Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas came early and plane shooting 2.

Waiting for my red eye fly home from a business trip, I recently ended up with half a day to kill in Vancouver with a fully paid for rental car. I am not sure what a normal person would do in that situation, but I am pretty sure she would not spend the next couple hours driving around the airport looking for service roads with potentially good shooting spots.
Did I mention that 30 sm of snow that was still in the melting stage and roads with no shoulders?

I found what seemed to be a good spot right in the beginning of Rwy 26R. Unfortunately, there were three problems present. Firstly, the visibility (and available light) were bad to downright non-existent. Secondly, YVR was not Heathrow and planes did not land there every minute. In fact they were not even landing every 15 mins (must have been a slow time of the day). And when the first plane did finally show up, I discovered problem #3 - the pictures of the airplane underside and behind were not all that appealing. Having made those discoveries, I relocated, found another spot and having waited for almost 20 mins, finally got two airplanes in quick succession.

At that point, I was quite frozen (it was also cold) and decided to go for a bit of a drive, which took me to a spot right on a beach that has a perfect view of my second most favorite subject to shoot – ships. The sun was setting and literally putting them on fire making them stand out against bleak surroundings. I had no clue where I was, other than the fact that I was on an empty beach, had a view of a downtown Vancouver and the mountains and was watching an unbelievable sunset. This time with the camera in my hands.

Later that day sitting in the terminal waiting for my flight to YYZ, I made another discovery. The terminal in Vancouver is facing one of the parallel Rwy and had I checked in during the daylight hours, I would have had a great vantage point to shoot both departing and landing traffic. I guess there is always next time.

Few days post YYC-YVR trip, I finally had a chance to augment my plane pictures collection with the YYZ shots. I was getting a few books and looking at a new David Clark X11 at Aviation World just as YYZ was landing on Rwys 23/24. For those not familiar with that store – the landing path for Rwys 24L/R is almost directly overhead of the store. Their next door neighbor is an adult club, making for some interesting composition possibilities ;-))

I spent about an hour at the store trying the various headsets ( I did end up getting X11 as my Christmas present) and looking at the books (they have quite a collection). I think I also spend as much time or longer outside trying to get a good shot of a plane on short final. And then one more, and another one… until I was absolutely frozen solid and could not push the trigger anymore. I am not sure what was more exiting – trying on all the cool headsets, looking at books or standing in the bitter wind with my fingers frozen to the camera waiting for a giant 747 to blast over my head, but the whole experience was so much fun, I’d be doing it again soon. They also had GPS units on display…

Monday, December 18, 2006

Under the Hood at Night.

Recently, I had my fist 1.0 hrs of under the hood time towards the night rating. Naturally, I also picked up the best ever VFR night to do this. Not a cloud in the sky; stars all over the place and unlimited visibility. This would have been a GREAT night for a night x-country. Alas, my instructor had the whole light show to himself as I had to spend most of my flight time admiring the dimly lit instruments.

This was a new plane for me – my school (Toronto Airways), lost couple of planes in a weird micro burst last summer, including my second favorite, HMU and they since acquired another one. All Cessna 172Ms are more alike then they are different with the basic instruments in the same places (most of the times), but the little dials, engine gauges, etc. can be anywhere on a panel in different planes, so the run up took a bit more time than usual.

As I was doing the run up we were listening to a Ground frequency. There was one controller working both Tower and Ground frequencies, so he was transmitting on both, which explains why we were able to hear his side of what I called “lost pilot dialogue”. Pilot, who was obviously non-local to YKZ had difficulties finding it in the midst of sea of lights. That was not surprising as I was told by several pilots more experienced than me that YKZ is VERY difficult to find at night.

Controller was trying everything he could – dimming and brightening Rwy lights, turning them on and off. Nothing helped, the pilot still could not locate the airport – and at that point he would have been about 2-3 miles out. Finally, the controller just gave pilot vectors for the straight-in approach.

