Wednesday, August 31, 2011

More Consistent Landings

This morning was beautiful with clear skies and nearly calm winds. I did five landings, the first four of which were good landings (according to Ed), though of course there were things that could have been a little better on each one. A couple of times I got down to 60 mph before I was over the runway. We like to have 65-70 coming over the trees because when the Citabria gets down to 60, you start to sink faster and if there's some wind shear, you are closer to a stall than you would like to be at 60 or 80 feet up. I used a slip on a couple of final approaches where I felt I was high and/or fast, noticing this myself before Ed said anything (except on the first landing where he said "we're pretty high" right after I turned final).

The fifth landing was good right down to the runway, but I didn't hold it off quite long enough and was late adding power, so it was a pretty hard landing with a slight bounce, but OK.

I've made a lot of progress in the last few flights with Ed. Takeoffs are good, though we refined those a bit this morning. When I work the tail up on the takeoff roll, I've been holding a level flight attitude. It's better to keep it slightly nose up (slightly tail down, video here) so when you reach flying speed (about 60 mph), it practically flies itself off without a distinct "rotate" back-stick motion (maybe slight back pressure). Less chance to get slow this way. Patterns are good, and I'm doing better holding the best climb sight picture (around 75 mph) and keeping the ball centered. I'm noticing problems sooner - keeping up with the airplane if not "ahead of the airplane" as Ed always urges me to always stay. All of this contributes to better landings - consistency avoids problems, and when problems occur, fixing them sooner (like line-up with the runway center line) means you can focus more on the landing itself.

One of my biggest problems still seems to be getting the stick ALL the way back as I touch down. I've got to get that under control so Ed never has to mention it again. 

Here's a video of Ed landing the Citabria this morning (HD, not hat cam VGA). Doesn't LOOK that hard, does it?

0.9 hours dual in Citabria (8/31/11, 3B3)

Monday, August 29, 2011

See How It Flies

See How It Flies is an excellent on-line book by John Denker. The subtitle is “a new spin on the perceptions, procedures, and principles of flight,” and I think it is quite unique in the way that it integrates practical flying techniques with the physics of flight. Denker is both a physicist and a flight instructor, so I guess such integration makes a certain amount of sense. It’s really a book on how to fly airplanes, with a lot of background material on why things work the way they do. It’s been around since 1996, and since it’s an on-line book (and free, by the way), Denker has updated it over the years based on reader feedback. Copyright date indicates 1996-2008.
Denker seems to be the kind of guy who knows a lot about everything. He wanted simulated wind tunnel graphics for the book, so he wrote a wind tunnel simulator program. He’s done extensive flight instruction, so he knows the kinds of questions and confusions inexperienced pilots are apt to have (though I'm sure most experienced pilots could also learn a lot from this book). He’s a physicist, so he’s not afraid to put a few mathematical expressions in his book (though not a lot – there are many more diagrams and charts than equations). But he’s also a pilot, so he’s not afraid to provide simple, intuitive rules of thumb when they can help (some of them quite literally rules of thumb, like “a thumb at arm’s length subtends 4 degrees,” which is a nice glide slope angle, see figure).
If you want to print the book or have it available off-line, it’s a bit tricky because it is spread across many separate web pages. Saving it correctly with all its graphics and links intact is not easy (at least for me). I was able to find a couple of PDF links to the complete book, but none of the most recent version (this one is from 2001).

Friday, August 26, 2011

Ups and Downs on Landings

Still staying in the pattern at Sterling, trying to get my tail wheel landings under better control. On Tuesday Ed suggested I land on the paved runway rather than the grass, which I tend to prefer because the line-up isn’t quite so critical on the wide grass runway, giving me a chance to concentrate on other things (like getting the stick all the way back – at just the right time, of course). At first the runway seemed just a bit narrow (though it's 40 feet wide), and I added “poor line-up” to my usual woes (high and fast on final). Various combinations of these issues resulted in 3 go-arounds before I made a successful landing. And that one wasn’t the greatest. So much for Tuesday.

I reviewed my hat cam video and realized that my turn to base is not very consistent – so I usually end up high, or very rarely low, on final approach. I resolved to really try to make this better on the next flight, which was Friday morning. I told Ed about my theories and asked if he would fly one pattern as a demo, which he did (for some reason seeing a demo always helps me to do better). I don’t like to use ground landmarks in the pattern (since these only work for one runway), but Ed mentioned that he starts his turn just after a small pond that I had also noticed when flying runway 34. Fair enough, and that landmark helped me to be more consistent. I did four pretty decent landings, one go-around, and one bouncer (saved with power), unfortunately on the last one. I did slips without prompting on two of the landings (pilot in command!), which is good. Still seeking the elusive goal of "consistency," but I still felt pretty good about this session. I posted one hat cam landing video on Flickr.
Typical pattern for 34 at Sterling
Monday morning at 8 am is doubtful due to possible after-effects of Hurricane Irene (no damage at my house, and I hope the airport and Ed’s planes are OK). But I have a Wednesday morning flight booked, and weather is supposed to be good all week.

0.8 hours dual Citabria (3B3, 8/23/11)
1.2 hours dual Citabria (3B3, 8/26/11)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Online Flight Simulators!?!

This is something really cool that I will have to return to when I have some spare time and brain cells. is a Florida based company whose mission is "To provide quality online aviation education products accessible to anyone with Internet access." They have a number of online aviation calculators, but more impressively, a set of Flash-based online flight simulators to support instrument flight training. There are no out-the-window visuals here, just the instruments and simple horizontal and vertical navigation views (a simple map and a side view of your path in altitude). There is simplified aircraft control from the keyboard (pitch, bank, and airspeed), and many controls for the instruments, panel layout, etc. Did I mention that the online versions are all free? Yes, free!

