August 30, 2019

Lesson #23: Sunday August 18, 2019

With this lesson I’m up to 25.3 hours of flight time. It sounds like both a lot and a little. I wonder how many hours of driving instruction I had before I got my license? More or less? Presumably more; I got my license in the late 70s in California: my high school offered both driver’s ed (classroom) and driver’s training (in the car).

When I went to book the lesson, my usual airplane N73924 already booked, so I scheduled N704RB. Saturday night I got an email with subject “Alert regarding your schedule for 704RB” and the text “front nose wheel is flat.” What?!

I didn’t get an email saying that the flight was cancelled, so I went out to the field Sunday morning wondering if I’d be able to fly. Sure enough, Romeo Bravo still had a flat tire. The pilot who’d been in the plane the day before was in the Skybound office, and he reported it popped on landing. Goodness! (It turned out to be a bad tube: no fault of the pilot.) Cessna 172 popped tire

Fortunately, whomever had reserved 73924 cancelled their flight. Good! I had an airplane.

We’re still down to one open runway at PDK: 21L. Last time that wasn’t too hard to deal with, but this time the closure bit us.

The business jets taxi down to the end of 21L taking off towards the south, which gives them a full 6,000’ to take off. Peachtree Ground instead directed us to hold short of 21L at taxiway Golf, which was nearly halfway down the runway. Entering the runway at Golf gives us 3,746’, which is the same as 21R. Plenty of room for a Cessna 172.

So we taxi out and hold short of 21L on Golf, waiting our turn. There are two aircraft four tenths of a mile to our left on taxiway Alpha; presumably they’re ahead of us. So we wait.

And wait. I’m not sure how many aircraft went ahead of us—I think there were 3 down at Alpha that took off ahead of us, and maybe another 3 that landed before us. All in all I think we waited at least 10 minutes if not more. That’s not typical at all at PDK; when there are two runways available, we typically get on the runway after no more than 2–3 minutes, and any wait is usually waiting for an aircraft to land. (Landing aircraft get priority over aircraft taking off.) The meter was running for both the airplane and the instructor at $4.34 a minute so it was an expensive delay.

We thought about flying out to Lawrenceville again, but given that getting there and back would consume 40 minutes, we decided to take our chances and stay in the pattern at PDK.

It turned out to be a reasonable decision. Once we got off the ground, we had no trouble fitting six approaches in during the lesson.

Steve wanted me to practice using side-slips, which I will need to stay lined up with the runway when there’s a cross-wind. The problem with practicing anything you do right as you touch down is the you only get a few seconds of practice on each approach. To give me more time, instead of going all the way to down to the runway, Steve set me up so that we were stable about 30–50’ above the runway. Steve had me fly down over the runway, first slipping to the left (which I’d need to do if there was a cross-wind coming from the left), and then to the right. The back-and-forth movement is done by turning the yoke slightly to the left and right, and then using the opposite rudder pedal to keep the plane flying straight. Turns out you need a lot of rudder to do that. Push it! I did a couple of a couple of approaches above the runway slipping back and forth, and then switched to touch-and-go landings.

I’m now mostly consistent at getting from 1,000’ above the field heading downwind, then turning base then final and getting down to the runway at about the right point. But as I have for months, I’m still having trouble with that last 50 feet. (And I’m still not remembering to look out my left window when I get close to the runway.) So my first touch-and-go was not good.

My second touch-and-go landing was better. Not great, but acceptable. Acceptable is my actual goal: once I get to the point where every landing is acceptable, I’l be ready to solo.

On the last approach Tower I went for a full-stop landing, which is exactly what it sounds like: instead taking the airplane up and around another time after touching down, you slow down and get off the runway. As I was slowing down Peachtree Tower called and asked me to get off at taxiway Charlie. But Charlie is also where my runway 21L is crossed by another runway—16/34. Instead of taking a 90’ turn onto Charlie, I accidentally started making a 130’ turn onto runway 34. Just as I was doing so, Tower called and said, “If you want to go down 34, that’s ok too.” Basically, they were turning my mistake into a legitimate turn by giving me permission. The folks in the Tower at PDK know they’re dealing with a lot of students. Nice, patient people.

August 24, 2019

Lesson #22: Sunday August 11 2019

I’m still working on landings. I’d like to be able to say something like “I’ve turned a corner” or “Now things are better”—but I believe I’m just in the slow lane. Even in the slow lane, as long as you’re moving, you’re going to get someplace. (In my case, hopefully I’ll get to the ground in one piece.)

Every week there’s something a little different to deal with at the airport. This week the usual runway used by smaller airplanes was closed down for maintenance—Runway 21R/3L. That fact means that instead of having two runways for traffic—one for small aircraft like the Cessna 172 and a longer one for higher-performance aircraft—we were down to one runway.

Steve decided that instead of flying in a potentially crowded pattern at PDK, we should fly over to KLZU: Gwinnett County field in Lawrenceville. LZU only has one runway, but they don’t have the business jet traffic.

That meant when I got the to airport I had to plan a cross-country flight. Granted, since LZU is only 19nm from PDK, that’s a short cross-country flight, but that actually makes it more challenging.

LZU is a towered field, meaning you have to talk to a controller at the tower before you enter their airspace (5nm around the field), and you also have to get the ATIS information-weather and so forth—while you’re in the air.

So that led to a little research on LZU that I wrote down in my notebook. LZU ATIS frequency: 132.275. LZU Tower: 124.1. LZU field elevation: 1,062ft MSL, pattern at 2,101 MSL, or just a little higher than PDK which is at 998 ft MSL and 1,098ft pattern altitude.

