Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Lessons 8 and 9: Ground school

Sorry I haven’t posted anything in a while. I’ve been kind of busy lately, but I have been trying to fly. Unfortunately for me, the weather just has not been cooperating. One of my lessons got cancelled due to rain, so I tried something new – a lunch-time flight lesson in the middle of the work day during the week. But that and another lesson got converted to ground school due to high winds.

Having two more ground lessons under my belt, I have some mixed feelings about ground school. On the one hand, it’s as essential a part of flight training as having fuel in the tank before flying cross-country. On the other hand, it lacks a certain romanticism. Think, if you will, about Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic solo. Ha! Gotcha! I know you immediately thought about pictures or newsreel footage you’ve seen of his departure, or triumphant landing, or perhaps, the ticker-tape parade down 5th Avenue in New York that heralded him as a national hero. The first thing to pop into your mind wasn’t the countless hours of study and planning that went into the flight. Heck, he started planning and preparing for that flight before the airplane was even built! But, the “romantic” image that most likely popped into your head is of the man waving his hand out the cockpit window at the cheering crowds, not the man sitting in a room somewhere studying his maps and charts and slicing them into narrow strips to save a few fractions of an ounce for the trip.

So it is with flying lessons and ground school. The ground school is essential, but it has yet to leave me with such an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment that I can barely contain myself. I’m just being honest here. Flying the airplane is a lot more fun than learning to read the abbreviations in an airport directory.

That’s what I did in ground school lately. In one lesson, I learned more about reading sectional charts and got a real basic intro into radio navigation (really simple beginner-level stuff), and in the other lesson I learned how to read the abbreviations in airport directory listings.

I’ve also developed a new respect for the cartographers that create sectional charts. They manage to squeeze a simply staggering amount of data onto these charts. I have to admit that being able to read and mentally decode the information is kind of rewarding even if it isn’t as much fun as actually flying a plane.

Now that I have a better understanding of reading sectionals and airport directories, I’m looking forward to learning how to actually plan a trip with that information. Obviously, there's a lot more to planning a trip and I can't wait to learn all the pieces. It’s going to be fun! But even more than that, I’m looking forward to getting some weather that will allow me to work on the 45 degree turns and the stalls my instructor told me we’d do “next time” the last time we flew.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Lesson 7: more slow flight, turns, and pilotage

Mini Log Book
This Flight: 1.2 hrs
Day/Night: DAY
Total Flight Time: 5.2 hrs

I almost didn’t fly this weekend. My instructor left a message on my phone on Thursday that the plane I usually take was in the shop and would be out of commission for 10 days. I called the flight school on Friday and was told that the only other plane available was a low-wing Warrior. I’ve flown in a Warrior before, but I really prefer the larger, more comfortable Cessna Skyhawk. Friday was an otherwise miserable day for me and this news on top of everything else made me not want to fly this weekend. Eventually I reluctantly accepted the Warrior.

On Saturday morning around 10:15am, the flight school called. The woman who handles the scheduling was on the other end of the phone because she and my instructor noticed that I was listed with a Warrior. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t offered the Skyhawk that was available for the 11:00am-12:30pm time slot. If I could get to the airport at 11:00am, it would be mine. Sweet!! I rapidly got ready and dashed out the door and “checked in” at the airport at 11:01am. Close enough.

The instructor and student who just brought the Skyhawk back handed over the keys and my instructor sent me out to do the preflight ground check, saying he’d catch up with me in a few minutes. I had ample time to do a thorough preflight inspection and I was satisfied that the plane was air-worthy. My instructor came out and asked how it looked, so I told him it looked good to me and noted that both fuel tanks were about ¾ full. He said that would be plenty for us today so we climbed in.

The plane I usually take is a 172P. This Skyhawk was a 172R with a more powerful, fuel-injected engine instead of a carbureted engine, but the difference between the two models is negligible – at least to me at my current level of training. This 172R had a few more bells and whistles than the 172P I usually fly, but nothing I would use in today’s flight.

BradC314 again lent me his hand-held GPS unit so I could record a flight track like I did last time, but I was a complete hair-brain and had it in my pocket turned off for the entire flight. By the time I remembered, the lesson was just about over and we were on final approach. Maybe if he’s gracious and lends it again next weekend, I can record a track to post here.

