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.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Worth The Wait

KRYV 301356Z AUTO 23003KT 10SM SCT110 09/08 A2971 RMK AO2
KSBM 301453Z AUTO 25005KT 10SM BKN060 BKN100 11/08 A2969 RMK AO2 RAB39E50 SLP057 P0000 60000 T01110078 53007
KATW 301645Z 26008KT 10SM SCT020 BKN070 14/09 A2969
KUNU 301737Z AUTO 26007G18KT 10SM SCT065 16/10 A2974 RMK AO2

And so it was, the stars aligned. The forecast wasn't optimal, but once again it didn't turn out to be reality. Conditions overnight were IFR, but the advisory was dropped with the 1400Z AIRMET. I was clear to fly. It wouldn't be a milk run, though. The radar showed a line of showers passing just north of Appleton and heading southeast toward Sheboygan. Ignoring them would be perilous. Adam reviewed my planning sheets and endorsed my logbook while I called for the weather briefing. One thing I've observed about weather briefings. When I'm on the ground, the information I have is the same as, or in the case of radar better, than the weather briefers. One thing the briefing you get from Flight Service is best at is completeness, especially when it comes to the non-weather items, like NOTAMS.

With the endorsement and good wishes from the ground staff, I made 02E ready for flight. After finishing the walkaround and securing the cockpit door, I laid out my materials on the right seat: the chart, the Airport/Facility Directory, plotter, sunglasses, water bottle. The kneeboard with my flight plan and the E6B were strapped to my leg. With over 2 hours of flying ahead, I took a deep breath and cranked the plane to life. And with a final check of instruments and radios, I taxied to Runway 23 for takeoff.

After liftoff, I climbed quickly. I tuned to Madison VORTAC and raised Green Bay FSS to open my flight plan. One note from all of my climbs for the day: I did not do a good job of holding my climb speed. Since that is part of the practical test, I need to focus on it. On the other hand, there will be someone in the right seat during the checkride, and the plane is not so spry with a passenger. I should be ok. The ride into Sheboygan is without incident, I make left traffic for Runway 21 and execute a decent landing. But there were dark clouds with rainshafts just to the north of the airport, and raindrops are hitting the windshield as I stop the plane on the ramp so that I can close the flight plan. My first attempt to call Green Bay FSS on GCO fails, so I shut the engine down and use my cell phone. I closed the flight plan, and I almost forgot to ask for an update on conditions at Appleton. And it's a good thing I did, because Appleton was reporting a ceiling of 3000'. That and the rain over Sheboygan was enough to convince me to get out of the plane on wait it out in the FBO. (The FBO, Western Shore Aviation, was pretty sweet. They had 6 leather recliners in the pilot lounge. Too bad I was too nervous to sit down.)

After 45 apprehensive minutes, the radar showed no precipitation en route, and the latest observations for both Sheboygan and Appleton showed ceilings above 5000'. I headed back to the plane. I strapped in, checked the controls for freedom of movement, and started the plane. I headed back toward Runway 21. I had called my position on the ground, and I even saw a plane land, but nothing was coming over the radio. That's when I noticed my first blunder. I had forgotten to tune the radio back to CTAF from the GCO frequency. Not a big deal, but one of those detail things that drive me nuts. The skies looked good from the ground as I lifted off of Runway 21 and made my turn toward Appleton.

I made it to 3500' in little time as the plane was running well. Then, at 4000', everything went white. How could that be? I didn't see any cloud layer from below, yet here I was with no visibility. Do I keep climbing? That's risky business; I don't know how thick this layer is. I look below and observe clouds at about 2500'. How long can I fly above those clouds and still have a hole big enough to descend through? Appleton is reporting scattered at 2000', but this looks closer to a broken ceiling. It's a tough decision, but I decide to descend below the clouds. This will mean flying about 800' above ground level, so I have to be very careful. Towers can definitely come into play if I'm not extremely careful. Looking back, this may not have been a good decision, I'll admit to as much. The ride was bumpy, and I always had to keep an eye out for potential landing sites. If the engine quit now, it was a short trip to the ground. And I had to pee. The adventure was now in full swing, and it would only get better.

