Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The fog just lifted right before I took off on my flight to Bakersfield. The weather was beautiful and the winds were calm. The flight examiner at San Luis recently left, making the nearest examiner all the way in Bakersfield, and hour flight into the central valley of California. My instructor came with me to give me support, but it did little to calm my nerves. My knees shook and my stomach had been in a knot since the night before when I did my flight planning. In hindsight I can say my expectations for the test were way too high, and I was honestly not sure I would be returning a new member of the pilots club.

Oral Exam
The flight was uneventful and we landed just few minutes late to the FBO where I would start my checkride. The examiner greeted me at the door and we proceeded directly into the backroom to start the paperwork. A few snags later and it was the time I dreaded and looked forward to the entire summer. I sat at a large conference table, the examiner directly in front of my with my instructor observing at the side. "So tell me about the airplane we will fly in today," she prodded for the first time of the day. We went over the legalities and requirements to fly. The FAR/AIM opened and close, along with the aircraft manual as I tried to concentrate through the blur of questions, memorized facts and nerves. What the examiner was really interested in was my flight planning abilities. I had planned a flight from Bakersfield(KBFL) to Catalina Island(KAVX). I had never planned a flight through class B airspace or over water before my checkride preparations, so this was new territory for me. She grilled me about my decisions on my path through the class B airspace and my path over the water which turned out inadequate for a safe flight. (I wasn't high enough to glide back to land) We reviewed the weather for the day and I explained to her the sections of the weather briefing and charts. More rules and regulations were discussed and before I knew it, she started explaining what I would be doing during the flight portion of the checkride. A whole two hours had gone by, but I was relieved that the oral exam was over.

The flight
We walked out to the airplane, and I started the preflight. She did not seem to interested in what I was doing, but she would interject at portions of my preflight and ask me a question about the airplane. Her questions were phased as an ignorant person might ask, but always with a specific answer she was looking for. "So what is this odd device?" or "Is this normal if this move like this?" With the airplane in one piece we took off. My instructor swears I was in the runnup area for a while, but I don't believe it. (Even if the tach says differently) We flew the first leg of the flight I planned and flew to a practice area after it was determined I could follow check points. In the practice area we did a few maneuvers, stalls, and basic pilotage. The examiner kept asking me random questions about my past and flying. Finally, she said, "Ok to be honest, you are doing really well for only having 40 hours and I can't figure out why." Hundreds of hours in a sim, I replied. We then did some hood work, she got me lost, I got myself found, and only did one landing before she called my checkride over. I had passed. From the debrief I would say I did ok overall compared to other students, but for someone that only had 40 hours, the flying part was a cinch.

I flew home that night excited, relieved, and most of all exhausted.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Night Flying

As it turned out, soon after my night flight back from Santa Ynez, we went through the rest of my required night hours with a combination of a cross country trip and pattern practice.

I planned my first true night cross country to Salinas, a little over an hour away. The route hopped across VORs as we made out way north so I could have more hood time. My instructor hesitated a little bit before accepting my planned route north. My route home was simply following the 101 south in the same fashion as I had coming back from Santa Ynez.

Soon after takeoff, I went under the hood, and followed the needle on the VOR indicator. The panel was barely lit by a flickering red light from the ceiling of the plane. After twenty minutes of flying my instructor had me look up. "What's the first thing you notice?" he asked.

"It's black, there are no light." Then the common question quickly popped into my head. What's my plan of action if my engine were to fail at this very moment. I couldn't see any towns, no roads, no ground. I had led the plane over rugged territory, without a clear place to put the airplane if the engine where to fail. My instructor made his point very clearly. At night it is wiser to follow the roads of civilization then an invisible beacon out in the middle of nowhere.

Light less Landings
Having done a few night landings before on my cross country trips, I thought that the night practice would be just to reinforce what I had already learned and satisfy the night requirement for my PPL. The technique to landing at night was to slow the rate of decent as much as possible using peripheral vision as a guide and let the ground meet the plane. A few stop and goes later I was feeling very comfortable. My instructor had other plans. He reached over and turned off my landing lights. An electrical failure, he said. Not only can't I use my lights, I can't communicate with the airport to turn up the lights, so he turned them down. I would have to say this is the one thing that I had some fear for. I could see the airport, but the definitions were not clear, and I had no idea of where the ground was other then the ability to judge my altitude with my peripheral vision. I think on that landing I used up most of the runway easing the airplane onto the ground, afraid of where it was. A few of those I and I had my fill of light less night landing. I am sure they will still make me tense the next time I go up for night practice.

Flight Hour Logged this post: 4.3
Total Flight Hours: 25.5

Friday, August 29, 2008

X-ray Country

With the minor detail of learning just exactly how to operate an airplane, the work fun can begin. It was time to go places.

My first long distance flight would be to a city called Bakersfield in the central valley oven of California. But of course it isn't as hoping into an airplane and going there. A detailed plan of the flight was required before takeoff. With the operating manual, a sectional, and a flight log I charted a course like a lost soul over well charted territory, literally.

I'd make my first leg simple. We would go straight there. A straight line. Simple enough. Starting with a true course I found the wind direction. That gave me a heading. But the heading didn't correspond to a compass, so I needed the magnetic variation. But wait, the compass is off by a few degrees. Next, I went through speeds, times, fuel consumptions, checkpoint landmarks, airport and VOR frequencies, and performance calculations. All of this was on one sheet of paper. I am glad my road trips require quite a bit less attention.

Next came weather. I sorted though pages of weather briefings and NOTAMS. Nothing special here, other then the temperature at altitude was reported to be 85F.

But now with all that preplanned done, the flight went off without a hitch. My times were within a minute or two and the calculated course was off by no more than a few degrees. Shifting winds can't be predicted to well. We stayed long enough in Bakersfield to realize it was too damn hot, and headed for the cooler coastal breeze, but this time navigating by way of a nearby VOR.

