Monday, January 29, 2007

Stuck in the snow.

Burst of power, left rudder, left brake … the plane absolutely refused to turn and continued straight. Silence soon followed as the propeller stopped moving when I pulled the power back. I secured the engine and accessed the situation. Bad news was that the right wheel was now off the plowed surface, in the deeper snow then before and the plane was still facing the wrong way. Good news was that I killed power soon enough before the plane had a chance to make a run for the ditch.

As I sat in there in silence considering my options, it occurred to me that I only had one option – I had to get out of the plane, lift the tail and turn it around. That would have placed the tailwheel in the deep snow as well, but I would then hopefully have enough power to pull it out. Having engine already shut at least prevented me from contemplating getting out of the plane with engine still running.

As I was preparing to exit the plane, I thought that another good new was that at least no one would see me struggling to turn the plane to exit the Runway as I the only one flying at that time. Just as I was finishing that thought, I heard another plane announce entering the zone with the intention to land. The guy in that plane was one of the guys that were in the little Pelican when it ran off the runway couple of months earlier due to steering gear problems. Imagine his surprise when in response to his “I am entering the zone announcement”, he heard “uh, CABC, just to let you know the Citabria is stuck at the end of Rwy having difficulties turning”. I thought of explaining how I ended up stuck in the first place, but thought that the time would be better used by getting out of the plane and moving the tail around.

Given there was now traffic waiting to land, I was getting out of the plane in a hurry. As I was climbing out it occurred to me that that was a good egress practice in case I ever had to jump out of the plane in flight and use my parachute. That thought ended very unpleasantly half way out of the plane as my head was jerked back by the headset that I forgot to unplug. I guess I need more egress practice.

Lifting the tail and turning the plane around so that I finally faced in the right direction was surprisingly easy and soon I was back in. The plane restarted right away and I did not need a lot of power before I was out of the deep snow. I still needed to make a 45 degree turn to get out, but that was an easier task that trying to do a 180 at the end of Rwy with tail wheel getting zero traction.

Realizing that with tail wheel getting no traction at all, I needed to be more aggressive with my inputs, I pushed the rudder quite firmly and soon we were finally turning off the Rwy just as the guy were doing an overshoot (guess I did not get out fast enough). Coming to the parking area I did not even attempt to turn the plane around as I would normally do if there was any traction. I shut the plane down, got out (remembered my headsets this time) and moved the tail around.

I got out of the airplane thinking that I learned yet another lesson about the fact that you may have a good braking action and directional control on landing and take off on a snow covered Rwy, however, the tail wheel traction may not be sufficient for tight turns at low speed.

I also asked couple of people with way more hours in the Citabria than me what would they do in that situation and one option was big turns with a lot of rudder and forward stick to lift the tail off. That would not work too well in a narrow bay at the end of Rwy. I really liked the other option involving 20 ft of rope and a passenger, but my potential passenger was not all too keen on the idea.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Looping around.

Diving for 140, I pulled on a stick and the little Citabria shot into the skies. Reaching vertical I pulled a bit harder and then released some pressure to coast over the top of the loop. Except I released too much and suddenly my instructor and I were flying inverted, suspended in the air hanging from our harnesses, as all the dust and mud that accumulated in the plane over the last few weeks showered down from what used to be the floor generously coating out heads in the process.

I pulled on a stick again and soon we were getting re-acquainted with positive gravity as all the dust and mud made the reverse trek from the ceiling and back to the floor coating our heads ones more for a good measure.

We spoke almost simultaneously: “I guess I released the stick too much” and “Hmm, I guess I should have vacuumed the plane”. This was my second acro lesson and we were working on loops and hammerheads.

Loop in a basic acro trainer is an exercise in energy management. In my few hours of practice since that lesson, I discovered that it was very easy to fly a loop, but it was hard to fly a perfectly round one with no loss of altitude.

