Sunday, August 7, 2011

CMEL Add-On Checkride...

I'm scheduled for my Commercial Multi-Engine Add-on checkride tomorrow with one of my school's check airmen.  While I passed the verbal part of the exam last week with a 95/100 (very good), I drew the short straw for tomorrow and got the toughest examiner on the line.  Needless to say I'm anxious, but an hour in the sim earlier today reaffirmed my procedures are solid and I have the checklists down pretty good. At the same time, I'm glad I got him, because I want to know I've gone up against and with the best, and made it through alive.

This is it for my licenses to become a professional pilot.  After this, once I have enough hours, I'll be able to fly for an airline or whoever hires me first.  Its been a fun journey, but is far from over.  I go on to my CFI training after this, which is going to be a whole different world.

Off to bed, I need to be well rested and ready to ROCK come tomorrow!  Stay tuned and I promise a lengthy update this week...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Commercial Pilot

Sorry for the delay, its been a heck of a couple of weeks.  Well, the title says it all, I am officially a commercially rated pilot.  About freakin time!  It did not come easily, though.  The checkride was one of the most challenging things I've faced, not in the sense of weather conditions, or emergencies, or whatnot, but the examiner was a bit of a handful.  The oral exam went well, with a few hiccups on some of the weather charts (anyone want to explain what a "dry line" is on a surface analysis chart?).  That said, once we got into the airplane, things just couldn't fall my way.  First off - it was windy, and they were swinging around all over the place.  I've flown in much worse conditions (ask me sometime about an A36 Bonanza into Nashua, NH), but its certainly not what I wanted on my check ride.  Secondly, the examiner wanted me to perform the check ride, and its associated maneuvers, HIS way, as opposed to the standardized way I was taught at FlightSafety.  

I was warned about this before, but didn't expect it to be as bad as it was.  Throughout the flight I was concerned with failing - he constantly told me how bad my maneuvers were and how I should be doing something different - and was worked up, but never let it show.  As we came back to Vero, I was soaked in sweat and exhausted, with only one landing left to make.  We sailed in along the glideslope, wind knocking us about like a dingy in a hurricane, and I fought to keep the airplane aligned with the center of the runway.  I rounded out my approach into the flare, and waited for the airplane to settle down, keeping my cross-wind correction in and hoping a gust of wind didn't float me past my touchdown point.  The resulting landing was only realized when we could feel the cracks in the runway pass beneath our tires.  No sound, no jolt.  The examiner's smile betrayed the mask he had been wearing throughout the flight, as he later said he is especially stern on commercial students to see how they react to pressure.  Thirty minutes and $400 later, I had my ticket in-hand.

So there we are!  The ink had barely dried on my Instrument rating and I was issued another "Temporary Airman's Certificate."  The economist (read: analyst) in me can't let the moment pass without some number crunching, though.  The total cost of my training from Instrument to commercial was $10,644.54 - nearly a full $4,000 less than what was originally quoted to me from FlightSafety.  I attribute the savings to a few factors.  FlightSafety quotes time and cost numbers based on "average" time needed to complete a rating or certificate (under CFR part 61).  Coming to FlightSafety, I was already a fairly proficient pilot, and didn't need a lot of recurrent training to adapt to their standards.  Also, I was very proactive in my studies and classroom preparation, a point which the Chief Flight Instructor mentioned makes a significant difference.  Further, my schedule was only limited by my instructor, aircraft availability, and work schedule.  Not once did a lack of preparation or available funds restrict my flying.  To that point, only 70 days had passed from my first flight (3/17) to my commercial check-ride (5/25) and in that time, I amassed 50 hours in my logbook, bringing my total to 271.2 hours.

So what's next?  Well my multi-engine training has started.  Its only 17 lessons, 5 of which are in the simulator and one or two briefs, so it should go fairly quickly.  I hope to be on my checkride by the beginning of next month.  First thoughts on it though - things get a bit complicated when an engine fails.  In single-engine aircraft, you have one option when your engine quits:  Land.  In multi-engined aircraft, you're still flying, so your approach to handling the emergency is much different than anything I've learned before.  The challenge is certainly fun, and I can't wait to have to learn to handle it all, AND fly an instrument approach.  Geeze... 