I got through the preflight checklist with a little help from my instructor. I was amazed, and somewhat disappointed in myself, at how much not flying last weekend hurt me today. But it all came back eventually and we were good to go. It seemed that everyone else and their brothers were also good to go. I’ve never seen the airport as busy as it was today. It was like Grand Central Station with planes coming, going, and taxiing all over the place. Before I could enter the taxiway, I saw another plane that had just exited the runway after landing, so I stopped and waited. But the other pilot was gracious and radioed that he’d hold and wait for me. Cool!

We finished the pre-run up checklist and taxied to runway 29. Despite the light-to-moderate cross-wind, my instructor let me take off. There’s nothing else quite like the thrill of taking off. I just love it. And the cross-wind turned out to be much more manageable than I thought it would be. While we were in lower flight (around 1600 feet MSL) the wind was knocking us around quite a bit and I found it difficult to stay on my desired course. After clearing O’Hare’s airspace shelf and climbing to 3500 feet (MSL), the wind was much calmer. I was able to enjoy the flight, and start scanning the sky and the instruments like I’ve studied about doing. It felt pretty good. I also noted to myself that now that we were into calmer air, I seemed to be flying better today than in previous lessons. My standard-rate turns were almost completely coordinated and my straight-and-level flight really was straight and level. I’m also getting a good feel for the trim and how much engine power to use for various conditions.

I completed a couple of clearing turns then my instructor wanted me to do some more slow flight. He asked me a couple of questions regarding what I thought I needed to do to get into slow flight. I told him that I’d have to apply the first notch of flaps (10 degrees) and ease the throttle back some. He was satisfied and told me to go ahead. I did that and then repeated that process two more time until the flaps were fully extended. I didn’t really notice last time, but today it struck me how “pitched up” we were with full flaps. If we were pitched at that angle in normal flight at normal speeds, we would have been in a pretty good climb. Anyway, my instructor reminded me that in slow flight the pitch controls airspeed and the throttle controls altitude. He asked me to perform some maneuvers AND maintain our airspeed at 50 knots.

In my earlier posts, I remember talking about how little you need to move the controls to accomplish the maneuvers you want. In slow flight, the tiny control inputs need to be even smaller. I almost felt as though just looking at the yoke would make it turn. It was very touchy. Anyway, we finished those exercises and my instructor asked me how I was going to recover from slow flight. I told him I’d apply more power and retract the flaps a little bit – the opposite of getting into slow flight. He agreed and I did it. This time was even better than last time. There was no hint of that uneasy feeling of the plane wanting to fall out of the sky when I retracted the flaps and there was virtually no change in altitude.

Next up was more practice on turns with 30 degrees of bank. I still had some trouble maintaining my altitude, but not as badly as last time. This time, my instructor had me stay in the turn until I had the altitude nailed down. Ok, it wasn’t perfect, but plus or minus 50 feet through the whole 360-degree turn was close enough to satisfy my instructor. Then we went through the same drill in the opposite direction. Just when I was starting to feel pretty good about myself, my CFI told me we’d now try 35 degrees of bank. What I thought was a small increase in bank (5 degrees) seemed to have a disproportionate effect on the difficulty of maintaining my altitude. During the turns, my instructor encouraged me to peel my eyes off the instruments and look outside. He told me to note what the horizon looks like in regard to the plane around me and then maintain that “picture” instead of studying the instruments. That didn’t really make it any easier. We flew in circles for a while until I eventually got my altitude fluctuations under control in these slightly steeper turns. After finishing these turns, we worked on “Pilotage” – navigating by visual land marks – so my instructor asked me if I knew where we were. “Carpentersville,” I told him with authority. He was dumbstruck. Now, he knows my track-record is less than stellar with picking out landmarks, much less what cities we’re over so he asked how I knew that. Alright, I ‘fessed up. I told him I cheated and read it off a water tower that we flew over – ah, the joys of a high-wing plane. He agreed that I kind of “cheated” and we both got a good chuckle out of it. But hey, I figured seeing a water tower with the city’s name painted on it was sort of like walking up to the “you are here” map at your local mall. What more could you want???

