Rich's Quest For Flight

My father was a pilot. He died doing what he loved to do. It has been a goal of my life to become a pilot. Now I have chance to do so. Follow me as I pursue my dream.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

High Desert

KSAF 282253Z VRB04KT 10SM SCT085 25/04 A3022 RMK AO2 SLP145 T02500044

It occurred to me on my trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico last month that there was a terrific opportunity to broaden my experience and get a taste of high altitude flying. So once the client took the option on the follow up visit, I made plans to do just that. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I found the flight school that is based at Santa Fe Municipal Airport (KSAF), an outfit called Sierra Aviation. The sparse website yielded the bare essentials. The planes they have, their staff, and a phone number. Looked good enough to me. I called on Friday (after my solo scrub) and reached Paul. He set me up for an appointment at 4:00 p.m. today. Fortunately today (compared to last month) Northwest Airlines kept their flights on schedule, and after checking in at the hotel, I headed over to the airport.

As it says on their site, the entrance was off the same parking lot as Million Air. And that was literally the case. Their whole operation was a single room with a desk, filing cabinet, a phone, and some tables and chairs. Suffice to say almost their entire capital was tied up in the planes. There wasn't even anybody in the office when I walked in. So I walked over to Million Air, got a cup of water, and headed back over. This time, a gentleman was behind the desk checking the messages on his machine. He motioned me in and I took a seat. When he finished, he stood up and introduced himself as Paul. He was probably a few years older than I and with thin hair. Most of you probably are aware of the "beach bum"; this guy was an aviation equivalent. His whole professional life was flying, and he appeared quite content with it.

Paul launched into a pre-flight briefing, going into considerable detail on how we need to lean the fuel mixture during ground operations, how the altitude affects the flight characteristics of the plane, and how the winds can be tricky. He also asked a few questions of me; I can imagine he needed to get a minimum level of comfort in a guy who just walked in off the street. Once finished with the briefing, we made for the plane.

The plane was a Cessna 172P, much the same as the 172N that I fly. Some minor differences included newer gauges, a vertical card compass, and flaps that only extended to 30 degrees instead of 40. Even though Paul said he preflighted the plane, I still had a quick look around just to be sure. I fiddled with the seat controls, trying to raise the seat, when Paul offered his first tip. Don't sit so high so that you have to duck to see under your wingtips. Don't worry about the cowl, it ain't going nowhere, use the top edge of the instrument panel as a horizon reference.

I started the plane up, and tuned to the ATIS for the latest conditions. Santa Fe is a towered airport, and up to this point all I had done at towered airports were touch-and-goes. Now I will be exercising my ground operations skills with the tower. I call for and receive taxi clearance to Runway 20. Then, after the pre-takeoff runup checks (during which we leaned the mixture for takeoff) clearance to take off. We are configured for a short field takeoff as we start the roll. And, as advertised, it takes almost 2000 feet to get off the ground. The climb rate is slow as well, although we're helped at times by thermals coming off the surface.

Slowly we climb, heading north toward the nearest mountain ridge. It didn't take long before noticing that the atmosphere is quite a bit active around mountains. Paul said that when you catch an updraft, expect a downdraft close behind. And he was right. There was no taking it easy once we reached our cruising altitude. But after I while, I noticed how you can tell what the plane is doing just by listening to it. When in an updraft, the engine runs faster, when in a downdraft, the engine slows down. The plane tells you what it is doing. We get to the foot of the mountain and Paul points out that you don't want to go closer to the mountain than the nearest flat piece of land, in case the engine fails. Always sound advice. And if you're going over the top, get all the altitude you can.

We next turn west, heading to Espanola. We've accomplished the orientation portion of the flight, now we're sightseeing. And what beautiful country it is. Hard to imagine I could land at all out here if I needed to, compared to the relatively flat farm fields in Wisconsin. The airport at Espanola was barely more than a runway, with a couple of out buildings. But an airport it was, and hopefully people will use it enough to keep it open. We turned and headed next toward Los Alamos, famous home of the atomic bomb. We turned to follow the Rio Grande river in order to avoid the restricted area located south of the town. It was striking terrain, a web of canyons that flowed into the river. From there we turned southeast and headed back to the airport for a couple of touch and goes. Paul offered me some great advice on how to turn the plane in the pattern and how to loosen my death grip on the yoke. I did well with the tower, even though the controller spoke quickly and said a lot.

