Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Taking my sister for a ride (literally)

In my new life as an unemployed multiengine turbine jet pilot training to be a single engine piston instructor, there are a few harsh realities I have had to come to terms with. First and foremost, the 40 or so hours I have logged in Cessna 172s/182s over the last 15 years did not make me proficient in class (the airplane category, in which I do profess competency, is divided into single-engine land, multi-engine land, single-engine sea, and multi-engine sea classes), no matter how much experience I had in other aircraft. Let me count the ways....

In recognition of nearly everyone's New Year resolution: weight. Not mine (although now that you mention it,  that IS a factor), but the airplane's. My most recent ride was a Citation X with a maximum weight of over 36,000lbs. The Cessna 172, dependent upon model, may have a max weight of not much more than 2000lbs. p.s. I'm not telling you mine.

Since the Ten is the fastest civilian jet with a maximum cruising speed of 525 knots (972 km/h), or .92Mach (nearly the speed of sound), it should be noted that its approach speed, or the speed to which you slow in preparation for landing, is not much less than cruising speed of a 172, around 120 - 130kts or so (172 model specific, of course). The approach speed of a 172 may be less than 80kts. A CE750 (the FAA model designation for a Ten) would be in serious trouble at this speed (the wings unable to produce enough lift). Moreover, slow flight in a 172 can be 40 to 50kts. The airplane is held aloft, in part, by the clenching of gluteal muscles.

Slow flight is the name given to a training maneuver where a pilot flies to a safe altitude and then deliberately slows the airplane to a speed just above its stall speed. This maneuver is valuable in that it teaches the pilot to maintain control of the aircraft in adverse conditions; it requires coordination between hands and feet in order to maintain and it reminds the pilot of the signs and symptoms of a stall, attuning the pilot to recognize them should they occur in an emergency. 

I was kidding about the gluteal muscles. Not that they're not clenched, but that they hold the airplane aloft.
Note the above definition mentioned feet. In a multi-engined aircraft, pilots don't use their feet on the rudder pedals so much. Unless they're using the brakes, which are activated by applying pressure to the top portion of the brakes. A rudder is a control surface on the "tail fin" that controls yaw in the vertical axis, i.e. change the horizontal direction in which the nose is pointing.  Pilots let their heels touch the floor so they're not tempted to burn the brakes at high speeds, risking a blown tire. I have done this. Once you've endured the derision of  your coworkers for delaying an international VIP mission for the US Army for this reason, you will make it the last time you commit this error. Trust me. But rest assured, a pilot flying a single engine airplane (with some exceptions - I always feel like I need to make disclaimers!) is usually working those rudder pedals to maintain coordinated ("streamlined") flight.

Rudder shown deflected right
There are two other reasons pilots flying multi-engined airplanes use the pedals less often than a single engine pilot. The first is that with two engines the thrust produced by each engine tends to "balance" the turning tendency the airplane would have from each engine. Whereas with a single engine we have what's called P Factor: an aerodynamic phenomenon experienced by a moving propeller with a high angle of attack that produces an asymmetrical center of thrust. [I am way oversimplifying, go to Wikipedia for a more indepth definition.] In other words, right pedal. And in right and left turns, right and left pedal. Well, let's just say, a lot of pedal. Often. In multi-engine airplanes, the ones I have flown anyway, we also had Yaw Damper, which also meant as soon as it was engaged the pilot's feet go to the floor. And stay there. A habit I am trying very hard to unlearn...

So, to recap issues thus far. Weight, speed, controls... all of which is a bit different than what I'm used to. It's going to take a little practice. Practice in the maneuvers, as mentioned above, to become comfortable again in this unfamiliar airplane.

The panel in the Ten looks like this
Which brings us to instrumentation. 

Whereas in a 172, you'll often find this
 I bring this up because I am going to embed a video (hopefully), of some of the maneuvers that I have been practicing to refresh my skills. The video was produced by Rick Felty, a huge Girls With Wings Supporter and prolific YouTube poster of flying footage. [Read how the panel evolved in this blog entry from Aviation Mentor.]

How do I know he supports Girls With Wings? He's been known to sport our Definition of a Pilot tee in his videos. However, as you can see, he's a bit spoiled, with an instrument display more like the one in the Ten! The airplane panel I am now using looks more like the picture on the bottom, with round "steam gauges." (BTW, I took this opportunity to query the WWW about why the round dials are called this, and it seems the consensus is because they look like the gauges in steam engines - which doesn't have anything to do with the operation of an airplane. There's no shoveling coal to become a pilot that I know of. Several are gauges that use pressure, though, so maybe that's the link...?) Note that Rick does a few other maneuvers, like steep turns and falls - I mean, stalls - to increase his skills handling the airplane.