By now it’s time to start heading back to the airport. My instructor called different headings that he wanted me to take. Looking back on it, I think he did this just so I could get more practice turning, get more comfortable with the controls, and practice maintaining a desired course regardless of what the wind was trying to make me do. I was able to recognize some landmarks that I wasn’t able to identify in earlier flights and realized that we’d be getting closer to O’Hare airspace. Without my instructor telling me, I also realized that I’d need to get rid of about 1000 feet of altitude. Fortunately, I had plenty of time to do it. So I eased the throttle back quite a bit and we started a slow, gentle descent. During this slow descent, “it” struck me. The “it” in this case was the total peace and serenity of flying. With the engine speed way back like this, it was relatively quiet in the cockpit. You could hear the wind whooshing around the aircraft and it was great to have the time to look around and enjoy the scenery during the “scanning.” If I thought I was “hooked” on the thrill of taking off, this finished “reeling me in.” I was able to enjoy this sensation for several minutes. It was awesome.

At this point in my previous flights, my instructor took over the controls and I just navigated. This time, he left me in control and I had to navigate back to the airport on my own. Recognizing where I-90 crossed the Fox River was the first key in unlocking the direction back to the airport. At this point, I had a pretty good idea what direction to head so I went there. It wasn’t too long before other landmarks such as route 59, Golf Road, and Bartlett Road presented themselves. I spotted the water tower that I thought was at the east end of the runway and headed for it. It turned out that I was right. When we were about 4 miles west of the airport, my instructor directed me to a heading of 180 degrees (due south). Then he told me to turn left until we were at a 45 degree angle to the runway (I’ve noticed that it seems standard to enter the downwind leg of the pattern at 45 degrees). When we got close to the runway, we turned right into a course parallel with the runway and entered the downwind leg of the landing pattern. At this point, my instructor took over the flying, but once again, he talked through the entire landing process and I had my hands and feet on the controls so I could see what it felt like. We were landing on runway 29 with a substantial cross-wind from the north. He explained that he was correcting for this with some left aileron and some right rudder. There was actually quite a bit of movement in the controls to keep us on the runway centerline, but he makes it look easy. We touched down further down the runway than usual, but it was a nice, smooth landing.

After we parked the plane, my instructor told me not to tie it down – it was going to be going right back out. He endorsed my log book for 1.2 hours and told me that next lesson we’ll work on steep turns (45 degrees) and maybe a stall or two. I got myself on the schedule and picked up the new sectional and terminal charts that just came out on the 27th.

I also spent a couple of minutes asking my instructor about how do you know when to turn base and when to turn final. He said for turning base, it's when the end of the runway is 45 degrees behind you (oh, yeah, I forgot, he did tell me that last time), but for turning final, it's really a "look and feel" sort of thing that you get the hang of after doing it a couple of times. I'm sure I'll be doing it soon enough.

I’m already looking forward to my next lesson.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Lesson 7 - scrubbed

My plans didn’t get off the ground today – literally or figuratively. Earlier in the week, my instructor left a message for me on my home phone that he would be on vacation and unable to make my lesson. Not wanting to miss any potential flight time, I called and re-scheduled my lesson with a substitute CFI for this week.

I got to the airport with some time to spare, but the plane I was scheduled to take for my lessons today wasn’t back from the previous lesson. It eventually showed up 20 minutes late. By the time the student and instructor were able to hand the keys over, it was already 30 minutes into my lesson time.

While this was going on, I met the substitute CFI. There are some people you just “hit it off” with, and some you don’t. For whatever reason, this guy and I fell into the latter category. He asked what we were going to be doing today. So, I explained that my regular instructor didn’t give me an itinerary, but I offered my log book and suggested “whatever you think might be next for me.” He looked it over and thought power-on and power-off stalls would be in order. Then looked out the window and he wasn’t sure there was enough ceiling for that. The way he said it, though, left me with the impression that he was looking to get out of the lesson. (strike 1)

Having more time to kill waiting for the plane to come in, he noticed I was wearing glasses and one of the lenses is blacked-out opaque. I lost my right eye to cancer about a year ago, but I was blind in it for a long time before that. Long story short, my last MRI and CT scans were clean, no more cancer. Anyway, my would-be CFI was somewhat discouraging and commented that he wasn’t sure I’d be able to get a medical cert to fly at all. Now, I’ve already been in contact with a doctor who specializes in aviation medicine and he said it’d be no big deal. I’ll need a letter from my ophthalmologist, possibly my oncologist, a clean bill of health from my internist, and maybe a few others, and there’ll be some extra FAA paperwork, but the doctor told me that he has commercial pilots flying with one eye, one hand, one leg, you name it. I explained this, but the CFI was un-impressed and maintained that I’d have a devil of a time, and it was a big “if” whether I’d ever get the cert at all. (strike 2)

