Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Instrument Training Begun!

It is hot as blazes here in the DC area, over 100 degrees and very humid. What else is there to do but go flying? I've been trying to fly a lot the last couple of days. The workload in my job is momentarily light, and there's a lot I want to do.... I want to get "checked out" in planes my club has that I've never flown before. There's a Cessna 152, which is a small, slow, 2-seat airplane. There's a Piper Cherokee 235, which is faster and more powerful than anything I've flown, more complex, and will haul a LOT of stuff. There's a Cessna Cardinal, which is similar in some ways to the Cessna Skyhawks (aka 172) I trained in, but faster and more complex. Then there's a Cessna 182. If the 172 is a Honda Civic, the 182 is a Cadillac with a V-8 engine. Faster, more complex, "drives" like a tank, and can carry a LOT more.

Getting "checked out" in these planes means more instruction -- anywhere from 1 to 10 hours each, depending on the plane.

And, of course, I also want to get my instrument rating. The requirements for the instrument rating are more substantial. I have to pass a written exam. I have to log 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument flying time, including at least 15 hours of instruction. I need to log 50 hours of cross-country flying time as "Pilot in Command," and I also need to do a long (250 mile) cross-country flight under instrument flight rules, with three different kinds of instrument "approaches." Once I've got that all done, I have to go for an oral exam and flight exam with the FAA Designated Examiner.

I was going to start the "checkout" process yesterday morning. Rich agreed to meet me at 5:30 in the morning for my first instruction in the Cherokee 235. When we got to the airport, though, it was foggy, and the visibility was not good enough for us to fly, so we spent an hour going over the plane and its various systems, orally reviewing procedures, and so on. We also rescheduled for again this morning, this time at 5 a.m. Well, Rich called me at 4:15 to say that the visibility was marginal, and we cancelled again. I went back to bed, but not for long.

Piper Cherokee 235

John, who did a bunch of my private pilot training, is going to be my instrument instructor. We met at the airport at 9 this morning for my first instrument flying lesson. Within moments after taking off, John had me put the "hood" on so that I could see only the instruments. It was very hot, and very bumpy, and it required nearly all of my concentration to keep the plane flying straight and level. Then John reached over and stuck a suction-cup cover over one of the gauges. Statistically, pilots without instrument training last about 2 minutes when that gauge fails, before spiraling into the ground. Fortunately for me, though, John had taught me during private pilot training not to rely on that gauge. I was unfazed when he covered it.

35R's Instrument Panel
Yes, you're 3,000 feet in the air moving at 120 mph. No, you can't look where you're going. Don't crash.

Then he covered another gauge, the directional gyroscope. This one made it a bit more difficult. Now, if I wanted to turn East, say, I would have to look at the second-hand on the clock and time my turn, straightening out at the right moment. It was still not a problem, but only because of a "lucky break," literally, that I'd had during my private pilot training. During one training flight with John, the directional gyroscope had broken. John had taken the opportunity to put me under the hood and practice turns without the benefit of that gauge.

At the end of the flight, John gave me specific headings and altitudes to fly. When he finally told me to take the hood off, I was about 1/2 mile from the end of the runway at Gaithersburg and 400' off the ground. I'd like to say that I turned in a "greaser" of a landing, but it was not to be. It was windy and gusty, and a gust during the flare meant a rather "firm" landing to wrap up the flight.

I had a third flight scheduled for later this afternoon. The Cessna 152 is a very small plane. If the gas tanks are full, it will only carry me and a second person who has to be 125 pounds or lighter. There's only one instructor on the whole airfield that is lighter than 125 pounds, so I scheduled to fly with her this afternoon to get checked out in that plane. Well, when I got to work after my instrument flight, there was a message from her cancelling the flight because it's too hot.

Cessna 152 - Ain't it cute?

All in all, I've only flown one out of four flights that I scheduled for yesterday and today, but I'm still happy, mostly because my instrument flight went so well today. Next time we're going to start "VOR approaches," and there's plenty of homework for me to do before then. I've put a link on the right to a chart showing my progress toward the instrument rating. I think it's going to be fun!

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Long Cross-Country Accomplished!

