Saturday, November 10, 2007

Checking Out (in) the Cardinal

I think Cessna Cardinals are beautiful planes. Since I started flying two years ago, I have flown Cessna Skyhawks almost exlusively. The one exception has been a Cessna 152, which I wrote about previously. Cardinals are similar to Skyhawks in that they are four-seat, single-engine airplanes. Some Cardinals have retractable landing gear, but most, like Skyhawks, do not. When I first started flying, I had trouble seeing the difference between the Cardinal and Skyhawk -- to me, a four-seat, high-wing plane was a four-seat, high-wing plane.

Cessna Cardinal

Cessna Skyhawk

Notwithstanding their similarities, though, Cardinals are different from Skyhawks in several important ways, and if you compare the two pictures above, you'll be able to pick out some differences. Cardinals are sleeker, with cantilevered wings instead of wing struts. They have much larger doors, and are more spacious inside. With the exception of the first year Cardinals were produced, they also have engines that are more powerful than most Skyhawks, with constant-speed propellers instead of fixed-pitch propellers. This all translates into smooth, faster flight, and quicker handling makes them seem more like sports cars than the Skyhawk family sedans.

On Friday morning I finally got checked out in my club's Cardinal, pictured above. Rich met me at the airport at 6 a.m., we spent some time going over the plane, then we went flying. I had read as much as I could about Cardinal systems and operations, but Rich really helped me understand the flow. Adjusting the prop was new to me, as all the planes I had flown before had fixed-pitch props. The view out the window was also different -- the wing is closer to eye level and further back than on a Skyhawk, and that made me feel different during turns. It took just a little getting used to.

Rich and I flew out to Westminster, where I practiced power-off glides, steep turns, and stalls, then we headed for Carroll County airport for some takeoffs and landings. I did three takeoffs and landings, including one short-field landing. All of the landings were good, and the short-field landing was great. The Cardinal has a stabilator instead of a horizontal stabilizer and elevator. When it was first produced, the light touch of the elevator controls gave the Cardinal a bad reputation for being squirrelly in the landing flare. To me, though, the sensitive pitch control was wonderful, and really made it easy to modulate the attitude of the plane.

Rich and I took off to head back to Gaithersburg and I climbed toward 3,000 feet so ATC could "see" the plane on their radar. If they can't see us, they won't give us clearance to re-enter the DC ADIZ. As we were climbing, though, it began to rain. Rain is typically not a huge deal. In fact, rain had been forecast to start, though not until 11 a.m., and it was barely 8:00. It was new to me, though, as I had never flown in it, and I was interested to see that the air from the propeller kept the windscreen clear.

I noticed the engine RPM dropping a little, so I pulled the knob for carburetor heat. The RPMs dropped further, then increased back to where they should be, confirming that ice had been building up in the carburetor. Then I noticed some airframe ice, about 1/4-inch, on the leading edge of the wing, and Rich pointed out a patch of ice on the front of the landing gear. Ice on an airplane is bad. The ice does not build up smoothly, so it spoils the smooth flow of air over the wings. It is also heavy, dragging the plane down. We had only a little ice, so there was no immediate danger, but we needed to get out of the rain and freezing temperatures.

ATC finally told us that they could see our transponder, allowing us to re-enter the ADIZ, so I pointed the nose of the plane down and toward Gaithersburg, descending rapidly while making a beeline for the airport. The ice stopped building as we descended into warmer temperatures. Then it started snowing. The effect was something like going "light speed" in the Star Wars movie as we headed toward the airport as fast as the plane would take us.

I loved flying the Cardinal. It handled great (with or without a little ice), was comfortable, and the constant-speed propeller was smooth and efficient. I greased in a landing at Gaithersburg, and Rich filled out my logbook before heading to work. It had been a significant flight: a new plane (to me), and an introduction to flying in rain, snow, and icing conditions. It was only 8:30, but I was already tired from the excitement of the morning, and I headed to the airport cafe for some food and more coffee. I was curious to see what Rich wrote in my logbook. I sat down at a table in the restaurant, ordered an omelet, and flipped open my logbook. After a brief description about the Cardinal checkout, it said simply, "Winter familiarization." Indeed.