We taxied back to the ramp after the third landing, secured the plane and debriefed. Paul paid myself and Adam some good compliments, and he said I will be a good pilot. Great stuff. And I took away some valuable lessons and a wonderful experience. This flying thing is pretty damn cool.

Next up are my solo cross country flights. I scheduled the short cross country for Saturday, and the long cross country for Monday. Let's hope the weather holds up. Thanks for allowing me to share my quest with you.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Hi again folks. If you've followed this blog for a while, you know well by now that it doesn't take much to keep a plane out of the sky. Today was supposed to have been my first solo cross country flight, from Watertown to Sheboygan to Dodge County and return. The weather watch began early this morning, and at the time it seemed like there just might be a hole in the weather large enough to get the flight in.

But alas, the warm front moving through the area became stationary, allowing storms to train along the frontal boundary, leading to IFR conditions throughout the day. Compounding the issue was moderate turbulence at all levels in the area. So just as I was getting up from the table to head to the airport, the phone rang ominously, and sure enough Adam was on the other end. No flying today. But no surprise, either.

In the meantime, I contacted the flight school located at the airport in Santa Fe, New Mexico, site of my business trip next week. I have lined up a lesson with an instructor there on Monday. Why is this neat? Because Santa Fe is located 7000' above sea level. This will be a great opportunity to get some familiarization with high altitude and mountain flight. So join me then for a special edition of Rich's Quest For Flight.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

KRYV 200136Z AUTO 00000KT 10SM SCT060 20/14 A3004 RMK AO2
KMSN 200153Z 00000KT 10SM BKN055 18/16 A3005 RMK AO2
KDLL 200155Z AUTO 00000KT 10SM CLR 18/14 A3006 RMK AO2
KUNU 200236Z AUTO 00000KT 10SM SCT035 SCT050 18/14 A3008 RMK AO2

Boy do I love to fly at night!

So here was the plan: takeoff Watertown (KRYV), touch and go Madison-Truax (KMSN), full stop at Wisconsin Dells (KDLL), full stop at Dodge County (KUNU) and back to Watertown. Total distance of 111 nautical miles. It wasn't looking promising earlier in the day, as a trof was forecast to be moving across southeastern Wisconsin bringing overcast conditions with a chance for rain. Fortunately that proved inaccurate as the trof moved through faster than forecast, the breezes shifted around to the north, and the cloud deck dissipated. It turned out to be a beautiful night, with near calm winds at each airport and no turbulence in the air.

Even though I had the route plotted weeks ago, I still spent 3 hours reviewing each checkpoint of each leg. Since 02E has two navigation/VOR radios, I made sure each checkpoint had two VOR fixes. I made sure I had all frequencies for all airports listed on my flight plan along with runway diagrams and pattern information. The less I had to look at a map or look something up in the Airport/Facility Directory, the more attention I could spend on flying the plane.

I preflighted the plane while there was still some light, then I reviewed tower procedures and discussed our landing options for Madison with Adam before we got in the plane. We took off from runway 5 in calm winds, cleared the pattern, and turned toward Madison. Here begins the most nerve wracking part of the whole evening: talking to controllers. Madison is in Class C, radar controlled airspace, meaning I have to establish contact with approach control and follow their instructions based on my announced intentions. I'll spare the details, but this exposure to controller communications went a bit better than my first attempt during the Appleton cross country flight back in July. The controllers have a tendency to speak fast, and if they request something or direct something I haven't heard before, I just don't understand it. Those were the calls that Adam answered. Otherwise, I handled the basic communications fine. What I'll do is spend some time reading the Pilot/Controller Glossary and commit as much of it as I can to memory. But the perhaps the second coolest thing all night was when we were cleared to land on Runway 32 while a Northwest Airlines Airbus was instructed to position and hold on Runway 36. Imagine that! Big tin waiting for the little guy!

