Student Pilot Guinea Pig

Today, I volunteered to be a student pilot guinea pig. 20160318_165108

A pilot is studying for his CFI rating and wanted practice showing and explaining maneuvers to someone who isn’t a current CFI. Me? I was thrilled to “help”. No logable hours, but it was fun.

He flies a Cherokee and today was my first time manipulating controls in a low wing aircraft.

Preflight was done before I got the airport. I let Mr. pre-CFI to do radio calls because I felt completely unprepared to do so (I haven’t touched controls in foreeeever – over a year; am not comfortable with it anymore). It was a good call, I couldn’t really even understand the runway Fairbanks ground told us to use.

I did my normal unsteady taxi to the runway. There had been quite a few inches of new snow on the ground this week which hadn’t been removed yet, so it was really impossible to see the pavement.

Runup had all the same checkpoints I’m used to in Cessnas. Take-off was normal and mostly along the centerline: yay me. Pre-CFI did a great job in talking  me though all procedures before it was my time to put hands on the controls. Even though I couldn’t explain or do any procedure he asked when first asked, after his explanations, it was all very doable.

We went out the practice area and did slow flight. Pull power, pull up, wait for white arc, add flaps. Turns with rudder control mostly. Climbs and descents by changing power. Seems so long ago that I first did that. And it was all too fast to truly appreciate it then. I feel really good about it all now.

4 steep turns, whee! The faster they’re done, the better one seems to stay on altitude. I need to stop taking forever to roll 45 degrees, it feels like cheating to roll slowly since you can circle about 180 degrees “getting” to the right bank angle. Adding a touch of power once you get to 30 degrees was something I can’t remember doing in the past. Maintaining altitude is now what I need to practice. Although it was all within +/- 100ft, I want to be better.

S-turns and turns about a point, also whee! As was explained to me, the easiest way is to pick your reference point/line/road. Then pick your radial distance from the reference. Then pick points on the Earth’s surface at the correct distances from that reference (clumps of trees, water features, etc). Simply aim to fly over your clumps of trees, water features, etc and you will automatically fly with the correct bank angles to compensate for winds without extra effort. Worked beautifully and it didn’t take any effort to maintain altitude.

Landings. Here is where it kinda fell apart. Trim was a turn handle above the head and I kept forgetting to adjust it (out of sight, out of mind). Downwind was easy but turns to base and final were very sloppy/round. Correct glideslope? Nope. Lined up remotely close? Nope. Kept rounding out too high and actual touchdown was way too far to the right of centerline (the entire plane was to the right of the centerline). To be fair, it was slightly gusty at the airport, but that’s no good excuse. Touchdown was pillowly soft on one landing and certainly harder than I’d like on the other two (not so terrible pre-CFI was going to step in, but embarrassing for myself). Pre-CFI says I’m being too hard on myself since I’ve never flown a low-wing aircraft, haven’t looked at anything flying related in about a year, and didn’t study for today’s impromptu flight since I only had 15 minutes to drive to the airport once I got the call. I’ll accept the compliment and be motivated to fly better.

Blue skies!!!
Blue skies!!! Lovely 1.5 hour flight today.

Floating Away: My First Hot Air Balloon Ride

I’m so in love. Hot air ballooning: the calmest flight experience I’ve ever had.

I love this shot

Today was another occasion where Groupon [and another similar discount pricing website] comes in handy for broadening my flight experience. I found a deal for a hot air balloon flight for any day, Monday-Friday. Thanks to Groupon, this balloon flight was the same price as renting one hour of solo C152 time in Fairbanks. You schedule a time online – either morning or evening – and check their webpage the night before to get a yes or no (pilot posts if the weather will be good enough to go). I originally had a flight scheduled for this past Friday, but wind forecasts were too strong for that morning. It was forecasted for 7kts but my pilot said he wanted less than 5kts. The flight was cancelled, but annoyingly, the winds were perfectly calm that morning. Darn. The pilot tells me that 60% of morning (6am) flights end up going, but only about 20% of evening (6pm) flights usually happen – helpful hint in case you are planning your own trip.

Today’s (Monday) flight schedule was completely open because thunderstorms were forecasted. I didn’t believe bad weather was on the way because the weekend was supposed to be sunny&calm and the rest of the week is supposed to be sunny&calm – Monday was supposedly an anomalous day – but there were no clouds forecasted to roll in over time or anything (just how were these rain clouds going to get here?). I placed my bets that it would be a gorgeous, non-windy morning and scheduled a flight.

I won my bet.

Flight is on!

I met the pilot and the chase car driver in a parking lot at 6am. This Virginia parking lot was a 2 hour drive from my rental house near NASA Goddard….I started driving at 3:30am, mmm, yawn.

4 passengers were on the schedule, including myself, but the other people forgot they had their flight this morning. WHO FORGETS THEY HAVE A HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE? I have been jazzed for the flight since I bought the ticket over a month ago. Heck, I’m still excited even though it’s over. It worked out for me however; I ended up having a fantastic private ride as the only passenger.

The pilot started the morning by releasing a test balloon (a normal black party balloon filled with helium) and watching it rise through the air.

Test balloon #1; balloon released up into the Virginia morning (it’s the small black speck in the sky)

To my untrained eye, it looked like it rose up fairly vertical, minor drift. Pilot said yes to going, so we all piled into the chase van.

On the way to the launch site, the pilot called flight services to get the weather. I felt like a dummy at how surprised I was that balloons have N-numbers. It proceeded like weather briefings I’m used to, with the exception of the pilot requesting the additional, more unusually specific information for winds from ground to 3000′ in several local areas.

We pulled into a local open spot and released another test balloon. The pilot explained that he was looking specifically at what the winds were doing about 200′ off the ground. We didn’t want much wind at all at that height. Didn’t want fast winds at launch. Balloon cruise altitudes can be somewhat quick (say ~20kts on a fast day). As one descends, coming down into a layer of slow air will slow the balloon down for landing (I supposed this was important at launch too in case we needed to abort for some reason). Other hints for winds include what tree tops were doing (completely still this morning).

a blurry (sorry) picture of our launch site
Pilot and chase car driver watching test balloon #2

Winds at 200′ were about 7kts so waited a few minutes and launched test balloon #3. It was about the same, smidge slower, and the pilot decided to go ahead with a launch. He and the chase car driver pulled the balloon and basket out of their trailer. They set up 2 large fans to fill the balloon about 3/4 full with cold air.

