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)

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