Lyncrest To Kenora

Flying in summer can be a bit exhausting – at least in a plane as small as a Cessna 150. The thermals really bounce you around. Tuesday I had calm winds forecast at least, so I headed out to Kenora to meet up with Timothy Gwyn, who writes science fiction about female pilots, and runs the Ice Patrol website, that connects with local pilots flying over some of the local lakes to report when the ice melts off the lakes in the spring and is clear for fishermen and boaters.

The weather is the weather, and when I got to Kenora, the tower gave me the wind at 9G17, almost straight across the runway. I’ve bailed on landings before when the wind was more than I thought I could handle, but that was a lot of hours of crosswind practice ago, and my limits have definitely shifted. I had just finished a day of practicing in 12G24, 40 degrees off the runway, so I was feeling pretty confident, and handled the landing like a pro. I hate that there’s never anyone in the plane with me or watching from the ground when I rock an awesome landing in challenging conditions. There’s always someone watching when I make a shitty one. Life’s not fair.

Anyway, I found the Walsten Air hangar and parked the old lady around the corner while Timothy Gwyn admired her snazzy new paint job, which, for pink, is pretty professional looking. When people hear it got painted pink, everyone always thinks “oh god, it’s going to be aweful….” but then they see it, and they say, hey, that actually looks pretty sharp.

Timothy Gwyn had promised me a tour of the King Air he flies, and despite being pressed for time, he did not disappoint. It was more than a tour, it was a whole ground school lesson, going into how a PT-6 turbo-prop engine is built kind of backwards from most turbine engines, and how the design affects the aerodynamics and performance of the plane. The last time I got to tour a big plane, I got to sit in the left seat and all, but I certainly didn’t get the detailed explanation of the whole instrument panel, from left to right. When you look at the instrument panel of one of those big planes, it looks so unbelievably complicated that how I ever keep all that straight. And yet, I know enough already that within the twenty minutes or so Timothy had to skim over it, the mystery was stripped away, and suddenly it wasn’t near so complicated. Just little machines spitting out information.

It really is a nice aeroplane, the King air. I can see why pilots talk about it the way they do. And it was good to get out on  a longer cross country again, and navigating in areas where there are fewer roads and man-made landmarks to navigate by. Need that to get ready for my 300 nautical mile trip, requirement for my commercial licence.

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Flight School Update: Cross Country Time Building (Part 2)

Anyway, part 2, because the cross country discussion got long.

At ground school the other day, the instructor was commenting “I always tell my students, you learn more in those 200 hours after you get your private license, than in the hours it took to get your license.” I said “I believe that.” Because that was right after my last cross country trip, from St. Andrews, to Gimli, to Dauphin, to Brandon, and then back to St. Andrews.

Weather wise, it was a perfect day for flying, and I took Nathan. He’d been looking forward to it, and I was feeling more confident, and ready to have passengers to tend while I handled getting more used to the size of a cessna 172. Cross countries do present the novice pilot with a bunch of extra challenges, from needing to pay attention to navigating, taking times, recalculating ETAs, radio communication, all while flying, and then there’s landing at unfamiliar airports – figuring out how you’re going to join the circuit, and estimating where your key points are going to be as you turn base and final – so you know how high you should be at what point as you descend to land. That I’m definitely getting better at – especially with the 172, which likes to float  over the runway a long ways – my landings that day were much shorter and neater than some of my earlier cross country landings.

Approaching Gimli, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. I’d never flown to Gimli at all so far, so had never seen it from the air. But I had no trouble spotting it at all, and I pointed it out to Nathan. He couldn’t see it. I got on the Gimli frequency, and there was a water bomber doing touch and go’s at the Gimli airport – he and I worked out where one another was, and I spotted him just short final, but Nathan couldn’t see him until we were a good bit closer. The same thing happened approaching Dauphin – minus the water bomber – I spotted the airport a good five miles or so before Nathan was able to see it when I pointed it out to him.

I know Nathan needs new glasses, but still – I remembered then how it was on my first dual cross country, and while I wasn’t having too much trouble working out where I was, I had trouble spotting the airports from a distance. Sandra would be pointing at it, and I would be saying, nope, can’t see it. Or I saw two or three things that might be it, and wasn’t sure which it was. But even over such a relatively small number of cross country trips, my ability to spot the runways has got way better – I have a better sense of three dimensional orientation, I think – a better feel for how far away something is by looking at other landmarks. It’s not that I wasn’t trying to think about things that way before – it just comes with much less effort, and more certainty than before.

