Winter flight training

Well, I thought doing my primary training in the winter would be a good idea.  Colder air means lower density altitude (more lift, shorter takeoff runs), not as many student pilots since school is in session, and not as much sweat in the cockpit.  Well, not from heat anyway…  stress still does its job.  The problem so far has been extremely variable weather.  One day it’s “severe clear”, not a cloud in the sky and visibility almost unlimited.  The next (like today) it’s low ceilings, snow, wind, temps below 10 degrees or some combination.

It looks like tomorrow is supposed to be a good clear day after today’s snow.  I’m going to try for a lesson tomorrow, and talk to my CFI about how much notice he wants.  Yesterday would have been a perfect day for flying, but I didn’t want to call him at noon on Sunday and say, “Hey, let’s go fly – right now”.  If I find out he’s OK with that, though, I’m not going to hesitate in the future.  At any rate I’ll get done what I can, when I can.  Waiting for summer isn’t really an option I’m willing to go with.  I’ve had two false starts, I don’t want to bump that number up again.

Cell phone troubles

Well, the other day I pulled my 14 month old Droid 2 Global from my pocket, and found it powered off.  That’s unusual.  What was worse, it wouldn’t boot — I got a text bootloader screen telling me the battery was too low to load code.  Not good.  Figuring the battery had croaked, I ordered a new one ($3 or so eBay special).  Unfortunately, it seems the problem runs deeper.  The phone won’t charge the battery regardless of how I try it, and the new battery didn’t last long enough to load a firmware image from my PC.  I believe the phone is now expensive scrap.

So off to the Verizon store I went. I’ll spare the details, but suffice it to say that I left there, as usual, with no working phone and a serious intent to just cancel ALL our Verizon service.  Seriously, where do they find these worthless little retards?  A call to their customer service line was a complete waste of time…  I ended up finding out that their phone reps have to use a web site that sucks even worse than the consumer site (quite a tall order) and it’s actually cheaper to just use the web site.  Sigh…

After wasting most of a day on this — well, more than a day, since I’d spent several hours on it before today — I have a new Droid 3 on the way, at zero cost, with a vehicle mount and the desk charging dock.  I just had to go somewhere other than Verizon.  I found a place on eBay with a killer upgrade deal, did a little research, found out they were legitimate and that, in fact, even NewEgg uses them.  So I went through NewEgg, since I have more confidence in their ability and willingness to strong-arm a vendor if they don’t deliver.

Now, why I have to jump through so many hoops and do so much work for the exact same end result is beyond me.  In the end I get a brand new Verizon phone, and a new extension of my existing Verizon service.  Just like if I’d done it in 10 minutes at the Verizon store.  The only difference is that NewEgg and the company they use are both making money — and Verizon isn’t.  In fact, as far as I can tell Verizon is making a few hundred dollars less than if they’d just sold me the phone in the first place.  It’s beyond stupid.

In the end I get a new phone, but I’m about 50% less satisfied with VZW than I was before.  So much so, in fact, that I plan to see if I can get my phone to work on AT&T and T-Mobile networks (there is a way) so I can try out prepaid SIM cards from them and see if they suck less.  Maybe, maybe not…  but VZW has really gotten to be a pain in the ass to deal with.

On top of all this,  we were supposed to fly today but it’s too damn cold.  Oh well.

Back in the saddle – at last!

Well, after a few days of weather-induced delays, I finally got in a training flight yesterday.  Hey, it’s only been 9-1/2 years since my last flight! No matter that no CFI who has ever flown with me is still a CFI… and who cares if half the planes I have flown are no longer flying?

So I preflighted N5533F, tucked my new CFI (John) into the right seat and off we went. I was able to taxi much better than I remembered doing before. This was my first time flying from a tower controlled airport — Eppley (KOMA) instead of Millard (KMLE) where I’ve flown before, so I got to put my ground school self-study knowledge to work. We got taxi clearance and I was able to follow the signs and tell John (before he asked) where we’d be stopping, and why. Cleared for 14L, and up we went… after a little veering and white knuckles. Let’s say it was not my smoothest takeoff, and that stall warning light will definitely get your attention, but we got off the ground and out of the area.