The landing itself was a 3 pointer, but straight, so we cleaned her up and took off, staying on the runway heading as directed by the tower. Depth perception is really tricky at night; the runway seems to stay low until you're on top of it, and then it's too late to flare. So the trick is to adjust the sight picture by watching the runway edge lights until you are almost level with them. Since we were on runway heading, and that heading was taking us to the Dells anyway, there wasn't much navigating to do on the second leg of the trip. Once we had the airport in sight, we called Madison Departure and asked to be released from control. They agreed and we made ready to land. I originally planned to land Runway 1, but since the wind was calm it was easier to enter the pattern on the downwind for Runway 19. I gave a shoutout on the CTAF, and hearing no other traffic, we executed our approach. So with the bright lights of the Ho-Chunk Casino adjacent to the airport, we landed. Now for the longest leg, to Dodge County.

This would be the longest leg, and without direction from any ATC, we were completely on our own. Actually, only I was. Adam brought his handheld GPS and had it mounted on his yoke, so he knew where he was. Gotta get me one of those things. Night navigation is easy as long as you've planned your checkpoints well, including timing. Keep the right course, and when the watch says you're there, just look out and make sure you're flying over lights. All of that time spent plotting VOR intersections and it came down to simple pilotage. We came to Beaver Dam, and I was drawn to two sets of lights. The first was of the Beaver Dam Raceway. Little cars going round and round, way cool from 3500'. Then, just after that was the Dodge County Fairgrounds with the annual county fair in full swing. Those two facilities pointed us right to the Dodge County Aiport just 4 more miles away. Winds were calm, and no traffic reporting, so I chose runway 2 since that pattern was the easiest to enter. The landing was average at best, and we pulled off and taxied back to the top to depart for Watertown. As we climbed and entered the downwind leg prior to leaving the pattern, the nightly fireworks went off back at the fairgrounds. Very cool.

A bit of a tailwind got us back to Watertown a few minutes quicker than usual, and I made right traffic to land on Runway 5. This was the best landing of the night, so with that feeling of satisfaction we made for the ramp and parked the plane for the night.

I asked Adam what was left for flying before the checkride. Two, maybe three solo cross country flights, some instrument flying, and final prep before the checkride. Things are really getting clear now. Hard to imagine I could have made it this far when I was struggling with landings back in May. Thanks for hanging in there; it's been my pleasure to share my quest with all of you. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Today is an important day.

Medical Certificate: 4-28-06
First Solo: 6-18-06
FAA Written Exam: 8-6-06
Solo Cross Country: To do
Checkride (Verbal & Practical): To do

I started working on the knowledge test right as I was starting my flying lessons. There was the big handbook by Jeppesen to read. Then there was the companion test prep book to go with the handbook. And let's not forget the test prep package from ASA with all the DVDs and dry commentary. There are 657 questions in the FAA test bank, and I must have answered 550 of them, some of them multiple times. Today it all paid off:


The score may make it seem like it was easy, and in some respects it was. You are presented with 3 choices to each answer. One of the choices is frequently improbable. The math problems aren't as easy because you still have to do the calculations. Sometimes with the word problems you can take a good guess. The bottom line is you can't just take this test blind and expect to pass. You have to at least be familiar with the material.

I arrived at the Wisconsin Aviation Flight School in Madison, where they are a designated computer testing center and presented my driver's license and logbook endorsement for verification. The proctor then started the LaserGrade interface that would administer the test. Once I was registered, the application took me through a brief tutorial to explain all of the features. Then it was on to the test. Sixty questions, 150 minutes to complete. The software builds the list of questions during registration, so no two tests are alike, and there's no practical way to just memorize the test. Things went along fine until the first question that required a course direction in the answer. I went to the figure, put the overlay on the course (you're not allowed to write in the supplement) and then......wait a second. Something missing here. No plotter. I FORGOT MY PLOTTER!!!! I'm hosed, for sure!