What this has showed me so far is that I have forgotten pretty much everything about VOR navigation! I used to know that stuff pretty well, but it's been years since I've used it. I'm sure this will be a useful and fun tool for reviewing VOR and other aspects of basic instrument flight and navigation that I hope to have use for in  coming months and years. Meanwhile I'm still going in circles trying to get my landings up to par so I can do some of this other stuff! Patience, Grasshopper, patience!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Crabby Crosswind Blues

Although conditions were pretty good at Sterling this morning, the weather at Spencer was bad and Ed couldn't fly out in time for our 8 am flight. So we rescheduled for 1 pm. When I got to the airport, a storm was on the way, winds were a bit gusty and variable, and Ed said "it's not going to be an easy day up there." He was right. We also had the less familiar (for me) runway 16 in use rather than the typical 34. Plus there were a few gliders around, so the gliders and the Piper Pawnee tow plane would be in the pattern with me. None of this should be a big deal, but I especially wasn't ready for the crosswind aspect, and I was a bit apprehensive. In retrospect I should have asked Ed to review and brief me on the situation, talk through what we would be seeing, and maybe even fly the first pattern and landing as a demo. I hadn't seen gusty crosswinds in a long time (maybe 2004!), but the weather was coming in, and if we waited, we wouldn't have much time to fly. So we flew.

I tried to use proper stick technique when taxiing out (no taxiway for 16 so you have to back taxi on the runway), stick forward when taxiing with a tailwind, plus some left or right stick into the wind as needed. Crosswind seemed to mostly be coming from the right on the approaches (maybe from due south) but the runway windsocks were variable and mostly down the runway. Takeoffs were mostly normal and mostly OK, though I was never really quite sure what I should be doing with the stick since the crosswind wasn't steady. The correct answer is "make corrections based on what you see and feel," so on the initial climb, I established a crab to the right, but I don't think I held the runway heading too well, and I didn't consciously adjust for it again until final. I should have been thinking about this both for the timing and the angles of my turns (e.g., when you turn left "crosswind leg" with a right crosswind with respect to runway heading, you have a tailwind on that leg and need to start your turn to downwind sooner). So without proper wind correction, my patterns ended up very wide and not very square.

With a (mostly) tailwind on the downwind leg, I should have started the turn for base earlier than usual, so I ended up quite far from the runway when I turned final (which I tried three different ways on the three landings, none of them lined up too well). But I finally got established on a crabbed final approach as shown in the hat cam video frame above (75 mph, 760 feet, 300 feet AGL). Due to the gusts, I probably should have flown the final a bit faster than the normal 65-70 mph, and I probably did since I tend to be fast on final. But the gusts were still a problem (aka "wind shear") and on the first approach, the right wing dropped pretty hard, and I was not quick enough to respond ("behind the airplane") and Ed added power and made the correction.

Once we were over the trees and coming down on the grass, we should have transitioned from the crab to a slip with the right wing low, and I think I did, though the crosswind was not very strong at the surface and it seems like the wings were mostly level on all three touch-downs. On the first landing, Ed said, "that was not bad, but you are still behind the airplane, you have to be quicker with the needed corrections." On the third landing I inexplicably released the back pressure just after touchdown, something you just can't do in a tail wheel airplane. Duh! We quit after three landings.

Overall an anxious but instructive session. Although you can't execute a fixed "crosswind plan" when the winds are changing, you do need to notice the trends, see what the airplane is doing, and proactively correct for it, and at least have in mind things like "hmm, from this drift it seems we have a crosswind from the right," and with this info in mind, make appropriate corrections on the rest of the pattern. On the first pattern, I should have figured out why I was so far from the runway compared to what I usually do - wind effects! Plan for them on the next one! The novelty of runway 16 meant that I didn't have familiar horizon and ground references for my pattern, though of course you shouldn't rely on such things since every runway is different. Crosswinds are always tough and I haven't really worked on this in years, but I really do need to get back to the "pilot in command" attitude and make the airplane do what I need it to do (which means noticing when it's not!).

Ed also commented post-flight that he has seen professional pilots (that ain't me) do more than one go-around on a windy, gusty day, not even attempting the landing until they have figured out what's going on and are satisfied they can make the landing safely. At least one of my three landings should have been a go-around. Aeronautical decision making!

0.7 hours dual in Citabria (8/21/11)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Vicarious Helicopterism

Today my wife and I attended a wonderful open house at Marlboro Airport (9B1), sponsored by North Andover Flight Academy, a helicopter flight school based at Lawrence Airport, with a satellite operation at Marlboro. There was an FAA safety seminar on helicopter topics, a free barbecue, various pilots and students to talk with, and $99 helicopter intro rides. All great fun for an aviation geek like me, but this was really not about me - it was actually for my wife! Although she has never had much interest in small airplanes, our recent Grand Canyon helicopter tour awakened a previously unknown passion for rotary wing flight. Who knew?

So she took a 30 minute intro flight in a Robinson R22, and she absolutely loved it. She got to control the helicopter in straight and level flight (hovering and other more tricky maneuvers will all come in due time, but usually not on a 30 minute intro lesson). Her instructor (Anthony) was wonderful. She will definitely be taking more lessons. Since my feet and hands are still trying to master tail wheel landings this summer, I won't be doing any helo flights myself, but I will be encouraging my wife on this new adventure. I'm very proud of her!

NAFA's blog has a more complete report on the open house here. There's also an article by a Metro West Daily News reporter who took an intro flight with Anthony in the R22.