Today I flew solo from Gaithersburg to Potomac Airfield in Berkeley Springs, WV, then to Hagerstown in Maryland, then back to Gaithersburg. It was a perfect day to fly, except that when I left the wind was 12 knots, gusting to 17. Surprisingly, there's little to write about this trip. It was beautiful, very clear, with wide open blue skies. The visibility was more than 10 miles -- I could see the airport at Hagerstown from 14 miles, and Gaithersburg from 13+ when I was flying back.

W35 is a tiny airport, with just a runway, no taxiways, no gas or services. The last few miles to the airport are along a river, and the approach to Runway 29 is over the river, with a low ridge to the left. There is also no weather information broadcast from the airport, so when I got to the airport I flew over it to look at the windsock on the ground, then circled out and around to land. I'm pretty happy with the smooth circles of my GPS track and the smooth rollout onto the downwind heading.

The airport is so small there are no taxiways, so if you land and want to take off again, you have to turn around on the runway and taxi back down the runway. An airplane took off as I was approaching the airport, but there was not a soul on the ground, so I called Rich just to let him know I arrived there safely. Then I took off and headed East to Hagerstown. I had to climb up to clear a low mountain ridge, then drop back down, because Hagerstown was only 20 miles away.

When I landed at Hagerstown, I was cleared for a stop and go, so I landed, stopped, then took off again. Then I landed again and taxied to get gas. A lineman waved me in with hand signals, and literally put down a piece of red carpet for me to step onto when I got out of the plane. The lady inside was very friendly and signed my logbook just for fun.

The flight back was uneventful, though even more beautiful with the sun low in the sky. A flock of crows was wheeling around near Sugarloaf Mountain, and I had to turn hard to avoid them. My landing at Gaithersburg was near-perfect, and I was fortunate to have a half dozen witnesses. Jodie was there, because SHE FLEW AGAIN WITH JOHN TODAY! (I think she had fun, too, though I don't know much about it yet.) There were also a couple guys from my flying club there working on a plane, and they saw the landing too. Perhaps the nicest touch was, after I was clear of the runway, a voice came over the radio and said, "Welcome back, Greg." It was Rich, who was there to head out for some instrument training. That, followed by Jodie running up to the plane as I got out to give me a hug -- those two things made a perfect conclusion to the flight.

So today I finished my solo landings at a towered airport, my long solo cross-country, and.... Well, I wasn't in the air long enough to finish all of my solo cross-country time, so I have to do one more solo trip. No problem!

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Hey, that's my plane!

Jodie's taking the Pinchhitter course. This is even bigger than the cake she baked me! The thought of flying makes her nervous, but not only is she supporting me in my obsession, she's actually taking the course and a couple hours of dual instruction! She's never even been in a small plane before!

I dropped her off at the CAP trailer where the course is being given and then went to breakfast at the Airport Cafe with a fellow pilot. Two hours later I shivered in the cold outside the door to the trailer, nervous like an expectant father to see her reaction. She came bouncing out of the trailer talking a mile a minute - she had a question about barometric pressure, but "they" said flying's not hard, etc. We went back to the airport cafe with John (my instructor) so they could eat something, and chatted for a while as they ate.

Then we went out to the plane. My plane of choice for her, 739BA, was not available, so we went to trusty 35R. John told me to do the preflight inspection of the airplane, making a comment about how I'm more thorough than he is -- for Jodie's benefit, I'm sure. Then John got in the left seat, and Jodie sat in the right seat. I hovered by the right door while John went through all of the controls and instruments with Jodie. After explaining what "COM1" and "COM2" were, John told Jodie he was going to use COM2 to check the weather. He turned the knob on the audio panel to COM1, and Jodie said, "I thought you were going to use COM2." I just about kissed her for paying such close attention, but decided I should leave them alone and went to the car to listen on my handheld radio.

A couple minutes later the propeller started. I listened to the clearance frequency and heard John call for a transponder code, then I made a note of their code, just in case. When the plane started taxiing, I drove to the end of the active runway near the runup area, got out, listened to John make his calls on the CTAF, then watched as John, 35R, and my baby rolled down the runway and lifted into the air. I heard John make his radio call for crosswind, then no more.

