Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Finally, First Flight Instruction Given was today!

Its 5 weeks shy of 3 years since the first time I set foot in an airplane, and today was the first time that I was acting in the role of instructor, on an instructional flight.

Russ called me about noon and asked what I was doing today. I said that I had class from 12:30 to 3:00, but was free after that. "So you can get to the airport by 3:30 or so?" "Sure," I said. I was told that they were very busy in the maintenance shop today, and they wanted me to fly with a student. The preference is for someone to fly with the students when it is convenient for them. Anyway, I said that I'd want to. Russ told me he would call the guy and have him call me if he wanted to fly with me.

About 2:40, I got a phone call in class. I couldn't answer it, but I was pretty sure who it was. When I could, I called back, and the student said he'd love to fly today, and 3:30 was OK, so we agreed to meet at the airport.

I was afraid I'd be late, but I got there about 3:35, and was the first one there. The sky was completely clear, temp was about 17 or 18 Celsius (63-65 F), and wind was about 8 knots straight down the runway. I looked around, and my student came in pretty soon after I did. Since Russ is his main instructor, I didn't really want to introduce anything new, so I asked him what his most recent lesson had consisted of. "Slow flight, steep turns, and power off stalls," he said.

We went out to N-7640G, a 1970 model Cessna 172, and while the student was doing the pre-flight inspections, I updated my briefing with Flight Service to check for flight restrictions (TFRs). While I watched him preflight, I made a plan for the lesson. We would go out and practice straight and level flight, normal turns, and regular climbs and descents so he could get warmed up in the plane (it had been a week or two since the last lesson the student had taken). Then we would do slow flight in various configurations, transition to a power-off stall, do a second one, then do a steep turn or two at the end of the session. I reasoned that this would put the tasks, roughly, from least aggressive to most, and should take around an hour.

We talked through the startup and taxi, took off, and went out to the practice area. Since the purpose of this blog isn't to parade each student's performance before the world, I won't, but the student was doing very well in my opinion. We moved on to slow flight, then a beautiful power-off stall. We changed our heading to take us back to the airport, about 40 minutes after we started the engine. "Right on time, this is working perfectly." I thought to myself.

I asked if he wanted to do a steep turn or two on the way back in, and was given an affirmative answer. I asked if he remembered how to do them, or if I should demonstrate one real quick. I was asked to demo one. OK, I showed a steep turn to the left, talked through it, and was rolling out when I heard "do you have a bag?" I wasn't sure what was meant at first. I quickly realized the student meant a sick-sack, to vomit in, so I started searching for one. There was no bag in the plane (which is not normal), so I opened the window and slowed the plane up as much as possible so that 120mph wind wasn't hitting the poor guy in the face. I immediately started maneuvering back toward the airport, in the calmest and least aggressive manor possible.

He started to feel better after a minute, and seemed to be alert and asking questions, so I asked if he wanted to take the controls on the way back to the airport. I did this because I have read many times that taking the controls is one of the things you can let someone do to help alleviate motion sickness.

We came around the traffic pattern - crosswind, downwind, but by this point it was obvious that he was feeling queasy again, and I was asked to take the controls, which I did. I tried to touch down as smoothly as possible, and parked the plane in its spot, then shut it down.

As the student went to the bathroom to clean up and I went in search of some cleaner, the owner of the flight school pulled up. I was afraid I'd have people mad at me for making a student sick. Instead, they said that it happens from time to time, and to just deal with it. I went and helped clean up the plane (really not much of a mess at all, glad I opened the window).

We de-briefed the flight, discussing what had been good and what needs worked on. I'm glad my student was a younger guy, and has a good attitude, he didn't seem phased too much. The flight was mostly "fun," and he even asked if I'd like to fly with him again next Tuesday. I definitely would, and was glad he asked. I filled out his logbook, signed my name, certificate number, and expiration date for the first time ever into someone's logbook (I had tried hard to memorize my certificate number, but forgot it and had to look it up). I asked if he had felt a little sick before we started the steep turns, and he said yes, and I asked if he had eaten anything recently, and he said no. I advised him, before the next lesson, to eat about 1.5 or 2 hours before - not a lot and not something hard to digest like Mexican food, but something on the stomach will help. I also said that, next time he feels sick, to let someone know. It never gets better until you land and rest, and that nobody has to continue flying or continue the lesson if they don't feel up to par - simple as that.

When I got home, I called the student's regular instructor. I was still concerned that he'd be upset with me, but he wasn't at all, and thinks I'll probably be flying with more students in the near future. I'm certainly up for anything that comes my way.

