Monday, May 30, 2011

Aviation Inspiration Day Recap

Last Saturday, May 28th, was the first ever Aviation Inspiration Day - a joint effort between Girls With Wings, Inc., and the Commemorative Air Force - Minnesota Wing, led by Squadron Commander Col. Amy Lauria. Amy and I had talked at EAA Airventure in Oshkosh about "someday" coordinating an event at the CAF museum and we finally just looked at our respective calendars to chose the day that would work for both of us (which is often the hardest part of getting such things going). That day just happened to be the first day of a long holiday weekend. Would the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul be deserted of residents fleeing for vacation destinations?

It turned out that we shouldn't have worried about the turnout (ok, it was mostly me who was worried). I mean, I had less success than Dave Sniadak of Axiom Marketing who did an outstanding job getting news outlets to promote the event. He found local newstations and papers willing to cover this day-long event for families to explore and enjoy aviation activities. The clincher? We were additionally offering four sessions of the hugely successful Girls With Wings presentation. I myself was able to get a couple of aviation newsletters to carry advance notice of the event but fewer than I might have hoped. After all, the feedback that I had been getting from aviation organizations that try to put on large events for kids is that they get a much larger turnout from the boys. Now here was an event specifically to attract the girls.... Were we tilting at windmills here?

We also offered space to other organizations involved in promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) opportunities by having tables with their information. We were happy to see the MN Wing of the Civil Air Patrol there promoting their activities as well as the Young Rembrandts offering drawing lessons with an aviation theme to the kids. Where were the other aviation organizations? Where were the schools, the clubs, anyone else interested in getting a larger audience of girls into their group? Here we were, offering an opportunity to reach out to more girls... had they given up? Am I wrong in the mission of my organization? Is there no interest in aviation from girls? Was I going to show up Saturday morning and only see a few stragglers at the airport?

Not. Even. Remotely.

The terminal building at Fleming Field started filling up at 8:30am with eager families wanting to get their girls into the first GWW presentation at 9 am for girls 1st thru 4th grade. Many of the folks had taken us up on the pre-registration option online for the presentation to provide priority seating for the follow-on Young Eagles flights - yes, that's right. The presentation has been awesome on its own, but this time, the girls "graduated" from the session with their Pilot Certificate which they walked over to the EAA Chapter 1229 table to sign up for their free airplane ride. What a great opportunity for the girls to put into practice what they'd learned. Said one of the YE pilots, "it was the first time that I saw the majority of the girls not there just because they were dragged along with a brother. They were all eager and clamoring for their chance at the controls. It was great to see such self-confidence in the girls." We had two sessions each  for 1 - 4 grades and for 5 - 8 grades and with the walk-ins, we far exceeded our expectations for attendance.

The weather was definitely conducive to flying, the first warm sunny day the area had seen for a while. Well, at least til about 2pm when the skies darkened and the torrential downpour began.  In fact it was so nice we had a tough time deciding whether to drag folks back inside for our speaker series. After all, we had hamburgers and hotdogs, chips and drinks provided courtesy of Wipaire, Inc., a manufacturer of airplane floats, and people were strolling around looking at the different aircraft on display. We even had the Lifelink III helicopter! I spent the time getting feedback from the parents. Most were surprised, based on the size of the crowd, that this was our first such event. Other parents told me that they were thrilled at the educational nature of the event, because it incorporated STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, in such a fun way. But people did want to sit and listen to the different speakers: me and Amy from CAF-MN; Melissa, an Air Force mechanic, Carrie, an Air Traffic Controller, and Lydia, a CAP officer.

There was a lot going on for all of the families - yes, people brought their boys too, though the GWW presentation was the only thing just for girls. The boys, too, got rides on the vintage fire truck, WWII vehicles and the aircraft and took part in all of the other activities. In fact, I am so glad we'd built in time to have rest breaks - breaks between the sessions, breaks for the YE pilots, etc., there were so many people there that our few volunteers, to include Amy's husband, Jim, Don, a cadet from the CAF, Linda, who ran the CAF PX, Kjersti, a local 99, and the many CAP members (Oh, and the cooks, too!). We also dragged my brother out, and of course my dad is always on board with helping out. At a post-event dinner, the principal players all decided: 1. We definitely had over 250 attendees. 2. We are definitely going to it again next year. And believe it or not, on the same weekend. Mostly because in Minnesota there's no telling what the weather will be like; probably the last weekend in May likely will be the first one without some chance of snow and frost. But we don't want to wait until too late, because of the end of the school year and less of a chance of making folks aware of the next Aviation Inspiration day.