Now hold on, no need to panic. We can improvise. Let's look at the line. (They had a plastic overlay with a cross hair on it to measure distance). Wouldn't you know, it was a perfect split of the ordinal. And once I did the calculations, the result matched the choice on the screen. And, as luck would have it, the only other problem involving a course direction laid out the same way. So I was spared. A nice feature in the testing application was a flight computer emulator. I found it useful to double check my answers against what I was getting on my manual computer.

But alas, to the bad news. I did miss three questions. It wasn't until I got home that I was able to research the question bank to find them. One question I doubt I would have gotten correct, but the other two were quite preventable. So here they are (I'll leave the answers off to give you all a chance to answer them for yourself. Leave your guesses in the comments):

1. With respect to the certification of aircraft, which is a category of aircraft?
A) Normal, utility, acrobatic.
B) Airplane, rotorcraft, glider.
C) Landplane, seaplane.

2. (Refer to figure 4.) What is the maximum structural cruising speed?
A) 100 MPH.
B) 165 MPH.
C) 208 MPH.

Since you can't see figure 4 here, I will tell you that the answer I chose was answer C. It appears that the correct answer was answer B.

3. The normal radius of the outer area of Class C airspace is
A) 5 nautical miles.
B) 15 nautical miles.
C) 20 nautical miles.

I'm still kicking myself on this one. I spent 5 minutes looking at this one and looking at the Class C airports in the summary, and couldn't see the right answer. Turns out I was measuring the RADIUS when they were looking for DIAMETER. D'oh!

Chance is, even if I had those right, there's no telling how many others were half-baked guesses that could have gone the other way. According to 2005 FAA statistics, 95.5% of all test takers passed the test with a mean score of 84.9. So I didn't do too bad.

That's it for now, folks. Still a light schedule; the night cross country will be on Saturday the 19th. So check back then for the next installment of Rich's Quest For Flight.

Friday, August 04, 2006

KRYV 041915Z AUTO 33006KT 10SM CLR 28/12 A3012 RMK AO2

Ahh, another nice day. And this time the winds were favorable. But that didn't mean they weren't troublesome.

I meant to bring a camera with me to take some pictures as I flew over Riverfest, but damn if I didn't remember until I was turning on to Runway 5 to take off. So there you go. I did remember, however, to bring with me a list of maneuvers that I jotted down, although I knew the focus would be on steep turns. Once again, with just me in the cockpit, I rose fairly quickly to my ceiling of 3500', just so I could be above the turbulence. I headed north to the area between Clyman and Hustisford and performed my clearing turns. The CTAF was crackling with traffic, but none of it was within 20 miles of my location.

One disadvantage of the area I was in was that there weren't many roads running straight north-south or east-west, so ground reference was difficult. The only thing that nagged me as I set up for the first set of turns was the difficulty I was having maintaining maneuvering speed. So the first set I entered from the north, and got through it pretty well. I am more comfortable leaving a hand on the throttle to fine tune my speed, and the advice from the current issue of Plane & Pilot worked well for me, too. The article said you can fine tune altitude variations by simply increasing or decreasing the bank angle slightly. This seemed to work better than adjusting pitch, since adjusting pitch would take away speed or increase speed faster than I could react to correct. By adjusting bank angle, I could maintain the same pitch and I could manage my speed with the throttle. As it was, I did ok with the first set. The only thing I thought I could improve was to maintain a steeper bank since I did get to less than 45 degrees on a couple of occasions when I should be between 45 and 60 degrees. I try to stay away from 60 degrees, since going steeper than that is inviting a spiral, and I don't want that.

I set up again for another set of steep turns, but my altitude got away from me and I aborted the maneuver shortly after starting. And that was the nice thing about not having an instructor on board. No matter how much he is there to help, you always have a certain pressure to perform well when there's an audience.

I flew for a couple of minutes to get my thoughts together and performed some turns to reposition in my "box". I also used those turns to maintain that "steep" feeling. The P&P article suggested leveling out starting 45 degrees prior to completion, but the Cessna is so responsive that I could wait until 20 degrees to level out and still not turn past the start point. The third take went much better, with better control of speed and good bank control.