Flight Instructor ground school starts on Monday, so I'll be back to report on how that is going as well as a multi-engine update.  I'll leave you all with something I came up with while talking to a friend of mine, trying to describe why I love flying:

"It's always a sunny day above the clouds..."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

"No Fair Having Fun..."

So I'm signed off to take my Commercial Single-Engine, Land checkride on Tuesday.  I have a "mock" checkride tomorrow with another instructor, just to make sure everything is fine, but the endorsements are in the logbook.  The last hurdle I had to pass in order to get those endorsements was to show my instructor I could perform all the maneuvers in order to pass the flight test.  Lazy-8s, Chandelles, Steep turns - I was performing them well within the practical test standards, and often better than my instructor.  Hell, on the steep turns, I not only hit my own wake after the first one, but after the SECOND as well!

Unfortunately, I am human, and like all humans, had a nemesis:  The Power-Off 180.  The power off 180 is a maneuver designed to simulate an engine failure in which you have to make a 180-degree turn and land on a designated spot.  The kicker is, for the commercial exam, you need to be within -0/+200 of that designated spot.  When you're moving at 70+ MPH on touch down, that window comes and goes in about 2 seconds - its no easy feat!  On top of that, the Piper Arrow is no glider.  When you pull the power off and put the gear down, it sinks like an elevator with the cables cut (or a Cirrus full of doctors).  The margin for error is very slim, and for one reason or another, I could NOT get the hang of it.  Some times I'd come in too short and have to go-around.  Other times I'd float forever and miss my mark.  I was getting frustrated, flustered, and angry with myself.

So I started asking around for advice.  One of the senior instructors at FlightSafety recommended I pick a "gate" to aim for in the sky.  In other words, at "x" point from the runway on my approach, I should aim for "y" altitude, and that will put me into a position to make my point no matter what.  The theory was if I could get myself set up early, I wouldn't have to work so hard later in the approach.  So I tried it on my first attempt, and while the winds were relatively calm, I felt I was a little shorter than I wanted to be, but was able to use ground-effect and flaps to my advantage.  Had the winds been higher, I don't think I would have had the kinetic energy to get to my point.

At that point, I was happy that I could hit the mark at will, but I wasn't convinced the method would be perfect for my checkride.  I turned to my instructor and told him I was "going to try something a little unorthodox."  Keeping my pattern tight, I came abeam my landing point, pulled the power out, lowered the gear and imagined I was back home flying my friend's Decathlon.  Established in a slight slip, I started a constant turn to base, managing my airspeed through the pitch of the nose and noting my altitude.  Seeing I was a tad high, I put in flaps and increased the slip, all the while continuing my turn from base to final.  I had a LOT more energy than the other method, but as soon as I was into the wind, it started to dissipate rapidly. I rounded out a few feet over the runway, keeping the slip in to bleed the remaining airspeed, kicking it out only to grease it (greaser = soft landing) within 50 feet of my mark.

I couldn't help but smile, and under my breath, said the same thing JJ would say time and time again: "No fair having fun..."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Talking the Talk...

Wow, I can't believe it's been a month since my last post.  It's even more unfathomable that I've been here at school for two months already.  Things have been professing well, but besides flying, there hasn't been a whole lot of relevant news to report.  That's not to say there hasn't been ANYTHING to report.  First off, I've completed both my Commercial and Multi-Engine ground school courses.  Both were extremely interesting and I enjoyed both.  More importantly, I passed my FAA Commercial Knowledge Exam with a 91%.  To say I was happy about that would be an understatement.

I've also transitioned into the PA28R-201 Arrow, a more complex and faster aircraft.  This stage of the training added a retractable landing gear and a constant speed propellor - which is like a manual transmission for airplanes.  The difference in feel, though, compared to the Cadet is huge.  The extra speed adds a positive responsiveness to the aircraft, which makes it easier to control.  It's heavier, and therefore more stable in windy or turbulent conditions.  And the extra levers and switches are quite fun to play with, but add other variables to the equation and the risk of a gear-up landing.  It's fun.