The 7CAB Citabria that I fly has a 150 hp engine which is a bit more powerful compared to other Citabria models, but still not powerful enough for doing acro maneuvers from straight and level flight, thus the requirement to dive to get speed (energy).

At the speed of 140 mph (recommended entry speed), you commence a pull up. As you pulling up, you are converting the energy into altitude. The trick here is not to run out of energy before reaching the max altitude at the top of the loop, otherwise, the plane might stall on a way up. 3.5 to 4 Gs in the pull up usually do the trick in the Citabria. You are supposed to relax the pull a bit over the top in order to keep the loop round – keeping the same pull pressure will result in a weird-shaped loop. Relaxing the pressure too much and/or pushing on a stick will transition you into an inverted flight and could lead to an inverted, if not corrected right away.

At the top, the altitude is highest and the energy is the lowest and then it is all reversed with plane gaining energy as it is loosing altitude. You have to pull up almost the same amount of Gs as you used on the first half, because it you do not you’ll end up lower than your starting point.

The above goes half way to answering the question that bugged since my intro to aerobatics flights - why would the airplane not stall and fall out of the skies when it is upside down? As I discovered, it can and would stall and fall out of the skies if you run out of energy before the top part of the loop or pushed the stick too much forward at the top of the loop. However, in the properly flown loop, the relative wind has time to catch up with the change of direction and therefore the critical angle of attack is never exceeded through any part of the maneuver. Likewise, it is possible to stall the plane at any speed and in any position, but that’s a whole separate topic.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Are you crazy?

“You dive for speed of 140 mph, pull up and keep increasing back pressure until aircraft is beyond vertical”…. the instructor was explaining how to do a loop holding a little toy airplane as an example. This was a ground briefing for my intro to aerobatics class. I listened intently and tried to concentrate on remembering the sequence he was describing but I was failing miserably as another voice (this time in my head) kept screaming – “you are going to fly upside down –are you crazy?”

The instructor then described the roll, the hammerhead and, probably seeing the blank stare back, told me not to worry, it would be easier once he showed me each figure and let me follow him on the controls. We grabbed our headsets and headed to the hangar to get the airplane.

The voice in my head was starting to realize that screaming was futile and I was committed to trying that aerobatic thing, so it calmed down…until we came closer to the little Citabria. One glance at the plane and the voice came back with the vengeance “you are going to fly upside down in THAT FLIMSY THING?” You see, I have never seen a fabric covered plane prior to that. Compared to Citabria, the Cessna 172 seemed to be built like an armored personnel carrier.

This may be a good place to explain how I ended up trying aerobatics in the first place. By the time, I discovered that such thing existed I was past my first solo. I got through mandatory stalls, spins and spirals lessons OK, however, I was reluctant to try stalls on my own and when I did I always had some fear in the back on my mind. I am not a risk-averse person, quite the opposite actually, with the deep wreck and cave diving background, so being fearful was an entirely new sensation and I did no like it.

Thinking of what exactly I was fearful of, I realized that I read a lot (and probably too much) about unusual attitudes and possibility of ending in one while practicing stalls. Yet, I was not sure if I would be able to recognize the situation and respond correctly. The basic aerobatics course was supposed to cure that fear by teaching me a lot about unusual attitudes and recoveries. I soon found a place that was offering acro training nearby and booked an intro lesson figuring I’d see if I liked it first and then think about booking the full course.

And that was how I ended up in that hangar staring at the Citabria, having no clue about aerobatics airplanes or anything aerobatic for that matter, doubting the airplane abilities, but determined to find out if I could do it.

Walk-around complete, the instructor explained how seat belts worked and soon we were in the air. He gave me the controls and doing some easy turns and climbs, I realized that the “flimsy” construction of the fabric-covered Citabria also made it lighter and much more responsive then a typical Cessna trainer given the same horse power. I was almost enjoying myself when we got to the practice area and it was time to do a first loop.

