Saturday, March 31, 2007

Highs and Lows.

Flying presented me with some challenges recently. Seven weather-cancelled bookings in a row were followed by my eventful first night solo flight that in turn was followed by two cancelled night x-counties (during perfect weather) due to Runway lights not working at home airport. I figured that with all the bad luck, I was due for some really nice flights and some really nice flights I had, in both Cessna and Citabria.

Cessna was a night flight. I came to airport early enough to witness unbelievable sunset as I was doing the walk around. The night was perfect – not a cloud in a sky and very minor wind (ATIS called light and variable). All the lights in the plane worked, including the interior red light. It was so nice to have it working as it makes a big difference in allowing the pilot to see all instruments without destroying the night vision.

I decided in advance that if weather was nice I will fly south and treat myself to a downtown Toronto tour. I was a bit anxious as I only ever done downtown tour dual once (on my first night flight ever). Check list and run up completed, soon I was at the Rwy threshold asking Tower for take off clearance which was given, and off into the dark night I went.

Anyone flying over metropolitan Toronto on a clear starry night would soon realize that darkness is a relative term. While the sky above is dark and carpeted with stars, the land below is well illuminated. Bright red and white ribbons of lights representing major highways made navigation real easy. Coming to a giant four ribbon intersection (two major highways), I reported out of the zone of my home airport and few minutes later was checking in with City Centre Tower at Toronto Island. Tower assigned me the altitude of 2,400 ft and told me to watch for other plane in the area at 2,000 ft. Climbing to 2,400 ft I spotted the other plane leaving the zone and after that I had the whole massive downtown with its skyscrapers and CN Tower all to myself.

Remembering to stay out of Toronto Pearson Airport (YYZ) inverted wedding cake airspace, I turned towards the lake and decided that my first circle will be wide so that I can admire downtown from a bit of a distance. The view was as breathtaking as the first time. The downtown building glistened and sparkled silhouetted against dark skies behind them. Visibility was almost unlimited as I could see the outlines of towns in the western end of Lake Ontario and numerous planes over YYZ.

One wide circuit later, I asked permission to come closer to CN Tower to which the reply was that I was free to do whatever I wanted as long as I remained save distance away. So, I got really closer to the Tower (which resulted in temporary loss of radios), and then I flew over the top of my building (Commerce Court West – one of the skyscrapers) before picking up the same highway I followed in and heading in the opposite direction. Flight home was uneventful and I did 3 more circuits for a good measure.

Citabria experience combined both high and low. Weather looking a bit windy but otherwise good for aerobatics, I arrived at the airport to discover a) a x-wind over 10 kts and >60% and b) my instructor departing with another student before I could ask him if he thought it was OK for me to fly. I did not have radio on me (was still in a car), so I could not just jump into the plane and ask. Luckily, one of the local pilots had just landed and talked to my instructor who said it was OK for me to fly as x-wind apparently was not as bad.

Still a bit concerned about x-wind, I did my walk around, dragged the plane to fuel pump for a bit of fuel and went back to car to get my parachute, radio and sun glasses. Once settled in, I taxied to run up bay and went through the run up checklist. As I was trying magnetos, one showed a very significant RPM drop (300 Vs max 175 allowed). I tried to lean the mixture and run it for a bit but that did not seem to help. I am proud to admit that I must have learned something in my short flying career as the thought of flying aerobatics with bad magneto did not even enter my mind as I turned around and taxied back.

Getting out of the plane, I saw my instructor coming in for a landing with the student, so I radioed him and explained the problem. He advised that I needed to run it for a while at really high RPM and to wait for him to do that with me. He was back shortly and miraculously the magneto was fixed. Since he was already in the plane, I asked for a dual circuit to make sure I could handle that x-wind. Good decision as my first circuit and landing were wild to the point of almost running off the Rwy. A bit shaken, I asked for another try, which was much better as which point my instructor said I could handle it and I brought him back, turned around, backtracked and took off.