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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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dual Night Cross-Country

Rich and I flew a cross-country trip last night. It's a requirement of pilot training to do a night flight with an instructor to another airport that is more than 100 miles, so I planned a flight from Gaithersburg, Maryland, 122 miles north to Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

My regular flying club has been having maintenance issues with its planes, so I almost wasn't able to go. BUT I did recently join another club that does not have any such problems, and there was a plane available, so we took that one.

Due to the trouble we had finding an airplane, Rich and I got a late start by about two hours, and we lifted off after 8:00. Neither Rich nor I had ever flown that particular plane, so we took extra time to familiarize ourselves with it and do a thorough preflight inspection. During the inspection, I discovered that the last person to fly it had left the gas tanks less than 1/4 full. The fuel service at the airport was closed, but there was fuel available in Allentown. I had done detailed fuel consumption calculations, and we had enough to fly to Allentown with required reserves, but I did not like cutting it that close at night.

Since we had enough fuel, we went. It was VERY cold, about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and we very quickly discovered that the airplane had no heat. My feet felt like blocks of ice, and Rich wrapped maps around his legs for extra warmth. The windshield apparently had leaks around the edges, and cold air was blowing on my face for the whole trip. Fortunately, it didn't take too long to get to Allentown, about an hour and a half. The flight was beautiful, slightly hazy but with a nearly full moon -- we flew over a reservoir, the Susquehanna River, and several airports. It was neat to see the airports down below us, and we turned on the runway lights of a couple with our radios. We were cleared by the Allentown tower to land on Runway 31, and I performed a beautiful cross-wind landing.

Rich and I got a cup of coffee and warmed up while the linemen refueled the airplane. Then it was time to go back.

It had been a very long day, and my GPS shows that I flew a decidedly curvy course back to Gaithersburg. We landed at Gaithersburg sometime around 12:30 a.m., and Rich ran to his truck to warm up while I secured the plane.

It was a fun flight, and I'm glad to have that requirement in my training complete. However, next time I'd like to be warmer and less tired, and I think the experience will be an overall more enjoyable one. That may be after I have my license, though.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Under the Hood

I spent an hour with Rich today flying under the hood. For anyone who might not know what the "hood" is, it's a device that restricts a pilot's visibility to the instrument panel so they can't see what's outside. Learning to trust what the gauges are saying is hard -- my inner ear and other senses had a tendency to tell me I was leaning toward the right, so I kept wanting to bank to the left. It's hard, and takes a lot of concentration. On the map below, not how crooked and wavy the early part of my route is.
Rich had me go under the hood as soon as we took off from KGAI, and then dictated an instrument (VOR) approach to Carroll County (KDMW), a missed approach, a VOR approach to Clearview (2W2), a missed approach, and then an ILS approach to Frederick (KFDK), and then a missed approach. By that time, I was worn out from concentrating on the instruments, and I elected to take the hood off for the return to Gaithersburg. I was glad I did, too, in part because the sunset was gorgeous! But also because I was tired of concentrating so hard, and it made me happy to realize how relaxing simply flying has become compared to the early days of learning. I'm not really looking forward to the instrument rating I know I need to have.

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Cross-Country At Last!

I finally got to do some real cross-country time. My old instructor, Rich, offered to fly with me due to the problems I've had scheduling cross-country time with John. So I made it a good one, from Gaithersburg to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Capitol City Airport in Harrisburg, down to Hagerstown, MD, then home. Not counting time or distance at the airports (pattern, taxi, etc.), it's a loop of just over 200 miles by air, or about 2 hours. By car, Mapquest says the route would be 275 miles and 5.4 hours. In reality, we made it into a 3-1/2 hour trip because we landed, parked the plane, and explored a bit at Lancaster and Capitol City. Here's the route from my portable GPS:

Although I had the GPS turned on, it was only there for safety's sake, and we didn't use it at all. Instead we mostly used pilotage and ded (dead) reckoning, with some VOR navigation thrown in. It was hazy, but there were a couple really pretty moments. Although my photo didn't come out well, the early morning sun was lighting up Baltimore's Inner Harbor in bright, neon-like orange.