So the plane comes back, I get the key and the checklist and the CFI said he’d meet me out there because he had to track down his headset. I was working through the ground check, trying to be thorough when the CFI caught up and told me we have to hurry it up because we need to be back before the next guy on the schedule is here for the plane. This both angered and frustrated me. Now, maybe after I have 1000+ hours logged and I’m intimately familiar and very comfortable with everything, possibly I might be able to breeze through the ground check in a few minutes. Being new to this, I want to make sure I’m thorough and I don’t miss anything. The fact that this very plane was flying around in the sky just minutes earlier shouldn’t relieve me of my responsibility to check things out the right way. Being encouraged to “cut corners” by working faster than I was comfortable doing was inappropriate, I thought. (strike 3, but I really want to fly, so strike two-and-a-half)

So, we get in the plane, I get all situated, and the instructor tells me I’ll have to move over some more. I looked at him quizzically. “I can’t fit, you have to move more,” he told me. Move where?!?!?!? My shoulder was butted up against the window and my hips are firmly against the door. Now, I’ll admit that I’m something of a big guy, but not that big – there was space, after all, between us. But he continued to insist he didn’t have enough room. After a moment, he was settled in, told me “well, we’ll try it this way and see how it goes” and handed me the checklist. OK, strike 3, 4, 5… whatever… It’s time to pull the plug.

I told him if he wasn’t comfortable that we could do this safely then we shouldn’t go. He agreed and we went back in; I rescheduled for another day.

I didn’t realize exactly how angry and annoyed this whole experience made me until I started writing about here. In no small way, I use the CFI as both a guide (when he’s doing the flying) and a safety net (when I’m doing the flying). The suggestion that we could “try” something the instructor wasn’t comfortable with doing just ticks me off in a royal way. Maybe he might not care if we careen into the ground and make a smoking, burning crater, but I do.

I “hear” in my head a friend of mine re-telling the story of how his uncles lost their lives flying due to “get-there-itis” – flying in unsafe conditions and against their own better judgment – because they “had to get there.” When I started flight lessons, I promised myself I would not get into this kind of situation, so it was time to pull the plug.

My take-away from all this: I need to rely on my own judgment; I can’t count on the designated CFI to make the "right" decision.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

GPS Ground Tracks for Lesson 6

In my previous post, I said that I brought along a friend's hand-held GPS unit and recorded a ground-track of that day's flight. It took a little longer than I thought it would, but I'm finally able to share that with you. After some time working with the GPS unit's owner ("BradC314"), we were able to superimpose the ground-track on both a satellite photo and a sectional map using Google Earth and a sectional maps plug-in.

The thumb-nails below link to full-sized images (about 125kB each). The sectional map alignment is slightly off as it shows me taking off and landing on the railroad tracks adjacent to the airport, but it's only about 50 feet away from reality. Enjoy.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Lesson 6: Slow flight, turns, and Pilotage

Mini Log Book
This Flight: 0.8 hrs
Day/Night: DAY
Total Flight Time: 4.0 hrs

Today Mother Nature cooperated with my plans fully and gave me an absolutely beautiful day with unlimited visibility, an unlimited ceiling, and a very light surface breeze. I wish every day could be this perfect. I also brought along a friend's hand-held GPS which I used to record a ground-track of today's flight. I'll post that here a little later.

My instructor was just wrapping up a previous student flight, so he sent me out to do the pre-flight ground-check myself. I took my time and double-checked everything to make sure nothing slipped through the cracks. When the instructor came out and caught up with me at the plane, I pointed out several cracks that will probably be stop-drilled at some point, but nothing the instructor believed would affect the airworthiness of the plane.

So we climbed in and I ran through the pre-flight checklist. As I’m gaining familiarity with the aircraft, controls, and instruments, I notice how much easier (and faster) it is to complete the list. Not that I’m trying to set any speed records, mind you. I took my sweet time, but I didn’t have to stop at each step and ask the instructor, “What do I do here?”