The weather was not the best. 6 mile vis, overcast at 3500 AGL so we stayed under 3000 (2000 or so AGL). Flew up to a practice area and did some basic maneuvers, and after getting over the initial jitters I was pretty comfortable. I had forgotten how much flying a Cherokee feels like piloting a soda can in the ocean. I did OK, though, especially holding altitude in turns and such. The ceiling was dropping and visibility was getting noticeably shorter, so we headed back. John took the yoke on the base leg because by now the crosswind was a bit more than he thought I was ready for.

I have two previous training flights in the log book — one from 1999, and one in 2002. Hopefully now that some of the pre-emptive priorities are not as big a factor, I’ll be able to get scheduled regularly and finish up soon. John’s feedback during the post-flight debrief was that he thought I’d be ready to solo in a pretty short time. On the next flight we’ll likely go up to Blair (KBTA) and do some touch-and-gos.

While I was not able to meet my goal of doing an unassisted landing on today’s flight, at least I was prepared for the sight picture on approach and knew what to expect — John just felt that it wasn’t a good day for me to make my first landing. The other two times I lost confidence on final and asked the CFI to do it. I hadn’t done an approach in a small plane before; airliners come in with a significantly nose-high attitude, and it kind of freaked me out to point the nose at the runway and fly it into the ground. This time I was ready for it, and even was able to watch the PAPI lights and know we were a little low and needed power. But… I’m confident I’ll be able to bring it in all the way on the next flight.

Bloody Wx

Had a training flight scheduled for this morning, but of course weather moved in overnight and it’s not going to happen.  With ceilings at 1200-1500 AGL, it’s not exactly a good day for primary training.  Instrument training, maybe…  or maybe not, depending on icing conditions.  So…  time to re-schedule, I guess.  Wish I’d have set it up for yesterday!

Back in the saddle… almost

Today I went down the Eppley (KOMA) to meet with the chief pilot of Flight Nebraska Group.  I had never been on the GA side of Ellpey before.  I found out that Elliot Aviation sold out to Signature a few months ago, so now we’ll have an overpriced FBO if we need it.  :)  The Tac Air FBO (where FNG is also located) is really nice, especially compared to a couple of much smaller places I have visited.  That’s really not so much a factor, since it’s not like I’ll be bumming around there a lot.  But, if you have to be somewhere, you may as well be somewhere nice.

The overcast was too low for flying, but we had a good long chat covering a lot of ground.  We discussed FNG and their operations and aircraft, my goals for training, safety, war stories, general hangar talk.  Looks like a good bunch of people, so I have a lesson scheduled for next Tuesday morning – weather permitting.

It’s time.


Ground schoolin’

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working steadily on ground school for my pilot license.  The first observation I have is…  there is a LOT of stuff to learn and remember!  I have heard of 3-day and 1-week ground schools.  I cannot understand how someone could learn everything needed, with adequate retention, from a short school such as that.  It’s not like this is a license exam for Amateur Radio, where you can have all of your books and reference materials on hand while operating.  You’ve got to remember all of the information needed for flying while in the air, making immediate decisions.  I’m sure I could “exam cram” and pass the knowledge test in a few days, but I’d prefer to take long enough to learn the material in a way that I’ll be able to retain it well past the exam.

Some of the stuff I knew from my childhood, when I learned a lot about how airplanes fly, how airfoils work, etc.  A lot of the information is what I think of as “learnable”.  Things like pressure altitude, density altitude, radio procedures, etc are just new skills and science that needs to be learned.  Some of it, though, will just require rote memorization.  VFR minimums, for example, have no real “rules” that can be learned and applied – there’s just a chart of rules that needs to be memorized in order to pass the exam.  That, for me, is the tough part.  It’s made a little easier for me by taking my time.  I can study the VFR minimums chart, then as I look outside I can quiz myself on whether it’s VFR conditions or not, why or why not, and so on.

I know this isn’t the fastest way to do it, but I’m not paying instructor time yet and I’d rather know it than just remember it long enough to pass the knowledge test.


Lessons learned, sometimes the hard way

It was getting on toward lunch time, and the weather was perfect for flying other than a pretty stiff breeze.  My boss and friend, an experienced pilot, grabbed me and said, “Hey, this place is driving me nuts.  Let’s go rent a plane and go fly.”  How could I resist?