Taxiing out was a little different from usual. Even though runway 21R was closed to landing traffic, the taxi route out to get out to 3R took us down runway 21R. I had to get out the airport diagram to review it before I headed out. Steve told me that if I wanted, I could ask Peachtree Ground for “progressive taxi” instructions, meaning they would watch my progress across the field and give me the next turn as needed. I didn’t ask for it, but Ground at one point Ground still called me to remind me to turn.

Steve also had me dial in LZU into the Garmin 430. The 430 combines radios—the ones I use to talk to the ground— and GPS navigation. It’s been around for decades and is pretty standard in small aircraft. You might have seen the pictures of small airplanes with “glass cockpits” with iPad-sized screens. The 430 isn’t that: it’s got a 4" screen—732 pixels wide by 240 pixels high.

Until now, I’ve only used the 430’s radios. But it also has a GPS with a database of airports. Once I dialed in LZU, the 430 showed many miles we were from LZU, our current course, and what direction I needed to steer to head towards LZU. Very useful, but far less capable than any of the apps you can get on phones and tablets. (I pay for Foreflight, but I haven’t used it in the air yet.)

We took off on 21R and turned west. The first thing we needed was the LZU ATIS. I switched the frequency and laboriously copied down the weather, runway information, and altimeter setting. While I was doing that, the airplane started to wander off course, but fortunately Steve made some adjustments to keep us from too far off.

At this point we were already only 10 miles from LZU, so I switched the radio over to LZU tower and called them up. They gave us a straight in approach to runway 07.

My radio work (talking to Ground and Tower) is usually pretty good, but today it was not so good. Lots of fumbling for what I wanted to say and missing things. That’s a classic sign that I was getting “task saturated,” which is what they call it in the aviation world when your head is completely full. (CFI Jason Miller of The Finer Points podcast has said he’s seen students get so task saturated that you could ask “What’s your name?” and they’d reply “Standby.”)

We did three touch-and-go landings at LZU. One difference from PDK: since LZU has only a single runway, in order to help manage the traffic going around the field, Tower specified “Right closed traffic” or “Left closed traffic,” when clearing us for each approach, indicating which way they wanted us to turn after lifting off from the runway.

On average, my landings are getting better. One or two of the touch and go landings were “acceptable” in Steve’s words.

There’s one thing I’m still not doing at all. Steve advised me that when I get close to the ground, I need to start looking out my left window. When you get close to the ground, the nose the aircraft is higher and you can’t see over it. (You always want to touch down first on your rear wheels, then lower the nose gear.) If you look out the left window, you can see how high you are and whether you’re centered over the runway. But I keep forgetting to do that, and so I lose track of how high I am as I get down near the runway.

I’ve driven out to LZU a few times now for the monthly EAA breakfasts. I know where the EAA hanger is. But since I haven’t actually landed at LZU and taxied around, my mental model of the airport is incomplete. The place where I did touch-and-go landings and the place where I get breakfast once a month are different places in my head. Flying to or over someplace has no relation in my head to driving there.

Every once in a while I stop and marvel at this business of learning to fly. An hour after I got back home to Kelly, out of the blue I said “Hey. I was just up there.” “Up where?”. “Up there.” “Ohhh. Got it.”

August 13, 2019

Lesson #21: Sunday Aug 3 2019

I'm remiss in writing these reports. My last one was for lesson #18 on July 7th, but since then I've flown 3 more lessons, with the most one being lesson #21 on Sunday, August 3rd 2019.

There's a simple explanation. I've been flying the same lesson over and over. When people ask how I'm doing, I say "I'm still trying to learn how to land." That's true, but putting it that way short-changes my progress. It would be more accurate to say I'm trying to learn how to handle the last 15 seconds of the landing. Learning to land is the hardest thing you do when you're learning to fly because there are so many parts to it. I've written many times before about these various parts.

Lesson #18 on July 7th was probably my low point. I'd spent weeks not even touching the ground, and once I did start actually bringing the airplane all the way down the runway, it was pretty rough. It's actually still pretty rough, but the difference the last three lessons have made is that I'm starting to dial in the other parts.

For me, the landing really starts when you're heading downwind in the opposite direction from the runway and you're "abeam the numbers" when you pass the end of the runway where you intend to touch down. At this point you're 1,000 feet above the runway going about 110kts. In the next couple of minutes you want to get the airplane down to about 40kts inches above the runway. The goal is to standardize how you do this—basically, do it more or less the same way every time. I'm not there yet, but every lesson I've been getting a little better. I still don't know how to handle crosswinds, but as luck would have it my last three lessons have had very little wind to work about.

I'm really starting to get a feel for how to control the pitch and the power to bleed off that energy. Abeam the numbers: pull out the carb heat control, which cuts the power by about 20hp. Cut the power from 2300-2500rpm down to 1700. Get the speed down to flaps range, which is 85 knots. Once you're at that point, put in the first 10° of flaps.

And so forth. I've written about the sequence a few times - [lesson 9], [lesson 14], and [lesson 18] among others. I'm starting to get a feeling for whether I'm too high or too low. I'm getting better about monitoring my speed, which is arguably the most important single thing you need to manage on the way down.

So let's talk about lesson 21. How did it actually go?

The weather was iffy. There was rain in the area, but the airport was still VFR; the rain was perhaps 10 miles to the north. You've probably seen photos of rain coming over the desert; it looked something like that from 1,000 feet up. You could tell where it was.

