Friday, April 27, 2007

Instrument Training Continues

I've only actually been in an airplane once in the last three weeks or so, and probably twice in the last six weeks. I went up on Tuesday to just make sure I remembered how to land, which I did, mostly, so I did five landings and called it an evening. In the mean time, I've had 3 or 4 more simulator lessons, working on navigation, en route planning and transition to approach procedures for IFR flight. This stuff is hard -- there is so much to think about, even straight and level flight is a challenge for me, so adding navigation, radio work, getting ATIS in a timely fashion, transitioning to approach, actually flying the approach, and thinking about the missed approach procedure is pretty overwhelming.

However, in today's lesson, in the last 15 minutes or so I really felt like I got into a rhythm with it a little bit. That was a surprising relief. I think it's all about preparation -- if the radios are set, if you know where you're going and exactly what to do when you get there, then things are OK. The "what to do" section is mostly about the five T's: Turn, Time, Twist, Throttle, Talk. Turn the plane to the appropriate new heading (or, since in many cases you'll be following a course, turn in the general direction of the new course), set the timer, twist the OBS of the nav aid to whatever it needs to be set to, adjust throttle once established on the course, if necessary, and talk to the controller if required. It seems so simple, but it really isn't. At least, not yet.

Transitioning to approach is again all about preparation. Before calling up the approach controller at the destination, you have the five A's (I guess that makes sense, since for you bio geeks out there, A and T are reciprocal): ATIS, Altimeter, Avionics, Approach Briefing, Airspeed. Get the ATIS at the destination, set the altimeter accordingly, [select which approach to use based on the ATIS], set the avionics for the selected approach, brief the approach, and have a plan for when to reduce airspeed. Pretty intense.

Flying the approach is also pretty challenging, at least in the simulator. In VFR flight it doesn't really matter whether you can set up a constant rate of descent to get you to a certain altitude at a certain point. Approaches are exactly that, and since there are almost no references to adjust against, the consistency is important.

So, given my comfort level at the end of today's lesson, John has opted to have us try it out in an actual airplane this coming Tuesday! I'm very excited but I really feel like I need to study, kind of a lot.

By the way, the book we're using is by Peter Dogan; I can't remember the exact title, but so far it is excellent.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Instrument Lesson...In An Airplane!

Today I had an experience bordering on monumental in terms of my flight training. I went with my instructor John on our first instrument flying lesson in an airplane, rather than the simulator. First off, I haven't been in a plane for almost three weeks, and there was a long break before that too so I was not feeling great about my piloting and communication skills. But once I got into the cockpit, once again, it all just came back. I didn't even hesitate on my radio calls -- mostly because I didn't want to, in front of an instructor that had never seen me fly before. I know I'm being evaluated, there's no avoiding that, and in the end it can only help me to be at my best so that the suggestions I get are not things that I already know I should have done.

We took a left Dumbarton departure out toward the coast, and as I was climbing up to altitude, John had me put on the dreaded "view limiting device," also known as the "hood." We then spent the next 1.5 hours doing various maneuvers, including the different patterns that we'd practiced in the simulator. Except for one thing, it was actually much easier in the airplane, but that one thing was rudder control. The turn coordinator was kind of out of whack; the ball was always off to the left no matter what.

It was interesting really experiencing disorientation and vertigo. At least five times through the flight, I would have sworn that the plane was doing one thing, and the instruments disagreed with me (but agreed with each other). Trusting the instruments is truly an effort. Clearly it's worth it. The other really shocking thing was having to land the airplane after taking the hood off at about 400' above the ground on final approach. I felt like I'd been dropped into the cockpit of an airplane on final from some totally unrelated context, like sleeping, or working or something. Just boom: Land this plane, NOW! It's surprising, especially since I knew it was coming; it's not like I couldn't hear the radio calls.

But, my landing was good, as was the rest of my flying. It was really fulfilling; John even complimented me afterwards, saying my flying was excellent, my control of the aircraft on the ground and in the air were excellent. On my landing he even gave me a "nice job" even though I leveled off too high, and my second level-off at the appropriate height was a bit slow -- still, I did land nice and soft, which is the important thing.

It was a great lesson -- exhausting, but a lot of fun, a real workout and the kind of thing I can tell will get at least somewhat easier with time and lots of practice.