In the break of their dialogue, I jumped in a got my permission to taxi. We taxied in to a short hold position just as the lost pilot finally discovered the Rwy in front of him. We watched him land (high and long) and I asked the Tower for permission to take off and was told to get in a position and wait. We rolled into the position and waited. And waited and then waited some more…

After sitting in the position for what seemed to be like 5 mins, I thought the Tower forgot about us and just about to ask, when I heard the controller side of another dialogue with the same lost pilot. This time he was lost on the ground, having taken the exit to the South of Rwy 33, which meant that he would have to cross it again to get back to hangars. The controller was not taking any chances and wanted that pilot off the taxiway and runway before he was letting us take off. The pilot finally figured it out and soon we were free to go.

We were climbing though 1500 ft when I became aware of two things. First, that plane had a tendency to roll left necessitating a bit of aileron correction at all times and second, the air was extremely bumpy. Neither was good for under the hood work. As we flew out from under YYZ inverted wedding cake zone and climbed above 3,500 it became smoother and at 4,000 ft the air seemed still. This was misleading however, as the stillness was due to a very fast moving air mass. Going against the wind at 110 kts Indicated, our ground speed ranged from 40 to 60 kts.

While under the hood, I did standard tasks such as directions, climbing, turning to a certain heading, tracking the VOR etc. Plane wanted to go into standard rate turn to the left at all times and it took effort to keep it on a given heading. Despite the left turning tendency, I managed most of the tasks OK, until I was told to do a standard rate turn. It was then that I experienced leans for the first time, when my body told me we were flying straight and level and yet instruments showed still turning. Very weird sensation – I knew exactly what it was from reading about it in the books, however, it was “interesting” to experience it for the first time. I managed OK, came out of the turn and leveled off.

Right after that experience, doing a turn in the opposite direction I made it a bit steeper and within a few seconds felt some weird Gs. I wasted a few seconds trying to figure out what my brain was telling me and then looked at the instruments that showed turn steeper than 45 degrees and speed climbing. I was almost in a spiral but managed to recover having lost few 100 ft and having a new appreciation how easy it is for an inexperienced pilot to get into a spiral dive in inadvertent flight into IMC.

On a way back to the airport, we did some partial panel, which went well until I descended below 3,000 ft. It became so bumpy that I took the hood off and flew us back visually. Found the airport with no problems (it is much easier to find when you know exactly where it is ;-)).

Was a bit high, but remembered the Cessna’s have flaps just in time to get myself established nicely on the final and then all of a sudden had my best landing EVER. Did not feel the wheels touch, so was thinking I was still flying, pulled the yoke some more and felt the front wheel come off, so realized I was actually on the ground already.

I am beginning to like this night flying thing…

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Runway Departure

I have seen the plane leave the Rwy and end up in a ditch few weeks ago. I know that bent planes do happen sometimes and with me flying every weekend, it was just a matter of time before I have seen one. I am hoping (and practicing) that I would never BE in one, but nothing would provide me a perfect insurance against some mechanical issue or a simple mistake.

Anyways, back to the story, the accident was as minor as they get in terms of pilots conditions – they were both unharmed. Not even a bruise. The plane was not that lucky. It ended up nose down in a ditch that runs along the right side of the Runway with the nose wheel sheered off and prop missing large pieces. Aside from broken nose wheel and injured prop, the rest of the frame seemed in good condition.

I was actually flying at the time they were landing. I just announced entering the zone and my intentions when I heard them announcing final. I looked and saw them fly what looked like a good approach, flare, touch down…. and head straight for the bushes (and I though only my Citabria was in the habit of doing that). From high above, I initially thought that they were overshooting, however, when I saw the dust and the plane not moving and almost perpendicular to the Rwy, I realized what happened. By that time I was directly over field and right over the plane and could see both occupants walking away, so I was quite relieved.