Overall, I think it was a good day, but I'm not 100% sure. We both learned, I think, and hopefully it will go better next time. I felt really bad, but I'm not sure what I could have done differently (other than carrying a sick bag or 2 in my flight bag, which is definitely going to happen before my time time up).

In other news, I'm flying a Piper Cherokee 6 to Jackson, MI with my old instructor this coming Thursday to demo it to a prospective buyer. We will fly home Friday morning after earning a couple hundred bucks each as well as a hotel and dinner/breakfast, which will be compensated. Wish I had a job like that 2 or 3 times a week, I'd be set.

Monday, March 22, 2010

My first time in SoCal

Megan and I are in Southern California (Claremont) to check out Claremont Grad School. While she was at a boring open house, I was hanging out at some local airports! Dropped her off at CGU around 9:00am PDT and went on over to Brackett Field. My destination was Ballard Aviation, but I wasn't sure what part of the airfield it was on, so I drove from the north side by the tower around to the south side. After driving all around the perimeter of the field, I went in to the administration building and asked where Ballard was. It was back where I had come from, on the north side! Anyway, I found Ballard, and went in about quarter to ten.

I looked around and introduced myself to a few of the people there, including Mark. I gave him a copy of my resume, and we talked for a few minutes. I waited for a little bit, watching operations, etc. and it looks like a nice place. I noticed that a couple of the instructors there were very similar to me in age and flying experience, so I'm hopeful that I could land a job there if I wanted to. I was supposed to meet up with a guy I met on the AOPA forums, Rick, about 10:30 there at Ballard. When he got there, we got back in the cars and headed back around to the south side of Brackett, where his hangar is. Along the way, he showed me some of the other flight schools there. We parked by the hangar, and started pre-flighting his beautiful Piper Comanche, N0263P. It looks like the red and white paint is fairly new. I kept getting told how dirty the plane was, but it looked great to me. I guess I'm used to beat-up rentals that are lucky to be washed twice a year (maybe an exaggeration). I've never been in a Comanche before, and it was certainly a treat - looked like a very fun plane to fly. The panel was impressive, at least by my standards, and included an Aspen glass display, a 696, and 530W.

We taxied out and flew around the LA basin, going north around LAX airspace, flew the class Bravo transition north to south right across LAX, then south along the coast to Dana Point, finally north to Cable Airport for a bite to eat.
(approximate route)
I've been a bit apprehensive to fly in SoCal airspace, I've always heard that it is extremely busy. It is, but after seeing it, its not terrible, I feel like I could manage it fairly easily - especially after a little bit of time studying the charts. There was a ton of traffic though, and today SoCal wasn't calling many of them out for us. I was glad that 61P has TIS (a device that points out other airplanes), we spotted many of them that otherwise would have gone unseen.

Rick introduced me to Tony, who is affiliated with the flying club there. I talked to him for a few minutes, gave him my card, and later emailed my resume to him. They have several hundred members and lots of students (though I don't know how many instructors). Lunch was tasty at the restaurant on the field, and the atmosphere was very friendly. We sat practically on the flight line, and everybody seemed to know one another.

Took off again (when I bumped my elbow on the door frame getting in and cut myself, clumsy me (doh!)) and headed back over to Brackett to put the plane to bed, about 2:30. Touched down on 26R, and again Rick was unhappy with his landing, but I'm not sure I could have done better, so no harm - no foul.

Overall, I liked what I saw today, and I met some very nice people. Its amazing how, once you learn the language of aviation, you can meet total strangers and have a lot of things to talk with them about. I really like the area here, and if we do decide to live here, then I'd be very happy flying and teaching. I also think that I could find a job flying, which is a big worry for me now. This will especially be true after this summer working as a CFI back home, where I plan on getting some teaching experience and an instrument instructor rating - both of which would make me a lot more marketable.

I'll wrap up now, its time to go get the girl from her open-house. Again, big thanks to Rick for introducing me to the LA airspace along with a fun, well-executed, and safe flight!

(Meg's camera isn't working for some reason, so I took some pics (in-flight) with my phone. Unfortunately, I can't figure out how to upload them via bluetooth so I'll have to post those later.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Checkout Flight Today (and what a day it was!)