When we left Lancaster, we were instructed by air traffic to follow the western bank of the Susquehanna River, up past Harrisburg International Airport and the big nuclear power plant on -- drum roll -- Three Mile Island. The river was pretty, and it was fun to follow the curves of the river. Later, after we climbed out of Capitol City, there was a layer of scattered clouds right at the altitude we were planning to use. We decided to climb above it. We did, and ten minutes later realized we had made a mistake. It was beautiful, because the air was clear, but what had been scattered clouds seemed to knit together under us to become one solid overcast layer.

When we finally found a hazy opening where we could see the ground, we took it, telling the bewildered controller that yes, although we had just requested a higher altitude, now we wanted a lower one. The opening wasn't very large, but with some steep s-turns we made it down through without breaking any rules.

Above the clouds, of course, you can't see the ground to navigate by pilotage, and for some reason we weren't receiving the Hagerstown VOR signal. We were only a few miles north of Camp David, and didn't want to break into the restricted airspace. If we hadn't found that break in the clouds and been able to get below them, I would have broken the "rules" of the flight and used the GPS.

Total flight time for the trip was 3.1 hours, which means that I got my required cross-country training all in one flight. Probably one more dual cross-country, then my solo cross-countries. Making progress.....!

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Gorgeous Morning

I'm writing about this much later, but I just don't want to forget it. It was, I'm pretty sure, November 3, 2005, my second morning flight with Rich F. I met him at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m., and we were off the ground before the sun came over the horizon. We flew northeast toward Westminster. The late fall, early winter sky was clear blue, dark in the West and brightening quickly in the East. Fog lay in the hollows of the land that passed underneath. It was still dark down there, but at our height the sky was brightening and we could see clearly in the pre-dawn light. The sun peaked over the horizon as we flew toward Westminster and rose above the horizon as we practiced maneuvers 2,500 feet over the late-sleepers below.

Then during a clearing turn I saw the most beautiful thing, it took my breath. The sun was low, but above the horizon, to the east-southeast. On the ground below it, like a footprint, was a bright red-orange neon glow, a V-shape like an arrowhead pointing directly at us. It was a piece of the Chesapeake Bay, 25 miles away. The sun was reflecting off the Bay-- I can only imagine that the Bay was glass-smooth in the early morning, because the glow of the Bay seemed as bright as the sun itself. It was amazing and beautiful, and I guess that there was nobody else to see it-- only from the cockpit of a small airplane for those two minutes, at 3,000 feet msl over Westminster, Maryland. My instructor and I were silent for the minute or two before the angle of the sun had changed and the neon arrowhead was gone.

That morning was instrumental in giving me the motivation to keep going with flying. Learning to fly is frustrating. It's hard to get it right, there's a lot to absorb, and the constant delays can make it seem futile. But flying is a privilege, and what I am seeking is the privilege to go up and see those things that are withheld from all but the few who can go there. Going places is important and attractive, but seeing things that take my breath away is what I'm really working toward.

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Friday, October 21, 2005

2nd Flight- Stall my heart....

I had my second lesson last night. ALMOST everything went great-- taxiing, takeoff, communications, turns, navigation, pattern, and even landing (Rich contributed some rudder work, but otherwise it was my first landing!). I did my first power-off stall, and that was okay. The only real problem was the power-on stall. It didn't bother me when Rich demonstrated it, but when I tried it, the right wing dropped at the stall and the nose swung over to the right. Rich recovered, but my heart was pounding and I had cold sweats. We didn't try it again, and I was fine with everything else, but I've been thinking about it ever since. I really don't want to try that maneuver again and again and again, and the thought of having to do it in a turn is terrifying. I wonder if this is normal, of if this could end up being a fatal flaw that prevents me from learning to fly?!?! I think it would help if I had a better understanding of what's happening during the stall, so I'm going to see what I can find to read about them....