Thursday, August 24, 2006

First Point-to-Point Solo!

While it may not technically qualify as a "cross-country" flight because it was less than 50 miles, tonight WAS my first flight alone from one airport to another. It went fine, but I could have done better. I talked to a weather briefer minutes before I took off, and the conditions in Frederick were reported as sky clear, wind 3 knots, visibility 10 miles. The only clouds in the area were at 12,000 feet in Baltimore, though there was also a high ceiling in Gaithersburg where I took off.

But as soon as I took off I could see that at just 2,000 feet above the ground it was VERY hazy. I think, in retrospect, I should have turned around and landed. I kept going, and I navigated to Frederick without any problem. When I got there, though, I had trouble picking out the airport in the haze. Visibility was very poor up in the air and it seemed to be getting dark. My instructor always said that if I got into trouble I could just land anywhere and call him or anyone else in my club-- they'd come get me without any hesitation. I thought about it, but the air was smooth and I didn't think the conditions were that bad. So I just landed, immediately took off again, and started to head back to Gaithersburg. It was getting darker, it seemed hazier, and the clouds seemed to be pretty low. I couldn't even see the (small) mountain that was only a few miles away.

In order to get back to Gaithersburg, I have to fly into the Washington, DC, Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ. To do that, I have to file a flight plan, then talk to the air traffic controllers. They give me a four-digit code to punch into my transponder, and I have to wait for them to see my code on their radar. Once they see me, they will give me clearance to fly back into the ADIZ and toward Gaithersburg. If I skip any step, I can expect (at a minimum) to be intercepted by a military plane or helicopter and interrogated while face down on the tarmac of a runway. The procedure is cumbersome, and the consequences of messing it up are dire, but for pilots who fly planes based inside the DC ADIZ, it is routine, albeit annoying.

I had filed my flight plan by phone before I took off, so once I was up in the air at Frederick, I called the air traffic controllers on the radio and asked them to give me a transponder code. A few minutes went by while I flew around. I called again, and they said they couldn't find my flight plan! So I flew around for a few more minutes. Finally, they called and gave me a code. I punched in the code and continued flying around while waiting for them to give me permission to enter the ADIZ. Meanwhile, it's getting darker and hazier. After a few minutes, I called and asked them if they had my code. "Oh, yes, we do have you, cleared to enter the ADIZ, remain clear of Bravo airspace." I headed south, but then they called again and gave me a different code. I punched in the new code and asked if I was cleared to enter the ADIZ. They told me I was cleared to enter the ADIZ and reminded me to stay below the class B airspace over my head.

I pointed the plane straight for Gaithersburg and opened the throttle. I was at 2,100 feet, the minimum safe altitude as marked on the chart-- the haze was so thick it was all I could do to make out the ground, but I couldn't safely descend any further without better visibility. And it was definitely getting dark.

When I got to where my VOR needles said the Gaithersburg airport should be, I couldn't see it anywhere. I tried triggering the runway lights, but still couldn't see it. I finally picked it out in the darkening haze, did a circling descent a couple miles out, and entered the traffic pattern. My landing was great. It was 7:40. By the time I tied down the plane and was walking back to my car, it was 8:10 and it was DARK.

Two lessons here. First, I should have had a clearer sense of when it would be getting dark. I was still thinking of summertime and long days-- wasn't it only last week that it was getting dark at 9:30? Second, the haze I saw when I first took off from Gaithersburg should have made me turn back. I'm only authorized to fly when visibility is seven miles or more. Visibility was greater than 10 miles on the ground, but I know for a fact that it was far less only 2,000 feet above the ground. There's nothing wrong with flying at night, and on clear nights it's absolutely beautiful. And perhaps the haze would have been fine during the day. But the combination of darkening skies and haze was more than I should have accepted.

Lesson learned.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

God's Toys

From my airline seat on the left side of the aisle, flying home from Boston, I could see a little girl sitting by the window on the other side of the plane. As the airline descended toward touchdown, it was maybe 2,000 feet off the ground when the little girl turned away from the window to her mom sitting next to her and said, "All those little houses and cars and trees, they're God's toys. Because he's so much bigger than us."

My first thought was of hurricanes and floods and tsunamis and plagues, and I thought back to my childhood toys, how I would line them up and then gleefully destroy what I had made, sending plastic bodies flying and plastic vehicles tumbling. I wondered, how old is God anyway to play with his toys this way?

Then I thought about the freedom that comes with flight, and the shrinking of stresses and problems as you rise up above it all and gain a "higher" perspective. So many aviation authors have written about that change in perspective, and it's true.... We pour sweat, blood, and money into our homes, but when seen from a few thousand feet up it all seems to take on a different significance, or as the author I'm reading right now wrote, a "truer" significance. Our homes and cars, our pride and joy, shrink to the apparent significance of mere toys.

Thoughts for the day....

Thursday, August 17, 2006


I flew this morning with John, and it was wonderful! It was clear, blue skies, no real wind. We flew to Carroll County (KDMW), landed, and then practiced maneuvers in the practice area. I did three power off stalls with a variety of flap settings, and it was flawless-- I didn't deviate at all from my heading and the recovery was uneventful. I also spent some time under the hood (flying by instruments only) and it was fine-- I think that comes naturally to me, and John said I'm very good, which is nice considering I had a total of 0.2 hours of hood time before today.

