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.