Limits: The Sky Is The Limit

Lots of limits in aviation, and different types. There’s weather limits, limitations of aircraft design, legal limits, even speed limits. (Yes, in certain places there are speed limits in the sky, though even those don’t apply if your aircraft stalls at a high enough airspeed.) And then there are personal limits.

Things like weather limits are easy to define, though not always so easy to implement. Stay five hundred feet from clouds vertically, and one thousand horizontally. Okay. *Gets in the plane.* Okay, there’s a cloud, how far away is it? Am I five hundred feet above it? (Is my instructor on board? No?) Sure, I’m callin’ that five hundred feet. Visibility can be easier to judge around Manitoba at least, since all the roads in southern Manitoba are mile roads, so you can just count how many roads away you can see to estimate visibility. But if it’s all trees, or water and lakes, you’re guessing.

Until you get into a control zone and they have terminal weather reports an tower control that can tell you the visibility is X. If you’re out busting VFR weather minimums, that’s generally when you’ll get caught, from what I understand.

Then there’s wind and crosswind – schools or anyone renting planes will have rules on how much wind you’re allowed to fly in. There will be a limit on wind in knots (usually twenty). And then a limit of gust factors – how much the wind is gusting up to – the low and high max. Gust factors of five of more take some special consideration when landing – you want to come in a little faster so that when the gusting disappears, you don’t suddenly find yourself near stall speed close to the ground.

Then there’s crosswind, and a school will usually give you a maximum crosswind factor you’re allowed to go out in. That’s, for the uninitiated, how much the wind is blowing across the runway. Obviously the easiest wind to land in, is a steady one, blowing straight at you, straight down the runway. The farther off the end of the runway the wind is originating, the trickier it is to deal with. Also, in a Pilot’s Operating Handbook, there will be a “demonstrated crosswind limit” which is basically what a test pilot has proven the plane can handle. It’s not a hard limit though. A good pilot may be able to land in a stronger crosswind than the POH has demonstrated if they know what they’re doing, and it’s not breaking any laws. Though it would likely be breaking school rules, if the pilot isn’t flying their own plane.

Of course, the wind can pick up and change  while you’re flying, which is why you want to get a weather briefing if you’re going anywhere far from the airport. Getting a weather briefing is important. It’s just a quick phone call, and you have someone on the phone that really knows their shit. A lot of new students, me included, are shy about calling flight information services, and feel like they’re a bother. But having talked to them some, I know now, we’re not a bother at all, any more than when I’m at work (telephone tech support) and customers call saying “sorry to bother you, but…” No, people answering phones in a call center are paid to answer phones and give you information. They’re always happy to talk to me, and I can see why my instructor encouraged me to call them as often as I like.

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.

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: 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.

Quick Update – Heavy Winds

So I took my first passenger a week ago, and took Nathan again, along with his mom, for my Cessna 172 checkout, to do circuit practice with the plane fully loaded on Friday. That went well, and the 172 is not too big an adjustment. Nathan handled it a lot better than the first time on Monday, and his mom loved it. The winds were fairly calm, and the 172 doesn’t get blown around quite so bad as the tiny 152, so the afternoon convection turbulence wasn’t too bad.

We were supposed to start my tail-dragger checkout on Monday, but that didn’t happen. I got in, and having forgot to check the weather, saw that there were only about four planes signed out, and it was ten am already. The sky was clear blue, but the wind was crazy strong and gusting. More than the Citabria can handle – they just don’t take that plane out in these kind of winds.

I am intending to go after my commercial license though, and I am going to have to learn to deal with this kind of wind. So we took a 172 out for more circuit practice. First couple of landings were laughable. Holy cow, that wind, and a crosswind at that too. I’ve never made a habit of keeping track of how many landings I do, but I think we did seven or eight. By the end, I was doing much better. And consistently better. It’s weird to remember, this is the same weather she took me up in a few months ago, just for the experience, and what was going through my mind that day was how are we ever going to get this thing on the ground again without being smashed into the runway? And now I’m handling it myself. It’s kind of cool, especially knowing this is one of the most challenging things I’ll have to learn.

But hopefully things will calm down for Wednesday evening when I take another passenger out for a ride.

P.S.: I’m pretty sure I’ve got comments fixed on the last two posts too, if anyone had meant to comment. I had figured my guest post would get lots of comments, and was all confused, wondering why no one was commenting. My fault, I ticked something trying to do something else, and that auto-ticked a box on another page that didn’t auto-untick when I unticked the first thing.