Before we went up, Steve wanted me to notice something about the wind. Wind 200 at 8 knots with runway 21L and 21R in use. I started up the Foreflight app on my phone to get a feeling for which way that was. Wait—we're landing on a runway with a compass heading of 210—roughly North to South, and the wind is out of 200—that's a tailwind!

Conventional wisdom is that you never want to land or take off with a tailwind. A tailwind means you go further down the runway on takeoff, and when you're approaching the runway on a landing, the ground comes up at you a little faster. Not good!

Normally the tower will "turn the airport around" when the wind direction changes—they'll tell aircraft to takeoff and land in opposite direction. Steve's explanation for why they hadn't done that was first that the wind was still relatively low, and more importantly, PDK really likes to try to keep the ILS approach available, and that's only on 21L. (ILS is a system for precisely landing an airplane; the business jets that typically come on the longer runway like to use ILS.)

Despite what I said about being able to control the approach, the first time around I was much too high and not getting down. We executed a go-around —fly above the runway and get the plane back into climbing and cruise configuration: carb heat back in, flaps up in stages, full power.

I don't remember the exact sequence of the next 4-5 landings; I don't even remember the exact number of landings.

I do know on one of them I fell prey to the pattern I'm still trying to get out of: not flying the plane all the way down to the runway and stalling while I'm still 20'+ in air. "Jesus!" Steve exclaimed and struggled to keep us from going splat. That was the low point for this lesson.

The final landing—a "full stop"—was pretty bad. I think I bounced the airplane.

But on one landing, Steve said "That was acceptable!" And that felt pretty damned good.

Landing an airplane is the hardest thing I've tried to learn in my adult life. My progress is measured in chunks of perhaps 50 minutes in the air at a cost of $275-$335 per lesson. My log records that I've had 22.9 hours of dual instruction. 21 lessons, 8 months, something over $5,000.

August 3, 2019

Lesson #18: Sunday July 7th 2019

Despite the fact that I few last week, I still have flown relatively little over the last month, and today it caught up with me.

We spent the entire lesson in the pattern at PDK practicing my approach and landing skills. It's fair to say that my skills are weak.

The best part of the lesson was actually after the landing when we talked about what I was doing wrong.

Steve says I'm "ground shy," by which he means that I tend to want land about 20 feet above the actual runway. That's 20 feet too high.

Going and back and reviewing Rod Machado's How To Fly an Airplane Handbook , I realize I've been neglecting some of the basic steps.

The first thing I've been forgetting about is the relationship between pitch and power. You control your airspeed with the pitch of the airplane, which is controlled by the yoke. Push the yoke forward, the airplane pitches down, and you go faster. Pull back, the airplane pitches up, and you go slower. After that, you control your vertical speed with the thottle. Going down too fast--increase the power, which will slow the descent.

Steve says I use the throttle too much when I'm coming in on final approach. I'll be coming down at an appropriate rate, but I'll think I'm coming down too fast, and I'll increase the throttle to slow my descent. However--and this is the part that I missed--whenever I change the throttle, I need to also move the yoke to maintain my speed. Power and pitch are intimately related. Increase the power, and that has a tendency to push the nose up a little, an if you do that, your speed decreases. The thing Steve harps on the most with me is keeping my approach speed at 80 knots before I get on final approach. (It's ok to be at 70 kts once you get on final approach.) That's faster than most people go on the approach, but Steve's reasoning is that you don't want to get too close to stalling, and further, the slower you go, the less responsive the airplane is to the controls. (Less air moving over the flight surfaces means the airplane is slower to respond.) So when I get worried I'm slow and increase the throttle, and don't adjust my pitch, all of sudden I'm dropped below 80kts.

By the same token, if I'm high and cut the power, my nose will drop unless I compensate and now I'll be going too fast. Landing is all about energy management: you want to bleed off all the energy it takes to keep flying when you're just inches above the runway.

That "inches above the runway" part gets at another thing I've been missing. Landing is a series of different steps. On the downwind leg--going in the opposite direction of the runway--you're 1,000 field above the runway going 90-100 kts. Once you get opposite your landing point going the other direction--or, as it's known, when you're "abeam the numbers" (the numbers at the very end of the runway), you cut your power and start descending. As you make your turn to base, you should have lost ~200' and be at 80 kts. When you turn final, you should have lost another 200'--so now you're at 600' and doing 70 kts. Now hopefully you're on a stable approach towards the near end of the runway. Just as you get over the end of the runway, you can let the speed come down. You then want to get to the where you arrest your descent just foot or so off the runway. This is called the round out. Once you're at this point, you can start raising the nose, and at the point you're in the flare. The idea is to keep raising the nose until the airplane slows down to stall speed, and the airplane touches the runway below stall speed. See? Nothing to it.

I'll keep at it.

July 9, 2019

Lesson #17: Saturday, June 29th 2019

A combination of circumstances kept me out of the air for four weeks. One of the weeks my flight instructor was on vacation. I scheduled a lesson with another instructor, but the weather didn't cooperate. The last two weekends I had to work Saturday mornings which forced me to cancel lessons. But I finally made it back into the air at the end of June.

Four weeks is my longest layoff since I started. Previously I'd had a three week layoff, and my first lesson after that was pretty rough. But this lesson went smoother than I anticipated.

Since I had been on the ground for a month, Steve had me leave PDK for some turn coordination work. There were broken clouds around the field and towards the north, so we climbed up to 5,500' to get over them. Steve wants to be more than 10 miles from PDK before we start practicing. (When you're inbound back to PDK, we call the field when we get 10 miles out.)