With the main objective of the flight completed, I set up for a rectangular course. These are supposed to be performed around 1500' AGL, but the air was too bumpy at that level, so I compromised and flew about 500' above that. My main objective here was to gauge how tight I needed to be to the course without overbanking. I'd rather perform the maneuver with steeper turns than trying to modulate a shallow turn and get clumsy at it. A steeper turn is more decisive. Not that I think I could fool an examiner though.

After a couple of rectangles and some S-turn practice, I headed back to Watertown. Runway 5 was the active (right hand pattern) and I was on the wrong side of the pattern, so I decided to stay high above pattern altitude and overfly the field before descending to pattern altitude and entering from the downwind. It had been a while since I used Runway 5, and I was slightly disoriented. By the time I turned final, I was too high and too fast. I cut throttle and pointed down, but I was still 10 kts fast at the threshold. This caused me to go long, and then the tricks happened.

Left quartering winds on Runway 5 pose a specific challenge at Watertown. First, the approach takes your over a low bluff and it's covered with trees. The wind, combined with a minor thermal, pushes the plane up. Then there's a set of hangers to the left of the runway that block the wind. So here I am wondering why I need right rudder to keep her straight. Then, as I floated down the runway, I came out from behind those buildings, and the crosswind pushed me off the centerline. I very nearly pushed the throttle in to abort the landing when the mains touched down. I landed straight, but right of the centerline. I decided to exit the runway instead of trying to take off, worried that I didn't have enough runway. Besides, my brain got a little scrambled, too. Better to take a moment to get myself back together than to make a poor decision.

So I taxied back to the top and took off again. I landed 3 more times, with #2 being straight but a little long, #3 being totally unsatisfactory (crooked) and the last one being satisfactory but slightly long. I had hoped to do some short field practice, but normal landings were challenging enough this day.

I got back to the flight desk and annotated my logbook. This flight completed a page in the logbook, so here's a recap. Total hours: 32.6. Night: 1.6. Cross country: 5.0. Solo: 1.9. Looking at the flying requirements, I need 1.4 more night hours, which I will do in two weeks. I need a little more than 2 hours of instrument flight and 5 hours of solo cross country flight. That leaves 3 more hours of solo flight. All told I need a minimum of 11 hours to finish requirements. Then it's a matter of practicing until Adam thinks I'm ready for my checkride. If everything goes well, that should come at anywhere from 44 to 48 hours.

Adam was in the office before my flight today, so I had a chance to show him my practice written tests. He was satisfied with them, and he endorsed my logbook so that I can take the written test in Madison. I called the test center and made a reservation for Sunday. So there we are. I'll be back with you after I take the test. Thanks again for stopping by.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

KRYV 032135Z AUTO 34008KT 10SM CLR 27/16 A2997 RMK AO2

Yes, it has been a long time since my last post, no doubt. I can explain.

But I won't. Instead, I'll just say that I've been especially busy with an aggressive work schedule, as well as the fact that we bought a new camping trailer and just HAD to take it out for a shakedown trip in the middle of Hades last weekend. That, and the fact that things were hopping up in Oshkosh made this a good time to take a break.

That said, I was really aching to get back in the sky today. But take a close look at the METAR. Sure it was a beautiful day today. And yeah! the heat wave has broken. But winds from NNW (and its evil twin, SSE) are as close to perpendicular to our two runways at KRYV as you can get. And with the breeze gusting to 13 kts, my crosswind limitations were exceeded. So no solo today. Adam offered to go up with me so I could practice, but I deferred. I've been aching to do a proper solo for a long time. I want a chance to do my manuevers as I want, and to yell at myself when I screw them up...I mean to self critique my own maneuvers.

So I reserved the plane for tomorrow afternoon and we'll try it again. Meanwhile, if you're anywhere near Watertown this weekend, do stop in at Riverside Park for our annual Riverfest. Free music and lots of fun!