It was a great relief then, when I reached the eastern edge of Lake Winnebago. No more towers, but now I had to call Appleton tower. I made initial contact with Appleton tower and tower replied with an instruction to report when 5 miles out and to expect Runway 2_. I read the instruction back, but I got the runway wrong, which the tower controller quickly corrected. This is also when I made my next mistake. I stopped paying attention to my VOR needle and tried to find the airport visually. When I thought I was 5 miles east, I called the tower. The tower asked me again for my position. After my reply, tower immediately replied "Skyhawk 02E, IDENT". I knew right away I was not where I thought I was. I quickly pressed the ID button on my transponder, which sends a ping that the controller can see on his radar. He came back and told me where I really was, and it was time to confess. "Appleton Tower, I'm a student on solo, airport not in sight." Tower told me to turn to the southwest, and the airport should be about 5 miles to my 10 o'clock. Shortly afterward, I saw the airport and notified the tower. I was then cleared for landing, and things were fine as I landed.

I really had to go to the bathroom, and I tried to reach the FBO on the UNICOM frequency, but there was no answer. So I found a place to park on the ramp, shut the plane down and took my break. They have ramp fees at that FBO, so I discreetly went in, nodded at the girl at the desk, found the bathroom, and quickly made my way back to the plane. Next set of tasks would be to complete my landings requirements at a towered airport. I am required to do 3 solo landings, and 1 was complete. When I contacted the tower, I asked for 2 stop and go landings, and since traffic was light, the tower approved. A stop and go would allow me to stop on the runway after landing, then take off from that position. The runway was over 6000' long, so there would be plenty of room. All of that went quite well. The patterns were good, the landings were good, and communications were good. Just after taking off for the last time, I requested departure to the south. The tower told me to maintain heading while a commercial jet came in, then directed me to the south, which was good because this ensured I got above the 3500' ceiling of Oskosh airspace about 12 miles south of Appleton. I reached my cruise altitude of 4500', and requested to change radio frequency from Appleton tower, which was granted.

As I made my way over Appleton, conditions were good. That is until I saw a scattered cloud layer ahead at about eye level. I tuned Fond du Lac ASOS, and it said the scattered level was at 5000'. So I had to make another decision. Do I go over or under? This time, I could see this was just a cloud band, and there were clear skies at the other side, and this scattered layer had plenty of clear holes that I could descend through. So I pushed the throttle in and took the plane up to 6500'.

I wasn't at the level for long, as I needed to make my descent for Dodge County. I did have to deviate slightly to the west to make it through the clouds, but that worked to my favor, setting me up nicely for my entry into the Runway 26 pattern. Everything went fine at Dodge County, and I only had time to touch and go and make it back to Watertown.

It was good to hear the familiar "Welcome to Watertown" greeting on the CTAF as I tracked over the city on the way to a landing on Runway 23. It was a long morning, with 2.8 hours of flying time. I lingered in the lounge for about an hour, drinking in the experience, telling my tale to the nice lady at the desk, and building up anticipation for the next chance I would get to fly. It's getting closer now, let's see if we can get it done before Thanksgiving.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Back In The Saddle

KRYV 292257Z AUTO 18005KT 10SM BKN065 OVC075 12/04 A2975 RMK AO2

The last time I flew, it was summer. Warm, sunny, summer. It's been a while. Today was chilly, overcast, with some scattered showers wandering through. I originally intended this to be a solo practice session, but Adam had added himself to the whole time slot, and I had no problem having him along for some practice evaluation. Turned out to be a good idea. When we departed, winds were from 160, so Runway 11 was the choice. By the time we came back, the winds favored Runway 23, and a nice little crosswind at that.

My great fear today was how rusty I was. I took plenty of time with the preflight walkaround, and by the time I strapped myself in, I was ready. We were up and heading north, and we can see virga in the distance. It would certainly add realism to the simulated instrumented flying we would do later. Level at 3000' and after the clearing turns came the first order: steep turns. Toughest stuff first as usual. The turn to the left started out a little shaky, but I recovered quickly. The transition to the right turn was flawless, and the turn and roll out were very satisfactory. The key to my success? I never took my hand off the throttle. And that goes back to that instructor in Santa Fe. And because of the obvious variations of engine power I noticed while running through the mountain updrafts, I now can tell just through listening that the engine is running too fast or too slow. So now when I do a steep turn, I can concentrate more on the visual horizon and manage the plane by touch and feel.

After slow flight practice, Adam gave me the hood for the first time and told me I just flew into a cloud deck. The fancy name is Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC). There I practiced a procedure turn and controlled descent to get us out of the "clouds". I tell you what, that is an unsettling feeling indeed to not be able to see the outside references. But just like everything else, I'm sure practice makes it familiar.

