Sunday, July 11, 2010

Pattern Work

I was able to take a couple hours over the long holiday weekend to sneak out for an early AM flight. Unlike my previous 5 flights, this one was spent "working the pattern," or practicing the standard take-off and landing maneuvers required for most airports. The typical traffic pattern is flown in a pre-defined circuit around the airport, either counter-clockwise (a "left-turn" pattern) or clockwise (a "right-turn" pattern), depending on local terrain features or traffic conditions. (Great Wikipedia description here, for those interested). When doing pattern work, you essentially fly around in circles for a while, taking off from the airfield, climbing, flying back in a direction parallel to the runway, and then descending and landing (or coming close to it). Lather, rinse, and repeat. The purpose of working the pattern is to spend time becoming familiar (and increasingly proficient) with basic take-off and landing tasks that are otherwise encountered only once during a typical flight.

The five phases of a standard left-turning traffic pattern: Upwind, Crosswind, Downwind, Base, and Final. (courtesy of Wikipedia)

After taxiing to thehold-short line, I radioed to the Hanscom Tower to request a departure from Runway 29, specifying my intent to remain in the traffic pattern. We were cleared for a departur to a left-turn pattern. I brought up the throttle and we took off into our departure, or Upwind, climb. Once we reached 700 feet of altitude, I made a turn onto the Crosswind leg, contintuing to climb to 1000'. We then turned on to the Downwind leg and flew back along-side the runway. At the midpoint, I checked in with the Tower controller and re-specified my intent to return to the runway. With my CFI's guidance, I brought back the throttle, beginning the airplane's descent. We turned on to the Base leg, and then onto the Final approach, slowly sinking lower and lower towards the runway. Instead of landing, we practiced low flight, maintaining the airplane at a (nerve-wracking-to-me) 20' above the ground as we sped along the runway. Halfway down the length of the runway, I brought the throttle up to full and began the climb of the Upwind leg, once again.

All in all, we performed 5 runs through the pattern (4 making left-turns, 1 making right, as directed by the Tower controller). I made 'touch-and-go' landings for the second, third, and fourth circuits through the pattern, actually bringing the airplane down to the runway, rolling along it for a bit of distance on the main and nose landing gear, and then applying full throttle and taking off again. None of the landings were particularly pretty, but none were as awful as they could be and by the end of the whole affair, I was feeling much more comfortable with the concept of landing, if not the execution of it. Finally, on the fifth landing I brought the plane to a full stop on the taxiway and returned to our parking ramp. All in all, I logged 1.2 hours of flight time, without ever actually leaving the airport area.

Now for some more landing practice (and some more, and some more, and some more...)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

Finally, after 5 months on the ground I am back to flying! I completed a total of four flights (~6 hours) back in January/February, but life (and work, and teaching) had gotten too busy in the meantime for me to keep it up--hence the 5 month gap in posts.

In addition to some much needed free time, I've also finally found an instructor that really clicks for me. He's very senior (10,000+ hours in the cockpit) and his teaching style matches my needs extremely well. He is extremely approachable and has a tendency to emphasize the why more than the what, which has made flying a joy and much less stressful than my first several flights during the winter. I flew once with this new CFI before my hiatus and I've been looking forward to getting back in the cockpit with him. That proved more challenging than I thought it would be, as he is very highly regarded and, as a consequence, has an extremely full dance card. I've managed to work my way onto his schedule though and with any luck I'll be going out about once a week for the remainder of the summer.

My most recent flight started at 7AM this past Friday morning--a wonderful way to jump start the long holiday weekend. The morning was clear and calm and the flight went really well. I was worried about being rusty, but things came back pretty quickly. For the first time, I completed most of the calls to the ground and tower controllers myself ("Hanscom Ground, this is Warrior 2-6-3-November-Delta on the West Ramp, requesting taxi to Runway 2-Niner, with Victor"), which was very satisfying, if a bit intimidating. My unaffected Chuck Yeager drawl still requires some work.

