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 compesate, 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 atitude, 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 PULL...you 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.

April 18, 2019

Lesson #11: Sun Apr 7 2019

Cessna 172 N73924 Daisy.

I've managed to keep up flying every weekend since I moved, and it's helping. I'm doing better, and I can tell that every time I fly.

Still, it's slow progress. The main thing that's improving is my confidence-at least in some areas. I'm no longer nervous when it comes to starting the engine and getting rolling. (Part of that is my new-found confidence in taxiing, which not that long ago was a serious problem for me.) Take-offs are also somewhat easier, despite the fact that I've practiced them much less than landings.

The most recent lessons have basically been the same: staying in the pattern at PDK, going around and around practicing approaches. I was going to say practicing landings, but we haven't got down the ground yet. Before we get to the ground, I have to be able to hold the aircraft straight down the runway in the presence of a crosswind.

After doing some deliberate ground practice in lesson 9, my taxiing is going much better. Steve was planning to have me do some more ground work at the end of this lesson, but my taxiing was good enough that we were able to skip the extra practice. I'm still moving slowly on the ground, but Steve made a point of saying I should taxi only as fast as I feel comfortable. If you need to go slow, go slow, because going slow gives you time to recover from any issues. Don't worry about anyone behind you.

My main problem this lesson was that I couldn't hear Steve in my headset when there was radio traffic. And there's always radio traffic when you're near the second busiest airport in Georgia. The result was that as we were getting down close to the runway, I could hear the tower fine, but not my instructor. That's worrisome.

One thing you learn about rental aircraft is that people fiddle with the settings. Someone had messed with the squelch settings on the passenger side, meaning Steve was hearing a persistent static. Once we landed we figured out that the volume from the passenger headset to me was turned way down. I'll know better in the future.

I'm still working on coordinating my turns, that is, pressing my feet down on the rudder pedals an appropriate amount as I turn the control yoke left and right. "An appropriate amount" is a vague phrase, and yet what needs to be done is precise in that you can feel when you've got it wrong. Remember learning to drive and how you had to feel your way through everything? Yeah, like that, but 1,000 feet in the air.

The basic idea is that you're going to be at 1,000 feet AGL (above ground level) when you're in your downwind leg going the opposite direction of the runway. Just as you pass the end of the runway out your window, you want to reduce speed and start losing altitude so that you eventually reach the runway. And you want to do this smoothly.

Actually getting yourself lined up with the runway is pretty doable - that's the left/right dimension as you approach. That's reasonably easy to see what you need to do.

You have two things you typically adjust to make sure you're on track for the runway. The first is your speed.

Steve likes to keep the speed at 70kts on final approach. He doesn't like to go down to 60-65kts until you're over the numbers that mark the end of the runway. The lower limit is the stall speed, which for the Cessna 172N is around 49kts. If you go slower than that, the airplane won't have enough lift to keep you in the air. But by the same token, you don't want to land fast. If you're fast, the plane will take longer to stop. That's not a huge deal on a long runway like PDK, but there will be times when you have to do a "short field landing". The second is more subtle: if the plane stops flying at stall speed, down at 49kts, then if you're faster that, the plane is still flying. That is, you'll put it down on the runway, but the plane is essentially weightless: it can bounce back up again. You can end up bouncing down the runway, and at some point, your propeller can end up hitting the runway and costing a lot of money.

So you use your pitch to control your speed. Going too fast? Pull back on the yoke to raise the nose a little. Too slow? Push forward a little.

Next, you use the throttle to control whether you go up or down. Generally on approach you're going to have the power "pulled back" -- the engine running at a slower speed - perhaps 1500-1700 RPM. If you look like you're not going to make it to the runway, push in the throttle a little and add some power. Cut the power a little more if you're too high or going to overshoot the runway.

And of course at any point you have the option to "go around" - push in the throttle to full power, bring the flaps back up.

And that was it for the flying. After we landed, we did an hour of ground instruction, going over everything again. Steve also handed me the "pre-solo written test," which fortunately is entirely open book. "Work on that this week, and we'll go over anything you got wrong next week."