Guest Post: First Time Flying

I’ve never had a guest blog post before, but here’s the first one. My first passenger has written up a post for me on his experience on Monday. It was both my first time taking a passenger, and his first time flying. I hadn’t realized it before what an honour it is to be the first pilot to take someone up. Other pilots tell me that even if it’s a stranger, it creates a special bond between the pilot and the first time flyer. I’m very glad I got to do this with him. But without further ado, my awesomely supportive husband, Nathan:

I never really gave flying a whole lot of thought before Lindsay started this adventure. Sure, I knew intellectually that people flew, but I had never directly come into contact with it before. We never traveled much when I was younger so I just never ended up flying anywhere. Believe me it’s not a real difficult feat when you don’t vacation much. I’ve always had a bit of a fear about heights so I naturally assumed that flying be something was a little scary. So I had managed to get to 30 without every leaving terra firma, I knew that once Lindsay started flying it would only be a matter of time until I had to fly too, but I managed to not think about it too much. Which in retrospect was probably fairly difficult to do considering how much Linds talked about various facets of flying.

You gotta give him credit – a Cessna 152 is hardly the least frightening introduction to flying. It’s really, really small, and with the windows all around, it’s way more real than being in a commercial jet.

Once she had her license I officially became the person she wanted to take up first. I’d like to say that I managed to do a pretty job keeping cool about it, though it became a little harder as the actual day in question got closer. She was just so proud of herself. I was proud of her too, and still am, so I did my best to swallow my misgivings and be supportive. Anyone who hasn’t flown in a small craft before might not realize all the boring stuff that goes into it. First you check in at the desk, then you fill out some forms, and finally you check out the aeroplane itself. Since it needed fuel it took about an hour before we went up in the air. That gave me a little while to get bored, and to actually get a little used to the idea of going up.

Now that I was finally in the Cessna I expected to be a little more nervous than I was. Maybe it was the earlier boredom but I was perhaps a little excited. It was probably another five or ten minutes before we took off, so Lindsay had a chance to go over few things, which I can’t really say that I remember at all.

Yeah, they say for every hour of flying, there’s an hour of paperwork. Sign out the plane, check the plane out, get fuel, do weight and balance, get in the plane, startup checks, taxi, run-up checks, pre-takeoff checks, ask ATC for takeoff clearance – so many things to do, by the time ATC said “Kilo Tango Juliet, cleared for takeoff,” and I opened the throttle to full power, Nathan asked me, “So what are we doing now?”

Then all too soon we were taxing onto the runway and preparing to takeoff. I think that I closed my eyes for the moment of takeoff and I remember clutching at the handhold on the window and under the seat. You know there really isn’t much to hang onto inside the cockpit. I felt a little queasy as we gained altitude, but I was able to watch a little, which was an improvement. When Linds started to talk to me, I think I started to calm down a little and there were moments that actually started to enjoy the flight. I had been worried about having problems with the changing altitude, but that didn’t seem to be an issue, which is probably a good sign for my overall health.

Needless to say the view was amazing – rural Manitoba in all it’s Summer colours. Everything was so small that it was difficult to tell what a lot things on the ground even were, and I got the very real sense of what people based those model train sets off of. I was getting to the point where I was okay as long as the plane didn’t do something unexpected, or at least something that I didn’t suspect. I think that she slipped on me a couple times, and second time I wasn’t ready for it and freaked just a little. Though I’m told that I really didn’t say anything, only sort of grabbed at the air with one hand. The flight actually reminded me a lot of being a motor boat going really fast so it’s sort of skipping across the waves. That’s how it felt to me as we were in the sky going God’s only know how fast. It seemed pretty fast when you looked at the ground and the tiny cars on it.

It was a bit of a learning experience for me too – knowing how anxious my passenger was made me so much more conscious of the movement of the plane, and I tried to make sure it didn’t make any more sudden movements than I could help, and learned to make sure I told him before I did something. I’m probably a lot less attentive to the smaller movements when I’m solo, or even with Sandra, because I know neither of us are going to get startled or uncomfortable with the normal movements, but with a passenger, there’s pressure to make the flight more comfortable and enjoyable.

Then Linds decided that we should do a steep turn, and wheedled me until I agreed to it. She totally could have messed with me here, and I’m overjoyed that she chose not to. I actually found the experience of being pushed back in your seat with ground nearly parallel at one side to be enjoyable one. It reminded me of being on a roller coaster.

