Trip Downtown

One of the things that made me nervous about starting to fly was the number of rules of airspace, and the level of control over it. I’m afraid of getting in trouble for screwing something up. And then when I got started, and learned how much there is to rules of airspace, there was ten times as much to know as I could have imagined. My school has an online ground school and the presentation on airspace is a solid two hours long. My mother in law was listening from the other room as I was watching it, and at the end said “Do you actually have to know all that?”

And yeah, there’s not really any way around it – I do have to know it.

And with my social anxieties, interactions with ATC make me far more nervous than the actual flying, for the most part. My instructor says I never had trouble with the radio work – it helped a lot that I’m used to talking to people on the phone a lot at work – not having faces to deal with makes it a lot easier, actually. And it’s not talking to them that makes me nervous, it’s the fear of screwing up something and them getting mad at me.

The first time I was in Class C airspace was on my second dual cross country, and I was definitely anxious about that. I can’t remember if my instructor made sure I was doing all the radio calls that day or not – they might have done that for me to let me focus on navigating and working out how to join the circuit without disrupting traffic. Of course, it wasn’t as bad as I was afraid of. Then a few days later, I was in terminal airspace on the solo long cross country – that was the first time in class C airspace solo, for me, and that went fine.

Aside from a short Class C Advisory north of the city for my preflight, I wasn’t in Class C airspace again at all until after I got my private license. I’m pretty good at pushing through anxiety though, and since it was something that made me nervous, I knew I had to get myself more comfortable with it. So anytime I was flying far enough to make it worthwhile climbing above 3000 feet into terminal airspace, I filed my flight plan with an altitude that would take me there.

So when Winnipeg and St Andrews Towers had a presentation and they mentioned they were inviting people to come fly over Winnipeg in the control zone, for sightseeing, I was ready to take them up on it. I took a friend with me and we flew over downtown, and North Kildonan – I got him to call my husband and tell him when we were overhead, and Nathan was able to spot us from the ground. Then we went for a touch and go at CYWG – another thing I’ve done twice before, but never solo.

The most amusing part of that flight was when we went over to Oak Hammock airpark for a touch and go on their little grass runway. I did kind of a crappy assed turn to final – it had been a few months since I’d practiced on that runway, and the turn to final on 36 there is a tad unforgiving, because you have to turn before the highway or you end up in St. Andrews airspace. Come to think of it, I may have never actually brought a 172 into Oak Hammock Airpark, though I did a half hour of circuits in a 152, and a ton in the citabria. That runway’s too short to dick around with though, and I figured fairly early in  the final approach that I was going to have to do an overshoot. I did, and came around for a second try, and second time was perfect. The amusing part though was when my passenger asked why ATC had stopped responding to my radio calls.

I was suddenly reminded how much procedural stuff there was to know about flying. I couldn’t begin to explain to a passenger all the rules to the three different airspace classifications we’d passed through in the previous half hour or so. But from Winnipeg control zone (class C), we’d passed through St. Andrews control zone (class D) and into uncontrolled airspace (class G). A passenger couldn’t possibly be expected to know what it meant when St. Andrews tower addressed us, saying “November India Quebec, radar services are terminated, cleared to enroute frequencies.”

Anyway, I gave him the short version “We’re in uncontrolled airspace, there’s no tower here – radio calls are basically made ‘to whom it may concern.'” It was kind of neat though when I had Nathan with me on the flight to Gimli, Dauphin and Brandon, because he has an amateur radio licence, and he can follow a lot more of what’s happening on the radio. With the amount of exposure he’s had, just from living with someone learning to fly, he understands a lot more than the average passenger would. Hopefully I’ll get up with him again soon.

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The Thing About A First Solo

I already did a post about my own first solo, but a comment on another post got me thinking about it again. In my first post, it had just happened, and I was excited and it was all about me. Now, in my last post I mentioned, a few weeks ago I got to be in the circuit with a young man going on his first solo, and it’s just interesting to be on the other side, watching someone else do it.

