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 09, 2006

First Solo Cross-Country!

I spent a lot of time flying today, a total of 3.7 hours. The first 1.6 were spent on a flight in the newer Skyhawk owned by a club I recently joined. I've been flying Skyhawks all along, of course, but because it's newer, it has some differences, and I wanted my first flight to be with an instructor from the club. He also treated the flight as a mini-checkride, and had me plan a cross-country flight to Potomac Airfield. When we were halfway to Potomac, though, he had me do some maneuvers, slow flight, steep turns, a stall, etc., and then "divert" to Frederick, where we did three touch n' gos before heading back to Gaithersburg. He said I'll have no trouble passing my checkride, though he said I have a tendency to flare a bit high when landing.

My second flight was the BIG one, my first cross-country trip by myself. I planned the flight to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and met with Rich on Thursday night to go over my flight plan. The weather was beautiful today, as clear as I've seen it (for this region) in a really long time. It was cold, though, and while the wind on the ground in Gaithersburg was light, the winds aloft were forecast at 21 knots, or nearly 25 mph.

I took off and headed for my first visual checkpoint, a "tank farm," a grouping of big white oil tanks that can be seen for miles from the air. Before I even got to my first checkpoint I was being bounced around a bit in the plane. The flight continued, and the turbulence got a bit worse. When I was about halfway, some turbulence tipped the plane over on its right wing. I think that makes it qualify as "moderate" turbulence by formal definitions. It was worse than anything I've experienced since I started training, but it wasn't terrible and I wasn't scared. I just reduced my airspeed to below Va, or "maneuvering speed," and continued on.

Before long, I crossed the Susquehanna (sp?) River and could see the Lancaster airport about 8 miles away. I listened on the radio for the winds, and they were "250 at 13." The tower cleared me to land on Runway 31, and I set up for the landing. I knew there was a cross-wind from the left, and compensated for it as I approached the runway. This involves "slipping" the plane, banking the plane to the left, into the wind, and using the right rudder to keep it lined up with the runway. The wind was a bit gusty, and at one point (for just a moment) I had the right rudder in all the way and still couldn't keep the plane straight. The landing was a bit bumpy, certainly not my best, but not all that bad considering everything. It was kind of like ALL my landings were when I was first learning.

I stopped at the pilot shop and chatted with the owner, who signed my logbook to prove that I was there, then I called Rich to let him know I had arrived safely. I told him about the turbulence and cross-wind landing, and he asked if I had been nervous. I was surprised, when I thought about it, that I hadn't been nervous at all. That's either bad stupidity (not smart enough to know when to be afraid) or good confidence, I don't know which. I knew what to do, and I never felt unsafe, so I think it's probably just confidence in myself and the airplane, rather than stupidity, but.... Well, who am I to judge?

When I left Lancaster, I demanded Runway 26, which was almost directly into the wind. The controller tried to make me go on 31, but I told him the cross-wind exceeded my limitations and he had me taxi for the other runway. With the wind nearly right down the runway, I was off the ground in about 600 feet, and I headed home.

The flight home was beautiful. I was at a lower altitude, and the turbulence was lighter. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the turbulence went away altogether, and when I arrived back at Gaithersburg there was just a 3 knot wind, albeit straight across the runway. I made a nice landing, and taxied in.

Overall, the trip went really well. Nothing made me nervous, and I did everything right, except.... In retrospect, I should have asked the controller in Lancaster to bring me in on Runway 26. For some reason, I never even thought about asking, I just factored the cross-wind into my approach to Runway 31. Maybe that's because I fly out of an airport with only one runway. Whatever, next time I'm going to be sure to ask for the runway I want based on the winds.

Next cross-country -- maybe to Potomac airpark, the trip I planned for this morning but didn't complete. I'll talk to Rich and see.

My GPS track is below. I wish I had pictures, because it was a beautiful, clear day, but when I took out my camera in the plane, the battery was dead.

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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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Friday, November 24, 2006

Tennessee Flyin'

It's the day after Thanksgiving. Jodie had to fly back to Maryland last night, and I'm sticking around in Knoxville to help with part of the Birdwell Family Leaf Rake on Saturday. So I called the flight school at the Knoxville Downtown Island Airport (KDKX) and scheduled an hour of dual instruction. I'm not looking for instruction that will move me toward my license. But I'm going to fly into Knoxville at some point in the (near?) future, and I wanted to fly around the area with someone who knows the area.

When I fly to Knoxville, I'll pretty much follow I-81 down to I-40, which runs right into Knoxville. So when I met Brandon, the Knoxville instructor, I suggested we fly north, overfly Cherokee Lake, then head East, intercept I-81, and fly back into Knoxville. So that's what we did:

I navigated by pilotage, picking up and following the Holsten (sp?) River up to the dam where the water leaves Cherokee Lake. It's cool, 'cause this is where we all waterski in the summers.