Also, the DG (directional gyroscope, like a compass but steadier and more accurate when it's working) was inoperable. The DG is used to tell you what direction you're heading. It was no real problem without the DG, because every plane has a regular magnetic compass-- in fact, it was good practice. I'm not sure I ever would have tried ignoring a working DG to see what flying by compass is actually like-- it's a completely different experience, and really drove home all the stuff I had to study about compasses for the written exam. Magnetic compasses have a bunch of quirks in an airplane that I never would have know of or thought of if I hadn't studied it as part of my training. I knew all of it, but I'd never paid enough attention to the compass before to use what I knew and watch it function. I only wish we could have covered up the DG, because I kept looking at it.

We also did some "hood work," which is flying with a view-restricting device so you can't see outside the cockpit. That was an interesting experience. The compass doesn't show your heading when you're in the middle of a turn. So if I wanted to turn a certain number of degrees, I had to bank the plane into a "standard rate turn" and watch the seconds on a timer to know how far I was turning. (In a standard rate turn, for example, it takes 60 seconds to turn 180 degrees, 30 seconds for 90 degrees, etc.). It was a good experience-- if I'm ever a CFI, I may take a primary student up with the DG covered sometime to have a lesson like today. Standard stuff for instrument pilots, I'm sure, but it was a good experience for me at my level.

I'm anxious to start my cross-country training, but John wants to do one more session in the practice area before our first cross-country trip, which makes me wonder why we can't count trips to Carroll County as cross-country trips? Because it's too short, only 27 nautical miles or so?

I also made a progress chart that I've uploaded here, and it's available as one of the links on the right. I have to manually update it, but it does show that I'm making progress, although lacking in the cross-country area.....

What a great way to start a day!

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Friday, August 11, 2006

A Little More Rope

My instructor, John, gave me a little more rope today. We flew early this morning from Gaithersburg (KGAI) up to Frederick (KFDK), then toward the practice area over Westminster (EMI) and circled while Potomac Approach thought about letting us fly back into the ADIZ to get back to Gaithersburg. When we got back, John endorsed my logbook to let me fly solo to and from Frederick. It's not much distance, but the freedom to take off and fly to a different airport still feels like a big step. It's only 17 miles and 10-12 minutes by air, but it's a good half hour by car, so it's really my first taste of the freedom and speed of flight from one place to another.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Same old pattern....

I now have about 7.5 hours of solo time in the traffic pattern at KGAI. I typically have 3 out of four landings that are good, with one out of four having something just a little off, e.g., being a little off the centerline, landing a little long, etc. I'm starting to wonder if these will get any better, and if there's any point to me continuing to spend money running around the pattern. Today was beautiful, calm winds, clear sky, late in the day, but even the beauty of the landscape around KGAI is starting to lose some of its luster. My eyes kept wandering to the hills to the north, and I'm yearning to go fly around.

I've got time scheduled with my instructor later this week. My luck with weather, plane, and schedules has been good lately, starting to make up for the first six months of my training. If it holds through Thursday, I'll be out of the pattern with John and maybe I'll get cut loose to go to the practice area all on my lonesome. Fingers crossed to that!

One thing I could work on-- I am not focusing on the runway length markers as I'm on final, so the only information I end up having about how long I land is where I turn off onto the taxiway. Maybe if I end up in the pattern again, I'll take a look for the distance markers and try to start including that in my land/go-around analysis. With a 4000' runway, it's generally not a concern at KGAI, but once I get cut loose I'll need to start paying attention.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Book Review: Zero 3 Bravo

I finished this book while at Oshkosh, and highly recommend it. It's very well-written compared to all the other epic-cross-country-by-small-airplane books I've read, probably due in part to the author's pedigree with a pen. The focus is almost always outside the cockpit, about the scenery, the airports, and the people she meets, and the airplane and piloting is just background. That makes it readable for pilots and non-pilots, and I had to keep reminding myself of where the author was as she was seeing what she described. Five stars for this genre.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

My Own Yellow Airplane!

My child-bride told me she had something special for me, but that I had to leave our condo for a few hours, so I went dowstairs to hang out with my friend Jay and his wife Ceni. A few hours later, I came back into the house to the pleasant smell of a bakery!

She had apparently gotten the mold a month ago, right after I soloed, but she's been (justifiably) occupied with preparing for a second bar exam while holding down a full-time law job. Bar exam's over, and I get a cake!!

To understand how sweet this is, you've got to understand that my wife has had a very hard time with me learning to fly. She's scared of something happening, as are so many people. When I first brought it up last year, she simply said, "No." Then, a few days later she told me that she'd never stop me from doing something I really want to do, and I could take flying lessons if I wanted to. She's been accomodating, to say the least, and somewhat sympathetic when lessons have been cancelled. Lately she's been going to club functions with me, and came out when I had to buy drinks for my entire club after soloing. She's awesome, for despite her fears and misgivings, she's supporting me in this thing I love. I mean, really, what more could I ask?

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