The relief was temporary, as I still had to land there myself. As I was passing over, I confirmed that the airplane was completely off the Rwy. At the time, I had no idea how an airplane ended up in a ditch in the first place. I felt myself starting to get really tense and concerned about my landing. It was quite turbulent and gusty and i was concerned that if conditions were bad enough for a tricycle airplane to run off, then what were the chances my Citabria would end up straight? With millions of thoughts per second racing through my brain, compounded by excessive turbulence, my approach was beginning to approximate the misaligned rollercoaster that was about to fly off the rails. Earlier in the downwind, I announced my decision to do a low pass to check Rwy conditions and, fighting to keep the airplane straight on final, I was glad that I already made that decision. I came over the Rwy and suddenly the turbulence stopped. Completely. I was flying straight and low enough that I could have chopped the power and landed right there. However, I did not want to change my decision, so I applied power and took off.

That low pass achieved two goals. First, it gave me a bit of time to get myself together and mentally prepare for a safe landing. And secondly, I realized that as bumpy as the approach would be, as long as I fly it straight, once I get low enough, it’ll get smoother. I was on final when I got a call from one of the planes on the ground – the guys walked the Rwy and confirmed no foreign objects. I landed just fine, taxied off, shut the plane down and went to see the runaway plane.

It actually did not look too bad. Aside from prop and front wheel, the airframe seemed OK. I could see that they did almost a straight line to the right almost from the point of touchdown. One of the pilots mentioned that they had issues with rudder in the air and seemed to have lost all steering control once they were on a ground.

They since discovered the source of a problem and confirmed that it was not something that they could have picked up during a walk-around. It looks like the plane will be flying again by mid-January. And somehow that incident made me want to spend the whole day just practicing landings to make sure I have complete confidence in a Citabria.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Shooting Airplanes (with the camera of course).

As I started flying I developed another passion – I like taking pictures of the airplanes. I am not yet as obsessed as some dedicated airplane spotters or as skilled as some of the photographers in, but I sure enjoy it almost as much.

I stumbled into photography almost by chance when I rented my first underwater camera during one of my scuba diving vacations. The pictures from that dive came back so good (beginner’s luck), that I decided to learn about photography. The learning curve with all the requisite knowledge about F-stops, exposures, light, etc. was further complicated by the fact that all those had to work underwater. Having mastered it somewhat successfully I shot underwater exclusively for a few years but eventually became interested in what I call “surface photography”.

Going through my initial PPL flight training and the ground school, I made my usual annual pilgrimage to Mediterranean to see my family. That typically requires a layover at Heathrow. By that time, having gotten tired of missed opportunities (how is that you always see the most beautiful sunset in the world when your camera is safely out of reach?), I carried my camera with me everywhere. In Terminal 3, I discovered a neat Italian café facing the Rwy that was used for landing that day. With a 300mm zoom lens, I could do semi-decent shots of the planes in the flare, so I spent the next 2 hours clicking away to the amusement of other transient passengers. I must add that amusement cut both ways as I watched some of them attempting to take pictures with their cell phones.

I since gone through Heathrow once more and spent another 4 hr layover in that café again. Heathrow is great for photo opportunities as the planes land one after another in quick succession. I think controllers call it a snake – all the planes in formation. At all times I could see 4 or 5 on final approach.

Boston’s Logan was another place good for shooting from inside the terminal area and outside from the boat (trying to hold a camera steady in high seas was whole other story). We were flying out late at night and I had only limited time of available light, but some of the shots turned out OK. The area I was at was facing the Rwy used mostly for departures and I also had a very good view of the shorter x-wind Rwy.

Before our flight, Logan departures were hampered by active weather in most of the target destinations resulting in ground halt, so there were a lot of planes waiting to take off and go places. They were departing planes from intersecting Runways and also landing a few in between. Watching the planes performing intricate ballet on the field was fascinating. I wish I could have my handheld radio and listen to the controllers. Most of the planes were departing from a shorter Rwy that I could see but not shoot (too far). They were landing all of them on longer Rwy and it was also used by departing 747s of which there were a few. What a sight! Too bad the rotation point was beyond of what I could see.