April 8, 2019

Lesson # 10: Sat Mar 30 2019

Cessna 172 N73924 Daisy.

Back in lesson 6 my instructor told me that though I was doing ok in the air, but I was doing terrible on the ground, and I could not disagree. I just could not seem to get the hang of getting the airplane to turn the way I wanted while taxiing.

So today instead of calling ground to get a clearance to a runway, we told them we were headed for the northwest ramp. I added "for taxiing practice," but Steve said they didn't need that information: the ramp areas are outside of the controlled space on the airport, so by going up there and getting off the taxiways, we could do whatever we wanted. The NW ramp was big enough for us to taxi up and down and turn around.

And so over to the NW ramp we went. Among other things, I learned that the 172 turns much better with the judicious use of the brakes. If you want to make a tight left turn, you have to press down hard on the left rudder, but if you also lightly press your toe against the top of the left rudder, that brakes just the left wheel, and the airplane turns much more quickly.

Taxiing in the 172 is tiring work. I'm on the shorter side, and even with my seat scooted all the way forward it's a bit of stretch to push those rudder pedals all the way down. After 10-15 minutes of turning, stopping, and staying on track, we called for a clearance to runway 3R. More taxiing to get there. At the end Steve pronounced himself much happier with my ground work.

After takeoff we headed up north to do some coordinated turns: going left and then right and the left again so I could practice using my aileron and rudder together. After that, we headed back to PDK to do a couple of approaches in the pattern.

As we were coming back to PDK from the North, I noticed that it looked kind of .. hazy? Smoky? But shortly we realized just exactly what we were seeing: clouds of pollen; pollen in every direction. It was an astonishing sight. Steve took the first approach to show me what he wanted me to work on, and since he had the controls, I took the opportunity to snap a couple of pictures of the pollen, but what I managed to grab was not as impressive as what I saw as I was flying towards the field.

Before we went up, the winds were calm. But the winds built up after we took off, and when we got back to PDK the air was turbulent. Despite my practice with coordinating turns, I had trouble again keeping my turns coordinated as we went around the pattern. After we landed, Steve's advice was to try to ignore the turbulence: it pushes you around, but on balance the net effect is not much change. If you concentrate on making your turns as you would when the winds are calm, you'll do better.

The field was busy, and that interfered with my practice. I'm trying to get used to going around and doing the landing the same way every time, but there were lots of other planes trying to get in and out of PDK, so a couple of times we were asked to "extend our upwind" or "extend our downwind". That basically means that there's other traffic that the tower is trying to fit in, and they need us to stay out of the way. That's the tower's job, and they're keeping us safe, but it makes it hard for me to get that standard approach nailed down in my head.

On our last approach I was planning to try to take it all the way down to a landing, but when we got close to the runway, suddenly the Cessna heeled over into a 20' bank. Steve yelped "My airplane!" and got us down onto the ground. It happened so fast I wasn't even clear on what happened, but afterwards Steve said one of those 20kt gusts had pushed the wing over. Without quick action, we could have been in trouble. Steve said if I'd been in the airplane alone, the right action would have been to go to full power and go around. (I'm in no way ready for that yet.)

It was a challenging lesson; I was happy to get back on the ground. But I had one last success: I parked the plane at the ramp next to the other Skybound planes. It's the equivalent of parking a car in a parking space, and it was the first time I managed to do that. Huzzah!

A postscript: I like flying on Saturday mornings because afterwards I can go up to the Downwind restaurant at PDK and mentally come down from the flight over lunch. While I was there,my friend Jonathan texted me that his spouse and their 3 year old son were at PDK. I turned and found them waiting for a table, and I went over to chat for a few minutes. (Unfortunately, the 3 year old is just too young to be at all impressed that this guy standing here flies airplanes.)

On my way back to my table, I got another text: "Hey. Are you at PDK's Downwind Cafe? If you're not it's your twin." It was Joey, a guy I'd worked with ages ago at CNN. He was there with his entire family. After lunch they went down to the observation area to watch the planes, and I brought out my binoculars and my radio so we could listen to the ground and tower frequencies. Joey and his family had lots of questions, and I was delighted to be able to share my new-found knowledge. Aviation is full of intricate systems, and learning how everything works is one of my primary motivations for learning to fly. I've always been fascinated by everything to do with airplanes, and even though I'm still learning, I'm now part of that community. I love it!

