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.

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