With the plane under my control, I checked the windsock direction and taxied over to the east area where I could do the pre-run-up checks. I felt a bit of accomplishment as I called out each item, spoke aloud the results of the check, and came to the end of the list without any corrections from my instructor. Now I’m really getting psyched-up. He did stop me, though, after the list and asked if I was familiar with how each of the instruments got their readings. Fortunately for me, I’ve also been studying my Private Pilot Manual textbook and correctly identified the gyroscopic and Pitot-static instruments. My instructor was able to give a much better explanation of how these instruments actually work than the textbook provides. Maybe “they” should have talked with him before they published the book. And, no, I’m not being sarcastic. My instructor really knows his stuff and is able to draw clear “verbal pictures” of what he’s describing. I had no trouble “seeing” what he was talking about. Not too many people I know have this ability.

We proceeded along the taxiway to the eastern-most entrance to runway. I was able to stay pretty straight along the centerline and thought to myself that either this is getting easier as I go, or I’m just really on top of my game today. I’ll split the difference and call it some of both.

I thoroughly looked around for other planes either coming or going and didn’t hear anything on the radio that disagreed with my observations. I verified with the instructor that he, too, didn’t see (or hear on the radio) any other planes, so we moved out to the runway for takeoff. Today, I had no problem holding the centerline on the runway and ran up almost perfectly straight. I found I didn’t really need to intently watch the airspeed indicator – the plane let me know when it was ready to fly – it felt like it wanted to leap off the ground. I gently pulled back on the yoke and we were up in the air. A slight push forward on the yoke established a nice, maintainable climb. There’s no other thrill quite like taking off. I really wish I could find the words to adequately describe it, but I can’t. It’s just awesome. I hope the thrill never wears off, so I asked my instructor if it ever gets old. With an ear-to-ear grin he answered with one word, “Nope.” Excellent!!! I was hoping he’d say that!

Before arriving at the airport today, I also re-reviewed the Chicago (O’Hare/Midway) terminal area chart so the altitude changes to stay out of O’Hare’s Class-B airspace were fresh in my mind. One less thing for my instructor to remind me of.

But my CFI managed to jog my memory a bit anyway. He told me he wanted me to go into slow flight with full flaps. So, I told him that I’d need to reduce engine power and apply the flaps in stages. He said there’s something else first. After a moment, ah, I remembered the clearing turns. At the moment we were heading North, so I made a couple of standard-rate (15% bank) turns North—West—South and then back South—West—North while looking for other air-traffic. OK, both my instructor and I were satisfied that there were no other aircraft in the immediate area, so I reduced power and applied the first notch of flaps. I reduced power some more and applied more flaps. I reduced power the third and final time and applied the remaining flaps. At this point, it felt like somebody put the brakes on. You could feel the plane slowing down due to the increased drag from the flaps.

The instructor had me do some turns while in slow flight and explained that in this configuration, the power and attitude controls were somewhat reversed in this configuration. Engine power controls altitude while the plane’s pitch controls air-speed. The CFI had me work through some additional maneuvers to get a feel for this and then it was time to recover. So, I applied power and retracted the flaps in stages until we were back in normal flight. This time, I did much better with coordinating the plane’s attitude, power, and flaps settings, so it didn’t feel like we about to fall out of the sky like last week when I was recovering from slow flight.

Back in normal flight, we worked on 30 degree turns again. This time, I did both left and right about the same, but still had trouble maintaining altitude. I either over-compensated or under-compensated for the amount of lift lost to the turn, so they weren’t level turns. I lost about 300 feet in altitude each time, so I had to climb after each turn. The instructor reassured me that I only have a few hours under my belt right now, but I'll have it all down "cold" by the time I make my first solo flight.

After this, it was time to head back to the airport. Like last week, the instructor took over flying and let me navigate by sight alone. Unlike last week, though, I had a much easier time picking out landmarks (but, I still wouldn’t say it was “easy”) and quickly determined where we were. I suggested a heading of 115 degrees and it didn’t take long before the airport was visible in the distance dead-ahead of us. I really like being on top of my game! It’s a lot less nerve-wracking to fly when you know where you are! I think the perfectly clear air helped a lot.

Once again, the instructor had me keep my hands and feet on the controls while he explained step-by-step entering the landing pattern, flying downwind, turning base, turning final, and setting down on the runway. There’s a lot of stuff going on here in a very short time. I’m getting a little over-whelmed at the thought of landing on my own some day (probably in the not-too-distant future). I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it sooner or later.