I was, once again, waiting like an expectant father. The wind had been blowing at 14, gusting to 21, and I was really worried it would be bumpy and Jodie would have a bad first impression of flying. An hour later, I was still waiting.

Almost an hour and fifteen minutes after they left, I heard John announcing their arrival into the airport traffic pattern, and drove to the arrival end of the active runway. John made the radio calls, and I saw 35R on a slooooow final. The headwind was 15+, and the plane seemed to be barely moving across the ground. They touched down, right wheel first, came up slightly, then touched down again.

I called on the radio, "Three Five Romeo, that was a nine point two."
John's voice came over the radio, "Nine point two?"
"That's right, Three Five Romeo, nine point two, niner decimal two."
"She landed it," John said.
"Make that a 10.0, Three Five Romeo, that was a perfect landing," I radioed as I got into the car to drive to the parking area.

Jodie had a big smile on her face, but with a slightly guarded look. It turns out that John had had her take the controls right after takeoff, and she had spent the hour practicing turns, climbs, and descents all the way from Gaithersburg to Gettysburg and back. She had thought she was just going for a ride and that John would show her what HE was doing, not have HER do it, and I think she was a little overwhelmed. I'm hoping to get her to contribute her thoughts here, but if not I'll write more about what she told me a little later.

For me, this was a great day, even though I didn't get into the air myself! Man, do I love that girl!

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Durned Weather!

I had a long flight scheduled with John today. We were going to fly to Allentown, Pennsylvania, about 125 nautical miles north. Our plan was to leave between 3:30 and 4:00, fly up there, have dinner at the airport restaurant, then leave after civil twilight to fly back. The entire trip would have counted as more cross-country time, and the flight back would have satisfied a requirement for a dual cross-country flight at night of more than 100 nautical miles.

The morning was foggy, and fog became haze, and although it was a lot better at 3:00, the reports were that visibility was only 4-5 miles along our intended route of flight. So we scrapped the flight. Oh, well, I think Rich and I are going to do the night cross-country this week, so I'll keep making progress.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Back in the game!

Seven weeks to the day since my last flight, I flew today with John. It was a short flight (I had a dentist appointment to go to), so we just went up to Frederick and back in trusty 35R. I've been slammed with work the last six weeks or so and have barely had time to stay acquainted with my wife and dog. Flying, being the solo hobby it is at the moment, took a back seat. But, I turned in a large project Monday night, and began aching to fly again. My 90-day solo endorsement had expired, so when I saw John at the flying club meeting on Tuesday I did my best to schedule some time, and today was it.

My landing in Frederick was one of the best I've ever done despite the 6-knot wind 70 degrees off the runway. In fact, after touchdown John said, "Better than I can do." I got to play with the new Garmin GPS that's in the plane, which is nice because it shows the ADIZ boundary, that imaginary line with a very real F16 on the other side. On our return to Gaithersburg, the wind was 12 knots, gusting to 15, but not far off the centerline.

So my solo endorsement is renewed, and I can now try to get back out there to fly. If I could just get John scheduled for some serious cross-country time.....

Oh! One other thing, a very important thing. Several clubs at my airport have gotten together to sponsor a PinchHitter course. For the uninitiated, this is a course that teaches non-flying spouses how to control and land a plane if the pilot they fly with somehow becomes incapacitated. Of course, Jodie said, "Give me a parachute and I KNOW what to do!" Nevertheless, she volunteered, and is taking the course in December. It takes place over two Saturdays, includes four hours of classroom time and four hours of flight time. I can't wait, but I hope and pray that it goes well and she doesn't get scared (er, more scared, I mean).

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Thursday, August 17, 2006


I flew this morning with John, and it was wonderful! It was clear, blue skies, no real wind. We flew to Carroll County (KDMW), landed, and then practiced maneuvers in the practice area. I did three power off stalls with a variety of flap settings, and it was flawless-- I didn't deviate at all from my heading and the recovery was uneventful. I also spent some time under the hood (flying by instruments only) and it was fine-- I think that comes naturally to me, and John said I'm very good, which is nice considering I had a total of 0.2 hours of hood time before today.