Friday, August 19, 2011

My Presidential Hat Cam

I decided to ban hand-held cameras from my tail wheel flight lessons this summer - too distracting when I need to focus on learning tricky new skills. But I was also thinking it would nice to have a hands-free way to record video of my flights so I could review them and maybe learn more quickly from my mistakes. I know there are various "action cams" available these days, but I figured they would be really expensive.

Then a couple of weeks ago Amazon had a daily deal on a tiny Kodak Zm1 VGA video camera for $30, so I ordered one, along with an 8 GB MicroSDHC memory card (4 hours of video). The Zm1 doesn't have a tripod mount, so I had to improvise with a small bolt, epoxy, a nut, and a couple of large washers. I drilled a hole in the brim of a baseball cap I rarely (never) wore (sorry Caroline), a Washington, DC souvenir with a large presidential seal on the front. Voila! The camera only weighs 2.6 ounces (maybe 4 ounces with the hardware), so it works pretty well on the brim of the hat. I have to be careful to position the hat so the camera points where I'm looking (and not mess it up when I put on my headset or move my head around the cockpit). The camera shoots upside down as mounted but I can fix that easily in the editing software.

Bottom line: based on one test flight, it works. Samples here and here (and above). The low res VGA video is not very pretty but is adequate for evaluating what went wrong with some of my recent landings. I can get enough of a look at the airspeed indicator and altimeter along with the front and occasional side views. The camera has no image stabilization, but the head motion and airplane vibrations are not a problem.

Unfortunately I saw a sample video that one of Ed's other students shot with a ContourHD mounted with a suction cup on the right door window. Really gorgeous full HD video, and the CountourHD costs less than I thought ($139). I'm sorely tempted but will try to resist and work with the hat cam for at least a few flights.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

In the pattern: Consistency and Decision Making

My last Citabria flight with Ed was on August 3, and although he came back from vacation last Saturday, the two flights we had booked earlier this week were both canceled due to weather. I was making decent progress on landings on August 3, but two weeks off usually results in some backsliding, and that was true this morning. First the good news: takeoffs and basic air work in the pattern were still OK, and I did better in lining up with the extended runway centerline on the turn from base to final, so I wasn’t as distracted by the need to zig-zag the airplane back to the correct (lateral) approach path on final.

The bad news fell into two areas, inconsistency and delayed decision making. The inconsistency comes mostly from the downwind leg to final approach. Starting altitude is generally OK (TPA 1500 feet), but my spacing from runway on downwind tends to vary and sometimes is too close, even without a crosswind to confuse matters. I really need to have the runway above the half-way point on the left wing strut or my base leg will be too short. When this happens, I end up high on final. I can correct this to some extent by extending the downwind leg by a few seconds after I’ve brought the power back to idle. This gives more time to descend (although you really don’t want to be heading away from the runway while descending – bad if the engine quits – better to fly a properly spaced downwind and not have this problem).

OK, so I turn base and then final, and usually I’m high (and sometimes fast too, but there should be time to slow down if I notice soon enough). Here’s where delayed decision making comes in. I’m still relying too much on Ed to say things like “you’re high – how about a slip.” I need to notice and act on this myself, perhaps announcing it first in case I am misjudging. But if I don’t say or do anything, Ed can only assume I don’t see the problem. That’s the first decision point. The second one is the go-around. If Ed leaves it to me to fix up the approach and I don’t, I end up fast and high, and if it’s too late for a slip, or if I blow the landing and bounce high, it’s time for a decisive go-around. I need to show him that I can judge and act on these things without his help.

This was the first flight with my new video “hat cam.” I’ll probably write a separate post about that, but I got the entire flight on video from my own perspective. I have edited out the approach/landing phase (about 2.5 minutes) for each time around the pattern, so I can review these clips to see what went right (and wrong). I won’t do that here (maybe I’ll do some in a separate post with some screen grabs if that seems generally instructive). Of the five landings, one was a bounce, saved with power (Ed’s prompting), and one was a TWO bounce monster, for which Ed initiated a full-power go-around because I was not solving the problem and we were running out of runway. One landing was pretty good and mostly me (my best set up and airspeed control), and two required long slips on final, which Ed prompted and I flew. I am doing better on getting the stick back in the final flare for landing and keeping control on the ground roll-out.

All in all not an impressive performance, and I hope to redeem myself on Sunday if the weather cooperates. I plan to "forget" that Ed is back there and make all the calls and actions myself, even if this means I do a few go-arounds. I have the basic skills to land this airplane, but I need to work on making it do what I want it to do, and that involves making some timely decisions about when to apply those basic skills. It's time to integrate everything as I once was able to do the in the C152 way back in 2001 when I passed my check ride.

1.0 hours dual in Citabria (8/18/11)

Saturday, August 06, 2011

No Fly Notes

No flying until next weekend when Ed comes back from vacation. In the meantime, here are some miscellaneous flight-related notes.

Headset - When I decided to start flying again this summer, I realized that the super-cheapo headset I bought 11 years ago needed to be replaced (it shorted out the intercom on a Cessna 172 flight I took a year or so ago). I probably should have gone straight to the classic David Clark headset that so many professionals use ($350 and up), but I decided to try something a bit cheaper that still had good reviews, the Faro G2 for around $180. So far it's working quite well, comfortable and with decent sound and noise suppression (passive, not active). One marketing gimmick is that it comes in various colors. I went with basic black.