Russ has been wanting to fly with me so that he feels comfortable letting me fly with his students. We decided to go up this morning to get on the same page and have a little fun. Arrived at the airport with coffee in hand and walked down to the maintenance hangar. After about a week of clouds, rain, and lower temperatures, it is again wonderful outside. I want to sit in a chair on the sidewalk and soak up the sun, it has been such a long and miserable winter. Anyway, I walked into the open hangar where Russ was putting a new flashing beacon in the top of the vertical stabilizer of a Beechcraft Bonanza. We chatted for a few minutes while he finished up and then headed down to the plane. There were a couple guys with a very nice-looking Cessna 150 (new paint and wig-wag lights in the wings) who needed some oil. Russ took care of them while I got our Cessna 172 ready to go. Unlocked, check the papers and the cockpit, lower the flaps in prep for inspection, make sure the gauges work, untie the wings and tail, inspect the exterior surfaces, brakes, engine and prop. I pulled the plane over to the pump with the tow-bar (a handle that attaches to the front wheel) and started pumping gas. The breakaway joint in the gas hose is leaking a little bit, so I got gas on my hands and the plane, but no big deal. The plane was really thirsty, it took 24 gallons to fill the 38-gallon tanks.

I jumped in the right seat, and Russ in the left. We taxied to the runway, with a quick stop at the hangar again for Russ to grab his headset. After a standard set of checks, we took off into a perfectly calm sky on RWY 26. As soon as we were about 800' above ground, he pulled the power to idle and tested me on a simulated engine-out. This is definitely his style, and I was fully expecting the exercise. I made it back to the airport a little high - I could have balled it up and walked away in a real emergency, but we decided to go-around for another attempt. I was a little rusty in this area, again too high on the approach. The next time, Russ tried it and was a little more successful - flew a nice approach all the way to a landing in the grass.

I love grass takeoff and landing, and haven't really done it since last fall, so today was a real treat. All in all we did 2 takeoffs and 3 out of 4 landings in the grass. On takeoff, you get the nose up as soon as possible so it doesn't drag on the grass. When you land, it is a lot more satisfying, and the turf cushions the wheels to where it feels like touching down on a big mattress.

After some more of this, we headed out to the maneuvering area to do some air work. I was supposed to demo slow flight, which is one of my strong suits. We flew around with the flaps fully deployed with the stall warning buzzer just barely going off for a minute, then did a slow climb and some shallow turns. Then we did something I've never seen before, and must assume that higher-performance planes would be a little less forgiving of. Ever heard of steep turns at 41 knots in a 172? I have! What a cool experience, it almost seemed like we were scooting backwards our turn radius was so ridiculously small.

On the way back to the field, Russ pulled the power on me again - and I had to admit that he had caught me by surprise as I looked around for a suitable place to set it down. The local terrain is rather hilly, but there are a fair amount of cultivated valleys and roads to set down on in a crisis. The plane probably will be done for, but the people will be OK with several hundred feet to slow down in. I picked one and set up the approach, which worked out great.

Back at the field, we chatted about the flight, instructional technique, and the business. All in all, it was a productive day, and I am fairly well positioned to have more and more people to fly with as the school gets busier this spring. Clear sky, warm air, dry grass, and a couple of guys poking holes in the sky for proficiency and fun. This is the aviation I signed up for!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pulling it all together (and internet conferencing)

Had an interesting morning. I had arranged to connect with a fellow aviator (Dave) from Mansfield, OH this morning. He was asking for volunteers from the pilot's forum I frequent online to participate in a test run of a program he has developed for giving ground instruction online. It was an interesting program, and the format has me thinking - its a good idea. How to get people to pay for it (as opposed to a CD-ROM course or a real instructor in a classroom) is the problem. I hadn't used Skype before, so there were some kinks to work out there, but overall it was a good experience.

In other news:

Last week I ordered some business cards at a printer downtown. They arrived today, so I went to Ashland to spread 'em around. I made copies of all my certificates there, so I can be on the insurance, and made some copies of the Airplane Flight Manual so I can review that specific plane's performance. The new manager there, Brad, is running some ads in the local papers very soon, this coming week, so I'm pretty hopeful there will be some real work there soon, then I can dump the restaurant job, and actually have some interesting stories to write about here, and then maybe some people will read this thing, heh.

In that vein, I'm headed over to Lawrence Co Airport tomorrow morning, even though its raining harder than it has since Noah's flood. I'm going to talk to the owners of the FBO there, who stop in on Saturday mornings. I do have 2 students ready to go in the next week or two - one to work on her private license, the other wants to get back into GA flying after a five-year hiatus. Unfortunately, I owe the PPL student some time, and the other is a good and long-time friend of mine that I don't think I can charge in good conscience. Oh well, its still flight time!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Officially employed in aviation!