We taxied back to our parking spot, ran through the post-flight checks, tied the plane down, and my instructor endorsed my log book. While we were at it, I set up an appointment for my next lesson a week from now.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Lesson 5: Slow Flight and Turns

Mini Log Book
This Flight: 0.9 hrs
Day/Night: DAY
Total Flight Time: 3.2 hrs

Today I was worried that I might get cancelled due to weather again, but everything turned out OK. No rain and good visibility, Mother Nature was more-or-less on my side this time.

Today’s lesson started out with a recap of the preflight ground inspection and preflight checklist. The steering felt a bit weird today – I was having trouble making left turns on the ground. I pushed the pedal as far as I could and the plane just didn’t want to go left. I asked the instructor to try it and he had no such problems, so I scratched my head for a little bit and blew it off. After my instructor tried it, my pedals had no problem turning the nose gear. At least no immediate problems. But that will come back to bite me later.

I proceeded to taxi the plane down to a location where we could do the pre-runup checklist and everything went without a hitch. While we were doing the checklist, another plane came up and parked behind us and to the left, but not really close, so it was nothing to worry about. When I turned the plane around to get back out to the taxiway, I found that I’d have to steer between the new plane that showed up and a parked plane. I wasn’t really comfortable doing that and let my instructor know so he got us through the area. I guess it wasn’t that tight to him. Maybe after I get more time in the cockpit, it won’t be that tight to me either.

Once we were on the taxiway, I proceeded to taxi us down to the runway entrance. Just as we were about 2 plane-lengths from the entrance, that steering problem cropped up for me again. We started heading towards the right edge of the taxiway and I pushed so hard on the brakes that the tires chirped on the pavement (now mind you, we were only moving at about walking pace, so it would be an overstatement to call it a skid). But, it was a little too little, a little too late. The nose gear slipped off the pavement into the grass. I was at least a little embarrassed. The CFI took it in stride and with quite a bit of engine power, left steering, and some differential braking, he got us back on the taxiway.

There was quite a strong cross-wind, so my CFI decided to perform the takeoff himself. After we were in the air, he gave the controls back to me and we departed to the airport to the northwest. This time instead of telling me what altitudes to maintain at what positions (don’t forget, I’m flying under O’Hare’s airspace), he asked me what altitudes I remembered from the previous lesson. I was mostly right – that is to say that O’Hare’s airspace is 100 feet higher than the numbers I remembered. I was off by this same 100 feet at every level where O’Hare’s airspace changed. But hey, at least I was going to fly with more clearance than required around the Class B space.

After we were in our desired training area, my instructor had me perform two standard rate turns. The first one to the south and then we turned the opposite direction back to north. He explained that these were “clearing turns” during which we could check for other traffic which might otherwise be in a blind spot. After the clearing turns, he worked with me on my turn technique and showed me how to use the rudder to help get out of a turn more quickly and return to level flight.

Next we worked on some slow flight. We slowed way down and reduced engine power more than we had ever done before and he had me apply 10 degrees of flaps. The increase in lift with even that small amount was incredible and had an immediate noticeable effect on the handling of the plane. With increased lift comes increased drag, so we slowed down even more. We repeated that routine in two more steps until the flaps were fully deployed. To me, the perceived lift I felt at each step was less than the setting before it, but drag noticeably increased.

Recovering from full flaps to normal flight entailed applying more power, more back pressure on the yoke, and gradually reducing the flaps until they were fully retracted. I didn’t like this part; every time we retracted the flaps a little, it felt like the plane wanted to fall out of the sky even though our altitude only changed a couple of feet. I was relieved to return to normal flight. Maybe with more practice I’ll be able to better match the controls to the amount of flaps so it feels better.

After slow flight, we worked on full-circle turns with 30 degrees bank. Previously, my steepest turn was 20 degrees of bank. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, turns cause less vertical lift, so you have to pull back on the yoke to maintain altitude. I was surprised by how much more you have to pull in a 30 degree bank than in a 20 degree bank. There was also a difference I cannot explain: my right-hand 30 degree turn was pretty good. I completed the full circle plus or minus a few feet. Turning to the left, I had significantly more trouble maintaining altitude and completed the full 360 degree circle about 200 feet lower than when I started. My instructor had me repeat the left turn to see if I could do it better and the second time was somewhat better, but still not as good as the right turn. I just can’t explain it.

