Best week so far! Finally we had a stretch of decent weather and were able to fly 5 days this week. I surpassed my 20th hour of flight time this week and everything seems to be coming together. I feel that 20 hours is really the minimum starting point where you have developed enough muscle memory to be precise with the controls, and quick enough mentally to multitask the demands of safe controlled flight.
We spent basically the entire week working on pattern work. Pattern flying means that we are practicing the traffic pattern around the airport. All airports, whether controlled or uncontrolled, have a traffic pattern which pilots must adhere to in order to keep congestion down and the sky safe.
A standard traffic pattern consists of 4 ‘legs’. First you have upwind, as in a straight out climb directly after takeoff. At our airport, due to noise abatement, we must climb to 1200ft in altitude before turning. So we climb upwind to 1200 feet, and then turn left 90° to our “crosswind” leg. Crosswind puts you perpendicular to the runway from which you just departed. The next leg of the pattern in downwind, which is another 90° turn from crosswind, and puts you parallel to your departure runway (or landing runway for that matter), but heading in the opposite direction. Downwind is usually where you enter the traffic pattern, for instance when you are returning to the airport from a flight. When flying downwind, you usually communicate with the tower, do pre-landing checks, and begin to configure the airplane for landing. As you fly parallel to the runway from which you just departed, heading back in the opposite direction, your next turn will be on to ‘base’ leg, which will now have you perpendicular to your runway. From base leg, you make your last left turn on to ‘final’. From downwind and through final, you would be configuring the airplane for landing in stages.
We flew this pattern, landing and taking right back off (touch-and-go’s) 14 times on Monday of this past week. Some landings were good, and some were not so good. Some that were good were luck and others I really worked for. All in all, it takes practice to get a feel for the controls and to understand and interpret the depth perception as you come down toward the runway. We also practiced simply holding the plane off and flying a foot or two off the runway for as long as possible. Once the plane would settle, add some power to get back in the air and then do it again. With 6000 foot runways at our airport, we could get a few of these practice bounces done on each pass, utilizing the entire length of the runway.
On Tuesday we continued the pattern work but also worked on glide approaches. This is basically simulating an engine failure in the pattern, and how you would bring the plane in with no power available. If you are in the pattern, and especially at our airport (due to minimum altitude requirements), making the runway if there was a sudden loss of power is fairly easy.
For Thursday, my instructor suggested that I get on the schedule with another instructor after my regularly scheduled lesson for a progress check. From time to time you want to fly with someone else so they can give you feedback on your progress, make sure that you haven’t developed any improper habits, or your instructor hasn’t missed anything. Each time you fly with a different instructor, you will learn something new, even if it is just a tip or trick to help you along. I scheduled to fly with the chief pilot of the school after my regularly scheduled flight with my instructor on Thursday. I wasn’t nervous going into this progress check, but obviously wanted to do well. If the chief pilot was satisfied with my proficiency, he would give his blessing that I was ready for my first solo flight.
I had Wednesday off and returned to school early Thursday morning. It was a clear but gusty day. The plan was to fly my regular lesson with my regular instructor and then fly the progress check with the chief pilot. I felt good about this because it would let me get a feel for the day’s winds and brush up on some skills I was still working on. Right then plans changed! The chief pilot asked if we could go first, as he had another commitment arise for later in the day. Sure, why not. Lets fly. After all, I’m a student, and this isn’t a test, so nothing to worry about. Doesn’t have to be perfect. We started with the preflight and he gave me some good suggestions and critiques along the way. After taking off, we headed out toward the practice area and he asked me to demonstrate several flight skills and maneuvers. Climbs, descents, slow flight, steep turns, and turns around a point. I felt good about all of them. Then, as we were flying along, he pulled the power to idle and called out, “you’ve had an engine failure”, what are you going to do? Immediately I pitched up to get my best glide speed of 68 knots. I trimmed the airplane to hold this glide speed as I looked outside for a suitable place where I would be able to land the airplane. Ok, I see a field, it seems like my best bet in terms of shape and length, and I can approach the field into the wind. I begin a series of turns to set myself up on a good approach. I make my “mock-mayday” call, and give my passenger brief. My turns are complete and I am approaching my point. I tell my instructor I feel good about my choice and that I feel I would make the field, and am ready to start putting in flaps to descend further. He is satisfied with my demonstration, and we initiate a go around. In reality I felt very good about that scenario and my reaction. I chose a spot, flew toward it, and had it been a turn emergency, I feel it would have a successful outcome. We head back to the airport, fly the pattern, and do several touch and go’s. After about an hour of flight, the progress check is complete. Upon debrief, we review some improvements I can make and highlight some positive points. All and all, he is happy with my progress and gives his blessing on my readiness to solo, green lighting my instructor to sign me off for a solo flight as he sees fit. It was nice to hear the chief pilot say, “you fly us along quite well”.
The following day we continue pattern work, in very gusty conditions. Not my best day of flying. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with the wind. We did 15 take offs / landings. I felt sort of discouraged but my instructor wasn’t to concerned because he knew the wind was really throwing me off. The next day, we ended the week by flying out to an uncontrolled airport (no tower), and practicing the pattern there. At an uncontrolled airport, you need to make the necessary radio calls as you move through the pattern on your own, in order to make sure you keep separation from other planes. The runway at this airport was much narrower, and much shorter. We did a few laps in the pattern and my landings were much better today. Dusk started to set in and I had the very cool opportunity to operate the runway lights from the airplane for the first time. A pilot can turn on all the runway lights from the airplane by pressing the microphone button 7 times in succession on a certain frequency. Seeing all the lights come alive while on final approach is really a cool sight. We headed back to our home airport, flew the pattern as the sun set, and did one lap / landing in the dark. The week ended up very well, and I feel there is a SOLO flight in the very near future. Stay tuned.