What I thought I'd do now is share a story of note from my time in the Arrow.  My flying has certainly progressed to a level of proficiency I haven't known before, and my ability to fly like a professional strengthens every day:

If you've ever listened to air traffic control communications on the radio, you'll notice there's a certain tone the controllers reserve for the airline pilots and one for the general aviation guys.  The latter is a formal, stern tone with clear, methodical instructions, and little in the way of any personality behind thus voice.  The former is a bit different, though.  With the professional pilots, there's a certain lightness to the faceless voice over the radio, an informal exchange between two professionals, working together, as opposed to one working for the other.

Controllers take their jobs very seriously.  The amount of responsibility they have is immense, and the mental capacity to juggle thousands of airplanes, per day, all moving in different directions and speeds is admirable.  When you throw a student pilot into that mix (who can often be unpredictable or unintelligible if their cradle language is other than English) the tenseness in their voice noticeably increases.

I was on a solo flight one beautiful evening.  The sun was getting low in the sky, and I was practicing maneuvers for my upcoming commercial practical test.  I timed it, so I would have about 30 minutes to get a few touch-and-gos in before I had to return the aircraft.  There was no one in the pattern when I arrived back to Vero Beach so the radio was mostly silent except when I was cleared to land.  As to be expected, the controllers, not knowing me, spoke in clear, formal tones, making sure I understood what they wanted to do.  After my second time around the pattern, a few other training aircraft began to filter in, and the controllers had to start giving me special instructions to work around them.  I responded as I normally would, calling traffic in sight, and keeping my messages short and to the point.

Then, something interesting happened.  I'd hear the controller give the other students an instruction, in that certain tone of voice, and then give me an instruction, but almost in a tone that said "I don't need to worry about you." I did another two or three landings, and on my final landing the controller, instead of giving me specific taxi instructions, like everyone else, simply said "Monitor ground [control] with me, taxi to the ramp." I repeated the instructions back, as I always do, and added, "see ya" to the end, to which he responded "have a good one, sir."

It was hard to wipe the smile off my face on the way into the ramp, because I knew that the controller didn't just consider me another pilot, but as a peer - one professional to another.

I'll talk to you all next week...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Requesting Flight Following

Beep beep, beep beep, beep beep.  Fuel pump - ON, switch tanks, reset and start timer, Fuel pump - Off
Every 30 minutes I'd go through the same routine.  In-between I'd be checking my course through landmarks on the ground and navigational beacons, timing the distance between them, calculating my ground speed, and talking to air traffic control.  Sitting here now, it seems like a blur, but my 667 mile cross country is behind me.  Having cancelled twice already, due to weather, I was happy to take off from a cloudless, 71 degree Vero Beach and head off to my longest flight, yet, and log more flight time in a single day than I ever had before.

Wheels-up came just after 11:30 in the morning, and I lifted off into some of the most beautiful weather I've experienced yet, here in Florida.  Winds were relatively light, thanks to the high pressure following the front that cleared the day before.  I settled in at 6,500 feet, opened my VFR flight plan and contacted Orlando Approach for flight following (they monitor your flight).  The eastern corridor was quite busy north of Melbourne, FL.  I was getting several traffic calls, including a Mooney which passed me 500' below and to the right (same direction) and a Beechcraft 400 jet going in the opposite direction.  The flight also carried me just west near Cape Canaveral, and I was able to see the entire space center from the air.  The open-structure launch pads rose up along the coast, pointed like fingers towards the heavens.  In the middle of it all, the immense Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) sat like the nucleus of the atom which made up KSC, and just east, the legendary pads 39A and 39B sat.  The former waiting to launch the final two missions, carried out by shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis respectively.  It was awe inspiring.

Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39B, the VAB, and Pad 39A (Left to Right)
I landed at St Augustine Florida (KSGJ) right on schedule, and decided to take lunch.  Its fortunate I did, for the FBO (Fixed Base Operator - the private aircraft terminal) was receiving a delivery of AVGas and couldn't fuel my plane until they'd finished.  The restaurant at SGJ was quite good, and I fully recommend the Western Burger.  While I sat back in the FBO, in my uniform and duly playing Angry Birds on my iPad, an Air Force pilot waiting to depart came up to chat about the iPad, and its usefulness to a pilot (including playing angry birds).  It was nice to be treated as an equal by the Major, a fellow professional pilot out accomplishing a mission, bound by a common passion.