After performing my first (mildly) cross-wind takeoff, we headed out from Hanscom to the practice area to work on slow flight and some basic climbing and descending maneuvers. Then we headed up the Merrimack river towards Lowell, working on power off and power on stalls. Finally, we turned back towards Boston and I radioed an approach request back to Hanscom tower. After being cleared, we entered the traffic patter and, with some relaxed instruction from my CFI, I landed on runway 29, completely under my own control. I wouldn't say it was the smoothest landing (we might have ended up back in the air, momentarily), but it was a successful one for all intents and purposes. A great flight overall.

My next lesson is bright and early Monday AM - can't wait!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Practicing Turns and Power-Off Stalls

I had my second lesson at East Coast Aero Club last week. This one was in the early morning on a clear and fairly cold day. I arrived to the airport only a bit after sunrise to a ramp full of very cold and frosty planes. For those who don't know, small aircraft generally require preheating prior to starting the engine when the temperature dips below freezing. This is critical for bringing the aluminum engine up to near its operating temperature, getting the battery to more effectively produce power for the electrical systems, and reducing the viscosity of the engine oil. At Hanscom, a third party provider, Signature Flight Support, is called for the morning preheat. They show up with a van that has two tanks of propane hanging off the back. They fire up a burner and blow hot air through a flexible 3" diameter hose (think your drier vent) into the engine compartment while the front of the plane is covered in a nice, snug blanket. Depending on the temperature outside (in this case, about 20F) and how long the plane has been sitting there (since yesterday), this process can take about 10-15 minutes. During that time, I had the pleasure of helping my flight instructor to brush and scrape the wing surfaces until they were devoid of ice. Any buildup, even fine, on the surface of the wing can cause undesirable friction as the air sweeps over the wing during flight. This friction can lead to turbulent (as opposed to smooth, "laminar") air flow on the wing surface, reducing lift and increasing the likelihood of a stall. Needless to say, even though I (stupidly) forgot to wear gloves for my early morning ride, I was eagerly scraping away the entire time we waited for the engine to heat.

Once we were warmed up and ready to go, we completed our inspection of the aircraft and our pre-flight checklist operations and I had another chance to taxi out to the runway. This was a lot more comfortable (if not yet natural) than my first taxiing experience. I also had the chance to show off that I had been studying my text books. We had a slight breeze coming from the front, left side of the aircraft (a "quartering" wind). When asked by my CFI how to account for this during taxiing, I correctly responded that the procedure was to raise the left aileron (move the control wheel left) to reduce the lift of that wing, while keeping the stabilator in a neutral position. (Had the quartering wind been from the left-rear rather than the left-front, the correct response would have been to turn the control wheel right while also pushing it forward.)

After taxiing to the runway and performing our run-up checks, I again had the opportunity to bring the plane up to speed and roll into our takeoff. It was a bit of a bumpy ride as we lifted off and began gaining altitude, but things soon smoothed out. After following the path of runway 29 (290 degrees, or West-Northwest, until we climbed to 800', we turned to heading 33 (330 degrees) and headed out towards the practice area, continuing to climb to an altitude of 3000'. This happened to coincide with pointing the aircraft roughly towards Mt. Monadnock in the distance, an excellent visual landmark. The view was amazing - a perfectly clear day with unlimited visibility - and the mountain looked much closer than I expected it to.