Reading - Although I should be focusing on regulations and other flight review topics, I've been reading a "deep background" book called Understanding Flight (Second Edition) by David Anderson and Scott Eberhardt. Although I'm a pilot and a physics major and have read a lot of stuff about the theory of flight, I still enjoy reading a book like this that focuses on physical and intuitive understanding more than on equations. It does assume that you can read graphs and understand what it means for something to depend on velocity-squared or whatever. Two chapters in, and it's really a good read, maybe even better than the classic The Simple Science of Flight (book) and John Denker's great See How It Flies (web site - though Denker's work is much more of a practical how-to for pilots). I'm reading the Kindle version on my iPod Touch. It's OK, but it's one of the few cases where the small screen is annoying due to figures (which fortunately are zoomable) and side bars (text is cut off and lost if the whole side bar will not fit on a single screen - a bug in the Kindle app I think). Maybe I need a real Kindle (or an iPad?).

Helicopters & Scams - Since our wonderful sightseeing and landing adventure in the Grand Canyon in July, my wife has gotten very interested in helicopters, and she plans to take at least an introductory helicopter flight lesson soon. For preparation, I've gotten her a book and a few articles, and we also have viewed a few helicopter training videos on YouTube. Searching for further materials, I discovered the web site (not a link - I suggest you avoid this site) - not a good discovery. The web site is cheesy, but the materials and testimonials looked promising, so I spent $47 to buy a "complete private pilot course" for helicopters. I should have checked it out first, because of course it's a scam. A small package arrived from Hong Kong with two hand-burned discs. The DVD-R has the same helicopter instruction segments we found on YouTube, and the CDR has a bunch of FAA web sites and PDF documents that anyone can easily download for free. Avoid this web site!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Real Progress

I flew another 1.1 hours of pattern practice early this morning with Ed in the Citabria, and it went much better than last time (2 days ago - I really like lessons close together!). My landings are actually starting to work, and out of six landings, three were a bit ragged but OK, two were fairly good, and the last one was just "good landing" (according to Ed). Cool! Of course I'm not there yet - I'm still making some mistakes (stick all the way back!) and I need to work on consistency and on judging how the approach is going (especially when I'm too high). But I feel a lot better than Monday morning when every approach was high and/or fast and I had two go-arounds.

Mainly I followed my own advice from my previous blog post (scribbled diagram/notes above) - I pulled the power all the way to idle when abeam the numbers on downwind (rather than 1500 RPM which left me with more altitude and airspeed than I needed), and I made sure that I had 65-70 mph on final rather than 75-80 (a couple of times I got below 65 on final which gives you a lot of "sink" and requires adding some power to allow a gentle round-out on short final). I was still high on one approach and Ed recommended a slip which I did (with some coaching - I still need more practice on integrating slips smoothly into the approach).I'm also not happy with my precision in rolling out from base to final on the extended runway center line - I usually need a fair amount of correction to get lined up on final. Not sure why (no wind again this morning so this should not be that hard to judge).

Takeoffs were all good, and my directional control on the landing roll-out is getting better (at least on the grass - I will need to start doing some runway landings soon as well). Now I will have 10 days off while Ed and family head off on vacation. I'll work on some of my flight review study and pick up with Ed on August 14th.

Update: I've reviewed some of my flight notes from 2004 when I flew about 10 hours with Ed in his Piper Cub. There's quite a sense of deja vu there as far as my reluctant feet and various tail wheel and other mistakes. I've posted the note on lesson #4 (almost exactly 7 years ago!) from that series and may add more when I have time. 

1.1 hours dual in Citabria (8/3/11)

Monday, August 01, 2011

I Keep Trying

Here's a rather long and self-critical note on my recent landing practice. It's all part of the (re)learning process and I'm lucky to have an instructor who is incredibly patient and skilled at keeping us safe even when I make some pretty dumb mistakes. I know that's what CFI's do, among other things, but I'm still grateful for it. One of these days I'll remember my real camera on a morning lesson and take a decent picture of Ed landing the Citabria (camera was in my car this morning but I didn't realize it until after our flight). Wednesday maybe...

I had two sessions of pattern work with Ed in the Citabria, one at 10 am Saturday (1.1 hrs) and one this morning (1.3 hrs). Aside from continuing good luck with weather, the good news is that I’ve got takeoffs pretty well in hand. I can keep it rolling pretty straight down the runway on 3 wheels, get the tail up when I feel the stick response “stiffen” (so to speak!), keep it rolling straight on 2 wheels, pull back a bit to lift off at about 60 mph, and lower the nose a bit to avoid a possible stall while accelerating to 70-75 mph, then establish positive rate of climb. I still drift off the runway heading more than I would like on climb-out (I pick out one horizon reference point, then another, then another). I hold right rudder to keep the ball centered while I’m thinking of it, but then I check traffic or something and partly release it until I notice the ball isn't centered. But I’m aware of all this and I’m gradually getting better.

The bad news is the landings. Ed had been coaching and helping me quite a bit on landings, advising when I’m high or need to add power or whatever. But I’m a big boy with about 9 hours in this airplane. Time to step up to the plate. On these two lessons, he mostly left the approach and landing decisions up to me until I screwed something up and he either added a control input or comment or both. Ed is very good at not panicking. :)

My patterns are generally OK now (I realize this is just basic air work and shouldn’t be tough) – 75-80 mph on the climb out, turning crosswind at about 1100’ while continuing the climb to 1500’ TPA, and turning downwind (and usually making a "Sterling traffic" call there). Trying to keep my turns something like 90 degrees with good coordination. Good offset from the runway (about mid-wing-strut). Once established at 1500 feet, pitch-power-trim for straight and level at about 2300 RPM. Carb heat at mid-field downwind, throttle back to 1500 RPM when abeam the numbers and establish a glide at about 80 mph (pitch-power-trim, but I get a little fixated on this sometimes and the wings wobble a bit – that’s my lazy feet as usual). 