I went flying Thursday afternoon. It was the first nice weather of the year, with a beautiful clear sky and temps in the mid-40s. Talked with Russ about flying for the FBO, he said it would be fine, but I should come back Saturday to talk to Dola and get the paperwork filled out. I went out and had fun flying 40G, practicing various stalls, performance maneuvers, and flight at minimum controllable airspeed.

Today I went over around 11 o'clock. Talk with a few people who were in the FBO until Dola finished up with a student. I talked with her. She gave me a packet of papers to fill out, showed me where the operations manual is located, walked me through filling out a time sheet so they know how to pay me, and then went up with her next student. I made copies of all my documents and licenses, and filled out the employment papers. Woohoo!

I'm probably only going to fly there with Kat and any students they ask me to fly with, and I'll concentrate on the Ashland airport for soliciting students and developing that. Still, very exciting. Megan met me there and we sat outside and ate lunch watching planes in the pattern. All in all, a very good day. Too bad I have to go to work at the restaurant now. Gotta save up some money for multienging training later in the spring.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

National Weather Service - Charleston, WV Office Visit.

Had a great time today visiting RLX (that is the ID code for the radar there). I got up about 8:30 and left at 9 for the hour long drive to Charleston. I missed my turn off the highway, but found my way there. It is at the very top of a hill on 119, just past the big shopping area of Corridor "G". I knew I was getting close when I saw the WSR-88D radome on the top of the hill. This isn't the one in Charleston, but this is what all the weather radars in the country look like:

I found the office, then the parking lot, but a sign said it was for employees only. I looked around for another place, but there weren't any around. "Oh, what the hell?" I'm allowed to be here. I parked in an empty place at the very end of the employee (the only) lot.

I rang the buzzer, and Chris let me in. He is the one I had emailed about coming. As it turns out, he is also the office's point of contact for aviation concerns in the area. He started talking to me and showing me around. The first thing I noticed was the technology in the room. One wall had 9 screens of various sized displaying some TV news/weather channels, and there were some more advanced weather products up as well. I think it important to note that the NWS forecasters do not sit around watching to see what Fox News says the weather will be. They keep those sorts of channels up in case something like a chemical spill occurs they can begin analyzing how it might spread right away. Wednesdays at the office are practice day for the weather radio alerts. While I was there, I saw each of the workers practice recording a message to be broadcast on the weather radio frequency. They do this so that if there is a real emergency, everybody remembers how to warn the public rather than having to contact the one guy who knows how to run the machine, or dig out the manual.

I sat down with Chris at his desk, and we began looking at some of the tools they have to work with. Geez, I though some of the imagery and weather products available online were good, but the stuff I have seen before is akin to putting a smiling sun over Dallas and an angry anthropomorphic rain cloud over Seattle compared to the sophisticated things these guys have access to.

I learned a great deal about their tools and the Weather Service in general from Chris. The RLX office, like most offices, is manned 24/7. Less at night, and fully staffed and very busy during thunderstorm season. I was primarily interested in learning about how the aviation weather products are created, and I was not disappointed. This is RLX's area of coverage, and there are 6 airports in the region that get their own unique forecast, a Terminal Aerodrome Forecast, or TAF:

The colored counties comprise the area that RLX is responsible for, and they issue 6 TAFs, for Beckley, Clarksburg, Elkins, Charleston, Parkersburg, and Huntington. A special program that runs on the short-term weather desk monitors current conditions, and alerts the forecaster if the TAFs are not corresponding to the real-world weather. The meteorologist can then look at them and issue amendments.

After about an hour, Chris sent me to work with Ken, who was assigned to the short term forecast desk today (there are 4 main workstations, short, medium, and long term forecasting, and another dealing with models and other data). Ken said he had been in the office there since 1977, so he had seen several waves of technology come and go. The workstations have 7 large computer screens so the meteorologists can see many things at once. Each screen can be setup to show what they want to see. Ken had one of his screens dedicated to TAF production, then radar, satellite, forecasting and model prediction, and the 5th was radiosonde data and forecasts.

The software they have access to is phenominal. As for collecting and analyzing data, they can overlay multiple images and model on top of one another. We looked at several combinations of satellite and upper air chart, multiple models can be imposed on top of one another to get a sense for how they compare, and they even have the computer power on site to run a high-resolution regional model tailored to the local area. Its too bad the local weather offices no longer are responsible for flight briefings!