At this point, it was time to head back to the airport. My CFI wanted me to find the airport and just direct him. I didn’t even have to fly; he was flying, so all I had to do was look out the windows. Since I’m still not really used to seeing the area from the air, this was much easier said than done. First, I generally knew that we had flown to the northwest and made our maneuvers from there. Therefore the airport should be in the general direction of southeast. I recommended a heading of 120 degrees which he took. It must have been my lucky day – that heading turned out to be within a few degrees of taking us to the airport, but it was close enough. But I still had trouble recognizing landmarks to know exactly where we were and where we were going.

The instructor recommended looking for large, easily identifiable landmarks, such as I-90 and/or Randall Road. I know Randall Road runs North-South, but that didn’t make it much easier to single-out from the air. In the ballpark of 3,000 feet most roads look relatively small. I-90, as you might imagine, was substantially easier to find. Eventually, I identified Randall Road in time to descend below the start of O’Hare’s airspace. The Fox River was the next significant landmark and is easy to spot. So far, so good. After some false starts, I was able to find Schaumburg Road. The rest was over areas I know on the ground, which made it easier to recognize them from the air. We followed Schaumburg Road east to about Roselle Road. We followed Roselle Road south a short way and it’s easy to spot the airport from there. While still slightly north of the airport, we turned back to the west and entered the downwind leg of the landing pattern.

Getting into the pattern, the CFI told me that when we were about even with the numbers on the “far” end of the runway (since we’re traveling west, the west end of the runway), we’d deploy the flaps to the first notch. He continued to explain that when those numbers on the runway are about 45 degrees behind us, we’d turn left into the base leg of the pattern. After turning base, we’d put on the next notch of flaps. I’m sure he told me, but I don’t recall at what point or landmark we turned left into the final approach and deployed the remaining flaps. At this point, the VASI (Visual Approach Slope Indicator) was clearly visible with the runway in front of us.

VASI was showing two white lights which means we were coming in too high. (Schaumburg’s VASI has only two lights side by side. Other VASI’s have more lights in other configurations, but the color theme is similar). Because Alexian Field (home to the Schaumburg Flyers minor league baseball team) is directly in the flight path and it has light towers that need to be cleared, my instructor told me it was OK to come in too high on this approach. After clearing the stadium we descended gently into the proper path and VASI changed to one red light and one white.

At about this point, the instructor pointed out to me how “crabbed” (coming in crooked with the nose pointed slightly into the wind so we didn’t get blown off course) we were due to the strong crosswind. Just before touching down, he straightened the plane out and we landed just fine. I had the general impression that landing in a strong crosswind is something of a more intermediate or advanced skill. I’m sure I’ll have to do it some time or other down the road.

We taxied back to our parking spot, got out of the plane, tied it down and headed in to the building where my instructor endorsed my log book and I made the appointment for my next lesson.

At some point in future lessons, I know we’ll be doing something with stalls (not the engine, it’s when the wings stop producing adequate lift to keep you in the air) and stall recovery. And I also know that what goes up, as they say, must come down, so landings are probably not going to be too far off. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Lesson 4: Ground School

Mini Log Book
This Flight: n/a
Day/Night: n/a
Total Flight Time: 2.3 hrs

I was a little disappointed that today’s lesson wasn’t in the plane. It would have been a beautiful day to be up in the clear, cloudless sky with virtually unlimited visibility, but my instructor wanted to conduct some ground school today.

My disappointment soon turned to enthusiasm as my instructor taught me about classes of airspace and how to read sectional and terminal VFR (Visual Flight Rules) charts. Being able to read these charts is a veritable necessity if I ever want to go somewhere besides to/from the Schaumburg airport! It’s not really possible to know what class of airspace you’re in or going to be in if you can’t read a sectional or, worse yet, don’t have one. Whatever you do, you don’t want to fly into controlled airspace without following the proper procedures.

Class A airspace is everything from 18,000 feet through 60,000 feet and is restricted to IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight only. I’m intending to fly small planes such as the Cessna 172 which has a service ceiling of 14,000 feet according to the manufacturer, so flying high enough to worry about Class A probably isn’t something I’ll be doing any time soon, but it’s definitely good to know anyway. Since Class A is IFR only, there are no visibility restrictions for flying in it.