The black bag holds all the balloon fabric. You can see the basket in the trailer
Balloon unrolled
 One of two fans used to fill the balloon. Wooden blades!
One of two fans used to fill the balloon. Wooden blades!

The balloon basket is laid on its side for it’s initial filling (cold air). Yes, it does have an airworthiness certificate! (oh, the facts I find myself amused by….)

Balloon basket ready for filling. The white strap going around the frame is a handhold. At the basket corners, you can see two of the four propane canisters used to generate our hot air. Burner is the metal contraption above the basket frame. Yellow loops are hand holds. Redish pouch is for stowing gear (say during landing). Above the storage pouch is a mini-control panel.

Upon seeing the basket size, I was glad I was flying alone. Imagine fitting four people and a pilot in there.

If I recall correctly, the balloon fabric is about 200 lbs and the basket is about 500 lbs (fully loaded with the propane and everything) [I hope those numbers are right…don’t quote me on them]. The fabric is polyester which lasts longer than nylon; I think it is lighter too. It doesn’t need to be washed and maintenance involves: letting it dry if it gets wet and doing a resealing process perhaps twice in its lifetime. Today’s balloon is at least 9 years old; well, that was the last time the pilot put it through a resealing process.

I helped the pilot hold the balloon’s bottom open so fan air could go in to it. As the balloon filled, the pilot walked straight into the polyester bubble and made adjustments to…stuff on the inside. I couldn’t really see. I really wish I had a photo of that. After a bit, the pilot lit the three burners. If you look closely in this photo, you can see the blue flame of one of them:

Lighting the pilot lights

Here are the best pictures I have of filling the balloon on the ground. I was standing at the frame of the basket, holding some of the lines. That burner gets quite hot.

Filling the balloon with hot air
Filling the balloon as it lays on the ground
Balloon wanting to ‘just get up in the air already’ as the pilot fiddles with an altimeter/VSI (vertical speed indicator). Meanwhile, I’m getting a little bit of the feeling Dorothy had in the Wizard of Oz: that “wait! don’t leave without me!” thing.
Balloon looking good. I just missed the N number in this shot, it’s printed in small black font on one of the white fabric panels.

I climbed up into the basket (no doors) and we were off. There is a picture of the step viewed from the inside of the basket a little further down in this post.

The whole experience was so smooth – I was very surprised. Smoother and quieter than being in a glider. There were no noticeable G’s being pulled – neither positive nor negative G’s – which was unsettling [at first] because we were certainly moving both up and laterally. So strange.

Altimeter and vertical speed indicator
Altimeter (bottom) and vertical speed indicator (top), moments after balloon launch
Launch site. You can see the trailer and van at photo bottom.

I was so busy enjoying the Shenandoah Valley that I didn’t get photos of the blue ridge mountains nor any of the other peaks pointed out to me, but I did eventually get around to photo taking:

This was the view as we got in the air
Gotta love sunrises
The hole is the step one can use to get into the basket from the outside. The pilot usually just took to hopping in and out like some gymnast
Christmas tree farm
More hot air!

This hot air was surprisingly hot. I started out needing a light jacket but definitely did not need it from the middle of the flight onwards.


The big white building is where we launched from.
Control panel. We have an app pulled up showing heading, speed, etc.

The pilot also flies larger (12 person?) balloons for large groups – like on weekends when most people don’t have to work. If I remember correctly, that one has 3 burners and one control area in the center. I would love to fly in that someday. It’s supposed to be super stable, even as people are walking around during flight. This 5 person balloon I flew in already felt incredibly stable as the pilot and I moved around the basket – interesting to think of something being even more ‘still’. Do you know the feeling of walking to the lavatory in a commercial jet? Even in the smoothest of air, there are ever so slight bumps? The constant vibration of the engines? Hot air ballooning is nothing like that. I didn’t need to be looking at the pilot to know when he took a step or two in the basket, but the bumps were barely noticeable.

We did not get turbulence today, but I was told that if we did, it wouldn’t feel bumpy like in a plane, it would just feel like we were speeding up and slowing down.


When the burners weren’t going, it was basically stone quiet (except the slight hiss of the three pilot lights telling us they were still lit).

I love heights. The cute flame logo all over the basket was fun.


After a bit of searching, I found our shadow. Got some neat selfies with the balloon shadow behind me.
I noticed our shadow sure freaked out the beef cattle all over the valley. They ran for tree cover as the shadow glided close to them.


Coming in to land in the subdivision over yonder in this picture

All too soon, it was time to land. The pilot had landing sites picked out all over the place. We were in frequent contact with the chase car driver who provided surface level wind information via test balloons and hand held radio. Pilot readied a line to throw down to him in case we needed it (we didn’t). Landing for a balloon passenger means stowing away breakables in a storage bag, holding on to the yellow loops shown in the first basket picture above, no hands outside the basket (on the rim), being prepared for the basket to tip over, stay standing (not crouching), and bending your knees.

Slight bump as we landed upright on this lovely lawn. This neighborhood has residents who have agreed to let Don land his balloons here. People still came out of the houses to watch the pack up process – not that I blame them – what a strange morning sight…
After landing, I saw 2 short utility poles in front of us. This picture the was the view from the ‘back’ – another pole I didn’t see at all! Impressed the pilot avoided obstacles from all sides (although we did clip three leaves off a tree – which helped to slow us down a bit).
Immediately after landing, the balloon still seemed to have plenty of lift. The pilot and I are still in the balloon (see our shadows?) and the chase car driver is walking us over to a larger lawn to deflate the balloon.
A fantastic trip! Followed by a sparking cider toast; mmm grape bubbly.

This was a roughly 10 mile float that was about 50 minutes long.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 5.16.45 PM
Our route went pretty much straight north east
Speed graph of the balloon flight (I started recording a few minutes after launch)
Balloon trip altitude (I started graphing a few minutes after launch, ignore the bump at the end)

You’ll notice our flight path went up and down throughout the trip. This was controlled by the pilot to take advantage of wind speeds and directions at different altitudes.