[BTW, I had a heck of a time getting the word out to the schools. Liability issues, I think, but if any of you have resources in these schools, we'll need you for next year!]

All in all, I would definitely check the "success" box for the first Aviation Inspiration Day and we are looking forward to doing another Aviation Inspiration Day at Fleming Field next year. I am also interested in doing more of these events at other locations so ...... If you are a highly motivated individual (like Amy Lauria) with access to a list of contacts within your area, well connected to a local airport, with a nice terminal or other available building, perhaps a museum and facilities on the field that can give tours, and enthusiastic organizations that would like to participate, please contact me. We can talk dates and about sponsorship, promotion, budgeting, etc., so that these events can keep getting bigger and better. And maybe, as I have said from the beginning, put Girls With Wings out of business .... when people wonder why there would have ever been a need to have an organization to encourage more girls to have an interest in aviation.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

This woulda been a great inning

VFR Chart
I have tried to come up with words that would describe for either a non-pilot or a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) only pilot what the big deal is for an experienced IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) pilot to fly under the different rules. I think part of it is that IFR pilots often are provided their flight plan and releases from a computer and they additionally do the same routes day in and day out. One can tend to get a bit complacent. That doesn’t mean that this is easy, you still have weather and a multitude of other issues to worry about. But usually, and I’m totally generalizing, VFR pilots have either a lot more planning to do (since they don’t have a dispatch department) and/or they are flying “under the radar,” often literally.

IFR Chart
So IFR pilots, for example, airline pilots, can follow the little black lines on their charts while they talk to Air Traffic Controllers throughout the flight. They are in fact “handed off” to the next controller. Not so as a VFR pilot. YOU have to figure out who to talk to, and there is airspace you can’t enter if you’re not talking to ATC. Some airspace is prohibited for VFR flights (Class A, above 18,000 feet MSL) or you have to get permission to fly into (Class B, around “Busy” airports). I’ve alluded to the different calls to ATC you have to make before. You also ultimately have to worry about “busting airspace,” for which you can potentially have your pilot’s certificate suspended. HUGE implications.

In a way, I explained to someone, it’s not like just driving a different car (going from a Citation X to a Cessna 182), it’s like additionally driving in a foreign country. The car will operate basically the same, and most of the principals of traffic laws may be obvious, but there are signs in a different language. It would be just enough to put you on high alert for your entire trip.

Houston's Class B
Alright, now for the real topic of this story. Having just returned from my trip to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in Oregon, I needed to get back in that C182 to do some training. I emailed the flight instructor to see when it would be available and at which airport (both KPKV and KVCT flight schools share it). I woke up the next morning about the plane being needed to pick up the owner of the flight school, Dianna, in Houston, but no other information. That’s one of the awesome things about training here, I get to intersperse traffic patterns and practice maneuvers with real world missions! Plus, having never flown into Class B airspace (that Busy airspace mentioned above where you need permission), I knew I had to do it, especially if I am eventually going to be instructing in Cleveland, also a Class B airport.

So logistically this was a headache. The 182 was up at Victoria Airport and I’m at Port Lavaca. I could have driven there, but then my car would be stuck there (and frankly, my car is starting to really make some loud noises. I’m praying it makes it back to Cleveland next week and my friend can fix it up for my trips to WI and MN coming up). We decided the best thing would be for me to fly up in the 172 and swap. This was great in that I was paying more attention to the differences in the two airplanes, which makes my knowledge of both better.