Class B airspace is depicted on sectional and terminal charts with solid blue lines and can cover a variety of altitudes. Think of “B” as “Busy” airspace – such as large international airports like O’Hare International. Inside the blue lines are numbers that look like fractions. For example, you might see 10/5. These numbers are the ceiling/floor for that airspace in hundreds of feet. So 100/50 means that the airspace begins at 5,000 feet and continues through 10,000 feet. In order to fly into Class B airspace, clearance from Air Traffic Control (ATC) is required. You also need to hold a private pilot certificate or be a student pilot with an endorsement from a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor). In addition you must have a working 2-way radio and a Mode C transponder. (A transponder enhances your aircraft’s ATC radar image. Mode C means that the transponder transmits your altitude.) Class B airspace can be flown either IFR or VFR, but VFR requires visibility to 3 statute miles.

Class C airspace is shown on sectional and terminal charts with solid magenta lines and, like class B, can cover a variety of altitudes. On the charts, reading Class C airspace works the same as reading Class B airspace. In order to fly into Class C airspace, you must be at least a student pilot and you need to have contact with ATC. Like Class B, you also need a two-way radio and a mode C transponder. Class C airspace can be flown under IFR or VFR, but VFR requires 3 statute miles visibility and you must avoid flying into clouds – 1,000 feet above, 500 feet below, or 2000 feet to the side of any clouds.

Class D airspace is shown on sectional and terminal charts with a dashed blue line. The floor of class D airspace is ground surface and the ceiling is shown hundreds of feet in a single square box. For example, you might see “32” in a square box inside a Class D area. That means the airspace starts at the surface (SFC) and extends to 3,200 feet. Class D airspace can be flown under IFR or VFR. You also must be at least a student pilot with a 2-way radio and ATC contact, but a transponder is not required. If you’re flying VFR, Class D airspace has the same visibility and cloud restrictions as Class C.

Class E airspace extends from the top of Class G airspace (don’t worry, that’s next) to 18,000 feet. There are no depictions on sectional or terminal charts for Class E. Class E airspace can be flown under IFR or VFR, but there are no requirements of you or your equipment. Neither a 2-way radio nor a transponder are needed. (Think hang-glider, sky-diver, etc.) Of course, if you are flying an airplane, it is incumbent on you to avoid hitting the afore mentioned hang-gliders and sky-divers. For VFR, Class E airspace has different visibility restrictions depending on your altitude. Above 10,000 feet, you need 5 statute miles visibility and need to need to fly 1,000 feet above, 1,000 feet below, or 1 mile to the side of any clouds. Below 10,000 feet, you need 3 statute miles visibility and you need to fly 1,000 feet above, 500 feet below, or 2,000 feet to the side of any clouds.

My summary of Class G airspace is skewed towards folks, such as myself, east of the Rocky Mountains. In particular, I’m mostly concerned with the greater Chicago-land area where I’m learning to fly. In and around the Rocky Mountains, you guys have some rules that hurt my head when I think about them.

That being said, Class G airspace may or may not be depicted on sectional and terminal charts by an area bounded by a wide, gradient line. Inside the gradient lines, the ceiling for Class G is 700 feet AGL (above ground level). Outside the gradient, the ceiling is 1,200 feet AGL. Class G can be flown under IFR or VFR and there are no requirements of you or your equipment. There are, however, different visibility requirements for VFR flights depending on your altitude and the time of day that you’re flying.
· 1,200 feet AGL or less: Day requires 1 statute mile visibility and flight clear of clouds. Night requires 3 statute miles visibility and you need to avoid clouds with 1,000 feet above, 500 feet below, or 2,000 feet horizontally.
· Above 1200 AGL, but less than 10,000 MSL: Day requires 1 statute mile visibility. Night requires 3 statute miles visibility. Both day and night require you to avoid clouds by 1,000 feet above, 500 feet below, or 2,000 feet horizontally.
· More than 1200 feet AGL and at or above 10,000 MSL: Day or night requires 5 statute mile visibility and you need to avoid clouds by 1,000 feet above, 1,000 feet below, or 1 statute mile horizontally.

In purely practical terms, east of the Rocky Mountains, there is no Class G airspace above 1,200 feet AGL. Above 1,200 feet AGL would be Class E.

We didn’t cover everything that is shown on sectional and terminal area charts, but by the time we muddled through all the airspaces, equipment and visibility requirements, and altitudes – especially the Class G stuff above, my brain was starting to turn to mush anyway. I just need some time to digest it all, re-review it, and let it all sink in.