This trip only used about 15 gallons of propane I think. We were carrying 40-something pounds because the original flight was for four passengers and one pilot. Since we were so light, we used less fuel (only had to switch tanks once). The balloon was also quieter and less hot than if there were more passengers (burners didn’t need to be used as much as for a heavier basket).

My pilot mentioned that when he was learning hot air ballooning, he only flew Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays – it took him a year to get his license (plus a little more to get to fly balloons commercially). He assures me the transition from fixed wing isn’t bad. Hmmm…..

The entire experience was so amazing. I definitely want a hot air balloon someday. At this moment, I want one more than a fixed wing plane.

If I got to do this every morning, I would definitely become a morning person.

Logging Aerobatics Flight Time in a North American SNJ-4

This is such a pretty plane, a 1943 North American SNJ-4, WW2 fighter pilot training plane (also known as a T6 Texan but the SNJ is the Navy version?):

1943 North American SNJ-4

And I got to fly it this morning!!! This plane is visiting Fairbanks, Alaska this summer with its amazing pilot, Andy Bibber (long time Alaskan bush pilot and CFII). Rumor has it that he is self taught in aerobatics (that statement is hearsay but I really believe it to be true) which is fascinating to me because he is so sharp, so on top of every little thing that happens in the air. If you are in Fairbanks between now and September 2015, I highly recommend calling him to take a flight – it’s worth the money because let’s be honest, where/when else are you going to be able to fly in a machine so unique? (call 907-474-0099 – that isn’t his direct number but I will update this post when I find his card) Andy is also bringing a biplane to Fairbanks that quite a few pilots are really excited to be trying out in mid-July.

So you approach the plane from the left:

1943 North American SNJ-4 (I admit I haven’t done much research on the plane but here is some open source information:

Put on a parachute that also doubles as a seat cushion. Something like this:

And climb into the back seat. I don’t feel my pictures accurately show how big the plane is. I’m about 5’1″ and I was just tall enough to grab one foot peg and still swing my left leg onto the black grippy portion of the wing.

4 point seatbelt attached. Was told I could leave the canopy open – heck yes, it was lovely outside. Safety briefing paraphrased by me: Pilot: ‘if anything happens I’ll say “bail-out, bail-out, bail-out”. You open the canopy by pulling the red handle and pushing the clear overhead dome forward.’

Red handle of canopy, open canopy as seen from back seat of SNJ-4
Red handle of canopy, open canopy as seen from back seat of SNJ-4

Safety briefing continued: ‘Detach seatbelt and dive for the trailing edge of the wing. The plane is moving so the horizontal stabilizer (attached to plane tail) won’t hit you.’ Gee thanks for that last line?

Aiming point in case of bail-out.
Aiming point in case of bail-out.

I’m left to ponder the instrument panel and other plane parts as the pilot put on his parachute and climbed in.

SNJ-4 rear seat instrument panel
SNJ-4 rear seat instrument panel
Trim wheel to my left: wow that’s big. Flaps like the electric flaps I used in the 172.
Throttle, mixture, and prop control in middle of picture. Mags underneath. Landing gear lights at picture right.
No yoke - I get to use a stick! And for the first time, rudder pedals that were comfortable for my very short height!
No yoke – I get to use a stick! And for the first time, rudder pedals (adjustable) that were comfortable for my very short height!

Five shots of primer sounded [and looked] like 20 (I could see some moving parts from the back). Engine was turned on and we were waiting the good long while needed for the oil temperature to rise high enough. It was as this point that I dropped my phone like a n00b. It fell into the large open area underneath my seat, at least a foot and a half below where I could reach. Darn it. The pilot climbed out, removed his parachute, opened the rear storage, climbed into the open space beneath my seat, and retrieved my phone. Embarrassing. Reminder for all future flights where I intend to go upside down: bring the phone holster and clip to attach it to my body for hands free pictures.

Taxi to the runnup area at 2R. It’s funny that none of the plane’s occupants can see out the front of the plane (extreme tailwheel). Taxiing was accomplished with wide S turns across the entire width of the taxiway for the long haul out to 2R (taxiway length traveled: approximately 6500ft (1.2 miles!)) – nice to go crazy with large slow turns (from my perspective as a student pilot in a Cessna who is required to do normal boring straight taxis).

Normal runnup as I’ve done in the Cessnas but with the added step of checking the propeller (as I’ve seen from flights in any of my flight school’s Pipers).

Ready for takeoff, 2R, PAFA
Ready for takeoff, 2R, PAFA

Takeoff felt the same as it always does except that the cockpit was open. Similar to my ride in a biplane, the air rushing by felt amazing. It was an incredible morning in Fairbanks: so beautiful and the colors so vivid.

Just took off from runway 2R at PAFA, looking back at the airport.
Just took off from runway 2R at PAFA, looking back at the airport.

As soon as we got the ‘turn on course’ okay from Fairbanks departure, the pilot took us for a [unexpected from my perspective] steep left turn. Oh boy, what have I signed up for?!? Exciting! The controls were handed fully over to me (pilot put his hands in the air above his head at one point, haha) and we flew out to the Goldstream area. This plane is so fast compared to anything I’ve piloted! Exhilarating!

When leveling out at 4000 ft, CFI suggested I use trim. I turned the wheel for nose down trim as much as I normally would in a 152 … and the plane did a dramatic-feeling pitch down- oops, light touch, tiny movements – must remember that. I was told to do two turns, did shallow left and right turns (15 degrees or so) because I was too nervous to go steeper – AHHH, I missed out. I was happy with my altitude holding on the right turn, but the left felt like a sine wave disaster (wavering about 300ft off my desired altitude at the worst of it).

Then we moved to the aerobatics portion of the flight. We closed the front and back canopies because if the engine caught fire in a maneuver and the canopy was open, the flames would come into the cockpit – yeah, let’s avoid that. Pilot said we should head 180 degrees away from the hills before starting an aileron roll; he just pulls the stick so we go up and over – no time for this straight and level turn business I suppose! 🙂 Pilot talked through the main points of each maneuver; I did my best to remember and follow everything going on, but I make no guarantees to the accuracy of anything I’ve typed here. I also suggest watching the following video clips without sound because it is just loud engine noise.

First up: aileron roll to left and the right. (I thought we started at 4000 ft, pitched down for airspeed of 140 kts, pulled up, entered roll…this isn’t supported by my video as far as I can tell…..but I feel my memory was allowed to be wonky today; after the first roll, I suddenly realized I hadn’t taken my motion sickness pill [because I got the dizzy feeling I remember from my time on boats], oh no).