As the sun was about to set, I snapped a shot of plane next to a Tower and used the dim remaining daylight for a shot of 747 with a football nose.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Taming the Taildragger part 3.


Wx finally cooperated long enogh to let me fly almost every week after that “out of control” class. Couple of lessons later I thought I got it all figured out. I could do a good 3-point landing, remembered to pull stick all the way back (well, most of the times) and to be quick with my rudder inputs. Dancing on the pedals is exactly how that quickness felt like. I felt like it was finally ready to go solo.

And then there was x-wind. It was not bad in terms of strength, but it was quite an offset to Rwy heading – not quite perpendicular, but roughly 60 degrees. Having done one circuit with instructor, it was back to square one for me –same feeling of being out of control. I though I had good x-wind technique as my original PPL instructor made a point of going out and practicing with me in some decent x-winds. However all that practicing seemed to have gone out of the window when it came to landing the Citabria.

Thinking back now, the fundamental difference was that I needed to be much quicker with the controls on Citabria and do all corrections in small increments. The other difference were hangars and trees on approach to our little rwy that sometimes result in need for completely opposite inputs between 50 and 5 ft in the air. I.e. I would be crabbing into the left, but would require right aileron in the flare to keep the right wing down and prevent the plane from drifting to the left. I never had to do that in a Cessna yet.

It took a few more lessons, but eventually, I got the x-wind landings under control and then the day came when my instructor said that he would get out and I go do a few circuits solo. Nothing could ever quite compare to ones first ever solo, but this one came close. I think was slightly more anxious (thanks to the awareness that comes with a little more knowledge) and I had the real feeling of accomplishment as I worked really hard for it. I did a few circuits and went home proud of myself for taming the taildragger.

And that would be the end of that story, if couple of flights later, the plane did not teach me another lesson about paying attention. I read numerous times that you can only relax when the plane is safely parked in the hangar or tied down. I thought that was a hyperbola and not really all that true. After all, what could happen once the plane is on the ground? Turns out quite a lot could, as I discovered one day when I relaxed after a nice landing and did not do a rudder dance quickly enough.

You could probably guess what the plane did next... Exactly. Headed straight for the side as usual. I reacted before thinking and added power to do a go around, hoever i did not get the tail up to get better directional control. By the time I was flying, at least one wheel did get off the Rwy. Luckily, I got airborne before the plane went completely off the Rwy (did I mention that the little airfield I fly from is on a top of the hill?), but that experience shook me. I meant to go and fly around after a few landings, but decided to stay in the circuit and work on paying attention to all phases of flight – from landing to transition to take off to circuit and approach. And I now know that I will not relax and stop paying attention.

In the end of all that, I am still not sure who tamed who between me and Citabria, but I know darn well that I came out a much better pilot out of that. And yes, I got my tailwheel endoresement and can take passengers.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Taming the Taildragger, part 2.


After the first attempt of taxing and semi-controlled landings on the grass, my next few bookings were cancelled due to low ceilings, strong winds, bad visibility or some sort of combination of the above reasons. Which is a long way to say that my second lesson felt like I was having a first one all over again. Except worse.

After pre-flying the plane, we climbed in and got it started. I ran through the checklist and after now customary excursions to the opposite edges of the taxiway, got the plane to the little run up bay. Run up went w/o a hitch and soon I was trying to taxi in the straight line, but the plane was having none of that straight line nonsense and headed straight for the right side. My instructor saved the airplane from certain destruction by intervening and returning it to the centre.

Zigzagging from edge to edge, we finally made it to the beginning. First takeoff was a bit of a handful, but eventually I managed a few decent ones. The in the air part was great and reminded me why I was going through all that torture of learning to fly the taildragger – being so much more responsive than a Cessna, it was a pure joy to fly. As long as I remembered my rudder inputs of courses as that plane felt very awkward whilst uncoordinated.