All of the forecasting work is done with "grids." Basically, they have a different weather map for each hour of the day and each variable they forecast such as visibility, precipitation type, temperature high and low, etc. For the 7 day forecast, that is hundreds of maps, or grids! Each of the 3 above-mentioned forecasters has a time period to work on, short term does the next 24 to 30 hours, and new forecasts are released 4 times per day, sometimes with updates in between (especially when the weather is bad). When they have mapped everything to their satisfaction, the office uploads their grids to the national database, from whence the forecasts for the entire country are derived.

Apparently this grid system is rather new, because they said that not all offices have it yet, but it is really advanced and very powerful. In fact, it really aids in the production of very localized forecasts like TAFs. In the past, these were made by hand, but now they can just tell they system where to build one, and it comes up on the TAF editing computer.

The process works like this: we used the models, observations, radiosonde soundings, radar, satellite images, and yes, even pilot reports PIREPs, to work out the weather, and then Ken updated the grids to reflect the information. The grids are not tweaked models, they are totally programmed by the meteorologist based on all info available including local trends and personal experience. It was very helpful to me for Ken to explain to me what kinds of information he was pulling from each weather product, and I learned a great deal about advanced satellite and radar image interpretation - techniques I hadn't seen before, even in my forecasting course at Marshall. After the grids were updated and published, we pulled up the info in the TAF editing program. Since the TAF info comes from the grids, the Charleston office has the capability of showing detailed forecasts for any point in their area. They offer the same forecast data that makes up the 6 main TAFs for every airport in their area, even the grass strips. It is available on their page here. This data is not monitored or updated with temporary updates, as the official TAFs are, but it is potentially a very useful flight planning tool.

Also, I learned that all text-based forecasts come out of the grid system, including the Area Forecasts used by pilots. Something I did not know, however, is that each forecaster writes a discussion of their forecast once per shift. This talks about any error they think may come up, and includes an analysis of how good the forecast is. Sometimes the meteorologist may be very sure, sometimes not, but they have to issue one definitive forecast. I did not know this existed, but am very excited to start using it when making a tough go/no-go decision. These discussions are available under "Text Products," "Other Narrative Products," on the RLX web page, here.

They do, in fact, even go outside to get a sense of the weather. Sometimes people complain that forecasters "obviously haven't looked out the window," or "can't even get the first part of the forecast correct." Often times, they are issuing forecasts over large areas and long periods of time. In addition, they have to issue forecasts based on what is coming (obviously). If the sky is clear, but they can see a thick, low cloud shelf moving in, they may issue a forecast for the next hour for clouds, but the shelf may not arrive for 2 or 3 hours. It is a very tough business.

I asked about PIREPs, and everyone I talked to said they do look at them and wish there were more available. Reports are useful from any pilot (or even non-pilots, they complained about not having enough information about snowfall amounts in downtown Huntington.), about anything. Tops of clouds, or the top of the haze layer, or the temperature at any altitude, or even the fact that it is a clear day and the weather forecast was correct. The guys and gals there would be happy with any report, and I can now guarantee that any PIREP you guys may file will be looked at and used in increasing the accuracy of the forecast. I am going to try and make a habit of filing more PIREPs every flight. Not just on cross country trips, and not just when the weather is bad.

As I was leaving, Chris asked about any local pilot groups. He would like to make 3 or 4 presentations this spring to area pilots. I gave him the contact info for the FBO at the field, thanked them for their time, and went to lunch. By 1:30, I was starving. I walked outside into the snizzle (drizzle, only snow), as Ken has termed it, and started the hour drive home, wishing that I had access to that level of data and computer capacity every time I flew, it really makes the normal info available online look like kindergarten. Fortunately, the guys at RLX have pointed out a few more tools for me to use, I understand how the forecasts that I bet my safety on are created, and I have a lot more respect for the NWS. Based on the small facility size, small staff, and the huge benefits for all Americans; the NWS field offices are tax money well spent.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Winter is almost over...

...and I am getting set up to begin teaching as soon as the skies clear and the days are warm. Last week I bought CFI insurance. I also have a flight review to give to a friend who wants to start flying after a several-year hiatus. Also, Kat is back in town, so we can start training in the next week or two.

And, one of the most exciting random events of my life happened today. I got a call from the manager of the Ashland Airport. He invited me to come and instruct there as much as I want to or can! He is looking to expand his business if he can and plans on advertising, etc., and wants some new energy to help out the airport. I'm not sure how everything will pan out, but I'm very excited.

Also, tomorrow I'm going to visit the National Weather Service office in Charleston, WV, to talk to the forecasters and learn more about how the weather products that I and my students will depend on. I'll provide a complete write-up on that tomorrow.

Things are looking up, so check back in the next few weeks and see what I'll have been up to (hopefully - lots of flying!).