Did 2 loops. Started at 4000 ft, pitch down for airspeed of 160 kts and pull back for loop. Had extra airspeed after the loops so we also ended the loops with some rolls.

Hammerhead maneuver, I don’t even remember any airspeed numbers. Textbook says: 1/4 of a loop; executed by pulling up from level flight. All I remember are the words ‘and we don’t stall because the plane doesn’t stop flying’ (?)….but I was definitely feeling the effects of motion sickness (sudden extreme headache, a desire to find a plastic bag….[but never needed the bag, yay!]) by this point, so take what you will from my words. Also had enough airspeed to end in a roll I believe. The hammerhead was striking to me because it felt so gentle. Nothing like a stall in a C150/C152 (which was what I was expecting).

Then, all too soon, going back to PAFA:

Fairbanks International Airport, PAFA
Fairbanks International Airport (PAFA), and the greater Fairbanks area as viewed from inside the SNJ-4

Opening the canopy for fresh air helped immensely. I haven’t gotten motion sickness in small planes before, but I now thoroughly understand the importance of (and will appreciate) fresh air vents.

A marvelous flight overall and 0.6 hours of SNJ-4 time in my logbook. Would love to learn more aerobatics in the future (as long as I set reminders to take my meclizine – even now, 12 hours later, my head still aches if I turn my head too fast).

Ah Fairbanks, no wonder people save up for years to visit here. I love living here.

Fairbanks, Alaska 1am on an early June evening, looking north

Piloting the C172

Ah, I break my personal ‘rule’ again: flying while not having enough money completely finish my training and take the checkride. In all fairness though, my favorite CFI4 is leaving the Fairbanks area for good and it was probably my last flight with him, aw 😦

The only plane available was the 172 – a really nice 183hp plane, digital tach and electric flaps (hold the lever down 3 seconds for each 10 degrees of flaps). I’ve only ever piloted Cessna 150s and 152s (w/ roughly 125hp max) so the extra power I knew the 172 had was intimidating – especially since I wasn’t expecting to fly today and definitely had not done any of the normal studying of procedures I would have done.

CFI4 suggested we go to the practice area, do steep turns, slow flight, stalls, and come back for some pattern work. All these would be really good for me to get use to the 172; because there is more power than in a 150/152, more right rudder is needed to counteract the left-turning tendency. Not using the rudders was something I’ve been able to get away with in most of my past flights – something I’m actively aware of and know that I need to fix. “Don’t get behind on flying the plane” said CFI4….mmm, I’d love not to but we shall see.

Took off on 20L and immediately saw what CFI4 meant about needing more right rudder. It was a really good workout and surprising to me how much pressure was needed.

My steep turn to the right (45 degrees) was okay except I forgot which heading to roll out on. Steep turn to the left was okay except I accidentally lost about 200ft in altitude. Got a little light-headed in the turns today which surprised me. Must remember to ask if there is something extra I could have done to avoid it.

Power on stall – since we were using full power, an incredible amount of right rudder was necessary to keep us straight (were pointing at the thick black smoke cloud from the fire in North Pole). I was anticipating a dramatic stall but it was shockingly mild.

This distant smoke plume (I was about 30 miles away from this) made a good aiming point for doing my stalls []
Next, power off stalls. I finally understood how much pressure is needed to keep from turning in slow flight today (a question I remember I had in 2013 – but no one had really demonstrated the answer to me). Again, incredibly mild stalls where I only felt a slight flutter while sitting in my seat. Pulling the yoke back was really hard for me – I definitely felt the post-workout burn in my forearms afterwards. It kinda didn’t feel fair to have to those scary sharp stalls if one flies a 150/152; one could avoid them by having more money to fly the 172 😉

Flying the pattern: not my best work ever but truly not bad either – especially with the gusty crosswind. It looked like I had finally understood the crosswind last-minute-‘kick-it-straight-with-rudder’ move on final, yay. After pulling the engine to idle and flaring, pulling back on the yoke took considerable effort and both hands for me – not something I think I’ve ever needed before. Maybe today’s lesson is really highlighting my need to visit a gym 😉

A fancy-pants picture of the Fairbanks east ramp. The 172 I flew is silhouetted (dark and moody) at the bottom of the picture.
A fancy-pants picture of the Fairbanks east ramp. The 172 I flew is silhouetted (dark and moody) at the bottom of the picture.

Back in the air again

On a whim earlier this week, I ended up at the flight school and went home with up with a flight block with CFI7. I was incredibly nervous because I hadn’t flown since last June – almost 11 months ago! It has been impossible finding the money to completely finish my private pilot license – and as I’ve said before, it makes no sense to start and stop and start and stop – one should have the money to go all the way through before starting (and that’s why I’ve done nothing with flying lately….). Monetarily, I’m currently nowhere near close to being able to finish my PPL, but I missed flying, so I ignored my own advice for this one-off lesson.

As of last June, the last things I needed to do before my checkride were one last long cross country flight and the demonstration to a flight instructor that I could fly the plane to the private pilot test standards (who knows how long that would take eh? 😉 ). We started today’s lesson with a nice verbal review of the important numbers: RPM and speeds needed for normal flight/slow flight/at different points in the pattern.

Was this the plane we saw the handcuffed person being escorted to? Could be...strange day at the airport.
Was this the plane we saw the handcuffed person being escorted to? Could be…strange day at the airport.

Today’s tasks: Went out to the practice area, did level turns, climbing turns, slow flight. Then turns, climbs, and descents in slow flight. Back to airport for touch-and-goes (with a level descent along the way). At the beginning of the lesson, CFI7 had asked me if I had any preferences for what to do – my mind was a blank. I had realized that the whole flight training thing encompasses so much and I felt I needed help in absolutely everything. But I should remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the same holds here. When I finally go to finish the private pilot license, today’s tasks are a fabulous ‘first’ itinerary to do again.