A pilot’s first solo is a big deal – it’s the first time they take the plane up alone. There’s something a little bit sacred about that moment. It’s a moment a pilot will remember for the rest of their lives. It’s like a graduation day, or a birthday. Only there’s some things that make it different.

One of the things about the first solo is when it happens, it’s not necessarily planned ahead. The day you’re ready might not be the day the weather is calm enough for you to handle it, or you’re having a rough day and aren’t flying well, and the instructor decides it’s not the right day. But because they never know until you go flying that day, whether this is going to be the day, that means they don’t tell you ahead of time that this is going to be the day. No one wants to put pressure on you, so there’s not a lot of fanfare.

And since you can’t plan it, your friends and family don’t come out to see you do it. The witnesses are your instructor watching from the ground, ATC watching from the tower (if applicable) and anyone in the circuit with you.

So in that way, to be a witness to someone doing their first solo, it’s kind of less like attending a graduation, and more like being in the right place at the right time and getting to see a foal born. Or being online checking the eagle cam while the eggs are hatching, or spotting loons doing a mating dance, or catching a baby’s first steps. It’s a special moment you don’t see every day, and if you ever get to see it happen, it’s only because you happened to be in the right place at the right time. And normal people will never be in that place. The only people who will see it will be other pilots, and ATC. I got to see something that few other people will see, and witness a moment in a stranger’s life that I know he will remember. He may even remember for the rest of his life, that someone said “congratulations” over the radio when he got down. He’ll never know who it was, but that’s okay.

At a time like that, it’s neat to be able to be there, and with so few witnesses, to acknowledge that “Yeah, I saw what you did there. Good job.” He’ll get it from his instructor, but sometimes the words of random stranger – it’s funny how that can mean so much sometimes.

And that all makes me think of other things that I get to experience as a pilot, that no one who doesn’t pilot an aircraft ever will. I didn’t realize what a cool thing it would be, but taking passengers up with me is really fun. Getting to share this world with them, being the pilot is just so different than going for a plane ride. And lots of things I’ll get to see, like a water bomber flying by, or sharing the same airspace as the Winnipeg traffic helicopter. And one of the most special things in the world, I swear, is taking someone flying for their first time. No one gets to do that but a pilot.

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: Thoughts On Training Wheels And Safety Nets

Friday was too windy for the cross-country I had planned, so I went up with Sandra to do some instrument and airwork. I realized that between doing solo stuff, and my night rating with a different instructor, it’s been at least five weeks or more since the two of us had been up together.

I did better with the VOR intercepts than I have done in the past – it’s finally starting to sink in. She also taught me commercial level steep turns – instead of a 360 degree turn all the way around, you do a 180 degree turn one direction, roll level, then to another steep turn the other direction. Then we went up to 4000 feet to try and make the plane spin.

I’ll stop for a moment to describe the weather that day – there was a layer of cloud at 3500 feet, but we found a spot in the practice area where there was a good sized hole in the cloud layer so we could get up to 4000 ASL. At which point, we were just above the cloud layer, and below us was the ground, but all around, an ocean of rolling white. It was one of those days.

Anyway, it was a Cessna 172, so it didn’t want to spin worth the dickens. The last time we did spins in a 172, it spiraled the same, right away, and Sandra took over, and recovered from the spiral for me. In briefing on Friday though, since there’s a spin in the commercial flight test, she was reminding me to recover from whatever the plane is doing, not what I was told to make it do. If it spirals, recover from the spiral.

So when the plane went straight into a spiral again, I did a spiral recovery pretty much on reflex, and Sandra said I did well. I’m pretty sure she didn’t help – she definitely didn’t say she was taking over.

Afterward I was thinking about something I wrote in a post a while back – right at the beginning of my training. About how I trusted her to be able to save me from whatever I managed to screw up. And it might be because it was so long that I hadn’t flown with her that I didn’t notice the shift, but I realized that somewhere between then and now, I stopped thinking of her that way.