We started with 30° bank turns. 30° is a pretty standard turn: not too steep, not too shallow. 30° turn to the left, then immediately roll into a 30° to the right, then back to the left, and so forth.

Next we moved up to 45°. As a passenger, 45° would feel like a steep turn. A 45° turn is tricker to execute. As you pass 30° bank, the aircraft loses lift, and if you don't compensate, you'll lose altitude. So as you pass 30°, you need to pull back on the yoke. Further, the aircraft really doesn't want to stay at that steep a bank angle, so you have to keep goosing it around to stay at that angle. As you turn back the opposite direction, you keep the back pressure on the yoke until you get back to 30°, then let the back pressure off until you get past 30° bank in the opposite direction.

The best way to do this is to keep your eyes outside the aircraft. It's pretty easy to tell if you're at 45° bank; you can tell that by eyeballing the horizon vs your windshield. And you can tell if you're going up or down by watching the horizon line off in the distance. The goal is to keep your eyes outside 90% of the time, glancing back inside occasionally to double check your altitude and direction.

Next we do 360° turns at a 45° bank angle. I talk my way through it: "Not steep enough, not steep enough, more, more, raise the nose a little, keep it going, keep it going .. coming up on 210, rolling out."

Coordination work is fun. I remember when I was 10 years old I had a the coolest bike - a Schwinn Stringray with a banana seat. I loved to swoop back and forth on the playground - big, sweep turns - left, right, left, right. That's what it reminded me of, but at 5,500 feet.

We also practiced forward slips. The forward slip uses opposite rudder and aileron to lose altitude without increasing speed. Normally you keep your aileron and rudder use coordinated (as in coordinated turns.) To turn left, turn the yoke towards the left and use the left rudder pedal. The forward slip is full right rudder and enough left (opposite) aileron to keep the airplane going straight. Done correctly, instead of the normal 500' per minute descent, you'll end up losing altitude at twice that rate.

After working on slips we headed back to PDK for a couple of practice landings. My first attempt made clear the cost of missing 4 weeks: I was way too high on final approach. Steve took over the aircraft, executed a forward slip to lose altitude, touched down, and then powered up to go around again.

My second time was better. One of the keys to a good approach is to control your speed. You control your speed with your pitch angle. Your pitch is controlled by pushing or pulling on the yoke. Going too fast: pull back on the yoke slightly to slow down. Too slow: push forward to gain some speed. Steve wants to see a consistent 70 knots on base and final legs. Too slow is worse than too fast, because if you get too slow, the plane will stall, and when you're down so low, you might not have enough altitude to recover from the stall. (Stalling speed on the Cessna 172 is somewhere down between 41-47 knots, so 70 gives you some room.) On my second approach I was right on 70 knots on my base and final legs. My altitude was still not quite right, so I was working the throttle. With some help from Steve I manage to flare it and get it on the ground. Unfortunately Peachtree Tower told us to make an early turn-off to clear the runway for other traffic, so I didn't get to handle it all the way down the runway, but it was a landing.

Even when I'm not flying, I still think about it. A few weeks back I had a routine medical procedure. I was on my back in a paper gown waiting for the doctor to see me. No phone, nothing to read, no one to talk to, so I decided to mentally fly a lesson. Preflight the plane. Get in the cockpit and go through the engine start procedure. Call Peachtree Ground and get cleared to taxi. Take off, make a left closed traffic turn at 700' AGL-

Right about here the doctor came in to talk to me and then went away-

-turn downwind, throttle back, left base turn, left final turn, and back onto the runway. My mental flight took a good 20+ minutes, and nobody even noticed that I was gone.

June 4, 2019

Lesson #16: Sun, Jun 2 2019

Yesterday I joined a local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA): EAA #690 based at Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville. The EAA has traditionally been about building airplanes, but for me the appeal was joining a group of people who like to talk about aviation.

My instructor took me to the EAA 690 monthly pancake breakfast last month, but yesterday I went by myself and joined up. The only person I knew there was Greg Huseth, the chapter president. (I worked for Greg for a year at Georgia Tech back around 2002.) I sat a table with with a couple. He was a former private pilot, and she works with a firm that develops satellite wifi systems for commercial aircraft. We ended up talking about the recent Boeing 737 MCAS issues, and then branched off into a discussion of electric and self-driving cars. Geeky, interesting conversation.

After breakfast there was a speaker who was not all that interesting. But after that came the highlight of my morning: I went outside to see airplanes. EAA 690's facility is a hanger right on Briscoe Field. Some folks actually flew in for the meeting, and they had their aircraft parked near the EAA hanger. I saw a Stinson Voyager, a Sonex, and a Kitfox. At the end of the meeting Greg Huseth said that a member was offering to donate his aircraft to the chapter. A number of us went over to a hanger to see said aircraft, and it turned out to be a Long-EZ. I had no idea what that was, and the aircraft was partially disassembled, so it looked kind of questionable to my untrained eye. But later googling revealed that the Long-EZ was created by famous aircraft designer Burt Rutan. Even more interesting (if morbid), singer John Denver died in a Long-EZ.

Today's lesson back into my decidedly-not-experimental Cessna 172 was in contrast to my previous lesson: I was definitely the student again.