Lovely Fairbanks flying weather
Lovely Fairbanks flying weather

I surprised myself with how much I remembered – radio calls, slow flight, and more. I would have loved to have had more time to actually practice maintaining the altitude I wanted (my performance was still kinda okay) and touch-and-goes (my timing for flaring is way off). It felt like most of my flight today was spent in slow flight. Truthfully, I’d never felt super comfortable with slow flight before today – I could do it, sure, but in the past, it felt that the instructors would ask me to go into slow flight, watch me accomplish it, and then quickly transition to something more “exciting” to them like stalls. I’m thinking I should have asked for an entire hour of slow flight earlier to have acquired this level of comfort sooner (I feel the other instructors think an hour of slow flight would have been a ‘waste of my money’ because it should be something I could acclimate to when setting up for and practicing stalls – they’re right of course, but I needed more practice with just slow flight stuff).

Flying Vehicle Without an Engine (Oooo)

I spent all summer in the Washington DC area. It was great fun but living inside the flight restricted zone mostly wasn’t as a budding pilot. Oh sure, flying commercially on business into BWI, IAD, and DCA afforded picture opportunities like this:

Great view of the capitol from a DCA taxiway

But the ‘local’ flight schools were really far. All but two places I looked at didn’t have 152s, only 172s, 182s. Sure, I could learn the 172 or 182 systems – not too hard…. But that and my work at NASA meant I didn’t look to go flying until today. A fellow student at my flight school used to fly gliders ‘locally’ and suggested I try it. Flying without an engine? Ah, why not? I’m no expert in gliders and it’s very possible I’ve written things wrong here, but I will try to describe my flight experience.

It was a cloudy day when I pulled up to a small Virginia airport. I was thinking “Oh no, this was my only time in the area before going back to Fairbanks, will anyone even go up if there may not be any thermals? There’s always a *chance* we’d find a pocket of warm air right? I mean, you can go soaring in winter….” I watched as the group gently guided the gliders out of their hangar to the grass staging area.

“Let’s go” said the instructor right away. I was really hoping to watch others in the soaring club go first, but no biggie because this was a very light intro flight with some sightseeing. We climbed into the painted canvas skinned SGS 2-33 (I had a heck of a time figuring out the seatbelt, the exposed hook system wasn’t what I was expecting); me in front, instructor in back. All our favorite instruments were there without the added complication of a radio panel. Our [handheld] radio hung from the instructor’s lanyard. Recalling some of my previous posts, “yay, no earplugs!” In addition to the inclinometer, there was a red yarn tied to the pitot tube coming straight up from the cowling in the middle of our ‘straight on’ field of view. Yarn straight back means you aren’t turning; deflection to either side means you are. The instructor had all the same controls that I did except trim (a simple enough tensioned metal lever). Cool, ready for takeoff.

We were hooked to the tow plane and the glider was walked into place. The glider has two wheels on the body, one in front of the other (one at mid-body, one at tail), and wheels on each wing. It was basically riding on a sort of top; without support or enough momentum, we’d ‘fall over’ onto one of the wingtip wheels.

Our glider looked something like this []
A few last words: if the tow rope breaks shortly after takeoff, we can turn around and land on the same runway. Pretty cool to be in something that needs so little runway to land.

With the words “Ready for tow”, the tow plane started moving and the instructor did tons of of rudder work to keep us in the right direction. I never even noticed when we’d left the ground – one second we were rolling and the next we were a couple feet up. The tow plane took longer to become airborne. Instructor had told me that the only job is to stay level, no rotation at takeoff or landing – just stay flat. Interesting experience.

Once airborne, our goal was to stay behind the tow plane.  Pitch up if you were low, let the plane come up to you if you were high. At our desired height, I got to pull a release knob and we were on our own. The tow plane got to dive left away from us as quick as possible (totally awesome sounding job btw) and we went right. We flew around for a bit (with the instructor looking for thermals I think) and me trying to orient myself to the airport and local sights. For me, even though it was a small mountainside-ish town, it was the most populated area I’d ever really ‘piloted’ over.

The instructor guided me through some turns (Oh my usual lazy use of rudders wasn’t going to do in this glider!) It felt so steep I was sure I was doing something wrong, but the instructor later pointed out that the most efficient glider turns were 45 degrees – oh okay. He took the controls and did a stall.  Oh my! So gentle! No spins in that particular glider we were in, but possible in the club’s other glider. We also did a few slips.

I took the next few moments to snap some pictures:








All too soon, it was time to land, aw. We flew a left hand pattern and lined up on the runway. I was super shocked as we touched down.  *Incredibly* bumpy and rough without the normal Cessna hydraulic systems I was used to and expecting. We stopped on the runway and a car came to meet us and pull the glider to the taxiway and back to the original staging area.

This is the other glider of the day, coming in to land.
This is the other glider of the day, coming in to land.

Yay, so now I have my first 0.3 piloting hours logged in the lower 48. It was an incredibly expensive 0.3 in comparison to my powered flight lessons in Fairbanks, but I had a really great time and can’t wait to go again after I finish my private pilot certificate.

Biplane Ride

Promotional marketing emails are annoying but I chose to keep getting them because every once in a while, there are actual exciting offers. was offering deals on biplane rides in Atlanta and since I visit there frequently, I had to go for it!

We met at DeKalb–Peachtree Airport (KPDK) and got obligatory pictures with the plane, a New Standard D-25A.

We got to wear goggles and a nifty hat

The four passengers sit in rows of two up front and the pilot sits in the very back. I admit I am continually disappointed to be handed earplugs as a passenger (same thing as a float plane charter passenger in Juneau). I know the average passenger doesn’t care to hear aviation radio chatter, but some of us do!

I was expecting the open cockpit to have a very noticeable “wind in my face” effect but I didn’t really notice it at all. The form fitting hat helped of course – there was no hair swirling around my head to evoke feelings of wind.

Buildings of downtown Atlanta
Wow, Friday traffic already?
Metro Atlanta

Atlanta’s capitol building is covered with gold leaf – a throwback to the gold rush in Dahlonega, GA. It wasn’t super sunny out so it took me a while to find the shiny dome. The gold is worn away by rain (a bit of acid rain since it is an urban area) over time and it is resurfaced every so often.

Gold dome of Atlanta’s capitol building
Georgia Dome and the downtown ferris wheel, both peeking out from behind buildings

On the way back, we got a nice view of the famous Stone Mountain (sometimes called “the largest exposed piece of granite in the world” – although I’m still looking for a good science reference to that fact).

