't have to relearn much in the way of fundamentals.

Today we took off from Palo Alto in 2395V, a nice Archer from the 1980s. I've noticed that the Piper aircraft from the 80s just seem much more solid, in better repair than Cessnas the same age. I mentioned this to Sergey, and he agreed -- basically he attributed the difference to the quality of manufacturing. Very interesting -- I'm starting to think that if I decide to purchase an aircraft, I'd be more comfortable with an older Piper than a Cessna, and the Piper might hold its value a little better. Just an opinion based on limited observations.

Anyway, we went out to Livermore and basically just did a bunch of pattern work, starting with normal landings, which are dirt simple in an Archer, then Sergey pulled the power on me on downwind. I actually was heading for the wrong runway, but Sergey caught me and said, "You've already drifted too far; I don't think you'll make it." I saw my mistake, and immediately turned for the numbers. We had a nice conversation on the way down, basically with me claiming we'd make it and him saying "I don't know..." In the end, we did make it, and it was such a great glide in! I can't describe how nice it feels to fly the Archer; it's so intuitive, it's a real pleasure.

We then did a short field takeoff and landing, a couple of more touch and goes, a no flap landing, one more power off approach, and then a forward slip, which is a lot less scary in a Piper than a Cessna. Once again, while the high wing design may be more inherently stable, the Piper Archer just feels a heck of a lot more stable than the Cessna 172 or SP. I'm not, however, one to choose sides in what has been a heated debate within aviation for years; I really want to be good at both platforms (and others). But I do feel that mastering the Cessna has made me a better pilot, and more able to transition easily to other aircraft.

Anyway, I'm now checked out on the Piper Archer -- oh, one mistake I continue to make is a failure to do a prelanding checklist. This time there was a distraction in that another plane was reporting the same position as us (turns out it was a half mile closer to the airport). But still, that's no excuse.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Man, I Feel Like A Pilot!

There's something about getting into a plane that's totally unfamiliar and finding myself able to fly it that makes me feel like a "real pilot." Today I began getting checked out in the Piper Cherokee with Sergey, my original instructor. For one thing, it was really great to see him again. He went off and joined the airlines, but came back recently to instruct part time. He has such a calming, encouraging presence that even though he's teaching me the whole time, I still feel like a pro.

For another thing, wow, what a really cool feeling to fly the Cherokee! This was a Cherokee Archer, with the 180HP engine. It's interesting, it's like everything's the same, but not really. The first difference that really struck me (other than the wings being low unlike the Cessna, but I knew that) was that there was only one door! I walked around to the left side of the aircraft, and stared blankly at the plane while Sergey explained to me that no, I actually had to climb in the passenger's door.

So after that, we went through the preflight procedures, which are pretty simple with a couple of minor differences. The biggest one was the importance placed on the linkages to the rear stabilator -- "if these go out, you're screwed," as Sergey put it. One nice feature is that the stall horn is testable without sucking on it. Eew, bugs.

We took off from San Carlos from runway 12, and took a Woodside departure as we climbed to 3500'. From there, I just did a few turns and a little light maneuvering as we made our way out over Crystal Springs reservoir and out to the coast. There, we did a couple of steep turns, where I realized how much harder it is to pull and push the yoke than I'm accustomed to, but also how much more stable the plane feels when it's turning. Then we did some slow flight, which was trivially easy compared to the Cessna. The Cessna, compared to the Cherokee, feels like it's constantly about to flip over -- in steep turns, in slow flight, and stalls. Sure, the 172 stalls very friendly, but the Cherokee was in a different world -- Sergey went into a power off stall and held the controls back, and the thing went into a cycle of stalling and recovering all by itself, bucking like a bronco through the air! It just wouldn't drop a wing, it wouldn't go into a full stall.

Then, at my request, we went and did a landing at Half Moon Bay. As you may recall, a few weeks ago I tried to go out to Half Moon Bay and land, but the turbulence scared me away on downwind. Well, it was pretty much the same story here, except this time we actually rode it out. It was amazing how in control I felt, even when we were having the heck kicked out of us by the turbulence. We stayed the course and actually landed on runway 30, then just turned around and took off on 12 and headed back to San Carlos.

We entered the pattern for 12 at San Carlos, and Sergey walked me through a landing. I flared a little high, so he helped me correct for that. The next time through, he let me do it myself. I flared high again, but corrected myself. Both times my turn to final was late and I had to make an adjustment. The third time, I was still late, so the fourth time I paid more attention and flew a proper pattern without the overshoot. All of the landings were quite good!

Hopefully my checkout will be complete in one more flight, which is currently scheduled for Saturday morning. Then, once I check out on the 160HP Cherokee Warrior, I'll have access to most of West Valley's fleet! I think these are enough to keep me busy for the time being, and there's always the greater challenge of the Cessna 182 and the Piper Saratoga for when I get bored!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Much more practice

I went out twice yesterday! The first time was at 1pm out of San Carlos. I went up in 610SP, and did six takeoffs and landings in the pattern. It's interesting -- just because you have your license, doesn't mean this stuff all of a sudden becomes automatic. It's a lot like practicing your swing-out in Lindy Hop; even if you've been dancing for years, you still tweak your swing-out. I don't know if landing is the same way, but so far it sure seems like it.

Anyway, so I think I finally shook off my ground shyness that had set in over the last couple of months of not flying very much. I got my landings to be on the center line. And I learned the hard way that Kaiser is not the same as the AT&T Tower (any SQL pilots reading this are pointing and laughing at me right now).

After that, I went again last night at 7:30pm out of Palo Alto. Sunset was at 6:26pm, so my goal was to go out and do three takeoffs and landings to maintain my night currency. I took 222MF, a really nice plane. It was so nice to do pattern work with nobody else around; while my six landings earlier took 1.3 hours, my four landings at night took only 0.7 hours, with a much, much longer taxi. I did four landings because the first one was kind of flat. The next three were great though, and on the last two I used my soft-field technique with some success.

This week, weather permitting, I'll check out on the Piper Archer. I've never been in a small low-wing aircraft before, so I'm very excited!

And by the way, I'm still lusting after the Diamond DA40-TDI. 5.0 GPH at cruise in a 4-seater! And Jet-A fuel, which is cheaper than 100LL. Trouble is, these aren't sold in the US :-(

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The importance of planning

I took 610SP out of SQL today, and it started out fine -- I decided I'd go out to Tracy, land, and come home. So I got my left crosswind departure, went out over Sunol, and then I realized: I had no plan at all. The GPS would tell me which direction to go, but..where am I? What altitude should I be at? What's the weather like in Tracy? What's my descent pattern? Basically, I got within about 10 miles of Tracy, realized I had no plan, saw how hazy it was, heard at least 4 other planes in the pattern, and decided to turn around and head back.

So I stopped and did a landing at Livermore, which was fine except that I couldn't understand one of the tower's instructions for the life of me (it ended up being "traffic on the runway" which was fairly obvious). Then I came back to San Carlos, landed, and waited 12 minutes behind a dozen other planes to take off again. So, only one more loop around the pattern. The landings were not nearly as good as yesterday, but still decent.

I'll go again tomorrow; either just stay in the pattern or go up with a plan.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A bit to the left

I went out and did some pattern work today. I flew 739TW out of Palo Alto -- a really nice plane! The day was pretty much completely perfect, so I decided to try and land as smoothly as possible. Everything went well, except that every landing was off the centerline to the left. I thought about it later and realized that I hadn't been using my right rudder during the flare -- and certainly left turning tendencies would take effect with a nose high attitude during the flare. So I'm going tomorrow and I'll try some more.