March 23, 2019

Lesson 9: Sat Mar 23

Lesson 9: Sat March 9, 2019. Cessna 172 N73924 Daisy.

It's been 6 weeks since I've been in a plane. I had two lessons cancelled for bad weather in that time, and after that I was just too busy with moving.

But we moved in on March 15th, and though the house is still a maze of boxes, it's time to get back in the air and go back to flying every week. Flying every other week was just not enough to keep me progressing the way I'd like.

In our old apartment at N. Shallowford off 285, we were frequently under the PDK flight path. I'd frequently hear an airplane over the freeway noise, call out "Airplane!" and pull out FlightRadar24 to see if I could identify it. Fortunately, in our new house I can still hear airplanes coming in and out of PDK on occasion. (I've also heard commercial flights coming east and then north out of Hartsfield; those planes are at 10,000 feet when they get over our place, but you can hear them when the conditions are right.)

Since I last flew, however, I do have one piece of official evidence of my flying status: I got my student's pilot's license from the FAA. I don't actually need it until I solo, but it's a necessary step. I'm still waiting on my medical certificate. The FAA needed current blood work, and though it was current when I submitted it, I'm gonna blame the government shutdown for delaying it to the point where they wanted a more current test. Thanks, Trump.

Before I actually solo, I need three things: the medical certificate, proof of aircraft renter's insurance (I have to be able to cover the $5,000 deductible on the flight school's aircraft insurance), and I have to pass a pre-solo test given by my instructor. And, of course, I actually have to be competent to get the airplane into the air and back onto the ground reliably without my flight instructor's help. I'm not there yet, but today I stepped back into that process in earnest.

It's surprising how much you forget in six weeks of not flying and not studying. I had to be reminded where to check the fuel. I had to carefully rehearse calling up ground for my clearance. I had to fight with my old nemesis: taxiing. And my takeoff was pretty squirrely after 6 weeks away.

As for the flying, this was basically a mirror of lesson 8 back on 2/9: pattern work at PDK on 3L. Take off. Turn left at 700 feet. Level off at 1,000 feet, turn on the downwind leg. At some point, the tower calls: "Cessna 73924, cleared for the option." (We have options: fly low and slow over the runway like we've doing, do a touch and go, or make a full-stop landing.) Abeam the numbers (lined up with the end of the runway), turn on the carb heat, reduce the power and start descending. Bring the speed down "into the white" (basically below 90 knots) and bring in 10' of flaps. (The flaps increase the lift and let the plane fly slower.) When you can see the runway at 45' over your left shoulder, make a 90' left turn onto your base leg. Bring in the second notch of flaps. My instructor is controlling the throttle at this point so I can focus on everything else. Keep the speed around 70kts; control that with your pitch. Too slow: push forward slight on the yoke to push the nose down and increase the speed. Do the opposite to slow down. There's a little wind from the left, so we use left aileron (rolling into the wind slightly) and right rudder to keep us centered over the runway. Down the runway, down the runway ... now we've run out of runway, so time to go around. Full power: push the throttle all the way forward. Push the carb heat back off. Flying level, bring your speed up around to 79 kts, then raise the nose and climb out at about 76kts. Bring up the flaps a notch at a time: if you bring the flaps up all at once, you lose lift and settle back down onto the runway. And that's no good because all the runway is behind us.

I'm not sure how many times we went around. Steve took two of the passes over the runway to demonstrate what I should be doing.

My initial passes were rough. I had trouble last lesson with uncoordinated turns int the pattern, which means I was not using the rudder properly; this time I worked to use make better use of the rudder. Each time around I did a little better. I'm also taking more of the steps from Steve: I did responded to most of the calls back to the tower, and this lesson I put the carb heat in, which I didn't do last time. Steve is still handling the throttle down near the runway, but that's understandable - down that low, the main thing you need to get you out of trouble is power, and I'm still quite capable of getting us in trouble.