So I can definitely see why the cross country time building is important. Even in the little bit I’ve done, I can see how much I’ve improved on pretty much all aspects of cross country flying. Nathan has an amateur radio license from his time in boy scouts, so he understood what was happening on the radio a lot better than a lot of people, and thought it was pretty neat to see the radio being used for an actual purpose rather than just people hanging out and chatting. He also thought the fact that we were actually talking to the guy flying the water bomber was really cool.

As we were leaving Brandon, I heard an instructor telling Brandon Radio that he was sending his student up for his first solo. He took off just ahead of us, and as I was turning on course, I stayed on the frequency, waiting for for his radio call that he was clear of the runway and on the ground again. In St. Andrews the tower almost always congratulates students when they get back from their first solo. Brandon Radio I guess doesn’t – or maybe it’s just that one, I dunno, but since Brandon Radio didn’t, I did. He answered “Thanks!” sounding like I must have caught him off guard (that’s probably why the tower doesn’t congratulate them until they’re on the ground – that and well, you don’t want to congratulate them prematurely – it’s probably bad luck or something.) But I could hear the elation in his voice, and it brought me back to my first solo. It started to sink in how far I’ve come from then. It was kind of an awesome way to start the last leg of the longest cross country flight I’ve ever done so far.

When you get your private license, it doesn’t mean you’re particularly good at flying, it just means that they’re reasonably confident that you’re capable of getting a plane from one place to another without killing yourself or anyone else, and that you’ve got the maturity to know what you can and can’t handle weather wise and won’t take off into something beyond your abilities. But still, lots of pilots do take risks, and some do get themselves killed – just like inexperienced drivers on the road go out on icy roads and get themselves killed when they have bit off more than they can chew. I remember the day I went out to see my family doctor last – the highway had huge patches of black ice that when I was on them, I could touch the brakes and couldn’t even feel it. A year ago, I might have driven half the speed I did that day, or even turned back, but at that point, I’d been driving a lot more, and was more confident. The sun was shining off the ice, so I could see where the road was icy and where it was clear, and though I saw three cars in the ditch on the hour’s drive to Portage La Prairie from the ‘Peg, I got there without incident. A driver who’d just got their license shouldn’t have been out on those roads that day, but an experienced driver can assess the situation, and make a good decision on whether they can handle it or not.

Flying is just like that. Overwhelming at first, and even when you first get your license, you can do it, it just takes all your concentration to keep everything together, and you’ll make mistakes, but theoretically, you’re at the point where they shouldn’t be fatal ones if you listened to your instructor and keep up with the good habits they taught you.

Anyway, wish me luck on time building. I’ve got to work my way up to my 300 nautical mile straight line cross country to fulfill the commercial requirement.

Flight School Update: Cross Country Time Building (Part 1)

This got long, so it’s going to be 2 parts.

Commercial pilots will be looking at that title and going, “uh huh, yep, that.”

So, I’m at the point where I’m supposed to be just kind of going around flying places and getting experience, mainly doing cross country flying to other airports.

I’m a goal oriented person, and I have trouble motivating myself to do something that’s pointless. And I have trouble convincing myself of a purpose to flying around southern Manitoba, once I’ve seen most of it, when there’s no score displayed to show me how well I did at the end of the level.

And getting ready for a cross country is a lot of fuss – the nav log still takes me forever, and getting friends together to go with me, for someone with Aspergers, it’s more stressful than it is for other people. After the first one, I did a couple trips alone, just to let myself get in a rhythm without having to worry about getting passengers organized.

The first time I took passengers was to Lac Du Bonnet, and on the way back I got a bit off course. There’s two sets of power lines running at an angle from Lac Du Bonnet, and I ended up following the wrong set, and when I came to the end of them, and didn’t see anything I should have seen, I realized I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. It was the first time I’d gotten even a little bit lost. And honestly, that was only a little bit lost. There was a bunch of contributing factors – I forgot to get a cushion, so I was having a hard time seeing to navigate, the clouds were low, so I was down at 2000 feet, with only about 10 statute miles visibility – way more than minimums, but, I realized, just a bit more than I was ready for, plus, forgot to reset my heading indicator.

But I did get my time over my set heading point, so knew how far I’d flown. So I knew there was a point where I’d hit Winnipeg airspace, and of course, that’s class C, and you can’t go in there without giving them 30 mins notice, so I had to turn away before then. But if I turned North, there’s the river, and the river’s big and you can’t miss it, and St. Andrews is right next to the river, so all I had to do was turn North and I’d find my way. And at that point where I knew I’d have to turn North, that was the moment one of my passengers pointed out a small town, and I recognized it right away as Oakbank.