My friend (I’ll call him Joe) has flown a lot.  His colorful history includes time as a commercial pilot doing courier runs, ferrying various aircraft of questionable history and condition, instrument rating, multi-engine, high performance, and even some stick time in a P51 Mustang.  He’s had his share of close calls and rough landings in airplanes that probably shouldn’t have been flown at all.  To say that his flying skills are above average would probably be a dramatic understatement.

So, off we went to the local airport, where we rented the only plane they had available at the time — a well worn early 1960s vintage Cessna 172 that has seen a lot of use as a trainer.  I wasn’t that impressed with the general condition of the plane, but it checked out OK on preflight.  Being a non-pilot and really knowing nearly nothing about the instruments and equipment, I scanned the instrument panel looking for clues.  OK, there’s a COM (VHF communication) radio, there’s a NAV (navigation) receiver, backup COM and NAV…  “Hey, Joe, what’s that one?”, I asked.  “Oh…  GPS.  We won’t need it today”, he replied.  “OK, how about that one?”  “No idea.  Looks like they use this as an instrument trainer, but we won’t need any of that stuff today, we’ll just tool around a little while.”

Startup and the first few yards of taxi were uneventful.  As we turned onto the taxiway, Joe said, “Huh.  That’s weird.  Look at that — the yoke just flopped to the left”.  He centered the yoke, let it go, and it again flopped to the left.  After some discussion, we decide it was probably just the left quartering crosswind catching the aileron and flipping it down.  No big deal.  Run-up was also uneventful, except now the yoke wanted to flop to the right.  Well, we had turned almost 180 degrees, so maybe that was just crosswind too.

Joe got us out lined up on the runway, and we took off.  About five seconds later I heard in my headset, “We missed something on preflight.  The rudder is pinned or something, I have no controls.”  I looked over saw that Joe with a very worried look, holding full left rudder and full left aileron, and we were still beginning a lazy roll to the right — at 50′ AGL and right toward a hangar.  Joe fought the controls as I desperately looked for a stuck flap, hung aileron, something that would explain the problem…  not that there would be anything we could do to correct it until after impact.  Nothing was visibly wrong, though, so there was no real explanation as to why we seemed about to barrel roll a 172 into a hangar.

Joe took the time to thumb the PTT and announce that we had a problem and would be returning immediately.  I was looking for a soft place to hit…  and there was no immediate candidate.  I thought of the tanks of aviation gas just above my head and developed an instant dislike of high wing aircraft.  I decided that, since my life insurance was current and my family would be OK financially, I could just hope for a hard impact to get it over quickly.  I expected Joe to do a 180 and land downwind, but he managed to wrestle the balky aircraft into a wide left turn and make the downwind leg — where he immediately had to apply full right rudder and aileron.  Things were not looking promising in the slightest.  Clawing for altitude, the plane was dangerously uncooperative and neither of us honestly expected to walk away from the flight.  We turned onto the base leg and saw the Beech Bonanza on the run-up pad, and given the difficulty of controlling the 172 Joe told me to get ready for a very rough grass landing to the left of the paved runway.  He did manage to get it on the pavement, though, and in one piece.  We got it onto the taxiway — I didn’t know about Joe, but I was shaking a little.  Maybe more than a little.

After some examination on the parking pad, we discovered that the mystery box on the instrument panel was an autopilot (how Joe failed to recognize that will always be a mystery to me, I think it was a run of the mill Bendix/King KAP-140).  It was set for a heading of 240 degrees, as I recall, and the active runway that day was 12.  The confusing part was — I had, at Joe’s direction, turned that box OFF before we took off.  So we did what any reasonable engineering types would do.  We pulled the breaker, verified that it wouldn’t turn on again, and took off again without incident.  I later heard that Joe spoke (frankly and enthusiastically, I am told) with the FBO and found that the plane had just been returned from having some avionics work done.  Whether that autopilot was malfunctioning then or not, I’ll probably never know.  I do know it was trying its damnedest to make a turn to heading 240.

So that’s the adventure story.  And for several years it was for me just that – an adventure story, and an illustration of Joe’s flying ability.  I suspect that if the same thing happened to me, or many other pilots, it would have resulted in a crashed airplane and potentially worse.  But lately I have re-evaluated the experience to look for lessons to be learned.