This is where the trouble starts. Maybe 1500 RPM is too much power on the glide, and if I start my turn to base where I THINK I should (with runway numbers about 45 degrees behind me), I end up too high and too close to the runway. So sometimes I extend the downwind a bit to give myself more room to get down. Of course getting farther from the airport than you need to be isn’t a good idea – what if the engine quits? You want to be able to glide to a safe landing. I recall doing a number of simulated engine failure landings with Mario in the C152 at ORH. I got to be OK on judging those (in 2000-2001!). You don’t fly an extended downwind or a squared-off turn to base in that case!  Today I was so high on two approaches that I had to go around.
Hypothesis 1: Try bringing it down to idle or a bit higher (but less than 1500 RPM) to get that descent going on the end of downwind and turn to base.
OK, now I’m on base, and my next trouble is judging the turn to final in order to be lined up with the runway. Ed says it’s OK to adjust whatever you need, but obviously it’s better to roll out lined up with the center line and not be banking and swerving on final. Barely any wind today so it’s just my mind (and hands and feet). Thinking about this distracts me just a bit, and there goes the airspeed on final to 80 or even 85 or 90 mph! It’s supposed to be 65-70 mph on final, but I’m practically diving for the runway! OK, I’m fast, but don’t try to YANK it back to 70 mph, use the nose position to judge it and not chase the airspeed needle, and work it back to 65-70.
Hypothesis 2: Try REALLY hard to have 70 mph before I get anywhere near the runway. Whatever Ed says, it’s easier to fix it earlier than later.
Of course if you’re too fast and/or too high on short final (and you have no flaps), you can do a slip. I know how to do that, but I still have to think about this simple cross-control maneuver (let’s see, balance left stick and right rudder to keep the ground track along the runway). Usually I don’t (think about it) so I sometimes arrive low over the runway at 80 mph – too much energy to get rid of easily! Level off, keep the stick coming back but not ALL the way back until we are just a foot or so above the runway and ready to stop flying and stall right on the runway.

Now here’s where I sometimes seem really clueless, right at touchdown (or “bounce-down” in some cases). I know I have power I can use to soften the landing if I’m going to hit too hard, but I don’t really know how to judge the timing for that. I also know that the stick has to come all the way back on touchdown, except what if I’m too fast? With a nose-high attitude and 80 mph, I’m ready to fly again, right? Before Wednesday morning, I need to review "Compleat Taildragger and/or "Stick & Rudder" on handling bounced landings. I know it's not literally a bounce - you are flying and have to land again! Here's a pretty good article on landing a Citabria.

In a couple of cases I seemed to push forward on the stick right at touchdown - Ed is like, what was that??? Is this a nose wheel habit? Maybe, but I haven’t flown a nose wheel airplane since maybe 2003! In another case I seemed to let the stick flop around right at touchdown. BAD MOVE! The airplane is not a horse who knows his way back to the barn. You have to exert positive control all the way through the landing roll (and taxi back for that matter).

Ed’s general comments fall in three areas, all true I am sure, and somewhat overlapping:
  1. I’m “behind the airplane” – this means reacting too slowly to events, or more likely, failing to anticipate events so I can react quickly. Or both.
  2. I’m “too gentle” with the airplane – this doesn’t mean he wants me jerking the stick around like a yank-and-bank flight simmer, but more decisive and “just enough” inputs are needed – more range of control travel is needed when the airplane is slow, especially. Not rough, but assertive. For example, when the airplane starts to drift off center on approach, I give it a little rudder and maybe stick but not really enough to stop the drift, so then I end up having to bank to get lined up again. I think part of it is worry about doing the wrong thing, but remember, “not to decide is to decide.” You can’t be tentative. You can’t let the airplane decide!
  3. My feet are too slow. True. I think this is also due to fear of doing the wrong thing with my feet. I am getting better on the ground with them (takeoff roll and landing roll once we are on the three wheels). But in the air, especially when slow, I’m not quick enough and/or “deep” enough with my rudder pedal inputs.
Can I get better? Yes I can. I’ve seen it with air work and takeoffs in this airplane, and in my earlier flight training in Cessna’s. I think I must have had some of this hesitancy thing in the past, because I remember one of Mario’s favorite phrases of encouragement, “pilot in command!” With a CFI in the back seat, he who hesitates is not necessarily lost, but if I intend to solo this airplane (and I do), I have to start making better and more timely evaluations and decisions myself. I am not the quickest person when it comes to body learning, which is why I’m not farther along at 9.1 hours in this airplane. But like I told Ed at the start, whatever it takes is what it takes.

Supplement on Saturday lesson: Gusty wind, mostly down the runway, but some cross wind and wind shear. I dropped it in from a few feet up on one landing when I (or Ed) should have added a quick bit of power. No damage. Lots of gliders and my squirrely approaches/landings raised at least one comment on the radio. I also had to watch out for no-radio gliders (one landing as I was about to take the paved runway, but he was on the grass and I wasn’t so even if I had missed him it would have been OK this time. But it shows how important it is to look for traffic. I was also reminded that I need to not feel rushed when I have the active runway just because someone is waiting or is turning base (except of course landing gliders have the right of way - they can't do a go-around). Feeling rushed can lead to mistakes.

1.1 hours dual in Citabria (7/30/11)
1.3 hours dual in Citabria (8/01/11)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I Love Aviation Charts

I've always loved aviation charts. Sectional charts, terminal area charts, even helicopter charts (I haven't looked much at the various IFR related charts). They are so densely packed with information, yet are still relatively easy to understand once you know the conventions and symbols. Clever design.You can buy current charts from various sources, and you should always have a current paper sectional chart in the cockpit for the area in which you are flying (even if you have a really nice GPS).