I was pretty embarrassed at the time about getting that far off course, but it was also a learning experience. I was a fair ways from making a desperate radio call for help, and I wasn’t short of fuel (I had enough fuel to get a lot more lost than that!) but my mind was working out the next step, if I couldn’t get my bearings. The obvious one was turn North, but had I not had that option, I could have hopped on the radio, because I was still well within radar range and I figured I could ask Terminal to help me out. But I was starting to work out at what point I did have to admit that I was all out lost and make that radio call, so it was valuable experience.

Anyway, after that, I went to Kenora, and did another trip to Brandon – those were the couple I did by myself. Those both went well, though the Brandon one I was racing weather, and that never goes well for me. When I got to Brandon airport, Brandon Radio gave me the winds as something gusting thirty two, and I decided discretion was the better part of valour and did a low and over (flying over the runway without touching down). I think I could have done it – I’ve done landings in winds like that – not solo, but I’ve done it. I could not kill myself, if I had to. But I didn’t have to, and Harv’s Air school rules are that no student go up if the winds are gusting over twenty. I knew the winds would be fine when I got back to St. Andrews though, and they were. It was a piloting decision, and any instructors I’ve talked to agreed it was a good one.

And in Part 2 I’ll talk about my trip with Nathan to Gimli>Dauphin>Brandon and back.

Flight School Update: Cross Country

Well, with my medical and first solo out of the way, and some solo time built up, it’s full speed ahead with training, and the short version of the update is that I’m done the cross country section, which is pretty much the last thing before we start flight test review and prep.

But about the cross country thing first. There’s a lot more to soaring away from home base than you would think there would be. First, all that sky up there – that’s not just sky. There’s different classes of airspace, and different frequencies you have to monitor on the radio in different areas, and in some cases, at different altitudes. The longer cross country trips took me into terminal airspace, which is controlled airspace, which means we have to be in contact with terminal before we get there, and do everything terminal tells us, and request clearances to do anything as small as changing altitude or heading. Which is a little intimidating, but once I was there, it wasn’t so bad. Mainly because when you ask for clearance, they generally say yes. And they’re aware of your flight plan and will generally be anticipating that request and making sure that there’s no conflicts nearby. They’re also cool because they warn you if there’s other traffic near by, and where to look for them. Outside of those controlled airspaces, you generally talk directly to the other pilots, and work out conflicts between yourselves.

All that’s intimidating at first, but your instructor eases you into it and makes sure you’re ready. The first test was being sent to the practice area solo. They sent me on a route to Garson then to Libau, and back. And because I’d never been away from the circuit before, of course I was anxious and uncertain and worried about how embarrassed I’d be if I got lost on a trip that everyone made sound like an easy thing – so much easier than what was coming. I just hadn’t tested by navigational abilities in the plane before – not alone anyway. And if I haven’t done something alone before – well, I guess I tend to have less faith in my own ability than I should. I’ll hold someone’s hand until they push me off the boat. But then I got out there, and you know, the lake is really big, and really easy to see, and the river runs into the lake, and the airport is *right* beside the river. I would really have had to be trying hard to get lost.

So we went on the dual cross country trips, though the second one I had to go with another instructor because mine was unavailable. One thing I realized early on was when it comes to navigation, my brain works a little differently than most people. Sandra suggested that most people find it easier if they turn the map to line it up with the ground. All well and good. I can find where I am on the map, that’s fine. About half way through the trip though, I finally realized I couldn’t do that, because every time it came time to make a position report, it’s, okay where are you, and I couldn’t tell her. It wasn’t that I didn’t know where I was or how to get where I was going from where I was. But you can’t point to a spot on the map over the radio. The problem was with the map turned sideways and upside down, I couldn’t keep north/east/south/west straight, and I constantly give her the wrong answer. So I said, you know what, I think I need to keep the map right side up. So I did, and I was fine describing our position then. When I went on the second one with the other instructor, he was baffled by my need to keep the map upright and commented several times that he didn’t know how I managed that. I seem to be an anomaly. I do all right with working out where I am with the map right side up. I do turn it every once in a while if I’m having trouble identifying landmarks by the angles they make with other things, but working out where to go and how to get there, if the map is upside down, the whole world is turned upside down and that doesn’t make sense, and my brain knows the world can’t move like that and doesn’t like it.