Climbing to safe height, I ran through the sequences for loop and hammerhead in my head and decided to start with loops. There were a few planes in the area, but much lower than me (I was at 5,000 ft). HASEL checks done, I lined up with the highway (giving me directional reference) and pulled on a stick. Ground-sky-ground sequence gets easier overtime, but no less exciting. Rust shaken off, I concentrated on flying some decent loops with minimal loss of altitude. Hammerheads soon followed. The first one was a bit crooked, the second one I waited too long before pushing the rudder and almost stalled the plane. The rest were acceptable. I then did a few deep breaths and decided to practice some rolls.

As I was setting up for a roll, I repeated to myself to pull the power in case I get too nose low while inverted. However, this time I did not have a nose low problem – the problem that I had was coming out of the roll facing sideways. i.e. the last quarter of the aileron roll was looking more like a barrel roll. I practiced for a bit trying to improve and then headed for the barn, i.e. my little airstrip. Circuit was completely empty, so I joined straight into downwind. Looking at the sock, the x-wind appeared to be the same as when I took off. I concentrated on flying stable approach to the Rwy and then keeping the plane straight with rudder and preventing the drift with ailerons and was rewarded with a beautiful landing. Great way to finish a day.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Fly the Airplane or Dealing with Distractions

Following the successful restoration of my Cessna and Citabria currencies, I then almost lost my night student currency. I had seven of my night solo bookings cancelled in the span of 2 weeks. Five were due to weather and the other two due to major headache that was likely partially a result of rapid weather changes. Finally, 2 days before my night currency was set to expire, the perfect day arrived. It was really perfect - calm, unlimited visibility, warm and not a cloud in the sky.

I arrived earlier thinking I’d do the walk around in the last minutes of daylight. My instructor was actually there and he signed me off giving me the key to the plane that had everything working during the day. I grabbed the keys and went to the plane.

Given it was a night flight, I modified the checklist a bit by checking the exterior lights first – they all worked. I then checked fuel (full to the brim) and oil – within limits. The night was starting to look as perfect as it could be.

Walk around complete, I jumped in and started the plane. Almost immediately, I discovered the light that did not work – it was the low intensity red light on the ceiling behind the pilot that illuminated the instruments. I played with the remaining lights in the plane and discovered that if I ran the sidelight that came from my top left at low intensity red light settings, I get enough light on the instrument panel to be able to see but not too much to be distracting.

I followed the rest of the checklist to and past the run up and then called Ground asking for permission to taxi, which I was given. Staying glued to yellow taxi line, I moved across the airport to the Rwy in use, switched to Tower frequency, asked for takeoff clearance. The plane that just landed off the Rwy, Tower cleared me to take off and onto the Rwy and into the air I went, thinking that it’ll be a great flight.

Turning crosswind, my radio started making noise. Then more noise, and more until all I could hear was deafening hissing sound in my ears. I managed to communicate turning base, but I was deaf and mute afterwards. Struggling with the radio, and very distracted by the noise, I turned final and decided to overshoot as I was not sure I had my landing clearance.

The overshoot was not pretty as I was very distracted and let my speed bleed down to under 60kts in climb. Plane feeling very sluggish gave me the first clue and speed was second clue as to how distracted I was. At that point, I told myself to ignore everything else for a while and just fly the plane.

Once established in the downwind, I tried to reset all the radio controls to see if I can fix it. Due to the red panel light that did not work, although my flight instruments were well illuminated, the radio/ mic controls were not. In the process of trying to see the radio switches, I ended up climbing 150 ft. Turning base, I thought about my handheld radio and tried to pull that from the bag while reducing speed and re-trimming the plane at the same time which resulted to another speed decline and near stall, at which point I realized that trying to fix the radio in the air on a first ever solo night flight was definitely beyond my capabilities at that moment. I decided to just go and land and deal with Tower later. I was on final, when it finally occurred to me to look at the Tower and I saw the green light. Relieved, I landed, rolled to the nearest exit, parked there, turned off the radio, pulled my headset out, checked every wire, plugged it back in and turned the radio on. No noise – seemed to be working perfectly.