The famous Stone Mountain on the horizon

For landing we were encouraged to lean towards the sides of the plane so the pilot could see where we were going.

Biplane shadow, turning final
Biplane landing runway 21R

Overall, a fun plane ride. Worth it for the experience (although still a wee bit expensive for my taste).

Crosswind Landings

Some ridiculous winds we’re having in Fairbanks this year!

Ick, look at how the wind is bending that tree at the entrance to the general aviation area of PAFA
Ick, look at how the wind is bending that tree at the entrance to the general aviation area of PAFA. Fairbanks is usually never windy – except this year.

The plan was to try and to finish my solo cross country flight hours today but at 6am, the clouds were too low, mountain obscuration AIRMET, yada (including an Alaskan volcano SIGMET – although it wouldn’t have been a factor for me). Yucky weather forecasted all day.

I had the plane booked anyways so it was supposedly a good time to practice solo landings. Light winds straight down the runway before 7am, cool.

As soon as I got to the airport at 8 though, the winds started to pick up and the crosswind kept increasing, peaking around 7knots I think. Darn. Do preflight anyways.

I went inside to get someone to help me loosen the dipstick for me to finish preflighting and CFI2 asked me what my aeronautical decision making steps were telling me.

I really didn’t want to deal with the winds alone and I did say so (not that CFI2 or CFI4 going to let me do so regardless). The Fairbanks DPE happened to be sitting in the office listening to my logic and that made it really easy to just decide not to go up alone. Honestly though, if he wasn’t sitting there, I don’t know if I would have been as fast in deciding not to go alone. That worries me a bit (although I don’t know whether or not it should because I know I wouldn’t have chosen to go alone. Does the speed of my decision matter?)

CFI2 and I did some touch-and-goes and I have the following reminders and notes for myself:

  • I raise the nose too high on takeoff- keep nose wheel only a few inches off runway til I build enough speed.
  • Even after the mains are airborne, I need to pitch down more (adjust my personal sight picture).
  • On downwind, reduce power setting so airspeed doesn’t really exceed 85 (in the 152)-oh, that’s why these rpms are so much lower than cruise, i finally get it.
  • As soon as one is on final, can go ahead and use rudder to keep straight, don’t need to wait if you’re on glidepath
  • The PAPIs were being fixed in between my landings so I had to wait for tower to call my base and the maintenance guy to clear the runway. Extending downwind wasn’t a problem (traffic pattern @PAFA- hold at 1200′ until base turn), but I usually got low on final and wasn’t proactive enough in getting back on glidepath. (Side note: amazing how they get anything done since they can only work ~3 minutes at a time)
  • Don’t forget about the final notch of flaps.
  • Pitch needs to be constant, control airspeed with power, stop getting so slow. Or fast.
  • 20′ off runway: don’t stop flying the plane til you’re at taxi speed. The variable speed crosswinds are getting annoying.
  • With a crosswind, want to carry in a bit of power til you’re on the runway.
  • Power completely off immediately 7after touching down, especially with a crosswind. Stop landing in such a flat configuration.
  • Do the correct crosswind taxi aileron and elevator positioning.

I was so nervous about this flight: 1 there was a light rain, 2. This flight was after I’d been allowed to do the solo cross country so I wanted very much to show I knew what I was doing, 3. It was CFI2.

I can and should be doing better, and it is sad I am not.

No Long Cross Country Flight – but Lots of Turns About a Point

I had planned a nice long cross country flight above the arctic circle (finally! I’ve always wanted to go!) to Fort Yukon and Birch Creek today but it wasn’t meant to be.

Proposed cross country route: Fairbanks, Fort Yukon, Birch Creek, Fairbanks. PAFA – PFYU – Z91 – PAFA []. About 3 hours round trip.
Flight block at 8am again…and I was late, again. You’d think I would have learned after yesterday that I should have started my wind calculations earlier – especially since they are published at 6am. I did start around 6:50am – but based on a comment from CFI7 yesterday (and the fact I got a little lost on that trip), I put in a lot of checkpoints (about one every 10 flight minutes) in my plan it it took forever to do all the calculations. (Note from the office: I may want to reconsider the 8500′ altitude above the White Mountains. It’ll take forever in the 152 and probably burn more fuel than I’d want. But my other option is 6500′ which to me, just skims the 5500′ peaks. I want the altitude….hm, I’ll do some more thinking. I’m okay with doing a route around the peaks, but won’t that take longer? And good old Bernoulli…what about increased winds through the lower lying areas?)

CFI2 made a comment about a great tailwind going to PFYU which didn’t match my calculations. I realized I’d done the wind correction angle calculations wrong and had to do everything again, wind correction angle, ground speed, fuel, time, uggggggg. I know most modern E6B’s have abbreviated instructions printed on them but I’m using my dad’s from the 1970s…I need to look into printing a laminated reference card for myself.

The plane needed fuel and I also had to fill up three 2.5 gallon fuel canisters to take with me (no fuel at my destinations). I didn’t want to risk exploding so I had to wait for CFI1 to find me some grounding straps. Fueling plastic containers on pavement prevents static build-up just fine, but I’m still curious if one can really ground plastic containers by connecting a copper alligator clip to it and sticking a metal stake in the ground (for filling a plane via the plastic containers).

The rudder was flat, but the angle it hung at was crooked. My school had also rigged up a contraption with foam, PVC, and bungee cords to keep the rudder from banging in the wind – which I had never seen before. I wouldn’t have questioned the contraption except for the rudder angle…Had to wait to someone to help me look at the plane. Crooked rudder has happened to me before so you’d think I’d remember how to check if there was a problem, but I didn’t. Resolution: The plane was parked with the nosewheel slightly crooked (one rudder peddle pushed in). If the rudder angle straightens out when the peddles are pushed even, then you’re fine (or if you’re strong enough, you can manually straighten out the nosewheel).

Then I had to deal with contact lenses (I didn’t put them in early morning because I currently live on an annoying dormitory style floor with communal bathroom), forgetting to grab a headset from the school, forgetting to grab my borrowed kneeboard from the school, carrying out the 25lbs of survival gear, setting up a GoPro, setting up my charts. It was about 10:30am before I was ready to leave. Oops. CFI2 seemed a little annoyed that I was taking so long.

I was finally all set when something crazy happened: the plane wouldn’t start.