At this point I still didn’t know when the flight to Houston was going to have to leave. Already that morning I had used AOPA’s flight planner to figure out direction, distance and time needed (ok, maybe VFR pilots don’t have to work as hard as they used to do, either). I tore the VFR sectional apart looking for gotchas (tall towers, other restricted airspace, dimensions of the Class B, etc). I double checked my VFR weather minimums (required cloud clearance and visibility) but the day was devoid of any clouds. I looked at the Federal Aviation Regulations again about Class B, but one thing I was painfully aware of is that to enter Class B airspace, the controller must actually say your call sign and the words, “Cleared into Class B airspace.” NO exceptions.  [Only now, editing this blog post, do I find a webpage specifically for pilots on Houston's Class B.]

I could have spent all day researching more of these gotchas except that time was starting to run short. Once I got to Victoria, we decided on a plan that I would bring David, one of the employees of the flight school, back to pick up the van to get supplies for Kid’s Day at the Airport (May 6th). I dropped him off at Port Lavaca (with a little instructing along the way) and got myself some lunch. Then back to the airport where I grabbed Steve, the airport manager, to practice grass strip landings with me because the culmination of this flight would be to drop Dianna off at the ranch on a grass strip. The strip at Port Lavaca is about 2400 feet long. The one at the ranch, 1/3 shorter. So Steve was pushing me to get the airplane on the ground and stopped well before the end for my eventual landing at the ranch.

By the time David returned for his flight back to Victoria, we were running late. I was going to have to leave Victoria and go straight to Houston, no time for any more planning. But Steve had briefed me on what to expect – and it happened pretty much as he said. BTW, I have to stop with the self deprecating humor about how much I scare myself. I think Steve is starting to doubt my ability/knowledge/confidence. At one point he asked, “what did you do all those years flying around for the airlines?” Again, we didn’t fly the same way (sometimes for the airlines we did have to cancel IFR and land VFR, but not often, and always at the same place – I had learned what to do at these airports as a First Officer so I did the same as a Captain – not a lot of variation) and I had also been an FO with the fractionals so long (since 2002) that I had become quite, uh, lazy. This is one of my reasons for becoming a flight instructor. Back to the basics!

My first challenge was pretty basic. I was given clearance to take off, and cleared “on course” which I had trouble, now that I'm back on the ground, finding exactly what that meant. I had always assumed it meant to turn direct to the destination. However, in this instance my direction of flight was going to take me over the departure end of the parallel runway and the tower had just cleared an aircraft for a low approach. My thought was, if the traffic pattern for this runway was on the right, should I go the long away around before I turned to go to Houston? Arg? So, safety being more important than shame, I confirmed with tower that he did indeed intend for me to fly over the runway (he actually did so in the tone of “duh”). Leaving Victoria's airspace, I asked tower to confirm the frequency to get “flight following” or radar traffic information service with Houston Approach. A great primer on this topic.

I contacted Houston: “Houston Center, Skylane 397ME, request.” This way, I know, you don’t clog up the radio right off. Let the controller call you back when he has the time to talk to you, and then be ready to answer when he says, “Skylane 7ME, Houston Center, go ahead.” “Skylane 7ME, 10 miles east of KVCT, 2500 feet, VFR enroute to Houston Hobby, request flight following.” Then Houston calls me back with a transponder code so they can identify me on their radar screen so that they can advise me of any traffic which might result in paint swapping. Interestingly enough, I again tried to look up flight following, which is actually called “traffic advisories,” but again, though it is defined in the Aeronautical Information Manual, no help on how to request. This is tough! Trying not to further embarrass myself, I was hesitant to ask/announce/? a change in altitude despite 2500 feet bouncing me around a bit. If I asked, the controller might say, “altitude your discretion” again with a twinge of duh (I’ve heard THAT before). So, I stuck it out.

My flight path took me farther north when expected because I took off from KVCT instead of KPKV, so I flew right over Wharton Airport, which is uncontrolled. In the interest of safety, I make a call on their Unicom to let anyone know I was transitioning over the airport at 2500 feet. Turns out that did no good whatsoever, especially to the pilot in the airplane I saw right below me. They didn’t say anything on the Unicom, but I heard them on center announcing that they were now ABOVE me. Somehow in their climb we managed not to meet. Whew. And so much for "traffic advisories" from center.