Puzzled, I switched to ground frequency and asked for radio check. 5x5 was the answer. I then asked if the Tower heard me in my last circuit (I was trying to transmit despite the noise). No, they have not heard me. I was a bit shaken by the experience, but not to the point of quitting. So, I pulled my handheld radio, set it to Tower frequency, placed it within easy reach, then keyed my mike and asked permission to taxi back to Rwy for another circuit. Before Tower cleared me to take off, they did another radio check which came at 5x5, at which point they gave me my clearance.

I did 7 circuits with the full stop landings then took off North for a while to fly over the training area that I know really well – it was there that I finally relaxed and actually started to enjoy the flight. Return to airport was uneventful.
I was later asked by my instructor why I did not turn the transponder to 7600 to indicate radio problem. I did not know the answer at that time, but I do now. Because I am still a very inexperienced pilot, and very new to night flying, at that particular moment, with all the noise in my ears, I was very stressed which led me to be able to only do one thing at a time. I made a good choice – I decided to fly the airplane.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Current Again and Armchair flying.

Recently, my other passion, scuba diving, occupied the lion’s share of my non-work time, so flying had to take a backseat for a while. Add bad weather to the mix, and “a while” stretched into almost 2 months for Citabria and almost 3 months for Cessna. This meant I was definitely non-current.

The currency requirements range from monthly as the large school where I rent Cessnas to none (i.e. use common sense) at the smaller field. I knew I would have to get up with instructor in the Cessna to regain currency, but that was not a problem as I am also in the middle of my night rating, so one hour of dual night flying would make me current again for another month.

Citabria was a different story. They would have probably rented it to me solo on a nice day, but I decided to play it safe and made that one dual as well. I seemed to have lost a bit of confidence in my Citabria landings before the break, and decided that dual with instructor would do me a lot of good. We also added dual acro into that lesson for a good measure.

Before the day of flying (due to weather, both flights ended up on the same very expensive day), I did a bit of armchair flying with the Citabria. I know some people laugh about it, but I swear it works for me. I sat on the couch, moved my hands and feet as if managing the stick and rudder and imagined the whole process from getting Citabria in the run up bay to flying the perfect circuits into a perfect landing. On the day of the flight, the whole process was already in my memory, so I had to concentrate on flying instead of remembering what it was that I was supposed to be doing or circuit heights.

The circuits and landings were decent enough to regain some confidence back and soon we were off to do some aerobatics. The Wx was unbelievable with bright blue skies and air so still above 4,000 ft, it seemed not moving at all. Before the break, I was flying half decent loops, so we concentrated on hammerheads and aileron rolls. Some armchair flying helped in that regard as well and I managed put together a string of passable Hammerheads right from the start.

Rolls were next. Based on my few attempts in the past that ended up with the nose very low while inverted and picking up speed, I was not allowed to practice them solo, so I was eager to try again and do well enough to remove that restriction. The first few this time around were much better than the last few, so I knew I was making progress. We worked a little on proper entry position (nose high but not too high and unload the wings (stick momentarily forward) before turning. Soon, I was managing to keep the nose above the horizon while inverted quite reliably. The rest of each roll was not very pretty but I knew I had a good foundation I can improve on later.

That was not the end of the day as I also had a dual night lesson later. I did not bothered to armchair fly the Cessna and I should have. While all the radio procedures at the controlled airport came back very fast as soon as I pressed push-to-talk, the other rather essential stuff, such as reporting points, circuit height and direction, trickled back into my head VERY SLOWLY, so I had to confirm a few things with my instructor. I am sure having a student ask what the circuit height was whilst flying said circuit was very comforting…

My circuits were also very tight, which is fine and probably good practice at night and in an empty circuit, however, I kept coming in way too high (this had NEVER been my problem, if anything I am guilty of coming in too low). I finally started to reduce power to idle at the base turn and gliding it in. I then proceeded to land it in typical tail dragger fashion (i.e. very nose high), which resulted in a plane deciding it had enough of that flying thing while were still couple of feet above ground and then dropping to the ground like a stone. Eventually, the airplane got tired and we called it a day, but I am now cleared to practice the night flight solo.