Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Lesson 1: Short but sweet

Plane: Cub, 85 hp
Instructor: Joe
Route: 40I, Local (with a quick landing at 2OH9)
Weather: Overcast, 55-60 degrees, wind 310 degrees at 9 knots

After having to cancel two days prior thanks to some pretty gusty winds, I finally made it into the air – and on my birthday, no less. Is there any better way to celebrate than flying around on a warm summer evening? I had already met my instructor, Joe, when I came down to check the airport out so that and some other formalities with paperwork were already taken care of. We sat down for a few minutes and briefly discussed some aerodynamics and handling of the controls, but it was a very short briefing if you want to call it that.

Since the plane had just returned from flying (and Joe had been flying it) he made a short pre-flight check and then we strapped into the cockpit. In the Cub, the seating is tandem (two seats, one behind the other) and the pilot sits in the back seat so that is where I bucked up. Once in, we took a couple minutes to look over the placement of the controls like the stick and throttle. Airplane engines are different than car engines in that they use magnetos, which are tiny wire coils that are rotated between magnets by the engine to produce electricity for the spark plugs. This adds to the safety since the spark plugs continue to work even if the battery dies – or if your plane doesn’t have a battery in the first place. The Cub and Champ are very basic airplanes, so basic that they do not even have electrical systems. Since there is no electricity there is no electric starter and the only way to start them is by hand propping. Joe had another student come over and turn the engine over to get us on our way.

I then got to try taxiing the plane around the grass near the runway for a few minutes. As I have a few hours from when I flew six years ago, I have done it before, but it is still really hard to get used to steering with your toes. Let’s just say that it will take some time and practice to get respectable at maneuvering around on the ground. You have to develop a feel for the right amount of throttle needed to get the airplane moving and then the amount needed to keep it moving, and they are quite different on grass. The other thing is that in a taildragger like the Cub it is essentially impossible to see out the front when you are on the ground because the noise is pointed towards the sky. In order to overcome this, you keep turning left and right as you move in a straight path in order to look out the side windows and maintain visibility. Somehow I managed to taxi us to near the end of the runway and then Joe took over.

Joe pushed the throttle wide open and we began to roll down the turf. While there are some natural bumps in the ground that you feel, it is a distinctively different and somewhat smoother feeling than rolling down a concrete runway. Once we were off the ground and had picked up a little airspeed Joe made a moderate (I’d guess 45 degree) bank to the left and took us back over the hangars and off to the East. Zooming low over the trees in a Cub is, without question, one of the joys of flight in a small plane. We flew for only a couple minutes and then came down for a landing at the nearby Caesar Creek Gliderport, also a grass strip. What is a 15 minute drive only took a couple minutes by air. Oh how I love to fly. Joe turned the airplane around at the end of the runway (and we waited for a few geese to move out of the way) and then took us back into the sky and climbed to 3,000 feet. Now, it was my turn.

The four basic flight maneuvers are straight-and-level flight, turns, climbs, and descents. Used in combination, such as a climbing right turn or descending left turn, they allow us to control the aircraft as we move through the sky. After being handed the controls, Joe had me try all these combinations (it comes out to nine, plus straight-and-level) while doing my best to fly coordinated. What is flying coordinated? Well when you move the stick left or right to move the ailerons and roll the airplane, the aileron that moves down causes a little extra drag that pulls the nose of the plane to one side. By using the rudder in the direction of the turn (i.e. push on the left rudder for a left turn) you neutralize that drag and keep the nose pointed in the direction of the turn. In other words, you are flying coordinated. During all this I managed to do a pretty good job of keeping my eyes outside of the plane and using visual references on the ground to keep track of where I was.

Basic maneuvering complete, it was time to head back to the airport and have a little fun. I really like how Joe throws in some random and fun comments and “missions” as a way of telling you where or how to fly. In this case, he said that we were going on a bombing run which meant I had to fly directly over top of the airport at 3,000 feet. To get there I had to climb a few hundred feet and crab (which means turning the airplane to fly into) the wind since it would have blown me east of the “target” if I had flown directly towards the airport. Successful in this mission, I managed to bring us directly over top at exactly 3,000 feet. Not bad if I do say so myself.

The flight almost finished, Joe said “how about we land right now?” I was about to find out exactly how soon he meant. He quickly threw the plane into a spiral dive, which is basically flying circles at a moderate to steep bank (about 45-60 degrees) while descending somewhat rapidly. It only took us about 30 seconds (my guess) to get down to approximately 1,500 feet from 3,000. Coming out of the dive, he turned into the downwind leg of the traffic pattern and then flew a rounded base into short final. We were a little high so Joe quickly transitioned into a forward slip to bleed off the excess altitude and brought us down gently at the beginning of the runway. Obviously it’s going to be a while before I can do all that myself, especially with such precision. For those of you reading who aren’t pilots or into aviation, I’ll explain things like the traffic pattern, base, final, and slips in the future when I am at that point in my training.

There I had it, first flight complete. Aside from the obvious fun and excitement, there were a few main points I came away with. First, as someone who hates roller coasters the whole spiral dive thing didn't bother me and was actually quite fun. That was slightly surprising but on the other hand I think that being the one flying (or at least having the controls in front of me) makes it a completely different feeling than any amusement park ride. In terms of flying and learning, I was glad that I was able to do some things correctly like holding altitude and having a rough idea of where we were. Joe said he thinks I’m a fast learner and did pretty well for my first lesson, and that was certainly encouraging. That said, I have tons of learning ahead of me and many things to keep working on like taxiing, keeping my eyes outside the aircraft, and flying coordinated. The key, however, is that I am now officially on my way towards learning to fly!