Had to go inside and explain it really wasn’t my fault that time. I really wanted to go fly. Had someone else check that the plane indeed really wouldn’t start (I’d been mistaken twice before in the past – forgetting the fuel valve and forgetting to turn on the master)… but nope, it really wouldn’t start.

The mechanic wasn’t in yet that morning so I had to wait for him to get to work; then wait for him to do the inspection. Turns out it was a bad solenoid, but the part was instantly available. It was about noon before the plane was ready to go.

CFI2 said I wasn’t allowed to go on my long cross county because another student needed the plane at 3pm. All the office people had a debate about the FARs and discovered a long cross country is no longer needed. My flight yesterday met the regs I think. We considered having me just redo my route from yesterday to get the required 5 hours of solo cross country time, but there was slowly eastward moving MVFR just west of PAML that made me nervous. I decided not to risk it. CFI2 gave me the task of going out and doing turns about a point and S-turns in the practice area. There was a strong east wind which would be ‘fun’. Meh.

The school’s mechanic had taken the other 152 out about 5 minutes before I went, and we were both in the practice area. I never saw him but he did see me when he exited the area. I knew he was in the south practice area so I tried to stay north, near the Clear Creek Butte. But then I was afraid of getting too close to the butte during maneuvers. CFI2 told me to be 1000′ AGL but it took me a while to get comfortable being that ‘low’. By then though, the other 152 went back and I had free reign of the area.

I had spent all the time up to this point looking for the road and random cement truck I’d previously used in training – but I couldn’t find them. Apparently they are north of Clear Creek Butte. I didn’t think that was part of the practice area, darn. There aren’t any roads to speak of south of Clear Creek (straight or otherwise) – and the water is all squiggly, but there were plenty of tree clumps, small ponds, and strange colored land splotches for turns about a point.

Clear Creek Butte ahead
Clear Creek Butte ahead

CFI3 later mentioned that when practicing maneuvers, he didn’t want me practicing more than sets of 3 at a time. Do 3 practices (ex s-turns) and then move on – even if the practices were complete crap – it prevents one from practicing bad habits. I can agree with that – my first 3 or so turns about a point were okayish (±100 feet but I really want ±50 before the checkride) – but they definitely deteriorated as I kept going (my wind correction skills got consistently worse).

Came back to land and got my dreaded straight in for runway 2R. As usual, I was high and fast and able to fix it all in time, but I know I work way more during my landings than my instructors would like me to have to. Sigh. My crosswind corrections are still atrocious. I was great until about 20′ off the runway and then I landed nowhere near centerline. What did the instructors call it, “got-it-made” syndrome? Guilty.

It was a nice sightseeing trip for me – not really worth the training money since I didn’t do any hardcore practicing of anything – but fun I suppose.

CFI1 and CFI3 both mentioned that it was probably good that I didn’t do either cross country trips. 1. winds north of Fairbanks had picked up through the day – more than originally forecasted – and 2. it was raining to the west. Also, I was lucky the plane refused to start in Fairbanks rather than after I landed at Fort Yukon or Birch Creek (no facilities nor mechanics there to help). Everything happens for a reason I guess?

First Solo Cross Country Flight!

I did it. I managed to leave the Fairbanks airport, find destination airports, and make it back.

Screen shot 2014-05-29 at 8.43.58 PM
Solo Cross Country Flight Route: PAFA – PAML – PANN – PAFA []. Normally takes 1.5 hours in a 152.
My flight block started at 8am – not my favorite time of the day – but I needed to avoid the winds and thermals of the Alaskan afternoon. I’d done true course and altitude planning and weight and balance calculations the day before (and I was flying the same route as my night cross country) so I wasn’t worried about needing a lot of time to do my final wind calculations (I was wrong). The winds aloft for the morning are updated at 6am but I’ve since learned that starting calculations at 7am is too late due to how slow I currently do the math.

Because I was slightly late, another student was allowed to use my plane for a short solo practice run while I got the xc endorsement from CFI7. When I filed my flight plan at 9am, I was speaking to the same briefer who’d given me the FSS tour yesterday, ha! You can tell he spends too much time on the radio & phone because he recognized me from just my undistinctive voice ;). Today I learned that flight plans not activated are automatically deleted from the system after 2 hours.

There was full fuel when the other student started …and she was only in the air for half an hour (burning ~4 gallons, and leaving me way more than enough fuel for my trip)…but I still wanted to top off the tanks before leaving. Delay, delay, delay – part of me was still secretly hoping to find a way out of going because I was so apprehensive. I hadn’t been allowed to do solo work since November because all my flights had been when it was too windy. I really wanted to do a loop out to the practice area first to ensure I’d actually be able to find PAFA from the air…but the other part of me didn’t understand my own apprehension. This year, I’d been doing fine at recognizing airports from a distance. Plus, I had GPS, Fairbanks’ VOR, and once near Fairbanks, I could get radar vectors at any time.

I finally got going at 10am.

My first “passenger” as PIC. He’ll be guarding the legally required survival gear for this trip. He’s developed a pinhole leak since my first solo flight and I haven’t had to to re-inflate.

TRSA departure on 2R, easy enough to handle. But I was having the same sidetone and volume issues as on a previous flight so I missed when tower told me to contact departure. Ended up flying across the entire city of Fairbanks before I was able to ask to switch to departure and turn on course:

UAF. Hey look, I live in that building down there!
UAF. Hey look, I live in that building down there!

I saw Murphy Dome:

Murphy Dome
Murphy Dome

Hey…that means I’m about 7 miles north of my intended path, grr.

My first moment to myself in the air. It started getting bumpy so I couldn’t take time for the camera to do a light correction and let me see the outside background.
Getting back on track – Minto Lakes ahead
Minto Lakes – woah, these colors!
Minto Lakes
Tanana River (near old Minto?) – flying from Fairbanks to Manley
Tanana River from Fairbanks to Manley
Interior Alaska

It was somewhere around here that I realized that the GPS was indicating I was about 3 miles off track. No matter which direction I turned though, the distance off track still kept increasing (up to 9 nm off track at one point)….but it was really a lack of patience – of course one direction has to be the  correct one – I just didn’t wait long enough for the distance to start decreasing. I finally realized that on that specific GPS: “- – – -Δ” meant turn left and: “Δ- – – -” meant turn right. Number of dashes increases with distance off track. ‘On course’ was: Δ, it’s what I vividly remembered from the xc the other day. CFI4 was told of my gaff and he did call me that evening to answer any additional questions I may have had. That was sweet of him.