She must have been happy with it too, because in de-briefing, she said when I was practicing airwork solo, I could go ahead and practice spins if I felt comfortable with it. Which I think I am – I’ll be nervous doing it, but I don’t think I’ll have any trouble actually doing the maneuver. Before Friday, I wouldn’t have been, and I wouldn’t have tried to do a spin solo. Funny, I seldom feel confident doing anything until someone tells me I can. Sandra has pushed me just hard enough that I’m never quite chomping at the bit to be cut loose. I’m the sort of person who’s more likely to need to be pushed out of the nest most of the time. Sandra’s pretty attuned to telling where a student is though, and I’m sure if I hadn’t done well in that recovery, she probably wouldn’t have encouraged me to do spins solo, and it always makes me happy to have flown well, and proven myself.

Flight School Update: Night Flying

I’m starting my night rating. Everyone says night flying is very peaceful – and it is. It’s very different – quiet, not so many people in the circuit, and then there’s the dark. I’ve always liked the dark.

It’s tricky though, the things the dark does. The instructor (a different one since my main instructor isn’t available for night flying lately) said it would make things lit up on the ground look closer than they are, but once you get up there in the dark, it’s strange, looking at the altimeter and seeing that yeah, I’m at circuit height, but it looks like I’m at half that altitude.

I did find I’ve developed some good habits that made it easier though. Mainly, using my instruments to guide me in a climb, and more recently, since I’ve been doing more cross country flying and landing at unfamiliar aerodromes, in a descent. Good habits like checking the vertical speed indicator to confirm climb speed before retracting the flaps, because acceleration can trick the human brain into thinking the plane is climbing, when there’s fewer visual references. And when it gets really dark, and there’s no horizon, people can often get tricked into thinking the plane is level when it’s not. I never got in a habit of using the horizon as a reference though – half the time in the summer there’s too much haze to see the horizon around here anyway. The attitude indicator and turn co-ordinator are where I look first.

The first flight yesterday evening went well. I’m always trying to figure out if I’m doing well, or if the instructor is just saying I’m doing well to bolster my confidence, but he did say that possibly the second flight, if everything went well, he’d start doing fun things like turning my landing light off, doing runway changes, simulating an electrical failure, etc. He also said they often wait for a calmer day for a first time night flight, but with the wind eleven gusting sixteen wasn’t troubling me at all, and toward the end, he had me try a couple of landings with the landing light off, so I must have been doing decently well.

The part I found the hardest was gauging flare height. Once I’m over the runway it’s hard to see how far above the runway I am. The first one I flared a bit high, and then I was flaring low because I was trying to compensate. With the landing light off it’s worse, since then all you have is the runway lights to guess how high you are.

On the subject of distant things looking closer: At one point, we had another plane join us in the circuit. After their first touch and go, when I turned downwind behind them, I saw them way ahead of us and commented that they were doing rather wide circuits. The instructor agreed with a laugh. A minute later when I made my downwind call, I realized the laugh was for me, because the tower advised me of my traffic on final, and I realized the lights I saw ahead of me were a plane off, likely over Winnipeg, and not in the circuit with us at all.

And then there was the rabbit. We almost smoked a rabbit that ran across the runway in front of us. I pulled up a bit when I saw it, but it was too close for it to have made a difference. Granted, at least I didn’t do anything stupid like try and swerve. All in all though, it went well.

Flight School Update

Still working on the Citabria checkout – flying a little less this last month, now that I have my license. I’m taking a bit of a break, and I’m trying to pick up a few more shifts at work while I’m doing that now that I have a more definite time that commercial ground school is going to start. That’s going to be in September.

The Citabria has very small air vents though, and it’s been a very hot July. So rather than pass out from heat stroke, they took the door off for us. It was kind of cool. Like the open cockpit plane I got to fly in. Kind of like riding around in a jeep that the doors have been removed. The funnest part though, is watching the look on people’s faces when I tell them we were out flying the plane with no door.