Also, the DG (directional gyroscope, like a compass but steadier and more accurate when it's working) was inoperable. The DG is used to tell you what direction you're heading. It was no real problem without the DG, because every plane has a regular magnetic compass-- in fact, it was good practice. I'm not sure I ever would have tried ignoring a working DG to see what flying by compass is actually like-- it's a completely different experience, and really drove home all the stuff I had to study about compasses for the written exam. Magnetic compasses have a bunch of quirks in an airplane that I never would have know of or thought of if I hadn't studied it as part of my training. I knew all of it, but I'd never paid enough attention to the compass before to use what I knew and watch it function. I only wish we could have covered up the DG, because I kept looking at it.

We also did some "hood work," which is flying with a view-restricting device so you can't see outside the cockpit. That was an interesting experience. The compass doesn't show your heading when you're in the middle of a turn. So if I wanted to turn a certain number of degrees, I had to bank the plane into a "standard rate turn" and watch the seconds on a timer to know how far I was turning. (In a standard rate turn, for example, it takes 60 seconds to turn 180 degrees, 30 seconds for 90 degrees, etc.). It was a good experience-- if I'm ever a CFI, I may take a primary student up with the DG covered sometime to have a lesson like today. Standard stuff for instrument pilots, I'm sure, but it was a good experience for me at my level.

I'm anxious to start my cross-country training, but John wants to do one more session in the practice area before our first cross-country trip, which makes me wonder why we can't count trips to Carroll County as cross-country trips? Because it's too short, only 27 nautical miles or so?

I also made a progress chart that I've uploaded here, and it's available as one of the links on the right. I have to manually update it, but it does show that I'm making progress, although lacking in the cross-country area.....

What a great way to start a day!

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Friday, August 11, 2006

A Little More Rope

My instructor, John, gave me a little more rope today. We flew early this morning from Gaithersburg (KGAI) up to Frederick (KFDK), then toward the practice area over Westminster (EMI) and circled while Potomac Approach thought about letting us fly back into the ADIZ to get back to Gaithersburg. When we got back, John endorsed my logbook to let me fly solo to and from Frederick. It's not much distance, but the freedom to take off and fly to a different airport still feels like a big step. It's only 17 miles and 10-12 minutes by air, but it's a good half hour by car, so it's really my first taste of the freedom and speed of flight from one place to another.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006

My First Solo Experience

I flew six times in the first month I was taking lessons, then between a death in the family, an out-of-town trial, maintenance issues with the plane, 04G going, various scheduling issues, and weather, I flew four times in the next six months. I spent those months reading six magazine subscriptions, a bunch of books, playing Flight Simulator, listening to a half dozen flying podcasts-- I passed my written exam almost six months ago with a 97. But no flying. I thought I was NEVER going to get anywhere with this flying obsession. My wife, although hesitant about the idea of flying in a small plane, grew to look forward to the rare times I would fly because of the miraculous improvement in my mood. I was flying so sporadically, though, that it felt like the "two steps forward, one step back" syndrome.

Then I got to fly four times in the month of June and got to keep some of what I was learning. I flew on the morning of the 28th, and everything was great except for my schedule, which had me changing into a suit in the FBO bathroom and racing to DC while my instructor (John) tied the plane down. But I was consistently coming in lined up, and flaring well, and basically landing the plane repeatedly while handling everything else well, and I had 16.5 hours, which is about the national average.....

So I knew that if the weather was good, Friday June 30th could be the day. As I headed out the door for the airport, I checked my flight bag: headset, keys, kneeboard, logbook.... logbook? logbook?!?! It wasn't there, and as I ransacked the house, glancing up through the skylights at the clear blue sky and motionless leaves, I thought that this was exactly my luck. No logbook, and my certificate is in my logbook, and FARs say a student can't fly solo without the certificate. I headed to the airport and explained to John. I realized that I must have taken the log into my office after my last flight (I log my time online at and left it on my desk. So I left the airport and headed to work, picked up my logbook, and headed back to the airport. And as I drove, I could see the tops of trees tossing in a wind that was picking up, and I knew, I just KNEW that it was going to get gusty and I wouldn't solo.