I had a SPOT GPS tracker with me and I later saw this track:

First solo cross country flight - SPOT GPS track updates position ~every 10 minutes.
First solo cross country flight – SPOT GPS track updates position ~every 10 minutes.

Manley (PAML) is point ’12’. Note I was on track until point ‘6’, and then I somehow ended up at point ‘7’. What happened was that I knew I’d have to go through a low point between two hills…and I chose the wrong set of hills. Between points 6 and 7, I remember I had caught a glimpse of houses at point 12 and I realized what had happened (lucky me that there are no other signs of civilization out this way). I went around the hill at 12 and saw the entirety of Manley. I was really high and I knew I needed to do a low approach anyways to pick my landing runway (no weather information has been available at Manley since the weather observer there passed away). I flew south of the Tanana and back north parallel to runway 36. Winds almost straight out of the north, hurray. 36 has left traffic (woo, one less decision I had to make)….but it did make things a bit too exciting for me since there is a large hill to the left of 36:

The entire community of Manley Hot Springs. Runway 36 and hill to the left.
The entire community of Manley. Runway 36 and hill to the left.

I ended up doing a go around on my first approach because I felt I was too high (no glide slope indicator at PAML to assist). The second attempt was fine though; it was one of the softer landings I had ever done although my flare angle wasn’t as high as it should have been for an extreme soft field landing (look at all that gravel in the next picture!). Someone else had put a huge ding in this very same propeller just the other day on this very runway – glad I did not.

Taxiing to the end of runway 36. Turnaround point in front and taxiway to the left.
Taxiing to the end of runway 36 at PAML. Turn-around point in front and taxiway to the left.

There are large turn-around points at both ends of the runway and I was originally going to just turn around and take off again, but I found that the mud was super soft at those turn-arounds. Running the power up higher overcame the sponginess but I was a little concerned for a moment that I was truly stuck. I discovered later that up until recently, PAML had a NOTAM to be cautious of using the turnarounds for that exact reason – they probably should have kept the NOTAM around in my opinion.

I decided after that situation, I wanted a break. Turned onto the taxiway and then noticed it was sloped downwards. Another minor moment of panic as I wondered if the plane would be able to make it back up to the runway. Fortunately though, I saw 2 planes parked at the tie downs – whew, if they could make it up to the runway, so could I.

Taxiway back up to the runway at PAML
Taxiway back up to the runway at PAML. Looking at the angle going up isn’t so bad. Being higher up and looking down was concerning.
The 152 and me at the Manley Airport tiedown. I somehow managed to spin and push the plane off the taxiway (yay, muscles) and I’m going for a walk. Wish I had time for the hot springs here.
Old PAML runway (thru ~October 2013). 2850x20. That's nuts.
Old, closed PAML runway (active thru ~October 2013). 2850’x20′. That’s nuts. 20′?!? Houses all along the left side of this picture (beyond the trees).

The 14 gallons of fuel in the tanks was plenty to finish my trip (only 6 needed), but that meant my PAFA-PAML leg had taken 5.5 more gallons than I’d calculated. Darn it. “I will not get lost again!” Back in the air to Nenana (PANN). Interestingly, the sidetone issue had disappeared and I could hear myself talk now. I’ve really got to figure this out. CFI4 showed me how to do it last time but I forgot.

Tanana River – great reference I can follow on the way to Nenana

This was when the battery to the GoPro I was using cut out…so I unfortunately don’t have any good pictures of PANN. 2 batteries only lasted 2 hours, darn (was even turned off for my walk at PAML). However…the entire PAFA-PAML-PANN-PAFA loop was only supposed to take 90 minutes. What was I doing, mmmm.

Hey, signs of civilization. The Nenana bridge is really distinctive; surprise for me: I *do* see the airport from a distance 🙂 . But I was way too high to reach pattern altitude without shallow turns, and I was a little further to the south than I intended to be. Click to picture to zoom in.

My experience at PANN was not my favorite landing experience. PANN has an ASOS which allowed me to decide on runway 4L early on…but I let myself get flustered because I hadn’t started descending early enough. I knew I was going for a low approach straight over 4L and then would enter the pattern – but I forgot 4L has right traffic. I realized my mistake as I was going to turn left and start flying towards the town on crosswind. I remembered in the A/FD that pilots are not allowed to fly over the town for noise control. I just went way wide, then it was easy to enter a right downwind for 4L. I was about 50′ off the runway when a sudden burst of wind made the right wing drop suddenly. I chickened out and did a go around. Coming around again, my downwind was slightly angled towards the runway due to wind, and I may have turned base slightly too late. Somehow, I managed to correct for everything and got an okay touch-and-go at PANN.

The trek back to Fairbanks was uneventful, thank goodness.


I got a straight in final to runway 2R which made me nervous but I knew I needed to practice my straight in finals. Height slightly high and my speed was much faster than I was happy with (not white arc) – this was a problem for all of my landings today actually. Got things sorted out, and then, above the runway, the winds picked up a little. I messed up and did the downward sloped wavey up and down all down the runway before I touched down. The mains only came up slightly one time.  Had a pilot friend in the pattern who noted he saw my nose go up and down a few times after the mains touched, but the moment the nosewheel actually touched down, it stayed down. That’s good I think. To be ever critical, I didn’t use gentle rudder pressure to control my taxi direction and I’ll admit I didn’t stay on the centerline the entire time.

Flight time was about 20 minutes longer than I had filed for – but I was still under the 30 minutes “we’ll come search for you” mark. I’d realized I was 10minutes over when talking to Fairbanks Approach, but I was too hesitant to ask for a temporary frequency change to close the plan….and I know they always say not to close until you are safely back on the ground….I wish I could definitively figure out the radios so I could listen on 2 frequencies and talk on 1. I’m pretty sure I’ve got it, but I was too shy to try.

It was an interesting flight and I definitely learned a lot for future flights. It also marks my passing of the 40 hour flight time mark. Bittersweet.


The long cross country is scheduled for tomorrow – and I haven’t been this tired in years – flying alone was stressful. I hope I’m up for it.