As I departed St Augustine, I fired up the bluetooth GPS module my instructor let me borrow. The DUAL XGPS 150 is a bluetooth enabled, WAAS capable, portable GPS receiver that, when coupled with my iPad, would present my real-time position on a sectional/en-route chart, including GPS altitude, groundspeed, and heading, using the App ForeFlight.  To any pilots reading my blog, the iPad, XGPS 150, ForeFlight combo is probably one of the single greatest investments you can make.  Considering you can get a portable, WAAS capable, moving-map GPS, and will geo-reference your position on CURRENT aviation charts, for less than $600 (plus a $75/year basic subscription to ForeFlight) - its absolutely amazing the situational awareness you are able to obtain, especially in older, less well-equipped aircraft. Not only did I get my en-route briefing through ForeFlight, via the iPads built-in WiFi, but I was also able to correctly file my flight plan with the FAA from it, and track my progress along the way!  I should get a commission from those three companies for the plug I just gave them...

Okay, back to the flight.  So St Augustine was nice, but I had to keep trucking along.  Its certain that the designers of the seats in the poor Cadet did not have long-range flights in mind, because after about an hour, my butt started to go numb.  At least it kept my attention, unlike the boring, flat landscape, and the quiet control frequency.  I arrived at Albany, GA (KABY) without issue, and made a silky smooth landing on Runway 16.

Over the boring state of Georgia
The controller at KABY was extremely nice, she warned me of smoke in the vicinity due to controlled burns by the local paper companies, and gave me constant wind updates, since it was varying between many directions.  As I departed on my final leg, I was more concerned about my butt than the fact it was the longest leg of my trip at 314 miles, but through the smoke I climbed up to 7,500 feet.  The Gulf of Mexico appeared to my west, and the sun began to dip towards its blue waters.  

iPad on the left, flight plan on the right at 7,500 feet
Looking over at the Gulf of Mexico

Flying along, while listening to Tallahassee approach, I heard a pretty cool traffic advisory to another aircraft:
"Saratoga 9-2-Mike, traffic at your 2 o'clock, 2 miles.  You'll follow them in for final.  Flight of two F-22s.  Caution wake turbulence." 
 Damn I want THAT traffic call!

As I entered Orlando's airspace, I received a vector south to avoid the international airport.  On my iPad, I noticed my track was going to take me directly over Disney World.  Might sound cool, at first, but the FAA has a "permanent" Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) and I had no intentions of busting any airspace on my flight.  With my knowledge in-hand I queried Orlando about it, and was told I was cleared through it, so long as I was under their control.  Perfect!  Dusk was settling into night as I crossed over Disney World and was told to proceed direct to Vero Beach.  I made it back to KVRB at 9pm on the nose, 7.3 hours of flight later, and one step closer to my single-engine commercial license.

Today, I took my last flight (for a while) in the Cadet, and my last one with my current instructor, Chris.  The three of us have come a long way since I started here, but in that short time, I've gone from a recreational pilot, more concerned with my next tailwheel landing than checklists, to a pilot flying at a professional level, knowing every aspect of each flight I'm about to take.  Up next is the more-advanced and powerful Piper Arrow... Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

I'm such a dork...

Well, by the absence of a post, you can guess my cross-country flight was a no-go.  The threat of bad weather in Georgia prevented my instructor from signing me off for the flight, and I concurred that it wasn't the BEST day to go.  Disappointing, yes, but the trip is planned and just waiting to be executed.

On the other hand, I've started ground school.  The commercial ground school is 4 hours every weekday and covers a plethora of topics, at a fairly fast pace.  When people describe flight training as "trying to drink from a fire-hose," I always thought it was a joke, something to laugh about and make it seem more intense than it was.  They weren't joking.  As I've tried to convey over the last few weeks, the training and amount of knowledge needed here is immense, but add a classroom setting, and it really is taken to 11.

But you know what?  I LOVE IT!!

The last two days have been discussing "Aircraft Systems."  Imagine if, before you were allowed to drive something other than a Kia, you had to know how every single system on your car worked.  I wonder how many people could describe how their engine ACTUALLY worked, or how the air conditioning kept you cool?  Or how many people would take the time to learn it?  In this class, I've had to learn how an electric landing gear is different from a hydraulic one.  Or how the differential pressure in a pressurized aircraft is closely monitored so you don't hurt the aircraft or make the passengers uncomfortable.  Some of this stuff I've learned before, both in my love of cars (the workings of a reciprocating engine) and my Instrument Rating training from a month prior.  Before that it was advanced aerodynamics, next is commercial navigation.