Although you can download a lot of charts from the FAA for free, there are web sites that make them easier to access for browsing or preliminary planning (they have real information but are labeled "not for navigation"). I just discovered a really cool site for browsing all the different charts for the entire country, (sample above). It has a simple interface for accessing all the charts and airport info as well as some basic flight planning features, though I also have access to AOPA's better on-line flight planning for once I get current and start flying to some different airports for whatever reason (for a legendary $100 hamburger or maybe $120 scrambled eggs).

This FAA page has free PDF downloads of the 9th Edition of the Aeronautical Chart User's Guide, split into six sections for the various types of VFR and IFR charts. Useful for getting a better grasp of the many symbols, colors, and line styles used on charts.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Citabria Panel & GPS/COMM

Supplemental note: I don't know how soon I will solo the Citabria, but when I do, I will need to be more familiar with the GPS/COMM unit that's installed in case I lose track of where I am (of course I will also carry a current chart and pay attention to landmarks if I plan to fly out of sight of 3B3). It's a relatively simple one (Bendix/King KLX 135A, a mid-90's piece of hardware with a small monochrome LCD display), but there are still procedures you need to follow, and you don't want to be fiddling blindly if you are also trying to fly an airplane (and maybe worried about being lost). So I downloaded a PDF manual for the KLX 135A so I can study up a bit on its operation, especially the "nearest" and "direct to" GPS features.

The panel shot above shows just about everything needed to operate the airplane except for the electrical panel, shown below (mounted at the left wing root within reach of both pilots). In the picture above, you can see the throttle and carb heat on the left side panel; mixture, primer, and starter button on the lower left front panel; and the rudder pedals and control stick below. The trim lever is on the left side behind and below the throttle (not visible in this picture). It's a full-resolution picture, so click on it if you're interested.

Getting Better (Takeoffs & Landings)

I was away on vacation for a week or so and wasn't able to fly since July 11 (at least not at the controls - but I'll probably write something here about a wonderful helicopter tour we took from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon, since this blog is generally about flying stuff). But yesterday and today I got back into it with early morning Citabria flights with Ed at Sterling. Both mornings started out looking questionable for weather, but after a bit of rain (a 15 minute downpour yesterday), we had high clouds, no wind, and very few other airplanes flying, perfect for pattern work. So get out the checklist...

Speaking of patterns, I've noticed one about my learning. After a 12 day delay, I was pretty bad yesterday morning. My feet were slow on the takeoff rolls especially, with several large swerves that Ed had to save. I even had one aborted takeoff because I was holding back pressure too long (didn't get the stick forward/tail up early enough for a safe takeoff that would clear the trees). It seems I have a very quick forgetting curve. Sigh. I did some things right, and started to get better on the last one or two landings. But I didn't feel very good about my performance. Luckily I had another flight scheduled for the next morning (today).

This morning was much better, and I sometimes felt like I was actually "getting it" on the foot thing. I noticed when the nose was starting to drift left or right and took prompt and correct action with the pedals, usually without over-correcting. I didn't do everything right on every takeoff and landing, but there was clear improvement. Ed didn't say a word for minutes at a time (I usually preempted his comments by narrating my own actions, which is actually helpful in getting the procedures "burned in" and letting him know that I know them). We also practiced one go-around.

One major problem was staying too fast on final approach, which is easy to do in an airplane with no flaps. I want to get to about 65 mph as I pull up into the three-point landing attitude, and I was arriving at about 80! This gave me a lot of "float" and in a couple of cases, I "bounced" (which is really a high angle of attack, flying speed thing more than a landing gear thing as the word "bounce" might suggest). So next time I need to focus on getting it slowed down on final, and practice doing a forward slip when needed to increase the frontal area presented to the wind (increasing drag as flaps help to do). I'll fly again next weekend (weather permitting) and try to stay on the improvement curve more than the forgetting curve!

1.0 hours dual in Citabria (7/23/11)
1.3 hours dual in Citabria (7/24/11)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Stick and Rudder" Revisited

Due to other commitments, I won't have a chance to fly for about 10 days or so. But I will have a bit of free time for reading, so I've decided to re-read Stick and Rudder by Wolfgang Langewiesche. This book was first published over 50 years ago and has been in print ever since because it's one of the most useful practical guides to flying ever written. I read it many years ago when I first started flying (maybe 1997). So I think it's time. While it generally applies to any sort of airplane, it feels especially right for flying a tail-wheel airplane with an actual stick (rather than a control yoke), and of course a rudder too.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Happier Feet (On the Grass)

I had another flight with Ed this morning. I was a bit early at 3B3 and it was practically deserted. I had my hand-held radio tuned to Sterling's 122.9 MHz traffic frequency, mainly to listen for Ed to call traffic when he was approaching the airport so I could get a picture of the Citabria landing (he was flying in from Spencer, 60M). But a few minutes before that I heard a call to Sterling traffic - helicopter inbound from the north. I had noticed the heli-circle but had never seen a helicopter land there. It was cool to watch. Ed showed up a few minutes later and I got a so-so picture just before his 3-point touchdown on the grass (I should have brought a digital camera with a decent lens and zoom range instead of relying on my BlackBerry's mediocre camera).