Similar to spins, no amount of reading about loops or watching videos can adequately prepare one for the feeling of earth disappearing under your feet and then re-appearing from behind (I should mention that I have never done the roller-coasters either). And prior to that point, I have done no reading about aerobatics, so the aerodynamics of how the plane flew upside down were all a big mystery to me, adding to the anxiety.

My first ever loop could be described as “oh my god ….oh my god we are upside down … and that’s all there is too it?... let’s do it again”. So, we did loops, hammerheads (I somehow managed to fly a good one), rolls and even a snap roll for a good measure. It was then that my stomach stepped in and ordered straight and level flight home looking at the horizon. But I lasted for over half an hour, so I knew I could do it.

I was smiling and bubbling about this experience for weeks after that flight, so the addiction to aerobatics was instant. I had to wait for over 6 months and get my tail wheel endorsement before my next acro lesson but the wait was well worth it as I also had plenty of time to read books that explained how the plane flew upside down.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Light and clouds show

Sometimes it all comes together and I do end up in the right place at the right time. And I have my camera, and it has unused card in it, and the battery is full and the only lens that are stuck on it are perfect for the situation. What were the chances?

All this was taken in the span of 10 mins on a commercial flight to YYZ back from Mexico (CUN). There were several thin layers of clouds underneath our plane and as the sun was setting it was putting each layer on fire. Seeing the bottom layer all blazing orange and red through the white puffy upper layer was neat. And flying throuhg the sea of liquid fire while staring at the moon above was surreal and insanely beautiful.

Almost scud running.

Almost every month one of the several flying magazines shows up with an article about yet another VFR only pilot flying into marginal weather. In the past I would read an article and think that one would have to be incredibly stupid, arrogant or overconfident in order to intentionally fly into IMC. I do not think so anymore as I almost done exact same thing this past fall.

I had a flight booked at 10am. Wx looked marginal, so I spend couple hours looking at forecasts and finally decided to drive to the airport and see what the conditions were there. Surprisingly, the actual Wx seemed better than METARs. There was almost no wind, so I knew I could go up and practice circuits. My instructor came back from his previous flight and said that the ceilings were around 2,200 AGL but the vis was worse the higher one went.

Hearing about ceilings higher than I expected I came up with what seemed to be a brilliant idea of flying to Simcoe Regional to practice on their long strip. I needed to work on details of landing roll out and take off and it was hard to do at our short little strip. Plus, I thought that change of perspective (from shorter narrow up sloping Rwy to straight, wide and long Rwy at Simcoe) would be good practice. My instructor called CNB9’s automated Wx report and it reported good VFR with ceilings at 2,500 ft and no wind. I then took off and headed to Simcoe Regional.

As I was headed north, I climbed to 2,000 and the vis was still acceptable, so I kept going. It was a cold fall day and the lake was still warm, so there was a fog over the lake (and I had to cross the large bay towards the airport). I could still see the other side of the bay, so over I went. Found airport with no issues and discovered 3 other airplanes in the circuit there. With the thin mist drifting in and out from the lake, the vis was not great and I had to really concentrate to see the planes in the circuit. That was the first clue – I should have turned around and gone home right there, but such is a human nature that I did not want to feel that I have flown all that way for nothing, so I decided to at least do one circuit.

With the wider and longer Rwy, my landing was not pretty, so I decided to try one more and then one more. As I was flying in the circuit, I concentrated on my landings and keeping track of the plane that was doing touch and goes ahead of me. On circuit #5, the Tower turned the Rwy lights on. That should have been clue #2, however, the changes in light (it became very dark) and viz (it became marginal VFR) crept so slowly that I “acclimatized” and was not conscious of them.

It was only when one of the planes in the area asked for conditions report and no one replied that I decided to speak up. And it was only when I heard myself say “visibility 2-3 miles” that I finally got the jolt and asked myself what on earth was I doing flying the circuit with 4 other planes in marginal VFR. I should have probably landed there and waited for the mist to drift off, however, I made the decision to go home as conditions seemed to be better in the south.