  1. The first lesson: never, under any circumstances, fly anything unless and until you understand the function, use and application of each and every control, indicator and device on the plane.  If I were to get into that same airplane today, I wouldn’t fly it without some instruction on what every device is and how it works. Never again.
  2. Never ignore a “hey, that’s weird” moment.  When the yoke flopped unexpectedly during taxi, it should have been an immediate show stopper until we knew for absolute certain what was going on.  Instead, Joe may have been looking more for an explanation that wouldn’t interfere with flying – and I was too inexperienced to know any better.  When we turned and the yoke flopped the other way, it should have immediately sounded alarm bells — we were facing into the same quartering crosswind.  He didn’t seem worried, and I didn’t know any better and went along with a half-baked explanation.  Never again.
  3. Joe is an incredibly experienced pilot, who has dealt with many adverse situations.  He’s probably crashed more small airplanes than I have flown in, from his work ferrying planes that had problems.  I think that can lead to a little too much of a feeling of infallibility, or the “Whatever happens, I can deal with it” attitude.  It’s completely understandable, and completely wrong.  What turned out to be a great story could very easily have been two closed casket funerals instead.  I know I’ll have to work at never reaching the point where I get too confident in my own abilities, and remember that any incident can turn bad in a hurry — and you don’t get to pick and choose how bad it gets.

It’s still a great story — but I look at it completely differently now.  As happens more often than not, what started as an adventure is best told as a cautionary tale.


Return to flight

After thinking about it for a while now I’ve decided to re-start flight training, moving toward getting my Private Pilot License.  I’ve wanted to fly since I can remember.  My earliest flight memory comes from a ride in a small private plane when I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 years old.  I remember sitting with my parents and the pilot – eating breakfast, I think.  We took a ride and I remember looking out the window and seeing the tiny trees and people down below, looking just like the little plastic toys I played with.  I was hooked.  As a boy and teen, my Dad and I flew radio controlled models.  While I never got really good at it, I did spend an awful lot of time flying gliders and learning about airfoils, angle of attack, center of gravity, thrust, lift, and all the mechanics of flight.  Dad could (and very often did) design and build airplanes from scratch, flew them as well as most serious competitive flyers, but for whatever reason never did like flying in small planes.

I have a couple of hours logged from much earlier training sessions, one dating back to 1999 and the other from 2002.  They’re old, but they still count.  Both flights were in Piper Cherokee (PA-28-140) aircraft, which I prefer at this point over a Cessna 172 — at least partly for reasons I’ll cover in greater detail later on.  I do want to get some more time in the 172, though, since it’s an extremely popular airplane.  Many, if not most flight schools operate at least partly using 172s.  From what I have read, the two have very different flight characteristics.

The first step will be to get my medical exam by an aviation medical examiner.  Fortunately there is one in the family practice office we use, and I’m really due for a physical anyway — so I can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.  That will get me a Student Pilot License, which is required to fly solo.  I could hold off on it until I’m ready to solo, but at 50+ I suppose I should be getting regular medical exams anyway.

Next up is a self-imposed limit — I’m not going to log any cockpit hours until I’ve shed some pounds and gotten back into something resembling reasonable condition for my age.  While I haven’t assigned any hard and fast qualifications to that objective, “I’ll know it when I get there”.  The cockpit of a Cherokee is not exactly roomy (though a couple inches wider than the 172), and with only one door on the right side it means a little physical hauling of one’s ass in and out of the airplane.  I’d prefer not to wheeze and grunt in front of the instructor.  Or in general, for that matter.  Of course I’m not getting any younger, the muscles and joints aren’t getting any more resilient, and from here on out it’s just going to be more and more difficult to reverse the effects of too many years of too much food and not enough activity.

While working on those two items, I’ll start preparing by doing some at-home study – regulations, navigation, etc.  Sporty’s has a pretty reasonably priced DVD course, and it seems that Flight Simulator is a pretty good training tool as well.  There is a tremendous amount to learn!  The flight controls (throttle, mixture, ailerons, rudder, elevator) are no big deal — as a former radio control flyer, I’m pretty familiar with how airplanes fly and why.  The instruments, procedures, navigation, radio, landing pattern, charts, weather, and calculating things like altitude density, takeoff distance, that sort of thing…  that’s going to take a lot of study and practice.  It seems at this point to be very daunting, but of course once put into context and actual practice a few times, I’m sure it will get better.