The amount of knowledge and data a professional pilot must be aware of is extraordinary.  To be a pilot, you have to be a doctor, knowing the aeromedical side of aviation, like what happens to your body at altitude for lack of oxygen; you have to be a physicist, knowing how the center of gravity of the airplane, with relation to the center of lift affects how it flies; and you have to be a meteorologist, knowing how weather patterns move, how thunderstorms, fog, and temperature inversions are formed.  It doesn't stop at this commercial class either.  Next is multi-engined aircraft, then flight instructing, then INSTRUMENT flight instruction, and so-on.

Then there's the written test.  While the Instrument rating is agreed to be the most difficult to get, the commercial test is the longest.  The FAA knowledge exam is a 100 question test where questions are randomly selected from a pool of over 560.  Its a LOT of information to take in.  As with everything else in aviation, it builds off what you have learned in the past, and adds more on top of the pile.  I'm sure I'll be complaining about how hard the flight instructor exam is once THAT time comes...

So its time to hit the books again.  I'm sparing myself two days of R&R in Lakeland, FL this weekend for the annual Sun n' Fun fly-in and airshow.  Unfortunately, its already been marred by a tragedy, as some extreme weather in the form of a possible tornado, ripped across the airfield and destroyed dozens of aircraft.  Luckily no one seems to have been seriously injured, but the damage was extensive.  The organizers have decided "the show must go on" and things will be back on track tomorrow by the time I arrive.

Until the next post - Maintain flight-level 410!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Going Solo

Well, a few more flights in the log book since my last post, all of them solo.  One of the requirements for the Commercial Pilots Certificate under Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 61.129 are 10 solo take-offs and landings at a controlled airfield (tower), at night.  Well, turns out, my first solo at FlightSafety was to complete this task.  The location for this completion was Melbourne International Airport, about 30 miles north of Vero Beach.  Did I mention this was at night?  A challenge, for sure, but a welcome one.  En-route to Melbourne (KMLB), I got to learn the Cadet all over again.  Without an extra person on-board, the little Piper leapt off the ground, and in-flight, it flew amazingly well.

As the sun set over Florida, I couldn't help but marvel at the beautiful things this carrer keeps showing me.  The golden hue of the sun shone bright on the horizon, highlighting the waters of the Indian River, and melting into the azul waters of the ocean below.

My thoughts could not linger on the beauty of the world around me for too long, as I had a job to do.  Before I could "legally" log the landings at night (one hour after sunset), I decided to do a few touch-and-gos at MLB to get used to the controllers and the airfield.  There was a lot of training activity there, especially from locally-based Florida Institute of Technology.  Among some of the more interesting aircraft on the ground were 2 Boeing 707s, a 747-400, and a US Air Force C-17.  Not bad for a regional airport!

Anyways, my landings went smoothly, and after 2.9 hours in the air, I finally landed back at Vero and put the plane to bed.

Since, I've made 2 more solo flights, both to practice my aforementioned commercial maneuvers, all of which are coming along very well.  Its hard to believe in the two weeks I've been training, I've already logged 10.7 flight hours towards the 18 I've been slated for in the Cadet.  Today's flight was especially rewarding.  Few students were in the air, and the weather was nearly perfect.  A light wind off the ocean kept my concentration, but didn't overwork my skills.  The sky was gorgeous, though.  Large puffy clouds dotted the sky, and the evening light shone through them like rays from heaven.

I returned to Vero Beach to find an unusually empty traffic patter, where I did 2 Touch-and-gos  on Runway 11L, and a final full-stop landing on 11R.

So that brings me to now.  Tomorrow, I am off on my longest flight yet.  Another requirement of the commercial certificate is a 3-leg long cross-country of over 300 miles, where one leg is at least 250 miles (straight line) from the start point.  My plan is to go from Vero Beach to St Augustine, FL (KSGJ), to Albany, GA (KABY) and back.  Total distance is over 660 miles and is calculated to yield about 6.6hours of flight time, easily my longest flight to-date.

So now, a night's rest and an early start tomorrow.  Stay tuned on Facebook for flight-tracking, and right here for a recap of the trip!