Friday, March 30, 2007

Bay Tours and Instrument Training

The last few weeks haven't seen much time for the skies, which is unfortunate given how absolutely beautiful the weather has been. Two weeks ago I started my instrument training with John Otte. We began work on the simulator and did some basic maneuvering and pattern following, and getting to understand the different "gaits" of an airplane. Basically, it seems that for a given airplane, there is a specific configuration that will yield a certain result. So, an approach descent will occur at a certain RPM and flap setting, reducing the need for guesswork. Pretty handy tool! We also worked on developing my "scan" of the instruments -- basically the idea is to be able to glance at all six instruments at the right time depending on what you're doing to evoke the right response from the airplane and find and correct any errors. It's much, much harder than it sounds.

It was a great first lesson; John is a very good instructor and has a great, relaxed manner about him that keeps me from getting too tense or too down on myself. I had another lesson with him last Friday, where I was too exhausted to do much of anything but we managed to get some good simulator time in anyway before I crashed it into the ground (that's a big advantage of a simulator!), and another one this morning where I felt like I made some major strides in keeping things under control. I actually felt kind of comfortable for a few moments while stabilized in a turn or in straight and level flight, which is a good feeling. We also did some partial panel out work (meaning, some of the instruments are not working), which was a big challenge -- especially holding altitude with no attitude indicator (the trim on the simulator does not work at all like that on a real airplane). So on Tuesday we will be heading into the skies for a flight in an actual airplane!

Speaking of actual airplanes, the last time I flew in one of those was about two weeks ago. On both Saturday and Sunday I went on a bay tour, with two different co-workers. I did the same route each time; the first time was more kind of random and guessworky. I actually very nearly missed my turn toward the west to return home, but saved it by deciding at the right moment to have the GPS locate Tracy Airport, and seeing that I was just flying past it. The second time involved an initial departure toward the coast only to see that it was totally cloudy, so I turned and transitioned back through PAO's airspace and on the same route as the day before, but tighter, since it was more familiar.

It's kind of funny to note my co-workers' responses when I get my pilot face on. Things are official, and important -- the passenger brief is important, and I think for a moment they're not sure if I'm kidding when I explain how the seat belt functions. Hey, it's in the regs! Then when I start talking on the radio I think there's a moment of "Hey, he actually knows what he's doing!" It's pretty fun for me to see that, for people who know me in one context to get to know me in a totally different context. On a day to day level, I'm not really that much of a "take-charge" type of guy, but in the pilot's seat, I'm in command -- it's one of the many things I really enjoy about flying. And there's probably a life lesson in there somewhere, about recognizing appropriate moments to take command of a situation.

Instrument training will resume next week, and I'm hoping to go flying this weekend in the sunshine!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The last six weeks

Prior to this weekend, I flew only once in the last six weeks, thanks to the weather (days of very low visibility, followed by days of rain, followed by my vacation to Mexico, followed by days of rain) and my schedule ( That flight was February 14, and all I did was take a Cessna out into the pattern and do 3 landings, at Palo Alto. The great thing was, the landings were very good, right out of the gate! This was a first, after three weeks off, having my landings not deteriorate at all. So that was exciting.

The next time I flew after that was yesterday. There was some excitement on my way down to San Carlos; as I left home and got on the freeway, I watched as the usual complement of jets made their way in on final approach to SFO's runways 28. One of them was quite far off to the left (from its perspective) out over Highway 101, and banking rather steeply to the right. A moment later I looked again and it had leveled its wings and begun a climb. I watched as it retracted its landing gear. It's always interesting to watch a commercial jet do a go-around; it's a great reminder that it's a good tool for all of us!

When I got to San Carlos, I ran into my alternate instructor from my PPL, and he was going on about an incident he'd seen happen the previous day. Here is a link to the story. Basically according to my instructor, the pilot, an elderly gentleman who's known at SQL for not really being able to see very well, ended up pretty far out on final approach at 100' and hit some power lines. He somehow maintained control, told the tower he'd hit something, did a low pass so the tower could check out his gear, and proceeded to freak out once all the way around the pattern before landing safely with some relatively minor damage to the plane. Crazy stuff! We ended up talking about my approach toward instrument training, and he had a few suggestions for instructors who might suit my style, so I plan to start pursuing that soon.

For the actual flight, I took Warrior N81020 out of San Carlos and just flew down the coast. I was initially going to do some pattern work, but my instructor recommended I take the plane down the coast and enjoy the weather, so I did, and it turned out to be a great suggestion. Actually before I took off, during preflight I noticed that one of the landing gear struts was inflated way more than the other. When I sat in the plane, I was tilted noticeably to the left. I had read the squawk sheet, and it had said the right strut was low -- I guess whoever pumped it up did not hold back, because it was very high now. I got out the POH and looked to see if there was a range of acceptable inflation, or just a minimum. Turns out it was just a minimum, which both sides met, so finally I decided to just go. It was nice to just fly the plane, concentrate on holding altitude, and look out the window. Pattern work is great, but it's a lot of work. This was a nice "it's good to be a pilot" flight. My landing back at SQL would've been fine if the runway were about 5 feet higher. As it was, I dropped it a touch harder than most would prefer. After that, the landing gear struts were nice and even!

I did want to try to work on my landing technique, which, while it may not have suffered after the initial 3 weeks off, seemed to have gone downhill after the subsequent 3 week break. So I went out again today, in N298CA, a 172SP out of PAO. Things were very busy in the PAO pattern, so I asked for a right Dumbarton and instead was granted a right crosswind. "You can ask for that any time," the controller said. How why would I ever want to take a right Dumbarton? It is easier to stay out of SJC's airspace when following the bridge, but really. I took the right crosswind (with a very nice takeoff) and went out to Livermore. They were using runways 7 instead of the usual 25, which was new for me. It was very busy there too, so I did one landing, taxied back and took off again for Palo Alto.

Back at PAO, I ended up doing 3 laps in the pattern. They were long laps as the controller struggled to get many departures out in between each landing. On my final lap, he had me extend my downwind out to Shoreline Amphitheater (which I'd done on the previous lap as well) and proceeded to line up two departures in front of my arrival. I'd slowed down considerably; basically any time my pattern gets extended I slow down as much as I'm comfortable with, usually no more than 80 knots on downwind with 10 degrees of flaps out. As I was on final, the controller decided he would try to get a third plane out. Here's where the new position and hold regulations come into play. He put the plane in position and hold, so I did not have a landing clearance, and here I was on a relatively short final. He said to me, "Cessna 8CA, one more aircraft holding in position for departure." I replied, "8CA, roger," but I must have sounded a bit apprehensive, because his reply was, "It's making me a little uneasy too." By this time I'd already decided that this was a good opportunity to try a short field landing, so my flaps were fully extended and I was at 60 knots. "I'm keeping it real slow," I told him, and he thanked me.

My short field landing was terrible, though I managed to rescue the landing itself for a soft touchdown, but it was time to terminate. Hopefully I'll be getting more practice in more regularly over the next few weeks!