As I headed across the bay, the vis deteriorated so much, I could not see the other side and had to follow the compass. Luckily, as I crossed, the vis improved. It was misty and hazy with no defined horizon, but I could see enough to know where I was. I followed the shoreline of the lake south and then flew over one of the rivers that passed right by my landing strip. By the time I made my calls approaching out zone, the vis improved again but I was in no mood to try some circuits at the home base, so I landed.

As I was securing the plane, I was going over the flight and realizing that I was lucky that the weather did turn better in the south. I also realized how most untrained people fly into IMC – it is not a sharp transition from clear blue skies and into the soup. No, they do it the way I almost done it – bit by bit, talking themselves into believing the Wx is going to improve imminently with IMC creeping up on them until they suddenly realize that Wx is not getting better AND they are now flying on instruments.

So, I now have a better appreciation for “flying into IMC” stories. I am also trying to make the situational awareness a regular check to make sure that bad Wx would never creep up on me ever again. And, as per previous post, I will set some personal limits.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Personal Limits.

As part of my search for all kinds of books about flying and aviation, I got couple on airmanship. Big chunk of each of these books was about knowing your personal limits and, more importantly, sticking to them. The concept seemed very easy – as a new pilot you were not supposed to put yourself in the situations that would exceed your level of training and/or comfort. The practice is another matter entirely as I recently found out.

Training in a big school and in a controlled environment with Wx services on site, hourly METARs, TAFs etc. definitely had its advantages. Learning about your personal limits was not one of them. Very strict insurance-driven limitation on minimum visibility/ ceilings/ wind for both students and renters meant that decisions to fly (or not) were made for me. Through my first 100 hours in the logbook I never encountered a situation when I had to decide not to fly due to one or more of factors being in excess of my limits. Come to think of it – I was not sure what my limits were.

The little airstrip that is home for my rental Citabria has no Wx on site and it is uncontrolled. Sometimes when I pick up the plane, there is no one in the office, so there is no one to make any of the decisions for me. The two closest Wx reporting stations are YKZ and YBN. With Lake Simcoe in between the two, the reported Wx at the two stations can sometimes be at two extremes – one would be completely clear with unlimited vis and the other would be in IFR territory.

When this happens, it poses an interesting dilemma to me as I then have to determine if ceilings and vis are good enough for me to get out. Vis is usually not a problem as I can see some of the landmarks driving to the airport and if I can’t see them then the vis is too bad and I am not flying. Ceilings are hard to judge from the ground. Sometimes, there would be other pilots or my instructor coming back from their earlier flights and other times the only option is to go up and see how high the clouds really are.

When the ceilings start much lower than they seemed from the ground, it is typically a clear cut decision – it’s too low, I am coming back to land and that’d be it for the day. Above 1,500 AGL but still low and/or unstable is the grey area – is it safe to do a few circuits or go away for a little trip to the training area (which starts right outside of my little airstrip)?

And then there are human factors to take into account – something that I can’t quite measure, but could affect the flight even more than the Wx limits above. Is it OK to fly when I am tired, overworked, stressed out or feeling a little under the weather? Sometimes, a short hop in the local area is exactly what’s needed to take the stress away, however there is definitely a line there beyond which I am so stressed/ tired, etc. that I should be nowhere near a plane, let alone flying one.

When I find myself in one of the grey areas, I follow the rule that came ingrained in my mind from the first day of my extensive scuba diving training - that anyone should be able to call the dive at any time if something does not feel right about it. I have cancelled a few flights already when the Wx was good but pilot was broken or vice a versa. However, after a recent almost scud running experience (more on this later) I am also thinking of setting some personal weather/conditions limits to avoid the temptation to convince myself that the weather is much better than it really is. I just have to figure out what those would be.