Back to Watertown, and the wind had shifted to give us a nice crosswind option for Runway 23. Entered on the upwind, hit all the marks and greased the landing. I can't recall a previous session that I nailed the first landing. Nothing sounds sweeter than the stall horn going off just as the upwind main gear hits the pavement. I cleaned up quickly and went around two more times. On the third circuit, another instructor came into the pattern just behind me, so I knew we wanted to clear the runway at the first taxiway. So I was just a little distracted as I touched down, a small crosswind puff making for some side loading on the gear. Not a great landing, but ok. Adam then hit the brakes so we can make the turn (inducing a little skid in the process). Then, all of a sudden, a loud klaxon noise came through the radios. Well, let's just say I know what the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) sounds like. We had to deal with that noise all the way to the ramp. We jumped out of the plane once I shut down, and we got at the ELT in the baggage compartment and turned it off. We both laughed about it, after all it wasn't a bad landing. I had certainly had much worse. We both knew that this long journey was entering its final phase. If only the weather would cooperate.

Friday, September 22, 2006

FAA Slaps Chicago Over Midnight Raid On Helpless Airport

Chicago will pay a $33,000 fine for illegally tearing up Meigs Field airport without proper notification. And the city will have to repay $1 million of airport funds that Mayor Richard M. Daley illegally diverted from O'Hare and Midway airports to give to the destruction contractors.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Best Available Information

We pilots are bound by Federal Aviation Regulations to base our flight decisions on all available information. With my long solo cross country scheduled for today, I started looking at the forecasts last night. And the forecasts weren't good. Not for Green Bay, not for Madison. A frontal boundary was scheduled to pass through my flight area during my flight window, with thunderstorms, moderate turbulence, and wind shear. Saturday was a windy day in the area, and turbulence was a problem, even though it was very pleasant on the ground. I resigned myself to a negative decision in the morning, based on available information.

That information did not change overnight. I didn't get a phone call from the airport this morning, so I made my way in and met Adam in the standby room. Ground winds were 180 degrees and breezy while winds at 3000' were 240 degrees and strong. A very sharp wind shear at just around pattern altitude. Plus, the TAFs were still predicting rain in Madison during my return with gusty winds. There were still enough negative variables to scrub the flight, and that was my call.

So as I write this, guess what happened? The squall line thunderstorms broke apart, with nary a shower remaining. The ground winds are now close to the low level winds aloft. Perhaps some turbulence still, but it's not a bad day out there. I had a plane of my own, I'd love to shoot some landings. But I made the decision on the best available information. Very frustrating. The plane is not available next weekend, so it will be two weeks before my next chance. Adam assured me that once we get the last cross country out of the way, that it's just a matter of a few more hours of instruction and some practice and we'll be looking at the checkride. Still, I can't help the nagging feeling that I'm stuck in this rut and I won't get it done before the first snow.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Long Cross Country, Take 2?

KRYV 101436Z AUTO 09011G17KT 10SM OVC036 15/12 A3023 RMK AO2
KSBM 101353Z AUTO 09008KT 10SM SCT034 OVC065 15/07 A3028 RMK AO2
KATW 101345Z 08008G15KT 10SM SCT040 OVC070 13/08 A3028

For those tuning in hoping to see a wonderful reverie of my fantastic flight, sorry to disappoint. The problem here is a strong high pressure system over eastern Ontario that is blocking moisture moving north from the Gulf of Mexico. A trof in this system is causing a low overcast with scattered showers that has scrubbed the day. It's not IFR conditions, and it's not marginal around the whole course, but just enough for postponement. So now I wait for another week. It's been tough. The anticipation is just like that for a big holiday or any other significant day. Thanks again for stopping by and tune in next Sunday.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Alone In The Sky?

KRYV 021815Z AUTO 11006KT 10SM SCT047 23/12 A3019 RMK AO2
KSBM 021953Z AUTO 06007KT 10SM CLR 23/11 A3020 RMK AO2 SLP224
KUNU 022035Z AUTO 08005KT 10SM SCT048 SCT060 24/11 A3019 RMK AO2

Today was a big test. First solo cross country. And it took some piloting skills to get this one done.