The flight itself was much better than the previous afternoon. We stayed in the pattern, and with no traffic, we did four takeoffs and landings in less than an hour. There was no wind to speak of, so we decided to start out on runway 16 (160 degrees, southeast). I asked Ed to fly a full pattern himself, narrating his actions as much as possible so I could have a reference point to compare what I have been doing wrong. I've flown with Ed in the past, and as usual, he flies the pattern like the airplane is on rails. Experience!

I think that demo helped because my three takeoffs and landings (all on the grass) were better than any I had done before (we switched to runway 34 for the rest of the time). I was still a bit slow on the pedals on the takeoff roll, but better than yesterday - not quite happy feet, but happier than they've been recently. My airspeed control and turns in the pattern were pretty good, though Ed had to prompt me to crab for the crosswind on the downwind leg. He also talked me down on final and on the level-off and pull-up into the three-point landing orientation just before touchdown.

Oddly enough my directional control on the landing roll-out was pretty decent, much better than the takeoff roll. Could it be the grass? We tried the last takeoff from the grass to see. I was still a little bit behind the airplane, but better than on the paved runway. Maybe this is psychological - the grass is much wider and without a well defined edge, so maybe I somehow feel less constrained and more relaxed. Anyway, I was getting better, but it was a work morning and I couldn't stick around any longer. At least I came away with a more positive attitude than the day before. I can improve! I can do something right!

Supplemental note: Modern airplane engines are very reliable, but you have to train and plan for engine failure and other emergencies just the same. It can happen. I've never experienced anything but simulated (instructor induced) engine failure, but after I left Sterling yesterday, there was a real one that could have been bad but turned out well. One of the pilots involved was at Sterling this morning and told us about it. His Piper Pawnee was towing a glider as it often does at Sterling. He noticed an odd vibration just after takeoff, but it seemed to be flying OK until 800 feet when the engine quit! He signaled the glider pilot to release the tow line (he had already figured it out). The glider turned around and made the runway safely. The Pawnee pilot said he immediately lowered the nose and established best glide speed. He made a 180 back to the runway and landed safely - pretty impressive from 800 feet.

0.9 hours dual in Citabria at 3B3.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Theory and Practice and Slow Feet

You know the line "what's the difference between theory and practice? In theory there's no difference." But in practice...

I did another lesson flight with Ed in the Citabria late this afternoon at Sterling (3B3). The plan was to briefly review stalls and then practice takeoffs and landing somewhere. Normally this would be Sterling, but it was such a gorgeous flying day, there was a lot of glider activity and other traffic at Sterling, so we thought we might head over to Worcester (ORH) for pattern work. We did a few stalls at 3000 feet, and I did better on procedures, keeping the wings level with the rudder, and executing better and more prompt recovery than last time. So we listened to ORH's ATIS on the radio and learned that the runway in use would have a strong crosswind. It was close to 5 pm so we figured maybe the Sterling glider folks would be packing up soon.

So I headed back to Sterling - or so I thought. We had flown further west and north than I thought and with the clearing turns and stalls, I got a bit disoriented. We were near Mount Wachusett and I spotted a divided highway I thought was the I-190. In fact it must have been Route 2 up by Fitchburg! So I was flying away from Sterling! Ed turned it into a GPS mini-lesson. The aircraft has a combined COM/NAV/GPS installed, not very fancy but functional. Ed told my how to enter "direct to 3B3" and I did a 180 and followed the GPS back to 3B3.This will be useful if (I mean when) I start flying solo.

Sterling also had a crosswind on 34 but not as bad. It also had a lot of traffic we had to watch for, including a glider turning to final and some other inbound gliders and powered aircraft. I entered the pattern and extended the downwind to allow the glider to land and get clear. My airspeed control and turns were so-so and I was fast and low on final. Ed reminded me that I could trade airspeed for some altitude. He helped quite a bit on the landing since I wasn't quite ready for the crosswind. We taxied back and took off again.

Takeoffs should be fairly easy, but my feet are still slow, and I don't apply rudder fast enough to keep it rolling straight. This is harder in a tail wheel airplane than in a tricycle gear (Cessna 152, etc.) plane, but I did some work with Ed in his Cub in 2004, and I should know the drill. I also spent a lot of time this week reviewing the takeoff and landing sections of The Compleat Taildragger Pilot so all the pointers about the dynamic rolling behavior are the airplane were fresh in my mind (that's the theory part).  Ed was able to save us from my swerves and keep us from ground looping ("heading for the weeds" as they say). Although I was trying to be fast, I wasn't "jabbing" at the right times (causing instead of fixing problems). And I was still slow to recognize deviations and correct them. You've only got the width of the landing gear to play with - if you swerve out of that roughly 6-7 foot zone, it's very difficult to recover. These things are VERY touchy, and I really had a lot of trouble with the Cub in 2004. At least with the Citabria, I'm flying from the front seat and I can see very well over the nose even with the tail down in the nose-high stall attitude. We did another takeoff and landing and I wasn't much better.

Oh well. I knew this would take a while. But I'll get there. I've got another flight early tomorrow morning before work. The air will be calmer and we'll probably have the runway to ourselves. I'll focus on teaching my feet the tail wheel dance - trying to keep in time to the music, I mean the airplane.

Citabria 1.1 hours dual at 3B3.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

FAA Medical OK

If you haven't been flying for a while and you want to get current so you can again fly solo, your FAA medical certification is a critical step. You can't fly as "pilot in command" without both a current flight review (sign-off by an instructor) and a current FAA medical. For private pilot, you need a third class medical certification, which is good for five years if you are under 40, or two years if you are older than 40 as I am. Commercial, instructor, and ATP ratings require higher level medical exams and certificates (more extensive and/or more frequent).