My instructor was on vacation for a week though, and I did a couple flights with another one. He said I was getting some good progress, and when my instructor came back she said he’d figured I was pretty close to being able to take the Citabria solo. Of course then I had an off day – more flights than I was used to, and I was working late the night before. My landings were kind of pathetic, to the point that when the winds picked up two days later for my next lesson on Friday, she said maybe we should wait for a day with calmer winds. Normally I go with whatever she says, but I knew I could do better than what I’d shown her Wednesday, so we went out anyway. It was wavering between 15 gusting 21 and 18 gusting 26 knots, and compared to Wednesday, I rocked it.

That’s what they’re talking about though, when they say “pilot fatigue.” It can make a huge difference in performance. I like to think it’ll make less difference when I’m more of an old hat at it, but still, even then, there’s good reasons to be careful, and good reasons for the regulations there are about commercial pilots and how much rest they’re required to be given between flights.

Citabria

Finally got some weather nice enough to take the Citabria out. Sandra wasn’t in, but I went out with another instructor. Definitely a challenge taxiing. The angle of the wings makes the plane weathercock much worse than a tricycle gear plane. On top of that, the wheel that turns to control turning is at the back of the plane, so it doesn’t help it turn as sharply. 

We went out to the practice area to do airwork. We did slow flight, then stalls. Stalls in this plane are a bit more challenging because it’s so much less stable than a Cessna. You get a wing drop really easily if you’re even a little bit uneven. The fact that the throttle is on the left, and the control stick is in the middle didn’t help with that – I’m used to controlling the throttle and control surfaces with opposite hands. After that we did a spin. I’d done spins only a week and a half ago, in the 172, and I’d seen a spin in the Citabria the time Tyler took me up to do aerobatics, so Matt didn’t bother demonstrating one, just had me go straight ahead into it. The Citabria spins beautifully, like Sandra promised, and stops spinning just as abruptly when you pull out. The controls are more sensitive – makes the Cessna seem a little dopey.

On the way back, just for the hell of it, Matt asked if I knew how to do a roll, and I kind of remembered, so he refreshed me and demonstrated one. Then I did one, and it was so much better than the couple I did with Tyler – I figured out why I was going into a corkscrewy barrel roll coming out of it before. Now that I’ve had more time in the plane, I know how much pressure it really takes to work the rudder – I wasn’t giving it full rudder input. I’ll get this aerobatics thing yet.

I can flip the plane upside down and back up again, but I can’t land the damn thing. *g* I only did two landings today, neither completely by myself, but getting there – just need more practice. It’s a pretty big transition, and this thing doesn’t have flaps. For the pilots reading this who understand what that means, I’ll say it again – this thing doesn’t have flaps. It’s kind of like being used to having three tools to help you do something, but they took away one. You can use one other tool, but it doesn’t work the same way. It just means you have to be a bit more precise in where you’re turning final, to give yourself the right amount of distance to slow down and drop altitude.

I’ll get there. Tailwheel checkout is apparently around ten hours, and most of that’s circuit practice. Then I can start aerobatics training. It’s possible I might end up having to go out to Steinbach to do that, but if I do, it’s not a long course. I’d love to learn the Pitts too – if you look up youtube videos of the Pitts, you’ll see what that sucker’s capable of.

But there’s one more thing about today worth mentioning, and that was out in the practice area. There are some sights that are once in a lifetime things. Today the cloud ceiling was broken around 9000 feet or so, depending on which METAR you were looking at, and it might have been different out at St. Andrews. But there was another layer of clouds at 30000 feet that was just patchy, not enough to constitute a ceiling, so we were allowed to fly between and above them. So there we were up there, rolling and spinning through gaps in the clouds the shone white with the sun. It’s one of those once in a lifetime moments, where I just thought, I can’t believe this is real.

Only it’s not going to be a once in a lifetime moment. I may not know what the weather will be like from one day to the next, but one day in the future, it’ll be like this again, and one of those days it’s like this I’ll be flying in it and loving every minute.