Today's Flight: 0.5 hours
Total Time: 3.2 hours (including my 2.7 logged hours from back in 2002)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Where to fly and when to begin?

Since moving down to Ohio a year ago - wow, did that ever fly by - I have spent a fairly decent amount of time researching local airports that I can train at. From searching and posting on the AOPA (that's the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) forums to contacting local pilots through their Project Pilot mentoring program, I was able to gather lots of useful information. On a few weekends I took the time to drive out to many of these airports and talk with the flight schools and instructors as well.

In taking the time to figure all this out, I came to a few conclusions. First, there is no doubt that I'm lucky to live in the Midwest where there are quite a few affordable locations to train at unlike the very few (and expensive) airports in many areas of the country. Second, there are many nice local airports within a reasonable driving distance of my apartment. Third, the pilot community is very friendly and helpful and I appreciate all the thoughts and comments that were sent my way when I went looking for answers. And finally, I still somehow managed to almost overlook the wonderful airport where I will be doing my training. I'll come back to that last point in a minute.

While a lot of this research took place last summer, I was traveling off and on for work and did not really want to start training when I might have to miss two or three weeks of flying. It just does not seem like a good idea for me, as a very new student, to take that kind of break early on. However, I did decide to enroll in ground school with Wings on Wheels at the Green County Airport that is only about 10-15 minutes away from my apartment. What is ground school? One of the requirements for your Private Pilot Certificate is to pass a Knowledge Test (also known as the Written Exam) and in ground school you go over topics that are on the test like aerodynamics, navigation, weather, aircraft systems, airport procedures, and flight planning. The course met for about eight weeks and I thought it was a great way to enhance everything you learn while reading some of the many books out there for beginning pilots. People have different learning styles, but I really see a benefit in being in a classroom and hearing other people ask questions and make comments.

So fast forward to this spring when I was gearing up to finally start my training. Going back through some of the materials I collected from the various airports last year, I ended up online checking for updated information. Long story short, I managed to dig up a gem of an airport that was closer than some of the ones I was already considering. Don't ask me how I missed it before, because I really have no idea. Luckily I did indeed find the airport, a small grass strip known as Red Stewart Airfield in Waynesville, and took a trip down there to check the place out. It's been a family-owned airport for three generations and is full of history, both in the field itself and in the historic airplanes they have in their collection.

Compared to many other flight schools, they have a slightly different approach to initial pilot training - and it is an approach that I love and am very excited about. You see, most pilots starting out these days begin flying something like a small Cessna or Piper with tricycle gear, which is where there are two main wheels and then a nosewheel at the front. Stewart starts pilots out in aircraft like the Piper Cub (shown below) or Aeronca Champ that are taildraggers, also known as conventional gear, for their initial training. As the name implies, they have two main wheels and then a smaller wheel back on the tail.

Neither approach is right or wrong, just different, but I really am glad I will have the opportunity to train in both types of aircraft. I see this as a bit of an advantage because the general wisdom from pilots seems to be that you get a much better feel for the airplane and have to truly learn how to use the control surfaces (often referred to as "stick and rudder" skills) when flying a taildragger. Plus, it's just a ton of fun to fly historic aircraft like the Cub that thousands of pilots have trained in dating back to World War II. By training this way I will be flying the taildraggers until I solo and then will transition to larger, tricycle gear aircraft like the Cessna 150 or 172 for things like night flying, navigation, and radios. And I sure can't argue with the side benefit that the Cub and Champ are incredibly cheap in the scope of aircraft rental rates!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

About me and my blog

For those who don't know me, my name is Steve and I live near Dayton, Ohio working for Kodak as an Imaging Scientist in research and development on commercial inkjet printing technologies. While my job is great, what do I really love when I leave the office? Probably the two things I am most passionate about are photography and aviation. Interestingly enough, I don't really know how I became so interested in either.

I have always loved taking pictures. Growing up, my parents and relatives liked to tell me that I had an eye for great photos. Whether or not that was true or they were simply being supportive of little Steve, I can't say for sure. But it is something I have stuck with and developed as I have grown older. Why do I love photography so much? Maybe it's capturing a unique moment or a tiny piece of the natural beauty that surrounds us in each corner of the world. Whatever the case, I enjoy it immensely and delight in working to improve my skill. Since I love traveling so much, many of my photos on Flickr and articles in my Kodak Blog come from my adventures across the continents.

Since I was a little kid aviation and airplanes have been something I could never learn enough about. Nobody in my family is a pilot, nor has anyone even taken flying lessons as far as I know. My best guess is that I got some of the aviation bug from my grandpa - we went up in a helicopter when I was probably five and watched plenty of airplane and airshow videos when I was growing up. The whole airline pilot thing is a career I was dead-set on back in high school but in the end I didn't go that route and, aside from a few lessons about 6 years ago, the flight training got put on hold. Fast forward to today and I finally have the time and money to work on my Private Pilot Certificate.

So what will I be sharing with you in this blog? My main goal in the beginning is to chronicle my flight training, which serves a couple different purposes. One is for friends and family who are interested along with other student pilots who might be able to glean some information from my experiences. The other is for me to keep a record and hopefully enhance my own learning. I know that one of the ways I learn and retain things best is by writing them down, and that is exactly what I will be doing here.

Aside from flying, I will still be blogging for Kodak about travel and photography but I might start linking to those posts on here to better organize things. Last but not least, as time goes on and this blog evolves with me who knows what rambling thoughts might end up out here for you all to read... but until then, thanks for reading and take care!

Two notes: I am posting this on June 10th - the first four posts are backdated since I didn't get this blog up and running as early as I had intended. I also would like to thank Matt for the use his photo of the windsock at the airport where I am doing my flight training, which I made into the background image for this site.