First, Steve demonstrated a short-field take-off. I'm here to tell you that a Cessna 172 can get up into the air in no time if you need to. The procedure:

  • Go to end of the runway and turn around.
  • Hold the brakes, and bring the throttle up to full power.
  • At about 5 knots below normal rotate speed (50 knots in my case), pull back on the yoke.
  • Climb out at Vx (best angle of climb) speed - 59kts
  • No lower than 50 feet, bring down the nose and accelerate to Vy (best rate of climb) speed - 73 knots.

We always climb out from PDK at Vy (best rate) which gets us the most altitude in the least amount of time. However, sometimes you need to climb out in the shortest distance: if there were trees off the end of the runway, for example, you'd need best rate of climb (Vx).

We headed up North to do some practice turns-which we've done recently-and stalls-which we haven't done in a while.

Before I started my practice turns, I looked left and right for traffic. Usually there's no traffic, but today there was another aircraft at our level perhaps a few miles away off to the left. Not close, but we decided to turn to the right instead of the left. It wasn't a big deal, but it was interesting to actually see an airplane: away from airports, the sky is usually pretty empty.

After a couple of steep 360 degree turns, it was on to stall practice. I haven't practiced stalls since lesson 4 back in December.

It's hard to stall a Cessna 172. In level flight, we normally cruise at over 100kts. To stall, you have to get down near 40kts, and to get there you have keep pulling steadily back on the yoke. Pull pull pull PULL start to hear the stall horn and feel the yoke shake, and finally the wing loses lift, and the plane dips. Push forward on the yoke just a little to gain speed, and just like that - you're out of the stall. We did that twice.

After that, we set our course back towards PDK with the intention of doing some touch-and-go's. Although winds were down around 7kts when we left PDK, 45 minutes later it was gusting to 15. We went around three times in the pattern. The first time we were too high (my fault), the second time .. I don't remember, but I didn't get down close enough to the field because of the gusting winds.

Steve offered to set me up on final for the final go-around. We approached the field with no flaps, because with gusting winds we want a little more speed: the slower we fly, the more sluggish the controls are. If it's gusty, we need more airspeed because we might need to counteract a sudden gust of wind, and to do so we need the flight controls to have more "authority."

Steve got the aircraft where it needed to be on final and gave it over to me, but I wasn't comfortable with my ability to control the airplane with the gusting winds, so I gave the airplane back to Steve. It was even more gusty at touchdown, and Steve had to work to get the aircraft on the ground.

So in the end, at either end of the flight I wasn't in control of the airplane. When you're a student, some days are like that.

June 1, 2019

Lesson #15: Saturday, May 25th, 2019

I was at the airport on-time for my 10am reservation, but the aircraft was not. We had to wait until 10:15 before the previous student and instructor came back in.

We asked about fuel, and they said it was nearly full when they took it out. But when we got into the aircraft and turned on the master switch, the fuel gauges showed down near a quarter tank. As my instructor is fond of saying, you don't trust what people tell you about fuel, and you don't trust the fuel gauges, either--you need to get up on the wing and check it yourself.

There are two tanks, one in each wing. You climb up on the strut on each side of the aircraft, remove the fuel cap, stick a tube down into the tank all the way, put your finger on the top of the tube and pull it back out. When the tank is full, you'll see fuel up to the '8' mark. The first tank I checked was only up to 2.75, so Steve called for the fuel truck.

The hourly rental rate includes fuel, so all it takes to get fuel is a phone call, and the guy comes out and fills it up. 73924 can take about 25 gallons on each side and uses about 12 gallons per hour.

Once we called for fuel we proceeded with the rest of the preflight check. The 172 has tricycle gear: one front gear and two main gear. Part of the pre-flight is to check the condition of the tires. The left main gear had a serious bald spot: not only was the tread gone, but it had worn through most of the layer under that. Steve's guess was that someone had used the brakes too aggressively and "flat-spotted" the tire. If you see metal showing through the rubber, the aircraft is not safe to fly. There was no metal showing today, but Steve said it was very close to it.

We checked the oil and discovered it was low. Steve went over near the fence to some containers I'd never noticed before and came back with a quart of oil which he poured into the engine.

Once we were done with the preflight we needed to get moving. We had the plane reserved until noon, but despite getting the plane late and having to put fuel in, we didn't want to return it late.

I taxied down to the run-up area and did the run-up checks, which involves running the engine up to 1800 RPM and checking the gauges. One of the final checks is "Primer in and locked". (The primer lets you squirt a little extra fuel in the engine; you'd use it when the engine is cold. Leaving the primer unlocked messes with the fuel/air mixture and causes the engine to run rough.) I could see it was in, but I hadn't needed to prime the engine, and I hadn't tried to pull it out to ensure that it was locked. Steve must have noticed that the engine was sounding a little rough, because he prompted me to pull on the primer--and it was not locked.

Instead of pattern work Steve decided we'd do some coordination work up north of PDK. My takeoffs are not great, but I'm doing ok at reliably getting the aircraft rolling down the runway and into the air. Once up we headed out on a course of 330, just a little to the west of north. We usually head NE to the South end of Lake Lanier, but today we ended up over CNI, the Cherokee County field near Canton.

The aircraft felt a little sluggish climbing out. I think I was climbing a little too fast. The best rate of climb in the 172--also known as the Vy speed--is 73 kts. I think I was closer to 79. It also didn't help that it was a hot day. Heat makes air less dense which means less lift. PDK is at 998' above sea level, but the "density altitude" that morning was close to 2,900', meaning the airplane is not going to climb as fast as would on a cooler day.

We made it up to around 4,000' where there were some puffy white cumulus clouds. Steve suggested we go up above the clouds because the air would be smoother up there. VFR rules say you must keep your distance from clouds: more than 500' below, 1000' above, and 2000' away horizontally. It felt like we might have been closer than 2,000' at some points, but there's no easy way to tell that up in the air.