Ok, now that I've given you a list of excuses as long as my arm - oh wait! there's more! I am also accustomed to flying at a very high altitude for very long distances under IFR, or Instrument Flight Rules. To oversimplify yet again, I am used to filing a flight plan and being under positive control of the Air Traffic Controllers all the time. In the Ten I could fly in any kind of weather, or in many cases over it, whereas in the 172 one has to be more concerned with weather hazards and regulations, especially when flying under VFR, or Visual Flight Rules.

To explain why this matters, please forgive me, but I'm going to chop and slap down a big bite of text from Wikipedia:

To put instrument flight rules into context, a brief overview of VFR is necessary. Flights operating under VFR are flown solely by reference to outside visual cues, which permit navigation, orientation, and separation from terrain and other traffic. Thus, cloud ceiling and flight visibility are the most important variables for safe operations during all phases of flight.[3] The minimum weather conditions for ceiling and visibility for VFR flights are defined in FAR Part 91.155, and vary depending on the type of airspace in which the aircraft is operating, and on whether the flight is conducted during daytime or nighttime. However, typical daytime VFR minimums for most airspace is 3 statute miles of flight visibility and a cloud distance of 500' below, 1,000' above, and 2,000' feet horizontally.[4] Flight conditions reported as equal to or greater than these VFR minimums are referred to as visual meteorological conditions (VMC).

Visual flight rules are much more simplistic than IFR, and require significantly less training and practice. VFR provides a great degree of freedom, allowing pilots to go where they want, when they want, and how to get there.[5] Pilots are not required to file a flight plan, do not have to communicate with ATC (unless flying in certain types of "busier" airspace), and are not limited to following predefined published routes or flight procedures.
VFR pilots may use cockpit instruments as secondary aids to navigation and orientation, but are not required to. Instead, the view outside of the aircraft is the primary source for keeping the aircraft straight and level (orientation), flying where you intended to fly (navigation), and for not hitting anything (separation).[6]

I love the sentence that says, "Visual flight rules are much more simplistic than IFR, and require significantly less training and practice." This may be true, but it is possible to get out of the habit, or, as I have done little VFR flying, to never become comfortable with it.

So I finally get to my point. I had a couple of recent single engine airplane flights under my belt when I decided to go for one of those $100 hamburgers I had blogged about - with me the only pilot at the controls! [Nearly everything I've ever flown, from the Huey to the Ten, has required a two pilot crew.] My sister, a ground-pounder, believe it or not, agreed to go with me. I only say believe it or not because other family members, especially those who used to change my diaper, have refused. Even though I have been a professional pilot for 17 years and potty trained for more than twice that long. Tracy is younger than me so she doesn't have that particular bias.

I ended up, because of marginal VFR weather (yes, this is what the weather briefer issued), going to the same airport I blogged about recently to enjoy another Gorgonzola pizza. Only... I couldn't enjoy it. I reference the definition of VFR flying above when I tell you that I flew low. Yeah, completely legal, but lower than I have ever flown so I could stay below the clouds. The Federal Aviation Regulations state:
§ 91.119   Minimum safe altitudes: General.
Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:
(a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.
(b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.
(c) Over other than congested areas. An altitude of 500 feet above the surface, except over open water or sparsely populated areas. In those cases, the aircraft may not be operated closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.

So I more than complied with this, but in addition, I wasn't talking to Air Traffic Control! It was awfully quiet in there (actually, my sister was asking a bunch of really great questions, like "can you fly with the window open?" I had to ask someone later why you'd want to, and he said aerial photography. *facepalm*) and I missed the reassuring voice of the controller giving me traffic alerts and frequency changes.

And then, this is the worse part. I got lost. Ok, maybe just disoriented, but I am used to programming an FMS, or flight management system, and having the airplane practically land itself at my intended destination. I was trying to use a combination of looking outside at the natural and man made features and inside at my instruments to find my way, but when push came to shove I hit "direct" on the GPS. At such a low altitude, I wasn't giving myself a very good angle at which to recognize the airport environment. My sister, a pretty smart cookie, was the one who called my attention to the fact that the distance to the airport on the GPS had started counting UP. Luckily I needed to go that way to enter the traffic pattern anyway....

Obviously we survived the flight because I'm still blogging. But I could hardly eat any pizza imagining what I could be missing. My stomach was in knots thinking I busted some regulation and would received a letter with a return address of the FAA with information on which one. When I got back to the airport I conferred with my flight instructor and he assured me I was fine. As did his student, a pilot so new he'd not gotten his license yet, but more recently familiar with this type of flying.

But this experience reinforced in me how much I still had to learn. The principles of flying are universal, the regulations apply (and therefore should be known) to everyone, but that doesn't mean I was comfortable - or confident - in flying a 172 just yet. As I state in my CFI to CFI article, I, like most women I have met, need to feel confident in their abilities to be able to progress in their training. I will blog next about how I was able to find more, if not most (yet) confidence. So that next time I can enjoy that $220 pizza. Yes, that's how much it cost to rent the airplane for the trip.

Confidence, btw, was the theme of this month's Penelope's Page, a Girls With Wings publication for the younger set!


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