The last time around as we were going to land, I expected Steve to call "my airplane", but he didn't, so I landed. Sort of landed. It was not quite straight, and Steve took control immediately after we touched down, but it was my first time taking the airplane all the way down to the ground. Mentally I'm not counting it as my first landing; I need to be able to get it all the way down the runway safely before I'll count it. But it's progress!

Afterwards we sat in the Skybound office and talked about the flight. We discussed crosswind landings, takeoffs, and taxiing. While taking with Steve, I had an insight about taxiing the Cessna. Unlike a car, the there is no direct linkage between the flight controls and the nose wheel. The rudder pedals are connected to springs, and when you push on one of the pedals, it pulls the spring which pulls the wheel in that direction. Today's insight - Steve always pushes the pedal to the floor when he wants to make a turn, and then backs off as necessary. I've been treating the pedals like I would a steering wheel: little turn, little push - and little result. I'll give that a shot next time.

I'm at 10.2 hours now, but I've got three more lessons in the nexts three weeks already booked, so weather permitting, I should be racking up the hours. Onwards and upwards!

February 10, 2019

Lesson 8: Sat Feb 9, 2019

Atlanta was invaded by the Super Bowl in early February. The ground invasion was more visible, but the effects extended to the Atlanta airspace as well. The FAA banned all flight training within 30+ miles of Atlanta from Tuesday Jan 29 until the following Tuesday Feb 5. I went out to PDK on that first Tuesday, and the flight ramp where Skybound parks it’s airplanes was completely empty. By the end of the week PDK had shutdown 2 of the 3 runways; traffic was only coming in and out on 3L/21R. The other two runways were full of expensive business jets. My instructor Steve noted there was probably a billion dollars worth of aircraft parked out there. It’s plausible: even that early there were 5 Gulfstream 550s on one of the runways. Google says those go for over 50 million. Oddly, there was less to see for visitors: fewer takeoffs and landings than normal. But this weekend PDK was back to business as usual.

Today we didn’t even leave PDK. It’s a day of “closed pattern work” -- taking off via 3L, at 700’ AGL turn left into the crosswind leg, then into the base leg, then turn final and back down to the field. Once again we’re flying “low and slow” -- not landing, but down close to the runway, just like we did in lesson 5 and lesson 6.

I’m back in 73924. The last time I was in 924 I could not keep it under control on the ground. I did better in the newer plane in lesson 7, so I was curious to see how I would do this time in the older plane. I did pretty well taxiing from the Skybound ramp, right turn on taxiway Alpha, then almost immediately a slight right turn on taxiway Bravo. But there were still some hiccups where Steve had to take over.

We’re in the run-up area just off 3L where we do final checks before takeoff. Peachtree ground clears us to taxi the short distance to 3L. I switch the radio over to the tower frequency and gingerly move out of the run-up area. Don’t get too close to that jet which is taxiing across 3L to take off on 3R. The jet throttles up as it is cleared onto 3R, and our control yoke moves back towards me on it’s own from the force of the jet’s blast.

We’re holding short of 3L waiting for inbound traffic to land. There it is ... it comes by us, but we’re still waiting. I saw it looked like it was going around, but now I can’t see it ...? Just wait.

“Cessna 73934, cleared for takeoff on 3 left.” Oh crap: showtime!

Left hand on the yoke, right hand on the throttle. Turn left onto the runway. I’m a little too far to the right, so line it up with the rudder pedals -- now we’re centered -- push the throttle in full. The torque of the propeller is trying to push us to the left of the runway, so push in on the right rudder pedal. We’re moving faster, faster ... 60 knots comes quick. Pull back on the yoke ... goodness, that’s a squirrelly takeoff, but we’re up. Don’t worry about how much to pitch up: try to make 79 knots. Too slow? Put the nose down a little. Too fast? Pull the nose up. We’re staying in the pattern to practice, so at 700’ above the ground, we start a 90’ left turn on our crosswind leg.