Approaching Houston
Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out the autopilot. I got it programmed, but it seemed to be diving and weaving quite a bit, so I turn it off and hand fly. Occasionally I’ll check the chart to get my orientation, but before I know it, I’m switched off to another Houston controller that asks me to confirm that I have “Information Xray” – the current ATIS. Argh! I don’t have it. Tune it up on the other radio, and of course, it’s super long. Meanwhile the controller is calling me back asking for my altitude. Used to listening for “ExecJet” first, I miss the first time, but tune in to his voice when I hear his request said in a “hey, moron” tone. Strike 2.

Next, as Steve had prepared me for, ATC asked if I knew where the Superdome was. I had to reply no – no time to find it on the chart, either. He came back in a minute and asked me if I was familiar with the antenna farm, so I said yes. [It can be found on the map to the left, a bit west of Hobby and a little south.] My directions were to fly west of the antenna farm and then head northeast. Immediately I regretted this. I mean, Steve had showed me on the map, but… I looked down and saw a lake, clearly also on the map, so I was good to go. Within seconds, a huge array of antennas became within view. Then, the next wrinkle. I knew if I reached the antenna farm I was within Class B. Remember I said you needed a specific clearance into the airspace? Well, I had gotten directions beyond the Class B, so it could be argued that I was cleared, but I didn’t want to argue with the FAA. So after a few minutes of debate with myself, I asked the controller, “Confirm cleared into Class B airspace?” The controller, with no “duh” tone at all, confirmed. Whew.

As I approached HOU from the west, my next instructions were to cross midfield of the airport at 1600feet. Now that I think about it, the controller never asked if I had the airport in sight. Anyway, and then I was to enter a left downwind for 12L (left). The funny thing about downwinds is that a left downwind means that you will fly to the right of the runway. You have to remember that the runway will be to your left. I'd have been following that line from 4 toward the 22, then turning left, and another left and then one more left to land on that strip with the 12L on the end of it.  Except that before I arrived over the airport, about where that Million Air dot is, the tower told me to start my turn to the left. I spent a frantic moment figuring out how to enter a left downwind if I turned to the left before the runway. Clearly, I still had to get to the other side of the runway, so I understood this to “scootch left,”  i.e., stay to the left of Runway 4.

Tower asked me if I saw the beechjet on final for 12R, which I did, so my clearance became, “Skylane 7ME, maintain visual separation with the beechjet, cleared to land 12L.” I made a big 270 degree loop (no more 90' left turns) and was thankful when I identified 12L written on the asphalt. Strike 3 was not landing on the wrong runway.

Well, I should have landed long, because I had to roll all the way out to the other end of the runway (past Signature even), where I then taxied to the wrong FBO. After a bit of confusion, I started the engine (ha-ha, I typed engines first! Force of habit.) and then taxied over to the maintenance hangar where Dianna was dropping off the Husky to get it ready for the AirRace Classic.

She jumped in and went to work, just like a great crew should. I could have spent a long time debating over what to say to clearance delivery for a VFR departure, but she had already filed. Turns out they didn’t have the flight plan, but he worked it out quickly and it sounded almost like an IFR clearance. With everything scrambled in my head, it was sure nice to have someone looking at the airport diagram with our taxi instructions! Holding short of runway 22, we watched a 737 take off. Great. Just what I want to do. Experience wake turbulence in a 182.

One of the things I learned in my training (but only because I asked), is what heading to maintain after takeoff when VFR. For IFR pilots, you maintain runway heading even if the wind blows you off course - the controller expects you to be on a heading. VFR pilots, because they can see the runway, are expected to pick a heading that will maintain alignment with the runway – fly all the way down right over it. Momentary relapse, I was sloppy. Let the wind push me to the right and then turned to the assigned heading (only ten degrees to the right) too early. Sloppy. Tsk. Tsk.