Landings were another matter entirely. After a few tries, I finally figured out how to do a more or less stabilized approach at the speed the instructor wanted on landing. The narrow, short and upsloping Rwy looked very different compared to the longer, wider and flat runways that I learned at.

Did I mention that that little airport sat on top of a hill? Having attempted to crash us into the side of that hill once (saved by instructor as usual), eventually I was able to fly a stabilized approach into the flare.

It was in the flare or right before it that everything was falling apart for me. No, I did not take my hands of the stick and screamed “we gonna die”, but if I did, it probably would not make much of a difference as whatever I was doing to that poor airplane did not quite facilitate straight and smooth landings.

At the end of that lesson I came home completely deflated and questioning whether or not I was cut out for that. In despair, I started reading the taildragger section of the student pilot board and discovered that pretty much everyone’s first class experience was identical to mine. It is amazing how the simple fact that I was not the worst out there could be such a confidence booster, but I guess that’s the human nature. I definitely felt better knowing that that some very experienced taildragger pilots out there started just like me, out of control, scared to bend the airplane and doubting whether or not they’d make it to taildragger independence.

Having finished reading, I resolved to keep trying and it did get better with time, but that’s another story. For part 3.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Taming the Taildragger

Taming the Taildragger
Part 1.
Playing on a grass.
When I first signed up for the flying lessons, I had zero knowledge of small general aviation airplanes. I have never seen one up close and personal, let alone fly in one. The closest I came was AN-2 few lifetimes back in Russia. This one is even from my home city.

As I was signing up, the person at the counter asked me whether I wanted to learn in the high wing or low wing and, in case of high wing, 152 or 172. Seeing the blank expression on my face, she gave up asking and just put me down for a Cessna saying I could always switch to a Piper later. One glance inside one of the numerous 152s on the field convinced me that I wanted a "bigger Cessna". That's how I ended up learning in a 172M.

In time, that proved to be a great selection as the fleet of rental 172’s is now the largest at my school (i.e. more choices for a weekend pilot) and high wings proved popular with my main passenger interested in aerial photography.

I discovered various aviation boards even before starting ground school, and shortly thereafter my internet education was notably enhanced by familiarity with such topics as high wing Vs low wing, flaps in the x-wind, slip Vs crab, etc. It soon became apparent that there were as many opinions about flying as there were pilots. Some topics, however, seemed to have everyone agreeing. One of them was that flying tail dragger would improve one's skill as a pilot. Another was that aerobatics was a great way to build skills and confidence.

After some research, I found a little paved airstrip 5 minutes drive from where I lived that had a Citabria 7CAB (150 HP and inverted fuel) and offered both tail wheel and aerobatics. I did an into to aerobatics half way through my private license and knew I would be coming back for a formal course. That meant getting a tail wheel endorsement first.

By the time I finished my PPL and signed up for the tail wheel training, I was feeling reasonably confident in my ability to fly and (more importantly) land a 172. My PPL instructor liked taking me up in gusty x-winds, so I thought I got my x-wind inputs down solid. I have also been exposed to shorter and grass strips and was comfortable with those as well.

The comfort went right out of the window as soon as I started the engine in a Citabria and tried to taxi in a straight line. I realized instantly that that plane did not do straight lines. At least not with me in control. By the time we made it to the little run up area on the paved taxiway, the plane tried to make a run for the grass twice, both to the right and left of that paved taxiway. I could swear that the plane just liked grass better than asphalt.

I got lucky that day and the plane got its wish. The wind was strong and directly perpendicular to the only paved runway, so we ended up taking off and landing on a short grass runway that was directly into the wind. With no markings on that runway, other than a general direction, “straight” was a relative term, so I was able to taxi in general direction of the beginning and even turn it around w/o running into the trees.

