Monday, September 29, 2008

“Do not believe the public forecast”.

Looking out the window through drizzle and fog so thick I could not see the trees in my front yard, I thought that Saturday’s weather tracked the forecast very accurately – no visibility and ceilings touching the ground, just as the forecast promised. With Saturday being a flying write-off, I got on the internet and pulled the aviation forecasts for Sunday.

Meteorology was one of my favorite subjects in the pilot ground school. I like the challenge of reading the charts, interpreting them and then comparing my conclusions to the public weather forecasts. From the charts and area forecasts, it looked as if the weather was supposed to improve in the afternoon on Sunday to the point where it would be flyable. I then looked at public forecast and it looked bad with clouds and 40% chance of rain.

Not sure what to expect, I decided to check the club’s Yahoo group to see if anyone posted anything about Sunday and started laughing when I discovered the message titled “Sunday Weather - do not believe the public forecast” from our president. He then explained pretty much what I figured out from aviation weather websites, but he also added that there might be good soaring conditions. Having finished laughing at the timing of all that, I started to pack my bag for Sunday.

I was supposed to be on duty, but figured that if it was quiet and I would try to do one or two short circuits in the Junior to practice better landings as my last one prior to that date could only be described as “arrival”.

More than a few members must have read the “do not believe the public forecast” message as it was not quiet at all, but the Field Manager allowed me do short circuits anyways as there were other people who could help out. I managed three short tows and my landings were starting to improve again. I then put my name on a list again thinking of doing a soaring flight and finished the duty just as the field got very busy as conditions improved from “just flyable” to “good soaring”.

While I was waiting for my turn, another club member flew his first solo and yet another member flew his first Junior flight later that day.

And then it was my turn to go up. I initially made a ticket for 3,000 ft, but the instructor releasing me told me to change it to 2,000 ft as he was confident I was going to find lift right away. He was right, the tow pilot dropped me right in the lift and I climbed to 3,400 ft (from 2,850 ft) in no time.

I then spent an hour flying from cloud to cloud, looking at their forms, the shapes of the tops and bottoms, wind direction and sun position and tried to predict where the lift would be relative to all that. Most of the time though I still found lift by flying through it, not by looking at the clouds, so I have a lot yet to learn. The best thermal of the day was over 6 kts on my variometer and I stumbled into it by chance, but once I got it centered, it felt like riding an express elevator – I was laughing all the way up.

As I was circling near the field, I saw the glider heading to cross country do a few circles above the field and take off somewhere distant with a good speed. I felt envious as I wondered what it felt like to go away from the field relying just on your skill and a bit of weather luck.

I then looked at my watch and could not believe my eyes as it said I was up for an hour. It did not seem that long at all and I could have easily stayed up more. Setting up the circuit and preparing for landing, I kept thinking of how fast time must fly when one is flying cross country. I think I’d like to do that someday.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What a day!

Sitting at my office desk on Monday reading the weather forecast that called for sunny skies for the next 5 days, I was thinking of how unfair it was to have two bad weather weekends in a row only to come back to work and discover sun and puffy clouds outside of the office windows. Turns out I was not the only one thinking along those lines as the message popped up on our club’s message board informing members that there would be a full day of flying the next day and inviting everyone who could to come out.

I usually keep at least one vacation day per year in reserve for some unforeseen emergencies. It did not take me long to decide that desperate desire to fly did in fact constitute an emergency and that’s how I found myself on the field, instead of my office, on Tuesday morning.

At that point in the morning, there were more people than gliders and I claimed the same single seat glider that I flew solo two weekends prior and arranged a check out flight in the club’s two-seat Puchacz as it’s been more than a week since my last flight. Figuring it was a bonus day, I set no goals other than go up, try to stay up and enjoy every minute of it.

I had to wait a bit before an instructor was available to fly with me. As I was waiting, the nice puffy clouds seemed to aggregate into the solid cloud mass right over the field and people who have recently launched came back to the field reporting no lift. For a while it appeared that the “stay up” part of my goal was not going to happen that day. Fortunately, the clouds started to part, and by the time we launched in the Puchacz there was lift, so we had a 40 mins flight that I really enjoyed. I learned a few things, made a mental note to work on my coordination in that specific glider and was OK’ed to fly the Junior.

