Friday, April 15, 2011

Lest I get too cocky…

Old style steam gauges
For three days I’ve been practicing in the flight school’s 172SPs. It is probably the newest airplane I’ve ever flown in – a 2008 model with Garmin 1000. If you’re not familiar with general aviation aircraft, you might not know what a big deal this is. Even I, who has been flying “glass” for years, had a transition from the steam gauges to the fancy new avionics.

Training courtesy of the Kings
I even kind of pooh-poohed the suggestion that I complete a computer training course before using it. How hard could it be? Well, first there are some really handy tricks to this thing (dare I say that even the Citation X didn’t have?) and I’m just not used to flying glass. What little flying I’ve been doing has been in round gauges. Main benefit to that, my new instructor Eric says, no parallax. In other words, the instruments are in front of the person in the left seat. As an instructor I’ll sit in the right. Looking over to the gauges means that for me to fly at 80 knots, the gauge should look to me as if it’s reading 83. Not that big of a deal, but I like not having to worry about it. Of course I’ll get spoiled flying these and have to revert once I start flying other airplanes without the geewhiz avionics.

Barry and I being silly
Main disadvantage to it? Distraction. I went out to fly in the 172 on a windy afternoon in South Texas. It was bumpy and gusty and I kept having to spend a long time looking inside to confirm information – like my altitude. So here I am doing a steep turn – supposed to be a visual maneuver, yet I was leaning inside (to block out the sun – don’t see that in Cleveland) and then peering back outside. Inside, outside. Inside, outside. Inside…. Out….side…. Ugh. Made myself sick. Not a very productive first day. And embarrassing. But thanks to Barry's aerobatic instructionat AcroCamp, I knew what the signs were for impending upchucking and stopped the training before I actually did so.

Day 2. Better. This time I went over to Victoria Airport and flew their other 182. This airport has, gosh, a tower. It’s funny how you get used to your environment so quickly in some things, and not so much in others. For example, I’ve been flying around non-towered airports so much I’ve gotten used to just making calls in the blind – or to self announce. For example, “Calhoun County Airport, Skyhawk 578AC taxiing from parking to the departure end of 32 for right closed traffic, Calhoun County.” Saying the airport name twice lets everyone on the frequency know to which airport you refer, in case they missed it the first time. Many airports in the same area use the same UNICOM (Universal Communication) frequency, because there are only a few:
  • 122.700 MHz
  • 122.725 MHz
  • 122.800 MHz
  • 122.950 MHz
  • 122.975 MHz
  • 123.000 MHz
  • 123.050 MHz
  • 123.075 MHz

But now I had to figure out how to talk to Air Traffic Controllers without sounding like a total noob. I mean, I’ve been talking plenty to towers over the last decades, but not as a VFR pilot. “Victoria Ground, Cessna 248AC at Victoria Flyers with information Xray, requesting taxi for VFR departure (I forgot the direction mid stream, so I just said) to the practice area.” Luckily, or maybe not always so, the controllers learn what tail numbers are used for the tenant flight school and so are willing to cut a little slack. Then I had multiple runways to deal with, so I had to find my way to the correct one and call tower when I was ready. Additionally, this airport has no radar, so I had to call clear of the Class D airspace. Whew. I mean, I AM a pilot, right?

This time we went out and practiced some of the commercial maneuvers, like chandelles and lazy eights. Even though these are ground reference maneuvers, I still spent a lot of time inside because of 1. Haze and clouds obstructing the horizon, and 2. Lack of section lines.
Section lines in the United States are one mile (1.6 km) apart. When surveyors originally mapped an area, for instance a township, it was their custom to divide the new township into 36 1-square-mile sections. Property ownership often followed this layout. A section is a 1 by 1-mile (1.6 km) area. A half section is a 1/2-mile by 1-mile (1.6 km) area. Besides property ownership, roads often followed the section lines, and one can often still see them in modern maps, even in urban areas. In rural areas, these roads are called section roads, and often exist primarily so that farmers can access their land.
But this applies to us pilots in that usually these section lines are north-south and east-west. So you can align yourself with a cardinal heading and follow a section line so you don’t have to keep checking your compass to see if you’re on your heading. And since many maneuvers involve 180’ or 360’ turns, the section lines are a great guide. Unfortunately, they’re more common in Ohio than they are in this part of Texas.

Today, I flew back at Calhoun County. Not so early that we had to fight the morning fog, but before the clouds and wind kicked up. We flew 1.1hrs. That’s how big that window is. It was dead calm, so my landings, for a change, could become consistent. Remember how I said something were not so easy to get over? Landing a Citation X, for me anyway, was a challenge of restraint. I SO wanted to pull the nose up to flare, but you just don’t in the Ten (my most recent aircraft). All the way down I had to talk to myself and make my muscles keep the airplane in that same landing attitude all the way down to the ground.

Grass strip above hangars and to left of taxiway
This is not the way to land a 172. The idea is to flare such that you’re raising the nose of the aircraft gradually to slow the rate of descent. At this time the nose should be continuously raised until the airspeed bleeds off and the airplane touches down just above stall speed. I don’t do this easily. I even tell myself during the roundout, pull up, pull up, pull up, pull up… and still land a little flat. But after a few landings, I'd like to think I'd cured that residual habit. Previous flight instructors have let me get away with it, but Eric isn't going to because it gives me a smaller margin of error in cases of (which happens here a lot) a gust of wind drops you into the ground.

Why is this important? Well, today I landed on a grass strip for the first time. One of the maneuvers I’ve been practicing is a soft field landing, to be used anytime the runway is contaminated, or less that what you’d expect on a paved surface. I’ve also been practicing a short field landing, for when the runway is, you guessed it, short.

Soft field landings mean you keep the nose up even longer to prevent it from sinking into the mud, snow, whatever (as to not become a wheelbarrow), and short field means you keep your approach slower and get the airplane stopped sooner. It was a handful. "Simulating" these maneuvers to a regular runway is not the same as actually landing on a actual grass strip. The airplane really bounces around on the lumpy dirt. By then the wind had picked up, so I there was a kicking crosswind, too. By my sixth landing I’d pretty much gotten it down, so we taxied back onto the ramp, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself.

Eric got out and mentioned that we’d picked up a nice bouquet of weeds in the left gear, so I came around to take a picture. Unfortunately, as I fumbled for my phone, I forgot about the strut, and hit my forehead so hard I literally fell back on my rump. Oh, my fragile ego. So much for the grass strip victory. [Eric was very kind to share all of his head bumping stories with me while the redness left my face.] The weeds were blown away before I could take the picture but as you can see, even all of that bouncing on the grass strip didn't damage the gear.

So I guess tomorrow I'll try this flying thing again. 

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