We did some coordinated turns left and right, and some steep (45') 360 degree turns. When the wing is banked to 45', it develops less lift, so you have to pull back on the yoke to keep the plane from descending. It's very easy to keep your eyes in on the gauges as you're doing this, but Steve reminded me that you want to keep your eyes outside the aircraft and use the horizon to tell if you're properly banked and if you're losing or gaining altitude.

The only thing I didn't do today was handle the approach and landing. As we were downwind in the pattern, Peachtree Tower called and asked if we could "make short approach". Basically, they wanted to get us on the ground quickly so we could stay out of the way of other arriving traffic. Given that I'm still learning how to handle a normal approach, I asked Steve if he would take it. It's actually kind of fun: abeam the numbers on a left pattern, Steve cut the power to idle, put in full flaps, and started making a continuous left banking turn, holding 70 kts, and got us on the ground inside of perhaps a minute or so. It's the same procedure you'd use if you'd lost power. Steve has tried to have me practice this maneuver before, but usually we have other traffic ahead of us and we have to fly a normal pattern. It's something I'll have to learn.

It was a good flight. I felt much more like a PIC (pilot in command) than a student. At one point I thought we were going to be too close to a cloud if we made a 360 turn to the right, so I first made a left turn to get us heading away from the cloud. On the way back to PDK, we needed to lose altitude, but with the clouds, we needed to go down a little faster than the usual 500' per minute, so I went ahead and did it.

Flying up near clouds is amazing. It's one thing to pass through them in a big jet; it's another thing entirely to be picking your way amongst them. Much of learning to fly is intense concentration during which you don't really get to appreciate the fact that you're in the air; today I got to experience a little of the sheer joy of flying.

May 26, 2019

Lesson #14: Saturday, May 18th, 2019

It's been three weeks since my last lesson. As I previous discovered, that much time off is not for maintaining muscle memory and ... well, just plain old memory. (Kelly quoting one her relatives: "What button do I mash to make it do?")

It wasn't by choice; N73924 was due for its 100 hour check, and the other Cessna 172 704RB was booked up.

But in the those three weeks I did pass one more significant milestone: the FAA office in Oklahoma City issued my Medical Certificate Third Class. My medical is good until November 30th, 2019 - only six months away.

My medical took seven months to get to this point because there were conditions that the FAA wanted to make sure were under control, so there was lots of back-and-forth with my doctor getting test results and forms filled out. If it took seven months to get the FAA to sign off on this one, I was concerned: do I need to started on my renewal immediately? (If it takes another seven months I'd already be late!)

A few months back I joined the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). AOPA has a service where you can call or email them with aviation-related questions. I emailed them a question about the process, and they directed me back to the seven pages the FAA sent me, which revealed that for the renewal, my Aviation Medical Examiner would be allowed to sign off on the conditions the FAA had approved. So when I go back to see the AME in October or November, assuming everything is unchanged, they will be able issue my year-long renewal. Whew!

This morning we were the second flight in 73924 following the 100-hour maintenance. It's worth being extra through in your preflight checks following maintenance; occasionally something will not be reconnected properly during maintenance, and you'll discover that either on the ground or in the air. (Steve's personal preference is to remain in the pattern for the first hour of flight following maintenance. )

The result of my three week layoff was predictable: I was rusty again. This happens to experienced pilots as well; they don't forget the basics like I do, but "currency" is a thing that pilots need to be aware of.

I'm still working on mastering landings, so we stayed in the pattern, taking off towards the south on 21R.

The first time around the pattern was rough; Steve had to take the aircraft just before we got to the runway because I didn't have it set up correctly.

The next few times around were not pretty, either, but I achieved a milestone: Steve had me take the aircraft all the way down to the runway. I actually landed! We were doing touch-and-gos, so Steve then took over the aircraft to get us back in the air.

One thing I didn't realize: when I'm allowed to solo the aircraft, I will not be allowed to do touch-and-gos like I've been doing with Steve. The reason: it's all too easy to end up too far down the runway and end up running out of runway. So as a student pilot, if I touch down on the runway, I'll need to bring the aircraft to a "full stop". One doesn't actually come to a full stop on the runway itself: you turn off onto the taxi way that the tower gives you, switch over to the ground frequency, and then come to a full stop just after getting off the runway until ground gives you instructions.

The touch-and-go itself is a tricky maneuver. As so as the aircraft is firmly on the ground, you want to immediately put the flaps back up, push the carburetor heat button back in, and push the throttle back to full power. At that point you're back to a normal takeoff: you want to pull back on the yoke between 55 and 60 knots, build up your speed, and then climb out between 70 and 79 knots.

My landings were all somewhat rough: I'm still having issues keeping the aircraft centered over the runway. But I was very proud to have actually got the aircraft all the way to the ground three times, including our final landing. On the last one we bounced back up into the air a little, which is a sign that I had too much speed. The goal is to get the aircraft right down over the runway at perhaps 25 feet, then just try to keep it off the runway by raising the nose gradually. When the aircraft gets down to around 40kts it will stall, which is actually what you want, because you want to get onto the ground with no lift so you don't bounce.

I had my first experience of rolling out after a landing. On a small aircraft on a long runway you don't want to use the brakes. Instead, you just keep the aircraft going straight down the runway until you bleed off enough speed where you can turn off.