The other neat thing is the VOR – “Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Radio Range” which I haven’t actually used to navigate, but have been taught how to use. It’s one of those things that reinforces my old feeling that navigation is an almost magical ability. The VOR is a radio beacon that sends out a signal that an instrument in the plane can use to tell what direction they are from the beacon’t location. Using two beacons, you can find where the radials intersect and work out your precise position. But it’s neat, using invisible things far away to determine where you are. And the thing is not easy to read – it’s actually quite complex, and reading it could qualify as one of those logic problems they give people on IQ tests. It doesn’t tell you where you are or what direction you’re travelling, or how far away from the station you are, all it tells you is what radial you’re on, and the to/from marker is misleading – it doesn’t actually tell you if you’re travelling towards it or away from it. It’s complicated. I read the section in the book, and it didn’t make sense – I needed Sandra to explain it.

Anyway, between some nasty crosswinds while being quizzed short final about how long I’m going to be in the circuit at Lac Du Bonnet, an engine that wouldn’t start (had to be hand cranked, that was exciting), and having to circle south of Steinbach for ten minutes or so trying to spot that stupid runway that was farther north than I remembered it being, then being stranded at Steinbach waiting for bad weather to pass, I’ve made it though my solo cross country trips.

Wish me clear skies for my test prep.

Flight School Update – Post-Solo Thoughts

Since I did my first solo last week, I’ve built up about 5 hours of solo flight now. Previous to that, my instructor mentioned several times when she took me up in more questionable weather, that I’ll need to start thinking about what my personal limits will be – what I’m confident I can handle with regards to winds and crosswinds, and what I might not be able to land the plane safely in.

Post-solo, having flown a bunch on my own, I’ve noticed it really does change the way I think about that. The safety net is gone, but not only that. For the last ten years, I’ve been working in a call centre environment, and that’s an environment where, despite what management will try to push you to believe, the completion of whatever task you perform is dependent on the performance of so many other individuals, that it’s very difficult to excel, and sometimes indeed, to even complete the task assigned at all. You’re either waiting on someone else to complete something, or transferring to another department, or waiting for a tech to arrive and finish the repair that couldn’t be done over the phone, or trying to pick up where another rep left off and they left incomplete notes because they were rushed because of limits on time provided to leave notes, or maybe they just didn’t care enough, or you’re dealing with a customer that someone else made angry, etc. It’s a grinder that you beat your head against the wall and no matter how hard you try, you can’t get ahead or on top of things because that would mean that everyone else in the entire company would have to be on top of things, and everything the company does reflects on you as far as the customer is concerned, and as far as management is concerned, your entire department’s performance is a reflection of your performance.

In the air though, it’s different. In that plane, it’s all on you.

At which point I think how on earth have I not managed to kill myself by now?

And one of the instructors replies “Ha. I think if you don’t feel that way at least once in a while, they make you hand back your license.”

That was Chuck – he’s a fun guy. I flew with him today because my main instructor had to go home. I also flew with Thiea today, and she’s the main flight test examiner, so it was nice to get to know her a bit. I won’t be so scared of her when I go to take my flight test, and Sandra keeps reminding me that’s going to be coming up fast.

Anyway, this week was mostly solo time building, practicing soft field and short field landings (I’m getting good enough at landings now to do different kinds rather than just hoping I can make the runway without having to overshoot :P) and then a couple of flights doing unusual attitudes under the hood (you wear this hood thing so you can’t see out the windows, but you can still see the instrument panels, and you have to fly using just the instruments) and some forced and precautionary landing approaches, which I’m doing much better on than I was. Not that I’ve had much practice at them – I’ve done maybe three or four forced landings, a couple more approaches, and about three precautionary approaches, including the two from today. With precautionaries, you fly a low pass over the field  to check the field conditions before landing, and that can be tricky because you want to fly low and slow enough to be able to see the field, but not so low and slow that you have to pay too close attention to flying the plane, or you don’t get the look at the field you wanted to get. The trick there is to get it set up in level flight before you reach the field, then you just have to hold it there. Anyway, I think I got that down.

Next week will be a big week. We’ve got my first an second dual cross country trip booked. First one is too Lac Du Bonnet, then to Steinbach, and then back to St. Andrews. And I have to do up the flight plan and all that crazy stuff. It has math. And I got this awesome doohicky – a flight computer, also known as an E-6B or a whiz-wheel. I think it’s the coolest thing in the world, because these puppies have been around since World War II, with little or no design change. There are computers that do this now, of course, but hey, if your electrics go down, how are you going to calculate flight time and fuel burn now, sucker? Plus, they’re awesomely retro – dieselpunkish even.

In other news, mid week, I got hit with a shiny new idea, writing wise, and I’m pretty sure I know what I’m going to be writing for NaNoWriMo this year. It will be YA this time, and guess what it’s going to be about! (Three guesses, first two don’t count :P)