Then we flew up and circled around the Birdwells' lake house. I got a few pictures of the house, but couldn't get a good angle, so I think the picture of the tomato farm up the street is my favorite.
I then flew up the rest of the lake, passing German Creek.....

headed East, and picked up I-81 South toward Knoxville and the airport. Along the way, though, we had beautiful (albeit hazy) views of Douglas Lake, the Smokies, and Mount LeConte.

I landed on runway 8 at KDKX after a high and fast approach, but with a nice flare and touchdown. On approach to runway 8, there is a hill of land that made me inclined to stay a little high. Then, when I got past it and dumped full flaps, I still landed 800 feet down the runway. The approach to 26, on the other hand, is low and over the water. I like to think that would have made a difference, as I wouldn't have been shying away from the treetops, but in truth it may be that I just need some pattern work.

All in all, this was a great flight, and I learned a lot about flying in the area from talking to Brandon. I'm confident I won't have any problem getting into Knoxville when I finally fly there, and really can't wait!

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sky Ranch & The Champ

Jodie and I went to Knoxville Tuesday night for Thanksgiving. I had to do some work on Wednesday, so I holed up in a Starbucks with my laptop. I finished my work a couple hours before I needed to meet Jodie and her family for dinner, so I figured I'd explore the local small airports. I had read about the Sky Ranch (TN98), a club-owned airfield carved out of the Class C airspace around Knoxville's McGhee-Tyson Airport. With a little driving around, I found it tucked away on an island in the Tennessee River, downriver from the Knoxville Downtown Island Airport (KDKX).

Pulling into Sky Ranch, I was impressed with the number of aircraft and hangars. I saw a bunch of old taildraggers, an RV, an AgCat, a few Bonanzas, and a lot of Cessna 150s and 172s. A cottage-like structure with a front porch, deck, and chairs overlooking the river was on one side of the grass runway. As I parked next to what I later learned was the clubhouse, a Cessna 152 landed. I walked down to chat with the pilot as he secured the plane, and learned that Sky Ranch has been a club since the 70s. It costs $250 to join, and $30 a month. They sell gas for $3.03 a gallon to their members, more than a dollar less than I pay in Maryland. The club owns three planes, and the monthly $30 gives you tie-down rights. That is a DEAL.

I walked back to the car, and as I did a man pulled up in a truck. Figuring I'd get some additional information, I introduced myself. His name was Lee, and after repeating some of the basics I had already heard about Sky Ranch, he asked me what I was doing right then. I told him I had to be home for dinner, and he said, "Well, do you want to go flying? Right now." I immediately recognized this as one of those pilot-community things that only happens every so often, so I said yes and grabbed my headset out of the car. "What kind of plane?" I asked, and he said, "Well, you're about to find out." We walked over to the covered tie-downs and right up to N84021, a 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champ. I've read about taildraggers, and I've read about grass runways, but this was my first experience of the way flying used to be. I helped him do the pre-flight inspection and pull the plane out, then I sat in the back seat and held the brakes while he spun the propeller to start the engine.

We taxied (bounced) out to the end of the runway, he pushed the throttle forward, and we started accelerating down the runway. It's commonly said that you have to fly an airplane from the time you undo the tiedowns until you re-tie them. When we had accelerated some, Lee pushed forward on the stick and the tail came up off the ground. For the first time, I understood-- although the main wheels were still firmly on the ground, Lee was flying the plane.

Shortly after we lifted off, Lee gave me the stick. There were no gauges in the back seat, but I could see the slip-skid indicator over Lee's right shoulder if I craned my neck. It took a LOT more rudder to keep the Champ coordinated than it does in the 172 I regularly fly. We climbed to 3500 feet and flew north to Norris Dam. We flew around the dam, then Lee took the stick, chopped the power, and pointed the nose at the ground in a steeply banked, circling dive. We dropped 1500 feet FAST, and for the first time ever I felt a little queasy. Lee leveled out and told me he wanted to practice a few s-turns over I-70. After one or two, he let me try, and I did a bunch. There was a 15-knot wind blowing across the road, so the conditions were perfect. Lee said he could tell I was a student because I did much better than almost all pilots he goes up with, not really changing altitude -- which was amazing to me because I couldn't see the altimeter.

We flew back to Sky Ranch after I flew low over Jodie's parents house, and Lee dropped the plane down onto the runway in a beautiful forward slip, stopping in well under 1,000 feet. As we were taxiing to the fuel pump, I asked Lee about radio calls. He said, "What radios?" For the first time I realized that although there was an intercom, there were no radios in the plane.

Taildragger, grass runway, no radio, no transponder, hand-propping.... This is what flying used to be. What a treat!

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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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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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