I met Adam at the airport, where he examined my flight plan (RYV-SBM-UNU-RYV) and, satisfied I was ready to go, endorsed my logbook. I took my plane with my preflight walk around, practicing in my mind what I would explain to an examiner when the time comes. The first minor surprise came when I started the plane and tuned in the AWOS on the radio. The winds were still light, but they had shifted to the right, meaning Runway 11 would be my takeoff runway instead of Runway 5. One final check of my cockpit organization, kneeboard strapped to leg, map folded, and I was off. Just after liftoff I called Green Bay FSS over the Madison VOR to open the flight plan.

The first event of note was as I approached Hartford. I made a call on Hartford CTAF that I was transitioning the area en route to Sheboygan. Another pilot responded by saying he was southeast of the airport towing gliders. I could not see him, but I replied that I would stay to the northwest of the airport and continued on.

This is the village of Kewaskum, from the south looking north at 3500' MSL. As I neared Sheboygan, the scattered clouds cleared away and the wind shifted back around to the north. I would be using Runway 3 in Sheboygan, a decision backed up by the local traffic flying the closed circuit at the airport. I was approaching from the southwest, and I heard a call from a Beechcraft Bonanza approaching from the south and at a slight greater distance. I looked to my right rear, but that's a blind spot in a Skyhawk. I announced that I would enter the pattern on the upwind leg while the Bonanza announced he would go straight in. If he doesn't see me, then there's a slight chance my path can cross in front of his with bad results. He contacted my over the CTAF to try to get a fix on my location, and I told him at that time that I would do a left 360 turn to let him by. Just as I began my turn he announced that he saw me and thanked me for the courtesy. I landed at Sheboygan (flared late again, pretty much a 3-pointer) and brought the plane to the parking area where I then contacted Green Bay FSS via GCO and closed the flight plan.

That part done, I doubled checked the gauges and set the radios for my next leg. I then taxied to the runway, took off, and did a couple of touch and gos before leaving Sheboygan for Dodge County. Not long after leveling off at 4500', I was startled by another Cessna flying north , crossing maybe 500' above me. There was no radio call or anything. For all I know the plane might have been on a different frequency. When between airports, or in areas where there isn't an airport nearby, a pilot can choose whatever frequency to monitor that he feels will be most useful; there's no specific frequency. Let's call it another good reason to abide by the VFR altitude rules.

Except for the bumpy air and the return of scattered clouds, things were uneventful until I neared Juneau. I fixed on a water feature that I thought was near Beaver Dam and I aimed to the left (south) of it. Turned out I misidentified the feature and was actually the Horicon Marsh, and I was about 3 miles south of my plotted checkpoint, which was Mayville. Once I reoriented myself I turned toward Mayville then began my descent into the pattern for Juneau. The AWOS reported calm winds at Juneau, which was unexpected to me. Now I'd have to pick a runway. Since I was heading southwest, why not try Runway 26? I made my initial call on CTAF, then heard a plane that was taking off from Runway 8 and heading toward Juneau, the opposite of 26. I was now confused. Which runway to use? I made a left turn, then moments later the plane that just took off passed below me. I had made a serious mistake in judgment, turning into the path of a runway. If I am going to deviate my course while on approach, I must ensure I am not crossing any extended runway paths. This was certainly the low point of the flight; I was pretty rattled. After the first plane left, I was alone in traffic, so I decided on Runway 20 and entered the pattern on the crosswind. I made two landings at Juneau, and both were awful. I don't know if it was a light crosswind, or that I was still a little off from my close encounter, but I just didn't have it together. So after the second landing I thought to myself "just get this thing back to Watertown, and by the time you get there you'll be more composed."

So I headed south on my final leg, the short 13 miles or so to Watertown. Over the CTAF I could hear Adam, with another student this time. A different feeling, to be sure. I entered the pattern for Runway 11 and setup for the landing. Another bad landing, with a main wheel coming off the ground to boot. I got the wheel down, then decided to take off again. But since I landed long and took extra distance to correct the plane, I was running out of runway. I managed to get her off the ground with 500 feet to spare, but it was another case of bad judgment. This is going to be the last landing, better make it good. I know I wasn't properly catching my sight picture on final all day, let's focus on that this time. Let's make sure the speed over the threshold is good. And so it was as I turned final; height was good, speed was good, and I was centered. Look over the nose down the runway. Flare. Hold it. Hold it. Let it settle. Nose up, and touchdown. Best landing in a while. And somehow the difficult moments didn't seem so bad. I had just completed my first solo cross country. Two hours in the air by myself. Great flying. This time though, I taught myself some lessons.