After a while we turned more westardly towards the practice area and I made a few 90-degree "clearing turns" to check for traffic. We then practiced slow-flying, where I reduced the power of the engine. This requires a compensatory increase in the pitch of the aircraft (increasing nose-up attitude by pulling back on the control wheel) to maintain sufficient lift for horizontal flight. The effect is a bit strange at first - reducing power and then gradually easing pulling back, back, back on the control wheel to tip the aircraft upward, yet still fly level at the same level altitude. This reduce-power, pull-back-to-compensate-for-loss-of-lift, continue-flying-level set of operations can only be kept up for so long. After reducing the speed of the aircraft from it's regular cruising speed (~110 knots) to about 60 knots, the aircraft is pointed fairly nose-high to maintain lift. At this point, I practiced extending the flaps, which change the camber of the wing, making them produce more lift at a relatively low airspeed. After spending a bit of time in this slow-flight condition, where responses to the aileron control inputs are significantly reduced and sluggish in comparison to cruising flight, I practiced entering into power-off stalls. The stall is a condition where the angle of the flowing air striking the downward-angled wing surface (known as the "angle of attack") becomes so severe that the air can no longer flow smoothly over the top surface of the wing. Instead, the airflow becomes a collection of turbulent vortices and the wing "stalls," no longer producing lift. At this point, the airplane begins to buffet a bit and starts to sink, and a loud stall alarm buzzer begins to sound. When this happens, the pilot should respond by returning full power to the engine and to pressing forward on the control wheel. This causes the airplane to pitch downward, which has two important effects: (1) the relative angle with which the air strikes the forward moving aircraft (angle of attack) decreases, bringing the wings out of the stalled condition, and (2) the forward airspeed of the aircraft increases, providing more lift over the wing surface. Entering into this stall regime and practicing recovery is an important part of learning how to fly a plane as it prepares the pilot to recognize the condition (which could be caused by a loss of engine power) and respond quickly to recover without significant loss of control or altitude. I had read up a bit about this procedure and, while I was expecting to be a bit nervous about it, I actually ended up feeling comfortable and in control the entire time. It was actually reassuring to see how easy and intuitive the recovery maneuver was.

Interestingly, we practiced the power-off stalls for about 20 minutes in spitting distance from both the Fitchburg Airport and a well-frozen lake, in case of the actual loss of the engine and the need to glide to a quick emergency landing. The lake was none other than Lake Whalom, where Lauren's parent's live. We ended up practicing the stalls almost directly over their house. I wondered how they would feel to know that the flight school regularly took completely inexperienced pilots over their house to practice making their airplanes drop out of the sky...

After the slow-flight and power-off stall practicing, we headed back to Hanscom for a nice, uneventful return flight. My instructor handled all of the communications with the tower as we got into the landing pattern (something she will continue to do until I have a bit more experience with the flying part of flying, although I am beginning to understand the radio patter a bit more now), and I helped configure the airplane and set us up for the final approach. All in all, a great morning flight and another 1.2 hours in my log book!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

First Lesson

Spoiler: I have now "flown" an airplane.

I had my first lesson with East Coast Aero Club one late afternoon after work last week. I've been meaning to post about it but I've been busy reading textbooks and playing with flight simulators (more on that in a later post). Lauren just mentioned this blog on Will-the-Thrill, though, so it's time to update.

After getting to Hanscom a bit before sunset, I spent some time filling out paperwork and meeting with a senior certified flight instructor (CFI). My CFI has thousands of flight instruction hours under her belt, has been teaching at ECAC for over five years, and came well-recommended by the staff. We spent about 20 minutes waiting for a warm airplane to return to the field for my flight and talked about my reasons for wanting to fly (nothing deep here: it looks fun), my prior experience (countless hours of Microsoft Flight Simulator 4, back in 8th grade on the ol' 386; nothing since), and my plans for pursuing a license. Depending on funding and free time, some people will push through the licensing process in several months, often flying 2 or 3 times a week. Given the family commitments, full-time job, and part-time teaching gigs that eat up a lot of my free time, I am hoping to fly once a week, at which the whole process will probably take closer to a full year. Living less than 5 minutes from the airport makes fitting in lessons easier; so does having an amazing and extremely patient wife. (Thanks again, Laur! I owe you big time for this one)

Because of the late hour of the flight, this was more of an introduction to the aircraft than a very formal first lesson. My CFI led me through an initial tour of the aircraft that I'll likely be flying over the course of my lessons, a 1999 Piper Warrior 4-seater (PA28-161). We performed a pre-flight inspection of the aircraft and went over the basic controls and displays in the cockpit. After that, it was my turn to taxi us to the runway. For those who have never been, Hanscom is a relatively large airfield, with two intersecting runways, nestled under the western edge of Logan's airspace. All flights are under control of a tower, which means that each aircraft has to request clearance to perform take off and landing operations (as opposed to smaller fields where aircraft simply broadcast their intentions on a common frequency that everyone is monitoring). My CFI spoke with the tower and we were directed to runway 29, where we were next in line for takeoff.