The thermaling conditions looked great as I climbed into Junior. At 2,500 ft where I released and went searching for lift. I soon stumbled onto a decent thermal climbing to 4,000 ft. Figuring I was fat on altitude, I did not look for thermals for a while but instead practiced some turns and just enjoyed flying around, circling occasionally when flying through a strong bump. I was so happy just to be up and flying instead of sitting in my cubicle that I failed to work on “staying up” and 40 mins later found myself at 3,000 ft and in a high sink area as altimeter kept unwinding. It seemed that I somehow was in the blue with all clouds too far to reach, so instead of flying straight for the clouds, I started flying in circles looking for some lift where there was none. At 2,000 ft, I realized I blew it and set up for a circuit to land and try again. Total time afloat was 48 mins.

Once on a ground, I thought about the previous flight and what changes to make (i.e. do not waste altitude and do not fly in circles in high sink areas) and decided to try again. The tow pilot dropped me in the lift yet again and I started circling and gaining altitude. As I circled, I kept flying out of lift on one side, so I kept making little corrections while looking around me for other gliders and above me to see where I was relative to cloud.

I got so completely engrossed in the intricate dance with the clouds that I forgot about time or anything else not important at the moment. As I got to almost 5,000 ft and close to the cloud base, I stopped circling and it occurred to me to look down at the ground and see how far I was from the airport. Hmm, where was the airport? Knowing that green runways surrounded by green grass and green forests would be hard to see from above, I searched for the distinct shape of the African safari (it is adjacent to the airport), but could not see that either.

Oh well, I was high enough that I could use the other main landmark – lots of water. I circled until I found Lake Ontario and realized that I was much close to is than when I started. I looked at the clouds again and realized that they were moving southeast at a decent rate while I stayed under the same cloud for a while, so I drifted away from the airport. I reversed direction, pointed the nose at where I though the airport would be and decided to pick up a bit of speed as I was going against the wind. For a while it seemed I was not moving forward as my altimeter unwound, but soon I could make up the shape of the safari up ahead. Getting closer to the airport, I remembered the soaring textbook talking about planning the local flights upwind. I realized I just learned how that recommendation came about.

I finally arrived close to the safari, picked up another thermal and started to make my way upwind. I flew through another area of sink and by the time I on the upwind side, I was almost at the circuit height. I looked at my watch that showed I was up for over an hour, another first! I was mentally getting ready to start the circuit when suddenly I flew through another bump and turned trying to centre it. It either got stronger or I got lucky at centering, but soon I was back up at 4,000 ft right over the airport. That was complete bonus time and I was smiling ear to ear looking around and at the activity at the runways and the fields below me. Couple of other gliders “stopped by” and I waived at the pilots. They eventually went somewhere and I was alone in the skies and realizing that I was getting tired and it was time to land, which I did, uneventfully. Time afloat was 1 hr 35 mins.

As I climbed out of the glider, my legs hurt from being in the cockpit for 3 hrs and my face hurt from smiling too much. What a day!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Two Firsts and a Solo.

The giant blobs of rain made a lot of noise colliding with my windshield. The wipers were working in overtime, but I could barely see in front of me. I stole a brief glance at the watch – I was in this wet mess for over and hour and there seemed to be no end of it. I was beginning to question the forecasts I read before leaving home and my own eyesight that made me believe the wet frontal passage should end before reaching the club, when suddenly the rain stopped, the darkness lifted and me and my car popped out in the clear, few miles west of the club.

As I pulled to the club’s parking lot, I was relieved that it was no longer raining, but was starting to question how many other people would drive through that mess and not turn back. As I got to hangar, I saw few people and more showed up soon thereafter. There were only 3 students, but lots of instructors and tow pilots, so each student got to do a daily inspection of a glider and pretty much had a pick of what to fly, with whom and how much.

Appraising the situation, I realized that I might actually get to a point where I’d be approved to fly a Junior. Juniors were club’s single seaters available to post solo students who had 5 solo flights and a check out flight or two in two seat Puchacz. As of that morning, I had 4 solos and 7 of my first dual flights were in the Puchacz, so I figured I’d make my fifth solo in the Blanik and see what happens. Here are one of club's Juniors and Puchacz:

I was the first one to take off and had an uneventful flight. Upon returning the glider to the start, I chatted with an instructor who mentioned that there would be good soaring conditions later and offered to show me how it’s done. I asked if we could do that in the Puchacz, so that he could sign me off for a Junior as well and the answer was ‘yes’. Things were falling into place, but I had to wait for a while for better conditions to develop, which was no problem as there were other interesting things going on that I wanted to be part of.