As we left the airport, it was just like IFR again, except the calls to change frequencies came much slower due to our decreased speed. Although we had told them to expect us to climb to 8500 feet, once we had reached 4500 it was nice and smooth so we told them that we wanted to cancel with them. ATC said, “7ME, cancellation received, squawk VFR, frequency change approved.” This meant that we would no longer receive traffic advisories, our transponder code should now be 1200, like every other VFR airplane, and we could now switch to the advisory frequency for Palacios airport, the closest to the ranch.

GMaps doesn't yet show strip diagonally between 2 Roads
Enroute to the ranch, Dianna coached me on some more of the features of the GPS and the autopilot, which, once engaged at a smoother altitude seemed to be a lot more stable. Once we got to the ranch, we did a couple of passes of the airport just to get familiar. The ranch is on the water, so the wind is variable, so we chose what we thought was the best direction to land. When I lined up the first time, we decided that we’d do a go-around, just for practice, but after I started the climbout we both looked at each other and said, “we could have made that.” So we came around again, and it was great to have a co-pilot calling out my airspeeds and altitude so I could focus on my closure with what is basically a level part of a field surrounded by fences, trees, and at least temporarily, an oil drill. We got lower, closer, slower, and before I knew it, time to pull the power and flare! Bam! Apply crosswind correction, hold the nose off the ground to prevent wheelbarrowing, zero the flaps to get the weight of the airplane on the wheels to slow us down, gently apply the brakes… and it was done. High fives between the crewmembers.

I dropped off my passenger, who supplied this video of my departure:

What was Strike 3? I realized right after takeoff that I forgot to open the cowl flaps, which provides increased airflow over the engine at low airspeeds. [Steve said I could say it was because I didn’t want to suck debris in from the ground. That’s my story.] PKV was just a short flight, and I was high on my successes of the day already. In fact, when I called in range on the Unicom, Steve said, “I heard you nailed it over at the ranch.” News apparently travels faster than a C182.

P.S. the photo in the background of my blog now is me taxiing back to the departure end of the grass strip.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

You call this work?

I am interrupting this regularly scheduled update on my flight training for this important message…

I have just returned from a Women in Aviation Day at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinneville, Oregon, and I must say, I had so much fun! One of the things that I emphasize during my career day presentations at high schools is that people have to get involved in a career that they enjoy or they’ll only be happy twice a month (almost everyone knows this is the frequency with which one gets a paycheck). What you do has do bring you joy, and my professional pilot career (mostly) and my public speaking career (always) does exactly that. In fact, someone asked me while I was there how my vacation was going, and I hesitated to reply that it was, in fact, a business trip. How can you call sparking an interest in aviation “work?”

A little background. I “met” Erin Willison, the Education Coordinator for the museum via email months when she asked me if I would be interested in coming to the museum. I was, but Oregon is close to Ohio in the alphabet only, and the likelihood of my making it out there without sponsorship was pretty remote. But then I got to meet Erin in person at the Women in Aviation Conference in Reno this year and a fast friendship was formed along with concrete plans for my appearance at the museum.

I’ll admit, I did spend the first morning in Oregon learning about the many programs the museum had to offer and meeting the wonderful staff of the education department headed by Matt Van Dixon. The afternoon I spent attending an IMAX presentation of the Hubble telescope (coincidentally, the recent issue of Penelope’s Page features Hubble). Now I’m more of an aviation person than a space person, but this 3D documentary on a Space Shuttle trip to repair Hubble might have just tapped a previously unknown interest (too late, of course, since the Space Shuttle program is being discontinued).

I also took time to visit all of the numerous aircraft in the two huge buildings of the museum (the IMAX is housed separately, as is the soon to open Waterpark). The docents here were great, offering many hidden gems of information since in many cases they themselves had actually flown the aircraft! For example, I had the chance to talk to Russell Barney, who was a crewmember on the B17 during WWII. The B17, btw, was called the Flying Fortress in recognition of its ability to withstand an incredible amount of damage and still sustain flight. A website with some unbelievable photos.

I also learned that the Ford Tri-Motor used to carry bags in the wings – which is now where most airplanes carry fuel.

The evening was spent preparing documents for the Girl Scouts arriving the next day, including a scavenger hunt featuring references to women within the exhibits, most notably Elinor Smith and Katherine Wright. In addition, the staff had prepared special signs of women in aviation on easels to be placed throughout the museum. The local 99s organization generously donated gift certificates to the gift shop for successful completion of the assignment.