Taxiing is a very interesting thing. Speed of the aircraft is regulated by increasing or decreasing the throttle lever, which isn't too different from driving (although done by hand, not by foot), but the similarities end there. During taxiing the throttle is left at a fixed position that puts the aircraft at the constant pace of a "brisk walk" and steering is controlled not by the use of the yoke--which sits there in front of you, like a steering wheel, SCREAMING to be turned--but through the rudder pedals on the floor. Let's just say that suppressing 15 years of driving experience is incredibly difficult in this situation. Before we started moving my CFI suggested I keep my hands firmly in my lap to resist the temptation to grab the flight controls and turn them to stay on course as we followed the yellow taxi lines across the airport. I did my best, but on several occasions my hands shot to the controls on their own accord, although to my credit I caught myself at the last second each time. ("No hands!" comments from my CFI probably didn't hurt).

Once we reached the area before the runway, we performed our run-up checklist to make sure everything was working properly and then pointed the plan down the long strip. After a check-in with the tower, my CFI told me to release the brakes and smoothly increase the throttle and we began traveling down the runway, picking up speed. With her coaching, I pulled gently back on the stabilator controls and we lifted smoothly off the runway - I was flying!!

We slowly climbed, maintaining the runway heading and traveling west from the airport, out towards 495. The highway is a nice visual landmark for the Boston airspace and ECAC's practice area is west of it, just north of what used to be the Ft. Devens army base. In a matter of minutes, we had flown to the practice area and an altitude of 3000 feet. During the transit, my CFI had me get a feel for the aileron (left/right roll), stabilator (up/down pitch), and rudder (left/right turn, or yaw) controls, as well as the elevator trim control, which is used to relive pressure from the yoke so you can maintain a constant airspeed without constantly pulling back or pushing forward on the controls. Once we were in the practice area, I spent a bit of time getting a feel for ascending and descending maneuvers, as well as "coordinated flight," where the left/right rudder pedal controls are used in conjunction with the ailerons to mitigate side-slipping. By this point, the sun had been down for a bit and it was beginning to get dark. We turned back for the airport, which my CFI helped me find (you'd think they would be easier to see from the air, even from a distance). We entered the airport pattern and my CFI took us in for a night landing on runway 29. We made an amazingly gently landing (I only have commercial airliners to compare this to and it is SO much slower in a small plane), taxied back to the terminal, performed our post-flight checklist, and covered the plane for the night. Once we were back in the office, I picked up the official student kit, which includes my very own flight log. I filled in the front page with owner information and proudly handed it to my CFI, who logged the flight time and the major maneuvers we practiced. All said and done, I now have 1.5 hours of logged flight time to my name and am one huge step closer towards earning that private pilot's license. Now the real training begins...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The First Step

After several years of thinking about it, I've finally made the decision to take flying lessons and earn my pilot's license (or "Private Pilot Certificate," as it is more mundanely labelled in the US). Several people have at least feigned interest when I've brought this topic up in discussion, so I thought it might be interesting to write a blog about the experience.

I've been reading up on FAA licensing requirements, flight schools, and aeronautics in general a bit more steadily over the past year, as several of my projects at work have brought me in closer contact with the aviation world (mostly helicopter pilots and unmanned aerial systems folks). Moving to our new house has piqued my interest as well: we're less than 2 miles from Hanscom Field (KBED) and Will and I have always enjoyed watching the small aircraft fly overhead. After realizing there might be a chance to leverage my employer's generous "continuing education" reimbursement program, I started to look into pilot certification a bit more seriously. Then, about a month ago, Lauren's father, Brad, loaned me several of the old flying textbooks and Cessna operator's manuals he had from the days when he earned his own license, back before we were born. Since then, I've spent many late hours trolling the internet and reading up on the requirements and processes involved in getting a license. Finally, I took the plunge yesterday and drove with Ben, my brother-in-law, out to Hanscom to check out the two local flight schools. We happened across East Coast Aero Club first and, after about 30 minutes of talking with one of the instructors about program logistics, I decided to take the next step: I've booked a first introductory flight for Tuesday AM, bright and early before the morning traffic picks up.

Here goes nothing...