A fellow club member was going for her first solo. Watching the preparations, I finally got a prospective of how things looked from outside the cockpit when there is a 1st solo in progress. Everything was triple checked, back seat all tied up, tow pilot briefed, wing runner is extra careful to release the wing straight and level, instructor who signed off on a solo was standing by the radio just in case – I think all of us got to re-live the experience following her progress in the sky. She did a good circuit and landing and was promptly drenched with water upon returning to the start line.

Soon after the solo, my instructor deemed conditions soar-able. Figuring it would be a good time to finally take some glider aerial shots, I grabbed my little camera. I flew the tow and then my instructor took control to do some initial soaring to get us higher. He found the thermals everywhere and made soaring look easy. He periodically transferred control back to me and then took it back when I flew us out of the thermal ;-).

I read about soaring techniques prior to that flight, but came to conclusion that soaring was one of those experiences can only be learned by doing it. I learned a lot on that flight. At one point, we were sharing the thermal with another glider, weaving an intricate dance in the skies and I realized I was enjoying it as much as aerobatics. Circling under the clouds, looking at the land, buildings and roads passing under our nose, I felt free, alive and wishing for the experience to never end. Alas, we soon reached 1 hour and had to come in and land. It was my first ever hour afloat without and engine.

At the end of that flight, the instructor announced that I was ready for a Junior. He then had to leave, so by the time I got a Junior, read the manual and was generally ready, none of my original instructors were left on the field. Thermals on the other hand were getting stronger and stronger. I got a detailed briefing from another instructor very familiar with that glider and was soon rolling behind the tow plane. My takeoff was uneventful as was the tow to 3,000 and soon I released and was on my own.

I was supposed to test a number of flight conditions high above so that I knew how the glider responded. While playing with spoilers and doing slow flight, slips and stalls, I kept flying into strong thermals that seemed to be everywhere. I was not supposed to be soaring on my first flight, but I did not even have to try – most of the time I was flying as minimum sink and there were times I was flying up going straight (I was right under the cloud street). I then tried some turns right as variometer (that measures the sink or lift) went crazy and all of a sudden I gained a few hundred ft in just a few circles. It was incredible and I laughed with joy – this was the first time I managed to go up on my own.

Time flew and I had to come back to field as I was not supposed to stay up long on the first flight. With really effective spoilers at my disposal, landing was easy and controllable. Flight line then asked if I wanted to go up again, but the excitement of the day started to catch up with me and I realized I was tired, so I decided to call it a day and put the glider in a hangar.

So there I was, a first soaring hour, witness to a first solo and a first flight on type. Good thing I did not turn back in the rain…

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Solo for the Third Time

Unlike some of the first solo stories, my first ever solo flight in C172 was not frightening, terrifying or nerve-racking (well, it probably was…. for my instructor…. as I was his first solo student ;-). I was ready for a while and the solo kept getting postponed on account of weather, so when my instructor got out of the plane and told me to go for a circuit, the only thought I had was “Finally”!

I do not remember taxiing and taking off, but I do remember the moment on the downwind when I looked at the downtown Toronto and the vast expanse beyond it and it finally sunk in that I was flying the plane by myself and the incredible sense of freedom it gave me.

By the time of solo #2, in the Citabria, I had a lot more hours in my logbook and a lot more appreciation of what it takes to fly and, more importantly, land a taildragger in a somewhat controlled fashion on a narrow upsloping runway. So solo #2 was everything solo #1 was not: frightening, terrifying and nerve-racking as tried to keep the Citabria away from the bushes on take off and landing. I managed just fine but it took me a while longer to get comfortable with that plane.

My solo #3 or first ever glider solo was a perfect blend of the first two. I was a little anxious (this time worrying about doing a proper take off), but comfortable with my skills and abilities to fly and land the glider. Having Citabria instead of higher powered Pawnee as a tow plane added a bit to the anxiety as it meant a longer take off roll and longer tow. Anxiety was replaced by concentration once we started rolling as I worked on keeping wings level. I even remembered to call “300 ft” to myself as we passed that point.

Once we were off the field and climbing, I finally relaxed, remembered to breathe and concentrated on doing a good tow. Soon enough we were 2,000 ft above ground and I stabilized, looked to the right, released the rope and turned to right. The day was not lift producing (not at my skill level in any case), so I just had enough time to practice some turns and had to join the downwind. Did my downwind checks, all while saying “airspeed” once in a while to remind myself to keep my airspeed up, turned base, final and had an uneventful landing.

As I sat in the glider waiting for a cart to pick me up, I suddenly realized how high I was on a first solo adrenaline. It took a while to wear off but being drenched by some cold water helped ;-).