Today I’m in somewhat better overall control of the airplane in the air, but I still have problems. “You’re driving the airplane, not flying,” says Steve, meaning I forget to use the rudder pedals when I turn the yoke. If you don’t use the rudder pedals, your turns are uncoordinated, mushy. The airplane will turn, but it’s poor airmanship. We are pilots and can do better. (I’m not alone; it’s a very common problem among student pilots.)

Back when were initially practicing bigger slower turns, it was easier to remember to use the rudder: turn the yoke left, and push the left rudder pedal at the same time. When you’re banked into the turn sufficiently, bring the controls back to neutral until it’s time to move the yoke and rudder in the opposite direction. But in the pattern I’m having to make many small corrections to our direction. I’m using the yoke, but just about every time I’m forgetting the rudder. Or perhaps I’m even moving the rudder in the wrong direction? I’m not sure. We’ve been practicing slips down over the runway, and in a slip you move the rudder the opposite direction to the ailerons. I think that’s been messing with my memory of how to do a coordinated turn.

We’re in the downwind leg with the airport off to our left. We’ve reached our pattern altitude of 2,000’, 1,000 field above the field, so we bring the throttle back from 100%. Watch for the traffic in front of us -- there it is. It’s another Cessna. Peachtree tower tells us we’re #2 to land.

Normally if there’s no traffic you’re supposed to continue in your downwind leg until you can look back and see the end of the runway at a 45’ angle over your shoulder. But most of the time at PDK you’re at the mercy of the airplane ahead of you. You don’t want to overtake them.

We’re now abeam the end of the runway. Throttle back to 1700 RPM, get the speed down to 90kts, and move the lever to bring in 10’ of flaps. Watch it, the plane wants to balloon up when the flaps come in. Steve says the first 10’ of flaps add the most lift; the remaining increments (20‘, 30’) mostly add drag to bring the airplane down faster.

Time to turn base - 90’ left again until you’re flying perpendicular to the end of the runway. Throttle back to 1500 and bring in 20’ of flaps. Steve is handling the throttle for me at this point so I can concentrate on my approach. He turns on the carburetor heat which drops the power a little. Carb heat prevents carburetor icing.

There’s a building south of PDK that looks like a black triangle. Steve tells me it’s a useful landmark to tell me when I should turn final and head for the runway. (I look it up later; it’s the GA Dept of Revenue building just off Century Blvd, 1.6 miles from the end of the runway.) I turn. Steve brings the throttle down more and puts in 30’ of flaps. We’re now doing about 60 knots, right were we should be.

We’re not that high at this point; maybe 300’ AGL and coming down. I’m pointed a little to the right of the runway heading and need to turn left a little more to line up properly with the runway.

We don’t want to touch down; once again we’re just practicing slips over the runway. Right aileron to slide right a little, lots of left rudder to hold the plane straight. Now a left slip - left aileron, right rudder.

All too soon it’s time to go up and around again. Throttle full forward, carb heat off, bring flaps back up in stages. Establish best rate of climb at 79 knots.

I have no idea exactly how many circuits we made around the pattern, but I’m guessing about 10 minutes per time, so probably 6 times around the pattern before we land. Today we’re actually back 45 minutes before the next flight, so Steve and I have some time to talk about what I didn’t do right. It’s clear I’m suffering from flying only every two weeks. Every thing I’ve read recommends you fly more frequently, and now I really start to see why: every lesson I have to relearn something of what I did before. But until we move into the new house in March, I want to keep my cash flow under control.

I’m now at 9.1 hours. I’m not really satisfied with my progress; before every lesson I’m pretty nervous, and I’m not fully in control of any aspect of my flying. Before Steve can sign me off to solo, he has to be confident that I’m safe to take the airplane out by myself, communicate on the radio while flying the plane, and get myself back safely. I’m not close to that goal.

On the other hand, not counting the first demo flight, I’ve had 7 lessons over 2 months. On Thanksgiving Day the world over the fence at PDK was foreign; now it’s becoming familiar. Flying is challenging, and I’m not used to anything being this difficult. Less than three months later, I’m on the other side of the fence and gaining altitude.

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