Don't know who Katherine Wright is, or perhaps her importance to the legacy of the family name? Listen to this story to find out more.

Saturday was the actual event, and my tables were parked under the unbelievable Spruce Goose, a multimillion dollar wooden (yes, wooden) cargo plane built by none other than Howard Hughes in order to transport military supplies by air since the shipping lines were fraught with German submarines that sunk any ships trying to resupply troops during WWII. I got a tour of this HUGE airplane from none other than the man himself. p.s. Just between you and me, he said he never flew it after the initial low level (and I do mean low) test flight because it scared him. Apparently the thing creaked and groaned like an old barn. The guy sitting in the tail could see sky through the seams. There were also guys sitting in each wing pointing fire extinguishers at the fuel tanks. Somehow I think I'd have been a bit scared, too.

The museum was still open to the public as well as the Girl Scouts which I loved because when there weren’t girls in green there were people just curious about what I was doing there in my uniform with a table full of charts, cockpit posters and airplane models to teach girls “everything” they needed to know to be a pilot. I even had a 3 year old girl stop by who insisted to her parents she was going to be a pilot. I pointed out things on the VFR sectional and after about three minutes she announced, “Ok, thank you very much,” and walked away. Frankly I’m surprised she lasted that long. Her parents did get her an autographed copy of the Penelope Pilot book to sustain her interest.

Well, it was a completely exhausting day all around, and we called it a night pretty early. The next day we had plans to meet up with Kam, the 2009 Girls With Wings Scholarship Winner and her two daughters, India and Hero. We met initially at the Saturday Market (Even though it was Sunday) in downtown Portland, had lunch, and then ventured to Multnoma Falls about ½ hr outside of the city. The path up to the top of the falls was steep and rugged, but 8 year old India tackled it like a champ (I was just as impressed with Kam, who climbed with 4 year old Hero on her back).

But, as all good things must come to an end, it was time for me to return to Texas and resume my flight training. I am newly resolved to attack those books as too soon I have to drive back to Ohio for a resupply as I have another speaking engagement, this time to my sister’s school (she’s a Japanese teacher) in Wisconsin. It will then be time to travel to Minnesota for Aviation Inspiration Day, my joint venture with the Commemorative Air Force – MN Wing to give girls the Girls With Wings presentation followed by museum tours and Young Eagles Flights! Again, provided via sponsorship and donations and the willingness of many volunteers to put together a great event.

Within a couple of weeks I will be piloting a chase airplane for The Racing Aces for the AirRace Classic and before I know it, Oshkosh will be here again. But, like I said, if this is work, it appears I like working. All of the effort I’ve put into Girls With Wings has taken a lot out of me, not only financially, but in time and effort. But the way I look at it, especially in light of the upcoming Mother’s Day holiday, what I am not spending on my own children is attempting to help so many others make their dreams take flight!

By the way, if you would like to have me speak to your group or do the GWW presentation, please contact me for further details.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Open House

Note: I'm a little behind on these posts. There's been so much going on lately that even though I've had plenty to post about I haven't had a ton of time to write about them.

Tthe next day was our Open House at Aransas County in Rockport, TX, so we spruced up the Cessna 172s and 182 with a little wash. This may sound obvious, but you don’t wash an airplane like you do a car. Instead we took Simple Green and some rags and used elbow grease to remove all of those dead bugs. Blech. Though gross, the bugs do come off relatively easily and other than the fatigue in your arms from reaching up to wipe the surfaces that impact with flying critters most often, it didn't take the three of us long.

In the morning we flew down the coast of the Gulf of Mexico over to KRKP. Look at me, flying all over the place in a 182. Ok, it was 39 miles. But still. We did it knowing that the low ceilings and high winds would prevent us from doing any discovery flights - people can pay $75 for either a sightseeing or an introductory lesson. It was still a great time hanging out at the airport and meeting people who were interested in the group here opening up another flight school in the area.