I've been working on pattern work for three months now since lesson #8 on February 9th. Even though much of the flying today was rough because of my three weeks off, it was still very satisfying actually land after 7 lessons.


May 20, 2019

Lesson #13: Sunday April 28th, 2019

With this lesson, I'm up to 14.5 hours in the plane. Technically, these are referred to as 'dual instruction received' hours. They count towards my license, but I think if you were to walk up to future me and ask how many hours I have in the air, I don't think these count.

Today's lesson was a change up from the last bunch of lessons where I've stayed in the pattern at PDK. We took off to the south on 21R and then headed up north a ways.

My takeoff was a bit rough. Just as I got off the runway it got a bit squirrelly. That's a phrase I'd never use about a car, but in this case it meant that the nose yawed a little to the right just after we took off. I'm saying that as if it just happened, but of course it was because of what I was doing, or likely not doing. There was definitely some turbulence as we climbed out.

Steve made an interesting observation later. When the wind is coming more or less straight across the north/south facing runways coming from the west (as it was today), the air hits the hangers first, and that disturbs the air. The same wind coming from the east has fewer obstacles, and would be smoother.

We focused on two things today. The first was steep coordinated turns: steep in this case meaning about 45' of bank. That's reasonably steep; your typical commercial aircraft tries to keep banks under 30'. As the turn gets steeper, you have to add some back pressure on the yoke to keep the aircraft from losing altitude.

We did a number of those: probably 3-4 big turns to the left and then back to the right. The first ones were not great, but as I did it more, they got better. Practice.

I also got a better feel for the fact that you need less rudder pressure when you're turning left than when you're turning right. There are at least three reasons for that, but they all center around the fact that you've got a propeller out in front of you. A propeller is actually a wing, and wings generate lift. As you look at the aircraft head-on, the propeller rotates right to left, and a downward-moving propeller generates more lift .. and that's more lift (or force) on the right side of the aircraft. Since the lift/force is a little less on the left side, the plane naturally wants turn left a little bit. Yeah, this is one place where words don't really cut it. And when you're learning to fly, it's just one of those things you learn to deal with.

The second major thing we did was gave me a little more time flying on instruments. When I get my license, I will only be allowed to fly in VFR (visual flight rules) conditions - meaning, basically, no clouds for me. Flying in clouds means you learn to fly without being able to look outside, meaning you can only use your instruments.

Getting an IFR rating is a big undertaking in itself, just as big as getting to a private pilot's lesson in the first place. The purpose of the instrument work I did today was to give me some tools if I do happen to fly into IFR conditions. The basic advice in that case is to make a 180' turn and go back the way you came.

To simulate what it would be like if you couldn't see outside the aircraft, you can use _foggles_ over you eyes. Foggles let you see the instrument panel without seeing outside the airplane. Steve took the aircraft, I put on the foggles, and then Steve turned control back over to me.

The first challenge is just trying to fly straight and level without losing or gaining altitude. The idea is to scan each of the primary flight instruments for no more than a second or so, see if there's anything you need to do, and then move your eyes to the next instrument. If you do need to do something, you want to use the advice Ellie Arroway's dad give her in the movie *Contact*: small moves. Make a small correction and continue your scan.

At first I was just watching vertical speed indicator and the heading - am I going up or down or wandering off course - but then I realized I needed to watch the artificial horizon as well. The artificial horizon tells you two things: are your wings level and are you climbing or descending. My wings had already started to bank.

Then Steve had me do some turns. Steve's told me not to focus on the heading indicator, because once you start a turn, you're going to be turning for a while. I did pretty well with those until Steve intentionally distracted me; we'd been out long enough that we needed to get a new ATIS (weather) report from PDK, so he asked me to change the radio back to the PDK ATIS frequency. Apparently my flying went all to hell while I tried to do that.

All in all, though, Steve says I did a pretty good job on both my turns and my instrument work. In the case of the instrument work, I think doing OK means I didn't end up a dive or going in the opposite direction.

As we were approaching PDK, we had incident. Peachtree Tower advised us there there was traffic "at our 12 o'clock 1 mile away". When ATC tells you something like that, what they want to hear is that you've spotted the traffic, because then it's your job to avoid them. We looked, and spotted an aircraft at our one o'clock cutting right across our path at about our altitude. It looked relatively close to me - Steve said afterwards it was perhaps 1/2 mile away. We were doing perhaps 80 knots or less at the time - that's about 135 feet per second. At that speed it would have taken us 20 seconds to cover that distance, and the other aircraft was cutting across our path going faster than that. So not an imminent danger, but *much* closer than we normally get. I think it gave the controller a bit of a scare, though. In Steve's opinion, the tower was to blame for the closeness: they should have told one of us to do something.

Steve had already decided that because there the winds were too gusty for me to fly any approaches, so took the aircraft and landed.

One more weird note about this lesson. I got in an email Monday morning that saying that the next pilot to fly N73924 had found the master switch was on. Turning on the master switch is a little like turning your car ignition to accessory: when the master switch is on, the light on the airside work and some of gyroscopes inside several the instruments spin up. The gyroscopes have a distinct whine that is hard to miss - so it's unlikely you'll just forget it.

One of the things Steve likes to do is leave the beacon light at the top of the tail switched on so that if you leave the aircraft with the master switch on, you'll see the beacon light blinking.

Neither Steve nor I can think of how this might have happened. He has no memory of the master switch being on, and he says as he walked away from the aircraft, he turned back to make sure the beacon light wasn't on.

The lock on the door to 73924 doesn't work, so it's possible that someone could have opened it up after we left - but to do so, they would have had to take the cover off, because we put that on when we were done flying the aircraft.

