Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Back in the Saddle

After an 8 year hiatus, and a few hours spent with a flight instructor to take care of my biennial flight review, I finally took to the skies solo last Sunday. I did 8 touch-and-goes in a Cessna 152. If you have to fly around in a 2 seater, the 152 is a much better ride than the 150. Eight extra horsepower make a huge amount of difference.

Having been away from flying for 8 years, the event was not without its problems. I did an absolutely thorough pre-flight; probably more thorough than I ever did as a student pilot. Unfortunately, I was so fixated on the checklist that I neglected to take into account the odd corner the airplane was parked in. I very nearly whacked the left elevator into a deck support. Fortunately one of the FBO's CFIs was aware of the situation, ran over and gave me the big "X" shutdown signal with his hands. It was very embarrassing, but not nearly as embarrassing as putting a dent in their airplane. Strike one...

After getting situated again I did a pretty good job with the radio calls and managed to do a proper run-up (pre-flight engine and instrument test).  After the run-up, I requested, and was given, clearance to take off and was then on my way into the air. My first trip around the pattern was pretty ugly. It wasn't unsafe by any means, but it was probably the most ungraceful solo flying I'd ever done. I made my crosswind turn way too early and didn't even make it up to traffic pattern altitude until I was almost through with my downwind leg. About that time the tower comes on the radio and informs me that they aren't picking up my transponder signal... whoops, I forgot to turn it on... Arrrrgggggg, strike two. Total rookie mistake! I turn it on, but they still don't see it. I make a note to get it looked at on the ground. Tower clears me for the option (meaning I get to land or do a touch-and-go). I fiddle with the transponder some more, but I can't get the little status light to blink and the tower says they still can't see it.

As I entered the approach phase I felt a bit disoriented, but the old training came back quickly.... abeam the end of the runway, drop the power to 1500RPM pull the carb heat... speed is in flap operating range, give me 10 degrees of flaps... hmmm this looks like a good place for a base leg... give me 10 more degrees of flaps... whoops I better turn before I blow final... crap, I blew final, wish I'd given myself more time on that crosswind leg... better correct to get back on final... oh wait, what did ATIS say the winds were... nevermind, I can see the smoke blowing from a fire somewhere on the ground... wow pretty hard crosswind... crab the plane into the wind with left rudder and right aileron... ahhhh good I'm back on final... PAPI (Precision Approach Path Indicator) is showing two reds and two whites.... good I'm on the glideslope, I guess I wasn't completely ungraceful... hmmm oh yeah that transponder thing; I radio the tower and tell them I'm going to do a full stop to get the transponder looked at... tower clears me for the full stop... hmmm maybe I should go with 10 more degrees of flaps... nevermind the plane is landing fine as it is... sinking... sinking... don't flare too early... sinking sinking... flare... chirp... chirp... wheels kiss the ground surprisingly gently... hmmm not a bad landing, next time let's try to avoid missing the centerline by a half plane's width... good thing the runway is 150 feet wide...

I taxi back to the FBO and have them look at the transponder. I know the transponder is working just fine, it's the pilot that's working incorrectly, but I'm stumped and need some help. I've read enough close call stories to convince me that it's better to be embarrassed than to do something stupid that'll get you hurt or sanctioned (or escorted home by a pair of F-16s because you are now an unidentified flying object in controlled airspace). The owner of the FBO is in the lobby and hears me asking about the transponder. No doubt he's already aware of me nearly denting his airplane, so he's already not terribly pleased with me. Seeing me ask questions about equipment I should already know about must really be making his day... He marches out to the airplane with me and asks me when I turned the transponder on. I admit that I turned it on about halfway through downwind... he just shakes his head...  Then he notices that I haven't removed the keys from the ignition and sternly reminds me that I left the mags hot which could injure a ramp person if the prop chugs through a revolution while they're moving the plane into its parking spot. Strike three...

By now I'm wondering why he hasn't just told me to go home and never come back. Instead he proceeds to give me a stern lesson on how transponders work. I keep my mouth shut and actually learn a few things. Apparently it takes four minutes and 30 seconds for this particular Mode C transponder to warm up. This explains why the tower didn't see me even after I turned it on. He advised that I should keep it on the "ON" setting while taxiing so it can warm up without useless altitude strobes cluttering up the control tower's radar. Once I'm ready to request clearance to take off I should switch the transponder to the usual "ALT" (altitude) setting. I'd never heard of that little control tower courtesy before... After fiddling with it for a while, the FBO owner wasn't able to get the little status light to blink, but assured me that the transponder was working earlier that day and was probably fine. I was later able to confirm with the tower that it was in fact transmitting properly.

I taxi out again and am cleared for take-off.

I'm determined to do the perfect pattern and the perfect landing. I've heard career pilots talk about how they've never had what they consider a perfect landing. I totally agree. The dynamics of flying an airplane are very fluid and there's always something you could do better. It's a very satisfying challenge.

Each touch-and-go was better than the last. I made a note of something I did wrong after each approach and made an effort to improve it the next time around. By the last time around, I was landing exactly on the center line  and pretty much at the exact spot I was aiming for, even with a pretty gnarly crosswind. My patterns still weren't as good as I'd like to see, but at least I was able to make them marginally consistent. I got the plane up to traffic pattern altitude before I turned into the crosswind leg, gave myself plenty of room in the pattern and kept ahead of the airplane. My altitude still fluctuated more than I wanted to see. I'm sure the guys in the tower were getting a pretty good chuckle watching my altitude bounce all over.

On my last pattern, after clearing me for the option, the tower suggested that I may want to make it a full stop. Apparently the FBO had called the tower and said they had a student waiting for the plane. I guess I'd lost track of time. Fortunately I had planned on making a full stop anyway.

When I got back into the FBO, the CFI who'd stopped me from whacking the deck post looked pretty cranky. I guess it was his student who was signed up for the plane. I don't think I made a lot of friends that day, but I did knock a lot of rust off of my skills and got my confidence back.

I start my commercial flight training on Friday...

1 comment:

ydna said...

Congrats. Thanks for sharing. This was fun to read. Brings back some fond memories. It's been over twenty years since I've sat in the pilots seat of a Citabria and flew it around Fairbanks a couple times (my only significant piloting experience).

I'm sure those people might have been a little annoyed by your mistakes, but I'm sure they deal with many who are worse and probably less motivated to improve. If they really had a problem with what you were doing, would they really hold back on tearing you a new one? Seems unlikely considering the circumstances.