I passed my third-class medical this morning, so medically I'm good for two years of flying. The doctor was amazed and happy that I had found and used the FAA's MedXPress web site to complete the required medical history form on-line. Seemed like a no-brainer to me to check online for the latest requirements and comply with them, but I guess the MedXPress thing is fairly new and many pilots don't know about it. Apparently it makes it easier for the AME (aviation medical examiner) to check and submit your information to the FAA.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Takeoff, Slow Flight, Stalls, Landing

This was the second flight with Ed in the Citabria, and I handled pretty much the entire flight, though with a lot of verbal coaching from Ed. After the pre-flight inspection, I taxied out to runway 34 at Sterling and made the radio call to Sterling traffic. On the takeoff roll, my feet were a bit slow and I didn't use enough right rudder, so we had a bit of swerving (Ed may have kicked in some corrections there). You have to use large, jabbing inputs at the start of the takeoff roll, then smaller inputs when the tail comes up and the rudder starts to be responsive. I was also a bit dense on holding a steady climb speed of 75 mph and staying on the runway heading for departure. We headed west and climbed to 3000 feet (about 2500 feet AGL).

The main goals for this flight were slow flight (just a few mph above a stall) and stalls (power on, power off, and while turning). This is all aimed at getting a feel for controlling the aircraft when it's near the stall, as well as to practice prompt and correct recovery when it does stall. In terms of reacting to events and following procedures, I was a bit slow and relied too much on Ed's prompting. Next time we will do some more stalls and I will be sure to know the recovery steps cold (and to remember carb heat on/off at the appropriate times). Overall my rudder control of the airplane in slow flight and stalls was pretty good. I've always felt pretty safe and comfortable with practicing stalls, and since this airplane is certified for intentional spins, I'm looking forward to practicing those too (probably not for a few more flights - I want to first get a lot more proficient with controlling the aircraft). I was still tending to gain or lose altitude on some of my clearing turns, and I seemed to have trouble getting to and holding the target altitude from a climb or descent. Not very good with trim yet - lots of trial and error on that.

Then we headed back to Sterling. With all the clearing turns, stalls, and altitude recovery, we ended up SW of the town of Rutland, about 12 miles WSW of the airport. It was hazier than Saturday, and while I knew the general area of the airport (between Mount Wachusett and Wachusett Reservoir, with three ponds pointing to it from the Reservoir end, see graphic), I was not sure which small gap in the trees it was until we were a couple of miles out (I have to remember to also look for the I-190 expressway which runs NE and practically touches the 34 approach end of the runway). I made the 45 degree entry to the left-downwind for runway 34, and made the radio call for this. I made one more call to traffic (on downwind) then got too busy thinking about the approach and landing. Ed talked me through these, but I flew the approach and landing myself (first time landing on a grass runway). It was not terrible, but I was again slow with my feet on the landing roll. You need to really jab the rudder pedals, quick impulses, to keep the plane from swerving once you are rolling on the grass.

I taxied back to 34 and we did one more takeoff, staying in the pattern. This time I got slow on departure for some reason and Ed had to point this out (not a good place to practice departure stalls, on an actual departure). My pattern was a bit wide, and I missed making most of the radio calls, but my airspeed control was better, and lineup was pretty good (grass runway is a pretty wide target!). This time I flared a bit high, but it was OK, and I started jabbing the rudder pedals and kept the landing roll much straighter. Then I taxied back to the tie-down spot, avoiding the gliders which were being pulled out for their afternoon flights.

I made some mistakes and didn't divide my attention among important tasks as well as I should have, but overall it felt like real progress toward controlling the airplane and knowing what was going on (usually). It will take a lot more work, but I think I can do this.

Citabria 1.2 hours dual at 3B3.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Citabria Intro Flight

When I learned last week that Ed is now running a flight school at Sterling, and that he had bought a Citabria 7ECA since I last flew with him (in his Cub) in 2004, I decided to sign up for some time in that airplane, with two goals in mind. One is to complete the tail-wheel training and endorsement that I started in 2004. The other is to get current on my private pilot certificate so I can fly solo again (starting with the Citabria, as soon as Ed and I decide I'm up to speed).

The Citabria is a tail dragger like the Piper Cub, but in most other respects, it's more like a Cessna 152. It's got the same engine as a 152, it's got an electrical system (for starting the engine, among other things), and it's got a full, modern instrument panel (not really modern - it's all round gauges as you can see above, not a "glass cockpit," but that's OK with me).

For this first flight, Ed handled most of the takeoff and all of the landing from the base leg (just before turn to final). We went out near Mount Wachusett and spent an hour letting me get familiar with the feel of the airplane with straight and level flight, turns, climbs and descents (the four fundamentals). It was mostly OK though I had some trouble holding a steady altitude (not trimmed quite right so I tended to gain or lose a hundred feet here and there) and a steady heading (mostly not choosing and holding external reference points to aim for, plus lazy feet on the rudder pedals).

Still it was a good flight, and I really enjoy this airplane. Although it's a tailwheel airplane, it has much better forward visibility than the Cub, which really makes takeoffs and landings much easier.

Citabria 1.2 hours dual at 3B3.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Putting the "Flying" Back in FlyingSinger

I'm finally going to start flying again - in the present, not in the past. Well actually in the near future (next weekend), as I explain in this post on my Music of the Spheres blog. I plan to take some refresher lessons in a tail-wheel Citabria (pictured) at nearby Sterling Airport. I'm hoping to kill the proverbial two birds: finish up the tail wheel endorsement I started in 2004, and also get current to rent and fly solo again. If it goes well with the Citabria, I'll probably take a few refresher lessons in the C172 as well, since that's a more widely available rental aircraft.