I decided if I was going to be a commercial pilot, I should act like a professional when taking passengers up. Except my Dad. I’ll mess with my Dad, he’s earned it. (Insert evil laugh, and read anticipation for when i get my aerobtics rating….) But Nathan, no I won’t mess with him – I want him to come up with me again, after all.

Then it was time for us to go back, and I dreaded the actual landing the entire way back. Which it turned out was probably least scary part of the whole thing. All we did was just sort of glide down, and land. It was really an anticlimactic ending to whole adventure.

Ha – that’s how a good landing should be. I remember landings with Sandra in really rough winds, and thinking, how on earth are we going to get this thing on the ground again without being smashed into the runway! Sandra’s a pro, of course though. I’m glad I waited for a day with nice calm winds to take Nathan though, and I’m glad I could make the landing as smooth as I managed. I’ve certainly made far worse landings, but they’re getting much more consistent.

Once I was back on the ground again I felt really strange almost like my entire body was vibrating a little. I’m still not really sure how to describe the feeling other than to call it supremely odd. It wasn’t really uncomfortable or painful it was just strange. Overall I think that the entire experience was a mix of moments of terror, awe, and excitement. I hope that next time I can focus on the positives a little more. The experience left me profoundly proud over how far Linds has come in such a short time, and cemented all of it firmly in reality for me. Though looking back on the experience it’s hard to see it as something really happened to me, the memory is just surreal.

First To Solo Challenge

So, this happened.

There was an award presentation, with several awards today. One for St. Andrews Airport for being the most women friendly airport for sending over 600 women and girls up for rides during the women in aviation week events, one for a helicopter pilot that took up something like 300 women and girls that day, and one for me for being the first of the women who participated to fly solo after the event.

It was also the day that they were doing the discovery flights for any girls who signed up for that at the event in march, so my instructor was there doing some of those, and she got to do the presenting of my snazzy new headset (fancy expensive one – it’s so nice!) and said nice things about me while people snapped pictures. I was nervous, and I had kind of wondered if I was supposed to say something but no one had told me I should have anything prepared. So when someone from the crowd called out asking if I would say a few words, what came out was entirely on the fly. I froze up at the camera flashes at first too, horribly nervous – I’m not a crowd person. But once I found my words, I think there must have been enough emotion in my voice that it wouldn’t have mattered what i said. Afterward, two different people came up to me to tell me that I made them cry, so even if I was nervous, it sounds like I still got my point across.

I also got introduced to a woman from Calm Air, who’s invited me to come out to Winnipeg International Airport to their facility for a tour to “check out what kind of job prospects are in my future.” I’m not sure I would know if I was being scouted, but it would be awesome if that’s what it meant. And of course I jumped at the opportunity. In any case, I’ll meet people, and make connections, and that’s what gets one jobs in aviation, apparently.

Nathan, my husband commented on the positive vibes surrounding the event. He often feels a little bit alienated by feminism (even though he is, by beliefs, a feminist himself) on the internet, because of the negativity that comes out there, but that’s largely because the anonymity of the internet brings out a lot of men who feel the need to tear down women, and the women are reacting to that. Here though, there’s very little of that men tearing women down, and when there isn’t that, and there is instead men supporting women, then the atmosphere is very different. That helicopter pilot was a man given the title of “Most supportive male pilot”. Here, instead of women being forced to point out where they are being mistreated, they have the opportunity to point out and celebrate where men are being supportive and welcoming women to come stand by their sides as equals. And we feminists really do wish we could do more of that, because feminism is absolutely not “anti-man” – it’s just women wanting equality. And it’s important to bring attention to men who treat women as equals and hold them up as examples.

I am proud of myself. And being the centre of attention that way was such an unfamiliar feeling. I remember being a young woman, and going to events like that where someone was getting an award – times where I was supposed to look up to that person as a role model. Now there was a crowd consisting largely of women and girls who had just flown an aeroplane for their first time, and I was the accomplished one up front, supposed to be leading the charge that people pointed to saying “see, you can be like her.” And I felt, not so much an obligation, but a responsibility if you understand the difference, to say something to them. And I wanted to even though I was afraid. I always say, fear is a terrible reason not to do something. Everyone said how inspirational I was when I took the microphone, and I’m glad because if I said anything that helped give any of those girls and women the confidence to pursue aviation if that’s what they want to do, then it was worth the stage fright and letting everyone see me nervous!