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...