Takeoff directly into the wind was relatively short as the plane did not really get any chances to do something bad. Once in the air, that plane turned from an uncontrolled wild creature into a precise flying machine. At least it was precise when I remembered my rudders. It let me know instantly when I did not – such a chance from Cessna!

Landings were relatively easy ( and I am pretty sure that having an instructor in the back seat that did not want to crash that day helped too). The easiest part of the PPL training for me was always arriving at the numbers at a precise speed – I can’t do the math or what I need to add or deduct in terms of pitch and power, but I somehow intuitively know when to make these corrections. Citabria was the same once I adjusted to the sight picture (it flies much more nose down compared to Cessna) and required speeds.

Having arrived over the trees at required speed, it was just a matter of flaring in a timely fashion, pulling the stick back and remembering to pull it all the way back, once the plane made contact with the grass. Sure we bounced a bit a few times, but grass, being such a forgiving surface, made me feel like I was making progress that day. Little did I know of what future would hold.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Sparkling City

I had one of those experiences of a lifetime last night. The ones that make you smile for days afterwards no matter what else happens, the ones that make you realize why you love flying so much. The ones that make you want to try to write about them and then almost give up in frustration since it is impossible to put the silly smiles and feelings down on paper and make others feel the same way. The experience was my first night flight over downtown Toronto.

It was the first class of my night rating and we were supposed to stay in the circuit doing endless touch and goes, but it was my last flight together with my instructor (he is leaving to a new job) and even though the ceilings were low (OVC025), the visibility under the clouds was unlimited and the downtown looked bright and inviting, so we asked YKZ Tower to permission to leave the circuit, got transponder code and took off towards the lights in the south.

Normally, a student training out of YKZ does a downtown tour by the time he or she is finished, or flies it immediately after, but I just never got around to it, so it was my first ever downtown tour and it spoiled me forever.

The low ceilings were reflecting the bright lights of the downtown, the sea of sparkles below and the sea of fire above with dark outlines of downtown skyscrapers in between. I never knew that the night downtown sparkled so much as viewed from 2,000 ft – the light level was not constant, always changing in intensity and color. I could just sit there and watch that light show for hours. Alas, I also had to fly the airplane, too, for the first time at night, so that took some concentration.

Island Tower cleared us for the tour and frequency grew silent. We were the only plane in the area and had the whole downtown to ourselves. YYZ traffic was reduced to bright dots way on the horizon and we were free to go anywhere we wanted. Surreal does not begin to describe that experience…

I flew over downtown TO more than a few times in the commercial flights when they turn over the city before landing on Rwy 24, however this experience was entirely different. Firstly, we were much lower. The clearance from City Tower was to stay at 2,000 ft, which put us 1,000 ft lower than commercial airliners and below the very tip of the CN Tower (it extends to over 2,000 ft). And secondly, I was the pilot, not the passenger, deciding where to go and what to see. My first circle was wide, all the way to Humber Bay and then on the outside of Toronto Islands getting a wide view of the downtown with its very recognizable outline silhouetted against the sea of light behind. The contrast between the dark water and the city light was striking. The visibility was so good, I could easily see the lights of St. Catherines in the distance, miles across the lake.

My second circle was tighter, it was actually a square pattern as I wanted to keep wings level as much as possible so that they won’t be blocking the view. I flew a bit further North to Manulife building and then took Spadina to the south passing as close to CN Tower as regulations would allow. I was a bit tense (that being my first night flight ever) and exhilarated at the same time, flying next to one of the world’s most famous landmark. Looking down on the tallest buildings was neat too – especially given that I look up to most of them out of my 6th floor office window that is facing Bay St.

And then it was all over and time to go back to YKZ. We picked up the DVP North, checked out of City Tower frequency, checked in with Buttonville and were cleared for a straight in approach to Rwy 33. I came in a bit high and had to slip almost to the flare to loose height. Landing was not my smoothest, but that was to be expected given I had been learning how to land the taildragger and have not not flown a 172 Cessna i 3 months prior to that flight.