But the wind was pretty much right down the runway, and John and I flew for almost an hour, and everything was fine. I botched a few approaches and got to practice my go-around technique, but that was fine too, and John had me taxi over to the hangar. I ran to the bathroom, received a call that I had to be in Tyson's Corner right after lunch, and ran back to the plane. John had his flight bag out on the ground and was endorsing my logbook. I was nervous, but.... I had the disciplined calm feeling I get in the courtroom-- when the stakes are high, and all you can do is have faith in your abilities and the outcome, you just trust in your training and ability and keep going. That's the feeling I had, and it's funny to me that the two things feel so much alike.

So John walked over toward the approach end of 32 and I buckled up, shut the doors, and started the pre-start checklist. Then John walked back and unchocked the plane, with me feeling like an idiot. I continued through the checklist and started the plane, and checked the oil pressure, and.... I had never flown the plane when the engine was hot, and the pressure tends to be a bit lower when the engine's hot, apparently, and the needle was hanging down just below the green even when I ran it up to 1500 rpm, and I had never seen it that low after starting. So I shut the plane down, and John walked back AGAIN and looked at it, and told me it was fine.

I taxied out to 32 and did the takeoff checklist. Four times. And it seemed like the checklist was supposed to be longer and I was missing something, but it wasn't. And I checked final. Six times. And there REALLY wasn't anyone coming. So I made the radio call and rolled out, lined up, and went. And my first thought as I climbed out was that John must weigh a lot more than he looks because to me alone in the plane, it felt like 04G used to feel with the two of us. As I passed over the departure end of 32 I just started laughing. Out loud. And I slapped my knee, and slapped John's empty seat, and basically got completely giddy. Then I thought about power lines and wanting to be turning downwind before I reached pattern altitude (i.e., turned toward the airport before the first power reduction) and I got serious and just did IT. Made my radio calls, checked extended downwind and final before turning, held my altitudes, headings, and airspeed on the dot. I used about 20 degrees of flaps and flared a tad high, but the landing was basically fine. And as I rolled out, John's voice came over the radio: "Good. Do it again." As I taxied back past him he was smiling and waved, and it was NICE.

As I was climbing out the second time I looked off toward Sugarloaf and the hills and thought how wonderful it will be to come out sometime (soon, I hope) and take off to go fly around. And the second landing was probably just about the best I've ever done. Chirp-chirp, right down the centerline, and I never felt the wheels touch down. John's voice came over the radio: "I bet you think that was a good landing!"

The third time around I overshot my altitude a bit and had to come down from 1600 feet (pattern altitude is 1549). And as I flew I looked down and thought, "Holy S&^%, I'm flying!" And it was getting hot and a bit bumpy by this time of day, and it was tough keeping things smooth on final. I landed a bit left of the centerline, but I've certainly had worse landings.

As I taxied back to park the plane I even remembered to radio UNICOM to have the fuel truck come out.

It's funny-- in some ways it seems as if the stress should make you forget things. But it almost felt like not having John there to remind me to do things just made something click into place. Sometimes with John in the plane I would forget carb heat or be sloppy about airspeed and altitude, maybe because part of my brain knows he's there to remind me. But solo, I did all my callouts just instinctively and it felt like the checklists and procedures were ingrained, and other than overshooting pattern altitude that once, I had all the numbers nailed. It felt REALLY good, and it felt like I knew how to do it. And I'm still looking for some way to get this grin off my face.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Stalls Conquered!

All my reading has paid off!!! Having read entire books that were essentially about stalls (e.g., Stick and Rudder) plus countless magazine and online articles, my fear of them is gone! John and I went out to the practice area this morning and, among other things, we did power on and power off stalls. And I'm fine with them. The fear is gone, for one thing, but I have also learned and memorized all of the control inputs to control them, and today I didn't even go off my heading! We only did a couple, and I'm looking forward to doing more, but I'm not worried about them.

One thing-- John did some "spin awareness" training today. Which means that he demonstrated a stall and then kicked hard left rudder. The plane spun to the left, nose toward the earth. It was, um, startling, a little. It was really only an incipient spin, because about the time the left wing was pointing at the earth, John had given it full right rudder, stopped the spinning tendency, and recovered the plane to straight and level flight.

One thing I know for certain-- I want spin training. But not in this plane, not without parachutes, etc. But it is in my future, that's for sure.

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