Today, I volunteered to be a student pilot guinea pig.
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.
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?):
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:
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.’
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?
I’m left to ponder the instrument panel and other plane parts as the pilot put on his parachute and climbed in.
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).
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.
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:
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.
I had a space physics conference in Juneau, AK this weekend – a destination where the tourist websites are mostly devoted to cruise ship passengers. I saw tons of recommendations for both helicopter and float plane trips to the 5 Juneau neighborhood glaciers. I had to try and do it!
CFI2 was able to recommend a float plane company to me owned by a buddy. Sadly, my trip was ~5 days before tourist season started, so no glacier sightseeing tours were operating. However, small island communities of the Alaskan inside passage are serviced year-round by float planes (or planes on skis where needed in the winter). I got booked on a cargo flight to Elfin and Pelican.
I’d never taken a small commercial flight before, so I was definitely excited. When I checked in at the counter, there was a minor concern about whether or not I’d be allowed to go since I was nonessential weight and there was an unusually high mail load going out. Happily, the company airplane dispatcher let me proceed 🙂
My carry on hiking bag was weighed and body weight entered into their weight and balance program. The funniest part of my morning was when the guy checking in next to me was asked for his weight. He didn’t know and just proceeded to weight himself up on the luggage scale. Awesome! 😛
When it was flight time, the 2 other passengers (each going home) and myself were loaded into a van and driven to the float pond.
The pilot was loading the last of the mail and it was great to hear the other passengers comment on what was going where (mail included unwrapped paper towels, fishing gear, and food&drinks). I was thinking “Man, these communities must be tiny. Everyone knows everyone else. Mail includes paper towels. ” Oh yes.
We were handed earplugs and I definitely got a little sad that I wouldn’t be able to listen to all the radio communications. Unlike the training aircraft I’m used to, the deHavilland Beaver only had flight controls on the left; I’m not sure if there was the option for multiple people to plug in headsets.
Funny moment: I was allowed to sit up front since I wasn’t expected to get out during the trip. I got to board first, but I completely forgot which side to sit on! All those student pilot hours got me. Ha, caught myself by remembering that I cannot operate the flight controls, sit on the right.
The pilot untied us from the dock and we taxied/floated to the end of the rectangular pond. Taxi was so slow compared to what I expected. Takeoff was incredibly smooth, I didn’t even realize we were airborne because it was essentially a soft field takeoff, get airborne and fly close to the surface for a while.
When we reached Elfin, we circled over the ‘normal’ landing strip at least 4 times (stomach churning really steep turns, mild turbulence). The pilot later told me that landing near the village would have been fine, but takeoff would have been a bit dangerous because of immediate downdrafts (coming over the the mountain between the open water and the village) and crosswinds. Amazing what the water surface can tell a pilot. The surface looked completely calm to my untrained eye.
We landed right in the sheltered area right beside the mountain in the middle of the water. Scary exciting because our path was low right over mountain and then sharplydown into the wind protected zone. A very smooth landing nonetheless. I want piloting skills like that someday.
A fishing boat met us out in the middle of all that water, and the pilot unloaded 1 passenger and some mail. The amazon.com box made me smile – this company is everywhere, even remote villages with a population of ~10 🙂
Back up we went for the short hop to Pelican.
Landing at Pelican was super tame, taxied right up to the dock. We unloaded passenger 2 and the remaining mail. Pelican doesn’t currently have a grocery store (closed due to the economy) so there was undoubtedly snack food in some of the the mail parcels. Also took on boxed frozen fish. Pelican is a fishing community and since a supply ferry only comes once a month, the fish being sold is flown out to Juneau. I estimated at least 500 pounds of fish were loaded, 50 lbs at a time. We also took 2 packages on. Each was covered with about 30 $1 stamps – So much prettier than the normal labels the post office places on your parcels.
When we tookoff from Elfin, some mist had hit the plane’s windshield. The water evaporated but left behind a salt residue. I was given the task of cleaning the windshield (and not falling into the water).
On the flight back, the pilot took us low when he spotted breaching whales! I didn’t get pictures from the air but did see whales later on my beachside hike:
This was such as beautiful day!
I never got to land on a glacier on this trip, but at least I did get to see one from the air on the way back to Juneau:
And here we are, coming in for the final landing at Juneau. Landing on water is still such a weird concept for me.
I’m so excited that my flight school has recently started offering float plane training. I can’t wait to try it myself.