After the open house we headed on over to The Boiling Pot for a late lunch. I knew I was in for an experience when the waitress bibbed me. Yeah, that’s right. Tied a plastic bib around my neck. Another person covered the table with butcher paper. Then they came by with a big bowl of crawfish, shrimp and crabs. I’m always open for a new experience, and I got one.

On the way home we were going to attempt another air to air practice, but because of low ceilings we canceled it. I ended up not being involved in the final shoot because it was so darn windy every day (until I left for Oregon), but the results of the shoot were shown in this month's Airplanista magazine, which featured Dianna, the flight school's owner. Read the whole magazine - it's awesome! There's another video embedded within the premium edition, too.

Well, after all of this flying for fun it was time to get back to work. The next day Eric and I went out and got an IFR clearance to get VFR on Top. Yes, the clouds are so consistently solid at a couple thousand of feet we needed to file a flight plan to fly above the clouds. We therefore could climb to about 6000 feet and do our slow flight, stalls and such with pleeeeenty of air to recover in before tragedy.

We also wanted to practice grass strip landings. It’s always nice to have a nice strip of pavement to land on but that’s not always possible. Plus, there is a grass strip here at the airport, at the owner’s ranch, and at very other airports around. Unfortunately, the wind at all of these places were huge and 90 degrees to the runway today. We went out to a grass strip that used to, no kidding, have a power line above it. They called their Fly-ins, “Under the Wire.” The wire is gone, but the wind was not. On the first attempt, the strong crosswind was exacerbated by having to fly over a populated area with trees – remember that uneven heating of the earth? Thermals. They were bouncing us around on final. Then we came over the trees over a HUGE ditch. We were in no position to land, so my instructor went around. I had no objection.

The second time around, even being prepared for the wild ride, we were tossed around like a cheap salad. This time I told Eric, "Feel free to abort. Even if you can land out of this one, I’m not." So we flew back to Port Lavaca and practiced some more landings. Along the way we talked about the autopilot and some of the instruments to use while flying IFR – Instrument Flight Rules (through clouds, for short) and I was reminded again that I am not instrument current. Add to my list of things to do: An Instrument Proficiency Check.

After 2 hours of that, I was done. There comes a point in training where you just know you can’t absorb any more. And I know exactly when that point is. Not only that, but today we were practicing Power Off 180s, now in the 182, and the winds were howling. At one point I asked Eric to do one, mostly because my arms were getting tired! I am going to have to recognize mental and physical fatigue in my students and encourage them to speak up if I don’t. Towards the end of today’s flight I was getting tired and just letting the wind kick my butt. Eric said I was doing great, considering, but I wanted the same effect on the 180s in the 172 as in the 182. Back to reminding myself to do my round out high. I guess I was just trying to get below the darn trees so I could stop flying sideways....

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Experience is the best teacher

Friday we tried again with the air to air, except this time we actually had two airplanes. The flight school's Cessna 182 had to come down from Victoria Airport and so Jasmine and I took off in the 172 to meet halfway. Since we’re all friends here, I can admit my mistakes, right? Well, Jasmine, with her amazing attention to detail, noticed that it looked like my door wasn’t closed all the way. Sure enough, I looked back and saw what looked to be two ports in the door frame perfect for a bolt-like protrusion to slide into. Yup, just because that door handle “locks” down, doesn’t mean that door is really locked…. Now I know. Well, anyway, the ceilings were so low anyway that we decided to return to the airport do some traffic patterns first (and if I landed and locked the door before that, so much the better).

We two pilots had an interesting time trying to figure out how to line up the Hero Cam, now attached to the right window of the airplane but facing out, to capture an aircraft on final and through a touch and go (airplane lands but then takes off without taxiing back to the departure end of the runway). I chose to swing a very wide downwind and let Steve, the other pilot, fly his normal traffic pattern. I kept him in sight all the time and flew to the left of his final and tried to time his ever slowing airspeed with mine. The first time, I was too slow (or rather, never caught up), the second time, too fast, and the third time we were right on. So we went out to fly some air to air, really. We flew out at about 1500 feet and tried to parallel courses. We got what we thought was close enough for a good visual. Unfortunately, when we actually viewed the footage we discovered that the Hero’s “fisheye” lens made everything look even smaller, so our winning formation flight captured an image of an airplane that we was pretty sure was a Cessna product, but not much more. However, again, flying around in the 172 this way vastly increased my comfort level in it – but nothing we did reinforces the maneuvers I have to do for the checkride. [What does that say about the checkride…?]