Santa Ynez
My next flight was a bit spur of the moment. My instructor called me up at work to say he had time that night to make a flight, but with only a few hours of light, we could go far. The city of Santa Barbara would be preferable, but the Mode C transponder hasn't worked since I started flying despite numerous replacements. A smaller uncontrolled airstrip just outside the Class C airspace was another place I wanted to visit, but technically, Santa Ynez was to close to home and not a cross country. So my solution? Fly just a few mile north to Paso Robles, land, then start the cross country from there.

The flight planning came much easier now that I understood the flow. I would use simple visual checkpoints and dead reckoning to navigate my way to the small airstrip of Santa Ynez. There was only one small problem. The sun was setting fast as soon as we left Paso. The lakes and buildings I used as checkpoints faded quickly with the light. Ditching the original plan, we found the nearest highway and followed the ant like line of car lights travelling towards our destination. We landed just barely still in legal day VFR hours. Luckily, that was all the instructed day VFR x-country hours I needed, because the flight home would be my first time flying in complete night conditions. We followed the same line of lights right back to San Luis completing my second x-country trip.

Flight Hours Logged this week: 5.4
Total Flight Hours: 21.2

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

First SOLO!!!!

After returning from an amazing trip down under, I was eager to get back in the pilot seat. My instructor was unavailable for the week so I practiced with another person. We prepped during our few flights for what I expected to come soon, my first solo.

A Review
My first flight of the week came one day shy of a month after my previous flight. Lets just say my newly minted skills broke form over that period of time. We spent the flight reviewing all the maneuvers I had learned. The skills came back to me with surprising ease.

My next flight was supposed to be pattern practice an another airfield with some hood practice in between, but because of a inop transponder, Santa Maria tower requested kindly we stay out of their busy pattern. The day turned into a day of hood practice. We were also able to use the small and less used runway 25 at San Luis.

The following day we stayed within the pattern at San Luis to prepare for my solo. The only problem was the wind. A variable cross wind made landings tricky, but with an instructor, it was a great time to figure out the proper crosswind technique. We also made great use of runway 25 again. Unfortunately due to the wind, my solo would have to wait one more flight.

Windy Again
My instructor scheduled today specifically to accomplish my solo. With 14 total flight hours, I was ready. I got off work today to find the wind blowing even harder since the last unsuccessful attempt. While it wasn't a cross wind, the wind was 15knots gusting to 25, not ideal solo weather. There was one more possibility, the untowered field, Paso Robles, to the north. To make matters worse, 63G was in the shop again for a 50 hour inspection. I would be flying an aircraft I have never flown before. N5269N. Usually a bad idea for a solo.

We arrived over the airport, with the only other aircraft in the pattern reporting variable winds. Not again! My instructor said we should try a few touch and goes to test the wind and then decide. In the pattern the winds seemed to blow the plane around things were not looking to good, but amazingly enough, the air was smooth on final all the way to the crosswind turn. After three landing my instructor pointed me to the runup area. "I getting out."

The Solo
I sat at the runup area, the right seat empty, almost at a loss of what to do. I feel like I am forgetting something. But I wasn't. I took a deep breath and checked the checklist on more time. "Lights, camera, action." The words of my instructor played out in my head as I made my way into the empty runway.

I throttled the plane down the runway, and it sprung to life quicker then normal. They sure mean it when they say the plane is much lighter without the instructor on board. My action came without thinking. Each step of the pattern practiced many times before this. Before I knew it my, first land came and went. Not bad I thought.

My second approach just didn't start right. I was high, so I pulled the power. I was fast, so I pulled up. Too much of everything and I was over controlling. By the time I made final I was low and slow, 50 kts when I should have been at 65kts. Just to make things more flustering, a pair of birds played chicken with me just before crossing the threshold. I flared normally but dropped hard onto the runway with the lack of speed. On the bounce I put in the throttle and went around. No use try to salvage that. I just hoped my instructor didn't have any regrets after witnessing that.

I need to two redeeming landing after that. With sheer concentration, I kept remembered my approach speeds, power settings, flap setting, all at the precise moment practiced. 500ft/min descents, and 500ft AGL turning final, everything matched up and I set the plane down with more finesse then I have before. Two more landings and a soaked shirt, I turned off the runway with a bit of relief. I had successfully soloed.


Flight Hour Logged this week: 5.7
Total Flight Hours: 15.8

Monday, July 14, 2008

Everyone else is stupid

Originally, my last lesson was suppose to go entail crosswind landing but the weather again did not want to cooperate. It was sunny and perfectly calm. So instead, we took a short trip north to an uncontrolled airport in Paso Robles. My replacement plane N5173V was out of service for the day, so I flew yet another plane, N124ME. This was my last flight before my month long vacation.

Entering the Pattern
My instructor had one piece of advice for me. "Assume everyone else is stupid." You cannot be sure of what anyone else is going to do, especially at an uncontrolled strip with a lot of traffic. As we came withing ten miles of the airstrip, the radio was already buzzing with activity. With at least one aircraft already in the pattern, I found it hard to get my radio call in edgewise as three other aircraft announced their positions, all about ten miles away in some direction. One plane was two mile ahead. Another had left San Luis just before we did and was only a few miles behind. Meanwhile, another aircraft approached from the north on a nonstandard entry to the pattern. With some detailed communication and circling by other aircraft, everyone space themselves out quite nicely. I successfully performed three touch and goes in this busy environment.

The key to today's flight: Constant communication with other aircraft. It help immensely to know where everyone was, and to let everyone else know where we were.

Flight Time Logged: 1.1
Total Flight Time:10.1