Anyway, it's a mystery. Occam's razor suggests we just left it on and didn't notice it. I'll be more diligent in the future.

April 20, 2019

Lesson #12: Saturday April 13. Cessna N73924.

I haven't been spending enough time doing study on the ground between lessons, but this week I spent a good 3 hours or so completing my flight school's pre-solo test.

It's an open-book/open-internet kind of test. The point is to get you to be aware of of the things you'll need to know when you start taking the airplane up by yourself. And though it's open book, all answers needed to be backed up with a source: "on the internet" is not sufficient.

A few sample questions:

What distance from your "home" airport can you fly without a cross-country endorsement?

This refers to how far I can fly on my student's pilot license when I go up by myself. The answer: 25 nautical miles. From PDK, that's as far north as the southern half of Lake Lanier. You don't really want to go towards the South and West too much--that's Hartsfield. The "cross-country" part refers to the fact that I will need to do a cross-country flight of at least 150nm total where I do three full-stop landings, which means a flight with multiple segments. One of those segments will need be at least 50nm between takeoff and landing. I'm allowed to do that training, but I will need a specific "endorsement," meaning my instructor will have to sign off in my logbook approving the specific cross country I'm doing. Then and only then am I allowed to fly more than 25nm away from my home airport.

Source: Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) § 61.93.

When are you permitted to deviate from an ATC instruction or an operating rule of the Federal Aviation Regulations (14 CFR Part 91)?

It's legal for the pilot-in-command to do /anything/ in the name of safety, including break any other rules in the Federal Aviation Regulations. "(b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency." Of course, you may be called upon to explain to the FAA just exactly why you needed to violate the rules, and you can still get in trouble if it was your actions that got you into that emergency. Source: FAR § 91.3

What is the altitude of the Atlanta Class B airspace in relation to KPDK?

The notion of airspace is an entire topic itself. But put simply, Class B airspace is what surrounds the busiest airports in this country. Class B airspace extends out 30 miles from Hartsfield, and PDK is within that 30 miles. Inside class B airspace, you must be in contact with air traffic control at all times to be kept away from all the traffic going to and from the airport. But since we're talking about the sky, that concept of airspace encompasses a vertical dimension as well. If you're high up--over 12,500'--you're not going to interfere with traffic around the airport, so if you're about that height, you're not inside ATL's Class B. If you're low and close to the airport, there could be lots of traffic, and obviously you're inside the class B. But if you're where PDK is--about 16nm miles from ATL--you have to get up to 7000' before you're in the class B airspace, so it's not much of a worry. If you're within 4nm of PDK, you're in PDK's Class D airspace, which goes from the ground to 3,600'. So if you're right over the top of PDK, if you're below 3,600 you're in the PDK Class D, and if you're above 7,000 but below 12,500 you're in ATL's Class B. (I'm not entirely sure what you're in if you're between 3,600 and 7,000 feet. I think that's Class E airspace.) Source: Atlanta Area VFR sectional chart.

Enough questions: let's get back to flying. Today was similar to lesson #11: more work around PDK practicing approaches and flying over the runway.

We were using the south-facing runway 21R, which meant we had a "right pattern"--you keep turning right to stay in the pattern. There was a modest crosswind blowing from the east, so L to R across the runway. That crosswind pushes the aircraft off the centerline of the runway, so to counteract that when you're coming down to the runway you need to do a slip: turn the yoke slightly to put the wing into the wind, and push the opposite rudder pedal to keep the airplane from actually turning. When done properly, the aircraft should fly straight down the runway. At the end of the runway, put the power back to full. Once you're back up to 700', you make a right turn.

But because there was a crosswind from the left, as I'm turning right the wind is pushing the airplane, and by the time I made another right turn to fly my downwind leg (parallel to the runway), I'm further away from the airport than I wanted. You're supposed to stay within a certain distance of the airport as you fly in the pattern. It's not an exact distance, but you can tell when you're too far out. In the 4-5 times we went around the airport, I kept trying to make tighter turns to stay close to the airport, but every time I ended up a little too far out. That's not terrible; it just meant I had to work harder to get back to the runway.

With every lesson, Steve is providing less and less guidance. At one point I asked "Am I too high?" and he replied "You're the pilot. You tell me." It's my job to figure out if we're too high or low and take appropriate measures.

But back to the test: Steve only had one thing he thought I got wrong--how many quarts of oil does the 172 hold--Steve said 6, and that's really right--but I found a place in the 172 POH (Pilot Operating Handbook) that said it had a 7 quart maximum capacity, but with 6 quarts usable. So I said 7, and I was able to point in the book where it said that, so ok. Steve had no other comments, so I guess I passed.

So I have my FAA-issued student pilot's license, and I've passed my pre-solo test. That leaves three things I need before I can solo:

  • My medical certificate, which the FAA is /still/ reviewing. I went to an aviation medical examiner in early November, and I've been stuck in the bureaucracy since. The hell of it is that once I signed off, the approval will probably only be good until November. I asked Steve if I was going to have to start working on my renewal in August (or earlier!) and he said "Yes." Everyone who gets a pilot's license has to deal with this kind of hassle.

  • Renter's insurance for the aircraft. I need to carry $5,000 coverage; the school's insurance covers the rest. There's no point paying for this until I'm ready to solo, though.

  • Most importantly, my instructor has to believe I'm not at any risk of hurting the airplane or myself. I'm not there yet; landing consistently is a necessary precursor.

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