Anyway, the reason for me that 182 to come down to Calhoun County is for me to transition to it in preparation for my CFI checkride. I need to take at least part of the checkride in a complex airplane (variable pitch prop and retractable gear) and this one has at least the right kind of prop. And, I most likely will fly a 182RG (RG stands for retractable gear) so it’s about time I get proficient in one. So after commiserating on our failed photography attempts, Steve, the airport manager, checked me out in the 182. Besides having more horsepower, this airplane just feels heavier! I am going to look like Popeye (at least on the side I’m pulling on the yoke to lift the nose up) flying this thing. The more powerful airplane took some getting used to, because besides different power settings there are cowl flaps (to air-cool the engine at low speeds) and the prop to adjust. But a few traffic patterns in winds gusting in the 20s (at least they were down the runway) and a flight to Victoria to drop off Steve, and I would be on my own to fly it back to Port Lavaca.

We did a few more traffic patterns at Victoria, and Steve reassured me that my less than stellar landings in the 182 were to be expected. The winds were gusty, the airplane was heavier, etc., etc. Me, being the perfectionist I am (just listen to the instructors of AcroCamp calling me “intense”), asked Steve to demonstrate a landing. My landings were pretty inconsistent, not surprisingly since so is the wind. On the turn to final is where environmental factors will get you. Not only do you have to deal with the wind, but as you get closer to the ground, thermals can affect the airplane’s path. Thermals are columns of rising air due to the uneven heating of the earth. A dark brown field absorbs more of the sun than a row of trees. Additionally, the wind can change close to the ground because of tall trees surrounding the airport. If you’re planning on a 15 knot crosswind on final because that’s what you have at traffic pattern altitude, you have to also plan for the crosswind to drop when you’re below the treeline. Have I mentioned wind affects everything in flying?

Let me tell you, it was windy and gusty, but again, right down the runway. The recommended maximum crosswind is 15knots, but theoretically, the wind could be up to 100knots as long as it’s right down the chute. Just don’t plan on a smooth landing. So, Steve, who I greatly admire, in the air on the ground working at Calhoun Air Center, shall we say, “planted” one. Steve was really embarrassed (and to be fair he’d never landed from the right seat) but all I could do is thank him. He just showed me how far the parameters were for a safe landing. My confidence went up a few points. (P.S. Steve reluctantly gave me permission to tell you that. Listen, if any pilot tells you they don’t crash land every once in a while, feel free to stick your thumbs in your ears and wiggle your fingers. Then repeat after me, “Liar, liar, liar.”)

I had to keep telling myself, if Steve thinks I can do it… plus I knew I could do it, and I couldn’t chicken out or then what would I do? Go back to the hangar with my tail between my legs? Again, this was one of those “Aeronautical Decision Making” situations. Flying through a tornado? Clearly risky. There are some things you just don’t do. But this was something I knew I could do, but was just nervous. See the distinction?

So I taxied out to the departure end of the runway with winds just howling up my backside and as I took off (in the opposite direction) I thought, “You know, Lynda, that takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory.” Taking off is easy, but there was no one to help me put it down in Port Lavaca. All the way over I tripled checked the checklist to make sure I didn’t mess up the cowl flaps, or the prop, or the leaning of the engine. And then it was time to land. Turns out I had an audience. Autumn, David, who also works at the airport, and Ed, another student at the school. All three gave me a thumbs up and I did a little dance when it was done. I think that was worth ten or twenty points at least. Both flights the airplane was just swaying in the wind, so as I write this I have that post- roller-coaster or day-at-the-ocean feeling of still rocking.

Looking back on the day, I think the quote on the top of my blog sums it up pretty well. I used to change the quote every so often but this one by Eleanor Roosevelt (one of my heroes) always speaks to me.