Friday, June 29, 2007

Getting Better

Today's lesson was kind of a landmark. I admit it freely: I was apprehensive about the lesson; it's been a really tough road and while I have the deepest respect for my instructor, we've had our issues with each other at times and I've been pretty frustrated, even to the point of thinking about delaying my training.

Well, today ended up being fantastic. We took off out of PAO as usual, I got my IFR clearance, did my runup, etc as usual, and John complimented me on my readback, which served its intent of helping me relax prior to takeoff. We were sent on our normal route, and climbed up into the clouds at 1500', which was a real thrill, but not as much as popping out of the clouds a couple of hundred feet later into a bright, beautiful sky. WOW! What a phenomenal experience -- I just felt so lucky at that moment, to be one of the few people who can do that (well, almost).

I flew really well; totally relaxed, and the flight was totally smooth. My approach at Salinas was very good, and I remembered to start my time at the final approach fix and my procedures during the missed approach were in the right order, though John handled the radio for me, which was helpful. He also later pointed out that I used the wrong minimum altitude: I'd heard the ATIS say that the active runway was 31, and I even wrote it down, but I didn't connect the dots and realize that I'd need to use the "circle-to-land" minimums since the approach was for runway 13. Ah, well, lessons learned -- this is the advantage of not being afraid to fail. I'm actually learning!

I configured for the approach at Watsonville on the way to the holding pattern at MARNA -- mostly. There's usually plenty of time to do this, but because of shifting winds I had to spend more time on aircraft control, so I got to finish the configuration during the hold, which is something I should practice anyway. The hold itself was a bit sloppy, and John later said (correctly) that it was the worst part of my flight today, but that it was still OK. I just need to review the holding pattern procedures so I know what to do when, and not struggle so much with having to think through every step. Not rocket science, at least not in a piston aircraft!

My approach at Watsonville was good as well. John said I was chasing the needle a little, which may be true, but it was only a little. I had trouble with the radio when getting the clearance into Watsonville; I had trouble with that on Wednesday as well. I think it's just a matter of getting a lot of information quickly, something that will come with practice.

Then came Palo Alto, which was also good, and had the added bonus of charging through a giant cloud in the middle of the approach. It was fun, and we were relaxed enough to joke about it as John grabbed the dash with both hands just as we were about to dive into the cloud, but it actually did distract me enough to put me off course and force me to correct. But I did correct, quickly, so no harm, no foul.

All in all, it was a great flight! I made a few mistakes, but they were mistakes that I can learn from. I am starting to think that maybe I can really do this after all. John has taken my request for more positive reinforcement to heart, and has been doing a great job of it -- today, in particular, there was one moment where I did start getting just the slightest bit tense, and he instantly said, "You're doing great." Just like that, I was calm again; in fact, I only realized that had happened a while later. So, kudos to him for adjusting his approach to something that works for me -- that's the mark of a great instructor.

BTW: here's a link to today's flight. I'm not sure how long that link will work, but it's pretty cool; you can see the approach to SNS, the hold at MARNA (a little racetrack after departing SNS), the approach to WVI and the trip back to PAO.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Update on Instrument Training

I suddenly realized that I haven't been writing here, and it's not been for lack of flying, but more for lack of time to write about it. Also, it's not been the most pleasant experience sometimes. I've basically been taking two training flights a week, doing an approach at Salinas and one at Watsonville each week. I've been really struggling getting the procedural stuff in my head (5 T's, 5 A's, etc). In addition, it's been very hard for me to stay calm in the cockpit, and the tension just makes things worse.

There have been so many factors. For one thing, it's really hard. It's hard to think about what to do at any given point on an approach, it's hard to remember those things as you're passing that point, it's hard to not stress out about the whole thing, it's hard to do all -- or even some -- of these things without compromising control of the aircraft.

The thing is, I can do it. I know I can do it, and John knows I can do it, and in a simulator, I CAN do it. But in the plane, it's a different story. Why? John and I had a talk last week about it, after a lesson in which I was tense through all the approaches and eventually just lost track of what I was supposed to be doing, which is what has been happening. John said I didn't have enough confidence in my own flying, that it was clear that my instincts were generally telling me to do the right things, but that I didn't trust it, and I showed that by hesitating and tensing up. This is basically true, so the question is, what can be done about it? It's not so much that I doubt my ability, it's that I don't know if I'm doing something wrong so I overthink it.

When I was getting my PPL, my instructor Sergey would constantly be saying random positive things: "Nice job." "Beautiful approach!" "Good call" for a radio call. Or sometimes just "Good job, good job.." even if things weren't perfect but just to relax me. After thinking about this last week, I told John about this this morning, and he understood -- it's not about ego or not being able to take criticism, it's about reassurance IN the cockpit environment that things are going OK and I'm not about to kill us. I can take criticism, for sure -- Sergey would criticize too, sometimes to the point where I would have trouble taking it, but he was always very positive about the positive things. So today John tried to be more praiseful in the plane. I think it worked -- it was a great lesson! Not that I did everything right, by any stretch; on the contrary I made more and bigger mistakes than I've made in a while, BUT I kept the radio the whole way, I owned the flight and I felt comfortable making those mistakes. I was more relaxed than I've been in a long time (in a plane). So, I think we're on the right track. We're going to try it again on Friday and hopefully it'll be a similar flight (without the potentially death-inducing errors).

On a side note, last weekend I flew for the first time outside of California. I was visiting relatives in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and I went to NS Aviation at North Perry Airport (KHWO). It was a little weird; there was a big problem since I didn't have proof of insurance with me and had to get AOPA to fax it over, but after a couple of hours I got it sorted out. The instructor, Alan, looked like he was about 19, and when I asked how long he'd been instructing, he said, "2 weeks." Um...O-kay! However, Alan was truly excellent. He had many great suggestions for me, and delivered them in such a way that they were very easy to understand and take in. He grilled me on airspaces and aerodynamic stuff, and we went out and did stalls and steep turns, which was great.

My intent was to fly my cousins' kids around on a subsequent day, but that never happened because of the thunderstorm activity in the area -- not anything I want any part of!